The Disappointing Progress of Amusement Park Rides

We review Disney's new 'Avatar' attractions and look at how movie-based rides are killing the physical thrill.

Christopher Campbell Pandora

We review Disney’s new ‘Avatar’ attractions and look at how movie-based rides are killing the physical thrill.

I experienced the Jaws gimmick on Universal’s Studio Tour before seeing the movie Jaws. And like most people born in the last century, I rode the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride before it was associated with any movie franchise. Since then, I’ve encountered that and other attractions as a fan of their tie-ins, and more rides as someone unfamiliar with their respective properties. It goes both ways. And as I went to Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom to check out its new Avatar-based world and rides, I wasn’t sure which direction was stronger.

Certainly I went in familiar with James Cameron’s 2009 Best Picture nominee. I’d seen the movie once and enjoyed it very much, though it hasn’t made me interested in any merchandising or other related add-ons. I wouldn’t have even cared about amusement park rides based on Avatar had they not been so hyped up and then, ahead of their opening seven weeks ago, so well-reviewed. The “Na-vi River Journey” and “Flight of Passage” attractions sounded groundbreaking in innovation, and I felt compelled to experience them.

The sad truth is, they’re both pretty basic and familiar outside of a few cutting-edge elements. I have to admit that I was underwhelmed. Considering the regular wait time of around 90 minutes for “Na-vi” and three hours for “Flight,” I imagine other guests will be, too.

I experienced “Flight” first, as I couldn’t get a FastPass for the attraction and my kids are both too young/short for the “ride,” so I went solo. Like literally everyone else entering Animal Kingdom as soon as it opened, I rushed straight for “Pandora,” the Avatar-themed section of the park, and got in line for the popular new wonder. Where I found myself positioned was an hour out from the experience. As a solo rider, I eventually got to jump ahead a bit, probably cutting off 10 minutes. After being ushered through a set of hallways featuring instructional videos that look like scenes from a cheap TV series spin-off of the movie, I had my turn along with 13 others.

Earlier, I put quotes around the word ride, because “Flight of Passage” isn’t quite qualified as one. You sit on what’s basically a stationary bike, albeit one that’s not totally stationary, and you watch a large-format 3D movie shot in a first-person POV meant to make you feel like it’s actually all happening in front of you. It’s kind of like the IMAX movies where you’re watching from the perspective of a glider over the Grand Canyon. To compare it even less enthusiastically, it’s similar to Regal’s iconic pre-show rollercoaster “policy trailer” but instead of a rollercoaster, you’re “riding” a Banshee, the flying dragon creatures from Avatar.

As far as flight simulators go, it’s pretty spectacular, but that’s all it is. Something between Disney’s “dark rides” —- which do involve an actual ride, often using surrounding projection screens to put you inside their respective stories — and virtual reality. The benefit of a VR experience would, of course, be that it could be enjoyed in the comfort of your home without waiting in line in the heat of Central Florida. Also, unlike the “Flights” experience, which employs clear 3D glasses, you wouldn’t have the peripheral awareness of other guests, which took me out of it at times. The “ride” is over quickly, has no substance as far as it being a piece of entertainment or affiliation with the movie or its upcoming sequels, and I forgot about it immediately.

Next, I joined up with my family (we all had FastPasses to jump ahead together) for the river ride, which is indeed a river ride. If you’ve been on any of Disney’s other river rides, there’s not a lot more you’ll get out of the “Na-vi” experience outside of witnessing a marginally impressive upgrade to animatronics for the Na-vi characters and some visually appealing bioluminescence. There are no drops in the river, a la “Pirates of the Caribbean,” a lot of the visuals are done with screen projections, and much of the scenery is stationary. And there’s no progression or narrative drive to this attraction, either. Frankly, even Disney’s classic “It’s a Small World” offers more stimulation. Fortunately, my kids loved it, as they’re both under six and haven’t experienced much else in their lives.

Pandora ChildIf these are the next step in dark rides and water rides for Disney, that’s fine (I believe the upcoming  Millennium Falcon attraction in the new Star Wars land will also just be a flight simulator). But as something to drive attendance, they’re a disappointment. There is some beautiful set work in the re-creation of Avatar‘s floating mountains, and if there is anything the Pandora land offers that I’ve never experienced, it’s a whole different atmosphere at night, when that section of the park is relatively dark save for the scenery becoming a bioluminescent wonderland (make sure your kids wear white so they can appreciate the ultraviolets). It’s pretty.

Having encountered “Pandora — The World of Avatar and its attractions, I’m no more nor less excited for the Avatar sequels, and I don’t have any new appreciation of the original movie. I have been curious about other people’s relationship to the movies and how, if at all, it connects to their experience of Disney’s new land. Is it attracting fans? Is it not attracting non-fans and flat-out Avatar haters? Are guests dissociating it with the movie, as they might dismiss the aspects of Disney’s Magic Kingdom’s “Splash Mountain” tied to the controversial and mostly unavailable (in the US anyway) Song of the South?

As far as I can tell from the locals I know in the Orlando area, nobody is really talking favorably or unfavorably about “Pandora,” which is slightly concerning. Apparently, the current thing for them to rush out to experience, based on positive buzz, is the new Jimmy Fallon ride at Universal. Instead, the people rushing into Animal Kingdom for the new attractions are tourists who’ve been wooed in with the hype and seemingly inflated advance reviews, and a lot of them are possibly foreigners who make up the greater international audience for the movies, as well. They go in as fans, and if they’re satisfied then that might help to sustain interest during the tail end of this decade-long wait for Avatar 2, et al.

In general, the existence of the Pandora land is to bolster excitement for the Avatar property, or maybe it’s the other way around. Just as with “Pirates of the Caribbean,” there’s now a cyclical significance to the movies and their related theme park attractions. This is one major way that Hollywood keeps certain franchises relevant now, taking the cue from how Walt Disney maintained his legacy 62 years ago with the opening of Disneyland. Harry Potter, Back to the Future, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and more have lasting purpose as destination theme parks, sectioned-off lands, and/or rides.

Some movies are thrill rides, literally. Watching a movie, even the biggest of blockbusters, isn’t ever really a “rollercoaster ride,” as some critical blurbs of praise might imply, but rollercoaster rides and other amusement park attractions are becoming more and more just movies adapted into experiences where we’re meant to feel a part of that once-cinematic space. Whether we’re walking through a re-created Pandora or down Diagon Alley, or tramming past a cove invaded by a great white shark, or watching scenes play out in animatronic or projection form while passively sitting in a boat or rail-tracked vehicle, or taking in an immersive 3D simulation while straddling a fixed machine reminiscent of coin-operated kiddie rides outside supermarkets, it’s all just an extension of the other medium.

But what is the future of Walt Disney World and other parks if the line between movie entertainment and amusement rides keeps blurring? Movie theaters add motion seats and larger, more immersive screens and 3D projection, which makes the films more akin to the “Flights of Passage” experience. Soon enough, VR will supplant both the cinema and the theme park with more deeply engaging visuals and encounters, and eventually we’ll all have some kind of mechanism in our homes to add motion to the imagery, providing full-bodied sensory participation.

Of course, one day there will likely be a VR program offering nostalgically historic virtual experiences of what it was like to go to the cinema or wait in line for a physical ride. Everything full circle, and everything a re-creation simulation.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.