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The Greatest Themed Land Of All Time Was Never Built. Here's Why.

Back to the drawing board

Image: Disney

Zoos have always maintained a steady popularity in terms of tourist visitation. In building Animal Kingdom, Disney faced a seemingly insurmountable problem. They had to build a bigger, better zoo, and it held additional challenges, too. The new gate at Walt Disney World had to sustain multiple habitats of creatures, many of whom were natural enemies. Literally thousands of inhabitants would call Animal Kingdom their home.

Park planners rightfully wondered what would happen if they struggled in their early days as zookeepers. What would happen to their latest park if the early buzz were negative? After the perceived misses at Disneyland Paris and Disney/MGM Studios, they couldn’t afford another high profile failure, even if they didn’t view either of the other two parks in that light. The media did, and their constant negative stories about each business became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.

To avoid a third mistake, Disney execs understood that they needed an ace in the hole. That ace was a premise that tested well with theme park tourists. Disney has been the master of the survey for decades now, and they meticulously sampled the population during the early phase of Animal Kingdom planning. When they pitched the idea of a Disney zoo of sorts, complete with creatures who weren’t indigenous to North America, guests were largely positive.

Image: Disney

The idea of a land of dinosaurs understandably did well in the wake of the Jurassic Park franchise. In fact, in the year prior to the opening of Animal Kingdom, The Lost World: Jurassic Park had earned the largest opening weekend ever for a movie up until that point. A Disney version of the Jurassic Park premise held a great deal of appeal.

As well as both of these premises tested, however, a clear winner emerged during the polling phase of Animal Kingdom. Disney pitched potential guests on the idea of a fantasy land predicated on the same fables that Uncle Walt had used as the backbone of some of his most famous films. Even with only a few details offered, pollsters lapped up the concept of what Disney was internally referencing as Beastly Kingdom. Their market research suggested that while all of their ideas for Animal Kingdom were good ones, their fantasy realm brought to life at Walt Disney World would sell the most tickets. Why would Disney choose not to build something that they knew would sell well? We’ll get to that in a bit. For now, let’s discuss the blueprints for the mystical realm that Imagineers never got to build.

The seed of both good and evil

Image: Disney

Whether you love Disney’s heroes or the villains that oppose them so aggressively, you understand the appeal of the bad guy. Even in the mid-90s, Disney had already understood just how popular their rogues gallery was. Selling merchandise of the mortal enemies of Snow White and Cinderella doubled the revenue potential for the brands. More importantly, it established the thin line between love and hate, that gray area that Disney embraced.

As they plotted Animal Kingdom, some enterprising planner had a historic epiphany. Disney could build an entire themed land that pitted good against evil. Patrons wandering this land of mythical creatures would explore two regions. The realm of virtue and goodness would feature a unicorn as its centerpiece. The realm of dark malevolence would have the grander showpiece. A dragon would lord above the ruins of a castle. Perched atop its highest tower, his baleful glare would dare any challenger to approach the crumbling façade.

The twin paths were classic Disney to the core. They would provide theme park tourists with the ability to choose their own adventures. Anyone seeking serenity and light could walk the path of the unicorn. A thrill seeker could eschew kindness, daring to trespass in the place where angels fear to tread. The premise of Beastly Kingdom was epic in scope, thrilling to contemplate, and insanely appealing even to the most casual of Disney guests. It would have catered to a much more populist crowd than any other themed land at Walt Disney World, save for the ones at Magic Kingdom.

The good place

Image: Disney

Unless you are a diehard Fantasia or It’s a Small World fan, you likely wouldn’t have preferred this side of Beastly Kingdom to its companion sector. The realm of good mythical creatures didn’t have the sex appeal of its competitor for reasons that will become abundantly clear in a moment. That doesn’t lessen the brilliance of its premise, though.

Let’s call this side of the themed land The Good Place. Animal Kingdom guests wandering the path of light would discover a peaceful set of inhabitants living in an impossibly bright and colorful habitat. Gardens and ponds were a constant presence in the illustrations and early renderings of The Good Place.

The architecture intended to pay tribute to the classic Greek myths of yore in subtle and overt fashion. The subtle manner was that the buildings would honor the Greek design traditions, with Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns. Guests would feel like Odysseus as they encountered fantastic beasts in structures straight out of Homer’s epic poems. As was the case in his Odyssey, water was planned as a constant presence in The Good Place. Gentle streams and ponds would provide a soothing reassurance in this utopian environment.

Image: Disney

While a few minutes of peace and calm sounds at Animal Kingdom sounds blissful enough on its own, The Good Place would also offer a pair of attractions to its guests. The easier to understand of the duo was Fantasia Gardens. Drawn as a loving tribute to and recreation of Fantasia, this ride would have the same structure as It’s a Small World. A little boat ride would transport the visitors of this idyllic land into the movie Fantasia.

Specifically, the guests would visit the Dance of the Hours ballet and Pastoral Symphony segments of Fantasia. As a Disney fan, your synapses should already be firing with imagery of dancing ostriches and hippos, elephants blowing bubbles, and female centaurs frolicking in the water. Understandably, music was planned as an integral part of the ride experience. Your musical vessel would play Ponchielli and Beethoven as you journey through the whimsical land of mythical fauns and cupids.

Image: Disney

In recent years, Disney has mastered the art of recreating the best scenes from their most popular movies. The concept of a boat ride through Fantasia, with accompanying visuals akin to The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Underwater Adventure is bittersweet to contemplate. It would clearly stand out as one of the best and most family-friendly rides not just at Animal Kingdom but on the entire Walt Disney World campus. The fact that it doesn’t exist is heartbreaking to any fan of the masterworks of Walt Disney the animator and filmmaker.

The other proposed signature attraction at The Good Place is a bit trickier to conceptualize.  Entitled Quest of the Unicorn, it was projected as a maze environment that would appeal to fans of questing in particular. Guests of the hedge maze would walk through explorable sections, each of which featured puzzles to solve. Yes, you read that correctly. This wasn’t a ride per se but instead a walking expedition. Many of the times Disney has plotted such attractions, they’ve wound up becoming rides instead, with Haunted Mansion as the most famous example.

The novelty of Quest of the Unicorn may have required guests to explore, though. In considering it, Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure and Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure at Epcot are similar comparisons, although the Beastly Kingdom version would have been grander in scale.

While trying to solve the various puzzles, guests would interact with mythological creatures, all of which were benevolent to their visitors. These animals would guide their new friends to the correct answers, thereby activating five golden icons and sending them along to the next portion of the maze. Once a person had completed all five sections, they gained admittance to the hidden grotto where the gorgeous Unicorn resided. Presumably, this would have been a photo op for the ages, and the look of joy on a kid’s face when they saw the fabled Unicorn for the first time would have been unforgettable for parent and child.

As great as The Good Place sounds in theory, however, it pales in comparison to…

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There are 2 comments.

Wow, another amazing read. This article really had a lot of good info and really ties in a lot of information as to why this didn't get built. I also was unaware of the attendance declines in the late 90's which really explains why I'm so disappointed when I always compare crowd levels now with back then. This really sheds a lot of light into decisions are made at Disney. I had always thought about the canabilism issue but never knew it could have as dramatic an impact as it apparently did whenever Animal Kingdom was opened.

Eisner, that bastard. Why, why did he have to nix Beastly Kingdom?!!!

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