"Once upon a time..." So begins any epic tale of adventure and mystery, and for fans of both Disney and Universal's parks, today's tome may be one of the greatest theme park fables of all time.
For years, we've been adding stories to our fan-favorite collection of Lost Legends – the full, definitive write-ups on rides, attractions, and experiences that changed the theme park landscape, and then disappeared. We hit the road to explore the beginnings of the original TEST TRACK, witnessed the interdimensional origin of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, pulsed through the bloodstream aboard Body Wars, and literally dozens more.
But today's entry is a mythological double-feature: the almost-believable story of how the epic plans for one of Disney World's most famous never-built projects, Beastly Kingdom, might've inspired or even shaped the short-lived land of legends, The Lost Continent, brought to life just a few miles up the road at their biggest competitor. It's a swirling, time-traveling tale of the potentially-intertwined creation of two of the leading theme parks on Earth, and the could-be classic that turned into a Lost Legend between them.
Could it possibly be that Disney accidentally designed, then indirectly lead to the destruction of Universal's most incredible themed land? We'll let you be the judge... But to tell the story of Disney's never-built land of dragons and unicorns and how the concept may have been temporarily revived at Universal Orlando, we'll need to start somewhere unexpected...
"Hooray for Hollywood!"
In 1984, Frank Wells (left) and Michael Eisner (right) arrived at Walt Disney Productions. The Disney they stepped into was, frankly, in disarray... After decades of withering reputation and stagnating studio productions, the arrival of Wells and Eisner was a last ditch effort to save the studio from being torn apart and sold in pieces. With extensive careers at Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures under their respective belts, the new president and chairman had just the cinematic chops to reignite Walt's legacy.
While the duo relaunched Disney films thanks to the so-called "Disney Renaissance," they also reimagined Disney's parks with an epic new philosophy; the "Ride the Movies" era was born. Suddenly, Disney parks were catapulted back into pop culture thanks to new attractions borrowing from the stories, characters, and settings that mattered to modern audiences. But the capstone of Eisner's first decade must've been Walt Disney World's third theme park.
But the concept of The Disney-MGM Studios wasn't just Eisner's pet project. It was a preemptive strike against rumblings that Universal Studios was interested in opening a purpose-built, theme-park-stylized version of their long-running Hollywood studio tour right in Disney World's backyard. Eisner must've imagined that Disney's fast-tracked announcement, construction, and 1989 opening would be enough to ward off Universal.
It wasn't. Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990, positioning the two "movie studio" parks just over 10 miles from one another. Aside from the fact that neither Disney nor Universal's "studio" park managed to live up to its promise of being a "real, working" studio, the two shared something massive in common.
Both naturally combined the features you'd expect of a studio backlot: photorealistic (but vacant), city facades paired with big, boxy, exposed, beige studio "soundstages." A radical departure from Disney's earlier work, the "studio" aesthetic presented executives and designers with something Disney wasn't known for in the past: a shortcut.
In a "studio" park, it's absolutely fine to have mis-matched intellectual properties mashed together as neighbors; to have exposed lighting and sound systems in expansive concrete plazas; to leave shelled facades supported by scaffolds; to erect billboards advertising your latest feature film... After all, half the fun of being in a "studio" is seeing behind the scenes! (And in fact, the inherent "cheapness" of the "studio" park model is what inspired Warner Bros., MGM, and Paramount to open their own "studio" parks throughout the '90s!)
But times change. Even by the latter half of the 1990s, the mystique of moviemaking was fading. VHS was making its exit as DVDs brought “behind the scenes” into our living rooms; social media and the rise of tabloids made the once-unthinkable lives of the stars into everyday news; the practical effects touted by Disney and Universal’s parks were becoming outdated remnants of yesteryear as digital effects became the leading choice.
Indeed, the 21st century left the public to take a second look at the Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios (and their backlot-stylized peers like the true Declassified Disaster: Walt Disney Studios Park, above) for what they really were: low-budget, catch-all, cop-out parks. Lacking the magic of Disneyland or the ambitions of Epcot, the “studio” concept looked inherently dated as audiences approached the New Millennium.
Tastes were changing, and Disney had just the plan in place to reinvent the theme park experience.
A New, Fantastic Point of View
Which brings us to Disney’s Animal Kingdom and its 1998 opening. Less than a decade after the opening of the Disney-MGM Studios, Animal Kingdom was built-out, big budget, ambitious, and truly alive. Industry followers point to the opening of Walt Disney World’s fourth park as a watershed moment… And just imagine the departure it signaled! This park felt like a reinvention – a purposeful pivot from the mass-produced "studio park" era that preceeded it. And it was!
Animal Kingdom took all that had made Disneyland so unique in 1955 raised its cinematic standards to never-before-seen levels of realism and immersion. Crafted with absolute love, the park is artistically deep, culturally sound, and magnificently evergreen.
Now, that’s not to say that Animal Kingdom is perfect, or even the best of Walt Disney World’s parks. But years before DisneySea would gain international acclaim for it, Animal Kingdom dispatched its visitors into a realm of true exploration and photorealism: lived-in African villages, immense, crumbling Asian temples, a detailed paleontological dig, and vast, endless expanses of wild, investigable pathways, waterfalls, ruins, outposts, trails, and animal experiences.
What you wouldn’t see at Animal Kingdom? Showbuildings; lighting rigs; “behind-the-scenes.” Animal Kingdom was a creative departure that cast us not as studio extras, but as explorers encountering the unknown. However, for guests who visited Animal Kingdom during its first decade or so, one particular land stood out...
Maybe you could've imagined Camp Minnie-Mickey as the Toontown equivalent in Disney's Animal Kingdom. As the park’s lone cartoon oasis for kids, the land was quaint and charming, populated by meet-and-greet huts, babbling brooks, “summer camp” kiosks, and sweet vignettes of characters camping. However, the other obvious thing about Camp Minnie-Mickey is that it wasn’t really on par with Animal Kingdom’s other lands.
The land featured only two attractions – both shows – housed in theaters clearly made for temporary use. Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends was a hidden gem; really an animal demonstration show (common at zoos and animal parks) here featuring Pocahontas herself introducing the audience to real possums, snakes, raccoons, rats, porcupines, and birds.
The second show, Festival of the Lion King, was a quick re-purpose of some old parade floats from Disneyland with metal bleachers in a makeshift theater (which went on to become a fan-favorite).
While most of Disney’s Animal Kingdom was built-out, immersive, and alive, Camp Minnie-Mickey felt decidedly less… permanent. That’s because it was never meant to last.
And in fact, it’s what was supposed to fit on that piece of Animal Kingdom’s property that had Disney fans salivating… and that’s the start of the path to Universal’s Lost Continent. Don’t believe it? Read on…