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Lunch At Pandora: Disney’s Brave New World

Tom Ryan

“Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world, and in here is the dream.”

So said Jake Sully, protagonist of Avatar. The 2009 sci-fi blockbuster, which has grossed more money than any film in history – placed much emphasis on the dichotomy of reality and the dream world. In it, as you may recall, to enter the world of the Na’vi, the tall blue natives of the moon of Pandora, Jake had to enter an almost dreamlike state via a neural chamber which would telepathically connect his mind to a biologically-matched Avatar body. With it, he could remotely explore the fantastic world of Pandora, a moon filled with incredible beauty, but wrought with so much peril that his commanding officer voiced the warning to remember that: “[you’re] not in Kansas anymore.”

Just like the fictional scientists in the film, Disney Imagineers had an incredible goal when creating the real and tangible land of Pandora: The World of Avatar – to make you believe the fantasy film world – which was created largely on a computer – is the “true world,” as Jake Sully regarded it, and not merely the stuff of dreams. In doing so, they shot for the moon – and fantastically succeeded.

With its looming mountains floating overhead, day-glow plants bearing strange fruits, and other-worldly creatures growling and shrieking in the distance, Pandora is unlike anything Disney has ever created. With competing big-budget movie attractions at Universal Studios, Disney sought to up its immersive game and create an entirely new type of land, with new rules regarding how guests experience and explore it. And while Disney has always strived to make guests feel a sense of escapism in each of their lands, rides, and attractions – nothing they’ve yet created has been done so with the intention of having guests become fully immersed in the experience to this degree. Disney quite literally wants you to feel as if you are absolutely in this alien world, with its own language, flora and fauna, traditions, and for purposes of this review – flavors.

Covering 12 acres in the Animal Kingdom Park, Pandora was first announced in 2011, and it will open for official exploring on May 27, 2017, but we were fortunate enough to get a sneak peek and spend several hours traversing the terrain before it opens to the public. What we discovered left us in absolute awe.

Like Jake Sully, when you first step foot into Pandora, it instantly becomes your very new and substantive reality. At the outset, you are struck with the incomparable scale of things: the giant rocky Hallelujah Mountains floating effortlessly in the sky, the monstrous flowers with alien-egg fruit sprouting on a ridge, the cascading waterfalls and gurgling rivers, and the cragged and cavernous terrain that looks as if you could get lost in it if you’re not careful. You also notice that there are two opposing traditions in play: one which is harmonious with nature and takes the forms of organic sculptures and figural totems made of wood and natural material; and another that is human-made, and consists of rusty metal machinery and aged concrete buildings left over from the colonist mining community which once inhabited Pandora. All of these elements work together to paint a living, breathing picture of Pandora in the real world, removed from the flickering images on a movie screen.

After spending a good deal of time exploring the land and riding both the major attractions –  Avatar Flight of Passage and the Na’vi River Journey – we decided to stop for lunch. Pandora’s restaurant is called Satu’li Canteen and its back-story places it as a former mess hall for the RDA, the fictional mining organization that at one time attempted to exploit the resources of Pandora. Today, the building enjoys a second life, feeding explorers while simultaneously embracing and displaying the land’s native culture in museum-like fashion. While the bones of the dining hall are utilitarian in nature, its austerity has been softened with those Na’vi influences. These take on the shape of decorative, woven wall hangings and elaborate chandeliers made of glowing gourds encased in a cage of native branch-work. This mixture of influences makes for a unique dining experience completely new to Disney parks.

But the real reason for entering Satu’li is the incredible food. Satu’li is a quick service, casual restaurant, and not a fine dining per se; so, as with other eateries of this type, you place your order at a station and pick up your food at the counter shortly after. From there you take your tray to your desired dining location – either inside or out – and enjoy. The food itself is perhaps best described as being influenced by Asian cuisine but with an exotic flair all its own. We tried each of the main dining offerings: I ordered the “Cheeseburger Pod,” which is ground hamburger meat inside a steamed pod akin to a bean bun (rather than a conventional flour burger bun), which was served with slaw and vegetable chips. My wife and daughter ordered the “Create-Your-Own Satu’li Bowl,” one with grilled beef and one with chicken (other options include fish fillet and fried tofu.) You also have different options for the base of your meal: including quinoa and vegetable salad, potato hash, whole grain rice, and traditional leafy salad. Furthermore, you can choose your sauce, with options such as onion chimichurri, black bean vinaigrette, and herb dressing. Prices for each entrée range from around $11 to $13. Each item we sampled was unique and delicious and reflected the colorful and curious sensibilities of Pandora. (Note: Though we only sampled the lunch and dinner offering, Satu’li will be serving breakfast as well.)

Just outside the doors of the main dining hall was a refreshment stand called Pongu Pongu. Meaning “Party Party” in the Na’vi language, the story behind this location concerns an ex-pat who became so enamored with Pandora that he set up shop to quench the thirsts of weary moon travelers. The drink menu at this outdoor lounge takes its inspiration from the unique plant life growing on the moon, and features bioluminescent frozen cocktails. The alcoholic offering is the called “Mo’ara Margarita,” and features Añejo Tequila with Strawberry and Blood Orange flavors and topped with Strawberry Boba Balls. The non-alcoholic drink is called the “Night Blossom,” and is a mixture of limeade combined with apple and desert pear flavors and again finished off with passion fruit Boba Balls. Both feature additional upgrades including a souvenir mug and “Glowing Unadelta Seeds” or rather – glowing ice cubes in the shape of tropical seeds.

After finishing our meal, we eagerly ventured back into the alien moonscape, which is the main attraction of the land. As someone who loves unusual and exotic plants, I was amazed to see how they created an entirely new ecosystem here in Central Florida. Cast members, however, are quick to point out that you are not in Florida anymore but on Pandora. Even the film Avatar isn’t treated as a product of Hollywood, but rather a “documentary” about the early struggles between the Na’vi and the mining corporation. So committed to this idea are the cast members, that at one point in our afternoon, a dark cloud appeared above us and threatened our sunny skies, I mentioned to one of the cast members that it looked like it may rain, and without skipping a beat, he said, “yes, it does sometimes rain here on Pandora. But our meteorologists are calling for no precipitation on the moon today.” That’s commitment.

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Now, no matter what you commit to do on Pandora, and you’ll certainly want to do it all, you can’t help but be taken-in by every nuance of the experience. Every sight, every sound, every smell, and every taste boldly demands attention. And this fact was carefully planned and executed by the Disney Imagineers. Whether you were a fan of the film or not, you will certainly be impressed by what’s been achieved here. Might I suggest watching the film again just prior to embarking on your trip to get the most out of the experience – that way you’ll know what to expect and what details to pay attention to as you explore this new land. And with four more movies in the Avatar universe currently in preproduction, we will all have many reasons to visit and revisit Pandora: The World of Avatar for years to come. And best of all, this fantasy dream world doesn’t require falling asleep or even a round in the Avatar neural chamber to visit it – just the price of admission to the park and a willingness to explore this Brave New World.

F.A.S.T. Review
Food: Interesting Asian-influenced cuisine with an exotic flair all its own
Atmosphere: The most elaborate and immersive land Disney has built, which extends into the Satu’li restaurant. The restaurant itself is a utilitarian mess hall transformed by the natural native-influences of the Na’vi culture.
Service: Friendly and fully committed to making guests feel as if they are on an alien moon.
Tips: Watch the Avatar movie (which is referred to as a “documentary” by cast members) before arriving to re-familiarize yourself with the characters and the world of Pandora.

About Tom Ryan

Tom Ryan is a writer and artist currently residing in Orlando, Florida. Originally from the north east, Tom and his wife and daughter recently relocated to be closer to both family and to their favorite vacation destination - Walt Disney World. Tom works as a freelance writer and artist, and enjoys sailing and scuba diving in his spare time. He is also the author of the mystery thriller A Sword for Pizarro (Hold Fast Books, 2007), which takes place in and around Central Florida, including chapters set at the Magic Kingdom and other nearby attractions.