By Jane Muller
Most kids dream about visiting Disney World. Many adults share that dream and not just those who would bring kids along to share the magic.
While experiencing Disney through the eyes of a child is one way to go, the quintessential theme park conjures a world in which age is irrelevant.
It’s also a world that is constantly evolving and that makes return visits a chance to indulge in some nostalgia and be amazed by the seemingly limitless creativity of Disney’s “imagineers”.
In fact their most recent creation that opened in May of this year, is actually out of this world in so many respects. Based on the sci-fi movie “Avatar”, it transports visitors to Pandora and that world’s lush, exotic jungle setting. The 12-acre addition to Animal Kingdom took 6 years to complete with its floating Hallelujah Mountains, flowing streams and waterfalls and incredible bioluminescenct plants that begin to glow as night falls. Interspersed with thousands of native Floridian plants, the largest Avatar native is the 20-foot long and 15-foot high Flaska Reclinata that sprays a mist of spores into the air from its ample purple blossom when petted. Among the fantastical flora are plants that can be drummed, a trait that several performances by a band of plant drummers enthusiastically demonstrate each day.
While those drum beats get your heart pumping it’s nothing compared to flying over Pandora on the back of a mountain banshee. Flight of Passage is the most amazing immersive simulator experience in the park. The epic, single rider experience begins in an airlock where a small group of riders are scanned and then matched with an onscreen avatar’s face. Riders learn that they are linked with their customized avatar that is in the world of Pandora and will take them on their flight.
The group moves onto an area with a row of what look like futuristic bike frames. After getting seated and secured, gripping the handlebars and donning light-weight goggles, your banshee takes flight. From the moment it launches you feel its ribs expand with each breath and the wind on your face as your mount swoops and soars through the most incredible land you can imagine Disney designers imagining. You follow another of the dragon-like creatures as you skim above a herd of stampeding beasts, then burst over the sea to follow the curl of a monstrous wave after dodging around a breaching whale-like creature. And while the dives and swerves are incredible, the ride is exhilarating, not scary.
Before this flight, Soarin’ was my favourite. Updated from its original California theme in 2016, Soarin’ now takes “hang gliders” to see the wonders of the world. It’s an experience that again leaves one wondering just how Disney does it. Soarin’ added to the many reasons that Epcott, a land that I first visited back in 1986, was my top of my list.
Then Disney opened Animal Kingdom in 1998 and with two little boys in tow, it became my new favourite. Now with the addition of Flight of Passage, Disney is going to have to work hard to knock it from the top of my list. While riding the banshee was the epitome of the Pandora adventure, Na’vi River Journey is well worth exploring. Riders journey through a series of caves that provide the habitat for glowing plants and amazing creatures including the Shaman of Songs. The most life-like audio-animatronic character to date she’s absolutely mesmerizing and adds to the fluid and peaceful ambiance of this subterranean fantasy world.
Although it represents another planet, the “natural” splendour of Pandora – The World of Avatar is a perfect fi t for Animal Kingdom, where lush greenery and wildlife are showcased. From the Kilimanjaro Safari ride through the African savanna and Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail to the Asia experience that features native species along a jungle trek and a wild raft ride down the Kali River rapids.
Don’t miss the Tree of Life Awakenings that recreates the giant tree at night with amazing lighting effects depicting various animals and colourful scenes. River of Light is another after dark experience not to be missed as the water becomes the stage for a one-of-kind performance featuring special effects, music and animal folklore.
The Animal Kingdom experience becomes even more immersive for guests staying at Animal Kingdom Lodge. The grand hotel features an impressive collection of African art displayed in the expansive lobby where African-inspired shields form massive light fixtures that adorn the towering ceiling. Rooms come with a wildlife spotting guide and the fi rst to be ticked off of mine is giraffe. As if on cue, a pair can be seen as I draw back the curtain from the sliding glass doors.
The lodge also features a huge free-form pool, dining options including Jiko – The Cooking Place for upscale cuisine and service along with the largest selection of South African wines outside the country. The Mara is a great place to grab a snack or quick meal. The Bobotie Platter with its baked egg custard and Chakalaka is a taste of Africa.
So much has changed since Disney World opened in 1971 with Magic Kingdom. Witnessed since my fi rst visit as a young teen in 1974 and subsequent visits with kids and more recently without, I can’t wait to see what’s next.