Welcome to Pandora

Steven Diaz / Courtesy Walt Disney World

A look at Disney's new immersive and technologically advanced theme park based on the world of Avatar.

When director James Cameron released Avatar in 2009, he set the bar for immersive 3D filmmaking, with groundbreaking visual effects transporting guests to the faraway land of Pandora. Now, travelers have the opportunity to actually set foot on this planet with the opening of the new Pandora: The World of Avatar section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park in Florida. And unlike the film, there are no hostile aliens or poisonous atmospheres to deal with.

But this isn’t just for Avatar superfans. Part of a 12-acre expansion that’s been five years in the works, Pandora is one of the most aesthetically immersive and technologically advanced theme park areas ever created. The film’s floating mountains literally rise above a dense foliage of real and prop plants, while a microscopic attention to detail gives the brand-new area the illusion of having been lived in for eons. To put it simply, Pandora is what happens when you give Disney Imagineers a James Cameron-sized budget to bring their wildest ideas to life. And because effects change throughout the day (think: bioluminescent plants that only come alive at night), there are always new things to notice.

And yes, there are rides. Two of them, at launch: A family-friendly boat ride through a otherworldly jungle, and a high-octane flight simulator that puts visitors on the backs of the film’s flying beasts. “James Cameron is a pilot and he told us that this is the most effective, believable flying sensation he’s ever had,” says Joe Rohde, the Walt Disney Imagineer who lead the project. “It is obsessively real and it involves an entire suite of body sensations that come from the seat; as well as a gigantic, projected surface that is so big that depending on where you sit, you get a different sensation of flight.”

And this could be just the beginning. With the first of four Avatar sequels scheduled to drop in 2020, Disney’s Imagineers should have plenty of material for add-ons to this alien world. One-day passes to Disney's Animal Kingdom, from $99 per person; disneyworld.disney.go.com.