From immersive fantasy lands to high-octane rollercoasters, Sophie Griffiths embraces her inner child trying out new rides and attractions at Walt Disney World Florida
I am sitting astride a banshee. My head tells me this isn’t possible, but it’s hard to dispute the huge creature pulsating beneath my legs. The damp smell of the forest canopy stretched beneath us permeates my nostrils; I glance to my left and see a line of banshees sat with us, perched on a rocky outcrop. Suddenly one takes off, rising up before swooping low and disappearing into the forest.
And then with a lurch, I realise it’s our turn. The wind is suddenly rushing, the trees are a green blur. We swoop into the foliage and there’s a pungent scent of moss, earth and wet leaves as we streak between trees. The forest ends and we emerge into a wide ocean vista, sparkling in the warm sunshine. We continue on, swooping through salty waves, which rise up and crash around us. An enormous barnacle-encrusted whale looms upwards forcing us to swerve, and we’re hit by a huge spurt as it plunges back into the depths. My banshee snorts and shakes its head, spraying me with droplets.
My mind has given up trying to believe this isn’t real. This is Walt Disney World, where anything is possible – not least riding a banshee through the world of Pandora.
We’re in Animal Kingdom, one of Walt Disney World Florida’s four parks, and the 4D simulator Avatar Flight of Passage is one of Disney World’s newest – and most technologically advanced – attractions. It’s situated in the new land of Pandora – The World of Avatar, based “a generation” after the final Avatar film in the series is set. The attraction opened in May 2017 and apparently took some four years to build. Looking round, it’s easy to see why.
The land is set in the heart of the Valley of Mo’ara, where floating mountains hover above us as we walk through glowing flora and cascading waterfalls. And in true Disney World style, even the queue itself is an experience. It snakes through the Valley of Mo’ara landscape and then into the laboratory, complete with a Na’vi Avatar floating in a capsule. We’re brought into a 16-person chamber room where we undergo a “decontamination procedure” to rid us of pesky parasites so we can sync with an Avatar, before we’re led into a room, handed 3D goggles and told to sit astride what looks like a bike saddle. The room goes dark, the screen in front of us lights up, we can feel a creature breathing beneath us – and suddenly there we are, perched on the rocky outcrop on top of a banshee.
The ride is understandably extremely popular – we saw queuing times of around two hours – and a FastPass+ is well worth adding to your client’s booking (available up to 30 days in advance, or 60 days in advance for on-site resort hotel guests) to skip the bulk of the queue. It also enables guests to still enjoy the pre-ride experience in the laboratory. The pass is a big plus point for families – Avatar Flight of Passage can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike (providing they are 1.12m height). For those who prefer more sedate rides, there’s also the Na’vi River Journey – an underground boat ride where cave walls come to life with native animals and bioluminescent plants.
The impressive Pandora – The World of Avatar is just one of several new attractions at Disney World, Florida, and its opening marked the start of an exciting period for the park, and wider company in general.
In July 2018 Disney World opened Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios. And at the end of last year it was reported that Disney would be spending an estimated $24 billion over the next five years on attractions, resort hotels and its Disney Line Cruise ships. Bob Chapek, chairman of the Parks, Experiences and Consumer Products division, described the investment as “enhancement on steroids”, hinting that guests could expect more than a lick of paint or simple infrastructure changes.
The first taster of this will be in August this year, when the hotly anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge area opens, also at Hollywood Studios – a 14-acre site set to be the largest, single-themed land expansion at Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resorts.
Our guide grins as I try and glean more information about the new Star Wars attractions but remains tight-lipped. “Make sure you look to your left when you ride the Slinky Dog Dash though,” he winks. And as we enjoy the twists and turns of Disney World’s newest rollercoaster, I see what he means – at the ride’s highest point, just for a second, I spy the silver roofs of some distinctly Star Wars-looking spaceships.
Back in Toy Story Land, there’s more than enough to keep us busy. Like its Disneyland Paris counterpart, it’s set in Andy’s backyard, and we’re shrunk to “toy-size” as soon as we enter, with huge coloured building blocks towering above us, fairy lights dangling and even massive Andy-sized trainer imprints on the pathway. The land is considerably bigger than the one in Paris though, with different attractions. My highlight is the aforementioned Slinky Dog Dash, where we sit among Slinky Dog’s coils and speed around a track filled with twists and drops, through a mishmash of toys “assembled by Andy”.
It’s family-friendly (kids need to be at least 97cm), but for smaller ones, there’s also the Alien Swirling Saucers (minimum height is 81cm), which takes us on a fun-filled intergalactic spin. Despite expecting a sedate ride it proves to be far more fun – and speedy – than anticipated. There’s also Toy Story Mania, which opened in 2008 – a 4D game that's perfect for competitive family members, which whizzes us around Andy’s bedroom as we fire at different targets.
As dusk falls, we return to Slinky Dog Dash, where the track is illuminated by blue lights that gleam in the darkness and we discover the rollercoaster is even more thrilling at night, the twists and drops more intense as we race around the track beneath the glowing fairy lights.
With night closing in we make our way to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where lasers streak the sky. We enter the courtyard and find ourselves thrust into a scene from Star Wars, the familiar faces of Princess Leia and Han Solo projected onto the theatre.
The show culminates with a breathtaking fireworks display, patterning the sky with coloured bursts. John Williams’ famous Star Wars score fills the air, the fireworks exploding in time to the anthemic chords. We’re just metres away from where the new Star Wars land is being constructed in secret. It’s an epic finale to a magical trip – and the perfect teaser for why I should be booking my trip to return in August.
Book it: Prices for seven nights at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida with Walt Disney Travel Company start from £1,275pp based on two adults and two children (aged three to nine) sharing a standard room at Disney’s All Star Sports Resort, including flights with Thomas Cook Airlines and Disney’s Ultimate seven-day ticket for the whole party.
For more information visit: disneytravelagents.co.uk
Smarter: Book a FastPass+ ticket for guests, enabling them to skip queues at certain attractions, shows and character greetings. disneyworld.disney.go.com
Better: I visited Walt Disney World Florida in January when the weather was mixed, meaning the water parks might be closed. Be aware that summer can be very humid though. September can be a good time to visit, offering warmth and sunshine but fewer crowds than mid-summer. Note though that hurricane season runs from June to November.
Fairer: Walt Disney Travel Company offers agents the same benefits for clients as if they booked direct. These include luggage labels, Walt Disney World guidebook and a voucher book filled with magical discounts.