When Walt Disney World’s restless brain trust gets nearly half a billion dollars, 12 acres and a popular action-movie premise to play with, I know what to expect: the blitz of ingenuity, the visual bacchanal, the mercantile barrage. Check, check and check.
What I didn’t expect was serenity.
And darned if that isn’t how those sneaky imagineers found a completely unforeseen way to blow my mind at their newest effort, Pandora: The World of Avatar. With its trippy, tropical take on James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, Disney has created an authentically immersive terrain that soothes even as it dazzles. Pandora is a bizzaro Zen garden of otherworldly waterfalls, alien birdcalls and floating mountains that imparts a minor Zoloft effect unlike anything I’ve experienced in other patches of Disney.
Maybe this won’t be so true in the humidity and humanity of a crowded Orlando August, but Pandora in May made me want to stand and stare and breathe mindfully. Oh, to be centered in Central Florida!
The five-year collaboration between Disney and Cameron’s production company opened last month as a new land in Animal Kingdom, one of four major parks that make up Walt Disney World. Cross the bridge from Discovery Island and the habitat shifts to a Day-Glo rain-forest setting that will be familiar to “Avatar” fans as the faraway utopian moon that was threatened by a rapacious Earthling mining corporation, RDA.
The Disney iteration, though, takes place generations after the miners have been driven out (hopefully with ample job-retraining for these victims of the War on Unobtanium) and the peacefully gigantic blue Na’vi of Pandora are busy restoring it to space-age splendor. That ingenious conceit allowed planners to combine dystopian ruins (the colossal exo-armor battle suit from the movie’s climax sits rusting outside the gift shop) with lush streambeds and flowering vines.