December 15, 2008

Disney's Animal Kingdom-A True Life Adventure (Part Two)

“Well, I think we’ve got the best animal facilities in the world. We’ve got the best keepers that are here, we’ve got an advisory board- that is a very impressive list- that helped us plan and develop this park. We really think we’ve done the right things for the animals in the overall basis.”

Al Weiss, President Walt Disney World Resort, at the Grand Opening

Disney's Animal Kingdom had to be different. With three parks already on their Florida property, this new park was purposely designed from the beginning to be unlike anything Disney had previously created. Was the theme powerful enough to draw guests to spend a fourth day at yet another park? It had to feel fresh. It couldn't look or feel like a zoo. Reaching a new audience would be a necessity, and it would be a benefit to deal a blow to another competitor. Disney's Animal Kingdom fit the profile. If built as created, its beauty would astound, its attractions thrill.

Once the park was completed, in order to communicate this place was something special, Disney’s advertising expects kicked it into high gear. First came a preview souvenir booklet (top), followed by some terrific print ads.

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 animal encounters were the order of the day here.

Enticed by the 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. There was no icon to be seen, no ride vehicle or transportation system in sight, no vendor cart. 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. The actual count is 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.

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. The merchandise offered included unique and park specific offerings, something Disney has seemed to forgotten about in most of their other parks- a very nice touch.

Back outside, the lush gardens, waterfalls, and meandering paths (including the famous “hidden” one), beg for exploration, filling more of the visitor’s day. Just what would the paying visitors think? After considing many incarnations of the park, settling on what was to be built and committing to it in concrete, there was no turning back. Park gates opened for the first time on April 22, 1998. What did guests find and how did they react?

Above, the original proposed Animal Kingdom centerpiece, a carousel!

Disney's WILD Animal Kingdom- that is until copyright issues got in the way!

The setting is spectacular and unique to all the Disney kingdoms. Just like the Earth it celebrates, this newest Florida gem was lovingly created and intelligently designed. Nothing was left to chance. Walking through the turnstiles, it is a fully immersive experience, its a wonder for the eyes, satisfying to the soul. The old saying "The Devil is in the Details" comes to mind, but let's not give him the credit for the magnificent work found in here.

The Oasis is an area in which the designers made up for items removed due to monetary constraints. The very hard working Imagineers produced a stateside park that hasn't seen this much elaborate theming since the original Disneyland. Between the hand carved details all around, lush landscaping, hidden animal grottoes, and various meandering paths to explore, many visitors could spend an entire day discovering unexpected delights. However, guests conditioned by decades of running for Space Mountain or Pirates of the Caribbean – those wanting traditional Disney attractions- could be severely disappointed. Some were, and park management was quick to be told about missed expectations.

It is these guests that were focused on the shortcomings, many deeming this “new breed of Disney park” a half-day excursion charging a full-fare. 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- and their experiences were now shared worldwide via the internet- plans were immediately made to add to the park. Soon to come additions included attractions for the Asian section of the park not yet ready for opening day.

Proposed design for Asia.

Our Journey Begins...
Due to other obligations, it was about a year and a half after opening that I first saw Disney’s Animal Kingdom for myself. My wife and kids were curious and asked the obvious questions regarding a park that seemed to be the Disney version of a zoo. Having familiarized myself with the park from every form of promotional material I could get, I thought I was ready to go and “knew” the park. Was I ever wrong!

On our first journey to the newest kingdom, two erroneous design choices stood out. The majestic Tree of Life is truly a draw in itself, but the 3D film experience inside, although quite good, uses space that should contain an iconic, 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 commercialism 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. However in the larger scheme of things, these are quite minor. This was a brand new Disney park after all and a marvelous one at that!

When looked at through a critic's eyes, although not immediately obvious, the final execution of Animal Kingdom reveals that there are many similarities 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 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.

Back to our visit. Entering the Oasis, we realized the place is designed for adventure as we found the multiple winding paths curving 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 view. In fact, I didn’t find this place until my 4th visit! Small caves contain unexpected animal exhibits, including fish. The scent of flowers and the distant sound of music filled the air.

I did not expect the impact this type of “Scene One” would have upon my view of the park. To experience this in person is to feel a combination of serenity and excitement, the desire to remain all day and the need to explore even further. Amidst the adrenaline rush, I never realized we would later be hit with an educational experience as well as a day of fun.

Above, the Proposed plan for Dinoland U.S.A.

Journeying beyond the gardens into an open pedestrian area and its small but colorful village, the Tree of Life transforms into a breathtaking piece of art upon closer inspection, as the hundreds of animal carvings found in its trunk and branches become evident. I couldn’t help but stand and stare at it or photograph this masterpiece all through the day from various angles. Even if it didn’t have the rather funny “It’s Tough to Be a Bug” show inside, the tree would become an instant favorite.

Photo from

Standing on a bridge looking at the Tree on one side and the Discovery River below, I was lost in a brand new faraway place. The park's clear shortcomings faded. Then it hit me: I hadn't been on a single attraction in over an hour, but I was thrilled with everything I saw. Couldn't wait to keep exploring the park. Yes, Disney had done it again.
This is the end of Part Two of this series.
(Artwork copyright The Walt Disney Company, photos by Mark Taft.)

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