Disney’s new Pandora ride is out of this world

Anticipation is already mounting across the movie world as production gets underway later this year on the first sequel  to James Cameron’s epic science fiction film  ‘Avatar’.

The visionary director has already revealed  details of not one, but at least four sequels to the 2009 blockbuster that smashed all sorts of box office records as it grossed a whopping $760 million in the US and became the biggest earning global movie of all time.

Eight years ago audiences and critics were blown away by  what was one of the most visually mind-blowing fantasy films ever made –  one that depicted a lush alien world inhabited by a highly-evolved species of 10-foot tall blue humanoid creatures called the Na’vi.

Pandora - The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Floating mountains grace the sky while exotic plants fill the colorful landscape on Pandora – The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. (David Roark, photographer)

Its tale of how the  Na’vi  battled to protect their forest homes from the encroaches  of humans intent on destroying  their planet  for economic  gain bore  a strong environmental  message that resonated around the world.

But it was the ground-breaking visual effects that captivated audiences and changed how movies would be made forever.

The movie tells the story  of how a paralyzed former Marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), becomes mobile again in the guise of a human/Na’vi hybrid called an Avatar.

As he bonds with the Na’vi and falls in love with a Na’vi woman (Zoe Saldana) he is drawn into the battle for the survival of their world.

One of the most thrilling episodes in the film is when Sully is introduced  to a banshee, a fierce bird-like aerial predator that are used by the Na’vi for hunting from the air.

Sully’s ride on the banshee as it takes him on a thrilling aerial adventure over the planet of Pandora is one of the most breath-taking sequences in the movie  and now, astonishingly, Disney has made it possible for visitors to experience what it would be like to ride their own banshee.

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With one of the characters from the first movie

Earlier this year Pandora – The World of Avatar, located within Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort in Bay Lake, Florida, was revealed to the world.

In the park, among the amazingly recreated floating islands of Pandora is the Na’vi River Journey and the centrepiece to the new attraction – the Flight of Passage, a virtual-reality, 3D ride that takes guests on a thrilling, simulated flight over Pandora.

The journey to the Flight of Passage begins at an elaborate tunnel system that leads to a research facility buried deep within one of the man-made mountains. This is where the labs are located and where you are ‘bonded’ with your own personal banshee. It is so authentic that it feels like you’ve stumbled upon the scientists’ work space after they’ve gone out to lunch.

Na'vi River Journey at Pandora - The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
The Na’vi River Journey attraction on Pandora

Alongside clever lab experiments and  various Bunsen burners are various notes the staff have left out for each other, reminding them to check on this specimen and so on. It’s the tiny attention to detail that counts and considering it took Cameron a reputed 10  years to make the movie, you can be sure a lot of dedicated  team hours and effort went into getting the public to feel like they really are  in the movie.

Guests are then shown a  short video that explains what scientists have been doing since the closing scenes at the end of the movie. Scientists working under the tutelage of Dr Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver) explain the process whereby your brain is fused with that of a banshee so you too can take the same thrill ride  that Sully  experienced in the movie.

Then you are led into the flight simulation room itself where the ride awaits.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect  as I gingerly straddled the small motorbike-like machine and gripped the handlebars in front.

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In the lab..

 

A back restraint gently holds you in place and after donning a pair of specially designed goggles you are then ‘linked’ with your banshee through a countdown sequence on  a side console that appears to synchronise your brain with that of one of the creatures.

As your readings gradually reach 100 per cent a  bright, flashing strobe light disorients the senses and then the adventure begins…

Suddenly, a beautiful panorama opens up in front of your eyes.

You are looking out over a wide, lush wilderness with extraordinary sights that literally  belong to another planet. There is a very brief moment when you  to try to take it all in before you are off on the back  of the banshee , plunging hundreds of metres down a cliff face and rushing through thick forest.

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You literally hold your breath as you pick up speed and  ‘fly’ through the forest at breakneck speed. All your senses are activated as you can actually smell the trees and the thick undergrowth as you whiz past. Between your knees you can feel movement… It is your banshee breathing.

And then you turn sharply towards a distant ocean, flying low over the heads of  warriors standing cheering on a coastal headland before you are out  over the water.
Just as you skim over the surface of the sea, a huge  whale- like creature suddenly  emerges from the depths,  threatening to drown you in a cascade of water.

You can’t help but flinch as you narrowly skip past the beast and feel and smell spray of the salt water washing over your face.

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It is a fully immersive 3 D experience that feels like a crazy death defying leap into the unknown. More fantastic creatures  pop up into your view as you just narrowly miss crashing into a hoard of charging beasts.

At one stage your banshee’s beating heart quickens as it is confronted by a  fire-breathing dragon before the ride settles down into a gentle moment when you enter one of the sacred Na’vi caves. When you eventually come to the end of your flight and step off  the machine it takes a moment to blink and adjust to the fact that you are back in reality.

Some of my fellow riders were shaking after they got off their ride and I found it difficult to properly appreciate what I had just experienced.

In fact my first reaction was to try and get back on the ride again so that I could fully appreciate  the magnificence of the achievement but right from the start  one thing was obvious – this extraordinary four-minute  sensation that reputedly cost over half a billion US dollars to create, is the future of theme park rides.

Pandora - The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Floating mountains grace the skyline while exotic plants fill the colorful landscape inside Pandora

And over an opening  weekend that saw more than one million people travel from all over the world to experience it for themselves, it is certainly living up its  billing.

It took Cameron’s  people many years’ work to bring his extraordinary vision to the public, an achievement that the  director applauded as he addressed the world’s media on opening  day.

“This is a spectacular, very surreal day for me,” he declared. “Thank you so much to everyone at Disney who made today a reality.

“I think back to when I was 19 years old and had a dream – literally a dream – of a bioluminescent forest with glowing trees and little spinning, glowing fan lizards. I woke up very excited and I sketched and painted it, and I remembered those images years later when I started writing the script for Avatar.

“We made the movie and now here we are, years later – and literally a dream has come true, all around me. It’s an amazing experience.
“Joe Rohde ( who builds Disney’s theme parks and resort hotels) and his team have exceeded my wildest dreams in bringing Pandora to life.”

And those little details from that teenager’s dream all those years ago are here…the little spinning, glowing fan lizards can be glimpsed on the Na’vi River Journey, a beautiful and gentle introduction to Pandora where guests are brought by boat on a twisting river deep into a bioluminescent rainforest. Various creatures appear in the foliage on the river bank as a singing Na’vi Shaman – a character described as one of the most realistic audio-animatronic beings the company has ever created – sings soothing  songs  over the forest.

As with most of the Pandora experience it often  takes many moments for the brain to work out what is real here and what has been  carefully crafted by hand. I found myself on many occasions simply standing in one spot, mesmerized  as I gazed away at some far away cliff top or floating island, trying  to figure out just how did they do it.

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In the lab with a floating Na’vi

And when we revisited the park  later that night a whole new to world was revealed as the true bioluminescence of the planet came to life in extraordinary colour.

For the full Disney  experience we  stayed at the extraordinary Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, which as name suggests, is an animal theme resort hotel designed to look like an African Krall.

The odd sensation that I had stepped off the plane and arrived instead at some African village was best  illustrated by the fact that when I opened my curtain on arrival that first afternoon I  was greeted by the sight of dark rain cloud gathering in on the horizon and what I could swear was a pair of gazelles sipping water  by  a pool.

Not for the last time would I stand wondering if what I was looking at was actually real or some clever illusion but  as I eventually learned, the trick is you just gotta believe the magic.

 

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