This month we take a look at how Disney's Animal Kingdom became the theme park it is today.
Visit Disney’s Animal Kingdom and you soon come to realise it’s not just the average theme park. Receiving its grand opening in the spring of 1998, the park’s unique blend of thrill rides, shows and animals has been pleasing thrill seekers and wildlife lovers for over a decade. Home to some impressive exhibits and the signature Tree of Life, Animal Kingdom shares the wonder of wildlife and humanity with guests as they traverse the beautiful tropical surroundings of the park.
But life wasn’t always that green for Disney’s latest Floridian adventure. Soon to be home to one of Disney’s largest investments, Avatar Land, this month we travel back in time to World Earth Day 1998 and look back at how Animal Kingdom roared into business and became one of the world’s leading theme park and zoo exhibits.
Going ape for wildlife
Covering an astonishing 580 acres, Animal Kingdom is the largest Disney theme park in the world. Despite opening some decades after the death of pioneer Walt Disney, the concept originates from the founder himself as he once visioned a theme park ruled by the animal kingdom. Attracting 9.8 million visitors in 2011 alone, the park is one of the top 10 most visited theme parks in the world. Home to the iconic Expedition Everest roller coaster and Dinosaur dark ride, it is perhaps seen as hot favourite with Disney guests wanting to experience the latest thrills and spills. Keen to cater for the young at heart, Camp Minnie-Mickey and It's Tough to be a Bug 3D show boast first class family thrills.
At its core, the iconic Tree of Life structure represents the animal kingdom itself with the zoo and attractions welcoming guests into a new world of creatures and adventure. Lands dedicated to dinosaurs and Asisa showcase the latest Disney thrill rides, while the aquariums, zoos and other attractions allow guests to see the wilder side of the world. The Animal Kingdom theme park was all part of a large ten year development plan throughout the 1990s. Disney dubbed this as ‘their decade’.
For families who want to escape the jungle, the first point of call when visiting the Animal Kingdom might be the lively Dinoland USA sector towards the rear of the park. Boasting a colourful carnival atmosphere, the area is home to arguably Dinsey’s dizziest attraction, Primeval Whirl. The standard spinning coaster design might be familiar to some as the type of design employed is often seen popping up at travelling funfairs across the globe. Built by now defunct French manufacturer Reverchon, Disney purchased two models in a bid to improve capacity. Elaborately themed to a time travelling machine, the coaster has been a huge hit with thrill seekers and families alike wanting to take a spin on the wild side.
Dinoland USA also plays host to one of the more sinister and intimidating rides of the Animal Kingdom. Dinosaur! is another attraction themed to time travel; transporting guests to an era that has been long forgotten. The ride, that uses a track system exclusive to Disney, guides riders through a preatomic jungle ruled by T-Rex dinosaurs. But in true Disney fashion, riders soon experience a closer encounter that leads to a dramatic conclusion.
Despite being one of Animal Kingdom’s original attractions, it still remains one of the most popular in the park. The ride also received a last minute name change; originally due to be christened Countdown to Extinction. Disney Imagineers renamed the attraction Dinosaur! to coincide with the release of the hit 1998 animated film that goes by the same. Bizarrely enough, the references between the film within the ride are minimal.
Whilst the tropical oasis and open lake blissfully invite paying public to immerse themselves in a world of wildlife and adventure, Disney once considered taking the park in a new direction. Many concepts for Animal Kingdom have leaked their way onto internet forums and enthusiast sites, with the most famous going by the name of Beastly Kingdom. The themed area, if built, would occupy the space where Camp Minnie Mickey currently resides. Included within the plans was a blueprint for a colossal roller coaster themed around a dragon and a family attraction based on the tale of a unicorn. The area would have also featured elaborate theming- a staple for Disney theme parks.
For theme park fans in Florida and beyond, Beastly Kingdom sounds extremely similar to that of the Lost Continent sector situated in Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The area, which came to fruition a year later as part of Universal’s expansion, lends itself to the plans set out for Beastly Kingdom. This is because Universal employed some of Dinsey’s talent in order to plan the area, which was clearly inspired by Disney’s early concepts. The thrilling dragon coaster eventually turned into Dueling Dragons; the first set of dueling inverted coasters built by B&M. The unicorn themed attraction also made it into the Lost Continent. This time the design turned out to be The Flying Unicorn - a popular Vekoma family coaster.
Despite the original Lost Continent undergoing a massive re-theme as part of the extravagant Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansion, Animal Kingdom’s original design had an immediate impact within the industry. It only takes one to gaze in awe at Dragon Challenge (previously named Dueling Dragons) or see family screaming with delight on the Flight of the Hippogriff (formally known as Flying Unicorn) to see why.
You can learn more about what could have been in our recent in-depth overview of Beastly Kingdom.
An expedition to Everest
By the mid-noughties, Animal Kingdom was growing from strength to strength. But look closely at Animal kingdom’s ride offering and a theme park staple was absent - a white-knuckle coaster. And in 2006 the skyline of Disney’s Animal Kingdom underwent a gigantic change as the roof of the world landed in Orlando.
Expedition Everest was the name to given to the most expensive and elaborate Disney coaster in history. Taking inspiration from the tallest mountain on earth, the coaster featured an elaborate storyline based around a runaway expedition train coming head-to-head with the legendary Yeti monster. Built by Vekoma and opening in the spring of 2006 after 5 years of development, Everest became an instant hit with thrill seekers. The steep hills, drops and forwards and backwards motions equate to a terrifying ride experience that certainly put Animal Kingdom on the map for roller coaster fans and adrenaline junkies alike.
With a roller coaster under its belt, and a whole host of animal themed attractions awaiting guests, Animal Kingdom has transformed itself into a hot spot for theme park lovers. With the introduction of PANDORA (A Land dedicated to the hit movie Avatar) in 2015, Animal Kingdom can look forward to a wild future.