A world of wonder and magic continue to expand, and you can now find yourself walking around an alien planet. Disney has been continuously growing their theme parks, especially in the Orlando Area. Walt Disney World is competing with the well-established Harry Potter World at Universal Studios and is rearing its 50-year anniversary. Updates are being added to the whole property, and notably the most recent one being Animal Kingdom.
Pandora is a brand new land in which you can explore at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Inspired by the 2009 James Cameron movie, Avatar, the land transports you to a world where the Na’vi, an alien race, share with you their culture and world. It opened May 27, 2017 and the crowds reflect how new it is. However, don’t let that turn you away. Disney has gotten amazing at making the crowds not that big of an issue. The most notable place you’ll find them is in the queue for ‘Flights of Passage’, a ‘Soaring’ similar experience. The wait times are rarely seen less than an hour and I highly don’t recommend going first thing in the morning.
The ride lets you sit on the back of a banshee, a ritualistic transportation used in the movie, and explore the land through the air. It features a similar setup as ‘Soaring’, a hit attraction in Disney’s Epcot theme park, as there are three rows and three columns focused around a center screen. It has to be one of the most immersive experiences you will ride in all of Disney at the moment. You actually sit on this stationary-like motorcycle and straddle it throughout the whole ride. Throughout your journey, expect to feel water droplets hit against your face, smell the aroma of the salt water, and even feel the banshee breath below you!
With a two-hour wait time though, it can be daunting to even want to get in line for the ride. Do it. The queue is very immersive and changes with every corner you take. You start by walking a trail right by a waterfall, and trail into a cave, and then into a bunker, and it keeps evolving from there! It helps keep the time going by quick as there’s always something new to explore. You’ll even get a chance to check out the new bioluminescent forest during the day in the queue. What’s the new bioluminescent forest?
At night, the whole land changes into a glowing delight. This is mainly the highlight of the land. James Cameron had always expressed with visions of a forest that came alive with light (which is expressed in his movie) and now you can physically stroll through it! It adds a whole new life to the place, making you want to come back over and over again.
The Na’vi River Journey also gives you a bigger glimpse of what this might look like during the day as well, verses the queue of Flights of Passage. This is a slow moving boat ride through the world of Pandora, but this time is a lot more tame for everyone. It ends with one of the most advanced and life-like animatronics Disney has ever produced for their parks, the Shaman of Songs. You would think for a few minutes that you have just met a real life Na’vi. My personal highlight of the ride is, however, the leaves that hover above you during your journey where you might see some mischievous creatures running around on them.
The queue is sadly less impressive for the River Journey than it is for Flights of Passage. The good news is that the wait time does not compare, a lot of times being below an hour wait.
Pandora isn’t the only thing Disney has been working on to improve the park. Right before the release of the new land, Rivers of Light was officially released to the public on February 17th 2017. The night time water show was scheduled to have been originally released a year before, but was delayed due to major technical difficulties. It had a temporary fill in for the summer of 2016 focusing on Jungle Book to highlight the new live action movie released in theatres during the same time. Jungle Book Alive with Magic thankfully did not compare to what Rivers of Light is.
Rivers of Light takes place in the amphitheater in front of Nemo and Expedition Everest, on the other side of the park from Pandora. The focus of the show is how nature and humans can come together as one, a message that fits well with the theme of the park Animal Kingdom. It does not feature fireworks as that would disturb the animals. But it is a show I would definitely recommend finding Fast Passes for or putting it on your to-do lists.
The highlight of the show is supposed to the lotus flower floats. As they move across the lake, they glow and seemingly dance with the rhythm of the music. They will start blossoming and casting projections onto mists as the story progresses. The whole show leads up to one of the flowers expanding into a tower expelling fire and water from its tips in a beautiful display.
Though this is mostly a water show, there are two boats that consistently circle around the lake throughout the whole performance. One boat represents fire and earth while the other one represents water and air. And on each of those boats are two performers to help give life to this show. They are dressed in phenomenal costumes that have Indian/Mongolian influences. Disney tries to make all of its shows accurate as much as possible. This is no exception. Just like George Washington’s costumes are made historically accurate in the Hall of Presidents, the fabricators of River of Light’s costumes have used traditional Southeast Asian methods to create an authentic look as much as possible. I’ll be honest: you probably won’t focus much on it during the show, but it’s well worth some of your attention when the show wraps up when they are stationary waiting for people to take a photo and to finish escorting their families onto their next adventures.
My personal favorite thing about the show is the soundtrack however. I’m in fact listening to it now as I type this post. Don Harper (who helped write music for Lion King ½ and Tarzan & Jane) composed the music and it features several unique global instruments like a dudnok, bansuri flute, and Takio drums. It’ll leave you singing “We are one” over and over again as you are walking out of the theatre.
The Standby queue starts by Dinosaur Land’s bridge by the Tree of Life and the Fast Pass enters by Expedition Everest. If you have a dinner package, your entrance will be by the Nemo Musical. The dinner package, like usual, features the best seats of the theatre. Is it worth the price? I don’t personally think so unless you have the Disney Dining Plan. If you get in line an hour and a half before the show, you will have an amazing spot regardless and can eat at one of the cheaper options. While this show is still brand new and is the major night entertainment of the park, do not expect the wait times to drop significantly for Flights of Passage. You will still probably wait at least an hour for your journey.
And the last of one of Disney’s updates, don’t forget to take one last look at the Tree of Life when you are one your way out of the park. The tree literally comes to life at night every ten minutes. Fireflies will fly around the tree and one of the animals will awaken and tell a story. The Tree of Life Awakening was introduced last year during Spring 2016 when Rivers of Light was originally supposed to be introduced. Though most of the stories take place facing the entrance of the park, it is said that Disney will be adding stories to the other side of the tree as well (on the walkway from Africa to Asia).
The park has transformed itself from a half-day to a full day park with these transformations Disney has implemented. Their investment has paid off greatly delivering quality entertainment to its new and old guests. Are you excited to experience the world of the Na’vi? Is Animal Kingdom becoming a top priority to visit on your next trip to Disney World?
All photographs were taken by Seth Stelly. Like them? Check out more at this website.