Pandora– The World of Avatar: THE WDW ESCAPE PODCAST (EPISODE 48)

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This week on WDW ESCAPE, take a journey of the imagination with us, as we IMAGINE the Pandora: The World of Avatar.

Follow along!

For more info on WDW Escape, click here—or listen to all our episodes. Listen to today’s Imagine: Pandora: The World of Avatar episode while following along with the transcript and photos below!

IMAGINE- Pandora: The World of Avatar

VIP Tours take you behind the scenery at Pandora

Photo by Brett Svenson

There’s something about riding into Disney’s Animal Kingdom that always feels dramatic. The circuitous route that the resort buses take; through security gate and high wire fences, tends to get a fellow’s imagination working overtime.

Compared to rolling up to the Magic Kingdom, it just all feels a little bit like arriving at a theme park full of genetically recreated and deeply off-brand dinosaurs, like something  fantastical is going to leap out of the bushes at any instant.

Moments later the bus pulls up to the oasis, and that oh-so-very-Disney aura of safety and comfort returns. But the ride in always gets my pulse rolling better than a strong cup of espresso, and I look forward to it.

That must have been why I was craning my neck to see past the crowds on that particular morning, years ago, long before “social” and “distancing” were ever used in the same sentence.

There was a child on my lap, and a family from Denver squeezed in beside us, and I couldn’t get much of a look, but there was something new out there. Something big. It rose above its surroundings, a nonsensical structure of girders that seemed to serve no clear purpose, at least not one that I could imagine 

Some creatures on Pandora spray water

Photo by Mike Billick

I turned to my wife, who had a child in her own lap. “I think they’re building something,” I said, as if there were ever a time when Disney Imagineers were not. “Something big.”  I pointed toward the window as best I could without poking a member of the Denver family, and my wife ducked her head to get a better view.

“Oh, that’s Avatar,” she said, as if that solved everything.

“Avatar?” I asked, certain I had heard her wrong. “The movie with the giant blue cat-guys? That isn’t even a Disney movie,” because of course back then it wasn’t.

My wife shrugged and smiled. “I don’t know what to tell you,” she said “They’re making an Avatar… land, I guess. Those must be the flying mountains.”

I must have looked astonished, because she tried to explain. “You remember, where they flew the dragon things…”

“I remember,” I insisted. “But flying mountains aren’t a thing that you build. That whole movie happened inside a computer, you can’t just-”

“Don’t say it,” she warned with another smile. “You were about to say that Disney can’t actually build an entire alien planet in the middle of a theme park, and I think you know that they can.”

She was right of course, but luckily, I didn’t have to say so, because at that moment my son piped up. 

“What’s Avatar?” he asked.

“We’ll show it to you when we get back home,” his mother promised. I looked again at the stack of random girders that was apparently destined to be a floating mountain. 

“Probably no hurry,” I said.

A six-legged creature visible through a leaf on the Na'vi River Journey

Photo by Courtney Reynolds

The times in my life when I have been the most deeply incorrect are the times when I bet against the power of Disney Imagineering, and this was no exception. Before too much time had passed, we were back, and making our first interplanetary visit to Pandora: The World of Avatar.

I wish I could tell you that we had the sense to stand, awestruck, gazing in quiet wonder. The truth of the matter is that we were in a rope-drop crowd for extra magic hours, surrounded by a swarm of other fast-walking early-risers, angling for a walk-on for the wildly popular new ride Avatar: Flight of Passage.

Only the children had the sense to look around and be amazed by their surroundings, and promises were made that we would investigate after the ride.

Flight of Passage lived up to its billing; innovative, imaginative and thrilling. We have never even come close to getting tired of it, and that first time was the most astonishing of all. Still, like the movie that inspired it, the ride was mostly a computer-generated illusion. You couldn’t really make something like that.

Pandora was too big, too impossible to make, and I was too much in Disney-Dad mode to realize that they had done exactly that. When we stepped back into the sunlight, the line for Flight of Passage was still taking the whole crowd, leaving Na’vi River Journey as a walk-on.

The Shaman that welcomes visitors to the world of Pandora on the Na'vi River Journey

Photo by Brett Svenson

We settled into the cool and dark of a Disney boat ride, which is always fun… but this was something more. I finally had the sense to stop and watch the amazement on my kids’ faces, and see the wonder in their expressions.

I looked again through their eyes and saw something magical… a complete world, rich with plant and animal life, all with the signature luminescent glow of Pandora. We took that river journey three times over before the line formed, and we finally stepped outside and let ourselves experience the world I had seen from the window of the bus way back when.

They had really done it. A complete world, conceived and imagined with state-of-the art filmmaker’s tools, made into a real place and completely surrounding us. Plants that breathed, and reacted to the touch, natural gardens of alien flora and waterways winding through the entire, massive area.

And high above, those deeply impossible floating mountains. We finally took it all in, astonished.

The film was an environmental allegory, but one that included a lot of machine guns and exploding helicopters, and I couldn’t imagine how one would work without the other. But the Imagineers clearly could.

They set the timeline in Pandora a generation after the events of the movie, showing this astonishing world with the balance restored, and providing a vision of how civilizations could interact with respect for one another, and for nature. 

extra time at night avatar pandora at night

Photo by Courtney Reynolds

“I want to come back here at night,” my wife insisted, and I didn’t argue. It was probably going to be pretty spectacular. And so, we departed for a day full of safari treks, musical extravaganzas, time travelling dinosaurs and river raft adventures. Everything we had come to expect and love about Disney’s Animal Kingdom. 

It was a great day, like every visit. But we had never stayed at Animal Kingdom into the night before. It was a daytime park to us. Could Pandora at night possibly change that?

It could and it did. Every time I think that Walt Disney World can’t possibly surprise me any more, they go and do something like this. It was astonishing. The world we had found so interesting in the morning was now aglow, pulsating with light and life, like a complete, living thing.

It was breathtaking. Everything was a part of the whole. The imaginary environment was brought to life on a massive scale. It surrounded us– twelve acres, complete in every direction, including up to the top of those impossible floating mountains.

Some of the wild plants that make up the Pandoran jungle

Photo by Cliff Wang

We were captivated. This was no theme park, it was an alien world. A land of pure imagination. It was a completely different experience than the Animal Kingdom we already loved, and we just wandered and shared the amazement of it all.

I couldn’t help but think of that view from the bus window years before, and how that stack of girders had transformed into a complete natural world, built and powered by the imaginations and hard work of more people than we could count.

They shared a vision of a world brought into balance through respect and care for nature. It had once seemed impossible, but I had learned to never to use that word where Disney was concerned.

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