The INSIDER Summary:
- Disney’s new “Pandora” land features a 3D thrill ride called “Flight of Passage.”
- The ride is the pinnacle of Disney’s ability to wow and entertain parkgoers.
- Stunning visuals and incredible technology pair to make it the best Disney ride yet.
- You’ll love it even if you don’t care about “Avatar.”
I last watched “Avatar” over seven years ago, back when the now highest-grossing movie of all time was all anybody could talk about. I remember being blown away, and finally understanding the way 3D visuals could be more than just pop-out gimmicks, though my memories of that movie-going experience have since turned hazy — clouded over by reading numerous critics pointing out the storyline’s problematic nature and lack of originality.
But as I sat in my seat after experiencing Disney World’s new 3D (well, really 4D but we’ll get to that later) “Avatar”-themed thrill ride, every exhilarating memory of why the 2009 movie was a success came flooding back to me.
People around me clapped and cheered when the ride ended, and I realized my mouth was frozen in a half-shocked/half-amazed smile. I was acutely aware that I had just had an experience I’d never forget.
I immediately wanted to ride it again.
Why Flight of Passage blew away all expectations
Avatar: Flight of Passage is one of two new attractions in Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. The other, Na’vi River Journey, is visually beautiful but lacks in excitement. It’s effectively a relaxing boat ride through a dark alien nature landscape.
But Flight of Passage was the best Disney ride I’ve ever been on — and I’ve been visiting these parks since before I can remember.
Ahead of my visit to Disney World, I knew very little about Flight of Passage. Interviews from the ride’s creators simply described it as “immersive” and would promise that you’d feel as if you were flying. But there were no details about the structure or technology involved.
This promo video simply said: “Now there is a place where you can fly on a banshee.”
The real ride is so much more impressive and awe-inspiring than that small clip let’s on.
Flight of Passage mimics an experience that the “Avatar” protagonist, Jake Sully, has in the 2009 movie. In the mythology of “Avatar,” the Na’vi people undergo a special rite of passage — hence the ride’s pun-name Flight
of Passage — where each Na’vi bonds with an ikran (called a “banshee” by humans), a flying pterodactyl-esque creature.
Though the ride is clearly based on the world created by James Cameron and his production team, the Disney Imagineers made the choice not to root any of the movie’s characters in the ride itself. Instead, the rooms you walk through as you get closer to the ride’s entrance inform parkgoers that the version of Pandora they’re in is meant to be several years removed from the events of the movie.
It’s likely no coincidence that Disney’s Imagineers chose to steer clear from the plot of “Avatar” — the aspect of the film most criticized for a lack of originality. Instead, Flight of Passage zeroes in on the stunning alien world dreamed up by Cameron, and expanded on the beauty and promise held within the original film’s achievement in visuals.
As Slate’s Sam Adams explained in 2016: “More than six years after its runaway success pushed the movie industry to embrace 3-D, only a handful of films have used the process with such intelligence, as a tool of storytelling and not just spectacle. No one has used it better.”
What the ride structure is really like
After waiting in a lengthy but entertaining line, riders are placed in groups of 16 and sent into a holding chamber where an “orientation” video is shown. The video kicks off the immersive experience by using pre-recorded chat clips that make you feel as if the man on the screen is really speaking to you live.
Riders are told that, thanks to advancements in technology, practically anyone can be temporarily linked to their own avatar and experience the rite of passage/”flight” of passage of riding on a banshee.
Then you’re sent into a second room where a row of seats are situated in front of what looks like a wall. Disney coined the term “link chair” in lieu of any existing terminology for the ride’s structure. They’re more like stationary futuristic bicycles.
You straddle a padded seat, and lean forward into the bike’s front structure. Then you’re instructed to move your feet all the way forward and grasp the two handles in front of the chair.
Next you don your 3D glasses, which aren’t like the ones you’ll get at a movie theater. Instead they look and feel more scientific, as if you’re in a laboratory. They sit more flush against your face (though not for folks like me who have to wear regular glasses underneath the 3D goggles).
Once the Disney cast member makes sure everyone is ready and their personal belongings are safely tucked in bins, the seats lock you in.
Restraints come up behind the backs of your calves and your lower back — securing you in place and adding a new level of anticipation.
Putting the four senses in 4D
Flight of Passage’s success as the greatest Disney ride mostly lays in the combination of special effects that are all stretched to their most immersive.
I know. I keep using that word, but it’s only because it’s so apt.
Small screens on your individual bike show a live feed of your face next to your avatar, with a progress bar for the “linking” process. In the dark of the room, your screen begins ramping up to 100%, and then the “wall” that was in front of you splits open to reveal a screen.
Twinkling blue lights appear, immediately showing off the 3D visuals, and then a “lightspeed” effect happens (simulating the “linking” to your avatar).
Suddenly the screen shows the view from a Pandora cliffside where your avatar sits atop a banshee, and a stream of intense sensations hit you. The depth of the scenery is incredible, and the room floods with smells and sounds that immediately bring you into the world of Pandora.
The seat between your legs begins gently expanding in and out while a soft snorting sound can be heard — as if the banshee is really breathing beneath you.
So not only are there impressive 3D visuals and animation, but the physical chair beneath you moving. The scents in the room even change and shift as you begin to fly during the ride, like when you glide beneath a wave or soar above a stampede of animals.
Actual wind and mists of water come in at key points throughout, adding to the realism of what you’re experiencing. The first time the banshee dives, swooping the link chair down, my heart skipped a beat and my stomach did the all-so-familiar “swoop” that I normally only associate with a huge roller coaster.
The ride itself is almost five minutes long, but you’ll feel like it went by in the blink of an eye.
Your banshee flies over mountains and into caves, dukes it out with another banshee flying through the sky, and then soars straight down while ducking under branches and cliff sides. I won’t give away any more details here, since it’s best if you’re surprised.
What you need to know before riding
For Disney park veterans, you’ll recognize echoes of the ride Soarin’ (previously known as Soarin’ Over California in California Adventure). The ride technology itself is very similar, with multiple “pods” of seats all viewing the same screen. To see what I mean by this, you can check out a behind-the-scenes photo, but it honestly might ruin some of the magic of the ride so viewer’s beware.
Another good ride analogy would be Star Tours, though with both Soarin’ and the “Star Wars” themed 3D ride, the comparison really stops at the use of 3D visuals.
There is just nothing else comparable in the US Disney parks right now (I can’t speak for any of the international park experiences). And because of that, there are some key details you might need to know before riding.
Wait times are hitting upwards of 4 hours
Since Pandora’s opening on May 27, the wait time for Flight of Passage has varied but is consistently around a minimum of two hours and maxing out at six hours.
In my opinion, it’s absolutely worth a three hour or so wait. After that, you’ll have to decide for yourself. If you can get a FastPass+ or hop in line during Extra Magic Hour (assuming you’re a Disney hotel guest), definitely do so.
The link chairs can’t accommodate all body types
Due to the inflexible ride restraints, Disney has signs up warning guests that not all body shapes and sizes will be able to fit in the link chairs. There’s an example chair outside the line queue in case you need to check before waiting all that time.
You may feel dizzy or nauseated during the ride
If you’re not comfortable with heights or fast-moving 3D visuals, this definitely will not live up to all my hype. Again, the immersiveness of the experience cannot be overstated, and this means it could be too intense for some.
The ride experience is best if you’re in the middle seats
Similar to Soarin’, the screen playing the 3D “movie” gets slightly warped at the sides. That means that if you’re in a link chair on the very end of a row, you might not get the same magical viewing experience compared to seats in the center.
I would also recommend that you keep your focus ahead of you, and not look around at the people to either side of you. It may be tempting, but it will definitely pull you out of the experience of the ride.
Temper your expectations — but also get hyped
Worried I’ve overblown how good this ride is and now it won’t live up to your expectations? I would be too, if I didn’t already have the experience of waiting in line with other families and hyping them up.
The first time I rode Flight of Passage, I had a FastPass and barely stood in line at all. The second time, however, I waited in the line like a normal person. In the two hours we waited, I chatted with a couple of families in line near me. Neither group had been on the ride before, but I told them it was absolutely incredible and that they’d want to ride again.
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I was worried I had set the bar too high. But both families went out of their way to come up to me as we exited the ride (and one person even approached me 30 minutes later while we waited for the same bus). Everyone told me the same thing: “You were totally right. That was amazing.”
Flight of Passage proves Disney is at the top of its game when it comes to theme park entertainment and innovation. With the coming Star Wars land projects and other rides on the horizon, I cannot wait to see what they do with this new revolutionary technology.