The best thing I can say about “Avatar Flight of Passage,” the centerpiece ride at Disney’s new Pandora theme park, is that it makes me want to go to a real rainforest — and that is a big compliment coming from a guy who hates humidity and goes into New York City withdrawal after a few days away. The second best thing I can say is that it makes me excited for an Avatar sequel, which is good news for a whole lot of stakeholders at the ceremonial opening of the park on Wednesday.
I’m writing this in the Satu’li Canteen, the expansive new restaurant built for Pandora, which is located in Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. In full disclosure, Disney sponsored this trip for me, and many other journalists, to give us an early look at a park expansion that’s been in the works for years. I didn’t know what to expect: There’s a certain trust that the company’s Imagineers have earned, having created so many iconic rides and immersive worlds, but Avatar came out seven years ago, which left me wondering if the park would connect with people.
The short answer is yes, because it’s not necessary to have seen director James Cameron’s technologically groundbreaking blockbuster to appreciate this place. But in places, knowledge of the film does enhance the experience, as is the case for the long indoor queue for “Flight of Passage.” Much like “Star Tours,” the company’s Star Wars-themed motion simulator, it has people line up in rooms filled with rich details, creating the feeling that you’re in the world of the movie. The winding line, which tours through bioluminescent flora and fauna, delivers riders to a large research-themed room, made to look like a laboratory facility for the Pandora Conservation Initiative, a group invented for the park’s storyline. There are examples of little experiments, from cleaning water to re-animating a native lizard.
The main attraction in the room, though, is the gigantic Avatar floating in a chamber, twitching slowly and peacefully, larger than life but very much real.
It is a direct callback to early in the movie, when we see the Avatars — made from a hybrid of human and alien Na’vi DNA — floating in the same kind of chamber. Humans are supposed to link up neurologically with the Avatars, so they can see through their eyes and control their movements when they are woken up and sent out into Pandora. Having seen the movie — and I rewatched it over the weekend — it gives you a more immediate thrill, because you know what is going to happen.
Spoiler alert: The premise of the ride is that you get to enter one of those Avatars, and then go on an adventure.
You’re given large 3D glasses — really more like a visor with lenses — and then watch a video that explains how Avatars work and why they’re conserving Pandora (humans damaged the environment there, as per usual). Then it’s on to another room, and another video, which explains what exactly this fictional lab is embarking upon. A woman who looks a lot like one of the movie’s original stars, Sigourney Weaver, gives an introduction. We will be riding an Ikran, a large banshee-like bird that will only fly with a single compatible pilot. We’re warned that the ride might get rocky, but the majesty of Pandora is worth the risk.
And yeah, that’s absolutely correct. The flight is incredible, even if we never actually physically go anywhere in real life (kind of like people using Avatars, incidentally).
“Star Tours” and the “Soarin’” ride are the main motion simulators at Disney Parks right now, but “Flight of Passage” takes the experience to a new level. “Soarin’” puts you in a row of seats hanging in front of a giant IMAX-sized screen and makes it feel like you’re hang-gliding across California. “Star Tours” positions you as a passenger in a Starspeeder being chased by Imperial baddies. While they are both largely group experiences, “Flight of Passage” is more individualized, which makes a major difference.
While your real body sits on a moped-like seat, your virtual form eventually gets on a large bird-like creature called an Ikran. The place is an alien rainforest that gives way to an immaculate ocean, with massive herds of stampeding animals and breaching whale-like creatures emerging from the crystal water. You slide and glide and turn on a dime as your Ikran cuts beneath massive cresting waves and between branches in the thick forest. There are floating rock formations in the distance, and Na’vi herding animals calling out below. It makes you feel like an environmentalist for a place that doesn’t actually exist, and then want to go to South America to see the equivalent on earth.
Along with motion capture, Avatar was incredible for its realistic environments. Now, anything can be made in CGI, but the realism of the environments are, again, next-level. The ride sprays a light mist across your face, adding to the sense that you’re really in this fictional land: a faint floral smell helps with immersion, as well.
This is not, of course, a roller coaster, or any kind of scare ride; it’s thrilling, but not because there’s any sense of danger. It’s all wonder, and an experience you’ll want to repeat many times over.