Is Disney World's New Avatar Theme Park Really Eco-Friendly?

Disney Resorts, Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company Bob Iger and producer/director James Cameron attend the dedication ceremony for the new Pandora: World of Avatar attraction on May 24, 2017 at Disneys Animal Kingdom inside the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The World of Avatar opens on May 27, 2017. Credit: David Roark / Disney Resorts / Getty Images

In addition to making over $3 billion at the global box office and earning three Oscars, James Cameron’s Avatar film also promoted positive messages around respecting nature and taking care of the environment. It’s something the self-proclaimed “child of hippies” takes to heart in his everyday living, having previously talked to Men’s Journal about his going vegan to help the environment by fighting off cows’ natural gas that pollutes the skies.

So when Cameron decided to partner with The Walt Disney Company to build the new Pandora: The World of Avatar for Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, being eco-friendly was part of the deal.

Given that Animal Kingdom is the seventh-most visited theme park in the world, with nearly 11 million visitors per year and nearly 11,000 guests per day, that wasn’t the easiest thing to accomplish when designing the 12-acre land that re-creates the floating mountains, bioluminescent forests, and alien foliage of Pandora.

By acreage, Animal Kingdom is the largest single Disney theme park in the world, covering over 500 acres. The park and its adjacent Animal Kingdom Lodge resorts are home to over 1,500 mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. In fact, it’s also an accredited zoo filled with gorillas, monkeys, lions, and giraffes.

It’s worth noting that Animal Kingdom was designed to promote conservation efforts and encourage change. During the grand opening ceremony of Pandora, Cameron said “Pandora and Disney's Animal Kingdom both inspire us to understand and respect the natural world and our place in it.”

A few years ago, Cameron told us that Disney was building Pandora with his team at Lightstorm Entertainment to connect visitors with environmental themes as much as a theme park can.

So far, so good. The Satu’li Canteen is the first quick-service restaurant in Animal Kingdom to use silverware and plates, rather than plastic utensils and paper plates. While paper cups are still used, they’re recycled throughout the park (along with food waste) to help reduce landfills' impact on the environment. And in keeping with the theme across Animal Kingdom and its resorts, there are no plastic straws available, only paper straws.

Even the food served at the restaurant is more healthy than traditional Disney offerings. There’s fresh chicken, roast beef, “sustainable" fish, brown rice, and fresh vegetables on the menu. When ordering in line or on the Disney app, guests are given a lot of choices, including what sauces are use to cook their food fresh on the grill, what protein they want, and what base. This allows those who want to remain relatively healthy while on vacation to nix the sugary and salty options altogether.

Joe Rohde, the Walt Disney Imagineering portfolio creative executive who designed Animal Kingdom and Pandora, said that even while standing in line for the land’s main attraction, Avatar: Flight of Passage, environmental messaging is relayed to guests.

“Guests will learn about the importance of water purification through several experiments that have been taken as part of the program that revived the banshees,” Rohde said.

The 4D simulator ride that replicates the experience of riding on the back of a Banshee through the world of Pandora has been designed with a five-hour queue filled with storytelling elements. The line begins outside amidst the lush vegetation and waterfalls of Pandora and then enters into air-conditioned caves featuring Na’Vi paintings. But it’s inside the former RDA lab (like the one featured in the movie) that the water message is relayed. There’s even a full-sized Na’Vi avatar in a water chamber in one room.

While Cameron is in pre-production on four new Avatar films, which will hit theaters beginning in December 2020, the storyline of this new Disney park takes place two decades after the events in the five films. That allowed Disney and Cameron to introduce the Pandora Conservation Initiative to the fiction. It’s that pro-environment organization that has taken over the old RDA lab and revived the Banshees for everyone to ride (by linking to a Na’Vi Avatar like Sam Worthington did in the film).

Given opening-day lines for both attractions (the other is a Na’Vi River Journey boat ride through a bioluminescent forest) extended for three-and-a-half hours, Disney is connecting guests to environmental issues through their smartphones. Visitors can speak with a Pandora Conservation Initiative scientist through Facebook Messenger while standing in line, unlocking a $5 donation that Disney will contribute to the real-world Wildlife Habitat Restoration’s Connect to Protest program. Additional interactions with smartphones will unlock additional donations, and Disney expects to raise over $1 million this summer through the program.

Even the gift shop, which had a one-hour line during opening weekend, uses recycled plastic bags for every purchase. And then there are special bags available for purchase made of recycled materials. Of course, not everything is recycled, but packaging is obsolete or very limited with items like plush dolls (a stuffed baby Na’Vi or baby Banshee for the kids?) and Banshee kites.

One note for anyone thinking about making the trek to Florida during the hot and overcrowded summer months — expect long waits in the blistering sun. While Pandora’s floating mountains do offer some shade, there was a one-hour wait just to cross the bridge on opening weekend. And then multiple-hour waits for rides and food. So it’s best to wait for some of the excitement of this new land to wear off, and for the summer heat to subside, before checking it out.

And if you are going, we suggest visiting Pandora at night. Animal Kingdom is open from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day, and Pandora transforms into a different (and much cooler) experience at night when the alien fauna glow and the native drums fill the air.