April 22, 2015

Disney's Animal Kingdom: A True Life Adventure (Part Seven)

Today I offer up Part Seven of the extremely popular series, Disney's Animal Kingdom: A True Life Adventure. The very first part of the series dates back to Earth Day 2008. From the very beginning, my goal was to present some rare concept art and photos as I told the story of the evolution of Animal Kingdom- from concept to reality and all the changes in between. Toss in an objective analysis, a few trip reports, and rumors in the mix, and you've got a lot of enjoyable reading. 

When we left off in Part Six, it was clear that Disney's newest theme park in Florida was in transition and without a clear vision for the future.  

Rare Beasty Kingdom(me) art found on a limited edition
 collector's pin. Thanks to my friend Mike S at WDWMagic.

Old concepts such as Beastly Kingdom (above and below) were tossed aside as expensive and old school- plus they were blatantly stolen over at Universal's Islands of Adventure - brought to Disney's competitors when several Imagineers took up residence there after being laid off by the Mouse.

Thanks to Werner Weiss for this excellent scan 
of the Beastly Kingdom(me) overview.

Coming after the park saving Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain, was next year's Finding Nemo the Musical. It's debut in 2007 was hailed by hard core theme park fans but failed to deliver an attendance bump. 

In the new Disney world, which meant that character infusions were forced into places they did not belong, the Nemo musical fit surprisingly well into a park which celebrated animals in an extremely creative way. The beautiful huge puppets and consistently good musical numbers perfectly complemented the sweet, heartwarming story. The songs were written by the husband and wife team that brought Frozen to life, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. One number, (In The) Big Blue World also found its way into The Living Seas at Epcot. At 40 minutes in length, the new production took up another large chunk of the guest's day with schedules that offered differing times than the park's other must see musical, Legend of the Lion King

The next attraction to make its way to Animal Kingdom was...

Rare concept for the Tree of Life.

...Nothing. Absolutely nothing but the closing of the Pocahontas show. The park sat stagnant for several years. The Walt Disney Company was reeling from its loss of the Harry Potter property to competitor Universal. In an unexpected twist of blessing for the attendance starved Islands of Adventure, author J.K. Rowling turned over the theme park reins to Universal Creative and not Disney. It was a stunning coup for the fledging park operator. For Disney, it was back to the drawing boards.

Welcome to a kingdom of animals... real, ancient and imagined:    a kingdom ruled by lions, dinosaurs and dragons; a kingdom of balance, harmony and survival; a kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama, and learn. 
—   Michael D. Eisner, April 22, 1998

Would the Imagineers (and the suits that controlled the budget) take a look back at the opening day inscription for the park when thinking and planning for its future? What would they do?

Come 2010 and the opening of Harry Potter and his wildly thrilling Forbidden Journey, the massively big, popular attraction at Disney's competition, took the public interest by storm. Not only did the new area increase Universal's guest count by several million people annually, it also made Florida visitors rethink an all-Disney vacation. More and more folks took a day or two off from the Walt Disney World property in favor of time with Harry. The Disney suits took notice.

Disney publicly denied they were worried (as anyone with any business sense would suspect) but privately, the frantic search began for a property they could use to create their own must-see experience for Animal Kingdom. 

Another up charge tour.

In the meantime, the suits dreamed up a new adventure for the elite tourist with big bucks to spare. With minimal investment, the Wild Africa Trek promised a more personal and up close look at the animals found in the Kilimanjaro Safaris. Of course it was expensive just for the experience of more animals and a trendy meal. Of course it pleased the suits because of the instant cash flow. And of course, it infuriated theme park purists, like myself, that new Disney was into milking all it could from its guests versus steadily improving the parks and the guest experience. 

The gorgeous Tree of Life.

 More characters were thrown into the park. Disney bloggers who benefitted from personal invitations to Disney park "events" went into high gear promoting the wonders of the world. On the other end of the spectrum, press was solid if not enthusiastic for the soon to come Cars Land in California. It seemed 2012 couldn't come soon enough to divert some attention from Universal. 

Pandora coming your way in 2017?

In the Fall of 2011, the Walt Disney Company announced a partnership with filmmaker James Cameron to bring the world of Avatar to the animal based park. Instant controversy. 

What place did movie aliens have in celebrating the animals on planet Earth? The Discussion Boards on Disney park websites began to debate back and forth about the merit of the addition. Sure, there was a shared conservation theme, and yes, a giant tree played a pivotal part in both the park and the film. But was there more commonality between the two projects?

James Cameron, Thomas Staggs, 
and Imagineer Joe Rohde

Actually, there is more in common than you would think. There's a spiritual emphasis that links the two. The theme park digs deeper into our emotional connection between animals and man with an underlying- sometimes blatant-  theme of conservation.  At Animal Kingdom, Disney carefully straddles the lines between man as guardian and steward of creation with man as equal with the rest of creation. This is done with the utmost sensitivity as to not offend guests with a Judeo-Christian ethic and world view, creating either controversy or decreased revenue. In this way, Disney's lovely and charming and peaceful park is no different in its presenting philosophy than the core belief system of Cameron's equally beautiful and artistic film.   

More explanation might make sense: The opening act of the park, the Oasis area, was once named Genesis Gardens during the initial planning. The Tree of Life is a direct reference found in the holy books of all three major religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In each of these books, Man and woman were created by God and placed in this beautiful world. In the very middle of the garden stood the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. When the first couple disobeys God and eats of the forbidden fruit, they are punished for their choice and must await a savior to pay the price for their grievous sin of disobedience.

(Photograph courtesy Main Street Gazette)

In Disney and Cameron's Eden, man may return to favor by harmoniously blending with his surroundings. Here guests have the opportunity to return to this glorious place, a place where man,  beast, and nature co-exist in harmony. The concept of Gaia is the realm of belief in both kingdoms; the Earth (and in Avatar, the other planets) is a seen as a one living, breathing creature. This living land is able to sustain life on its own. 

How could the Imagineers walk a very thin line between offending paying guests by subtly teaching earth worship theology to a large segment of guests who believe otherwise? By creating a gorgeous park! Sometimes it's not so subtle- see photo above- and you can see where Disney Imagineers have openly embraced the new age/old school pagan philosophies. Directly in opposition to the classic Judeo-Christian teachings, Gaia calls for east worship, revealing these truths as real for today as when they were written: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities- his eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse...They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator- who is forever praised." Right from the Bible. Of course, here Islam and Judaism part ways with Christianity, as Jesus claims to be God and proclaims He is the only One through which one might get to an eternal place of peace, joy, and life. Now back to the park story...

A new look for the Tree of Life after dark.
Paired with a version of World of Color, Rivers of Light,
the park should look terrific after dark!

Ground was finally broken on Pandora in early 2014 with a projected opening date of 2017 once Cameron finished the next two films in his planned series. Disney released a series of new pieces of art to showcase the project as well as announcing the arrival of a nighttime water show designed to make this once half-day park into a full day excursion, Rivers of Light. The concept art for both projects is spectacular! If the end result is nearly as true to the artists' work, I'll be very happy this Avatar addition came to Walt Disney World... even if I think that stylistically the world of Pandora belongs elsewhere. 

Great photo from DaMouse website.

In a move that took years to realize, the tremendously popular theater show, Legend of the Lion King, finally moved to Africa, making room for the expansion.  This allowed the placeholder Camp Minnie-Mickey to finally be replaced with Cameron's vision built in concrete and steel. The new home for the show was so beautifully designed and executed, it is almost as if it was planned from the beginning. Harambe, the fictional city of Animal Kingdom's Africa, seems fully realized now, and there's more to come.

Anticipating increase in park attendance once Pandora opens and the Rivers of Light water show debuts, Disney Imagineers are hard at work on a marketplace expansion to Africa, falling between its borders and Asia. More shops and eateries will make for a pleasant experience during the growing attendance bump.

Smaller projects are happening as well. Good or bad- the choice is up to you. Starbucks is on its way, and a newly expanded open space around the Tree of Life has recently opened. A table service restaurant will debut on Discovery Island, taking up some space from Pizzafari

Rivers of Light: Enough to keep park guests after dark?

More questions remain: Will the Discovery River once again find watercraft filled tourists on its waters? Will Pandora be home to more than one attraction? Will Disney continue to invest in this park after this most recent expansion or will that take decades? Those questions will have to be answered later in the next installment.
This concludes Part Seven of the series. If you've never read the first pieces and want to discover all the rare concept art as well as read more about the park's development and history, you can find more information here:

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
(Concept art and top photo copyright The Walt Disney Company. All other photos copyright Mark Taft.)

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