May 11, 2021

Disneyland's Splash Mountain Promotional Poster

Fan favorite Splash Mountain made a great big, well, splash when it debuted at Disneyland in 1989! Some would argue it is one of the best attractions spearheaded by Imagineer Tony Baxter. That'd be quite an argument as you could make up a whole theme park of his projects- and it's be filled with much loved attractions like Journey Into Imagination, the Indiana Jones Adventure, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and even all of Disneyland Paris!

As you'll see below, the final version is enhanced and a bit different.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)


May 8, 2021

Unseen Shanghai Disneyland

Shanghai Disneyland may be "China's Disney park" (instead of "Disney's China park"- I mean we all know who really runs the show in this country known for flexing its muscles), and therefore, it's unique and filled with touches of design that reflect a particularly Eastern design aesthetic, but there's just something so corporate feeling about it. Is it just me? 

In contrast to the mainland China park, the other Asian parks, Tokyo Disneysea, Tokyo Disneyland, and Hong Kong Disneyland seem warm, approachable, human, and filled with Disney charm and the cultural touch points. This isn't an insult to Imagineering as I'm sure much of the decisions had to be approved by the government. And we all know that Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure is the star attraction and worthy of the price of admission for good reason!

Shanghai's Mickey Avenue may be the exception to this corporate feel. It's one part Toontown and one part Fantasyland, but it seems to work as the entry street replacing what would normally be Main Street U.S.A.

The concept art promises a sense of lightness and innocence. The reality may meet these expectations, but in all honesty, Shanghai is last on my list to visit, so I probably am not going to see it for myself if ever. Even Disney's tiniest Magic Kingdom in Hong Hong holds more appeal. 

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

May 7, 2021

My Favorite Disney Park Photos: Downtown Disney's Catal

For this post, I'm leaving the parks for a night at Downtown Disney. When you're just relaxing, sitting on the sidelines people watching just before the big crowds leave Disneyland and California Adventure, you can't help but notice how pretty the place is! Sure, the California version of Disney Springs can seem a bit dated in places, but for something that opened in 2001, she still looks great. Especially after dark. (This photograph was from my 2008 visit.) 

The round Catal bar has always caught my eye. Sitting in the middle of the busy walkway, it is a beautiful little spot where the design details of the place complement the more hard edged elements of what surrounds it. Very nicely done- and the drinks are good, too!

(Photograph copyright Mark Taft.)

May 6, 2021

A World in Need of God on Our National Day of Prayer

Today is the National Day of Prayer. Our nation is part of a world gone crazy, a world ravaged by COVID-19, racial strife, political turmoil, the desecration of all things good. There's hatred for those different than us and hatred for Christians. We live in a world where humanism is the order of the day, where groups that are on opposite ends of the political and religious spectrum work together to abolish Christianity from the world scene. 

Ironic in that Jesus says boldly- He alone is the only way to God the Father. He is the Truth, and He is the Life. Jesus said no one would get to an eternal life in heaven without believing in Him and that He alone died on the cross for the sins of man and was resurrected to life.

Jesus was that direct and simple- not because He hated people. But because He loved them and wanted to make the way to forgiveness and heaven clear. He's more than a prophet, more than a good man. He alone is God incarnate- God in the flesh. All who oppose Him will be lost for eternity. That includes you. That includes me. Wake up, America! We've lost our way. 

Pray today for a fresh start with God- pray for our nation and pray for yourself, won't you? No one should be left out from this opportunity to join a nation in prayer.

May 5, 2021

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo at Epcot!

Sometimes the simplest attractions from a technological standpoint are the most beloved. Think Peter Pan's Flight in the castle parks or in EPCOT Center's case, El Rio del Tiempo in the Mexico showcase. Upon our first visit in 1983, it was one of my all time favorite experiences. And it still would be... if it wasn't changed to a character filled journey, but that is the future of Epcot. 

Take a look at the beautiful piece of concept art for the Mexico pavilion by Imagineer Eddie Martinez. As a Disney park geek, it's the perfect way to begin celebrating Cinco de Mayo before diving into tamales, chips, salsa, and especially margaritas at your favorite restaurant. Or if you are blessed to be in Florida at one of the Walt Disney World restaurants! 

Even though Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexico's conquest of the French during the time of the Civil War in the United States, nowadays it's just a reason to party. And there's no better place to celebrate as a Disney fan than at Epcot's stunning Mexico World Showcase!

The concept art gives way to a beautiful reality.

This single pavilion- an instant favorite from our first visit in 1983- has the unique distinction in all of World Showcase of being mostly all indoors. That is changing as the years go on, but from first glance, all guests can see is a waterside restaurant (with amazingly great food at dinner- the best of all restaurants on this side of the park), a small taco stand with adult refreshments, and a large, imposing pyramid in the midst of the jungle. You've got to go deeper to get the true flavor of it all, but it is worth the exploration.

Even this Disney publicity photo shows
how tightly they pack in the diners!

Once you step inside the pyramid, it's a beautiful sight! Reminiscent of Disneyland's  glorious Blue Bayou restaurant which overlooks Pirates of the Caribbean, here in Mexico night skies dominate, and the music of mariachis fills the air. The quaint central plaza built in the beautiful Colonial style includes a small museum with hints of Coco, a tequila bar, shopping opportunities, and an enchanting and once great but unfortunately now pricy and mediocre, waterfront restaurant, San Angel Restaurante

Imagineer Clem Hall's pencil sketch.

Looking past that, colorful lanterns hang in the air while mariachis play their festive tunes. A distant volcano spews smoke, and a smaller pyramid just on the far side of the river beckons further exploration. 

Official Disney construction photo 
of the temple inside.

The mysterious and beautiful setting is the home of a river cruise... into a cartoon world? Yes, but it wasn't always that way.

An empty pavilion before World Showcase officially opens.

Although the very charming, dignified, and mysterious El Rio del Tiempo attraction has now been replaced by the escapades of three fowl friends on their Gran Fiesta Tour, the pavilion is still a cause for celebration. Another margarita, anyone? How about we go back in time for a boat ride through Mexican history and and her cultures both ancient and modern instead?

Concept art for inside the showcase.

At the opening of EPCOT Center in 1982, the Disney Imagineers set a new creative standard for themselves by designing a part that was future focused but also full of human accomplishment while celebrating the cultures of mankind. Walt Disney's EPCOT- Creating the New World of Tomorrow by Richard R. Beard details the creation and execution of this cutting edge park- the first non-Magic Kingdom style playground ever built by the Mouse. It was an expensive undertaking, but what an incredible experience it was for guests venturing beyond what they knew a Disney park to be!

Let's look at a few pieces of concept art and photos of the splendid Mexico pavillion circa opening year.  

When we first visited EPCOT Center in 1983, this pavilion was a clear favorite among all the World Showcase countries represented. The main medium for telling the story of the country was a Disney first: a large part of the signature attraction was told through the medium of dance, but any Disney fan will also see the strong influences of other attractions, most notably If You Had Wings, an old Magic Kingdom favorite from Tomorrowland. Music was a dominating factor whether outside the pavilion inside, or on the main ride.

Mid-afternoon shot from 2019.
Really beautiful, isn't it?

Inside the large temple, a small Mexican village is darkened by eternal nighttime, and there is some celebration happening!  We had reservations for a meal during the hottest part of the day and were not disappointed. An absolutely  perfect late afternoon lunch sitting waterside sipping margaritas and eating Queso Fundido made it tempting to do nothing else, but the boats cruising El Rio del Tiempo got us out of our seats... eventually. 

The boat cruise was designed to be much more grand, closer on the scale of Pirates of the Caribbean in length and immersion. Imagine! However, the budgets were blown and time was short before opening day. Adjustments had to be made, and the signature attraction was truncated. Such is the life of an Imagineer

Once aboard, our departure onto the river is at once peaceful and mysterious and suspenseful. As  we enter a smaller temple, our adventure begins with a dose of Disney magic: Encountering a statue of a high priest who comes to life, dancers soon surround, moving to ancient rhythms. In its original form, this section was the showpiece of the attraction. The history of the indigenous peoples makes for a stunning story- thankfully a depiction of human sacrifices spared- but here, everything was told in an equally artistic and beautiful presentation. From ancient days, we head on.

The doll filled celebration of the Day of the Dead startles in contrast with the flavors of It's a Small World, but it's only a small segment of the ride. The new and colorful style used to tell this potion of the story is almost jarring, but it does keep the guests from getting bored! This is also where the theme song comes to life and gets stuck in your head.

                               This publicity photo shows the drama a great color scheme creates!

We continue into other regions depicting the Mexico of the Travel Channel: Beaches, parties, and tourist sites. In other words, perpetual Cinco de Mayo. It's a step down from the elegance of what we saw earlier, but it is very playful and thoroughly enjoyable. The music is memorable, and any EPCOT Center lover worth his title as fan can hum the song even while reading this post!

The Imagineers did an excellent job capturing the culture of our friends south of the border. The end result reflected a true labor of love even if doused with a shot of economic reality. It was a beloved attraction that only needed a tune up. However, the suits at Disney were looking for a new way to make a buck once sponsorship had ended, so in came the movie tie-in. This was one of the first steps into turning the park into something that also promoted Disney Intellectual Properties. Done well, Coco would fit in quite easily here.

Recent revisions to the boat ride employed an insertion of The Three Caballeros film and Donald Duck and friends. It's sassy and kid-friendly, but just plain wrong. This major mistake in direction stripped the dignity and sophistication imbred into EPCOT Center since its inception. But the addition of Nemo in the Seas, Elsa in Norway, and Remy into France with his Ratatouille infusion, means this trend will not stop. Call Epcot Magic Kingdom 2.0 now.

The finale in Mexico City!

There's plenty of reasons to celebrate Mexico and her culture today- and I wish that I could do it by going back in time to ride Epcot's gorgeous but long gone, El Rio del Tiempo.  There are dozens of YouTube videos, but one of my favorites is here.

The past is the past, but what a glorious time it was back at EPCOT Center's opening...

 Vaya con Dios (Go with God)!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company. Photos by Mark Taft aside from the top photo copyright Disney.)

May 4, 2021

Lessons from the Emergency Room

As I sat in the emergency room waiting for the doctor to sew up my hand, my friend Mike and I had to laugh. Six stitches across my thumb due to one false move in cutting a metal stud for my basement! I always knew I wasn’t born a construction worker. I didn’t need this reminder. 

Yet God called had me out of my comfort zone once again to be involved in this project at a level I was unskilled in. Interestingly enough, prior to cutting the first metal stud, I stopped and prayed for God’s safety and protection. I am afraid of sharp objects and don’t do great with them. (I don’t even shave all that well!) What happened? The result of taking a risk.

The Biblical teachings on living an abundant life are having an impact on me. God has been speaking to me about risk-taking being part of living a faith-filled life. I am trying to figure out how that applies to me. Being obedient to what we know God to be telling is integrity.

The entire Bible is filled with accounts of risk takers for God. In the book of Acts, (Chapter 20:7-12,) Paul is once again used dramatically. While listening to him preach a very lengthy sermon, a young man named Eutychus dozed off around midnight and fell down. Other than embarrassment, this usually wouldn’t be too much of an issue. Except Eutychus was sitting in a window on the third story. His friends pronounce him dead. Paul rushes to the ground, throws his arms around Eutychus and tells everyone present that he is alive- which is now true thanks to God, and to Paul’s obedience. In being so bold, Paul took a great risk that he heard God correctly. Certainly, Paul was a gifted speaker, but imagine how those listening even more so considered the truth of his words after this resurrection! (And like some preachers, Paul then continued talking until daylight!) Point being, Paul’s risk brought God glory. Not only were people more willing to believe, you can bet Paul’s own faith was deepened.

Not every risk brings such spectacular results. What about my hand? Hadn’t I prayed for safety? God was faithful to me. No cut tendons, no nerve damage, no loss of mobility. But no one was raised from the dead, either. 

I love this quote:

“The risk-free life is a victory-free life.  
It means life-long surrender to the mediocre 
and that is the worst of all possible defeats.” 
Jamie Buckingham, pastor and author, 1932-1992

The truth is that sometimes risk brings results we didn’t plan for- tough circumstances or even anger from others. (Overseas missionaries get this all the time!) What did I learn or accomplish? Haven’t a clue. But this I do know: when God leads, I would rather risk then let my fear keep me from obedience. To me, that is the biggest part of living an abundant life-obedience.

What about you? What does risk taking look like in your life? Are you listening or watching for God to challenge you in a new way? What would obedience bring? Don't be mistaken into thinking a comfortable life is a sign of God's presence. No risk means no reward in watching God work. 

Can you live with the chance of failure? Can you make that leap of faith? Ask God to lead you and give you the strength to jump. You can be sure the abundant life - with all its bumps and bruises- is what He has waiting for you.

May 3, 2021

EPCOT's Forgotten Windmill

Epcot's World Showcase will never be completed as long as there is imagination left in the world. Or something like that! Here, Imagineer Harper Goff's concept for a Thames River Ride in the United Kingdom pavilion reveals something more for this part of EPCOT Center. Look at the horizon (Horizons?) and you'll discover a lovely windmill was once proposed as an addition. Can you imagine a cruise along the canals of Amsterdam? Could be a very charming internationally flavored version of Storybookland Canal Boats. Oh, the incredible amount of unused concepts for this once unique Disney park!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

May 1, 2021

Sea of Tranquility

What a photo for a lazy Saturday morning! A perfect sea of tranquility- the sounds of the waves, the warmth of the sun, a perfectly clear sky. I can see it all, can't you? Trust me, this makes a great desktop photo.

(Photograph from Canva.)

April 30, 2021

Rare Imagineering Art from the Disney Parks Blog

Back before the official Disney blog changed, fans of Imagineering concept art would do well to keep an eye on it. Years back, the Disney Parks blog ran a series of pieces celebrating their participation in the 1964 World's Fair fifty years ago. All the pieces posted today, sans one, are that individual day's website banners- which I quickly saved to my hard drive. (The above piece is my favorite of the bunch.) I am sure full sized art exists and that these are only slices to fit the web. Not that I mind. I'll take what I can get! Disney park concept art is one of my favorite Imagineering things!

Historians correctly note that the public's response to Disney at the fair was the proving grounds to see if a Disneyland styled park and resort would be a hit should one be built on the East Coast. Of course, we know the results spoke for themselves, as Disney's work on four pavilion's were among the most popular. All setting the stage for Walt Disney World to move from dream to reality.

EPCOT Center's CenterCore or the 1964 World's Fair?

Ford's "Magic Skyway" was one of the most popular attractions. Guests cruised in automobiles back in time to the world of dinosaurs. If the concept seems much like EPCOT Center's beloved World of Motion, well it is. The Future World attraction, sponsored by General Motors (and with an incredibly good voiceover tour by Gary Owens) used several variations on the same theme. If you look at the concept piece directly above, you may see the inspiration the ending of the attraction as guests cruised into CenterCore, the city of the future.

Sharp eyed viewers will find a number of similarities between the entrance to the EPCOT attraction and what was built for the Fair. In each, the cars were shown to guests as a draw into the attraction, moving in a circular path. Not only was it innovative, it was charming! If something works, there's no need to reinvent the wheel. It's Fun to Be Free!

Each of these attractions would return from the fair back to Disneyland in one form or another, making "Walt's park" even better than it was before. Magic Skyway was represented as part of the now Grand Canyon /Primeval World diorama (dinorama?) bringing a whole slew of prehistoric creatures as a dazzling finale to the grand circle tour.

Unfortunately, for most of the art shown on the Disney blog, there is no artist information made available for any of these pieces. (Imagineer Mary Blair's pieces-below- are instantly recognizable for It's a Small World collectionhowever!) Regardless, they do make a nice addition to my collection! She was a genius, and her color styling never quite duplicated in any other Small World. 

Love it or hate it, It's A Small World was a fan favorite from day one when it made its debut at the fair. The Pepsi show had it all- charm, warmth, and great atmosphere- not to mention the iconic song. I'm particularly fond of the forward looking color scheme in the second piece. Pundits suggest the attraction should be moved or removed. May they never go this route! Part of the Disney park experience is this taste of innocence and friendship. Something so sorely needed in our world.

When it came to designing the attraction for Florida's Magic Kingdom, could it be the Imagineers looked at the piece above as inspiration for the new ending? The carousel and ferris wheel make the perfect setting for a playful conclusion- but not for a theme park. Sorry, Pixar Pier!

Third on today's list: Carousel of Progress or Progressland as it was called at the fair. The innovative attraction also traveled from the fair to California and landed in Tomorrowland in 1967. It was a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow for the extensive re-Imagineering of the Land of the Future. Perhaps the best of all versions of Tomorrowland in Anaheim.

Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln. The State of Illinois hired Disney to bring this remarkable one man show for visitors from all over the world. After a few problems, he performed perfectly, proving to Imagineering that they could in fact pull off human characters so convincingly. In the last couple of decades, the Disney suits thought about removing Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln more than once- including replacing this patriotic masterpiece with a new home for the Muppets. I'm sure Walt Disney was turning over in his grave! Wiser heads prevailed, and after a strange attempt at renovation, Tony Baxter was given the job to update the show. True to form, he handled it with his usual impeccable style and restraint. 

As I said at the beginning, keep your eyes on the Disney blog. In the meantime, if you want to hear and see more about Disney at the Fair, order the boxed set. It's well worth the money if you can find it!

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

April 29, 2021

Thought I'd Never See the Day

Can this be real? USA Today is known for being a pretty biased news source. Yet, after doing some fact checking on President Biden's speech to Congress, they have determined that there were too many important factual errors about his accomplishments. In fact, many of the things he claimed he did, he actually did not. I'm honestly shocked. It's like expecting Fox News to be fully objective on Donald Trump.

See the full article here before USA Today pulls it due to pressure. 

April 28, 2021

The Charm of Luca

The new Pixar film Luca looks like a very sweet story of friendship. But I can say with certainty that the animation of the location will be something worth seeing! The inspiration is Italy's Cinque Terra, a stunning and very unique locale that is like nothing else in the world. On it's own, it's worth a trip to Italy, but when combined with the treasures to be seen in Tuscany, it is a must-do travel experience!

(Poster copyright Disney/Pixar.)

April 25, 2021

The Unbuilt Star Wars Restaurant

A low capacity hard to maintain E Ticket attraction; one expensive bar with reservations very, very difficult to come by; shops masquerading as two upgraded must do experiences; a new reimagined D Ticket from the classic Tomorrowland simulator; few walk around characters and not enough entertainment...all set in a stunning environment. This is what makes up Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge in both US Disney Resorts. Something planned that didn't make the cut at opening was a sit down full service restaurant. Kalikori Club.

This is one piece of concept art from a book being released this week.
Had it been built, you can be sure this would have been just as hard if not harder to get into than Oga's Cantina! Will it ever find its way to Disneyland or Disney's Hollywood Studios? Time will tell.

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

April 24, 2021

Happy Birthday Mom!

Happy 80th Birthday! We love you!

April 23, 2021

Speeder Bike Concept Art for Galaxy's Edge Revealed

Here it is: The long lost and never built Speeder Bike attraction concept art that was proposed for Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at both Disneyland and at Disney's Hollywood Studios. It would have been a great complement to Rise of the Resistance and Millenium Falcon: Smuggler's Run. Is it time to gear up for phase two?

(Art copyright The Walt Disney Company.)

April 22, 2021

The Past, Present, and Future of Disney's Animal Kingdom

Twenty three years ago today, Disney's Animal Kingdom opened to the public. The story of its creation and evolution is a fascinating one. The decision to build it was based on two main issues. 1- The topics of "Animals" and "Disney" had always meshed well together in the eyes of the public, and 2- As with the creation of Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios soon to be right next door, Busch Gardens in Tampa with its similarly themed animal focused park was a formidable competitor in Disney's desire to rule Florida's entertainment kingdom.  That said, the brilliant but cutthroat CEO Michael Eisner gave his wholehearted approval to build the animal and nature inspired park on the Walt Disney World property. 

As the fourth theme park on the resort grounds, and as one in direct competition to not only Busch but all the regional zoos in the U.S.A. and beyond, there was a lot to prove. When the park debuted on Earth Day, 1998, Imagineer Joe Rohde and his team rightly celebrated their accomplishment in the face of difficulties. But that did not mean expansion wasn't already needed...

Part Nine of this series will come as the park changes, but for now, here's Part Eight of this ongoing series. This very detailed look at the creation and evolution of Disney's fourth theme park in Florida is a very fascinating history. And I'd say it is a park with an amazing future. As with all seven parts before it, Part Eight has rare concept art, photographs, and my personal trip reports.  

                     The image above is my favorite ad from 1998.  

A brief recap: Would guests find wild animals? That's a given. A proposed African Safari would be the highlight of the opening years. The park was stunning to look at but short on attractions. Countdown to Extinction used the Indiana Jones Adventure layout to take guests into the world of Audio-Animatronic dinosaurs. The beautifully elaborate Beastly Kingdom - land of mythical creatures-never materializes. Attractions planned for Asia, once set for opening day, are built much more modestly than originally planned. 

Kali River Rapids. The proposed Tiger River Run
was certainly much larger in scale and more thrilling.
See below.

The headlining attraction for Asia was to be much far larger and more elaborate. Real tigers. Real roaring rapids were the basis for an extended safari which would entail both calm and thrilling portions, all while giving guests a full view of real life Jungle Cruise type animals. (See the image at the top of the article.)

Tiger River Run- compare the two.
Composite image courtesy marni1971.

The park map opening day.

Crowds came in droves and went home shortly after lunch. The gorgeous park was a half day event at best. It would take years to get past that deserved reputation. As with every Disney project or park or film, the story of the kingdom is full of blue sky dreams, budget cuts, intrigue, competition, disillusionment, and frustration. But it also has its fare share of successes. 
    The Safari's savannah in art form.

Let's pause for a moment. Need to read the first Seven articles before continuing to this installment? Start at here at Part One of my series, The Genesis, Evolution, and Revelation of Disney's Animal Kingdom. Seven parts and counting. Each article shows rare concept art, photographs, and more. Including detailed trip reports. Return to this post for our continuing story.

Part One

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven


                                     Photo by yours truly.

When we last left off, Expedition Everest was the huge shot in the arm that the park needed. Crowds began to return and stay longer. The beautiful Rivers of Light nighttime show was uneven at best and certainly unreliable, but some guests did choose to stay later than ever. Improved attendance only highlighted an ongoing problem: A three minute thrill attraction on its own did not help fill up a day.

The 2007 agreement with J.K. Rowling to bring her beloved books and movies now made Universal Orlando a force to be reckoned with. Disney's arrogant fumbling of the offer to represent Harry Potter in the theme park world left them reeling. It was time to step up their game as when the new land opened at Islands of Adventure, Universal moved from taking away several hours of a guest's trip into now occupying two days of precious vacation time- and dollars spent elsewhere than The Walt Disney World property. (As first and foremost a long time Disney park fan, thank you Harry Potter for waking up a sleeping giant!)

                                     Blue aliens to the rescue. By day...
                                  ... and by night!

The major lack of significant investment in the theme parks under the reign of Robert Iger became more apparent each year as crowds continued to leak away to the newly energized Universal Orlando. With bruised egos and an audience to capture afresh, the suits chose partnering with an interesting source of creativity, James Cameron, whose 2009 film, Avatar, was a huge success due to its breathtaking and groundbreaking imagery. 

"Does it fit the theme of the park?" This was the question on every fan's mind when the collaboration was announced- including mine. I mean, giant blue aliens coexisting with earthly animals and prehistoric beasts? And what about those floating mountains and otherworldly landscapes? If anyone could put it all together, Disney could, but they would need the best artists they had on it. The Lead Imagineer for Animal Kingdom, the passionate and quirky Joe Rohde, was assigned this very prestigious project. What a great choice he would be to steward it all. Say goodbye to Camp Minnie-Mickey!

Guests would fly on the back of a banshee.
Image from 20th Century Fox.

Instead of the three originally planned, two main attractions would greet opening day guests to Pandora: The expected Flight of Passage, where they'd soar on the back of a dragon like creature; and Na'vi River Journey, a slow moving boat ride through the gorgeous jungles of the planet. Yes, it originally was going to be more white water than the end result, but as it is it provides a taste of Pandora for the whole family and still fits the land perfectly.

The twelve acre expansion was to become the newest park's biggest investment, topping out at just over half a billion dollars. That is without the third planned attraction that was a storytelling thrill ride on land through Pandora. Half a billion for a theme park land. Let that sink in! But as I will tell you in the trip report portion of the article, you can almost see every penny spent. The end result is a land more stunning than the spectacular concept art created to promote it. 

Three pieces of concept art
for the river journey from Stephan Martiniere.

After three years of construction and a couple of delays, Pandora - The World of Avatar opened at Animal Kingdom on Memorial Day weekend in 2017. Little did I know, I would be seeing it for myself the following summer!

My first look at Pandora!

To make a very long story short, my wife and I had not been to Walt Disney World in almost a decade. Instead, we visited family, went to a variety of places in the United States, Europe and Asia, and saved our Disney park visits for Disneyland Paris and one in Walt's original kingdom. We weren't missing much as the World had clearly been focusing on resting on its laurels. All that would change when in the course of two years we would visit the World two times, once with each daughter and their families. 

             Trip One- Grandpa and a sweet little girl. 
First ride together in the park.

After almost a decade away, I couldn't wait to see the World and experience it as a grandpa for the first time. It's one thing to go as a young married couple or with your kids, but you see and feel the parks in a whole different way when you're older. 

During our 2018 trip, our first visit to Animal Kingdom came after breakfast at Whispering Canyon Cafe. We traveled via resort bus to Animal Kingdom. The crowds were as heavy as the air. Walking in, I had forgotten what a beautiful and peaceful place it was. The sense of calm passed once we traveled toward Pandora to get a ride on the Na'vi River Journey. The land is truly among the best work the current Imagineers have ever crafted. Tokyo DisneySea quality! You could just walk around for an hour admiring their work. And you might have to- the place is constantly packed with people. 

Had we not had a Fast Pass, the wait time for this little boat journey was an hour and a half. We wouldn't be able to ride Flight of Journey until a second day. There are so many reasons to hate Fast Pass, but I'll save those for another time. 

 Shaman of song. Singular.

From the mysterious caverns a la Pirates of the Caribbean to a slew of special lighting effects, the river journey is a strange mix of being lacking and being incredibly enticing. It's a short ride at just about 5 minutes. Yet, if you take it for what it is without expecting a real story, no narration, or any thrills, it is one chock full of little details that will take you several rides to see it all. 

Due to a lack of narration, it was hard to explain it all to the kids, especially when they saw creatures that looked scary. To them, the big blue people and scary looking animals were not reassuring. They asked,  'Who was the big blue guy at the beginning and the very weird giant lady at the end?" We quickly told them as we did a few times during our trip, "It's all make believe". A four and six year old can't easily understand the nuance of the storyline and its Gaia focused worldview. Even if it is a fantasy, there's no mistaking  there's a deliberate teaching aspect that is core to the mission of this park. So, when it is appropriate, we just consider it an opportunity to talk about the beginning of the world and creation according to the book of Genesis. God's love for us is so great that He gave us a beautiful world we should enjoy and care for!

Looking at Na'vi River Journey from an Imagineering standpoint, I would have appreciated even a few Audio-Animatronic animals and even a hunter or two to bring some depth to it all. The thrills aren't needed. They're inherent in an adventure world something humans do not get to see. The whole thing succeeds as a secondary attraction. It's truly a lovely experience, but you can tell where the budget was cut. Too bad as I love Disney dark rides where boats are the vehicle for the journey. 

From an attraction roster standpoint, it fills a much needed gap between a couple of spinners, shows, E Tickets, and animal trails and exhibits, something the dark rides of Disneyland fill. Besides, it's great to have a calming boat ride in the park! There's so much water in Animal Kingdom and so few ways to experience it.

Beautiful during the day but a must-see at night!

The end of the night show.

As for the rest of this first trip, we loved the new placement of the Lion King show. It is finally in the land in which it belonged from the beginning. Everest still rocks- and the nighttime Kilimanjaro Safari, unfortunately, did not. Very few animals that we did not see during our daytime trip. 

Due to some time restraints, we had to choose between Rivers of Light and seeing Pandora at night. No contest! If you think this new area is a masterpiece during the daytime, the nighttime visit will make you appreciate the art of Imagineering all over again. All I can say is, it is too bad this park doesn't stay open late regularly. Our second trip on Na'vi was just as beautiful to me as our first. We slowly walked out of the park, taking in all the sights. With the addition, I would now consider the park a 3/4 day experience, and it has nowhere to go but up. 

I just love Animal Kingdom! It's Adventureland on steroids!

The promotional hype is exceeded by what was built!

I'm going to highlight my comments about Flight of Passage with photos from our second trip, this one in 2018. These kids were slightly older than our other grandkids and had not been to Disney World before. Their perspectives were a bit different. In my mind, they rounded out my feelings for the park and all the enhancements made since our earlier visit in 2009.

With these cute little travelers, Disney's Animal Kingdom came in last place when compared to all the parks. (Almost a year later, it did move up to Number One for one grandson. Why? Expedition Everest! Like grandfather, like grandson.)  In their minds, for all its beauty and adventures, Animal Kingdom was nothing more than a fancy zoo. They wanted rides. In this area alone, the park fell short for them, and it was hard to argue otherwise. 

Kevin brings the biggest smiles of the day
to these adorable little guys.

We were staying at Pop Century, and  due to the coming Hurricane Dorian, the parks were absolutely empty. Very unexpected but a delightful find. Animal Kingdom fell on Day Two of our trip.

With a very late night and the little guys exhausted, we left them sleep in. But we missed both our 8:30am Kilimanjaro Safari and almost missed our Expedition Everest Fast Pass times. No matter. Everything was a walk on- except in Pandora. Of course.

Photopass was put to good use. Often!

My oldest daughter declared "Big Thunder on steroids" a winner. The two boys loved it in spite of it putting the fear of God into them, and once we got off, they immediately wanted to ride again. We stopped in the exit shop nearby to buy them an Everest T-shirt to commemorate them braving the mountain, just as I did last year with their cousin. Brand new designs, which was kind of fun that each group got something unique to the year of their trip. 

We made a decision to take our little granddaughter on something she was tall enough for: Kali River Rapids. Smiles all around- even after getting soaked. Or was it because of it?

Her smile says it all. She is charming!

Kali has a gorgeous queue, perhaps the prettiest in all of the park. Such a waste for a journey less than half the length of what was originally planned when it would be Tiger River Run. (Check previous installments of the series for more information.) There were no fire effects working, no logging sounds, zero. Just one big drop after a few spins, and it was over. Even our little adventurer was surprised how short it is. Kids say the darnedest things!

I'm going to quote my previous trip report because it is so telling: "The Safari was next, and the experience landed with a collective thud. I miss the opening days when drivers from the African continent were present. I miss the days I couldn't see so much chain link fence, and being we rode around noon, we missed seeing most of the animals. An antelope doesn't cut it, but at least the lion was out. Looking back through our photos, none of us had taken one single shot of anything related to the park's centerpiece attraction! Gorilla Falls did not charm the kids either. This visit - our only day in this park- was going downhill quickly. Very, very quickly."

I quickly suggested the winning Festival of the Lion King. The kids reluctantly gave it a shot. We went in, and once the giant character floats and particularly the monkey gymnasts came in, they were infinitely more interested. 

We were getting closer to our last ride time of the day, Flight of Passage. Finally. But we did have a small bit of time. We circled back to Everest for another ride. I made it to the last seat, my favorite. As we rounded the bend to Dinosaur, it was raining very hard again. I was excited to take them all on this, and we glad left our littlest traveler on the sidelines. Even the older boys were frightened by it all. The ride was another average experience. 

The Valley of Moriah???
I can't remember much anything specific about this movie.

Finally Pandora! It was a mere 15 minutes to take the boat ride. Good thing, as it was another "meh" rated experience in their minds. But I knew Flight of Passage would impress them- or so I hoped. The boys loved it. Our granddaughter was too little, so we needed to make use of the baby swap option. Some of us rode twice. This ride was just as exciting and fresh as the others before it. It's beautiful, thrilling, scenic, and repeatable. A home run! Honestly, I now have to say Flight of Passage is my new favorite ride in this park- and even in all of Walt Disney World.

So, was Pandora in theme with the rest of the park? Surprisingly, it fit in fairly well. There needs to be more animals to seal the deal. Perhaps there's expansion plans to the area to include a trail or some other ride where we can see those giant banshees in real not "reel" life. But, yes, it fits in beautifully. 

On our way to catch the bus to Animal Kingdom Lodge for dinner Boma, I asked everyone what they thought of the park. Not a flattering answer: "Pretty but really just a zoo". They were very glad it was only one day of our trip. They told me they wouldn't go back next trip unless there were many more attractions. Real rides. 

Everyone experiences the Disney theme parks in very different ways. We come with thoughts of what a Disney park should be. For me, this lush giant Adventureland is about soaking in all the details and seeing the creative work of the Imagineers. It's a nice change of pace from doing a park one ride after another.   

Safari expedition- definitely better during the day.

In a park with so few attractions and even fewer ones that everyone can ride, the next expansion of the park has to be very strategic. It has to be able to draw in the whole family and keep them there for the whole day. This means more is needed. Much more.

Let's hope the Imagineers in charge can find their way in a post-Joe Rohde world. Although the park holds four of the best "E Ticket" attractions on the Walt Disney World property- each stunningly unique compared to each other- its roster of supporting attractions is rather slim. Zoological exhibits are found among the Exploration trails, but no one is filled into thinking these set Disney apart from the local zoos. Two excellent theater shows provide a change of pace and cool air in the park, but they are no replacement for well thought out classic Disney adventures. All told, the next steps for the park should be rather telling and hopefully in theme vs. the newly imagined Epcot 2.0.

Will the suits try to squeeze in a version of Black Panther's Wakanda to get Marvel into this park? (With money, anything is possible to negotiate.) Will Shanghai Disneyland's Zootopia attractions get cloned here? (Please no.) Either of these choices will directly change the feel and flavor of the place. Indiana Jones 5 is on the way, and a mini-land based on his explorations could work only if done correctly and with respect in regards to what is already built. In this writer's opinion, Animal Kingdom does not need a cityscape of any sorts. Save it for the Studios park.

The park's popularity has increased due to the stunning work of the Imagineers with Pandora, but will it be enough when Universal opens its third park and stiff arms the competition with Nintendo World? They are upping the game once again! Now that Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge has opened at the Studios and Epcot is getting a few new attractions, Animal Kingdom could take a big attendance hit in the future. Or be left behind totally once the power of the newest attractions wears off. Magic Kingdom will always be the top Florida park if for nothing but for sentimental reasons and nostalgia.

As for me, I find the creation and evolution of this park fascinating! It may be due to the fact that it's the newest on the property, but I believe Disney's Animal Kingdom has the most potential to be consistent in theme and execution- as long as Joe Rohde is around, that is.
Thanks for reading Part Eight of the series. I'd love to get your feedback and insights on it!

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft. All artwork copyright The Walt Disney Company.)