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

Image: Dave and Margie Hill, Flickr (license)

Camp Minnie-Mickey was a placeholder, never meant to stick around at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

As for what was supposed to go there…? Well… Look no further than the official dedication set forth by Michael Eisner at Animal Kingdom’s 1998 opening:

“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.”

As well intentioned as Eisner’s dedication might’ve been, it was also a lie. Looking high and low, you wouldn’t find any “imagined” animals in Disney's Animal Kingdom. Unless, of course, you count the carved dragonhead above the park’s ticket booths, the Unicorn parking lot, or the dragon prominently featured in its official logo.

Oh, and one more place…

Real, Ancient, and Imagined

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

Disney left few clues to the original intention of Camp Minnie-Mickey’s land scattered about, but the most famous was visible only via the otherwise infamous Discovery River Boats. This short-lived opening day attraction at Animal Kingdom was a simple transportation ride (not unlike the Friendship Boats at Epcot’s World Showcase) meant to shuttle guests from the park’s entrance to Africa.

The leisurely cruise would carry guests around the park’s central icon, the Tree of Life, and provide a sort of “preview” of the adventures that waited within each land branching out from the hub.

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

So for example, a hot springs and geysers outside of Africa would bubble and erupt, with a waterside goat exhibit on Harambe’s shore...

Image: Sam Howzit, Flickr (license)

...and in a secluded grove in the waters along the edge of Dinoland, the boat would pass by a towering, playful animatronic Iguanodon – the very one riders on Countdown to Extinction had brought back aboard their Time Rovers! 

And outside of Camp Minnie-Mickey, the boats would sail past gnarled, twisted, jagged volcanic rocks and a dark cavern where a plume of flames and a guttural, echoing roar would signal something sinister inside...

…Wait a minute…

The Discovery River Boats didn’t last long. When Animal Kingdom opened, it featured only four rides (including the River Boats and the Wildlife Express transportation train), which meant that lines quickly grew to an hour or more, with guests expecting a Jungle Cruise style adventure. As a mere means of transportation from one end of the gargantuan park to another, the River Boats were sunk.

They were hastily renamed the Discovery River Taxi (to make it clear that it wasn't an attraction in and of itself) before being oddly repurposed as the Radio Disney River Cruise for a short second life.

That also spelled the end for the unusual and cryptic flame throwing display. Obviously, it wasn’t meant to act as a preview of Camp Minnie-Mickey. In fact, it was supposed to be a sign of things to come.

Beastlie Kingdomme

From the earliest concepts of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, executives and designers had agreed on one very important thing: if Disney hoped to charge Disney Park prices, it had to be abundantly clear to visitors that this new addition to Walt Disney World was much, much more than a zoo.

And that makes sense, given that most visitors to Walt Disney World would be coming from within an hour’s drive of a local or regional zoo of their own, and that even the best zoos in the entire world couldn’t have justified carrying Disney’s admission price.

So Disney’s coup for making Animal Kingdom a clear theme park experience infused with Disney storytelling was two-fold: as the park’s dedication noted, it would include more than real animals… it would have ancient and imagined ones, too.

Image: Disney

For the latter, you’d have to look no further than Beastly Kingdom, an entire themed land dedicated to creatures that inspire legend, story, song, and myth. Crossing the bridge over the Discovery River, guests would enter into a fantasy world rules by good and evil. A forking path in a dense wood would lead to two opposing realms.

To the right, a fanciful path would lead into a beautiful marble oasis of fountains, arches, columns, and dancing water. This peaceful kingdom would feature two standout attractions. First, a family dark ride (the park’s first) would be a leisurely boat ride through the ornate gardens featured in the “Dance of the Hours” segment from the 1940 classic Fantasia, including encounter the film’s dancing hippos, ostriches, and crocodiles.

The real would-be wonder from Beastly Kingdom would’ve been Quest for the Unicorn, a groundbreaking walkthrough attraction. Guests would’ve been released into a truly boundless hedge maze, making their way through fantastic realm to awaken four bronze creatures, each of whom protected one piece of the four part code used to unlock the Unicorn’s Grotto. Only those who dutifully collected each piece of the code would be rewarded with an ethereal, unforgettable face-to-face encounter with the Unicorn and its tranquil cavern…

Meanwhile, having chosen the path to the left back at the land’s entrance would lead guests through a darkened, lantern-lit forest. It would weave and twist, leading to a desolate medieval village of torch-lit stone pubs with the deteriorating ruins of a long-abandoned castle on the hill overhead.

This half of the land would be a scorched battlefield where anxious peasants would be in constant fear of the malicious dragon, roosting in the castle’s vaults. 

Guests would gather before this crumbling fortress to see hints of the mysterious dragon that bartenders at the local pub and inn spoke of. And like clockwork, the dragon would remind gathered guests of his presence by appearing, masked in shadow, with massive claws gripping the castle's edge. With a bellowing breath of fire, the barely-seen figure would set a waterfall aflame, sending scorching plumes reining down the castle's facade.

And therein would reside the land’s headliner, and a new anchor for the entire park: Dragon Tower, a dark ride / coaster combo through the heart of the castle for a one-on-one encounter with the towering dragon himself.

Image: Disney

Beastly Kingdom would be the next evolution in Disney’s storytelling. This incredible land would take the photorealism of Animal Kingdom’s Africa and Asia and infuse it with fantasy, creating a living, habitable world that just happened to include unthinkable creatures and unimaginable adventures. In one fell swoop, Beastly Kingdom would double Animal Kingdom’s attraction lineup and provide it with both a high-capacity family dark ride, a thrill ride beyond anything Disney had created before, and a new mythology that could grow and evolve. Larger than life, the land would be emotional, moving, and quite literally legendary.

And just like that, it was cancelled.

Canned

Animal Kingdom was a brave return to form for The Walt Disney Company that, under Eisner, had green-lit practically no large-scale projects after the disastrous opening of Disneyland Paris, cancelling and closing ambitious expansions and rides.

Image: Disney

Early on in the development of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the gargantuan cost for the cutting edge park ballooned. Executives had underestimated the price for behind-the-scenes zoological ammenities, fencing, exhibit design, and animal acquisition and care (all things the average park goer wouldn't notice, mind you) making the already-skittish Eisner rethink the park's grand scale. 

According to insiders, the blown budget and Parisian pressures put Eisner in a bind. He was faced with the nearly impossible choice of choosing either Beastly Kingdom or Dinoland to open on time alongside Animal Kingdom’s grand opening. To his thinking, both of the would-be lands served to elevate Animal Kingdom beyond what could be found in a typical zoo, but only one could be financed in time.

The other, it was presumed, would open in a “Phase II” expansion after the park recouped some of its initial cost, coming online when the park needed a resurgence of public interest.

Image: Disney

Ultimately, the team designing the park's Dinoland was given the go ahead. It made a great deal of sense to all involved:

  1. Eisner's gut feelings (wrong as they had been in the past) and his laser-like focus on pet projects he deemed his own told him that the 2000 film DINOSAUR would forever reshape animation and filmography. Dinoland would be the perfect companion to prime audiences for the big screen iguanodon family adventure, and later to accompany it. 
  2. Dinoland had two planned rides: a wild roller coaster called the Excavator and a daring dark ride called Countdown to Extinction. The latter, in particular, would re-use the technology and even track layout developed for Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure, saving big money. 
  3. The merchandising potential behind dinosaurs presented an unbeatable opportunity.

Image: Disney

So Dinoland was built, and a portion of the land set aside for its companion, Beastly Kingdom, was temporarily turned into the placeholder Camp Minnie-Mickey. However, Beastly Kingdom and an expansion to Dinoland to include the wild Excavator roller coaster would happen… just… not yet.

That wasn’t good enough for Imagineers.

Jumping Ship

Image: Disney

While you can certainly see that the pieces are in place to understand how Disney unintentionally built the Lost Continent, it’s important to know how Imagineering works.

While many of the household names Disney Parks fans recognize remain the same for decades and decades, the truth is that Imagineering (and its peers, like Universal Creative) are fluid spaces where contracted workers ebb and flow from project to project, in effect going where the jobs are. That’s industry standard.

For example, many of the themed entertainment designers, engineers, and construction firms (altogether, “Imagineers”) that Disney contracted for the five-year rebuild of Disney California Adventure were then laid off (amicably and expectedly), and simply moved north to Universal Studios Hollywood to facilitate the multi-year expansion there. And once that capped off, many doubtlessly moved back to Disneyland for the Star Wars land while others may have migrated on to PANDORA, Skull Island, Volcano Bay, and onward…

Image: Disney

But the ‘90s were a particularly frustrating time for those in themed entertainment. We’ve spoken at length about the financial failure of Disneyland Paris and its catastrophic result, and how Eisner placed a stop order on any and all large-scale projects across the Parks division. Closures of classics ran rampant and mismanagement crippled the Disney Parks for decades – the origin of many of our Lost Legends (and a few ensuing Disaster Files, too).

And for many Imagineers – even high-ranking ones – the cancellation of Beastly Kingdom was a last straw. While the opening of Animal Kingdom would’ve seen many designers move on, the rate here was unprecedented. After years of declining investment from Disney and a growing landfill of abandoned and downsized projects with no end to Eisner’s penny-pinching regime in sight, Imagineers were fed up. So they collected up their designs and headed out into the world to try to find a theme park owner that would be willing to bring their hard work to life.

In this case, they found a willing creative ear just a few miles north of Animal Kingdom…

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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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