First Pandora, now Star Wars: Disney’s flying high with rapid parks expansion
Pandora – The World of Avatar. Credit: Walt Disney Parks & Resorts

First Pandora, now Star Wars: Disney’s flying high with rapid parks expansion

This story originally ran in the August 17th, 2017 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.

TORONTO — How do you top a ride on the back of a mountain banshee? With one onboard the Millennium Falcon, naturally.

Still on a high following the grand opening of Pandora – The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom on May 27, movie fans and theme park enthusiasts had their minds blown once again when new images and the official name of Disney’s hugely anticipated Star Wars-themed lands were unveiled at D23 Expo last month. ‘Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge’ will first open at Disneyland, followed shortly by an identical location at Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World, both of which will open in grand style in 2019.

“On the heels of the many new and incredibly popular experiences that just debuted this year, the best is yet to come. We have ambitious plans for our parks and resorts around the world,” said Bob Chapek, Chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. “We’re investing in the guest experience like never before and we’re doing it all in a way that is only possible at Disney!”

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge

While at the Expo, Chapek presented a detailed three-dimensional model of Galaxy’s Edge, complete with the iconic Millennium Falcon, the YT-1300 light freighter flown by the likes of Lando Calrissian and Han Solo. Based on early photos, the 14-acre Galaxy’s Edge will resemble a remote trading port on the edge of space which, in addition to the Falcon, will feature a replica of a Star Destroyer, “an attraction built on a scale we’ve never done before,” according to the Disney Parks Blog.

But all this shouldn’t come as a surprise to Disney fans who are accustomed to the grand scale by which Disney does things. Pandora – The World of Avatar, for example, was a multi-year effort and represents the largest expansion of Disney’s Animal Kingdom since the opening of the park in 1998. Even more, according to Hayden Yates, Travel Industry Marketing & Sales Director, Pandora is considered Disney’s most immersive land to date, and is a symbol of what’s to come.

“Walt himself said that Disneyland will never be completed, as long as there is imagination left in the world, and this still holds true even today for Disney parks around the globe,” he said.

The imagination of Disney’s ‘imagineers’ was certainly stretched when developing Pandora – The World of Avatar, which Travelweek experienced firsthand while on a recent press trip. Designed to resemble the alien planet depicted in James Cameron’s box-office hit, ‘Avatar, it is 12 acres of pure sensory overload, with bizarre plant life bearing names like Scorpion Thistle and Flaska Reclinata (the latter delightfully sprays ‘spores’ into the air when petted), beautiful waterfalls and, most shockingly, ‘Hallelujah Mountains’ that appear to float in thin air.

Aside from the incredible landscape, the rides at Pandora are what guests have been coming for in droves. Na’vi River Journey, suitable for riders of all ages, drifts downstream through a bioluminescent rainforest filled with glowing plants and alien creatures. Accompanied by an orchestra of insect chirps and haunting Na’vi chants, passengers eventually come face-to-face with the Shaman of Songs, an animatronic creature whose movements are so flawlessly fluid, one has to wonder if the Na’vi people actually exist.

Na’vi River Journey at Pandora – The World of Avatar

Na’vi River Journey at Pandora – The World of Avatar

Even more impressive is the Flight of Passage attraction, which one Disney employee told Travelweek was expected to see six-hour wait times upon opening. The 3D ride effectively combines movie magic with the latest in ride technology, allowing guests to literally step into the world of Pandora while on the back of a flying mountain banshee (or, technically, a flight simulator that resembles a small-body motorcycle). Synchronized to a rousing soundtrack the likes of which can only be orchestrated by Disney, the ride takes guests on a thrilling virtual journey through valleys bursting with colour, sky-high mountaintops and sweeping oceans. Extra touches like misting water and pulsing seats to simulate the breaths of your chosen banshee make the experience that much more real and even more phenomenal than it already is.

“Avatar is the perfect fit for Disney because it shares the same core beliefs of storytelling around family, loyalty, living in harmony and a belief in oneself,” added Yates. “The land and the park itself both celebrate the intrinsic value of nature, the transformation that comes from encountering the natural world, and both the film and the park inspire personal calls to action.”

When asked how Disney determines which movies are represented at the parks (admittedly, both ‘Avatar’ and ‘Star Wars’ are obvious choices simply due to their mass appeal), Yates said: “We look for timeless appeal and natural fit when deciding which of our many stories to choose to bring to life. We evaluate whether those stories speak to the legacy and intent that makes each experience special. We also look at where they best fit, whether in a theme park, at one of our resorts or even aboard our cruise ships.”

With the mention of cruise ships, one can’t help but wonder what Disney’s newest ship will offer once its built in 2022. Announced at D23 Expo, the yet-to-be-named vessel will be Disney Cruise Line’s seventh ship, and will join two other ships entering service in 2021 and 2023.

More than a dozen other new experiences were also unveiled at the Expo, including a Star Wars-themed hotel at Walt Disney World Resort, a proposed 15th Disney Vacation Club property called Disney Riviera Resort near Epcot (opening fall 2019), a Ratatouille-themed attraction at Epcot’s France pavilion, a Tron-themed attraction in Magic Kingdom, a transportation system of gondolas called Disney Skyliner, the limited-time-only Pixar Fest in 2018, and a revamped Paradise Pier in Disney California Adventure, which will be renamed Pixar Pier and feature more Pixar characters.

All of this and more in just a few years – how will Disney fit it all?

“Many first-time Canadians don’t realize that Walt Disney World is the size of Ottawa. With so much to see and do, you can be laser-focused with your itinerary or come back time and time again,” said Yates. “Personally, I’m most looking forward to the Star Wars-themed lands but until then, there’s Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party (held on select nights from August to November), the Epcot Food and Wine Festival (from Aug. 31-Nov. 13) and, next summer, we are very excited to open Toy Story Land.”

And with so much happening at Disney, Yates encourages travel agents to take advantage of “Having the knowledge of Disney Destinations will bring valuable insight with your clients in planning their Disney vacation.”

So do your research, plan and schedule as many attractions as possible for your clients. Just be sure to slot some time in for Pandora – The World of Avatar. It’ll be an adventure they won’t soon forget.

This story originally ran in the August 17th, 2017 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.

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