In 2017, Pandora – The World of AVATAR became the newest must-see destination at Walt Disney World Resort... a shining example of what Imagineering can accomplish. Designers constructed a vast, distant alien world of endless peaks, floating mountains, extraterrestrial flora and fauna, and two spectacular new Disney dark rides. Met with critical acclaim and industry-wide praise, Pandora is a surefire hit...
But that's surprising to many Disney fans who, since 2011, have simply detested the idea of a permanent land themed to James Cameron's 2009 sci-fi adventure film Avatar coming to Disney's Animal Kingdom.
Just think back... Since 2011, Disney Parks fans have... well... had a hard time coming to terms with the idea. What is it about PANDORA – The World of Avatar that earned such vitriol from Disney fans? If you asked, they would've said that the film’s time had come and gone; that Avatar will never be engrained in pop culture (see the scathing article by Slate aptly titled "Why People Don't Care About Avatar") and that it simply doesn't deserve a massive, permanent land at a Disney park.
And while the film is the highest grossing film of all time, many chalk its impressive box office earnings up to its position as the first major 3D wide release film and the "you've gotta see it" grassroots conversations that bolstered attendence. But staying power? Don't expect it. Even with three sequels officially in (much-delayed) production, people just aren't excited about Avatar as an intellectual property.
But dissatisfaction with Avatar is not the only reason fans dreaded Pandora. Clues scattered around the park, its parking lot, its logo, and even 1998 McDonalds Happy Meal toys hide perhaps the biggest reason that Disney fans lament the new Avatar land: It’s not the first idea Disney had for what to build on the land originally occupied by Camp Minnie-Mickey.
The park’s official opening day dedication called for the park to be a “kingdom of animals... real, ancient and imagined: a kingdom ruled by lions, dinosaurs and dragons.” And before the park opened in 1998, Disney Imagineers were certain the park would one day house those “imagined” creatures in a very impressive land called Beastly Kingdom.
Beastly Kingdom would be the anchor of Animal Kingdom’s “Phase II” expansion – a massive addition to breath new life into the park soon after its original opening, after it had gotten its feet wet and earned back a bit of its massive budget. Of course, Beastly Kingdom never materialized, and PANDORA is now certain to take over its spot. But why do Disney fans so love the idea of Beastly Kingdom? What did it include?
Imagine If You Will...
Beastly Kingdom is indeed one of the most impressive never-built lands at a Disney Park. It’s incredibly dynamic, comprised of two very different but very complimentary sub-lands. Upon entering Beastly Kingdom, you would be presented with two very different paths.
To the left, a winding, dark, forested passage littered with the remains of charred suits of armor, lances plunged into the ground, and steamy vents. This dark and earthy path leads to the base of a crumbling stone tower. We’ll start there, following the darkly wooded path of creeping vines and Medieval lanterns.
Emerging from the forest, you’d be surrounded in a Medieval village of cold stone pubs and thatch-roofed markets, all lit by flaming torches as jagged dark rocks jut out of the ground. This hamlet – strangely warm and welcoming for its bleakness – would be overseen by a twisted, sinister castle tower and "Stonehenge" style plaza.
This is the land’s most recognizably “dark” icon, Dragon’s Tower. Inside is Animal Kingdom’s E-ticket, a dark-ride / roller coaster hybrid through the dragon’s keep, past its gold stores, and along the bat-filled rocky corridors of the surrounding caves.
Dragon’s Tower would be a true “thrill ride,” braved only by those who like their roller coasters to pack a punch. Like Universal's Revenge of the Mummy, Dragon's Tower would likely have been a dark ride / coaster hybrid passing through dark caverns, ancient collapsing chambers, and even the dreaded dragon's den.
Some artwork instead depicts the ride as an inverted coaster (more along the line of Kings Island's Banshee) or even a swinging suspended coaster (like Cedar Point's Iron Dragon). In this later concept, guests would've joined a host of bats bent on stealing the dragon's treasure.
Either way, Dragon's Challenge would've been the park's main thrill ride - a role later filled by Expedition: Everest instead. And put simply, if you replace the Yeti with a fire-breathing dragon and a snowy mountain with a Medieval tower, you might have a pretty good idea of what Dragon's Tower would've been.
But wait! In fairytales and legends of old, evil never triumphs. So this dark and sinister portion of Beastly Kingdom would only be the first half. The second section of Beastly Kingdom would be something markedly different. So let's continue to the second half of Beastly Kingdom where a much different group of creatures awaits.