The actress, who starred in the 2009 blockbuster that inspired the new expansion at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, says her first visit to the alien world was overwhelming.
“I’m trying to find the words that best describe my feelings, because I was here yesterday for the first time and I brought my family,” Saldana told PEOPLE at the grand opening on Wednesday. “And it’s only through my family’s and my friends’ eyes that I’m able to give myself a moment of pause and absorb all of this.”
Both Saldana and her Avatar costar Sigourney Weaver said they cried after riding the new Avatar Flight of Passage attraction, which allows guests to fly aback a winged banshee through the eye-popping alien world of Pandora. (The immersive, breathtakingly scenic experience takes the high-flying euphoria of EPCOT’s Soarin’ to spectacular new heights.)
Avatar director James Cameron told PEOPLE that everything in Pandora was inspired by the real-life natural wonders of earth — and he hopes fans leave the new park with a renewed sense of appreciation for nature’s gifts.
“Everything that is beautiful and alien and strange here was inspired by something beautiful and alien and strange right here on earth,” he says. “The thing that stirs the soul — whether it’s a flower, a mountain, it touches us, and it touches everyone. And as we grow up we sort of learn to ignore it. I think this place hopefully will reconnect people. I hope they leave here with a little sense of responsibility.”
In addition to Avatar Flight of Passage, which marries next-gen flight simulator technology with wind, water and nose-tickling stimulation — think blooming flowers, spraying waves and glowing caves — the new World of Avatar also features an illuminated indoor boat ride, Na’vi River Journey, that boasts the most cutting-edge animatronics Disney has ever debuted. Read on for five more highlights from the eye-popping new park.
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1. The queue line at Avatar Flight of Passage.
Yes, the queue is long and you’ll be in for a serious wait without a FastPass. But Disney Imagineers have created an incredibly detailed lab to help you while away the time, complete with a 10-ft. avatar in a water tank. It’s the only opportunity in the park to see a full-size avatar (a human-Na’vi hybrid) and the creature’s whopping size — and eerily life-like movements — are transfixing. (Fun Easter eggs: Jane Goodall’s Reason for Hope on the bookshelf and a game-winning baseball from Team Banshee.)
2. No hidden Mickeys.
Sorry, Mr. Mouse: Unlike much of the rest of Walt Disney World, Pandora doesn’t feature Mickey at all — even if you look really, really hard. No Mickey merch, character appearances or even Mickey plushes for sale at the gift shop. Visitors to Pandora — which is designed to showcase the planet several generations after the 2009 blockbuster film — are guests of “eco-tourism agency” Alpha Centauri Expeditions, or ACE, which promotes the message of conservation throughout the park.
3. Avatar yourself.
At Windtraders, the park’s only gift shop (yes, you exit through it following Flight of Passage), guests can sit for a facial scan that captures individual features and allows visitors to customize their own doll-sized Avatar. (If you’re going for authentic Na’vi, make sure to choose yellow eyes.) The shop also features banshees (“adoption” fee: $49.99) that sit on your shoulder thanks to a magnetized pad.
4. The animatronics are out-of-this world.
On the Na’vi River Journey, the “Shaman of Songs” is dazzlingly alive. Fair warning: Her song (in the native tongue of Na’vi, of course) will be stuck in your head all day, even if you have no clue what it means.
5. Nighttime is the right time.
There are two parks: the one you see by sunlight (which integrates seamlessly with Orlando’s tropical temperatures) and the one you see after dark. At night, Pandora’s bioluminescence comes to brilliant life — along with the exotic animal sounds echoing through the darkness. It’s Disney magic, cosmos-style.