Experience The World Of Avatar

By now everyone, especially tourists and sci-fi fans, have heard of the recent opening of Pandora-The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This land devoted to James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar has been gestating for several years and puzzled many people. After all, why would Disney pour so much resources into creating a new themed land based on a film that came out last decade? Worldwide, Avatar is the highest grossing film to date, but it has not resonated deeply with most of the general public. Theme park and Disney fans wondered about the quality of the land and its attractions; for some time, The Walt Disney Company has faced criticism in recent years for neglecting its theme parks in the U.S. and Universal Studios has stolen Disney’s thunder with its hugely successful Harry Potter lands. Last month, the company formerly announced a slew of new rides and attractions for its parks and Pandora, which opened on May 27th of this year is the opening salvo.

pandora entrance

After finally being able to visit the land and experience the attractions, I can honestly say that it was worth the wait. Pandora-The World of Avatar is so deeply immersive and stunning with details and it is the best themed land in Walt Disney World. The Disney imagineers have taken great pains to recreate the primordial world of Avatar and their efforts have paid off. Part of the appeal in this land is the land itself. It will take several visits to truly take in everything and the land’s nooks and crannies are begging to be examined in detail. Huge and beautiful alien plants are intermixed with our Earthly flora and the landscaping is highlighted by the jaw-dropping Hallelujah Mountains that seemingly float over our heads. It is fun trying to figure out how the imagineers pulled off this trick, but to be honest, I’d rather not know since the revelation will spoil the illusion. These mountains are a bonafide engineering marvel and what makes them so imposing are their majestic beauty and roaring waterfalls that cascade down their sides.

Hallelujah Mountains Pandora world of avatar

Completing the immersive experience are the attractions themselves. There are only two of them in Pandora, but they are absolute must-rides. The best one is Flight of Passage, which everyone fortunate to ride will attest is one of the best rides ever created, even contending with classic theme park rides like the Spider-Man and Harry Potter rides in Universal. How should Flight of Passage be described? Basically, it is a simulator experience that is more immersive than most simulators since riders are given individual ride vehicles that are mounted like motorcycles.  The ride’s story is that you are linked to a Nav’i avatar that is riding the flying animals called mountain banshees. Thanks to state-of-the-art 3D and well-timed movements, I felt like I was actually riding a mountain banshee as seen in Avatar. The scenes in front of you are panoramic and the motions trick you at many times into thinking you’re diving through Pandora’s tropical forests, mountain ranges and beaches. Yes, there are many instances where you fly over the alien world’s seas, which provide distinct clues as to the sequels’ content. The ride even features new alien animals to marvel over and hope they appear in the Avatar sequels. As I flew over Pandora on my banshee, I actually wished James Cameron would hurry up with the followup films!

Comparing Flight of Passage to Nav’i River Journey is unfair. The former ride is a genuine thrill ride and worthy of being designated an E-ticket attraction. Nav’i River Journey is decidedly more tranquil and relaxed. It is a short boat ride taking you along Pandora’s river at night. Wondrous and unworldly sights and sounds surrounded me and made me feel like I was navigating the waterways of this alien world. The bioluminescent flora and fauna really pop out and my group and I had a joyous time picking out them out. Do not be put off by some reviews about the gentle ride. After the intensity and excitement of riding a banshee vicariously through a Nav’i, this boat trip is a nice way to settle down.

navi shaman

The complaints are probably due to the long wait times for the Nav’i River Journey, which can be more than an hour. Flight of Passage has even longer wait times (I’ve seen times posted as long as five hours during the day!), but since it’s a thrill ride many feel this justifies the long wait. Personally, I would never spend so much time just to get on a ride. If you are unable to get a FastPass and you are not staying on Disney property the only decent option is to arrive at Disney’s Animal Kingdom an hour before it opens. This guarantees that you will be able to get on the rides and be done in less than an hour. Or wait until the hoopla dies down, which probably will be when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens in two years.

In many ways, Pandora-The World of Avatar is a good primer for Disney in crafting the next generation of immersive lands and attractions. Even if you are not able to get on the rides or are a fan of Avatar, it is worth visiting the newest land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom just to take in the ambiance. Plus, it gives us an idea of how Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will be like when it is finally unveiled. Regardless, Pandora-The World of Avatar and its Flight of Passage and Nav’i River Journey are definite must-dos for your next visit to Disney World, they already are for me.

José Soto

Disney To Do A Proto-Westworld With Its Star Wars Hotel

star wars lobby

The big news to come out of the D23 Expo was the announcement from The Walt Disney Company of its plans to build a Star Wars-themed hotel in Walt Disney World. This hotel or resort is not going to consist of just slapping on Star Wars wallpaper and bedsheets into hotel rooms, but an immersive experience for guests. From the moment guests checks in they will be transported to the Star Wars universe while the resort doubles as a massive starship. This will allow guests to have interactive, role-playing experiences as they become part of a Star Wars story.

Imagine going to this Star Wars hotel to cosplay as a Jedi Knight or a Sith Lord and living out your space fantasy. Bob Chapek, the chairman of the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, promised that the experience for guests will be “100 percent immersive, and the story will touch every single minute of your day.” Adding to the immersive experience will be new tech that gives the illusion of being onboard a starship which will feature wandering droids and all the Star Wars creatures and aliens that will excite any fan.

Sound familiar? Just swap out the droids and space pirates for gunslingers and cowboys and you’ve got Westworld. For anyone who hasn’t seen the old movie or the acclaimed TV show on HBO, Westworld takes place in a futuristic theme park where guests are fully immersed in elaborate recreations of the Wild West as they have shoot outs with android cowboys and interact with other Western archetypes that are also androids. The only difference between the two parks is that Disney will be using actors and not androids (that is if you discount the assorted non-humanoid droids who won’t have the level of intelligence as those seen on Westworld). Given time, Disney will be able to replace human actors with androids. After all, they are pushing the envelope with their famous animatronics. Already we are seeing experimental mobile animatronics that can interact with guests at the parks.

This concept is not exactly new. Dude ranches exist, as well as zombie cruises. Universal Studios Orlando has Diagon Alley, which is a richly detailed recreation of Harry Potter’s hidden wizarding alley in London. What also sells the illusion of being in Harry Potter’s world is the Hogwarts Express train ride that transports you from London to the famous wizard academy. Expect that similar technology will be used to showcase epic space scenes outside the hotel’s windows. Not that long ago, there was the Star Trek Experience in Las Vegas where guests were literally transported into a replica of the Enterprise and Deep Space Nine and interacted with famous Star Trek aliens. The actors playing the various Ferengi, Vulcans, and Borg always stayed in character while they served cuisine and drinks inspired by the franchise. Disney will probably look to the Star Trek Experience for ideas and inspiration and learn about potential problems.

One thing to consider is that not everyone who visits the Star Wars hotel may not want to be fully immersed in the experience. They can just be companions of more devoted guests who will wholeheartedly plunge into the experience. So how will they be catered? Will the actors simply ignore them if they see the guests are unwilling to play along? That has happened in the Star Trek Experience, which was fine since it wasn’t a completely immersive experience, but won’t this shatter any illusions in the resort?

Also, trying to keep up the illusion will strain logistics, which will translate into increased costs. So, we all know what that means. Yes, be prepared to shell out a substantial amount of money, probably several months’ worth of rent money, to pay for a short stay. But, maybe Disney will feel benevolent and provide coupons and discounts to us poor peons as the slimy lawyer suggested in Jurassic Park. In the end, most of us will not be able to afford to spend time at the hotel, and do not be surprised if visitors are not even allowed into the lobby for fear of disrupting the illusion. After all, how can a serious cosplayer all decked out as an X-Wing fighter pilot enjoy his or her stay in the Star Wars hotel if they encounter not Jawas, but tourists in tacky t-shirts? But, it was expensive to stay at Westworld so a high cost in this coming hotel should not be unexpected.

star wars hotel story

If this takes off, no, when it takes off, expect other immersive resort stays and not just Disney. Already there are rumors that Disney’s main theme park rival, Universal Studios Resort, is looking into creating a fully immersive Harry Potter experience, which might include a Hogwarts hotel. Some may complain about this but this competition will induce creativity and maybe make these experiences affordable. In any event, this is exciting development for Star Wars fans as they ponder this resort experience and have something else to anticipate from Disney.

Lewis T. Grove and José Soto

 

 

Celebrating A Star Wars Day At Sea

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For this year’s Spring Break, my family and I decided to spend the vacation taking a cruise. Not just any cruise…but a Star Wars cruise! Actually it was a vacation on the Disney Cruise Line ship Disney Fantasy and on one of the days at sea, onboard festivities were devoted to Star Wars. The cruise by itself was fantastic with impeccable service and amenities, in short, a Disney cruise is well worth the money and despite it not being a theme park visit you do feel the Disney experience.

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The icing on the cake for myself, however, was the Star Wars aspect, of course. Even though the Disney Fantasy was themed after all things Disney, the presence of Star Wars was felt throughout the cruise even before the Star Wars Day at Sea.

20160320_135155For starters there was the merchandising; the gift shops sold the typical Star Wars toys and paraphernalia that can be found just about anywhere on the planet. However, the stores did have moderate to expensive clothing, accessories and other keepsakes like art printings, t-shirts, shoes, magnets and bags. Then there were other collectibles near the ship’s theaters.

The Disney Fantasy has two theaters that played live musical productions and films as well. Of interest to fans was that the entire Star Wars saga was shown at various times throughout the cruise. It was a lot of fun sitting down and watching the films again on the big screen with like-minded audiences while munching on popcorn.

During the actual Star Wars Day at Sea, the Star Wars property took center stage, which was on a Wednesday, the halfway point of the cruise vacation. Throughout the Disney Fantasy, iconic music from the films were played and the ship’s horn blared out the infamous “Imperial March” at certain times of the day. Many passengers were decked out as their favorite Star Wars characters. Several took part in a costume celebration where they got to mingle with other fans or with the Star Wars characters that patrolled the ship.

The characters were well done and looked 20160323_122420_resizedauthentic, but more importantly stayed in character. For instance, Jawas popped out of nowhere near the atrium and tried to steal jewelry and other personal effects from passengers (it was all in good fun, mind you). Villainous characters like Darth Maul or Boba Fett silently intimidated passengers as they posed for pictures. However, Darth Vader took the prize for the most authentic recreation. Not only was the costume spot-on perfect, but he actually spoke to one young member in my party with James Earl Jones’ distinctive voice as he mocked the rebels.

On the Star Wars Day at Sea both theaters hosted Star Wars-related events. At the Walt Disney Theatre, for most of the day the production/attraction seen at Walt Disney World and Disneyland called Jedi Training: Trials at the Temple was shown. This is the one where a Jedi Knight teaches young Padawans on how to use the Force to defeat Darth Vader (who also appears and fences briefly with each youngling). The other theater, the Buena Vista Theatre, presented a Guest Speaker Series featuring Joel Aron, the special effects guru for Star Wars Rebels. The same theater also had a Star Wars-related PowerPoint presentation called Star Wars 101, which actually helped members of my party get caught up on the intricacies of Star Wars and was presented with lots of enthusiasm.

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D23 Expo Highlights: Star Wars, MCU, Theme Parks & More

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Disney had their own version of Comic-Con this past weekend with their D23 Expo held in Anaheim. As can be guessed, the convention was related to all things under the Disney umbrella and what’s coming up. The highlights from D23 Expo dealt with exciting theme park and genre film developments.

Star Wars

Many fans were disappointed that there wasn’t a new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but were titillated with the reveal of a Drew Struzan movie poster for the film and an official cast photo for the first Star Wars Anthology film Star Wars: Rogue One. There was also confirmation that Colin Trevorrow, the director of the mammoth hit Jurassic World, will direct Star Wars Episode IX. But the juiciest revelations had to do with the expected and highly anticipated Star Wars Land to be built in Disneyland Park and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

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Ever since Disney bought Lucasfilm and all of its intellectual property from George Lucas a few years ago, fans have impatiently waited for some kind of expansion of Star Wars in the Disney parks beyond Star Tours. Yes, the famous simulator ride had been updated with new, random scenes recently, but aside from Jedi Training Academy and the popular Star Wars Weekends, it seemed as if Disney hadn’t really paid a lot of love to its newest IP acquisition. Meanwhile, its rival Universal Studios Orlando stunned and dazzled Harry Potter fans with its meticulously developed Harry Potter lands in their parks.

That all changed with the announcement. Finally, Disney will have a worthy answer to Harry Potter with an equally revered IP. The Star Wars Land (note: it wasn’t called that in the announcement) will be 14 acres, which will feature a cantina and an immersive Star Wars environment on a new planet similar to what Universal did with Diagon Alley and Hogswart. There will be two new E-ticket rides, one will allow visitors to pilot the Millennium Falcon (most likely some kind of simulator ride), while the other will be based on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There will be another update to Star Tours that will include a destination from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, an updating of Jedi Training Academy, and an interactive experience called Star Wars Launch Bay. This attraction will be in pavilions in both parks that will feature meet and greets, exhibits and stores, of course. The only drawback to these ambitious plans is that when it came to the time table for all of this the only answer was “coming soon”. Just thinking out loud here, but Disney should take heed on how quickly Universal builds its new attractions. Some of us would like to have something open before this decade ends!

Marvel Cinematic Universe

strangeThe two items that are keeping fans salivating had to do with Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange. With the latter, Marvel Studios guru Kevin Feige introduced concept art (Doctor Strange begins filming later this fall) that featured a classic look for the sorcerer that includes his red cape and Eye of Agamotto. A trailer for Captain America: Civil War was unveiled, which, of course, no one that didn’t attend D23 Expo could see. There are tons of fake “leaked” trailers out now on YouTube and the smattering of legit ones are taken down too fast to bother linking to, but rest assured as soon as its released to the masses, you can see it here. Based on the descriptions, it sounds like an awesome film and it could be part of the reason why DC/Warner Bros. moved their own superhero civil war flick to another date.

Theme Park News

The other major announcement regarding the Disney theme parks was that Disney’s Hollywood Studios will build a Toy Story Land for the young and young at heart. At 11 acres, this land will have two new rides (a spinner ride and a family coaster), expand Toy Story Mania, which is probably the best news because the wait times for that attraction is beyond ridiculous (and frankly not worth the wait). No time frame was given as to when this will happen. But based on the other big construction needed for Star Wars Land, Disney might as well shut down Disney’s Hollywood Studios until all of this is finished. They may finish ahead of schedule that way, make fans even happier, who will more likely spend money sooner.

toy story land

Speaking of slow construction, the Avatar Land in Disney’s Animal Kingdom is still chugging along. At least with this expansion we have an actual opening date (2017). For anyone that doesn’t know, there will be two attractions based on Avatar, one is similar to the popular Soarin’ ride and will allow visitors to fly over the skies of Pandora, and the other attraction will be a boat ride.

iron man ride

Here’s some news that will rankle North American Marvel fans, Hong Kong Disneyland will have an Iron Man ride. Similar to Star Tours, the Iron Man Experience will feature the Golden Avenger facing off against the forces of Hydra in Hong Kong. Sounds great for anyone who has an updated passport and the money and time to burn. Look, we understand that there can’t be any Marvel rides in Walt Disney World, but couldn’t they have this slotted for Disneyland? That agreement between Disney and Universal only applies to rides east of the Mississippi.

Upcoming Films

Disney had presentations for its upcoming film slate and the announcements were fast and heavy. New animated films include Gigantic, Moana, Zootopia, live-action versions of Beauty and the Beast, Ghost in the Shell, and The Jungle Book, a remake of Pete’s Dragon, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and Alice Through The Looking Glass. Part of the presentation focused on Pixar, which showcased The Good Dinosaur and announcements for Cars 3, The Incredibles 2, Finding Dory, Coco (based on the Dia de los Muertos festival), and Toy Story 4. This fourth film in the franchise will be more of a love story and will be about Woody looking for his lost love Bo Peep. The Pixar stuff is exciting except for the third go around with Cars. But marketing types at Disney would disagree with that!

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All these announcements and presentations at D23 Expo confirm that Disney isn’t resting on its laurels. The next few years will be exciting times for fans, at least when it comes to films. The theme park components will pay off at a much later date.

 

A Fan’s Angst About Star Wars Episode VII

I miss George Lucas. That is basically my reaction to the recent news and rumors of problems with the upcoming film Star Wars Episode VII. From the writer, Michael Arndt, being replaced with director JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan (the writer of The Empire Strikes Back), to hints of tension between Lucasfilm and Disney about the film’s release date.

poor lucas

This is what I feared when Disney took over the franchise. Star Wars movies usually took three years to make and it was all that George Lucas and his company were focused on. Now it seems like Star Wars is just another piece in Disney’s massive empire. The idea of delaying the film to 2016 may seem like a long time to wait for some, but on the other hand it may not be such a bad idea since it feels like everything is being rushed. Abrams only recently finished Star Trek Into Darkness and now with a new script being written, there will be a limited amount of time to get the whole thing done by 2015 as Disney CEO Bob Iger relishes.

The other idea of having a new Star Wars movie every year makes all of this feel like these films will be churned out of a factory and will inevitably lead to people getting burned out on Star Wars. The anticipation for each new episode was part of the fun during the years between films. But with Disney and its shareholders demanding more profits this will not be allowed. See the glut of Marvel films as a reference. Lucas had his flaws but Star Wars was his life’s work and was solely concerned with it and the rich universe he created. This won’t be duplicated with whoever is running things now.

abramsGetting back to J.J. Abrams, one has to question how committed Abrams is to this opportunity. It has also been rumored that he was reluctant to move to England to film the movie, which if true would be ridiculous. How many directors are out there that would swim to England just to have a chance to direct a Star Wars movie? These type of projects just don’t come around too often.  Not to mention the problems several fans had with his Star Trek films that had plot holes all over the place. No doubt caused in part by the scripts. The fact that the Episode VII screenplay is now being rewritten does not inspire confidence except for Kasdan being involved. Having said all of this, I hope that Abrams can pull this out. I think he needs a strong producer lucas abramsto keep him on track and ensure that the problems that occurred in his other films are avoided. His first Star Trek film had nice visuals and good action sequences, so he does have some skill in that regard. He just can’t have free reign to do whatever he pleases, especially on a project of this magnitude. Disney is not going to change directors at this stage of development, so he is it for Star Wars Episode VII.  Down the line, I would like to see someone like Alfonso Cuarón take a stab at these films. He has been receiving great reviews for his sci-fi film Gravity. Having that type of vision for a Star Wars film seems like a great opportunity.

Hopefully, Abrams and Kasdan can come up with a quality script and do justice to the Star Wars saga. That is just as long as Abrams doesn’t bring in his buddy writers. Maybe Abrams will ultimately deliver a great Star Wars film, and all this angst we fans are feeling will be for nothing. We’ll just have to hope for the best.

C.S. Link