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The Land Before AVATAR: What Disney's Animal Kingdom Almost Had

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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.

Something Original

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...

© Disney, via Yesterland. Click for link.

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.

© Disney.

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.

© Disney.

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.

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There are 23 comments.

I don't think adding pandora is a far off or bad idea. I think it makes as much sense to do that as it does for Disney to incorporate Iron man into their theme parks. In this case, it will add some much needed flare to the animal kingdom park. I must say though, the original dragon theme concept sounded pretty damn cool.

I don't have a problem with Pandora - I think it will fit in beautifully with the current surroundings and can't wait to see it

This is by far the most comprehensive description of Beastly Kingdom that I've ever come across!

I really struggle, even after the impressive concept art just released, to see how Avatarland can fit in thematically with the rest of DAK, aside from its longevity in pop culture, especially after reading about how awesome BK could've been. Still, with the right imagination and money behind it, I'm sure Avatarland can be executed well.

Thanks for all the wonderful images and artwork from Beastly Kingdom. Such a shame it was never built. And PANDORA to me (from what I have seen in artwork) looks to be a totally smaller "land" (w/lots of special visual effects in there) AND mostly indoors in a large building of sorts. BK was so beautifully spread out in it's proposed plans... I will wait and see, but it's still sad BK never got built.

I guess I am one of those rare group of people who happen to be a Disney fan and a Avatar fan at the same time, so I am very excited for PANDORA.

I still think Beastly Kingdom or something mythological would be better and more fun than Avatarland.

I still think Beastly Kingdom or something mythological would be better and more fun than Avatarland.

Beastly kingdom made more sense. A nod to Fantasia would have been amazing. Hercules could have been incorporated also. Pandora doesn't make sense. Disney has so much history to pull from and this is what they come up with?? Disappointing that this is what they come up with.

I'd much rather have Beastly Kingdom then Avatarland..... Disney has so many movies/shows to choose from, why go anywhere else. They could do a whole theme park on mythical creatures. Oh well! Animal,Kingdom is my least favorite park.....and Avatarland will not change that-BEASTLY KINGDOM may have been able to change my mind...but now we'll never know!

I like Avatar but Beastly Kingdom sounds soooooo much cooler. And no matter what Universal ever does, though i like them too, the Disney Park wouldve been sooooo much better!

Islands of Adenvtuee one of the most impressive parks on Earth? Really? I see Harry Potter (great) and Spider-Man (really great) surrounded by a bunch of mediocre rides and shows.

Not islands of adventure, the lost continent... Two very different areas of universal Orlando... The lost continent was where the Sinbad theater will is, the talking fountain, and mythos restaurant suit currently

Everytime I visited Animal Kingdom, I asked employees about Beastly Kingdom, sometimes they didn't know anything about the project and other times they said "yeah, it's in process, maybe in 2 or 3 years the construction will begin"... I'm not fan of Avatar and it's something that will not attract me to visit the park, but I will be there for 2017, so I hope to be surprised.

I think adding a mythical element to AK is a great idea (unicorns, dragons, Griffins, etc) and could still be done. Having said that, with 3 more Avatar movies on the way over the next decade, it seems to be a pretty good idea for Disney to add Pandora to the park. If done correctly, the spectacle of the attractions and the surrounding areas could help boost attendance for AK long after the movies are forgotten.

Too bad they didn't go with the original idea. They still have lots of room and could still add it. Also this would definetly attract more guests to this park

Beastly Kingdom would have been great, but it's never too late to do it elsewhere. They have plenty of space at WDW to do it somewhere else. And I love the idea of Avatarland, and it fits perfectly with the theme of AK if you have actually read their articles explaining such, with the movie's theme of conservation, etc. Plus I'm sure James Cameron is footing the bill on much of it and having his presence there is similar to having George Lucas' with Star Wars and Indy Jones before.

You're right that Avatar's focus is conservation. Is that enough to warrant a permanent land in a Disney Park? Why not, say, Pocahontas? Wall-e? LOTS of films promote conservation. I suggest that Disney selected Avatar because of its box office revenue, thinking it would be able to stand head-to-head with Harry Potter. And in 2009, it sure seemed like it would! But then, it disappeared from pop culture...

Be careful imagining that James Cameron is footing the bill.

The example you give of George Lucas's Indiana Jones and Star Wars is a good example. Do you think George Lucas PAID Disney to have Star Wars attractions? Or that George Lucas PAID Disney to have the rights to build Indiana Jones attractions? Absolutely positively not.

Just the opposite. Disney paid BIG for the exclusive, worldwide rights to incorporate Avatar into its parks, not the other way around.

Beastly Kingdom would have been a home run, and it hurts to think about what we almost had.
But I agree that Pandora is a great fit of theme and mythology for Animal Kingdom. Disney had to go different. Any hint of dragons or unicorns would be compared to Islands. Why not go with a completely new, never realized NEW mythology that is an entirely new world, with three movies worth of material coming? Whether the movies do well or just OK, the theme park presence will be well done and well attended.
WALL°E and Pocahontas don't have the imaginary creature element that has been missing from AK.
I think Disney will get their money's worth with this association and years worth of associated advertising. I won't suggest that the Avatar sequels will equal the Potter ones, but the park element will beopen while they're being released, there will be buzz and interest with every opening.
Not being argumentative, I hear a lot of reasoning of what would have been better, but other than the 6 year lag time, I haven't heard a good reason for why not Pandora. Disney needs a fertile ground for imagination and a good story to create their Magic. I think we'll find The Land of Pandora will fit the bill.

I am not happy about Avatar land. Disliked the movie, same story line, man meets girl falls in love, they must save the planet,the succeeded. I wish beastly kingdom happened, just portray the good dragons as well.

I question the statistics behind claims that no one is happy with Pandora. I believe the general feel to be MIXED at worst. Disney does things to an incredible degree, no matter what the source material is. So this land will be beautiful and entertaining, whether the movies reignite the worldwide passion Avatar once held, or not. Further, I submit that the themes of Avatar: conservation, living WITH the land, and imagined creatures fit the thematic elements of Disney's Animal Kingdom as if they were written for it. Beastly Kingdom would have been wonderful, but it's not the first concepts to be developed and then passed on. Welcome, Pandora. I can't wait to visit you!

I think people are wrong in downplaying the popularity of Avatar. When the sequels are released, the first I believe corresponding to the opening of Pandora, you will see again massive response. Despite some current expansion of the AK parking lot, I think it's going to be inadequate for the crowds that will come to the park for Pandora.

Here, here!
Attendance will be IMMENSE!
Point of interest... There is a RUMOR that cast parking will be moved which will open more parking for Guests. Using comparative sizing, without any real numbers, this will make DAK parking bigger than Studios and only slightly smaller than Epcot and MK. We should be good!

With all the land that they have, I still think they should do it. It would also help for it becoming a night time park. Only problem is Disney has so many projects going on right now and trying to fix 2 other parks.

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