In 2009, director James Cameron brought the otherworldly adventure film "Avatar" to the big screen after 15 in production. Eight years later, Cameron along with Disney Imagineers are bringing the film to life at Walt Disney World.
"Pandora - The World of Avatar" officially opens as an expansion of Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park Saturday, May 27. The park, which was first announced in 2012, blends elements from the fictional Na'vi world in an immersive new land with unique food, interactive scenery and attractions that are out-of-this world.
So what can "Avatar" fans expect? Nothing short of a truly magical experience says one of the film's creators.
"We found with Disney a partner that was not afraid to dream big," Jon Landau, a co-producer of the original film, told Fox News. "When guests first step into the new land of Pandora for the first time, they'll no doubt be overwhelmed with what Disney's designers have dreamed up."
Beneath the Floating Mountains
As a link between Disney's Animal Kingdom and Pandora - a planet 4.4 lightyears away - the Valley of Mo'ara allows visitors to make the transition across a bridge. During the journey, guests are instantly encounter a story of peace, nature and more than a few alien inhabitants along the way.
At Pandora's heart lie the impressive floating mountains avid film fans will recognize. Surrounded by colorful flora and sounds of otherworldly fauna, along with gorgeous cascading waterfalls, Pandora does not feel like your average theme park attraction. The Disney Imagineers weren't just aiming to appeal to the ears and eyes, but also connect with guests on an emotional level.
“We built this land for awe, wonder and joy,” explained Imagineer Joe Rohde, Executive Creative Director for Pandora. “There are very distinct emotions I would like to see people experience. Awe is a real emotion. Wonder is a real emotion. Joy – not just fun – joy is a real emotion. That’s a high bar, but that’s what we’ve set for ourselves.”
A High Tech Connection
When "Avatar" first hit theaters, it was lauded for its hyperreal 3-D visuals that helped audiences connect with the world of Pandora and its characters. Disney has followed suit by filling its newest land with two groundbreaking rides, each with its own technological advancements aimed at linking theme park guests to Pandora's story.
“We want you to feel like you’ve gone to an alien world that is so realistic that it has to be a real place,” Imagineer Mark LaVine, Lead Writer for Pandora, told Fox News. “The whole park’s about that. ‘Avatar’ is very directly about this connection to the natural world. We want you to have that connection here as well.”
Ready for that connection? Imagine locking eyes with one incredibly lifelike character aboard the new Na'vi River Journey ride.
The "Shaman of Songs" is one of the Na'vi - the tall, blue, humanoid inhabitants of Pandora. She is also Disney's most advanced Audio-Animatronics figure to date. Her wild movements are so smooth you'll think there's a real person behind them. But the real connection is made when she looks you in the eye as you sail by. Her minute facial expressions as she sings words in native Na'vi tongue are designed to draw guests further into the alien world.
On "Avatar Flight of Passage," Pandora's other signature attraction, guests will experience the splendor of the planet's natural bioluminescent plants, just before stumbling into a modern-day lab in which, as the story goes, scientists prepare to link visitors to their very own banshees by way of the "avatar" program.
Once the story has been established through the elaborately-themed queue, guests will feel the marvelous sensation of flight along with a real sense of the banshee's breath while soaring over Pandora's lush scenery on Disney's high-tech new ride mechanism.
Opening Your Eyes
Beyond its rides and glowing scenery, Pandora is packed with interactive moments designed to keep its visitors feeling like they're no longer on planet Earth.
The area's new restaurant, Satu'li Canteen, serves up foods with an "alien" twist. There's cheeseburger "pods" and shockingly blue Blueberry Cream Cheese Mousse. The store, Windtraders, allows guests to take home their own shoulder-sitting banshee (only after taking the Na'vi oath to take care of it, of course). Those with extra energy can take part in an interactive drum circle that changes the entire soundtrack of the land with every hit. After dark, Pandora takes on a new personality as its many plants, and even the floating mountains, glow vibrantly from within-- a feature fans of Disney fireworks show will love.
With several "Avatar" movie sequels in the works, the team behind the films expects the park will only elevate guests' connection to Pandora and its inhabitants.
“I hope when people come here, and come to Pandora, that their eyes will be open," said Landau. "That they will look at our world a little bit differently when they go back across the bridge.”
Ricky Brigante is a theme park expert and fan who edits InsideTheMagic, a blog focusing on Disney and theme park news and entertainment. He's also host of the award-winning "Inside the Magic" podcast.