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The newest part of Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened this weekend, and everyone in the Disney community is talking about it, so I thought I would throw my opinions out into the world as well.

When I first became a Disney annual passholder in January 2015, Animal Kingdom had already started construction on what was to be their newest land, Pandora. I have never seen Avatar all the way through and didn’t have any real excitement about Pandora. I knew it’d be good because Disney always nails the details, but I felt no real sense of anticipation about it.

So when I was invited to one of the passholder preview days before the official opening, I signed up for a time slot but wasn’t even sure if I was going to show up for it until the morning of. I ultimately went because I had heard other people raving about the vegan dish at the new restaurant, and I figured if nothing else, it’d be nice to try that. So my plan was to go there, take some pictures, ride each of the 2 new rides once, and try the crispy tofu bowl.

My preview pass was last Sunday with a 12-2pm slot, but I heard that other people had been let in early. Sure enough, I showed up at 11:30 and was waved on in. As soon as I was through the entrance, a cast member gave me a map and a field guide, which I shoved in my backpack and forgot about until just now as I write this. Oops!

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Without looking at the map, I decided to walk around a little. I had no game plan and wasn’t too hungry yet, so I figured I’d wander a little until I was ready to eat. Even though the area isn’t huge, it’s very elaborate, so it can take a little while to get from one place to another if you’re stopping to look at all the details and to take pictures.

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Side note: My camera gave up on me at the start of my explorations, so I’m not super happy with most of my photos, but the nice thing about being a passholder is that I can go back whenever I want, now that it’s open. Turns out my memory card to blame–it was causing my camera to freeze after each photo I took, so if I didn’t like how a picture turned out, I really had to decide if I wanted to wait 2 full minutes for my camera to maybe take the picture (it also wasn’t saving all the pictures) or just try to edit the dud once I got home to my computer. Usually I chose the latter option.

As I first started to wander, I wasn’t super amazed or anything. I had already seen so many other people’s photos of the rock formations that they almost didn’t seem that impressive. But it was the small details that really made me feel like this place was cool. One of my favorite parts was seeing all the tropical plants mixed in with fake alien plants. You can always count on Disney to fully immerse you in the experience.

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At one point, as I took a picture of a bird perched on one of the alien plants, a cast member came over and explained to me that the plant was called a goblin thistle, and it was a very important part of Pandora’s ecosystem because it filters the air, which enables us humans to be able to breathe on this alien planet. They’re really trying to make you feel like you’re in a whole new world, and I LOVE IT!

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It was a really nice day to be in the park; even though it was hot, it was mostly cloudy with occasional cool breezes. More importantly, the crowd level was non-existent. I figured there’d be a ton of passholders there, despite Disney having had 2 weeks of previews. I believe I signed up for the last day they were offering the preview, so maybe all the other passholders came to one of the earlier previews. Regardless, I wasn’t going to complain about the fact that there was no wait time for either of the rides and barely any throngs of people to push through while walking around!

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My wanders first took me to the Na’vi River Journey. This is a short boat ride that takes you through the “nature” of Pandora and ends with a creepily realistic animatronic alien. Relaxing music plays throughout the whole thing, so it is actually a nice reprieve from a hot day in the parks, but I would personally never wait more than 30 minutes (if that) to ride this.

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After the slightly underwhelming boat ride, I thought I’d ride the other ride, Avatar Flight of Passage. The queue was empty, which made it really nice for walking through slowly and appreciating all the details. I’ve heard plenty of people say that this queue can accommodate a 4-hour wait, and many people were predicting that would be the case for the first several weeks or even months that this ride was open. I figured it was good to ride this now while there was no wait.

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At the end of the line, I was ushered into a room to watch a boring intro video, and then into another room to watch another boring intro video. “There’s no way the ride ends up being worth all this hassle,” I thought. Finally, we went into the room where the ride would begin.

The seating is almost like a big bike: you have to straddle it and then lean your torso up against the front part as the safety bar pops up to secure your back. I immediately tensed up, as my panic attacks have been out of control lately, and I’ve found out that one of the biggest triggers is feeling like I can’t breathe. With my torso securely fastened in the ride, I was afraid I’d suffocate in the chair, and it was made worse by the fact that there was some kind of technical issue, so we were all strapped in like that for 5 minutes before the ride even began.

Ultimately, I made myself take deep breaths and calmed down enough before I started hyperventilating. Still, I was entirely convinced that I would never ride this again, no matter how cool it ended up being.

And then it began. And wow. WOW. Remember how I was so convinced I’d never want to ride this again? It took about 10 seconds before I realized that I had been dead wrong.

For those of you who have ridden Soarin’ at Epcot, it’s like a more intense 3D version of that, but much more beautiful. It’s just a screen, but with the motion of the chair, it feels exactly like you are flying. The premise of the ride is that you’re riding a big bird-like creature through the alien world of Pandora. You get to see all of the ecosystems, and it’s fully immersive. When you’re near the ocean, you can smell the ocean mist and you get sprayed with water. When you’re flying through the trees, it smells exactly like lush forest (the guy next to me described it as the smell of dirt, but I would describe it as the smell of happiness). Between your legs, you can feel the creature “breathing” as it flies you around the beautiful scenery.

I don’t remember the last time I felt so amazed at a Disney experience. My face was frozen in a gigantic grin the entire time except for when I was squealing at surprising parts or laughing at how amazing the whole thing was. I would totally wait in line to ride this again once it’s open to the public. Maybe not 4 hours, but potentially up to 2.

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After the ride, I was so eager to go on it again but first wanted to stop for lunch at the Satu’li Canteen. It’s a counter-service restaurant, but it definitely feels a little nicer than the average Disney quick-service place, in terms of atmosphere, menu selections, and dishes/cutlery: I was so thrilled that unlike other places around Disney, this one is really rolling with the idea of environmentalism and going zero-waste by using real dishes and silverware instead of paper plates and plastic cutlery.

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I got the crispy tofu with vegetables and quinoa salad, and I honestly can’t think of any other quick-service place at Disney where a vegan can get the most bang for their buck. This was delicious, filling, and nutritious. The tofu was salty, dry, and mostly flavorless, and didn’t rank anywhere near my top-ten list of best tofu (I don’t foresee a meat-eater enjoying this tofu very much when they could have other options), but it’s still a far cry from the almost inedible veggie burgers that other Disney restaurants offer.

The salad actually ended up being the star of the show, and this is coming from somebody who usually HATES salad. (Please don’t tell the vegan police!) I’m a human, not a rabbit, and I prefer my veggies to be cooked beyond recognition. Eating raw leaves is the most boring thing ever, and I can’t usually eat more than a few bites of salad before I get too impatient and find something else to eat instead. But the onion dressing was phenomenal, and I could have eaten a gigantic bowl of this quinoa salad.

After my meal, I rode each of the rides 2 more times and wandered around taking more pictures. Honestly, I could have stayed there all day to keep riding rides and taking pictures, but I was frustrated at my ailing camera, and my dad was about to arrive from Ohio anyway, so I left Pandora at 3:30.

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After 4 hours in Pandora, here’s my final verdict: this is such a worthy addition to Disney, and it fits perfectly in Animal Kingdom, with its message of conservation and wonder for the natural world. I am excited to see Pandora at night, when it is illuminated by bioluminescence, and I’m excited to go back and experience all of it with a deeper understanding after I eventually watch Avatar.

On opening day this Saturday, Disney World was packed. I happily avoided the parks (and instead went to Disney Springs to see the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie), but I kept a close eye on my phone to experience opening day vicariously on facebook and instagram. Apparently, it took ages just to get into the Animal Kingdom parking lot. There was a 1-hour wait just to get into Pandora after waiting to enter Animal Kingdom itself, and then both rides had several-hour wait times.

They ended up having to close Pandora down except to people who had already reserved fastpasses for the rides. Needless to say, I had no interest in actually being there among the crowds and was happy to have had the chance to visit on one of the only days for the next several years that Pandora will be empty.

Now the countdown begins for Star Wars Land…

Love, Elizabeth

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