Chapter 10: Pandora 'n The Explorers Get out of bed, get dressed, eat your Pop Tarts, pile into the van, drive to Animal Kingdom. Lather, rinse, repeat. We were led by the parking guards to park way out in the Dinosaur lot for some reason, even though we were there just about at Rope Drop time (about 8:00 a.m.). I don’t know if that’s how they usually run things or not. We piled into the tram, getting the very last two rows in the back of the vehicle. The backseat attendant, Julio, was running through the safety procedures on the intercom. Drew was a little squirmy, so we told him to stop messing around in the back seat. Immediately, we heard over the loudspeakers: “Andrew, don’t mess around in the back seat.” Julio also gave Drew a Lightning McQueen car for his trouble. Sometimes it pays to sit in the back seat. Once we made it to the gates of the Animal Kingdom, we did what all serious Disney trip planners do and waited around while various members of our family went to the bathroom, because of course we couldn’t have done that in the hotel room before we left. When everybody was done, guaranteeing us at least 30 full minutes before the next potty break, we headed straight for Pandora. We had a FP for Flight of Passage later in the day, so we didn’t bother with the insane line there. But we figured this was our best chance to ride the Na’vi River Journey (or, as our old friend @afwdwfan christened it, It’s A Small Moon) before it got too crazy there. Pandora certainly doesn’t disappoint in the eye candy department. We found the entrance to It’s A Small Moon, and the wait was posted at a mere 15 minutes. We actually made it through the line in ten. Your enjoyment of this ride may depend on how much you were swept away by the movie Avatar. Some people were enchanted by the ground-breaking special effects and world-building, which were admittedly impressive. Others found the story to be a rip-off of Pocahontas or Dances With Wolves. I fell into both camps, actually. I liked the look of the movie and was excited to see the Disney Parks version because I saw how it could lend itself to some neat attractions. I can’t really defend the script, though. I found an original copy of the synopsis here: Luckily, the ride doesn’t have to re-hash the story. It’s more concerned with trying to make you feel like you’re on an exotic new planet. I think it did a decent job. It’s basically a Disney dark ride with as many updated effects as they could pile into it. Not much really happens, though. You’re just floating around looking at alien plants and animals in mood lighting. I thought this was a neat effect. They made it appear as though frogs were jumping on giant leaves over your head. As they jumped, you’d hear a thump when they landed and the leaf would shift a bit. At the end, you float past the Na’vi “shaman”, who is singing to you. This is supposed to be one of the most sophisticated animatronics Disney has ever built, which I guess is cool. But she’s sitting there singing nonsense words to you, so I confess I didn’t have much of an emotional reaction to it. All in all, it was…fine. I’m glad I saw it, but wouldn’t feel the need to see it more than once on a trip or waste a FP on it. Drew, however, absolutely loved it and begged to go on it again. The line didn’t look terrible, so we decided to keep him happy and jumped in again. It took about 20-25 minutes to get through this time, so the crowds were definitely coming. We floated once more through darkness and air-conditioning. At least the music is less annoying than It’s a Small World. We checked in with my brother and SIL, only to discover that they were delayed because their bus to the Animal Kingdom had broken down. So they had no idea when they’d be arriving in the park. We decided to go ride the safari, with the hope that most of the animals would still be awake fairly early in the morning. I’ve always thought the safari is a worthy attraction, especially since they dumped the old poacher storyline that nobody paid attention to. I think they did a great job of making you feel like you’re in the wild, seeing exotic African animals. It always helps when most of them are awake. Even the animatronic sleeping lion was running through a cycle where its head was up. Not that he was going to pose for us. We finished with the safari and my brother’s family still hadn’t made it to AK. We killed some time by wandering a bit on the nature trails. We also stood around waiting for my brother and SIL to answer the texts we were sending them. Soon, it was time for the main event: our Fastpass for Flight of Passage. Man, were we looking forward to this! I’d heard nothing but raves about the ride from almost every corner. If there was a slight complaint, it was that some people said it was basically Soarin’ on steroids, and not something game-changing. Well, Soarin’ on steroids still sounded like fun to me. My parents volunteered to hang back with Drew while we rode first. We informed the CM that we’d be doing a child swap, and they told us that three people could come back and ride under the swap. My parents would be the first two, so that meant I had to pick my favorite kid to get a second ride. So I chose Scotty. I'm just kidding! This is wrong to do to any parent, so I said the heck with you guys, I’m taking the second ride. Ok, I'm kidding again. Instead, I just tossed it up in the air: who wants to ride with their grandparents? Sarah answered first, so she got the privileges. He who hesitates is lost. The theming is amazing. It does a great job of hiding how long the line is, too. If you look really closely, you can see where the suckers people are waiting in the standby line. I loved the look of the place. We got sorted into a queue and headed into the pre-show. I would learn later that the ride actually has three levels that all face a giant screen, much like Soarin’. We didn’t move up or down meaning, we got to sit on the middle level. The pre-show took forever. They said they had to “decontaminate” us three different times as we waited in the first room. I figured they must have been having some technical difficulty with the ride up ahead and needed to stall for time. So we listened to the actor playing the scientist drone on for a while. He had kind of a stuttering delivery that I found annoying after a while. I didn't think he was convincing as a scientist. He came across more like a grad student who had overslept for the final exam. I was glad when we moved on. Then we learned all about the dragons—er, sorry. “Banshees”. This isn’t Harry Potter world. Even though you’re totally riding a dragon. We finally were led into the main room where we stowed our gear and then mounted the motorcycle/dragon simulator-thingys®. As it turned out, I think my seat was virtually dead-center on the movie screen, so I had a primo spot. I liked how they used the “neural link” from the movie to explain how you were actually going to be riding the drag—sorry, banshee. The lights were dimmed, the uplink was established, and then…. First thing you notice: wow, these visuals are gorgeous. Second thing you notice: you can feel the dragon breathing. The air bags the Imagineers installed to simulate the animal’s breaths are a genius touch. That really helps sell the illusion. And then you’re off! So—is it the Best Ride At Walt Disney World, or just Soarin’ on steroids? Well…I thought it was pretty great. The sense of flight was wonderful (especially now that the actual Soarin’ is more like Hoverin’), and I enjoyed every second of it. It’s definitely a Fastpass-worthy attraction. I don’t think it’s my favorite ride at WDW—I will probably always choose coasters, where you’re actually moving, over a simulator where you just feel like you’re moving. But we all had a great time with Flight of Passage. I would have loved to ride it again. But Sarah was the one who got that privilege, so we hung out in the gift shop with the boys while she and my parents took to the skies of Pandora. My brother’s family finally arrived and they found us there, but then they had to run off to use their Expedition Everest Fastpasses. Meanwhile, it seemed to be taking forever for my parents to get through the ride. There were only so many overpriced Pandora souvenirs we could look at. But at long last, they finally emerged, having tamed the drag—uh, banshees. Sarah confirmed that she still loved the ride, and my parents enjoyed it as well. We split up once again—my parents took Drew to meet Mickey and Minnie while the rest of us headed for our second FP at Expedition Everest. Along the way, it started to drizzle. The 4:00 p.m. showers were becoming notoriously unreliable. We began to worry that they might shut down the ride before we got there. Luckily, everything was still on line as we reached the FP entrance. The rain was still mostly a drizzle, but bothersome enough that we decided to break out the ponchos. Up until I rode Rock ‘n Roller Coaster, Expedition Everest had been my favorite ride at WDW. So that means it’s still a solid #2. Wait, that sounds bad. It’s still one of my favorites. I love the pure speed of the ride. Scotty and David had never been on it before, so I was looking forward to seeing their reactions. You’ll be happy to know that everyone loved it. Even if you can’t tell from the ride photos. I have to admit, though, that I am feeling the effects of getting older. That section of the ride that goes backwards really messes with my head. I know you’re not going upside-down, but there’s something about the orientation of the track that makes it feel that way. It really messes with my head. So I find myself having to shut my eyes during that part, which really makes no sense because it’s all in the dark anyway. And yet, it seems to help. I dunno. The lesson is: don’t turn into an old man if you can help it. It’s no fun. But I still love EE. It's just a great ride. At this point, we did something radical. Something completely out of character. Looking back, I’m shocked that we could even let it happen. We did not have PB&J sandwiches for lunch. I find that we can go about 4 days in a row before everyone is sick of them. Also, Animal Kingdom is home to the single best counter-service restaurant in Disney World. I speak, of course, of Flame Tree Barbecue. For the first time, we utilized the “mobile order” option on Disney’s app and got lunch for the five of us. I have once again failed my readers with absolutely no food photos, but the pulled-pork sandwiches and onion rings here are still a terrific meal. I also really love the outdoor dining area. My only regret is that we didn’t order more food (we split some entrees, being cheapskates above all else). Coming Up Next: I will reveal the secret connection Animal Kingdom has to Delaware. And Drew finds perhaps his favorite attraction in all of Disney World.