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‘Rivers of Light’ is a new nighttime show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The dazzling display weaves animal folklore with an amazing light and water sequences.
USA TODAY

One of the ways that Walt Disney distinguished Disneyland from the amusement parks of the day was by incorporating the storytelling techniques of film and bringing movies to life. Sure, his park had spinning rides and thrilling coasters, but it also took visitors to Peter Pan’s Neverland, through Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, and aboard Dumbo’s flying elephant. As the parks have evolved, movies have continued to inspire lands and attractions, while the adventures have become ever grander.

This year, Disney is drawing on two blockbuster sci-fi films for inspiration. Guests can explore bioluminescent forests and soar on the back of a banshee at Disney World’s Pandora – The World of Avatar. Across the country at the Disneyland Resort, visitors can fall – and I mean really fall – for the Marvel gang now rocking multiplexes on Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! Both opened this past May, and both are wonderful experiences and fitting tributes to the movies that preceded them.

“You come to us for transportive experiences,” says Joe Rohde, Walt Disney Imagineering’s portfolio creative executive and the visionary who has been leading the charge for both Pandora and the Guardians ride. “They are experiences you can’t get anywhere else.”

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Heed the details on Pandora

Pandora, based on James Cameron’s CGI-heavy Avatar, might seem like an odd fit for Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a park that celebrates real animals and the natural world. But Cameron sees it as a natural fit. “The process has been so rewarding,” says Cameron, “because [Disney has] been so respectful of the ideas and the themes of the movie, the respect for indigenous culture and the rainforest and biodiversity … those themes run strongly through [Pandora] and obviously through the rest of Animal Kingdom.”

It also might seem curious that Disney chose the eight-year-old movie as the source material for such an ambitious project. While the film generated enormous box office receipts, and sequels are on the way, it doesn’t have the…