Disney magic: I've seen the future of theme parks and it's out of this world
There's a bridge at Disney World, Florida, than takes you 4.4 light years into outer space.
It's nothing to do with the nearby Nasa space centre, but it is a huge technological leap forward that takes you to whole new world, teeming with wildlife and plants, and steeped in a strange alien culture.
To walk over that bridge is, in the words of our Disney "expedition leader", a journey rich with possibility, not to mention the chance for adventure.
It's the bridge in Disney's Animal Kingdom that takes you into the theme park's latest addition: Pandora - The World of Avatar.
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Inspired by James Cameron's 2009 New Zealand made sci-fi epic Avatar, this new "land" within Disney's wildlife themed park is unlike anything you've ever seen or experienced before.
As you walk from the bridge into the valley of Mo'ara, you'll notice alien plants glowing and throbbing, dotted among the earthly flora.
Look up, there are gravity defying islands seeming to drift across the valley.
A spray of mist from one of the islands' waterfalls is a welcome escape from the intense Floridian... I mean, Pandoran heat. Ahead, a cinematic vista opens up, with soaring, rocky crags,and a rill, sinuous enough to put Xanadu to shame, spilling down the valley.
And none of it is on film or projections or off limits. It's all wondrously, gloriously real.
A lead Imagineer (that's what Disney calls its designers) and executive media producer on the project, Amy Jupiter was responsible for integrating film elements into the land's two attractions - Flight of the Banshee and Na'vi River Journey - and she explains what makes the land so unique:
"What we wanted to do is give you a place to go and discover yourself, your story. This is not about a set of characters, this is your story."
The way the vistas open up to you, leading you into the land, boggling the mind and eye, is deliberate, she says, a response to fans of the film Avatar who had expressed dismay that Pandora wasn't a real place they could visit.
"Not only did the audience tell us that they wanted to go for a ride on the back of a Banshee. They wanted to go to Pandora, they wanted to live in a bioluminescent forest. So really being on Pandora became our third attraction [after the two rides]. We've designed moments for you, lots of nooks and crannies for you to look at, experiences."
It's total immersion: the entire land is entirely geared towards keeping your mind out of this world and in an alien one.
It's the insane amount of detail that makes it all work.
The signage is all in English and Na'vi (James Cameron's spiritually minded, nature loving Alien heroes), the land's "cast" all stay in character and have back stories about how they came to "live" on Pandora. Some of them are scientists, some military, some are second and third generation human "locals".
And it's impossible to get them to break character - even when you're waving your press credentials - trust me, I know.
There are "alien fossils" embedded in the rocky paths - these glow with bioluminescence, like the plants, at night.
Fancy a drink? Why not try the Na'vi delicacy frozen Night Blossom. You can purchase one (they accept US dollars here) from the Pongu Pongu stand, over by the Satu'ili Canteen which serves exclusively Na'vi food cooked to traditional Na'vi recipes.
Even the toilets are in character - designed to look like a crumbling, disused military installations (although they are scrupulously Disney clean and normal inside).
Perhaps the most telling example of Disney's commitment to total immersion is the fact it's the only place in the whole of Disney World where Mickey's ears don't appear, not even on the branded merchandise.
(Buying the merchandise is part of the experience too. There's a "rookery" inside the Windtraders store where you can "bond" with a Banshee hatchling - an air pressure controlled, toy dragon-life thing that sits on your shoulder cawing and stretching its wings. It's a remarkably effective ploy that I totally fell for. I bought the first Banshee toy I played with.)
"We bring you in here and we take away all the intrusions that you see (in the rest of the park) and then we give you things to discover," Jupiter explains. "Everything is a surprise."
Disney has been moving towards this fourth wall-busting kind of experience for a while - Cars Land at Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim recreates the world of the animation in glorious detail - so much so, a small enough child could easily be convinced Radiator Springs is a real town where cars really do talk.
And there's the new Guardians of the Galaxy Mission: Breakout attraction that lets guests join in on a heist lead by Rocket Raccoon.
Across the road at Disneyland, you can be the Beast's guest at Be Our Guest restaurant in the shade of the Beast's castle. While around the corner you can put your feet up at Gaston's local (he really does use antlers in all of his decorating).
More immersive experiences are planned, with Star Wars Land already under construction at Disneyland, slated to open sometime in 2018.
And fans are lapping it up. Modern audiences never want the story to end. Now more than ever they want to be to be more than just observers, to get in on the action. And there's one ride at Pandora that does just that.
"All our audience told us is that they wanted to fly on the back of a Banshee," says Jupiter. "That was their big demand. That was what they wanted. So in order to support that desire we had to figure out what to use in order to have an individualised flight."
That's what Flight of the Banshee is: suspension of disbelief in real time.
Jupiter calls herself and her fellow Imagineers, "illusion designers", and that's what the ride is - a fully realised illusion of flying on the back of a living creature without really leaving the ground.
A cunning blend of Imax-like screen; 3D computer animated graphics (created by Weta Digital in New Zealand no less); physical effects like scents, water sprayers and air blowers; practical elements like the seat expanding and contracting between your legs as if you're sitting on a breathing thing, and controlled movements, create the illusion.
But that's all by the by, says Jupiter.
"Do you feel pushed? Do you feel challenged and do you feel triumphant?" Jupiter demands. The other members of my "expedition crew" nod furiously.
"Well alright," she says, delighted. "We are here to support you guys in your adventure... It really doesn't matter to us what we use, because it has to be the best in supporting the story telling that we're after. For us that's pushing it."
There are clips of what you'll see on the ride floating round the internet, but watching one is a bit like forcing a magician to show you the trick that just bedazzled you. Don't do it. Just go and experience it for yourself.
Write your own story, that's what Disney's inviting you to do with their total immersion lands and attractions: give in and fully suspend your disbelief, live the movies you've loved.
That's got to be the future of theme parks: where your wildest dreams are real life.
More information disneyworld.disney.go.com
Getting there Air New Zealand flies direct to Houston seven days a week. Flights start at $2021 return. There are numerous US domestic carriers from Houston to Orlando, Florida. Flights start at about US$121 (NZ$168) on a budget carrier.
Once in Orlando, Disney magic takes over and you can check into the Magical Express shuttle right there at the airport which will transport you to your chosen Disney resort hotel. The ride is free, and takes about 45 minutes.
Be prepared for a long journey. It took me 25 hours from Wellington to my hotel at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
The writer travelled courtesy of Disney Parks & Resorts.