A new addition to Disney's Animal Kingdom since our 2010 visit is Pandora - The World Of Avatar. Dedicated to all things related to James Cameron's frankly odd film about blue people (or something) it opened just seven weeks before we arrived. As a film Avatar is fairly over-rated, and the idea that they would dedicate a whole area of a major Disney theme park to it is a little surprising. What I do like about it though is that its main protagonist is a wheelchair user. Only a pretend one, mind. Sam Worthington couldn't put up with the shit that I have to on a daily basis but his character has to. Anyway, his story is a refreshing change from all the negativity around disability. A far cry from that obnoxious bloke in Emmerdale that you were meant to hate.
This being a recently opened attraction you'd better get there early. We arrived shortly after 8.00am, which when you consider that the park doesn't open until 9.00am certainly qualifies as early. We knew that there would be queues and potentially a lot of waiting. We weren't the only ones aware of this. Even at that time there were masses of people in front of us in the queue. Americans aren't good at queuing. It was a bit of a scrum, and it continued as we eventually made our way in. They let us in around 8.30, but only for the privilege of being able to stay in the enormous queue as it wound its way down from the entrance to Pandora. Nothing would be open and available until 9.00. I don't know how much distance we covered in that queue but it must have been a couple of miles at least. When we got to the end of the queue for the main ride - Flight Of Passage - there were signs indicating that it would be a 90-minute wait between the end of the queue and the ride. Ninety minutes! Things you can do in 90 minutes;
Watch three episodes of Emmerdale featuring that obnoxious bloke that you were meant to hate
Make your full England international debut
Drive home from Barnsley to St Helens on a Friday afternoon when you are meant to be in a psychology lecture
Watch over half of Avatar
Procrastinate at your desk when there is mountains of work to do
But the thing about this particular queue is that, like the Star Spangled Banner at a baseball game it doesn't stop. You are always on the move in the queue. You get quite the tour of Pandora that way, and if the 90-minute prediction was correct then at the pace we were moving we would have covered many more miles. But it wasn't 90 minutes at all. It was more like 40 before we actually got on the ride, which makes me think that they just put up these signs indicating outlandish waiting times to put some people off and thus reduce the numbers. I remember Liverpool FC doing something similar when they paraded the Champions League trophy (the European Cup to you and me) around Liverpool in 2005. They made an announcement suggesting that it would be a couple more hours before they reached St.George's Hall where most of the people were gathered, and that at a time when tens if not hundreds of thousands of people had already been waiting for around three hours. On that occasion it worked on Emma and I and we went home. We never did see Stevie Me hoisting the trophy he won single-handedly on that open top bus. Yes, I know there were some other footballers involved but you try telling that to the curator of the Anfield museum.
Once you get inside there are many Avatar themed things to keep you amused as you continue to wait to be let on the ride. Consider this, which I fully intend to use as my profile picture should I ever need to join Tinder;
Everybody in that queue took a photograph of this similar to this one. It was almost like it was a condition of getting on the ride. Whether everyone else has imagined using it for their never-to-be-created Tinder profile I couldn't say.
Anyway, back to the ride. Before you actually get on it there is what can only be described as the rigmarole of being 'synced' to an Avatar to go through. This wholly unnecessary and entirely make believe process involves standing on a designated number that is printed on the floor of the holding room. Or sitting on it in your chair, obviously. I couldn't help but note the irony of the fact that Worthington's character wouldn't be able to stand on his pissing designated number. Or maybe he would when he's asleep. Oh I don't bloody know. The idea is that you, mere mortal, cannot take a Flight Of Passage on a banshee (for that is what these massive blue winged beasts are known as) alone. You can only do it if you are as one or 'synced' with an Avatar. Cynics have two options when evaluating this concept. Either you think it is just a way of drawing out the experience so that you don't feel like you have queued for what could have been 90 minutes (but wasn't) just for a few minutes on the ride, or it is another way of distracting you from the fact that what you are actually doing is still waiting to get on the ride. Make up your own mind when you get there about whether the syncing process is part of the experience or not. The official line is that since humans cannot ride on a banshee what they are doing is recreating that experience for you via the Avatar. Which to me sounds like a pretty lame excuse for being unable to design a ride vehicle that looks like a banshee but I'm not the Avatar expert. Their explanation could be entirely plausible.
Finally you are lead to a room which again has numbers printed on the floor. This time they represent the numbers of the vehicles on the ride, so you move along to the one at your designated number. This is where it gets tricky for wheelchair users. The vehicle is not so much like a blue-winged beast or banshee, and more like a motorbike. There is no room to transfer on to it from the side so you have to try to slide on from the back of it. I just about managed this but not without considering the very real possibility that my jeans would end up around my ankles.
Clearly I am not the most experienced when it comes to sitting on anything resembling a bike, so I was briefly concerned about having some balance issues once the thing got going. Worry not, because before it starts support for both your sides and back magically appears. So now it is like being sat on a bike but with a high back rest and maybe some side guards. You're not going anywhere.
Which is a good job, because from the moment it starts and the vehicle starts to tilt forwards in a similar manner to what we'd seen with the Gringotts Bank Ride at Universal you know you are going to need those supports. At the very beginning of the ride it simulates swooping down from the top of a cliff towards the water. It's indescribable how that feels. Exhilarating but also eye-popping and a little bit bracing. After that first drop it never quite reaches those heights again because you know what to expect from then on. As with the others you can rationalise it at all times knowing that you are not really moving off the spot, even if you are being thrust sideways, upwards, downwards, forwards and backwards. It might sound a bit sickening but it is colossal fun and the visuals and the sound effects are wondrous. You can even here the banshee breathing beneath your legs which is a little bit confusing given that you are told that you are not able to ride as a human and that you are experiencing this because of the syncing with the Avatar. Regardless of such nit-pickery it is all hugely enjoyable and the only thing stopping you from rejoining the queue immediately for another go is the thought that the waiting time will be at least as long if not longer than last time and, this being Disney, you have plenty to get through.
We were even more pressed for time because we only had two more days in Disney's theme parks before we were to move on to St Petersburg for the Tampa Bay Rays baseball game on Friday night. So that meant trying to do Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom and Epcot in that time. We would have to be selective.
Hindsight would have probably led us to skip Pandora's other main attraction (apart from its fantastic scenery) the Na'vi River Journey. It's visually impressive but if you are not that familiar with Avatar you won't really know what you are looking at as you amble along in your little boat. But it's biggest flaw is that it is too slow and gentle to raise any excitement. It reminded me of the Great Movie Ride at Hollywood Studios that we tried out in 2010. Occasionally diverting but mostly a little bit dull.
Of much more interest is the Kilamajaro Safari. This was one we had done before but is definitely worth a second go. You go aboard a large safari vehicle and get around a tour of the park lasting around 20 minutes. During that time you get to see the free-roaming animals that live in Disney's Animal Kingdom which include elephants, giraffe, the customary bongos and, legend has it though we didn't see any, lions. We were advised by Sarah, our driver, that the night time tour is the one in which you are most likely to spot a lion or two. But you know, this is a zoo and spotting lions is something we can do 20 miles away from home. It wasn't a priority here. For accessibility fans, I remember this tour being a little more bumpy last time out and having to hold on during certain parts. This time it seemed more gentle, but if I'm honest I can't remember whether that is because they have amended it or because I now have better brakes.
If you are one of those crazy people who is frightened of spiders then best avoid 'It's Tough To Be A Bug', the park's 3D show based on animated insect-flick 'A Bug's Life'. Eight legged freaks come at you from all angles in this one much to the terror of many of the kids present. You can also expect to get wet again, and for things to get a bit whiffy when a stink bug named Claire De Room (see what they did there?) let's one go. The central theme of the show is about why bugs and insects and other such creepy horrible things should be considered friends (no, not Piers Morgan) but after 10 minutes of this you might be forgiven for coming out of the theatre disliking bugs and grubs that little bit more than when you went in. So long as you realise their importance to the eco-systems I think Disney will be happy. Or if you spend a few dollars in the mandatory gift shop on the way out.
After a brief trek down the trails in which you can find the park's gorillas and tigers it was time to hop back on the Disney bus and get on over to Hollywood Studios for the afternoon.