Disney’s fourth and largest Florida park celebrates ten years of opened gates today. In honor of that, let’s look back at the past, discuss the present, and speculate on the future of this wonderfully imagineered playground.
Many folks, myself included, have a deep appreciation for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Why? The combination of brilliant design, one fairly consistent theme, with faithful execution brings new and unique adventures and environments for our pleasure. However beautiful this combination zoo, botanical garden, and theme park is to behold, there are also the intangible factors that draw us to it: the deep emotional connection that comes from man’s love for nature and animals combined with the desire to run away from the concrete jungles of modern day life and reality!
Starting with Mickey himself, animals of all types and depictions continue to be a great and profitable fit with Disney. According to company lore, Walt’s well-known love for animals and exotic locales, evidenced by the inclusion of Adventureland at Disneyland, California, and his True-Life Adventure films formed the emotional heart and the beginnings of Animal Kingdom. That said, when the talk began about the creation of this park in 1989, it may have truly been a strictly business decision that brought it to fruition.
The Magic Kingdom was a concept unique to Disney, although Epcot Center was clearly inspired by world’s fairs. Disney-MGM was the least original of the three parks, taking ideas from Universal Studios in California and including its own Main Street of a different era for its entrance plaza.
To stand out, Animal Kingdom had to be different. This new park was purposely designed from the beginning to be unlike anything Disney had previously created, unlike anything visitors had experienced from Disney- and it is. Upon its completion, in order to communicate this place was something special, Disney’s advertising experts kicked it into high gear. The cleverest ad produced played on the sense of mystery the park strove to create: a young explorer walking down one of Animal Kingdom’s paths, looks behind him as shadows of animals imaginary, extinct, and wild are cast over him, clearly telling prospective visitors that exciting and unexpected animal encounters were the order of the day here.
Once enticed by this innovative advertising campaign, curious visitors at the entrance gates received the newest park’s handout. The “Adventurer’s Guide” gave a small hint of what was ahead.
Once visitors crossed the turnstiles, those expecting a traditional zoo environment or yet another version of Main Street were taken aback, finding a lush jungle instead.Here’s a rare map from Disney News introducing what guests found opening day.
Looking inside the Adventurer’s Guide or at the Disney News map, and we find the park is a little short on attractions. An honest count means less than ten, but several others are there to pad the list: character greeting kiosks, the village of Harambe in Africa, and Discovery River apart from the boats that cruised it.
Although not immediately obvious, similarities abound with the quickly built Disney-MGM Studios. Both parks are light on attractions, a trend that continued in later years with Disney’s California Adventure and Paris’ Walt Disney Studios. Instead of a lengthy Backlot tour, guests at Animal Kingdom travel via safari truck through the quite realistic African savannah. Exhibits abound in each park. Animation and behind the scenes artifacts are on display at the Studios, while creatures of all sizes reside in the main lands of the Kingdom. Time-consuming theater presentations are plentiful, replacing the absent traditional Disney dark rides while accommodating large groups of guests. Noticeably lacking, however, are Disney’s trademark and lavish Audio-Animatronics adventures. These costly extravaganzas are relegated to one per park: The Great Movie Ride, and Countdown to Extinction, respectively.
Rounding out the Animal Kingdom were a limited number of shops, mostly found in Safari Village. These are beautifully built with handcrafted carvings and stunning décor, and they surround a few small eateries. Happily, the lush gardens, waterfalls, and meandering paths (including the famous “hidden” one), beg for exploration, filling more of the visitor’s day.
Entering the Oasis, we realize the place is designed for personal exploration as multiple winding paths curve through a lush jungle filled with small creatures and colorful birds. Folks who choose not to rush through this section of the park may uncover a small waterfall cascading before a bridge, all hidden from immediate view. Small caves contain unexpected animal exhibits. The scent of flowers and the distant sound of music fill the air. To experience this is to feel a combination of serenity and excitement, the desire to remain in this one spot all day and the need to explore even further.
Journeying beyond, the Tree of Life becomes a breathtaking piece of art upon closer inspection, as the three hundred plus animal carvings found in its trunk and branches become evident. One cannot help but photograph this masterpiece all through the day and from various angles.
However disarming the view, it is only upon entering the newly created village of Harambe, that the serious message of conservation comes into focus. The park’s signature attraction, Kilimanjaro Safaris, is found here and takes up approximately 100 of its 500 acres. In this African town, which takes minor design elements from Epcot’s unrealized Equatorial Africa pavilion, its citizens make their living from eco-tourism and coexist in peace with their surroundings. The attraction itself contains a focus about the real evils of poaching, subtly weaving its important message among the views and the thrills.
In this regard, Animal Kingdom aligns itself much more with Epcot than with the Magic Kingdom or the Studios. The latter two parks place a heavy emphasis on pure fun and entertainment, but underneath Epcot’s incredible pavilions are doses of philosophy mixed with Disney magic dubbed “edutainment”. The same holds true with this park. It may be subtle, but it is always present.
Like its predecessors, the Animal Kingdom theme park is first and foremost a business venture, so it is designed to appeal to the masses. The emotional connection with its audience goes even deeper than appealing to our love for animals. Varying worldviews and spiritualities are foundational elements that combine with Disney’s attention to detail. All this is done very carefully as to not offend anyone, and Disney carefully straddles the lines between man as guardian and steward of creation to man as equal with the rest of creation, an important distinction.
The Oasis was once named Genesis Gardens during the planning stages, but the Tree of Life is a direct reference found in the holy books of all three major religions. Man and woman were created by God and placed in this beautiful garden and in the center stood the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is only when they disobey God and eat of the forbidden fruit that they are banished. At Animal Kingdom, guests have a chance to return to this glorious place, and they rarely are disappointed. Disney’s creation here mimicks our Earthly creation. It is masterful and done with a loving hand. The environment designed does not fail in creating the most beautiful place they have ever conceived. This setting is satisfying to the soul!
Departing from the safari jeeps, we journey onto the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail. In this verdant valley, a troop of incredible creatures roam freely within yards of the path. Later an excursion aboard the Wildlife Express to Conservation Station, Disney's behind the scenes visitor center, impresses with their animal care.
Moving on down the way, the Flights of Wonder bird show is found at the outpost of the soon to open Asia section of the park. In a few months, when guests can enter the village, they’ll discover another exploration trail revealing tigers, bats, and komodo dragons as well as an exciting but brief white water rapid ride.
Having completed the tour of the areas celebrating real animals, guests can venture to Dinoland, U.S.A., seeking encounters with those creatures prehistoric and extinct. Countdown to Extinction, a time machine journey gone awry, is the premier attraction here. It is a fast-paced, loud, and quite scary adventure. The layout of the track is an exact copy of the popular Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland, a concession to rising costs associated with building Animal Kingdom. Competitively, it is a direct answer to the Jurassic Park attractions planned at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.
Even this innocent science fiction adventure reinforces an evolutionary theory that dinosaurs were destroyed by a meteor storm, compared to the great flood that many creation believing scientists think accomplished the end result. Regardless, it is a thrilling encounter not soon to be forgotten. Aside from the prehistoric botanical gardens, an imaginative child’s playground, and a stage show based on The Jungle Book, not much is found here as the planned Excavator coaster fell also prey to additional budget cuts.
Camp Minnie-Mickey concludes our journey of Animal Kingdom at opening. This land was originally planned as Beastly Kingdom (or Kingdomme), bringing the fantasy element of the park. Focusing on dragons, unicorns, griffins, and other creatures of the imagination, dwindling budgets aborted the plan. Eventually, character greeting kiosks transformed into an entire land.
Even in this natural Fantasyland, philosophy and theology exist hand in hand with entertainment. A small stage show with North American animals starring Pocohontas and Grandmother Willow, is enjoyable, yet sports a strong animist worldview, teaching nature itself possesses a soul. These are heady concepts for a theme park. The major revue, and some would say the best attraction in the park, is The Festival of the Lion King, a highly energetic show with gifted performers featuring recycled floats from of an old Disneyland parade. It is a deserving crowd favorite and a fitting way to end the day.
It was not the consistent serving of multicultural perspectives and spirituality that dissuaded visitors from entering the gates. Guests were quick to notice the cleverly disguised shortcomings, many deeming this “new breed of Disney park” a half-day excursion. Disney responded equally fast that this was a place to be savored, not a rushed experience. Both camps were right, yet since Disney understood that guests vote with their wallets, plans were immediately made to add to the park in short order.
During my first journey to the park, two erroneous design choices were clearly evident along with the lack of attractions. The majestic Tree of Life is truly a draw in itself, but the film experience inside, although quite good, uses space that should contain an iconic and timeless attraction. Additionally, the tacky and very unnecessary Rain Forest Café takes up prime real estate at the park’s entrance, lending a stench of commercialization to an otherwise organic and visually appealing piece of land. This is a major mistake, akin to placing a prominent Home Town Buffet at the grand entrance of Main Street.
Other guests were equally insightful. The persistent “half-day park” assessment, the early closing time, a lack of Disney quality, Audio-Animatronic attractions, and the misperception that Animal Kingdom was nothing more than a zoo, combined to keep attendance levels lower than the executives in Burbank desired. In fact, by some reports, attendance figures dropped for two to four consecutive years after the park opened. Although short on cash for expansion, new plans were developed with varying degrees of success in acceptance and execution.
Chester and Hester’s Dinorama was added to the prehistoric section of the park, providing additional fun for children but diluting the theme by adding a cheap carnival atmosphere to this elegant setting. Countdown to Extinction became the generic Dinosaur, tying itself in name to the newly released Disney film. Other smaller name changes made things easier to understand for guests. Popular shows were given new indoor theaters to answer the complaint that there was little air conditioning to combat the Florida heat.
In spite of these changes, numbers remained flat at best. Disney’s advertising team finally took on some of the misperceptions directly, promoting that Animal Kingdom was “Nahtazu”, eventually culminating in “Adventure Awaits” when Imagineering finally built an attraction that single-handedly changed the fortunes of the park.
Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain was just the high profile attraction the park needed. Beautifully in theme and stunningly executed, this high speed roller coaster appealed to teens and families alike. This was one instance where the superb concept art was surpassed by the majestic reality formed from concrete, steel and paint.
The success of Everest catapulted Animal Kingdom above the Studios in Florida park attendance, but it also created the need for more shows, attractions and eateries to handle the folks now determined to make the park part of their vacation. Fortunately, a small orange fish named Nemo was the impetus for another blockbuster, a theater show that easily rivaled Festival of the Lion King in scope, execution, and popularity.
A decade later, Animal Kingdom still bears a strong resemblance to its opening day presentation. However lofty the goals for this park were at conception and initial execution, during a decade with mixed results both creative and financial, eventually Disney Imagineers came to their own revelation: the beautiful Animal Kingdom park was primarily a business investment, and it had to be tended to with much care to maintain both its integrity and monetary success.
What is next for this marvelous place? Only the suits and Imagineers at Disney know. Strong contenders seem to be an animal area focusing on Australia, although some die-hard fans still desire a version of Beastly Kingdom. South America is also uncharted territory. Many Disneyphiles are concerned about the infusion of animated characters into the parks, feeling Animal Kingdom is the next to be infected by this trend. Time will tell.
Reagrdless of future plans, some things are certain: Disney will continue to compete with its neighbors, Harry Potter or otherwise; Imagineers will design attractions that inspire while Disney executives direct the park’s course based on guest attendance and spending.
Lastly, Disney's Animal Kingdom will continue to connect with guests. The superb craftmanship at the park is unrivaled in the States, and as long as the theme and execution remains uncompromised, it will be profitable. More importantly, due to man's deep love for animals, a spirit of adventure, and his longing for connection to the Garden where he began, this wonderful, creative place will bring us back again and again.
This article appears in its original abbreviated form. Due to much feedback and reader appreciation, I have been encouraged to expand the series. So, I have, quite a bit in fact- and it starts here.
(All concept art and some photos copyright The Walt Disney Company. Most photographs copyright Mark Taft.)