By Beth Deitchman
When day gives way to night on Pandora – The World of Avatar, the magical transformation is like nothing you’ve ever seen before—in a Disney park or anywhere on Earth, for that matter. That’s not surprising, according to Avatar producer Jon Landau, given that James Cameron—who wrote and directed the film that inspired the new land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom—first dreamed of the bioluminescence when he was 17 years old.
Pandora has been in Landau’s dreams, and his heart, for quite some time, as well. He was first introduced to Cameron’s vision for the planet in 1995, and he could have never imagined that he would one day journey down a sacred jungle river, soar in flight on the back of a banshee, or experience a bioluminescent forest firsthand. “You’re looking at someone who, when my kids were growing up, the tree that their presents went under at Christmas was decorated with Disney ornaments. The idea that I am now a small part of something that is here at Walt Disney World… I get chills even saying that,” he told D23 during our recent visit to Pandora, which Landau emphasizes is a land that’s about “exploration and discovery.”
Disney was the natural partner to bring to life this special land, Landau explained, because of their willingness to “dream big”—and Disney’s Animal Kingdom was the natural place for it to exist. “Avatar is a franchise that has an ethos that is in line with the mission statements of Disney’s Animal Kingdom,“ he said, adding, “Thanks to [Walt Disney Imagineering Portfolio Creative Executive] Joe Rohde and the philosophy of putting it in Animal Kingdom, we were able to make [Pandora] about story and not make it about technology.”
Cutting-edge technology went into the creation of Pandora’s two attractions, Avatar Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey, but the question members of the creative team posed to themselves was, “What experiences do we want guests to have?” They wanted Pandora to provide the ultimate wish fulfillment, and decided to create somewhere where people can truly fly. “The banshee flight [in Avatar Flight of Passage] was the answer to that,” Landau explained.
Bioluminescence is a vital part of the guest experience on Na’vi River Journey. “Bioluminescence and the whole quality of night are such key parts of the appeal of the original film and of the planet Pandora,” Rohde noted, and Na’vi River Journey is set in a part of the jungle that’s so dense, it is bioluminescent whether it’s night or day. In the interactive moment with the Na’vi Shaman of Songs that comes at the culmination of the attraction, guests will not only see the most complex Audio-Animatronics® figure Imagineers have ever created, but they’ll take away the message that the rainforest is a sacred place.
But there was another key experience that the team kept in mind in the early days of the creative process. “We looked at the land as a third attraction,” Landau said, adding that they wanted it to engage people throughout their visits to Pandora. “It’s one thing to allow people to explore, but exploration without discovery is meaningless,” he stressed.
Some of the discoveries for guests will be bold ones that take their breath away. Though Rohde has been immersed in Pandora from the very beginning, even he can’t help but feel a sense of wonder as he gazes upon the Floating Mountains that look as if they’ve always stood there in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. “It’s hard not to sit here when the cliffs are lit and look back up and just [marvel at] that scale. I really feel like it feels like a national park. And it’s so odd, because there used to be nothing there,” he mused. “We did it and you still can’t overcome that feeling. I was crawling around in there, taking photographs like I was in Nepal, thinking ‘What am I doing?’ But you’re doing it—and it’s just really interesting.”
Rohde hopes there will be subtle discoveries for guests, as well. They might notice a hint of music soon after they cross the bridge to Pandora, as they have their first chance to study the Floating Mountains. Rohde revealed that the music is derived from the film Avatar, as well as Pandora’s two attractions. But if you don’t take immediate notice of the music, Rohde shared, that’s by design. “We really want it to be almost like you think you hear it, but you’re remembering it,” he shared.
For Landau, the breathtaking moments have come when he’s welcomed guests to Pandora, and he’s seen their astonishment as they walk through the land. “We’re not making this for ourselves—we’re making it for guests to come to be in awe and to be inspired,” he said. “It’s so exciting that people will be able to come to Pandora for years to come and experience it. You watch a movie. You listen to music. This becomes an experience, I believe, only on Pandora.”