I’m sure I would have enjoyed it more if I’d seen more than just the first 30 minutes of the 2009 James Cameron movie… or if I wasn’t so prone to headaches and motion sickness. But, the new Avatar-inspired Flight of Passage motion simulator ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a technical marvel and an experience worth exploring at least once. I tried it out last month, during a family Spring Break trip to Orlando, and while VR isn’t for
me, my wife and kids absolutely loved it.
Flight of Passage is similar in design to Epcot’s Soarin’ hang-glider simulator, but the environment around it is much more enhanced. Disney built an entire Pandora “land” within Animal Kingdom that tells the story of what has happened in the 100 years since the events featured in the film Avatar. The idea is that people now visit Pandora to learn about its exotic plants and wildlife after years of abuse from humans harmed its fragile ecosystems.
According to the backstory, a group called the Pandora Conservation Initiative has begun to track the world’s various essential species, including the Banshee, which is known to live in Pandora’s floating mountains. The premise of the ride is that PCI has begun using an updated version of the avatar mind-linking technology to monitor their progress.
Apparently there’s a lot more to the story in the massively long queue area leading up to the ride. Fortunately for my family and me, we secured a Fast Pass and skipped ahead by a few hours to near the front of the line. “Scientists” in video clips explained how participants will be linked to their avatars, and then we’re led into the ride itself. Avatar technology, we’re told, has evolved to the point where the process can be performed with nothing more than a “link chair”–basically a motorcycle-like apparatus with haptic feedback–and a pair of 3D glasses.
When it begins, audiences face a gigantic 3D screen, leaning forward (motorbike-like) in their chairs, which pivot and tilt to create the feeling that the Banshee you’re on is diving down the face of a cliff, or pulling in a tight
turn around a floating mountain. Bursts of wind and sprays of mist enhance the sense of immersion, while visually it appears like you’re inside the Avatar movie.
It seemed so real that my stomach dropped a few times, and I felt the urge to close my eyes when my Banshee almost collided with an object. It was difficult to “trust” the creature I was riding on, as if one bad decision would lead to devastating consequences. I had to snap myself out of it, so I took a peek to my extreme right to see other virtual riders above and below me. That was when I truly appreciated the scale of the technology in that massive room.
My family, on the other hand, bought the illusion completely. Had I not needed to keep myself from throwing up, I would have, too.