When world-renowned filmmaker James Cameron was just 19, he had a vivid dream one night of a bioluminescent forest. So potent was the vision, he immediately sat bolt upright in bed and began sketching and later painting the scenes from his mind's eye.
For decades, his pictures lay dormant in a drawer until 2009 when Cameron's abstraction took form as a celluloid box-office sensation grossing over $3 billion worldwide. That film was Avatar.
While most of us would be happy with such a successful, literal realisation of a dream, Cameron is not most of us, and in May this year his concept morphed once more from the screen to the physical with the launch of Disney World Orlando's most audacious attraction ever: Pandora – The World of Avatar.
Crossing a rusty iron bridge enveloped by twisted vines, my first glimpse of the Na'vi World has me gaping in awe. An elaborate installation of the floating mountains of Mo'ara peak at 130 metres above the valley floor.
Tree roots and waterfalls cascade from the mountains' sheer rock faces while all around me the landscape teems with bizarre plant life – some real, some not – more than 250 varieties of live trees and plants have been interspersed with man-made Pandoran plants. Subtly placed speakers pipe the soundscape of an alien jungle, providing the constant hum of extra-terrestrial life; there are mating calls and hunting cries, strange bird noises and insect sounds; it's a sensory overload.
At the western side of the Animal Kingdom theme park – the largest and most iconic of Orlando's parks – the 4.8-hectare Pandora attraction has been seven years and an estimated $US500 million in the making.
Working closely alongside James Cameron, Pandora was spearheaded by Disney's finest team of Imagineers, the term given to the creative brainboxes responsible for conceptualising and developing Disney's attractions.
During the theoretical phase, Imagineers are actively encouraged to let their thoughts run wild, however fanciful ideas might seem, they need only worry about turning fantasy into reality later. On paper this may sound like a dream job but the level of intricacy at every turn suggests it probably also comes with its fair share of sleepless nights.
Navigating my way past the spray of waterfalls, I head to Pandora's main attraction, Avatar Flight of Passage. Starting outdoors, the queueing area snakes around a gargantuan tree into a cave adorned with paintings and murals of Avatars riding banshees. Further along, an elaborate laboratory showcases clever exhibits designed to keep guests entertained with even a life-size Avatar stretched supine in a cylindrical tank of bubbling liquid.
Come show time, we're each handed a set of 3D glasses and instructed to sit on a mechanical contraption something like a motorbike minus the wheels.
Keeping spoilers to a minimum, I can confirm the ride is an absolute mind bender.
Through a fusion of cutting-edge 3D film technology and state of the art robotics, my brain is entirely fooled into thinking I am swooping through an alien moon on the back of a banshee. My stomach flips as I plummet suddenly hundreds of metres down through thick jungle canopy, bank steeply into the raging barrel of a rising tidal wave and dive headlong into darkened caves. There are even smells paired with the scenes to ensure total immersion in the narrative.
Avatar Flight of Passage is both a more intense and thrilling an experience than I'd bargained for and by the time I stagger back out into daylight, my legs are rubbery and my forehead is coated in a thin film of sweat. The future of theme parks is here and we're a long, long way from the Teacup Ride.
En route to the second of Pandora's attractions – the Na'vi River Journey – I pause briefly to chat with one of the Disney "cast members" (the term given to all Disney employed staff).
"Kaltxi," she says.
I stand there blinking in the sunlight. (Later I'm reminded this means "hello" in Na'vi language).
"Oh hi. So how did you come to land a role working on Pandora?" I ask.
"Well, I'm a naturalist, I travelled 4.4 light years from earth on a spaceship to study plant and animal life here for the future restoration of the planet," she replies, her smile never faltering.
"Right, of course," I laugh, then there's an awkward moment when I realise she isn't joking.
The exchange continues in this manner, two adults engaging in an entirely make-believe conversation and while I find it vaguely unsettling, such is Disney's dedication to the experience that each cast member has devised their own unique backstory in keeping with a Pandora world set one generation on from the film's narrative.
"Being on Pandora really became our third attraction," says Imagineer Amy Jupiter.
"We designed moments for you, we designed lots of nooks and crannies for you to look at, immersion becomes that attraction, we wanted to give you a place to go and discover yourself, your story. This is not just about a set of characters, it's your story."
The Na'vi River Journey is the ying to Flight of Passages' yang, a soothing cruise on a "reed boat" through the rainforest of Mo'ara that's far less intense but still strangely intriguing.
Gliding down river, we watch luminescent plants radiate in the darkness, there are Panopyra, vivid pink jellyfish like entities, mysterious caves, even elusive animatronic creatures such as the six-legged viperwolves that creep alongside us at riverbanks.
By the time I'm crossing back over the iron bridge, swapping Pandora for the mayhem of Animal Kingdom, it feels less like I'm leaving an attraction as another planet.
"At Disney we love to build things that people look at and ask, how did they do that?" says Disney CEO Bob Iger.
"Disney has been doing things no one thought possible for almost a century now thanks to the visionaries and innovators that have gigantic ideas, great courage and the sheer will to deliver the impossible. At Disney, we call these people Imagineers.
"And as Walt Disney himself said, 'It's kind of fun to do the impossible.'"
Disneyland is a 45-minute transfer to Anaheim from LAX with Disney shuttles providing convenient connections between airport and resort hotels. One Day, One Park Tickets from $US91 for children ages 3-9 or $US104 for ages 10 and over. See Disneyland.disney.go.com
Get to select Disney Resort hotels from the Orlando International Airport via Disney's Magical Express. Disney's Magical Express is a complimentary round-trip service that whisks you and your luggage between Orlando International Airport and select Disney Resort hotels via a deluxe motor coach.
Qantas operates frequent flights from Sydney to LA with ongoing connections to Orlando for those visiting Disney World. See qantas.com
Disney Resort Hotels offer guests a variety of accommodation to suit all budgets. Benefits of staying at a Disney Hotel include proximity to the park, free courier service on in-park merchandise and more. See select Disney Resort hotels
Guy Wilkinson was a guest of Disney.
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