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.)

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