We were a few months late but we finally made it out to Pandora! The biggest expansion yet for Disney’s Animal Kingdom received a lot of coverage leading up to its opening and guests have been overwhelmingly positive after experiencing it. We’re happy to say that we agree!
For those who are unfamiliar with James Cameron’s film Avatar let me tell you this: you won’t feel left out of the loop here. While it adds more richness to the land if you know the story of how the Na’vi and humans first came in contact you can experience everything without having seen the film. Mr. Cameron has said he’s sprinkled a few easter eggs regarding his future films throughout the land, so don’t be too surprised if you go into the next film saying, “Hey! I recognize that!”
Pandora is located in the southwestern corner of the park, accessible from Discovery Island near Tiffins and Africa near the Festival of the Lion King. The entrance near Tiffins takes you across a bridge and right into the thick of things. The entrance from Africa is a meandering path along the river that takes longer but provides a necessary second egress in case of emergency or just to access the rest of the park.
The land is themed like a futuristic national park. There are signs everywhere that indicate protected lands, restoration projects, and more sights familiar to anyone who’s visited parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone. Much like an African safari, guests are being “hosted” by A.C.E. Tours, an imaginary eco-tourism partnership between the humans and Na’vi. The interesting thing with this narrative is it teaches guests how eco-tourism can be done safely and sustainably in our own world. Places such as the Galapagos Islands and the Serengeti Plain are under more stress from tourism than every before, but if guests and natives keep a goal of conservation in mind these natural wonders can be protected for future generations of experience.
The marvel of Pandora is that the natural and unnatural elements of the land blend together so well. Plants that are obviously an Imagineering construct actually look like they belong amongst the ferns and succulents that were planted. The Floating Mountains really do look like they’re suspended and made from natural stone. At night the bioluminescence isn’t jarring, but pretty realistic! Busy Bumble said that ironically this part of the park, based on a place that doesn’t exist in reality, is more like a zoo or botanical garden than the rest of Animal Kingdom.
One of the interesting things about being somewhat familiar with the story of Avatar is seeing how the land’s narrative fits into the overarching story. You can find detritus from the humans everywhere, including mining gear and weapons being taken over by nature. Many human bits and pieces have been recycled and repurposed for tourism.
Although the land is small we never felt like it was too crowded, and we were visiting when there should have been peak crowds. I felt like guests naturally spread out in areas away from the attractions and restaurants. In those areas it can get more congested, but visiting at odd hours of the day can help. We stopped by the Pongu Pongu Bar around 3pm and although there was a line it was manageable (about 5-10 minutes).
Lines for the attractions are long and deservedly so. These are some top-notch Imagineering wonders and you’ll want to re-ride them over and over. The Na’vi River Journey has a shorter line that Flight of Passage but not by much. Expect these lines to go upwards of 90 minutes or longer. At 3pm Flight of Passage was at 240 minutes for Standby! If you have an earlier opening for FastPass reservations, such as with a Disney Resort reservation, take advantage of it and book these attractions if you can.
The Na’Vi River Journey is a flume attraction akin to Pirates of the Caribbean or Small World. Guests travel in a small two-row boat through the jungles of Pandora. This ride showcases the bioluminescent effects Imagineering created and has one of the most impressive animatronics I have ever seen in the Shaman at the end of the ride. I almost wished for a wheelchair party ahead of us so we could have stalled by the Shaman. The movements are so smooth and fluid it’s amazing to consider how far animatronics have come since the Tiki Room birds. This ride has no height restriction and is family friendly unless someone has a fear of the dark.
Avatar Flight of Passage is the E Ticket attraction in Pandora and with good reason. This flight simulator-esque ride really is unlike anything you’ve been on before. Recently it was announced that Flight of Passage won a few industry awards for attraction innovation and once you ride you’ll see why.
It’s hard to describe the ride without too many spoilers and you’ll want to go in fresh without any preconceived notions of what to expect. The best way to put it is that it is a flight-simulator, but don’t think of it like Star Tours or Soarin’. It is an experience all its own with a few familiar elements. There is 3-D so expect to wear the glasses. Because of its simulator nature those prone to motion sickness may be affected, although Busy Bumble (who suffers from moderate motion sickness sensitivity) found she was fine on the ride.
FastPass for this attraction regularly runs out even when your reservation slot opens with a Disney Resort reservation. We tried to make a reservation the morning of the day our window opened it all the time slots were already gone! We ended up in the Standby queue which was a pretty accurate 125 minutes around 8pm. It wasn’t a short wait by any means but it was significantly shorter than earlier in the day. If you don’t have FastPass you’ll want to keep an eye on the app to see what wait times are looking like throughout the day and be ready to make a split-second decision to get in line.
The plus of the Standby line is that you get to see the whole queue. The bad side of the Standby line is you get to see the whole queue. And it is a long queue. We stood in front of a couple who proclaimed at nearly every turn or new room that the loading area was definitely right ahead. That was never the case. We went through a very long series of rooms (a cave! another cave! an abandoned mine! another cave! a lab! a hangar! a long set of hallways!) before we finally reached the actually holding area before you board, and even there it was only a room before another room before the ride. The guests around you will be pretty frustrated by the time you reach the second room. Admittedly we even groaned when we found out there was one more room the go through. I understand that you need to keep the guests orderly and entertained, but the anticipation that each room builds only to let you down with more waiting can be a drag.
Yet… the ride was worth it, in my opinion.
Maybe it was the adrenaline rush of experiencing it for the first time alongside everyone else in our group who seemed to be new as well. Maybe it was that release of finally being on the ride after such a long wait. Maybe it was how everyone was enjoying themselves without filters and without cynicism. Whatever it was we came off the ride practically screaming, “It was worth it!”
Would I wait in that Standby queue again? Depends. If I absolutely could not get a FastPass I would do Standby but I would not go any higher than 125 minutes. That was a long wait in that line. I’ve been in longer lines but this one does feel like it drags after a while.
Another experience of note is the Banshee Rookery, a portion of the gift shop after Flight of Passage that has guests choosing their own baby banshee. The banshee toy rests on your shoulder and has a few movements but is otherwise a mostly decorative toy. Kids and adult had these little guys, which come in a variety of colors. The Rookery is more of an immersive purchasing experience, with guests getting “chosen” by their banshee, so expect a long line but a nice payoff. These little suckers aren’t cheap. On the Disney Parks Merchandise app a banshee was discounted down to $80, which means it is a lot more expensive than that. There are other souvenirs and experiences you can enjoy in Pandora that cost less.
Pandora has an incredible amount of detail and artistry to take in so plan on spending a significant portion of your day exploring. PhotoPass Cast Members are everywhere and you can get quite a number of Magic Shots with banshees and Na’vi natives while in Pandora. At night you can get pictures taken with the illuminated flora and fauna, but those lines seem to be longer than that daytime lines.
With a location close to the front of the park this land is a great start or end to your day. Since it has opened the lines of other attractions have gone down so you can rest assured knowing you won’t be splitting your day between just Flight of Passage and Expedition Everest. Also, if you’re a Disney Resort guest check the Extra Magic Hour schedule to see when Pandora is open late for hotel guests only. They usually extend operations by an hour or two which can be great if you just want to pop by in the evening or want to experience other things in Animal Kingdom and wait on Pandora until later.
With more movies in the pre-production phase it will be exciting to see what Pandora will turn into in the future. For now we can enjoy Disney Imagineering at its finest.