When you step into Walt Disney World’s newest themed land, don’t expect high-flying roller coasters or soaking-wet river rapids rides. Instead, with Pandora – The World of Avatar, Disney’s Imagineers have focused firmly on taking guests on a journey beyond mere thrills for what is a much more difficult task: making them truly feel.
In Part One of our Unearthing Pandora series, we shared why Disney decided to move forward in creating a whole new theme park area based on “Avatar,” a film largely forgotten in the years since its release. As it turns out, the breathtaking new land exceeds expectations by discarding much of the movie, replacing it with a simple story that makes perfect sense for every guest stepping inside Pandora.
But once guests are inside, how has Disney crafted an environment that aims to genuinely reach everyone on a deeper, emotional level?
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“We built this land for awe, wonder, and joy,” excitedly explained Imagineer Joe Rohde, Executive Creative Director for the Pandora project, following an exhaustive preview tour of the new land. The man exudes joy in just about everything he says. I asked simple questions, to which I received enormously generous replies. It’s no wonder the floating mountains and cascading waterfalls of Pandora are so awe-inspiring.
“This is not just the job of technological design. It’s not just a job of aesthetic design. We want feelings here. We want you to have feelings here.”
It’s a potentially risky proposition to base an entire theme park expansion that reportedly cost upwards of $500 million around the central idea that tourists should be in tune with their inner feelings. With its main attractions deeply tucked away behind detailed rock work and a predominance of flora, Disney is relying on visitors instantly receiving a rush of raw emotions upon first stepping into Pandora.
“A lot of work has gone into crafting emotion profiles,” stated Rohde. “How do the floating mountains feel to look at them? What does it feel like in the third act of the Flight of Passage? How do I feel when I see the Shaman and why would I feel that way? These are important parts of storytelling, not to be neglected.”
Flight of Passage, of course, is one of Pandora’s signature attractions – the only portion in which guests will get any thrills they might be craving via a 3-D motion simulator experience. But through some incredibly immersive place making in its queue and a hyper-real feeling of flight as the main attraction, this experience even in its early previews has succeeded in making those who have seen it feel raw, visceral emotions. (ITM’s JeniLynn was genuinely moved to tears after riding.)
While it’s easy to attribute the attraction’s thrills to its unique ride mechanism, it’s far more challenging to describe just why this experience has already deeply moved so many of its early passengers. There’s a certain dreamlike quality to the visuals, sounds, and smells presented in the attraction that are specifically designed to speak to people on a deeper level. There is no narration, rousing musical score, or silly gags to cheaply elicit responses. This is a cinematic journey that tugs much more strongly.
Likewise, the Shaman that Rohde referred to cannot be missed while riding the Na’vi River Journey, a slow-moving boat ride resembling some of Disney’s classic attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean and ‘it’s a small world.’
While most of the ride gracefully glides past bioluminescent plants with hints of the planet’s native inhabitants, the real connection takes place upon spotting the Shaman of Songs, one of the Na’vi whose music represents her connection to Pandora’s natural life force.
The Shaman is touted as being Disney’s most lifelike Audio-Animatronics figure to date. But “lifelike” doesn’t begin to describe the feeling that emerges when she pauses her musical motions for a moment to open her eyes and look directly at guests floating by. There is a feeling of real eye contact created here – and in that moment, it is easy to become lost in the world Disney has created, lost in the sensation that Pandora is alive.
“There are very distinct emotions I would like to see people experience,” added Rohde. “Awe is a real emotion. Wonder is a real emotion. Joy – not just fun – joy is a real emotion. That’s a high bar, but that’s what we’ve set for ourselves.”
That bar is reached not only on an intrinsic level, but also by the sheer beauty Disney’s many talented artists have crafted. In the film “Avatar,” Pandora was largely a computer-generated place. At Walt Disney World, craftsman had to create rocks, waterfalls, plants, pathways, cave paintings, and intricate carvings that help propel the story forward while retaining a cohesive, inviting aesthetic.
“We talk often about the research that we do that is physical research into the world. Go look at leaves. Go look at vines. Go look at thatch. But we also look at art and artists,” said Rohde. “We really did have serious conversations about baroque cathedrals, about Bernini, about Art Nouveau, because you get as much inspiration from the previous work of other great artists as you do from looking out into the world. So if you’re trying to craft something that is meant to be a work of art, it would behoove you to look at the work of great artists.”
Fortunately for Disney, many Imagineers are themselves great artists. From the team that designed and fabricated Pandora’s ornate rock work led by Zsolt Hormay to the consistently beautiful color design led by production designer Colleen Meyers, Pandora is filled with many artists’ careful touch. Whether intended to look old and rusted or fresh and blooming, there isn’t an element in this land that doesn’t enhance the theme – and thusly the feeling guests receive – through its attention to detail.
The beauty of Pandora is inescapable and its majesty hits very specific marks as guests walk the new land. The floating mountains are slowly revealed upon crossing the bridge and moving down a waterway, with the sounds of Pandoran fauna echoing throughout. And there is just one place in all of Pandora in which Imagineers used background music to emphasize the emotional impact. Upon approaching the grandest view of Pandora’s seemingly distant mountain range, gentle strains of the same song the Shaman sings in the Na’vi River Journey can be faintly heard. Rohde says the music emerges “as if you heard it once in a dream.”
Putting a fine point on it, “Avatar” co-producer Jon Landau shared what feelings he wishes Walt Disney World guests will walk away with after having visited Pandora:
“I would tell people that the movie began and ended with the same image: Jake Sully opening his eyes. We can’t tell people what to do. But hopefully we just get them to open their eyes. I hope when people come here, and come to Pandora, that their eyes will be open, that they will look at our world a little bit differently when they go back across the bridge.”
Come back to ITM tomorrow for the final installment of our three-part Unearthing Pandora feature series as we learn just what the buzz word “immersive” means to Imagineer Joe Rohde and how the concept was effectively used to create awe, wonder, and joy in The World of Avatar.
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