#VISITPANDORA - ‘A National Park on an Alien World’ - August 2017

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There may be rides in Pandora, but the land itself is the biggest attraction

It’s shortly after 9 p.m. as Joe Rohde stands at the bridge that links Pandora—The World of Avatar to the rest of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Rohde’s official title is Walt Disney Imagineering portfolio creative executive; earlier that day at Pandora’s dedication ceremony, Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger called him the project’s “creative and spiritual leader.” As Rohde watches hundreds of guests stream into the land and take in its bioluminescent sights, he exclaims, “This is what a park is supposed to feel like!” 

The word “park” is important here, because Rohde isn’t talking about a “theme park.” As Imagineer Mark LaVine describes it, Pandora “is a national park on an alien world.” It’s this aesthetic that provides the philosophical kinship between the fantastical realm of “Avatar” and the rest of Animal Kingdom. 

“Animal Kingdom is built around a set of values about nature and our relationship to living things,” Rohde says. “The movie ‘Avatar’ is about these ideas already—it is about the power of nature, it is about a transformative adventure, it is about a personal call to action. So it allows us to create a place that’s both mythic in its scale and extravagant strangeness, and at the same time a very clear piece of Animal Kingdom.”

Nothing typifies “extravagant strangeness” better than the range of floating mountains that anchors Disney’s Pandora. These huge structures appear to hover above guests’ heads, cleverly and beautifully hiding their physical supports behind dense foliage, meticulously crafted rockwork, and cascading fountains of water. 

“We always work with gravity—not against gravity,” jokes WDI Creative Executive Zsolt Hormay, who led the team that sculpted the mountains. “We worked hard on creating a sensation that the guests can enter the land and just keep going—they’re on a planet, not an enclosed environment. We placed miniature floating mountains on top of buildings, worked with the colors and textures, the size of the trees and waterfalls … we really went out of our way to force that perspective that there’s distance.”

WDI worked closely with Lightstorm Entertainment, James Cameron’s production company, to ensure all aspects of Pandora are faithful to the source material. Lightstorm COO Jon Landau says the floating mountains “serve as a canopy reminder for where we are—you look up in the sky here, and you’re in Pandora. It’s a sense of placemaking that encourages people to explore and discover.”

In Pandora, even the manhole covers are custom-made and on theme. The pathways are marked with symbols from the Na’vi (the tall, blue-skinned people who call Pandora home), while the surrounding vegetation ties the entire experience together. Hormay says WDI consulted horticulturists and landscape architects to find plant species that evoke an alien world, while mixing in imitation foliage they created straight from the film: “Your brain connects them all together. We’re using the real plants as connective tissue with the Pandoran plants, so when guests enter the park, they don’t realize what’s manmade and what’s not.” And if you believe all the plants are real, he says, you automatically start to believe everything else is, too. 

“The land itself is an attraction,” Hormay continues. “Rather than just leading you into a ride, we want people to absorb and enjoy and celebrate the beauty of Pandora.”

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Pandora takes on a whole new form at night when its bioluminescent forest setting comes to glowing life. (Credit: Walt Disney Parks and Resorts)

One Land + One Story = Total Immersion

While “Avatar” debuted nearly a decade ago, Cameron is working on several sequels set for release in the coming years. So as not to intermingle with any stories told in those future films, WDI set its Pandora a generation after the human-Na’vi conflict in the Oscar-winning film; in this land, humanity and the Na’vi are at peace and learning from each other.

“In the movie, the world of Pandora is a setting for the action and characters whose story we follow,” Rohde says. “Here, guests are the primary characters immersed in an extremely vivid, authentic experience.”

This is not Disney’s first time dedicating an entire land to one intellectual property (IP), and it certainly won’t be the last; two hotly anticipated Star Wars-themed lands are under construction at Disneyland in California and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida. Disney officials say dedicating so much real estate to a single story allows them to do things simply not possible in any other setting. 

“It enables you to be completely immersive in the storytelling, because you don’t exit an attraction and then walk into something themed completely different,” says Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Bob Chapek. 

“Once you cross over the bridge into Pandora, we never break form after that—you’re in Pandora,” Rohde adds. “Even as you make your way into a queue, onto an attraction, and back into the land, all of that is folded inside this immersive single story. You’re creating almost a dreamlike situation, where people are walking out of the world and into a completely contained story. That’s a rich experience for people.”

Disney calls its employees “cast members” to reinforce the idea that no matter your job, you’re always “onstage.” They’re empowered in a whole new way in Pandora, however, where walkaround characters populate the land (complete with their own backstories); it’s something like an all-day improv show, and, thus, it’s the cast members who drive the land’s story home. 

“If you strike up a conversation with a cast member, they’re in character,” Chapek says. “It’s a whole new level of being onstage. You are now playing a role, and it’s taken all kinds of wild forms. We want to liberate our cast to be able to do that. They all innovate, and it becomes a completely immersive environment. I think you’ll see that taken even further in Star Wars lands.”

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 Disney Imagineers used forced perspective to make Pandora’s floating mountain range appear more immense. 

How Pandora Impacts Animal Kingdom

Pandora—The World of Avatar represents the “capstone of a multiyear expansion,” according to Djuan Rivers, the vice president who oversees the park. For most of its nearly 20-year history, Disney’s Animal Kingdom closed in the early evening for the simple fact that most of the park’s attractions involved viewing animals, and it’s pretty hard to see them in the dark. 

Closing that early just wasn’t going to work for Pandora, though. One of the land’s key features is how it transforms into a bioluminescent forest at night, where every nook and cranny of the place seems to come alive with inner light. But if Pandora needs to stay open late, then so does the rest of Animal Kingdom, with attractions to match. 

Other than operationally necessary signage for wait times and Disney FastPass+, there are no marquees at the entrances to the two attractions inside Pandora. Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Bob Chapek says this minimalism reinforces the idea guests are truly exploring an alien world: “You’re going to ride a banshee not because there’s an attraction called ‘Ride a Banshee’—it’s because that’s what one might do if you were actually on Pandora.”

Last year, the park unveiled a nighttime version of its popular “Kilimanjaro Safaris,” placing subtle lighting throughout the savannah that makes it possible to see animals in their nocturnal habitats. The park also began running a projection-mapping show on the Tree of Life, and this spring debuted the “Rivers of Light” water and light show in a new amphitheater created near “Expedition Everest.” Additional evening live entertainment springs up throughout the park, as well.  

“I like to think this has all been happening for years after guests left at night—now we finally get to show you the magic that unfolds,” says Mark Renfrow, show director for “Rivers of Light.” 

“Animal Kingdom is maturing into a park that’s now going to be open well into the night,” Rohde confirms. “To anchor something like that with Pandora—a land that is so profoundly different and beautiful at night—is a great opportunity.”

“When I was 19 years old, I had a dream of a bioluminescent forest with glowing trees and I woke up and sketched and painted it,” Cameron says. “I remembered those images years later, when I started writing the script for ‘Avatar.’ Here we are, and literally a dream has come true all around me. Anyone can now visit Pandora, in all its majesty. When they do, they can learn about the Na’vi, their culture, and their values. The Na’vi have a spiritual connection with their world, and that makes Disney’s Animal Kingdom—which is based on a deep respect for nature—the perfect place to connect Pandora to our world.”