Disney’s Pandora—The World of Avatar Theme Park Expansion Opening in Summer 2017

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Disney’s latest theme park experience, Pandora—The World of Avatar, will be opening at Disney’s Animal Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort in the summer of 2017, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Bob Chapek announced today. Based on James Cameron’s movie Avatar, Pandora will bring two new attractions and a variety of dining and shopping options to Animal Kingdom, all themed around the movie’s setting Pandora and the Na’vi creatures that populate it.

Pandora’s taken a long path so far. First announced in September 2011, when Avatar’s record-breaking success was still fresh in our pop cultural memory, it took almost three years for construction to actually start. It’ll be an additional three years from then before the first guests get to explore the new themed environment. It might seem weird for Disney to spend hundreds of millions on a new theme park land based on a movie they don’t own, one whose cultural impact feels curiously insubstantial today in light of its enormous box office success, but the deal was struck before Disney bought Star Wars and before the first Avengers movie elevated the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the world-beating billion-dollar box office range, and at a time when they were looking for a pop cultural juggernaut to compete with Universal’s then-new Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansion. And with Cameron currently working on four sequels, the first of which is scheduled for 2018, perhaps Avatar will return to the forefront of pop culture and prove itself as a concept fully worthy of its own theme park adaptation.

I haven’t seen Avatar, but I am a lifelong fan of the work done by Walt Disney Imagineering, and the plans and concept art they’ve released for Pandora—The World of Avatar look like some of the best work they’ve done in America in decades. Disney released some more sketches today, along with details on the restaurants and stores that will be a part of Pandora, and they seem to be going for that total sense of immersion you get from Universal’s Harry Potter areas, with a focus on Na’vi culture. I don’t know if the Avatar movie explored what people eat and drink on Pandora, but it’ll be interesting to see if Disney follows in Universal’s Potter footsteps and stick solely to food and drinks that fit the fictional world.

Here’s a look at the new concept art that was released on the Disney Parks blog today:

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This is a sketch of what Disney is calling the major restaurant in Pandora, Satu’li Canteen. The main restaurants at Disney Parks themed areas are often sit-down, table service joints, but this drawing makes it look like it could either be some kind of a buffet or a dining hall with counter service locations (check either side of the sketch—it looks like there could be counter or bar areas). Disney promises the Satu’li Canteen “will feature Na’vi art and cultural items,” but hasn’t said anything about what kind of food you can expect to be served there.

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This is a gift shop called Windtraders, where “travelers can find Na’vi cultural items, toys, science kits, and more.” That description, along with the drawings of kids carrying various blue stuffed creatures, indicates that traditional Disney icons might not even make it into Pandora’s gift shops, which would say a lot about how dedicated they are to preserving the illusion of this world. Right now Disney gift shops carry a lot of the same merchandise no matter what area or park they’re in, so if Windtraders and other Pandora shops are truly Na’vi-only, that will be a break from tradition and a sign of what to expect from their upcoming Star Wars themed areas.

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The third sketch released today is for a place called Pongu Pongu, which Disney refers to as “a special drink location.” Does that mean it’s a bar? Or will Pandora have a “special drink” in the way that Wizarding World has Butterbeer all over the place?

This new concept art joins sketches of the two attractions and the general area that were released in 2013. Everything Disney has shown or released about the upcoming area so far has been encouraging—even as someone with no knowledge of or interest in Avatar, this looks like a beautiful piece of theme park design. And the two rides, Na’vi River Journey (which sounds like a Pirates of the Caribbean-style boat ride through Pandora) and Avatar: Flight of Passage (a flying sim where you fly one of the movie’s Banshees), could be very welcome additions to Animal Kingdom’s lineup. With the park opening in just a few months, Paste will hopefully have more for you soon.

Oh, and Disney also released one last image: an actual photograph of the entrance to Pandora itself. Don’t get too excited: it’s just a bridge, although a nicely detailed one.

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