‘Pandora – The World of Avatar’ Takes Riding the Movies to a New Level
By sheer chance, last week I spent five days at Walt Disney World with my son’s high school choir, at the same time that Disney’s Animal Kingdom officially opened its new “Pandora - The World of Avatar” area. Our group was slated to go to Animal Kingdom on Memorial Day, and I was eager to see how Disney had turned James Cameron’s 2009 prog-rock/science-fiction/eco-propaganda experiment into a real-world habitat. So on the morning before our designated day, I opened up the “My Disney Experience” app on my phone to check out the wait times. About forty minutes after the park opened, the line for the “Na’vi River Journey” ride was already three hours long. And the wait for “Avatar Flight of Passage?” Four hours.
Later that day, I heard rumors that the whole area had been roped off, and that there was an hourlong line just to be allowed to walk past the barricades. I was faced with a choice for the next morning. The park was opening early, at 7AM. We could wake up at the crack of dawn, skip breakfast, board the earliest bus from our hotel, and hope that thousands of other people hadn’t done the same. But if we failed we’d be tired, hot, and bored all morning, with nothing to show for it. Could two rides based on an eight-year-old blockbuster really be worth all the hassle?
I confess that the phenomenon of “movie rides” had largely passed me by. I’ve never lived near any of the bigger theme parks, and my wife and kids and I don’t take many vacations. So my week at the four Orlando Disney parks — plus Universal Studios — gave me a crash course in the different ways Hollywood and ride-designers have collaborated to drop thrill-seekers into the middle of a motion picture.
What I learned is that movie rides can be divided into sub-genres, ranging from a simple “4D” cinema experience — where guests put on 3D glasses and sit in theaters equipped with rumbling seats and a variety of fans, misters, odor-spritzers, and flame-thrower — to indoor rollercoasters that use screens and 4D effects to enhance all the drops and turns.
Probably the most popular form of movie ride is the “simulator,” which has guests sitting in an enclosure that jerks and rocks while POV action scenes play on screens all around them. Simulators have become increasingly sophisticated since “Star Tours” opened at Disneyland in the mid-’80s. Each variant has its charms — even “dark ride” attractions like Disney’s Hollywood Studios’ “The Great Movie Ride,” where guests just sit in a vehicle that winds its way past audio-animatronic props from The Wizard of Oz and the like.
Still, I most enjoyed the rides that were intense, and up to date. Universal’s Islands of Adventure’s “The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man” (which debuted in 1999 and was refurbished in 2012) is an enjoyable fusion of simulator and dark ride, moving through physical spaces that become scarier and more jarring minute by minute. But the more recent “Skull Island: Reign Of Kong” is even better, with a more elaborate and varied ride-through element, and more vivid 4D. And both of those are trumped by Universal’s “Revenge of the Mummy” (which combines the creepiness of crypt-exploring with some surprising, heart-pounding turns) and the remarkable flying effects of “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.”
As a cinephile, I suppose I should be opposed to rides like these on principle, since they reduce movies to a few minutes of out-of-context sensation. They also feed the misconception that in order to be truly transporting, the theatrical experience needs to be augmented by additional technology to create a sense of “you are there.”
But while I disagree with that philosophy, there are brilliant filmmakers who work in that mode, and who think deeply about what “immersive” should mean. James Cameron is one. Avatar was the culmination of a career spent developing new kinds of special effects to make his onscreen environments more real. Though the film hasn’t had the enduring fandom of the Star Wars franchise or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avatar’s still partly responsible for the 3D boom of the past decade, and the long delay in starting production on the sequels is reportedly due in part to Cameron fiddling with the scripts and in part him considering how to go bolder with 3D.
It was Disney’s idea to turn Avatar into an entire “land” within Animal Kingdom, though Cameron and his producing partner Jon Landau consulted with the company’s resident genius theme park designer (or “imagineer”) Joe Rohde every step of the way. The idea was to go beyond a mere enclosed simulator, and instead to allow visitors to experience the unspoiled wonders of the planet Pandora firsthand, outdoors, and to scale.
When my son and I arrived at the gates of Disney’s Animal Kingdom at 7:15, I worried that we were already too late. The park was jammed, and we could see swarms of people veering off to Pandora. But when we reached the rope-line controlling the flow of patrons into the area, we sailed through with no problem. And when we found the “Flight of Passage” line and heard that it was only about an hour long, we settled in. What else did we have to do that early in the morning?
One of the hallmarks of a Joe Rohde-designed attraction is that it captures the imagination even as you’re inching your way through it, a few feet per minute. The line for “Flight of Passage” winds past enormous gnarled trees and vines, around waterfalls and ponds stocked with exotic (fake) flora. It all feels enticingly alien — like wandering through a Yes album cover.
As we approached the interior section of the line — where the natural beauty gives way to the creepy bio-technological experiments of the movie’s Earthling characters — I suddenly realized that I’d done zero research into what this ride was actually going to be. A coaster? A 4D movie? A giant slide? It was all indoors, so we couldn’t eyeball it in advance, which added to the excitement.
It turned out to be a simulator, but unlike any other that we rode during our week in Orlando. When we reached the front, we put on 3D glasses, and then straddled a seat that resembled a motorcycle, bolted to the floor. In front of us, filling our entire field of vision, was a screen, which began showing us the point of view of a scientist entering the consciousness of one of Pandora’s humanoid race, the Na’vi. Then, all of a sudden, we were on the back of a banshee, soaring through the trees and over the sea, past giant whales and into caves. The seat tilted when the creature banked, and pushed forward when it dove. The cushioning between our legs expanded and contracted, like the “breathing” of an animal. We were hit with rushes of wind and ocean mists, and the room filled with varying aromas, from flowers to mud.
When the five minute trip was done, my son and I both were exhilarated. Honestly, no other simulator we went on in the days that followed could measure up. “Flight of Passage” is next-level.
When we got back outside, we checked the app and saw the “Na’vi River Journey” line was already up to two-and-a-half hours. So we skipped that, and also avoided the lengthy queue at the gift shop, and instead had a surprisingly tasty breakfast at the Satu’li Canteen: Cinnamon French toast with blueberry cream cheese, pulled pork hash with chorizo sausage, and a fruit plate. It tasted like victory.
It’d be unduly provocative to say that Animal Kingdom’s Pandora area is better than Avatar itself, because I do like the movie. Still, give that Cameron’s strengths largely lie in visionary effects and breathtaking action sequences, in a way it feels like “Flight of Passage” best reflects the kinds of films he wants to make. It’s visceral and uplifting, and even personal. It’s not hard to draw a line from a young Jim Cameron watching a planetarium laser show set to Rush’s 2112 and the man who now helps Disney tourists encounter space dragons.
I don’t think all movies should be “rides” per se. They should be stories, experiences, or even environments; but the moments within a motion picture that offer the gripping twists and turns of a rollercoaster shouldn’t be an end in themselves.
But should actual theme park rides be more like movies? That’s a prospect I’m more excited about than ever after binging on Disney and Universal attractions. Applying 21st century Hollywood techniques to a 19th century amusement feels like the right kind of fusion of showmanship, storytelling, and sensation.
At the very least, I’ll go on all the “Flight of Passage”s that amusement parks want to build. Fill every park with them, and maybe it won’t take four hours to takeoff.