I knew flying on the back of a banshee would be cool. But I didn't expect to feel it breathing.
It's those tiny details that make me want to live (or least vacation) in Pandora, a movie fantasy world I never cared much about before I came here to Disney's Pandora - The World of Avatar, a 12-acre adventure land near Orlando, Florida.
My journey with the mystical dragon-like beast happened last weekend during a sneak peek at the new Pandora located inside the Animal Kingdom theme park. The experience, based on James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster film, lets you walk under floating mountains, interact with a bioluminescent rainforest and partake in the customs of the locals, the blue-skinned Na'vi.
The fantasy land opens to the public on May 27, and the crown jewel is its thrill ride, Avatar Flight of Passage. A masterful blend of storytelling and engineering, the ride triggers all your senses to suck you into Cameron's alien jungle. Wearing 3D glasses, you're locked into a motorcycle-style seat as you ride a banshee, swooping through the landscape, getting hit with ocean mist and fragrant scents (when you're not screaming, that is).
I never got hyped about Cameron's movie -- certainly not in the way I get excited for other geeky franchises like Star Trek and Marvel films. When it came out, "Avatar" was hailed as revolutionary for its 3D effects and quickly became a worldwide phenomenon. It may be the highest-grossing film of all time, but it's also an 8-year-old story, now largely faded from public consciousness. How did Disney take me from feeling meh to wanting all the merch?
Disney does here what it does best, wrapping you in a detail-rich world where you're the star of your own adventure. Not only is the park's visual landscape stunning, but there are layers of culture to explore. Eat funky-looking alien food, buy accessories to dress like a Na'vi and even learn how to speak the local language.
It has all the ingredients a nerd needs to get lost in fantasy. This world, 4.4 light-years away on a moon in Alpha Centauri, suddenly feels interesting again. And authentic.
'Avatar' ... what's that about again?
If you're scratching your head trying to remember the world of the Na'vi and how those lab-grown avatars worked, relax. Disney and Cameron designed this experience so you didn't have to know anything about the film to appreciate the land's beauty and characters.
In the movie, the nature-loving Na'vi humanoids battle with money-grubbing humans bent on destroying their land to mine the mineral unobtanium. But Disney's Pandora is set in a time long after that conflict, and also after whatever takes place in the-- the next one arrives in 2020.
Visitors are here as tourists to appreciate the Na'vi's nature-loving culture. (And thanks to the work of travel company Alpha Centauri Expeditions, humans can now breathe here).
One of Disney's top creative minds, Joe Rohde, lead a tour through Pandora. He was tasked with making a computer-generated world totally believable -- a world that doesn't obey our rules of gravity.
"I was writing memos going, 'You guys are out of your minds,'" Rohde said. "It's just completely impossible."
But now, nearly six years since the project was first announced, Disney has managed to pull off the impossible through a tight partnership with Cameron and his film production company.
Bringing Pandora to Earth
Rohde's team of artists and engineers -- "imagineers" in Disney lingo -- sculpted the illusion of 156-foot-high floating mountains with waterfalls.
The landscape seamlessly fuses real vegetation and fictional plant life, with some rusted and repurposed structures still around from the mining company in the film.
At sundown, the plants, rocks and water glow with bioluminescence, bringing new energy into the night. In this fictional world, everything is physically and spiritually connected. But that's also true in the real world, where a single computer network controls the thousands of fluorescent plants and rocks.
"All of the lighting fixtures go back to a huge programming board that allow us to create the bioluminescence, not just in one static state, but in an evolving state throughout the night," said "Avatar" producer Jon Landau, who helped guide a nighttime tour.
No autographs, rutxe (that's Na'vi for please)
You won't find 10-foot-tall blue Na'vi walking around signing autographs -- Disney couldn't get actors to control such gangly bodies. But you will see them at the Na'vi River Journey, a peaceful boat ride featuring the most advanced animatronic figure in all of Disney --, lifelike with her fluid movements and expressive face.
Over at the banshee ride, Na'vi appear in the 3D film that plays during your flight. In line, there's a massive animatronic avatar floating in a liquid tank, making slight movements while asleep. (Avatars look similar to Na'vi, but are engineered to be controlled by humans through a neural link.)
Still, the Na'vi presence is felt all around. The Na'vi don't have a written language, so entrances to the rides are marked with symbolic totems instead of signs.
Disney employees greet you with a "Kaltxì" in the native Na'vi language, and you can purchase an electronic translator toy for $20 (£15, AU$27) that uses trading cards to teach the pronunciation of words and phrases, with 90 cards to collect.
This being another star system, there is of course alien-looking (but delicious) food. Cheeseburgers come in the form of bao-bun pods. Cheesecake is shimmery and blue. Drinks are adorned with neon boba balls. And there's the bright-green beer -- because, according to one of the top chefs, they couldn't get a blue-color brew to come out right.
Fantasy takes nest in the Kingdom
Pandora's home, Animal Kingdom, is Rohde's baby. He conceptualized, designed and oversaw its development. It opened as Walt Disney World's fourth theme park on Earth Day in 1998, but it never stayed open past sundown. The addition of Pandora and its fluorescent world is a large part of the Animal Kingdom's evolution into a full-day park, enticing guests to stay after dark.
But adding Pandora wasn't just about getting something to look cool at night. The wildly successful Wizarding World of Harry Potter at the neighboring Universal Islands of Adventure park boosted pressure to create a fresh, immersive experience that could draw superfans from around the world.
Cue Cameron. When his film came out, nerds spoke Na'vi on internet message boards and blue tails were hot sellers on Halloween. The Oscar-winning director was also cooking up ideas for sequels.
Disney's 2011 deal with Cameron -- to make a land centered around flying beasts and bewitching nature -- came one year after the opening of the Harry Potter-themed land.
But Animal Kingdom had the room for such a fantasy. In the park's original plans was a section reserved for future attractions themed to medieval beasts, like unicorns and dragons. That's where Pandora has taken root.
Even though it may be a sci-fi tale of blue people in another star system, the film's conservation message fits with the park -- and one that can teach guests a lesson.
"I actually think this is a very pertinent, contemporary myth -- a myth we need right now," Rohde said. "We don't necessarily need another dragon."
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