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

See The Light

If Beastly Kingdom is to breathe life into the imaginary creatures of myth, then it must recognize a world of two extremes. Imaginary creatures come in all shapes and sizes, some good and some evil. So return to the entry bridge of Beastly Kingdom, back when we were staring down that sinister path.

© Disney.

Instead, glance to the right and you’ll see a very different sight: Greek temples, lush gardens, bubbling pools of crystal water, and fields of flowers. The other half of Beastly Kingdom takes a much more light-hearted approach to mythology. This second half of the land would have two featured attractions.

In those Grecian temples would be a family dark-ride themed to Walt Disney’s 1940 hit Fantasia, and specifically the Dance of the Hours segment featuring ballet-dancing hippos, crocodiles, and ostriches. Besides the thrill-packed DINOSAUR, Animal Kingdom had no dark rides, and this fanciful family affair would perform a sort of “Small World” duty in the park – musical, simple, and beautiful.

Could you find your way through the Labyrinth to the Unicorn's Grotto? © Disney.

The pièce de résistance of Beastly Kingdom would reside at the rear of the land, accessed through those gardens and across the bubbling streams. A massive, beautiful, sprawling hedge maze would be host to Quest for the Unicorn, an interactive walk-through that challenged guests to find and awaken five golden idols scattered through the maze.

Awaken the Griffin for a clue toward the Unicorn's whereabouts. © Disney.

Each would contribute one piece of a code for unlocking the beautiful plant castle at the far end of the maze where, as its title describes, a very rare encounter with a Unicorn in an underground grotto (think, Paris’ Dragon’s Dungeon on a lighter note) would be the final piece of the experience – a simple, fun, and visually stunning experience from beginning to end with an unforgettable photo opportunity and the chance for kids to really make decisions and piece together clues.

© Disney.

What Happened?

As for Beastly Kingdom? It was always intended to be the hallmark of Animal Kingdom’s “Phase II” expansion, certain to open soon after the park itself. In the mean time, Camp Minnie-Mickey was hastily constructed with a few meet-and-greet huts and a small theater of bleachers for a show that repurposed old parade floats (which just so happened to be a rousing fan-favorite). Camp Minnie-Mickey feels very temporary because it was meant to be.

But Beastly Kingdom never materialized.

The group of Imagineers battling to bring Beastly Kingdom to life were cut to the quick when the dismal opening of Disneyland Paris made Michael Eisner wary of any large-scale investments. Beastly Kingdom was simply too grand. The Imagineers responsible for the concept were so fed up with Disney's cost-cutting ways during the '90s, they took their plans up the road to Disney's biggest competitor – Universal Orlando.

Something familiar appeared at Universal's Islands of Adventure. © Universal.

And when then-CEO Michael Eisner toured Universal’s Islands of Adventure shortly after its opening, he was said to be very surprised by one particular island in the park’s arsenal: a section of The Lost Continent was called “Merlinwood,” containing a dragon-themed roller coaster around a decripid castle, a Medieval village, and a Unicorn-themed family coaster... All seemingly related to the Beastly Kingdom that he had so recently axed from Animal Kingdom’s opening day lineup. (That alone made Beastly Kingdom’s construction unlikely, lest Disney be seen as a copycat, even if all of those rides were now repurposed as part of Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter.)

We're so enamored with the story of how Disney accidentally designed then unintentionally destroyed Universal Orlando's best themed land ever, we wrote about it in its own in-depth entry, Lost Legends: The Lost Continent. Make the jump there to find out even more details about Beastly Kingdom and its transformation for Universal.


Animal Kingdom finally received an “imagined” creature with 2006’s Expedition Everest roller coaster – overseen by an animatronic Yeti – and will, like it or not, add a few more fantasy creatures when PANDORA – The World of Avatar finally opens where Camp Minnie-Mickey once stood in 2017.

Pandora - The World of Avatar will occupy the space once reserved for Beastly Kingdom. © Disney.

So when Disney fans bellowed about Avatar, it wasn't just that they find this land – based on a PG-13, controversial, and “long-forgotten” 20th Century Fox film – to be an unwise choice. It’s also that they know what that land was supposed to be occupied by: a beautiful, reverent, fresh, and original land that fulfills Animal Kingdom’s dedication and message.

For our part and just for fun, we took some time to imagine seven lands that make more sense at Animal Kingdom than Avatar does. Check out that feature and let us know...

What do you think? Does the idea of Beastly Kingdom get you more excited than Pandora? Or do you see the merits of this new alien land and its impressive, beautiful iconography? Could Pandora be like Cars Land – something Disney fans protest on the basis of its film-roots, but then lovingly accept once they see the beautiful final product? We’ll find out in 2017...

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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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