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Disney Accidentally Designed, then Destroyed Universal’s Best Land Ever. This is the Full Story.

Long ago and far away, Theme Park Tourist began building a library of Lost Legends – the full, definitive write-ups on rides, attractions, and experiences that changed the theme park landscape, and then disappeared with barely a trace. And we don’t hold back – these in-depth entries start "once upon a time," following the threads that build into the epic closed rides and attractions we still think about to this day.

Already, we’ve put the pedal to the metal on the original and much-loved TEST TRACK, witnessed the interdimensional origin of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, lifted into the clouds on Soarin', pulsed through the bloodstream aboard Body Wars, explored the frigid fjords of Epcot's Maelstrom, escaped the darkness of Snow White’s Scary Adventures, faced the fury of Son of Beast, and literally dozens more. If it’s a closed classic, you can bet that its full story is dissected in our series, so watch for links to Lost Legends throughout the site.

But today, we expand our view to include something we’ve never detailed before: an entire lost land. One of the most detailed, story-centered, awe-inspiring, and original lands ever created resided not at a Disney Park, but just a few miles away at Universal Orlando. The almost-unbelievable story of The Lost Continent is one of plot twists, intrigue, and unthinkable connections that make it clear: Disney accidentally designed and then indirectly destroyed this amazing themed land.

Image: Joel, Flickr (license)

How could Disney have helped create this immense and incredible land at the astounding theme park belonging to their biggest competitor? It’s the kind of story you’ve got to read to believe, and it all starts in a most unlikely place.

Behind-the-Scenes

In 1989, Disney opened an unprecedented third theme park at Walt Disney World.

The Disney-MGM Studios joined Magic Kingdom and Epcot to expand the “Vacation Kingdom of the World.” In our in-depth entries on fellow Lost Legends: JAWS and Kongfrontation, we talked at length about Disney’s studio park and how it developed specifically as a pre-emptive strike against Universal’s plans for a similar park in Florida.

Image: Disney

But Disney and Universal’s Orlando parks were only the beginning. Their openings kicked off a spree of movie-themed “studio” parks popping up across the world. Particularly for audiences of the 1990s, the draw of the “studio” park was immediate. Seeing “behind-the-scenes” was a novel concept, and both Disney and Universal’s parks gave guests the chance to experience – off the screen! – the best intellectual properties money could buy.

But just as importantly, such “studio” themed parks gave operators what they wanted, too… at these uniquely industrial parks, cavernous tan showbuildings and boxy “soundstages” could populate barren "studio lots." Where Disneyland and Magic Kingdom required immersion and detail, “studio” parks could instead feature convincing-enough streetscapes (or just open industrial plazas) that gave way to scaffolds, supports, and shelled facades with visible showbuildings towering behind. 

Image: Disney

Where EPCOT Center required brave and noble concepts in industrious pavilions, a “studio” park could place The Muppets and Star Wars in neighboring soundstages, explained away as a “working movie studio” where such inconsistencies were simply part of the fun.

But times change. Even by the latter half of the 1990s, the mystique of moviemaking was fading. VHS was making its exit as DVDs brought “behind the scenes” into our living rooms. The practical effects touted by Disney and Universal’s parks were becoming outdated remnants of yesteryear as digital effects became the leading choice.

Image: Disney

Indeed, the 21st century left the public to take a second look at the Disney-MGM Studios (and its peers like the true Disaster File: Walt Disney Studios Paris, above) for what it really was: a catch-all park that would serve to cram together any intellectual properties that couldn’t reasonably fit into Magic Kingdom or Epcot. Lacking the magic of the former and the ambitions of the latter, the “studio” concept was looking more and more like a dated cop-out.

Tastes were changing, and Disney had just the plan in place to reinvent the theme park experience.

A New, Fantastic Point of View

Image: Disney

Which brings us to Disney’s Animal Kingdom and its 1998 opening. Industry experts point to the opening of Walt Disney World’s fourth park as a watershed moment… And just imagine the departure it signaled. Built-out, big budget, ambitious, and truly alive, this park felt like a reinvention – a reaction to the mass-produced "studio park" era that preceeded it. And it was!

Image: Disney

Animal Kingdom took all that had made Disneyland so unique in 1955 raised its cinematic standards to never-before-seen levels of realism and immersion. And just like that, only nine years after the Disney-MGM Studios opened, Animal Kingdom changed the game… and maybe made Disney-MGM Studios look even more barren in comparison.

What you wouldn’t see at Animal Kingdom? Showbuildings; lighting rigs; “behind-the-scenes.” Animal Kingdom was a creative departure that cast us not as studio extras, but as explorers encountering the unknown.

Image: Disney

Now, that’s not to say that Animal Kingdom is perfect, or even the best of Walt Disney World’s parks.  But years before DisneySea would gain international acclaim for it, Animal Kingdom dispatched its visitors into a realm of true exploration and photorealism: lived-in African villages, immense, crumbling Asian temples, a detailed paleontological dig, and vast, endless expanses of wild, investigable pathways, waterfalls, ruins, outposts, trails, and animal experiences.

However, for guests who visited Animal Kingdom during its first decade or so, one particular land stood out. And that’s not necessarily a compliment.

Camp Minnie-Mickey

Image: Loren Javier, Flickr (license)

It’s clear that the park’s Camp Minnie-Mickey was meant to stand in for Toontown as the park’s cartoon oasis for kids, and the land was a quaint and charming one populated by meet-and-greet huts, babbling brooks, “summer camp” kiosks, and sweet vignettes of characters camping. However, the other obvious thing about Camp Minnie-Mickey is that it wasn’t really on par with Animal Kingdom’s other lands.

Image: Disney

The land featured only two attractions – both shows – housed in theaters clearly made for temporary use. Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends was a hidden gem; really an animal demonstration show (common at zoos and animal parks) here featuring Pocahontas herself introducing the audience to real possums, snakes, raccoons, rats, porcupines, and birds.

The second show, Festival of the Lion King, was a quick re-purpose of some old parade floats from Disneyland with metal bleachers in a makeshift theater, which went on to become a fan-favorite.

While most of Disney’s Animal Kingdom was built-out, immersive, and alive, Camp Minnie-Mickey felt decidedly less… permanent. That’s because it was never meant to last.

And in fact, it’s what was supposed to fit on that piece of Animal Kingdom’s property that had Disney fans salivating… and that’s the start of the path to Universal’s Lost Continent. Don’t believe it? Read on… 

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There are 5 comments.

It's a shame that there don't seem to be many photos of the Merlinwood area, particularly inside the Enchanted Oak and Dragons queue. I remember both fondly. The Dragons queue now just seems boring in comparison to how it used to be.

What a crazy, twisted story! I knew the details about all these lands separately, but never thought about how closely they are all connected.

I always feel a pang of sadness when I think about what could have been with Beastly Kingdom. As beautiful and immersive as Animal Kingdom is, it could have desperately used a few more rides and a little more "Disney" whimsy and storytelling. I know I would have loved Beastly Kingdom, maybe even more than any other land at WDW.

However, if following the logic above, the construction of Beastly Kingdom may have resulted in the Wizarding World never being built. Or at the very least it could exist in an entirely different capacity than it does today. As a HUGE Potter fan, that is a tough pill to swallow.

If only there was a world where we could have both...

On the other hand, though I am not at all invested in the Avatar franchise, I am very much looking forward to experiencing Pandora at Animal Kingdom. I have been floored so far by all the pictures and videos I have seen. This land looks like the next level of immersive theming, which I think will make up for the underwhelming source material.

An incredible story very well written. I absolutely adore the Dueling Dragons and have no idea why it isn't as revered as the Hulk. I enjoy them more actually. When they dueled was especially awesome. Seeing the other "dragon" line up with you in the lift hill was something unique and fun. The queue itself was something to really behold. Best queue hands down in the history of theme parks. Did you know that there was very slight whispering in the catacombs section? I learned one day when it was slow and I ran ahead and there was noone else around. Really awesome touch that I'm sure very few people realized. Why in the world would Universal want to get rid of it? (if the rumors are true) Also does anyone know what the incident was in 2011 that caused Universal to mismatch the coasters?

I found this on a wiki page. "Dragon Challenge Edit
Main article: Dragon Challenge
On July 1, 2009, an employee was walking underneath the coaster in a restricted area when he was hit by a train during a test run. The victim suffered multiple head injuries and was taken to a nearby hospital.[2]

On July 31, 2011, a tourist was injured when an unidentified object hit him in the eye while riding Dragon Challenge. Prior to the incident, the guest had only one good eye, therefore the incident resulted in the guest completely losing his sight. Dragon Challenge remained shut for less than 24 hours after the incident with Universal concluding that the ride was safe.[3][4][5]

On August 10, 2011, a rider was struck by an object while riding the attraction, injuring his face and leg. As a result of this and the aforementioned incident in which a rider lost sight in one eye, Universal officials announced that the two roller coasters would no longer operate simultaneously, pending an investigation into both incidents.[6] In October 2011, officials suspended the dueling aspect of the ride permanently."

I remember back in 2002 starting the day at I.O.A on the verandah of the Enchanted Tavern overlooking the lake. Now sadly gone but it encaptured the whole feel of that Land. Sights, sounds and smells as the sun rose above the treeline and the excitement of the day ahead coursed through our veins.
I much prefer Lands that have the capacity to develop organically rather than the trend of the " all eggs in one basket" policy.
No doubt Potter is popular and Avatar looks amazing. But they have limitations. A more fluid themed Land has endless scope and can be more readily tweaked and changed. Just my opinion of course.

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