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

The Dark Side…

Beastly Kingdom

image: Disney

The other half of Beastly Kingdom wouldn’t have demonstrated friendliness to strangers. To the contrary, its purpose was to dissuade any potential visitors from stepping foot in these forbidden lands. The first step would involve crossing a bridge. Guarded by a troll. You’re on the internet right now. You know how annoying these things are. Disney strategized that they could make Beastly Kingdom even more foreboding by ostensibly denying entry. They wanted to foster a first person perception of a waking nightmare.

Once you’ve vanquished the troll, you step into a dystopian nightmare of fantasy horror. Imagine, if you will, a dark twist on the villages from The Sword in the Stone. These medieval constructs have the look and feel of any basic town, save for one key difference. The center of town includes the same structures as Stonehenge, hinting at dark rituals performed against previous villagers. Other indicators of discord litter the ground. The broken swords and lances of would-be heroes reveal their fates. This settlement isn’t welcoming to strangers.

As you enter the area surrounded by stones, your eye can’t help but be drawn to the most impressive building in town. Formerly the castle of a beloved ruler, it’s since fallen into a permanent state of disrepair. The castle stones look like they could collapse at any moment, and you wonder for an instant why no one has bothered with their upkeep. Then, your eye continues further up the ramparts, and you suddenly have your answer.

A fearsome dragon towers above the castle. Its toothsome smile is readily apparent, even from the village below. Its breathing causes puffs of smoke to cloud the air, poisoning everything nearby. The posture of the most fantastic beast at Beastly Kingdom tells the story. You’re in in this wyrm’s domain, and all the evidence surrounding you suggests that it slays all intruders.

Image: Disney

Suddenly, you hear voices, whispers from above. You wonder for a moment if the sight of the dragon has driven you insane, but the sibilant murmuring continues. You look up and notice hundreds of eyes upon you. The dilapidated castle still hosts numerous residents. Mischievous bats live just beneath the dragon’s current perch.

These bats have spent years plotting and strategizing the perfect crime. They seek to lure the dragon out of his lair long enough to still the priceless treasures stored within. When they take notice of you, the first new visitor in ages, they hatch a play. The bats use an odd combination of mockery and humor to cajole you into stepping inside the castle. You know it’s an act of sheer madness yet you feel compelled to enter. The mysteries held within are too tantalizing. In this moment, you cast aside all your fear and doubt and step inside the Dragon Tower, ready to meet your fate.

As you can tell from the above description, the sole attraction on the dark side of Beastly Kingdom was epic in scope. Imagineers had the wildest ambitions for the linchpin ride at Animal Kingdom. They fully expected the Dragon Tower to stand as the primary monument not just in this themed land but for the entire park. During the blue sky phase of planning, they unleashed their creativity in plotting a ride epic in scope and truly badass in nature. 

Image: Disney

Make no mistake on this point. Imagineers designed Dragon Tower as a roller coaster on a par with California Screamin’ or Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, both of which would debut soon after Animal Kingdom. At the time, Disney was sensitive to the criticism that is parks lacked true thrill rides. The signature attraction at Beastly Kingdom would emphatically end those arguments.

The expected version of Dragon Tower would include your interactions with the sardonic bats. They’d goad you into boarding the ride and heading toward the proverbial dragon’s lair. You can figure out what would happen next. The dragon would stir from its slumber, take note of its unwelcome guests and proceed to chase you through the various rooms of the desolate castle. A few fireballs straight from the dragon’s maw would singe you a bit as you tried to escape. Eventually, you’d narrowly survive your encounter, leaving you and the bats in the belfry to split the spoils of your heist.

Basically, depending on your favored medium, Dragon Tower would place you in the role of Dirk the Daring from Dragon’s Lair or Bilbo and his team of dwarves in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Based on the drawings I’ve seen, I say in complete sincerity that this is the best dark ride concept in the history of Disney…and I’m saying that while acknowledging that Disney is the originator and master of the dark ride. It would have been magnificent. While The Good Place would have had its supporters, the dark side of Beastly Kingdom would have become the biggest draw at Animal Kingdom and possibly anywhere at Walt Disney World outside of Magic Kingdom.

Why didn’t any of this happen? Well, mistakes were made…

They’re engaged but they haven’t set the date

Image: Disney

Despite spectacular net income results in 1996 and 1997, Eisner felt the need to show caution in building his latest themed park. Many of the people involved with the design of Animal Kingdom worried that fictional characters would distract from the zoo premise, even as they corrected anyone who had the audacity to describe it as a zoo, a huge no-no in Disney’s staff rooms. They felt the same way about dinosaurs, but they recognized they weren’t going to win that battle for a reason we’ll discuss in a moment.

Fictional creatures became a subject of a vast schism within the walls of Disney. It was a rare instance where the artists and the bean counters lined up on a subject. Disney’s most creative employees relished the idea of letting their imaginations run wild, recreating some of their favorite stories in a themed land that existed for precisely that reason. It was the first chance in 40 years to walk in the same footsteps as Walt Disney, who created Disneyland as a way to bring people’s dreams to life.

For the bean counters, the situation was more basic. Disney believes strongly in anchor products at theme parks. The reason why so many landmarks exist at each of their gates is hidden in plain sight. Cinderella Castle, Space Mountain, and Spaceship Earth all build awareness. They’re static monuments that have a second function as permanent billboards, warmly inviting guests inside. You may see a giant golf ball when you approach Epcot, but what you’re really noticing is a sublime marketing tactic.


Image: Disney

Beastly Kingdom would have this hook. The dragon lording over his domain would menace onlookers, accidentally adding mystery and intrigue to the lair it guarded. Guests would also embrace the challenge of overcoming the five great feats in order to gain an audience with the unicorn. Even ignoring both of these tactics, a more basic aspect appealed to the numbers crunchers. The data suggested that Beastly Kingdom was the ultimate draw at Animal Kingdom, not the zoo element. Most major cities have zoos, after all. The pervasive belief before the Disney version became a reality was that they couldn’t do much better than the ones already in existence. We know now that this was a shortsighted philosophy, but it explains the polling data. Beastly Kingdom promised something new and different, and that made it a draw.

When Eisner had to choose how to disburse his resources, he weighed all the options and promptly made a terrible decision. He sided with those who believed Animal Kingdom should highlight its animals, an understandable philosophy. Where history would bemoan his judgment was in the second call.

Image: Disney

When facing two options and understanding that he could only afford one, Eisner chose to pay tribute to dinosaurs with DinoLand U.S.A. It was the Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan moment in theme park history. Disney spent the bare minimum in bringing DinoLand U.S.A. to life, and even the most casual of theme park tourists could tell. From day one, it felt like a hastily thrown together attempt to boost the total number of attractions and distractions at Animal Kingdom rather than a viable themed land.

Meanwhile, Eisner promised all his park planners that Beastly Kingdom would become an integral part of phase two at the park. Going back to the original Disneyland, a quick series of updates was a staple of the company. While they hadn’t excelled as much in Eisner’s tenure, he planned for Animal Kingdom to change the perception of his leadership and vision. Beastly Kingdom was so critical to his vision for the quick expansion of Animal Kingdom that he included it in his introductory speech. The silhouette of a dragon is also part of the park logo to this day. Everyone involved was that confident of its inevitable arrival.

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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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