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Disney World’s new ‘Avatar’ attraction ready for summer visitors

Landscaping consisting of real Earth plant species mixed with sculpted Pandora artificial flora at Pandora — World of Avatar, at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Landscaping consisting of real Earth plant species mixed with sculpted Pandora artificial flora at Pandora — World of Avatar, at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. AP

It’s not a movie set, but visitors to Disney World’s new Pandora-World of Avatar land are in for a cinematic experience.

The 12-acre land, inspired by the “Avatar” movie, opens in Florida in late May at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. It cost a half-billion dollars to build.

The marquee attraction is Flight of Passage, where a 3-D simulator plunges riders into a cinematic world. You feel like you’re riding on the back of a banshee, a bluish, gigantic, winged predator that resembles something out of the Jurassic era. Wearing 3-D glasses and straddling what resembles a stationary motorcycle, you’re strapped in, then the lights go out, a screen in front lights up and you’re swooped into a world of blue, gigantic aliens called Na’vi, with moon-filled skies, plunging waterfalls, jumping marine animals and towering ocean waves.

The ride provides an enchanting and intoxicating five minutes that touches all the senses. Blasts of air and spritzes of mist hit your face, and as you fly through a lush forest, a woodsy aroma wafts through your nostrils. A visitor could go on the ride 20 times and not catch half the visual details.

Disney designers are quick to say the new land is the star of the action, not the backdrop. “The character is being portrayed and played by the place itself and that’s different than a set,” said Joe Rohde, the design and production leader of Pandora —World of Avatar.

Other aspects of Pandora can’t quite compete with the excitement and immersion of Flight of Passage. Much of Pandora, at least during the daytime, is hard to distinguish from the rest of Animal Kingdom, Disney’s almost 20-year-old zoological-themed park with lush landscaping, an emphasis on conservation and a Noah’s ark range of animals.

At night, though, Pandora transforms into a sea of color with glowing lights on artificial plants and even in the pavement.

The enormous blue Na’vi aliens from the “Avatar” movie appear sparingly, really just on Flight of Passage and a second attraction called Na’vi River Journey. Before going on Flight of Passage, visitors walk through a tunnel in a faux mountain until they stumble upon a laboratory that includes a Na’vi floating in a tank.

“It’s not as simple as a guy in a costume painted blue walking around out here,” Rohde said of the aliens. “We know they are culturally present around us but we will meet them when we go on an excursion.”

The other main attraction, Na’vi River Journey, is an indoor river ride in the dark, lit up by glowing creatures and plants. The ride culminates with a Na’vi animatronic woman beating on drums as a chorus of voices reaches a crescendo. Images of the Na’vi riding horse-like creatures appear behind lush foliage, glimpsed in the distance from the river.

Pandora-World of Avatar isn’t tied to a narrative from the film but rather tells a story set in the future, after humans degraded the jungle through industrial folly and a resurgence of nature overtakes the human-built environment. That theme is a recurring architectural motif, for example with a beverage stand and cantina made to look like they were built for industry by humans but then overrun by plant life.

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