Amazing Facts Most People Don’t Know About Pandora – The World of Avatar
James Cameron is the kind of visionary who can write and direct the most popular movie ever made. Then, he can turn around a few years later and do it again. While a recent Star Wars film has stolen Cameron’s thunder a bit, his signature work, Avatar, remains the number one movie of all-time in terms of worldwide box office. It’s also recently become the basis for the first true expansion at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Disney crowds have flooded the park to see all the amazing Imagineering tricks that bring the fictional realm of Pandora to life. Here are few things that you may not know about the development of Pandora – The World of Avatar.
An Equal and Opposite Reaction
The Walt Disney Company will never admit this, at least not publicly, but The World of Avatar exists because of Harry Potter. Before Avatar was even available in theaters, Disney had already made a huge miscalculation. It was such a mistake that a competitor that had never challenged them before has since become a respectable threat.
What happened? Well, a few years before Avatar, Disney had first dibs on a Harry Potter themed land. J.K. Rowling was amicable to the idea of a theme park recreation of Hogwarts, and Disney was ruling the theme park universe. Since Harry Potter appeals to children (of all ages), the situation seemed like a perfect fit. Where is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Right, it’s at Universal Orlando Resort.
Plenty of people have opinions on how far the talks advanced. What’s clear is that Disney wanted something smaller in stature for an intellectual property that they didn’t own. They had done rides like Star Tours and Indiana Jones Adventure previously. Why would Harry Potter get a full themed land when even the Star Wars franchise had only a single ride at the time?
Disney and Rowling’s representatives couldn’t work out a deal. Disney’s loss was Universal’s (huuuuuuuuuge) gain, and Imagineers were forced to watch in frustration as the most popular themed land in Orlando became a non-Disney property. They needed a hit to counteract the negative press that they were receiving over the failed opportunity with the Potter license.
With Avatar, Disney saw an opportunity to capitalize on a franchise with upside, and so they brokered a deal with James Cameron to recreate the world of Pandora to Animal Kingdom. All of this happened due to Disney’s huge whiff on the Harry Potter franchise. The Wizarding World opened in June of 2010. Disney licensed Pandora in September of 2011. It was a direct response to the spectacular success of Potter at Universal. Maybe we should think of the Na’vi as alien muggles.
What Were You Doing in 2011?
Disney ironed out the agreement to license Pandora all the way back in 2011. The World of Avatar opened to the public in May of 2017. That’s…a long delay. What was the cause of this glacial development period?
For starters, James Cameron was involved. Two of the things that Titanic and Avatar had in common were that 1) they were both the most popular movie ever made at one point and 2) both films suffered extended production delays. Titanic was famously predicted to bomb prior to its release, and Avatar also faced a lot of negative buzz right up until the first critics’ screenings.
Cameron is a noted perfectionist. Disney park planners are known perfectionists. That’s a great combination when it comes to building a perfect themed land. Building something fast, on the other hand, was always unlikely, even if Disney didn’t want to admit it.
After the splashy announcement of Avatar Land in 2011, Disney remained mum about specifics for almost two years. At the 2013 Japan D23 Expo, they finally revealed plans for an ambitious, lifelike recreation of the alien world of Pandora. Many of the illustrations are still available here.
Despite a detailed, concrete set of plans, Disney still wouldn’t break ground on Pandora until the following year. In January of 2014, a construction crew finally began work on the new Animal Kingdom expansion. At the time, Disney projected an opening of early 2016, but even that five-year timeline from announcement until opened proved too ambitious. Imagineers needed over a year more than expected to build a Pandora worthy of six years of hype. The project also cost $500 million, $200 million more than Universal had spent on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
The Floating Mountains
Disney Imagineers truly outdid themselves in constructing Pandora. They honored all of the themes from the films, including even the impossible ones. Every Disney expansion includes some sort of visual wonder, a construction element that naturally draws the eye. At Pandora, this visual is the Floating Mountains, a structure that seems to hang in the air without any support.
In a movie, CGI can handle that effect. For actual human builders on planet Earth, the laws of physics apply, particularly the one called gravity. The Floating Mountains should be an architectural impossibility, yet Imagineers somehow pulled off this trick. In the film, the mountains float due to the constant presence of Unobtanium on Pandora. At Animal Kingdom, Disney hides steel girders under vines and behind rocks, creating the appearance of giant mountains floating in the air.
Plants That Literally Glow in the Dark
Similarly, Disney somehow matched the bioluminescence of Pandora. Even in daylight, the lands have that odd glow. The lights that create this illumination don’t turn off during the day. They’re permanently on, which means that you can see the bioluminescence during the day. All you need to do is block any daylight around the plants. Once you darken the area, the plants will glow.
The night is when Pandora truly comes alive, though. All of the backlit foliage fosters a sense of tranquility, one that allows a rare level of escapism, even for a Disney themed land experience. Cameron intended for Pandora to seem like the most beautiful place in the universe, and you’ll feel that way as you experience breathtaking illumination.
Plants That Frolic and Sing
Disney even created the artificial plants to be interactive. When you approach the right ones, your gestures will evoke responses from these pods. Some will repeat the seeding process if you manipulate them correctly. Others are capable of producing music and lights. Disney cast members (*ahem*, A.C.E. cast members) will point you in the direction of the interactive plants and also suggest ways to make them do tricks. Pandora is supposed to be an alien culture, and Disney designed it in a way that makes exploration fun. You’ll feel like Jake Sully as you roam Pandora for the first time.
The plants are but one of the amazing features of Pandora – The World of Avatar. Given the newness of this themed land, we’re still learning about many of its mysteries. Keep checking back as we chronicle the latest revelations. Imagineers are still gradually unveiling the secrets of the most impressive themed land at Walt Disney World today.