Walt Disney World tends to shake things up for the summer season, despite the fact that many people will be flocking to the tourist destination without the pull of extra or new offerings. This year, there is something new in 3 out of the 4 parks: Pandora and Rivers of Light at Animal Kingdom, Happily Ever After at Magic Kingdom, and Disney Movie Magic and The Music of PIXAR Live! at Hollywood Studios. I was able to experience all of these things recently (one more so than any other) and wanted to share some of my thoughts with you in a multi-part Melyssa and the Mouse series!
Let’s start with the first major experience that will draw numerous people over the course of the years- Pandora-The World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom. Let me just say that I love this park in general, even before the addition of the new land and nighttime hours/experiences. The thing about this park that attracts me the most is the subtlety of the story and the subdued way the land is shaped and themed to perfectly blend with nature without seeming like it’s intruding into the world. So adding the experience of Pandora has enhanced that appreciation of nature, even if, on Pandora, it’s in an alien form.
There are many ways to experience the beauty of this land. An early morning venture allows one to see the sun rising in the east and hitting the front of the floating mountains. This is a true movie moment, full of golden yellows and sparkling waterfalls- you can almost hear the theme music hit at the right spot -but since there is no music in this land, you have to imagine this music, as all you will hear is the sound of “nature” on Pandora- the screaming of the Banshees, the grunting of the Hammerhead Titanothere, the winnie of the Direhorse, or the screeching of the Viperwolves. Alternatively, a late evening venture onto the moon will afford you the opportunity to see the sunset on the backside of the floating mountains, a deep rich color in the evening, warm with reds and oranges. But the main experience everyone is itching to see is the night-when the world literally comes alive with glowing bioluminescent plants and glowing walkways. Even the drum circle enters a new form with performers and participants alike filling the air with the sounds of music, which, as noted before, is not typically heard throughout the rest of the land, while the very rocks themselves pulse with the beat.
While I could go on forever about my love of Pandora itself, I would love if you knew the backstory of this land before entering, because that makes things make more sense in terms of theming. If you’ve never watched the movie Avatar - that’s ok (besides it’s kinda long and the war part is boring)- you don’t need to have seen it to enjoy the land, which is a great job on the part of the imagineers. The land itself is “set” in a time decades after the events of the movie, so none of the characters from the original movie are specifically named in the attractions and there are only a couple references to these characters in the land (such as Neyteri’s bust in Windtraders, Dr. Augustine’s book in the line queue for Flight of Passage, and a Jake Sully mask at the Colors of Mo’ara face painting booth). It was also cool to see the animals and plants from the movie represented throughout the land and attractions. You can see the old RDA signs (the mining company from the movie that blew up the Na’vi’s home), particularly around Flight of Passage, Windtraders, and Satu’li Canteen, as this is the area where the RDA army base once was. Since decades have passed and, as seen at the end of the movie, Avatars, along with a couple of select humans, and the Na’vi are living together in peace and harmony, so the old intrusive ways humans came into this land are now being taken back by nature and re-shaped by The People of Pandora. Now, we travelers from Earth are welcome to come experience the beauty of this new land, with the help of the company Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE), whose name you will see on the newer looking fixtures (such as the handrails heading into the attractions). So, there is some old looking fixtures, rusted areas, and places where an army one inhabited; but at the same time, there are also new fixtures, restrooms, and eateries for the travelers coming to experience this world. Even the cast members will tell you, they do not work for Disney- they work for ACE, who has a partnership with Disney. There are no Mickey ice cream bars of Disney logos on even the shopping bags. The weave of the story is consistent and shows the thought that went into making sure that things make sense.
To bring that love of nature and experiencing the world around you into the rest of the park, one must head to Rivers of Light, a new unique take on the “nighttime experience”. In my opinion, the blend of the water effects and projections truly adds to the story of the blending of nature and a “theme park” that made Animal Kingdom what it is by showing you the blend of light and earth, which encapsulates the world around you. When you watch Rivers of Light, you are watching the play of nature, from the majestic beauty of a horse running or an eagle flying, as well as the literal circle of life with a hunt and protection of baby animals by their parents. And the overall message of “being one” is clear, and is made explicit with the use of the song that weaves it’s way throughout the show “We Are One”- in Animal Kingdom, it’s being one with nature; in Epcot, it’s being one with the world and other cultures. If we all take care of each other, harmony can happen.
The beauty of nature is usually reserved and requires you to listen and observe. This park, in many of the things it presents to the visitors, asks the same. Be quiet, observe, and embrace what is around you. This is how you enjoy the wonder that is Animal Kingdom. Until next time, when I tackle another nightly show- Irayo (Thanks in Na’vi).