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Delays, Cancelations and Death: The Strange But True History of Disney's Animal Kingdom

Dragons and unicorns and dinosaurs. Oh my!

Image: Disney

 

History shows that the first public confirmation of Animal Kingdom was a bit ambitious. What it lacked in terms of rides may have cost the park during its early days. Also, the continuing perception of this issue is an idea Disney park planners combat to this day.

Eisner himself stated that Animal Kingdom would be a “celebration of animals that ever or never existed." That’s because Disney feared that their newest park could exist as its own entity without a bit of aid. What they worried about was that the basic zoo concept wouldn’t seem special enough for demanding theme park tourists, customers who expect more from the Disney brand.

In order to elevate the concept and also provide a few novel attractions, Disney planned to add mythological and prehistoric animals to its menagerie. The linchpin idea was that the fictional rides as well as the ones from millions of years ago would provide different storytelling avenues for Imagineers. That way, they could protect their interests while hedging their bets if the animals didn’t prove enough of a draw. 

Image: Disney

Lost in the annals of history is Beastly Kingdom, which the world now knows as…Camp Minnie-Mickey? As bizarre as that sentence reads, it’s true. While Expedition Everest stands today as the notable entry in the fictional beings portion of Animal Kingdom, the first announcement for the park explicitly stated that there would be many of them. In execution, none of note existed during the first eight years that the park was open.

What was the source of this disconnect? Beastly Kingdom wasn’t a part of Animal Kingdom for a lack of trying. To the contrary, Imagineers invented several memorable concepts for this part of the park. The grand ambitions for Beastly Kingdom would have involved “realms” for the good and evil creatures from folklore.

Attractions such as Fantasia Gardens and Quest of the Unicorn would highlight the side of the angels. The former ride, obviously based on the movie Fantasia, would have combined music and the animals appearing in the film. Think of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, only with crocodiles and hippos from Dances of the Hours. Those are obviously real animals, but fake ones would have comprised other parts of the ride. Chief among them were centaurs, fauns, and pegasi from Pastoral. The latter was to be a labyrinth. Clever children who reached the middle would get to meet with the legendary unicorn that lived there.

Image: Disney

On the dark side of Beastly Kingdom, theme park tourists would interact with the more foreboding mythical creatures of legend. Nearly two decades before a Ukrainian Ironbelly lorded over the streets of Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida, Disney wanted to let there be dragons. Their planned evil realm would feature Dragon’s Tower, a vault of gold akin to the one seen in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

The only thing preventing theme park tourists from reaching the treasure would be an avaricious dragon. This fire breather would function as the final boss standing in the way of Scrooge McDuck-level riches. It was as ambitious as it was prescient. And the next time you ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, you should remember that Animal Kingdom could have easily beaten the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to the punch.

The legacy of Beastly Kingdom is understated. Artists started designing elements of the park long before Eisner killed the Phase II expansion. They unfortunately named one of the parking lots Unicorn. The exterior entry display also features a dragon’s head. Throughout the park, other dragons, unicorns, and other mythical creatures continue to make unlikely appearances on sign posts, logos, and other corporate paraphernalia.

Answering the age-old question of who’d win in a fight…

Image: Disney

What kept Beastly Kingdom from becoming a crucial part of Animal Kingdom? As the project advanced, park planners determined that they couldn’t meet the original launch date for the fictional realm. They quickly devised a Plan B. Beastly Kingdom would become the first expansion of Animal Kingdom, the Phase II if you will. Once they’d proven that the theme park zoo concept was viable, they could then Disney-fy it by adding these new mythical attractions. They’d lead with the zoo then bring the Magic Kingdom aspect into the equation at a later date.

As so often happens with plans for an indefinite time for the future, they fell by the wayside. The expense of Beastly Kingdom would be tremendous, and it would occur soon after Disney had finally finished accruing construction expenses for Phase I. As much as Disney loved the idea of a village residing under an intimidating Dragon Tower above, executives had to make hard choices.

The original $750 million projected budget for Animal Kingdom had spiraled out of control, as history indicates usually happens with Disney theme parks. As opening day approached, Michael Eisner faced a seemingly impossible choice. He had blueprints for two parts of the park, both of which he’d personally promised when he announced the intention to create Animal Kingdom.

One of them was Beastly Kingdom. The other was Dino Land U.S.A. You already know how this plays out. The difficulty is in understanding why he selected one of the most often-criticized parts of any Disney theme park over one with seemingly limitless potential. The explanation is one that seems comical in hindsight, but it’s also the very business model Disney has used to dominate the theme park industry.

In May of 2000, Disney would release their most ambitious animated project in decades. The project was simply named Dinosaur, and it would be the company’s attempt to prove that they could best Pixar at their own game, computer animation. Controversial director Paul Verhoeven had first pitched the project in 1988, and it had gestated behind the scenes at Disney for several years before proceeding in the late ‘90s.

Eisner recognized an opportunity for synergy, the tethering of a potential film franchise to a newly incorporated theme park land. This strategy had worked many more times than it’d failed for Disney, so his decision was understandable at the time. Unfortunately for him, Dinosaur lacked the one thing that differentiates Pixar from its derivatives: a quality story. It disappointed at the box office, and the glorified carnival region of Animal Kingdom continues to lag behind the other, more engaging parts of the fourth gate. 

Animal Kingdom’s Tomorrowland

The only constant is change. The maxim is tired, but the underlying philosophy is sound, particularly within the walls of Disney’s corporate offices. Innovation equals revenue, and money drives their business just as much as creativity. Over the past several years, Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios have jockeyed for a strange position. Neither of them wants to stand as low gate on the Walt Disney World totem pole.

Their traffic numbers are virtually indistinguishable. From 2010 through 2014, Hollywood Studios claimed 49.64 million visits. Animal Kingdom’s numbers during that timeframe were 50.07 million. In 2011, park planners attempted something unprecedented to differentiate Animal Kingdom. They bestowed it with something unique. After watching their failed Harry Potter negotiations lead to a globally popular license reinvigorating Universal Studios Florida, Disney tried once more.

On September 20, 2011, it was announced that the fourth gate would receive an update that had virtually nothing to do with animals. Instead, it would hearken back to the fictional beasts once considered. Animal Kingdom would add Avatar: the world of Pandora. The James Cameron film had dazzled movie lovers with its breathtaking visuals, ultimately becoming the number one movie of all-time domestically and globally.

Image: Disney

The novelty of this relationship was that Disney hadn’t released Avatar. That windfall went to 20th Century Fox. Disney committed an entire block of their Project X land to an intellectual property they didn’t own. Sure, they’d built rides for film franchises such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, neither of which they owned. They’d never gone all-in with an entire region of park space, one of their greatest commodities, though. The explanation was simple. One of the stumbling blocks with Harry Potter was that Disney didn’t want to commit to such a project. They quickly appreciated the error in judgment. Avatar would afford Disney some redemption.

While Walt Disney could build the entirety of Disneyland in a year, the technological hurdles of implementing a 3D world as a theme park land have proven difficult, even to the geniuses in Disney Imagineering. Construction didn’t even begin for more than two years. Builders eventually broke ground on Pandora in January of 2014. The following year, Disney finally offered more concrete details at their annual D23 Expo. They confirmed two attractions, Flight of Passage and Na'Vi River Journey, both of which would simulate key sequences from the first movie.

Image: Disney 

Disney is currently making progress with what they promise will be the most forward-thinking expansion in the history of theme parks. The bold claim is already getting tested by recent additions at Universal Studios Florida and the recently opened Universal Studios Hollywood. Each passing month Disney fails to open Pandora to the public is another chance for somebody else to beat them to the punch, so the delays are troublesome.

Disney’s bold move to refresh Animal Kingdom seems riskier than ever now. Did they overreact to a missed opportunity with Harry Potter? At this point, nobody knows for certain, but it’d be nice if just one new addition to Animal Kingdom opened without a well-publicized delay. Their Tomorrowland is starting to feel more like a Never Never Land.

 
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There are 4 comments.

It would have been impossible for opening day guests to rush to Kali River Rapids, as referenced here. The ride opened nearly a year after the park.

Avatar, meh. So Un-Disney. That aside, AK is my second favorite park after MK.

Im wondering why these Imagineers didnt bother to drive an hour down I-4 to look at Busch Gardens? They had this figured out decades earlier...besides the fact that these parks were in competition, Im confused why Disney decided the best place for inspiration was the Bronx Zoo? Perhaps there is more to this story.

You should edit this story. Kali River Rapids was not an opening day attraction. It came later. Good article!

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