Journey to Pandora: Disney Gets It Right!
Avatar the Movie
Pandora, Avatars, and More
I can still remember when I first saw the previews for the upcoming James Cameron movie, “Avatar.” From that mesmerizing trailer, I could instantly tell that this movie was going to be more than just a movie, it was going to be an intensely memorable experience, a true “must-see” that would most likely end up in my library, as well. And, I was not disappointed. In fact, I was so moved by the experience of that journey to beautiful Pandora and the wonderfully intriguing people, the Na’vi, that I then went to see the movie two more times, once in 3D at a regular theater, and from there, on to the giant IMAX screen in 3D. The last showing simply imbedded in my brain that I would never forget this movie and clearly demonstrated how far it had surpassed my earlier estimations. Avatar, the movie, took me away from my world for the entire time I sat in that theater, and I think anyone who watched it was equally transported to a world they did not want to leave. We all exited the theater wishing we could somehow find a way to visit Pandora. Of course, wishing that we were able to go to Pandora was right up there with wishing we were able to see Peter Pan and Neverland, although Pandora did seem a bit more attainable. That was 2009, yet, to me, the movie was such a singular and spectacular experience that it really seems like it was only last year. Rumor had it that another Avatar movie was in the works, and I, like millions of fans around the world, was all ears. All I wanted to know was, “When?” Then, Disney surpassed our wildest dreams...in May of 2017, Pandora was opened to the public!
The Colorful Ikran
The Trip Begins
I had a planned trip to Orlando for October 13, 2017, so, I knew immediately that I would have to add to the top of my list a visit to my favorite planet. The summer went slowly by, and my October trip loomed on the distant horizon like the much anticipated arrival of a great friend whom I had not seen in years. October finally came, and before I knew it, so did that Friday and my drive to the airport. Car parked, bags handed over to American Airlines, I was soon soaring up into the clouds and on my way to exotic Pandora. It was early afternoon when I landed, and my plans had been to visit Pandora at Disney early enough to still make my dinner meeting with guests that evening at 7 p.m., but, because of the recent hurricane, there were absolutely NO cars to be rented at the airport. Okay, so I would not be free to come and go as I please, which would have meant being able to get there faster, but I reasoned that I could be dependent on public transportation and still make it all happen. A limousine service got me to my hotel, the Wyndham Lake Buena Vista, and I dropped off my bags. I had not eaten since breakfast, and the long flight, coupled with the delay in getting to my hotel, meant that I would have to choose between visiting Pandora and embarrassing the Na’vi when I fainted in front of them from absolute hunger, or finding much-needed nourishment now and delaying my visit to Pandora until Sunday evening when my conference had finished. The adventurous child in me wanted to go now, the older and wiser Na’vi said that I should eat first. So, Sunday would be the day that I had long waited for. I set off to find a restaurant.
I See a Face
Get the Disney Fast Pass
All through the Wyndham hotel, there were signs in beautiful Pandora-blue colorings that beckoned everyone to come to the Disney attraction. Even the interiors of the elevator doors were emblazoned with huge murals depicting the fabled planet. Sunday, knowing that I had limited time to see the entire exhibit, take good photos and still do justice to this article, I inquired about the Disney “Fast Pass.” I was assured by the lovely lady at the desk that I had indeed purchased the Fast Pass, so I would not be wasting valuable time in the long line that would most likely exist. There was a shuttle bus that left the Wyndham every thirty minutes, so, Fast Pass looped proudly around my neck, I took the five o’clock shuttle and was finally on my way.
The Tree of Souls at a Distance
Lots of People Want to See Pandora
Within twenty minutes, we pulled into the vast parking lot at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and just seeing the indescribably huge parking lot completely filled with cars as far as the eye could see, I clutched my Fast Pass, thinking to myself how smart I was to plan ahead. This was going to be a sea of people, I thought to myself, and I would need that pass to even make this article possible. Arriving at nearly 5:30 p.m., looking at the sheer magnitude of the packed parking lot, and envisioning the crowds that I would encounter just trying to get to the Fast Pass entrance, I knew that I would have to prioritize and not stop to look at anything else...eyes ahead, walk fast, don’t waste a second. I had my self-made marching orders when I left the shuttle bus.
The Tree of Souls
Avatar Flight of Passage
I headed for the obvious direction of the park entrance. Once inside, because it is not overly obvious as to where to go to find the elusive world of Pandora, and not wanting to miss a second of it, this male actually asked directions. A few hundred yards of fast hiking, over a slight bridge, and suddenly, there ahead of me was the enormous Tree of Souls that I remembered as so sacred to the Na’vi. Huge! Massive! This extraordinary symbol of Pandora definitely defined the horizon. If anything comes close to the real thing, this stunning tree does. I paused to take some photos, then, keeping track of my time, I quickly headed onward. I reasoned that I could come back to the tree for more photos, if there was time left, but I was rationing my desire to take in more of each moment. The Holy Grail was still ahead, and all of these beautiful sights would have to be sampled instead of fully enjoyed...at least for now. Had to get to the ride that I had been told was breathtaking, Avatar Flight of Passage. People describing their experience to me rolled their eyes and searched for superlatives worthy of this one and failed to accomplish that feat. In spite of their inability to really convey the full effect in words, they all agreed that I absolutely HAD to take this ride, even if I got to see nothing else. And I was following their advice.
Riding the Ikran
The Longest Line
Passing through the floating mountains, the rookeries where the Ikran, or Banshees, nest, I marveled at how well Disney captured the feeling and the look. I expected to see an Ikran suddenly swoop into the air from these high mountains, and that would certainly have completed the experience. For the uninitiated, see the film. No one can aptly describe these wildly colored and exotic flying creatures that look half-dragon and half pterodactyl. Unfortunately, I did not see any of these incredible creatures perched there. I figured that they would appear somewhere in this park, if I had had the time to properly explore. I took photos of the rookeries as I continued my adventure. Finally, with much guessing and wandering, I found the entrance to the line that would lead to the Flight of Passage ride. Approaching the Fast Pass entrance, the young lady asked where my Fast Pass was, and with some bemusement that she did not see it, I pointed to my lanyard that I was wearing. She said, “That is just your ticket.” And thus began a chapter of interruption. “This is what they gave me,” I protested dejectedly. To make a long story short, get it right before you leave for this wonderful place. Yes, I had my ticket, and for the Fast Pass to be effective, I was supposed to arrange for the exact time I wanted to be in that Fast Pass line...before I got there. Devastating! What a time to find out! Faced with giving up and asking for a refund (I mean, what’s a few pictures of the rest of the place without the ride on the Flight of Passage?), and waiting in that extremely long line, I argued with myself and the child in me won. Waiting time was displayed at the beginning of the line—165 minutes! Two hours and forty-five minutes, for those not good at fast math. I got in line.
Plants Come to Life at Night in Pandora
To Wait, or Not to Wait
The long line wound back and forth up the side of the mountain. At least the scenery was beautiful, and there were fans hidden in strategic places to cool those in line. I will not lie, it was a very long two hours and forty-five minutes. The line seemed to wind into eternity and back, and when we finally got inside the mountain and thought, surely the minutes displayed at the base were incorrect, we could see that there were countless people ahead of us winding their way through the interminable corridors inside. Turn a corner expecting to see the final destination, and there were even more countless people winding into the ethereal realms. An hour-and-a-half in, I began to see people leaving the line, giving up. Not me. Thirty minutes in would have meant wasted time and effort, and I would especially not give up having gotten this far. I would stay the agonizing course with the rest of these determined souls. Fast Pass...get it right, people. Do not go to see this wonderful ride without getting the Fast Pass and reserving your time. Meanwhile, Disney, if you are listening, add more Banshees at the top of this mountain so you can shorten that line...just saying.
The Na'vi in the Lab
Seeing the Na'vi
Eventually, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. We were indeed coming to the end of the arduous trek up the mountain, and there before me was the lab where “Sky People” find their Avatars. Soon, I was standing in front of a large, horizontal, glass container filled with liquid, and suspended in that liquid was a true-to-life, ten-foot tall, blue, Na’vi Avatar. No one could pass this without taking out their cameras and taking as many photos as the now quickly moving line would permit. I was no exception. This picture was part of that Holy Grail. At this point, after grueling hours in that endurance test of a waiting line, I would even be willing to risk losing my place for a good photo of this Na’vi.
Entering the Chambers
The excitement grew as we were finally ushered to the location where a person actually would be getting to experience the true entrance to the Flight of Passage. I think that, at this point, as the anticipation builds, the painful memory of those two hours and forty-five minutes of seemingly interminable waiting begins, miraculously, to fade. You seem to get your second wind, and you forgive Disney for putting you through that long wait. Up the ramp, assistants are asking you how many in your party, then sending you up the corresponding lane. No more standing still, at long last, we are moving! And, it is exciting just pondering varied mental images of riding on the backs of those wild and exotic Ikrans. Imagination mixes with anticipation as we now reach the top of the ramps where a series of doors glowing red look like they are right out of Dr. Grace Augustine’s lab. When the red glow changes to green, like atmospheric chambers, the doors miraculously open with a sound of rushing air, and we are ushered in groups of ten or twelve into the dream world that awaits inside. The real fun now begins. Walking into the chamber, you are asked by a voice from somewhere else to stand on the number printed on the floor that corresponds to the number the assistants gave you. Dutifully doing so, you then see your face displayed on a large control screen before you, much like a space ship. Suddenly, your face begins to merge with that of an Avatar’s face that was adjacent to it, morphing into your very own Avatar. Who does not smile? We are all kids again at this moment, and we joyfully follow the instructions to now head for the next chamber. This chamber? It is the Holy Grail! It is the unbelievable Flight of Passage!
The Glowing Red Doors
There before you is a long, rectangular room, rather narrow, with a long, singular row of what looks like a cross between a wheelless moped and a stationary exercise bike. It has handlebars, a front guard (like the moped) and a sort of saddle seat. Not sure what to do, I found myself figuring it out quickly. Heck how hard is it to figure out which end is which on this thing? While everyone else was doing what they were told, which was to place all of their belongings, including cell phones, in the bins directly behind their “cycle,” I left mine in my pocket in case I decided there might be some way to take a photo of what was to come (I can tell you right now, that is impossible, or I would have done it.). And here, folks, is where the ride of a lifetime begins...and I mean the ride of a lifetime!
Green Means Time to Enter
The Ride of a Lifetime!
Straddling the saddle on this contraption, our guide informs us that we need to move our ankles back and forth until we feel something sort of strapping us in. It does. Rather quickly, whatever that is puts a hold on your ankles so that you “won’t fall out” ? The sensation of having your ankles strapped tightly to whatever it is does make you wonder what is coming next. There is no backing out now, because the next sensation you feel is the other “thing” that comes up behind you and pushes against your back so that you are most definitely “tucked in” for the ride. I haven’t felt this much safety on a ride since I was strapped into the famously scary ride in Paris called the Slingshot. Put on the large 3-D glasses, grab onto the handle bars, and anticipate.
The Rookeries of Mons Veritatis
You Are Taken to Pandora!
We are all now waiting breathlessly as the wall before us seems to lift, like the screen on the Star Trek, and we are staring into black space that is filled with millions of stars. Then, like a mist parting, there it suddenly is! Pandora! Oh my God! We are there! For real! The excitement of being totally immersed inside this other world is stupefying. There are no words sufficient to describe this moment of extreme exhilaration as you find yourself in stunning disbelief and looking all around you...up, down, ahead, as far as you can see...it is completely Pandora. You have left Earth! You are truly there. The colors are brilliant, as a giant moon in front of an equally greater moon looms in the sky right before you. Dazzling! You are numb with euphoria...and while you are still wanting to study the sky and the surroundings before you, to just bask in it, to just take it all in, you feel as if you are indeed on the back of an Ikran, Banshee, because you have the physical sensation of leaving the high rookeries of Mons Veritatis, where you apparently came into Pandora, and you are swiftly turning downward. You feel it physically, a steep dive, and the scene before you is the most incredible distance downward imaginable, and the word imaginable should not be used here, because this distance is really beyond anything any human will ever experience. Dropping rapidly to the bottom of that mind-boggling distance, there is no roller coaster than can equal this. I hear everyone screaming, because it is so real. You feel the air passing your face, you feel the physical sensation of diving down, from the great height where you began, with ever-increasing speed, and the only thing that keeps you from losing it is telling yourself that this is a virtual reality ride...and you really have to keep telling yourself that, too, because Disney most definitely got this one right, 100%.
Riding the Ikran
Then, the Ikran that you are riding decides to maneuver, and you feel every turn, every drop, every lift, every motion as that creature takes you for a ride you will never forget. You fly above great plains filled with grazing herds of exotic Pandora creatures, swooping down on them at times to distances so close, you react by pulling your feet up out of the way. Through tiny crags that make you think you are certainly going to scrape the sides, your Ikran twists and turns to maneuver, then dives again, swoops up into the sky, long beautiful arcs that now face into majestic scenery ahead. You feel it all, every turn, every drop, every swooping arc. Suddenly a Toruk looms directly ahead, intent on attacking the Ikran you are riding, and you feel the sudden lurch as your Ikran pulls back in defense and hides just in time within the smaller confines of a space between the rookeries. But nothing stands still, and you are immediately onward to more stupefying vistas of scenes before you, beside you and beneath you. Down in the valley, you see a large group of blue Na’vi who sense your arrival and turn in unison to wave their spears in welcome. Your Ikran swoops to just above their heads and swiftly passes them by. A large ocean looms before you as the Ikran heads out to sea, and surprisingly, a giant whale leaps from the water directly in your path. It is so large as you approach, filling your view nearly completely, that it is apparent that the Ikran must abruptly change its flight trajectory to avoid it, and as you virtually seem to hover for the moment, the whale drops back into the sea with a mighty splash that sends up a virtual tidal wave. The wave is coming for you, but our Ikran knows a thing or two about navigation, because it shoots down the tube of the enclosing wave, saving you from drowning as the Ikran sails swiftly out the other side.
Night in Mo'ara
Walking Through Mo'ara at Night
All too soon, the ride was over, we were all back on our planet, and I was placing the 3-D glasses where they indicated we place them. The two-hour and forty-five minute wait was the illness, the ride to Pandora most definitely the cure. I was glad that it was late in the evening, that the park was closing, and most of the day’s happy throngs had already gone, because I got to walk through much of Mo’ara alone, listening to the haunting sounds of the night creatures in that jungle and savoring the glowing colors that would not have been visible during the day. I took one last dreamy look at the Tree of Souls, which was now a massive light show that dazzled in ways that only modern technology could produce, and turned to re-enter my world. Thank you Disney! You took us away from our realities and gave us yours. You made us all happy. Thank you!
November 1, 2017