March 10, 2009

Dark Skies in a Downgraded Kingdom

The most difficult part of this trip report is not avoiding the issue and saying what I need to say right from the start. I love Animal Kingdom- but I was totally bored and ready to leave the park by 2:15pm! If it's your favorite theme park at Walt Disney World, please read on and give my appraisal a fair shake before you judge me...

After a great two days, one at Epcot, one at Magic Kingdom (and one at Disney's Hollywood Studios yet to come), my wife and I were ready for a third great day- at Disney's Animal Kingdom. It's a spectacularly beautiful park, unique in many ways. (Cruise my blog for my "True Life Adventure" on the creation and evolution of this park. It's a multi part series.) This visit, it was the only park we got up early for. That should say much.

We hopped on the first bus of the day. I was feeling an adrenaline rush just thinking of riding Expedition Everest. I couldn't wait. I was also anxious to show my wife this park in a relaxed and unhurried manner.

Arriving in the parking lot, the sky was quite gray and the day felt "heavy". Walking through the gates into the park, it seemed as all was very quiet. The animals were still, and I couldn't hear (or see) any of the birds- only the sound of the small waterfall just past the entrance. This gave a very different first impression to what the day would be like. Misty, overcast, somewhat mysterious.

Wandering the Oasis and taking in the lush gardens at a leisurely pace, we eventually came upon the Tree of Life. What a magnificent piece of art! To this day and after many visits, the sight of it brings the same sense of awe as Cinderella Castle or Spaceship Earth. Very different from the emotions evoked by sight of the giant Sorcerer's Hat! Stopped for a few moments and took it in, but turned right towards Dinoland U.S.A. and heading toward Everest passing by the theater for Nemo.

Fastpasses in hand for the best thrill experience on the Walt Disney World property, it was time for a bit of morning coffee as we had skipped out on the excellent brew in our room at Port Orleans Riverside. The Anandapur Tea Company was calling! But what a mistake it turned out to be. After a twenty minute wait, due to one employee working the stand, our very tasteless lattes were in hand. Thanks to my wife's willingness to wait, I was able to photograph much of Asia with very few people around.

The new area surrounding and encompassing the Yak and Yeti restaurant was filled with detail and color. I heard new sounds and intriguing music. Immediately, I felt as if I was somewhere else than Central Florida. Well done, Imagineers! Surprising and unexpected.

Checking the daily schedule, we saw the Nemo musical was set to begin in a bit. Our stroll took us past Everest- I couldn't wait!- and into the Theater in the Wild. The exterior is strangely unthemed. Just a big box, seemingly thrown up quickly. Puts the phrase "Thinking outside the box" into a whole new light. It does not fit in with the exquisite detail of Asia or the quirkiness of Dinoland. It is truly a building in limbo. Unfortunately, it took me right back into a theme park, reminding me Disney does cut budgets and/or forgets what makes this park such a rich experience.

The rich experience was to be found inside the theater. What a show this is! Some folks seem to have a problem that a non-musical film was given the gift of song, but I am not one of them. The actors/puppeteers perform with grace and dignity, the sets are stunning, the special effects well used, and the songs are worthy additions to the Disney repertoire. My wife had not seen the show before and was surprised by the extremely high quality for a theme park production. (She has not seen Aladdin at California Adventure- or even been to that park for that matter.) Due to the nature of the show and its wonderful execution, it is a production that pleases adults as well as children.

We exited the theater to a still overcast day. I cannot overestate how this changes the feel of the park. The gray skies add a dullness to the park that the brilliant colors and textures cannot compensate for. This is very different than a cloudy day in Epcot or the Magic Kingdom. It was, however, a plus when taking an excursion to the Himalayas!

Traveling up the lift hill, the cloudy skies and cooler temperatures increased the realism factor of the attraction. Was there snow up there? The mist effect at the top of the mountain, which was working on my very first trip, was not on. The eagle/bird effect was off as was one of the waterfalls. The yeti was in "B" mode, but regardless, the ride rocks! Don't get me wrong; I am not letting Disney off the hook for allowing so many details fall apart. I am saying that so many details were layered on in the first place that exploring Everest is still an immersive and exhilarating experience.

Our second set of Fastpasses announced it was time for our safari through Africa. When we had come by earlier to get the tickets, the standby line was already past an hour. This was very shortly after park opening. Herein lies one of the failings of this gorgeous park: there are too few attractions, headliners or otherwise. Yes, Everest has succeeded in bringing in the crowds as has Nemo, but there is little of the smaller attractions to fill in the day. It took me three visits here within three years to see the problem.

A quick ten minute wait and we were on our way through the landscapes of Africa. Our driver, unfortunately, was no longer a native from the "Dark Continent", but someone from the states, New Jersey, I would guess from his accent. Much like Epcot's World Showcase, here at Animal Kingdom, encounters with the people of the lands they represent are an important part of the experience. Our guide's stateside accent wasn't as much a problem as his manic attitude. His style had turned the premier attraction of Disney's Animal Kingdom into a landlocked version of the Magic Kingdom's Jungle Cruise. Bluntly, he destroyed the dignity of the incredible presentation. Combined with very few animals to be seen and a cast member roaming about the savannah, it was a disappointing journey. It was a long twenty minutes.

A redeeming factor came as we exited. The gorillas of the trail were out and about due to the cooler weather. Three of these amazing creations of God were out wandering right in front of us. As I was switching camera batteries, one male smacked the other hard on the head, attempting to prove or show dominance to the third, a female. In one respect, it was quite humorous and captivating. We stood and watched and waited. Eventually nothing more happened, so we left the area. This was the most animal activity we saw all day.

Thankfully, browsing through the shops of Africa was still a pleasant experience, one free of Disney plush and High School Musical merchandise. (It was not this way in the shops of Discovery Island, however.) Does Disney realize how much having authentic and handcrafted goods adds to the overall day? Probably not, as almost everywhere we went, the merchandise was the same. In fact, the only purchase I made throughout the entire trip were batteries and an additional memory card for my camera! For someone used to dropping money for unique Disney momentos, this was unfortunate. Again, I had saved money to burn for this reason, but nothing of interest was to be found.

As we continued through Harambe, we stopped and sat at the patio tables inside a small courtyard. Our preference would have been a snack at the wonderful Tusker House, but now it is just another character meal location. We could hear the drumming sounds of the African band outside. Eventually, we wandered past them, but it seemed that right across the street was a Jungle Book themed meet and greet! This obvious displacement stripped the sense of disbelief from the complex and convincing environment. It's a poor and desperate choice on the part of park management to shove characters all throughout the park be it in attractions or streetside. At least Nemo took place indoors!

At this point, it was time for our lunch at Yak and Yeti. It is a beautifully detailed restaurant with good but very pricy food! For $75, we had an appetizer, our entrees and drinks. Not even dessert. It was a nice splurge for just the two of us, but we will not return. Our server was great and taking time to regroup is always necessary at some point, but Yak and Yeti is ultimately disappointing, just another one time Disney dining experience to cross off our list.

I looked about and thought of what we should do next. Getting wet on a cool day was not our idea of fun, so Kali River Rapids was out. That left Dinoland as an unexplored possibility. We are not big fans of Dinoland overall, but the idea of it clearly belongs here. Countdown to Extinction, I mean, Dinosaur, is a pretty good attraction, but Dinorama should be ripped out of the park in our not-always-so-humble opinion. We chose to head that way.

My wife instinctively sensed my disappointment in how the day was going. She suggested I take in the single rider line for another journey up the Forbidden Mountain before we continued to Dinoland. That did the trick. I was temporarily refreshed and enthused as I exited the station. It didn't last, however.

The sight of the very (intentionally or not) tacky Chester's and Hester's reminded me of the ugly and cheap Paradise Pier 1.0 at California Adventure. Ugh! I sat on a bench and looked around. I tried to like it, I really did. But I'd have to lie to myself to make this happen. Even the poorly laid out Disney's Hollywood Studios doesn't have an area this ugly or misplaced. On to Dinoland's centerpiece attraction.

Another walk on attraction. I have very mixed feelings about the ride. It should be exciting, but ultimately, for me, it is just loud, dark, and scary. Once you journey past the wonderful museum part of the queue and climb aboard your Time Rover, there is not a sense of truly being anywhere. Rather, the attraction is just a series of vignettes through a jungle while you encounter dinosaurs one at a time. The rare piece of concept art from Alain Littaye's great Disney and More blog (below) would have really given the rider a sense of place and story. Skipping it was another shortsighted decision. Yet, I was determined to ride this attraction as I didn't want to not ride it. After all, it is one of Animal Kingdom's few attractions where there is some sort of transportation involved.

I tried something new. I got aboard the troop transport/time rover- Indy is a far better use of this amazing technology- and covered my ears to diminish the impact of the sound on the journey and save my nerves. Try it sometime- especially you Orlando locals who go to the park often. It is an entirely new experience. In essence, the carnataur loses his bite, and the fright factor goes down considerably. This may be the answer for the young children who are scared to ride and the parents who are adament that they do! Unfortunately, covering your ears also reveals the shortcomings of the show and brings Disney's reliance on "spook house" carnival effects to the forefront. In hindsight, I cannot determine whether I was glad I did this or not. Although I have limited memory of my first prehistoric journey in 1999, I think many of the effects were also not in working order. The flying pteradactyl didn't, and the astreroid shower did not seem to happen either. I am sure I missed something else, but overall, something I couldn't quite place was missing.

We left Dinoland to go to Camp Minnie-Mickey. We were now heading against the current of guests who were intent on exiting the park. It was only slightly after three!

Due to the walk on status of It's Tough to Be a Bug!, we took an unexpected detour. Having just seen the show at California Adventure, I was still in awe of the highly detailed queue around the Tree of Life. The film was still fun but now predictable after five or so viewings between the two parks. How I wish the Imagineers would have been given the cash and permission to instead put a truly magnificent attraction here instead of another 3D film!

Now it was time for Camp Minnie-Mickey. I wasn't in the mood for the Lion King celebration but I wanted to see if Pocahontas' theater had construction going on around it. Navigation between lands is not easy here, but we finally arrived. Any construction? In short, not from what I could see. The camp reminded me of Disneyland's old Bear Country. It was quite pretty and could be the site of something really good, but it fell flat and was very lifeless. Yet what on earth was Stitch doing here!?! Please, Disney, get over your love affair with this annoying character! I digress.

To beat a very dead horse, the Imagineer's aborted Beastly Kingdom would be wonderful here. In short, the park needs an infusion of attractions and a bit more artistic variety. Whatever the plans are, they need to add a freshness to the lay of the land.

We turned around and walked through Africa one more time. As I surveyed the area, I took in the detail. Very, very nice. Crowds were also leaving Africa, and going against the flow, we walked by the safari. No line at all. We queued right onto our vehicle with merely three people ahead of us.

Our guide was slightly better this time, but certainly no where near the quality of the first group from ten years ago. Much calmer, her demeanor was just the right element for a still overcast late afternoon safari. A few more animals were out- including a lion taking top spot on the famed Lion King rock.

Walking out from Africa, my wife tempted me with one more trip on Everest, but I was through. I could tell by her face that I was not alone in my decision to leave the park. We took the back paths around the Tree and wove our way in and out until we hit Animal Kingdom's hub. We walked toward the exit, and I turned back for one last look. For the first time, all I saw was a tree.

In my opinion, and highlighted by this trip, Animal Kingdom suffers from a sense of sameness in much of the park. Embarrassed to say, but as cheap, shameful and ugly as it is, Dinorama does offer some variety.

Another problem is created when the animals are not plentiful. When this occurs, like the day of our visit, the park deficits are really exposed. Demanding the animals to carry the show creates a problem because they are unpredictable. On a normal day, this factor creates variety. On a bad day, it really subtracts from the enjoyment of the park.

My conclusion: It seems as if Disney is letting this park stagnate, relying on character meals, character additions, and character meet and greets to make up for a lack of newer attractions and true creativity. What is there is mostly good, but it is not enough. My wife said it best, "Next visit, I'd skip Animal Kingdom." Sadly, I had to agree.

(Photos copyright Mark Taft. Concept art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)


Anonymous said...

You should email this to Meg Crofton and other managers. AK is my favorite park for a number of reasons: amazing attention to detail, "hidden" corners, unique non-film/cartoon-based attractions, beautiful animal exhibits. But they are definitely letting some things slip, and I won't pay to return until they at least restore the Yeti.

As amazing as Everest is, I would be very disappointed seeing it in B mode (the swiping Yeti is the ride's highlight). I've also noticed many empty animal exhibits and visible lack of maintenance (painting) around Discovery Island.

CTX has the potential to be as great as Indy but for its very weak storyline. With a new script, actors, pre-film, on-ride audio and minimal effect-additions to the pre-show room, an exciting adventure could be created (I've actually re-written it for fun) out of one that now disappoints, and for not much money.

I'm not as critical of the Theater in Wild building - I see the area as a no-mans-land, and the exterior does have some deco engraving around the base. DinoRama is bad, but at least it will be inexpensive to knock it down when they install the Ice Age flume ride, Mammoth Falls... yeah right.

On last trip, I was also disappointed by our Kilimanjaro driver, who ad-libbed too much, tried to be funny and wasn't. I'd prefer they just play African tunes the whole time and scrap most of the script.

Like you mention, Beastly Kingdom should have been there on day one and to me the park still feels incomplete without it.

One unexpected highlight was the hippo that swims in continuous circles up to the glass in Pangani forest. Did you see him? We watched him delightedly for about 45-minutes. And Maharajah Trek has got to be the most beautiful animal exhibit on the planet... right up my alley.

Thanks for your thoughts. Enjoy the site.

Mark said...

I am considering emailing my post. Do you think anyone would listen???

Anonymous said...

Oh my Gosh people, can't you just go to a disney park and have FUN?!?!? relax and don't be such a geek/downer!!! Reading this kind of thing is getting old. You're a jaded theme park goer, cynical and impossible to please.

I've been to Tokyo DisneySEA, what people call the best theme park ever and even that place has "flaws". You could compare apples to oranges all day long. My advice to you is to enjoy the person you're with and have FUN. It's a playground!!

I have no sympathy for your pouting. Oh no! Jungle Book characters aren't in the right area!! wahhhh!! Yes, I get what you're saying, but look at it through the eyes of a child for once.

You're going to SKIP Animal Kingdom next time?? really? wow. That just makes me laugh. yep, you showed them!

Mark said...

Didn't say I didn't have fun. Said I was disappointed. Two different things. When I'm paying a lot of money, I want a good experience. This isn't as big a deal as you seem to be making of it.