Back to Pandora!
On Wednesday, much of the cast of 2009’s record-shattering Avatar — the highest-grossing film in the world — reunited at Walt Disney World in Orlando for the grand opening of Pandora – The World of Avatar.
Director James Cameron and producer Jon Landau joined stars Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington in the new multi-million dollar, 12-acre “land” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
“This place is the next stage in the greater story of Avatar,” Cameron told PEOPLE. “They brought to life what you saw in the movie and beyond. It’s now a physical, tactile, olfactory, full-sensory experience. It’s wildly exceeded my expectations for what was possible in the physical world, from floating mountains to all the exotic plant life faithfully reproduced and of course getting to fly on a banshee. And then going through the avatar experience of getting neurologically linked, popping up through an avatar’s senses into the world of Pandora. It’s really pretty magical.”
The World of Avatar, which is based on Cameron’s blockbuster, features two new attractions: Avatar Flight of Passage, a thrill ride through the mystical world’s jungles and floating mountains, and the family-friendly Na’vi River Journey, in which guests will sail through a glowing rainforest.
“One of the great things about this land is the 360 quality,” says producer Jon Landau. “Everywhere else, you look up in the sky and you’re in Orlando or Anaheim or Paris. You look up her and you’re reminded you’re in Pandora. It frames you and keeps you in that story.”
Both Cameron and star Sigourney Weaver said the film’s conservation themes resonate now more than ever.
“The extraordinary beauty of this place, I think people will come away with a lot of information about how fragile an ecosystem is,” Weaver tells PEOPLE. “It’s just in time. I think President Trump should come down. I think it’s something we all need. The rest of the world is so ahead with all of this. Other countries are not climate deniers. I think it’s a fantastic experience where people can understand these issues from a new perspective.”
Adds Cameron: “It’s only getting worse in the current political climate: the dismantling of the EPA, ignoring the Paris accords and every other damn thing these monkeys can do to pretty much screw up the environment. You can assign your own value to that. As a species, we have to start taking responsibility. Otherwise it won’t work for us in the long run. It needs to be a kind of enlightened self-interest. Everything that is beautiful and alien and strange here was inspired by something beautiful and alien and strange right here on earth. The thing that stirs the soul, whether it’s a flower, a mountain, it touches us, and it touches everyone. And as we grow up we sort of learn to ignore it. I think this place hopefully will reconnect people I hope they leave here with a little sense of responsibility.
Visitors to Pandora are welcomed to the bioluminescent alien planet by guides from “eco-tourism agency” Alpha Centauri Expeditions, or ACE. Like the films, ACE promotes the message of conservation throughout the park. And while guests are given basic lessons in Na’vi, the language spoken by the planet’s indigenous inhabitants, don’t expect to see the tall blue extraterrestrials roaming the park. (They do, however, appear in ground-breaking audio-animatronic form on the two attractions.)
Cameron has previously announced four upcoming Avatar sequels. The original Avatar earned $2.8 billion worldwide. On Wednesday, Cameron told PEOPLE that Avatar 2 is now set for release on Christmas 2020, to be followed by Avatar 3 a year later and the final two installments in 2024 and 2025.
And although Cameron and the cast were tight-lipped about the sequels’ heavily guarded plots (including just how Weaver’s exobiologist character, who died in the first film, manages to make a return), Landau offered a few hints.
“We’re going to create a small sampling of the diversity that exists on earth and put it on Pandora [in the films],” says Landau. And the inter-planetary love story between Worthington and Saldana, who fell in love in the first film, will be expanded. “They have a family,” he adds. “One of the things about Avatar, it’s about relatable dynamics. Everyone has a family here we’re going to have Jake and Neytiri with a family and play up that dynamic as we go through our story. You are going to see a lot more of the culture, not just the Omaticaya clan but all the other clans we’re introduced to as well.”