May 19, 2017: Walt Disney World Annual Passholder Preview of Pandora: World of Avatar
I had the opportunity to attend the Passholder Preview of Pandora World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom before the land opened to the public and was thoroughly impressed. Because the preview took place before Pandora's official opening, we were not able to experience the land at night, which I look forward to seeing in the future.
I queued up with fellow passholders around 1:30 PM for my 3:00 PM preview time. We were checked in promptly, with gates opening at 2:00 PM . Upon entering, I took in the details and praised the imagineers for their vision and execution. Pandora is a small land, with only two prominent attractions, leaving space for the land itself as an attraction. The attention to detail and small experiences possible at various locations add that additional dimension of immersion and entertainment that Disney is known for.
Attraction #1: Flight of Passage
I was able to walk right onto Flight of Passage with no line, so I took my time admiring the details.
The queue is long, winding and divided into several distinctly themed areas. Guests first enter through caves, scrawled with cave drawings and Na'vi markings. This leads to an industrial section with the feel of a secret underground headquarters; guests are made to feel as if they are being admitted into a restricted area. Another section of the queue is a dark, UV-A lit forest with the sounds of rustling and chirping creatures piercing the dark; fans of the E.T. queue at Universal Studios will be delighted (as I was). A highlight of the queue is the laboratory area, lined with bubbling and churning experiments, and a full size Na'vi Avatar suspended in a tube of bubbling liquid. The craftsmanship of these effects is top notch. Guests will want to take their time inspecting each detail as they wind through the massive queue.
After a long, winding queue, guests are given a number and ushered into a chamber facing a large screen. Guests are instructed to stand on their assigned number. There was a glitch in my ride through as the cast member seemingly miscounted guests and assigned us numbers that did not work out, so everyone had to shift and missed out on part of the experience of being merged with an Avatar properly. A (too long) video plays within the chamber before guests are escorted into the room containing the ride vehicles. From what I have seen on YouTube of other guests experiences, it seems we also missed some parts of the video introductions. I also later learned that one of the large screens in the queue area (near the large banshee mural) was not active during my visit.
Upon entering the room with the ride vehicles, guests are instructed to put on their 3D glasses, place their bags in cubbies on the back wall, and mount the ride vehicles. I say mount because guests sit on the vehicle like a bike, legs straddled over either side, and leaning forward. A back support emerges and rests firmly upon guests' backs, securing you into a leaning forward, bike-riding type of position. I was a little nervous, but I found it unique and exciting. I love that Disney is engaging guests in a new way, rather than recycling the same ride mechanics.
I am generally not a fan of screen-based, 3D rides. There are enough of those at Universal and I prefer moving rides with animatronics and other forms of engagement. Having said that, Flight of Passage was/is pure fun. I screamed and laughed along with my fellow riders, and enjoyed the smells and bursts of air. The flying effect is truly well done, as your ride vehicle dips and turns along with the 3D images in front of you. The effect was dimmed just a bit by the fact that I could see the ride room through the corners of the 3D glasses, a flaw that I have experienced on every 3D, screen-based ride I have encountered. Overall, I left happy, with a huge grin on my face. Well done, Disney.
Attraction #2: Na'vi River Journey
After experiencing Flight of Passage, I made my way through the gift shop, out the other side, and over to the Na'vi River Journey attraction. Again, empty queue and a walk on experience, which I relished, soaking up all the detail the queue had to offer. Another long, winding queue, a foreshadow of long lines to come! The queue for Na'vi is beautiful, full of intricate detail, soft lighting with the sun filtering through. I boarded my ride boat and entered the dark river ride, gliding along smoothly. I am a huge fan of dark rides, and of boat rides, so I enjoyed this ride immensely. It's one of those relaxing, aesthetically pleasing attractions that's a perfect respite from a hot day or for tired feet. The use of screens blended into the scenery is interesting, though a bit too conspicuous. I couldn't help noticing that there were screens embedded into the scenery, whereas I think the point is for the screens to be less noticeable to guests. Still, it's a cool effect and I enjoyed it. The giant glowing leaves hovering above the boat, with insects hopping around, was one of my favorite effects.
The centerpiece of the River Journey is the one audio-animatronic featured in the entire land of Pandora (as of May 2017), the Na'vi Shaman, known as the Shaman of Songs. I wish there were more audio-animatronic characters featured on the River Journey, or anywhere else in Pandora for that matter, though that does not take away from the impression the Shaman makes when you encounter her. Her movements and facial expressions are organic feeling, flowing and natural. It really feels like she is singing and talking to you. The Shaman makes a great impression and a beautiful centerpiece for a lovely and relaxing boat ride. The boat ride felt to be about ten minutes long to me, though I have heard reports that it's shorter. There are quite a few full POV ride-through videos available on YouTube, though I recommend waiting until you can experience it in person!