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The Na’Vi River Journey is a calming family boat ride stocked with animatronics and optical illusions.

Animal Kingdom's new 'Avatar' land aims for weird and wow factor

A huge, new land opening this weekend at Disney’s Animal Kingdom aims to take you into the weird, glowing world of Pandora from James Cameron’s 2009 mega hit Avatar.

At an estimated expense of $500 million, it’s the largest expansion in the zoo-like theme park’s history. But it’s a movie that’s almost a decade old and the sequel is at least a few years off. With few people able to name a quote or even a character from Avatar, will parkgoers embrace Pandora the way they clamored for Hogwarts at Universal or the coming Star Wars land?

Disney hasn’t seen a spike in advance reservations, but creators think the wow factor of this alien world and its high-tech rides will be the selling point, even if you never saw the movie.

“You should be able to walk in here, and it is like the first morning of a new world,” said Joe Rohde, one of Disney’s best “Imagineers,” the creative geniuses who think up attractions.

The landscape is defined by floating mountains and exotic glowing plants embedded with real vegetation that will prompt you never to look at your bird of paradise plant the same way again. Rohde, who led the team that created Animal Kingdom, linked the movie’s message of a threatened environment to Animal Kingdom’s environmental mission.

(Photo 1 of 6)Associated Press
The floating mountains seen in the movie come to life thanks to giant rock walls and forced perspective.
(Photo 2 of 6)Associated Press
Landscaping consisting of real Earth plant species mixed with sculpted Pandora artificial flora that surrounds ponds and gentle waterfalls.
(Photo 3 of 6)Associated Press
A water creature floats in a pond at Pandora-World of Avatar land attraction.
(Photo 4 of 6)Associated Press
Park guests will see a Na’Vi in a science lab while in the queue for the Avatar Flight of Passage ride.
(Photo 5 of 6)Associated Press
Na'Vi Shaman of Songs celebrates with music in Na'vi River Journey ride.
(Photo 6 of 6)Associated Press

Using the trick of forced perspective, high rock walls surrounding Pandora block out the rest of the park and make you feel like you are in a sunken garden.

Two rides look to excite visitors with high-tech tricks of the eye.

The Na’Vi River Journey family ride features glowing, squiggling insects, plants and animals on a boat voyage. It is a dark ride that floats calmly through a bioluminescent forest, culminating in a highly detailed animatronic Na’Vi woman who serenades with life-like fluidity in her movements. It’s stocked with optical illusions like real water flowing past a filmed waterfall and holographic images to create the appearance of a huge forest, with glowing jellyfish floating above.

The headline attraction of this land is the Flight of Passage ride that simulates riding a winged banshee like they do in the movie. It feels like the Soarin’ attraction at Epcot had a baby with the Harry Potter simulator ride, where you feel like you are riding a broom. Except this baby is an exceptionally gifted child.

If you go:

  • Admission: $99 to $124 for a one-day, one-park ticket. Prices vary depending on park and time of year at all four Walt Disney World's theme parks, including dining packages and Florida resident deals.
  • Special dates: A big summer attraction July 3 and 4 is the 14-minute fireworks over Cinderella's Castle at the Magic Kingdom. But with crowds at the Magic Kingdom, it's likely to be less crowded at Epcot or Hollywood Studios to see fireworks that night.
  • More info: (407) 939-5277 or disneyworld.disney.go.com.

Far more intense than Soarin’, it has an enormous screen (and a 44-inch height limit) that feels like you are looking into an immense world. You board it like a bicycle and it mimics the movements of an animal. You can feel its ribs breathing heavily between your legs as you soar over mountains and feel splashes of water as you dodge a waterfall. It’s hard not to flinch when it looks like you are going to crash into a herd of rugged beasts and then remember, “It’s a simulator, dummy.”

The food here is alien, too. A cheeseburger is called a “pod” and looks like the steamed bao buns you’d get in an Asian restaurant, but with burger fixings inside. Fairly healthy bowls of rice or greens with proteins are topped with crunchy slaw and odd-looking boba balls. There are alcoholic drinks in green and pink hues with glowing ice cubes. Desserts include a rich blueberry cream cheese mousse shaped like an orb that glistens with a splat of cream.

Fun fact

As part of their training, cast members have learned about the blue people of Na’Vi, including their language, environment and way of life. Feel free to quiz them. They are eager to show off.

Insider tip

Touch everything! At the entrance is a creature that has a purple belly that when rubbed causes steam to emit all around. Over by the floating mountains, you’ll find tree stumps that turn out to be drums, about a dozen in all, and even the embedded seashells make noise when you bang on them.

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Walt Disney World
Magic Kingdom's Hall of Presidents: A Celebration of Liberty’s Leaders is scheduled to reopen in June with an addition of an animatronic Donald Trump.

Magic Kingdom

Walt Disney World’s most popular park has the least amount of new attractions this summer, but it is making more improvements in crowd control. Disney fans are bracing for the reopening of the Hall of Presidents at the end of June with the addition of an animatronic Donald Trump. (There’s a petition circulating on change.org that asks that the Trump figure remain silent.) The area known as “the hub” in front of Cinderella Castle has been enhanced with greater seating capacity, additional pathways and a special FastPass viewing area for the fireworks shows. That puts you in a good spot for the new Happily Ever After Nighttime Spectacular. The show opened May 12 and it relies heavily on the always-impressive video projection mapping on Cinderella’s Castle. It also incorporates newer characters from Moana, Brave, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, The Princess & The Frog and Aladdin. Another new show is Liberty Square featuring the Muppets with tales from American history. Earlier this year Disney rolled out MagicBand 2, the next iteration of wristbands that serve as your park pass, credit card, room key and other helpful functions. The new band has a thinner design and a pop-out disc that can be inserted into the new MagicKeepers, which carry the disc via carabiner clip or lanyard clip to free up your wrists.

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Los Angeles Times
Animal Kingdom's "Rivers of Light," which opened in February, combines live performances, floating set pieces, music, and projections on fountains.

Animal Kingdom

While Pandora is getting all the press, there are a few new things at Disney’s zoo-like theme park since last summer. You’ll find a dazzling nighttime show called Rivers of Light that opened in February after several months of technical delays. It combines live performances, floating set pieces, a musical score, fountains and video projections on those fountains. Other nighttime features include the Tree of Life lit up with special projection shows. The new Nomad Lounge is housed in the same structure as Tiffins — Animal Kingdom’s first signature restaurant. Tiffins sits right on the edge of the new Avatar land and it’s got a splurge-worthy menu of African, Asian and Indian food in a gorgeous setting.

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Matt Stroshane/Disney Parks via Getty Images
Frozen Ever After in Epcot's Norway Pavilion takes guests through the kingdom of Arendelle from the Disney animation "Frozen."

Epcot

Last year’s big addition of Frozen Ever After in Norway continues to draw long lines of little girls waiting 100 minutes or more, while the expansion of Soarin’ Around the World has all but eliminated the chronically long lines at the popular hang-gliding attraction. This is the last week for the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, which runs through Monday with elaborate topiaries and 15 outdoor kitchens. The Epcot International Food & Wine Festival returns for a record 75 days this year, running Aug. 31 through Nov. 13. Be on the lookout for the opening soon of Choza Tequila next to the Mexican Pavilion, billed as an authentic outdoor tequileria with hand-crafted margaritas and popular Mexican dishes.

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Walt Disney World
Hollywood Studios will have a daily live Star Wars show and the new Star Wars: Launch Bay featuring movie memorabilia, stormtroopers parades and meet-and-greets with characters like Chewbacca and Kylo Ren.

Hollywood Studios

The huge new Star Wars land isn’t coming until 2019, so fans at this park have had to make do with the new appearance of BB-8 character greetings at Star Wars Launch Bay. The Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular fireworks show uses the latest projection effects, lighting, lasers and pyrotechnics. The park has also added a new seven-hour guided Star Wars tour that immerses guests in Star Wars experiences, including meet-and-greets with characters and themed dining. It’s priced at $129 and up per person. The Music of Pixar Live is set to debut Friday with a live orchestra playing along to a movie montage, outtakes and interviews, with appearances by characters.

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EVE EDELHEIT | Times
Disney Springs, the shopping and entertainment district, continues to expand with new restaurants and bars

Disney Springs

The shopping and entertainment district formerly known as Downtown Disney doubled in size last summer and continues to expand. Recent restaurant openings include Planet Hollywood Observatory (with a menu by TV chef Guy Fieri), The Polite Pig (Florida cuisine by local owners and James Beard award nominees), Paddlefish (upscale seafood at the former Fulton’s Crab House), and coming later this year, the Edison (retro chic American unrelated to the Tampa restaurant), and Wine Bar George (small plates and an extensive wine list). The video game palace DisneyQuest is scheduled to have its last day of operation July 2 before closing permanently to make way for the NBA Experience.

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected]m. Follow @SharonKWn. Designed by Lyra Solochek and Lauren Flannery.