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Dueling Dragons at Universal's Islands of Adventure's Lost Continent

"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

Image: Joel, Flickr (license)

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.

Image: Disney

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.

  

Image: Disney

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!)

 

Image: Disney

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

Image: Disney

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!

Image: Disney

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.

Image: Disney

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...

Camp Minnie-Mickey

Image: Loren Javier, Flickr (license)

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.

Image: Disney

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… 

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Comments

It's a shame that there don't seem to be many photos of the Merlinwood area, particularly inside the Enchanted Oak and Dragons queue. I remember both fondly. The Dragons queue now just seems boring in comparison to how it used to be.

What a crazy, twisted story! I knew the details about all these lands separately, but never thought about how closely they are all connected.

I always feel a pang of sadness when I think about what could have been with Beastly Kingdom. As beautiful and immersive as Animal Kingdom is, it could have desperately used a few more rides and a little more "Disney" whimsy and storytelling. I know I would have loved Beastly Kingdom, maybe even more than any other land at WDW.

However, if following the logic above, the construction of Beastly Kingdom may have resulted in the Wizarding World never being built. Or at the very least it could exist in an entirely different capacity than it does today. As a HUGE Potter fan, that is a tough pill to swallow.

If only there was a world where we could have both...

On the other hand, though I am not at all invested in the Avatar franchise, I am very much looking forward to experiencing Pandora at Animal Kingdom. I have been floored so far by all the pictures and videos I have seen. This land looks like the next level of immersive theming, which I think will make up for the underwhelming source material.

An incredible story very well written. I absolutely adore the Dueling Dragons and have no idea why it isn't as revered as the Hulk. I enjoy them more actually. When they dueled was especially awesome. Seeing the other "dragon" line up with you in the lift hill was something unique and fun. The queue itself was something to really behold. Best queue hands down in the history of theme parks. Did you know that there was very slight whispering in the catacombs section? I learned one day when it was slow and I ran ahead and there was noone else around. Really awesome touch that I'm sure very few people realized. Why in the world would Universal want to get rid of it? (if the rumors are true) Also does anyone know what the incident was in 2011 that caused Universal to mismatch the coasters?

I found this on a wiki page. "Dragon Challenge Edit
Main article: Dragon Challenge
On July 1, 2009, an employee was walking underneath the coaster in a restricted area when he was hit by a train during a test run. The victim suffered multiple head injuries and was taken to a nearby hospital.[2]

On July 31, 2011, a tourist was injured when an unidentified object hit him in the eye while riding Dragon Challenge. Prior to the incident, the guest had only one good eye, therefore the incident resulted in the guest completely losing his sight. Dragon Challenge remained shut for less than 24 hours after the incident with Universal concluding that the ride was safe.[3][4][5]

On August 10, 2011, a rider was struck by an object while riding the attraction, injuring his face and leg. As a result of this and the aforementioned incident in which a rider lost sight in one eye, Universal officials announced that the two roller coasters would no longer operate simultaneously, pending an investigation into both incidents.[6] In October 2011, officials suspended the dueling aspect of the ride permanently."

I remember back in 2002 starting the day at I.O.A on the verandah of the Enchanted Tavern overlooking the lake. Now sadly gone but it encaptured the whole feel of that Land. Sights, sounds and smells as the sun rose above the treeline and the excitement of the day ahead coursed through our veins.
I much prefer Lands that have the capacity to develop organically rather than the trend of the " all eggs in one basket" policy.
No doubt Potter is popular and Avatar looks amazing. But they have limitations. A more fluid themed Land has endless scope and can be more readily tweaked and changed. Just my opinion of course.

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