Four months after the May opening of Pandora – The World of Avatar, the new 12-acre area of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, hordes of park visitors are waiting hours to see the new area’s two main attractions. Remarkably few were complaining about the lines that stretched over a bridge into the park’s Discovery Island during our recent immersive park inspection.
Yet the recurring thought here was the real opportunity presented for savvy travel agents to save clients serious time and money by guiding them in the ways of most easily navigating Disney’s hottest new theme park experience. It is not difficult to imagine a valuable repeat family vacation client emerging for the agent who successfully organizes that family’s first voyage to Pandora.
Disney’s Pandora is far more than the two rides drawing early-arriving crowds to Animal Kingdom. Guests are enveloped in the land of Pandora well before they enter either the headline thrill ride, Avatar Flight of Passage, or the mysteriously intriguing, family-friendly boat ride called Na’vi River Journey.
All around the queuing visitors are the alien tropics of the 2009 movie Avatar by filmmaker James Cameron, whose Lightstorm Entertainment team worked with Disney’s Imagineers on the Animal Kingdom reproduction. There are mountains seemingly suspended in air, and sprinkled with waterfalls descending to pools on the rainforest floors. There are sounds of exotic flying creatures such as Pandoran Stingbats and alien plant life with names such as vein pods, scorpion thistles and puffball trees, among others. One giant plant, when tapped on its pod by guests, releases its “reproductive” spores into the atmosphere.
“Pandora was built in Animal Kingdom because there was a lot of effort to extend the hours of the park into the evenings,” said Matt Beiler, a producer for Disney Imagineering heavily involved in Pandora development. “Avatar was a nighttime movie.” While our visiting group did not see Pandora at night, there was little doubt this section of Animal Kingdom would be even more spectacular, if possible, at night than during daylight.
The two new rides in Pandora ultimately deliver distinctly different, yet uniquely compelling experiences. Avatar Flight of Passage puts each guest in 3-D glasses to ride solo on the back of an animatronic, breathing banshee (similar in size to a motorcycle). This flying bird-like creature featured prominently as the prime mode of transport over the Pandoran landscape in the Avatar film.
There are two pre-ride videos explaining to guests that the movie conflict between humans and the alien Na’vi people has ended before the ride begins. The rider’s flight simulation perch rises above a massive 3-D screen more than 65 feet wide and 90 feet tall. Thrills come from the banshee and its guest diving and soaring through forests and over waterways to avoid threatening air, water and land animals, as well as a giant tsunami-type wave.
Disney’s creators were careful to make the tranquil Na’vi River ride through the tropical jungles of Pandora accessible to younger family members unable to reach the 44-inch height line for the Flight of Passage.
The Na’vi River interior landscapes sparkle with bioluminescent foliage and all manner of alien flora and fauna. Na’vi natives and animals hop through the foliage in the same direction as the boats. A payoff near the end of the ride is a close encounter with the goddess of the Na’vi people, the 10-foot tall Shaman of Songs, who sings and moves with lifelike gestures from an elevated floral throne on the river embankment.
“The Shaman is by far the most technologically advanced audio animatronic character ever created by Disney,” said Beiler. He noted that the new attractions are especially attuned to the night, as the Na’vi ride with its illuminated forest demonstrates.
Food and Gifts
Pandora visitors, especially those who have experienced the new rides, line up for meals at two food outlets in the new area of Animal Kingdom. The sprawling buffet restaurant is Satu’li Canteen, themed as the former food commissary of the humans who once occupied Pandora. It offers customized salads and burgers and sandwiches on bao buns. A casual snack bar nearby called Pongu Pongu serves refreshments from frozen margaritas to blueberry cheesecake designed to mimic the deep blue Na’vi aliens.
Guests were also lined up to enter Windtraders shop, next to the Satu’li Canteen, to purchase mementos of their visits to Pandora. A most popular takeaway is a replica of the banshee, offered in a choice of 10 colors with moveable wings and a mouth operated by a battery-control wire. There are also blue Avatar figures, which can be customized via Disney facial recognition software to resemble a guest just as in the movie’s transformation of human characters into alien Na’vi.
Tips for Travel Agents
Given the feverish excitement around Pandora – The World of Avatar, this an opportune time for travel agents to consider becoming a Disney agent specialist. A first step is to obtain information about the free home-based College of Disney Knowledge, available via a registration process at www.disneytravelagents.com.
While some may fear that Disney fans are park geeks who know everything needed for navigating an attraction such as Pandora, it seemed clear on our recent visit that this is not so. Some guests seemed confused, for example, on how the Fastpass+ system works that allows a bypass of long lines for one of the Pandora attractions per day, but not both attractions.
One Pandora Fastpass+ plus two other passes in Animal Kingdom per day can be reserved - once a park entry ticket is purchased - up to 30 days before arrival at the park. If guests book a Disney hotel in a package with their park tickets they can book the Fastpass+ reservations up to 60 days before arrival.
A successful Disney itinerary, with all its potential options and details, can now be as challenging to master as recommending the right cruise to the right client. It is valuable, for example, to recommend that Animal Kingdom guests order their food in the Satu’li Canteen via a new Disney mobile app, about to be rolled out elsewhere by Disney, and pick up the food when it is ready, thereby skipping long restaurant waiting lines. Like agent cruise expertise, sharing agent awareness of such Disney booking intricacies with clients can mean lucrative business.
Knowledge is power in booking a Walt Disney World vacation. Some tricks include informing clients about time-saving Extra Magic Hours that allow early entry to different theme parks on different days. Guests staying at any Disney on-property resort hotel, whether it be the family-affordable All-Star Resort or a luxury option such as the Animal Kingdom Lodge, can currently enter the Animal Kingdom park between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Saturdays and Mondays, and move quickly for an early entry before long lines form at the Pandora attractions,
The Extra Magic Hour days and times may change, but agents can keep up by checking the calendar of hours for any immediate five days at https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/calendars/five-day/.
More to Come
Another reason for agents to consider this an opportune time, beyond the current Pandora phenomenon, to become a Disney agent specialist is the prospect of more blockbuster openings to come in the next two years. Toy Story Land, headlined by a family coaster ride called Slinky Dog Dash, will open in Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2018.
A second Hollywood Studios opening will be Star Wars – Galaxy’s Edge in 2019, with two rides out of the Star Wars movie franchise sure to rival the Pandora attractions in public excitement. One is a ride through a battle waged between the First Order and the Resistance, and the second is a flight on the famed Millennium Falcon spaceship.
A preview showcase of the two new sections of Hollywood Studios is found in the newly-reopened Walt Disney Presents attraction accessible to all guests in the park’s Animation Courtyard area. It has scale models of the upcoming Star Wars and Toy Story attractions, which are under construction behind high walls now is plain sight around the park.