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For the start of summer 2017, two of Central Florida’s theme parks—Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Universal Orlando Resort—enticed crowds with new fun-filled offerings: Disney opened the enchanting Pandora—The World of Avatar, and at Universal, the high-adrenaline Volcano Bay water theme park made its debut.

“I think back to when I was 19 years old and I had a dream, literally a dream of a bioluminescent forest. I woke up very excited, and I sketched it and painted it. I remembered those images years later when I started writing the script for ‘Avatar’ and then we made the movie. And now here we are years later; literally a dream has come true all around me. It’s an amazing experience….” —Film director James Cameron

Pandora—The World of Avatar
“At Disney we have a ‘how did they do that’ standard. What does that mean? That we love to build things, to create things, that when people see them they think, ‘Well, how did they do that?’ I can not think of a better example of that than what we’re standing in front of right now,” said Bob Iger, Chairman & CEO of The Walt Disney Company, standing in the center of Pandora—The World of Avatar, during a media sneak peek the week prior to the land’s grand opening weekend.

The ethereal world created by film director James Cameron eight years ago for the movie “Avatar” has been flawlessly recreated at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Imagine walking through a bioluminescent landscape in the darkness of the night embraced by trees that glow with bright blues, pinks and purple hues. Or hiking amid floating mountains; or hopping on a mountain banshee and soaring over Pandora on the Flight of Passage ride. Pandora—The World of Avatar definitely lived up to this writer’s expectations…especially during the enthralling Na’vi River Journey ride that has passengers drifting down a river through a bioluminescent rainforest.

Adding to the enchantment are the characters who roam the park, greeting guests and creating a more immersive experience as they, too, are on the same journey of “discovering” Pandora.

“From the moment I first saw the film, I believed that Pandora actually existed,” said Iger. “It just felt so real to me, and I wanted to visit there like millions of other people whose curiosity and wonderment drove ‘Avatar’ into the record books as the highest grossing movie of all time. “‘Avatar’ introduced us to a stunning new world, breathtakingly beautiful and exotic. Today, some years after its release, it’s still captivating us as we eagerly await this next chapter. Working with Jim [Cameron] and his team was a dream come true for all of us as we pushed the limits of creativity and innovation to bring the digital world of Pandora to the real world of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. And now everyone, including me, who has ever dreamed of visiting this extraordinary world, could explore its astonishing landscape and ecosystem, see the Na’vi, soar on the back of a banshee, and become part of the Avatar adventure. Pandora is just as great in person, as it is on the screen.”

Universal’s Volcano Bay.
Universal’s Volcano Bay.

Universal’s Volcano Bay
With a racing heart and shaky hands, I nervously gave an attendant the thumbs up to release a drop door that would send me on a winding journey down the Kala Serpentine Body Slide at Universal’s Volcano Bay. The grand opening of the new attraction, Universal Orlando Resort’s first water theme park, wouldn’t be until the following morning (May 25), but on this special preview day, I had the welcomed task of experiencing this slice of tropical paradise spanning 30 fully immersive acres, sans crowds.

“Because it is a water theme park, we’ve upped the ante everywhere,” said v.p. and executive art director, Universal Creative, Dale Mason against the backdrop of the park’s centerpiece, a towering 200-ft.-tall volcano known as Krakatau, which boasts its own 4-person coaster that takes riders into the volcano’s dark twists and turns before emerging through a waterfall. “The attractions themselves have their own special elements within them that you don’t find in traditional water park experiences. The resort level of amenities here are really important. The food is way beyond anything you’re going to get anywhere else…and the customer service is way, way up there, and of course we’ve wrapped it all in this amazing story of our own of the Waturi people.”

Like the father-and-son duo who took the plunge before me, as soon as my feet made “waterfall,” signaling the end of the ride, I was racing back to the slides’ entrance for a go on Kala’s partner slide Tai Nui. Yet rather than wait in a long, and equally as sinuous line, I was able to tap my waterproof TapuTapu wearable bracelet at a designated post by the rides’ entry point to virtually hold my place in line. I also used the TapuTapu wearable to rent a complimentary locker and make purchases throughout the park. Keep in mind the device does not serve as ID, so if your clients want to partake in an alcoholic beverage or specialty drink, such as the rum and cranberry-infused Tiki Punch (and why not?), they’ll need to have their ID proving their age handy.

During my short 5-minute interval, an employee manning the entrance regaled me with the park’s fabled history, a Romeo and Juliet-esque tale of lovers, Tai Nui and Kala, who were separated (and later reunited) by Tai Nui’s protective father, the fiery god Krakatau. The length of my wait was due, in part, to the park being open to finite number of guests. On my return trip on opening day, I found wait times ranging from 35 minutes to over an hour. While they rest, park-goers can go on a scenic ride along the Kopiko Wai Winding River, take a dip in the sparkling blue waters of Waturi Beach complete with wave pool, or sample some of the South Pacific-inspired cuisine cooked up by Universal Orlando Resort’s corporate executive chef Steve Jayson, and executive sous chef, culinary research and development, Robert Martinez, Jr. With more than 60 delectable dishes and five themed dining locations to choose from, I thought it best to ask chef Martinez, Jr. for his recommendation.

Though he didn’t have a favorite per se, chef Martinez, Jr. did tell me that “The coconut curry chicken [on coconut rice] is one of my favorites. If you like a little kick at the end you’re going to have to try this.” He also suggested the BBQ pulled pork sandwiches with caramelized onions, mango slaw and mango BBQ sauce or any one of the park’s healthier grab-and-go options, which include an island chicken salad, tropical fruit salad and sushi packs. I ended up opting for the taco sampler with carne asada, chipotle firecracker shrimp and pulled chicken mole at The Feasting Frog, sorry chef; but the good news is, it too, was delicious. After some downtime, I was ready to take on the calmer, sloping Honu ika Moana (green) multi-person slide rather than its more intrepid counterpart (blue), which sweeps riders up two massive walls like surfing a wave…maybe next time.

A 1-day Volcano Bay ticket starts at $67 pp. For more exclusivity, update to a private cabana, complete with padded lounge chairs, concierge service, towel service, a complimentary fruit and snack basket, a safe and small fridge stocked with bottled water, starting at $159.99.

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