After I finished my inaugural flight on “Flight of Passage,” the new and incredibly real-feeling motion simulator ride at Disney’s new Avatar-themed Pandora park, I was led to the gift shop, naturally. There I was immediately struck by a large piece of machinery that looked like a piece of hospital equipment, but with digital screens that showed complicated (maybe fake) scientific equations and images of a Na’vi, the fictional indigenous people that live on the planet Pandora in the 2009 James Cameron film.
It was branded with the logo of the Alpha Centauri Expedition, the fictional “travel company” that is supposed to guide users through the Pandora park. So, that didn’t explain much. After I awkwardly lingered around for a bit, I learned that this machine (pictured below) scanned faces and then somehow customized Na’vi dolls to look like the customer. That’s not all that unusual; there are plenty of customizable 3D-printed action figures, and some even scan your face. But this was being done remarkably fast, so the question was how it did that.
I asked one of the clerks at the store what this ACE Avatar Maker did, and she gave me a clever answer that stuck to the mythology that guides the theme park. Disney wants to whisk visitors away from their real worlds into a sort of fantasy land, and so it made sense that she had to stick to a script. But I’m a journalist — full disclosure: Disney sponsored my trip to the Pandora press preview — and so I wanted some more answers.
And so, I came back a few hours later, hoping I’d get to speak with someone else who might give me more clarification. Luckily, one of Disney’s merchandising executives was standing beside the machine, watching some more faces get scanned. So I looked to him for some real answers.
“It allows guests to basically see what they would look like as a Na’vi Avatar,” he explained. “There are two parts to the process: The guest comes in and we scan them using a hybrid digital scanner. And then it gets uploaded to PCI scientists, they compile the DNA with the Na’vi and it actually gets exported to the Avatar maker.”
PCI, for the record, stands for Pandora Conservation Initiative, the fictional group that was created for the new park’s storyline. And the Na’vi, of course, are fictional, so there’s no actual DNA involved in the equation. Oh, and when I asked if they were 3D printed, he said no, they call it “3DNA.” So he was committed to the myth, too, even as I continued to prod.
Obviously, the figures, which are produced in just 30 minutes, look more like the Na’vi; they start with a base doll that is then customized, sort of like in the movie, which saw humans fused with Na’vi bodies. And the Disney executive played on that notion as he continued to explain to me the way the whole thing works (he also noted that they don’t 3D-print the dolls, but didn’t explain how they’re physically customized).
“The DNA of the Na’vi is actually pretty complex, so a lot of the traits are dominant,” he said, maybe enjoying the conversation. “Skin color will be blue, the hair is going to be black. But we do allow the guest to make some choices and customizations.”
Customers can choose eye color, hair style, and striping patterns, of which there are seven. I’m not sure what they signify, but the park is so well thought out, down to the smallest detail, that I imagine the patterns mean something to someone in the long back story written for the Na’vi. It’s all about immersion there, after all. And given what’s going down in the real world, that’s actually a good thing.