The Traveling Dad Guide to Pandora: The World of Avatar was reported by Shawn McAskill, Paul Eisenberg, Tim Jones, Daymon Patterson, Josh Rodriguez, and John C. Vanda at Pandora’s debut in May 2017 and was updated by Paul in July 2018 when a delegation from Traveling Dad and Traveling Mom swarmed the Toy Story Land opening at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The larger point here is that the Traveling Dads REVISIT places, because that’s what unshaven men with reporting skills do.
It was only last year that we came, we saw, and drank beer in the morning.
What we discovered — and by we, we mean the aforementioned dads in italics above — is that morning is relative, especially at Walt Disney World. Especially within the dozen acres of Disney’s Animal Kingdom now known as the alien moon of Pandora, where it was perhaps after 5 p.m.
Therefore it was (and still is) acceptable for a rollicking band of Traveling Dads to belly up to Pongu Pongu (how the Na’vi of James Cameron’s “Avatar” say “Party Party”) and tipple as we and other members of the worldwide media did when we previewed Pandora — The World of Avatar, days before its grand opening on May 27, 2017.
So if you want to get your pongu on at Pandora, let this Traveling Dad team coverage continue to be your guide.
What’s been updated in this post?
Beyond revising the introduction — which was exhausting because it feels like we’re merging timelines and then expecting you to keep up with them, like the finale of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where Picard lurches from one era to another — Paul has added some new photos and videos, and, to keep things simpler, will discontinue referring to himself in the third person and when I want you to know that it’s me, Paul, commenting on my 2018 visit to Pandora, I’ll switch to italics to annotate the existing text, which read pretty well before I began stepping on it.
Herein we give our first impressions of the land itself, imagineered within the Valley of Mo’ara. As well as our second impressions. During my week at Walt Disney World my family and I — including my wife, tween son and two teen daughters — made two separate visits to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, primarily to experience Pandora. We review Pandora’s two main attractions “Flight of Passage” and “Na’vi River Journey,” which we rode again and again.
We let you know what to expect at Satu’li Canteen as well as the Windtraders gift shop. And we prove that Traveling Dads can dispense travel information while drinking green beer.
How to Navigate Pandora
You don’t need to see or re-see “Avatar” to appreciate this new Disney land but many TDADs agree that it will enhance your experience. It’s good to know that the movie’s main themes are acceptance of other species and cultures, harmony, and conservation.
And it helps to understand a key plot point: You can, if properly hooked up, neurally link with Pandoran alien life, which includes communicating with trees and banshees and inhabiting the body of a blue Na’vi citizen, who while you explore Pandora serves as your avatar.
Either way, no-spoiler alert: Pandora is a sultry and fragrant forest moon whose pathways are lined with othworldly-looking trees, exotic plants and the occasional Na’vi totem.
Keep your head on a swivel when you first cross the short bridge into Pandora. When it comes to transporting visitors thousands of lightyears away to a strange new planet, Disney’s Imagineers spared no detail.
Among the pursuits as you wend your way through Pandora, drums.
The ground beneath your feet begins to show cracks, which subtly transform into abstract designs – some recognizable from our own home, others being completely alien. The foliage of the living, colorful environment of Pandora is a veritable cocoon. Suddenly, the dense shrubbery clears, and before you lies a massive floating rock formation unlike anything found on earth.
It’s a lot to take in, and you’d be forgiven for stopping in your tracks to admire it all for a few extra moments. It may seem intimidating, but Animal Kingdom’s latest land isn’t quite as sprawling as it first appears. All you need to do, is turn left in order to go right.
Allow us to explain.
Sticking to the left as you first enter the park will lead you directly to the Na’vi River Journey. Both the FastPass+ and standby lines offer a magnificent view of the tall waterfall cascading down the left side of the floating rocks.
Once your river experience is complete, hang to the left once more. This will lead you straight to the Flight of Passage – an incredible 4D experience where you’ll ride your own living, BREATHING Banshee.
The pathway out of Flight of Passage will take you through the gift shop and out past the bar, Pongu Pongu, where you can pick up the aforementioned beer, a Pandora-themed margarita or a colorful non-alcoholic beverage. You’ll find yourself right in front of the Satu’li Canteen, where you and your family can grab a nutritious bite of steak, chicken, salmon, and whole grains.
Head to the left one more time, and enjoy the additional sights and sounds of Pandora as you wind your way back to where you began.
The Na’vi River Journey
A slow-moving, visually-stunning float through a bioluminescent underground cavern, the Na’vi River Journey is a true feast for the eyes. The black-lit color pallete of the native fauna and wildlife coupled with advanced animatronics is enough to have you genuinely questioning reality.
This is an immersive experience, a sensory delight, and a must-see for diehard fans of the world-building behind Avatar. The 6-passenger boats move slowly enough for riders to gain an appreciation of the minute details contained along the riverbank. These stretch from below the waterline to directly above your head.
However, for those not as well-versed in Pandora’s culture or history, the ride doesn’t hold the same appeal. There is no story or context offered for the sights and sounds of the journey. While the singing Na’vi shaman that appears deep within the river is arguably the most advanced and impressive execution of animatronics ever, it’s a bit unfulfilling without a relevant story-arc.
Those hoping to learn more about this planet and its inhabitants rather than simply passing through may be disappointed, despite the visual tour de force. More than a year later, I second this conclusion that Na’vi River Journey is a fine respite from the aggressive Orlando humidity but is otherwise an underwhelming, sleepy journey that I described to my family beforehand as “it’s a small world” but less anxious, and they somewhat agreed with me.
Flight of Passage
Here’s a not-so-bold prediction: Flight of Passage will be one of the most popular, talked-about, and viral-worthy rides of ANY Disney park worldwide. This ride is unlike any that has come before it. While fans of Soarin’ and Star Tours will notice some familiar elements, make no mistake: Flight of Passage stands alone in both scope and execution.
Visitors are first taken through a lengthy, albeit engaging journey through an intricate system of passageways, complete with ancient Na’vi cave paintings. You’ll then take a quick tour through a bioluminescent forest before entering a fully-functioning laboratory – complete with a larger than life surprise.
Finally, you’ll reach a loading bay where you’ll be presented with an introductory video (which one you’ll end up watching will depend entirely on which bay you’ve been directed toward). While in here, you’ll be evaluated, and genetically-matched with your own unique Avatar. This will act as your proxy aboard a ferocious flying banshee.
One more quick video will explain the mission of the scientists and engineers living and working on Pandora, before being escorted to the actual ride.
Don’t expect to see any bucket seats. Nor any lowering safety bars or rail tracks.
Do expect a 4D experience in the truest sense of the term. One that will churn your stomach, dazzle your eyes, assail your nostrils, and send shockwaves rippling through your nervous system – leaving you tingly and giddy for minutes afterward.
Also, with a standby queue designed to accommodate a 5-hour maximum, expect to wait.
But if there were one ride worthy of a nearly half-day wait time, it’s Flight of Passage.
I’m tempted just to say “Ditto” but the fact is, from the day I first rode Flight of Passage to excess (refer to photo below) I couldn’t stop talking about it and could hardly wait for my family to experience it.
Flight of Passage One Year Later: Is The Magic Gone?
More than a year later, the day arrived when my family would ride Flight of Passage. Or at least I hoped they would.
Without the benefit of media access to the ride, my family and I did what we had to do: Got up a little too early, hustled like crazy, got to Disney’s Animal Kingdom before rope drop, and feverishly speculated about how successful we’d be in navigating the crush of fellow, aspiring Flight of Passage riders (there was no question that’s what everybody was going to make a run for) and sure, enough, the rope dropped and we made a run for it. The video below shows what the first few frantic seconds of rope drop look like.
By the way, while this ride is almost worth getting hurt for, no theme park attraction is worth injury. My eldest daughter stumbled during our hasty approach to the ride and was stepped on by a fellow park-goer. But she was fine, as she adhered to the “walk it off” dad advice I’ve been giving her since the day she began walking and fell.
Anyhow, once the ride was in sight — I’m happy to report that the directions to the ride we give above are very good — I was relieved to see that we weren’t joining a crush of people who had already gotten to the entrance of the ride before us. I couldn’t believe it. I asked one of the cast members attending the ride, was there any kind of Fast Pass access my family and I should be availing ourselves of to make our time on line go quicker? And she gave me a quick smile and said in a very nice way, “Just go in,” pointing to my family who was already striding ahead into the queue.
This will give you a sense of the line-up, as my Canadian friends say, while you’re outside Flight of Passage.
And once you pass through the rock formations and almost southwestern-feeling pathways there’s something of a post-modern industrial feel to part of the waiting area, which makes sense when you remember that the ride is set in a laboratory.
Once you reach the loading bay with its instructional videos, the experience is much the way we describe it above, except it was underscored by my repeating to my family for the hundredth time, if this ride doesn’t live up to all the hype I’ve been giving it for the past year, I’ll apologize.
Well, I didn’t have to apologize. As soon as it ended I said, “Was that the best ride you’ve ever been on, or what?” All but my eldest daughter agreed (though it was an easy second to her perennial favorite, Space Mountain). We ended up riding it a second time about forty minutes later — once the clock inched past 9am, we were able to Fast Pass our way on for our return ride. And a few days later we returned to Pandora and did the ride a third time.
My family concurred that while riding Flight of Passage three times was well worth the hype, time, and effort, nothing quite compared to their first time they rode it — indeed, I felt the same way about my first time on the ride last year. However, there came a moment during the first time with my family this year when I slipped my goggles off my eyes and glanced at the faces of my wife, daughters and son as they immersed themselves in the 4D experience of clawing skyward through Pandora. They all had the same expression: Raw delight. That moment made all the effort to get here, and the days of occasional exhaustion that followed, completely worthwhile.
Lunch at the Satu’li Canteen
One glance at a menu on Pandora, and you’ll realize you’ve left the Dole Whip far behind. Pandora continues Animal Kingdom’s noteworthy run of food options for those not content with an oversized pretzel as a snack.
If there were ever any mystery around how the Na’vi stay so lean and ripped, it’s now been thoroughly solved. While we only experienced a small sample, the multigrain medley, thin-sliced beef, grilled chicken and salmon made it clear that we weren’t in the Magic Kingdom anymore. On a health kick? Then this quick, thousand-some odd lightyear trip is just what the doctor ordered.
For those picky eaters in the family, the on-site cantina also offers a cheeseburger “pod.” The pod’s puffy, breaded exterior hides traditional cheeseburger ingredients inside. The desserts are also presented in an odd, yet enticing fashion. The multi-colored, circular cheesecake “slice” was my personal favorite.
Here’s some footage of the dads enjoying lunch, which is more entertaining than it sounds. You’ll also witness Daym Drops being outfitted for his own Avatar, courtesy of the Avatar Maker at the Tradewinds shop at Pandora.
And if you’re really into merch, here’s Disney’s merchandise honcho Steven Miller talking to Traveling Dad editor Paul Eisenberg about the Avatar Maker.
A year later, the Tradewinds shop appeared much the same, but here’s a close-up of the almost shrine-like display of banshee puppets.
The Bottom Line
Pandora: The World of Avatar is easily worth one of your precious days at Walt Disney World, even if hours of it are spent in line waiting to experience Flight of Passage. Here I’ll say ditto.
P.S. Read and hear more…
… in this splendid Pandora review by Traveling Mom editor Cindy Richards.
…about how to adopt a banshee, by Tim Jones
…about Flying, Gawking, Eating, Banshees, and more! during this podcast by John Vanda & Kevin Gillooly
P.P.S. Whether you’re heading to a forest moon like Pandora or the grocery story we want you to get the best possible benefits from whatever form of payment you use. That’s why Traveling Dad launched its Credit Card Points & Miles section and why we don’t mind clueing you in about some of your credit card options.