Camp Minnie-Mickey was a placeholder, never meant to stick around at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
As for what was supposed to go there…? Well… Look no further than the official dedication set forth by Michael Eisner at Animal Kingdom’s 1998 opening:
“Welcome to a kingdom of animals... real, ancient and imagined: a kingdom ruled by lions, dinosaurs and dragons; a kingdom of balance, harmony and survival; a kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama, and learn.”
As well intentioned as Eisner’s dedication might’ve been, it was also a lie. Looking high and low, you wouldn’t find any “imagined” animals in Disney's Animal Kingdom. Unless, of course, you count the carved dragonhead above the park’s ticket booths, the Unicorn parking lot, or the dragon prominently featured in its official logo.
Oh, and one more place…
Real, Ancient, and Imagined
Disney left few clues to the original intention of Camp Minnie-Mickey’s land scattered about, but the most famous was visible only via the otherwise infamous Discovery River Boats. This short-lived opening day attraction at Animal Kingdom was a simple transportation ride (not unlike the Friendship Boats at Epcot’s World Showcase) meant to shuttle guests from the park’s entrance to Africa.
The leisurely cruise would carry guests around the park’s central icon, the Tree of Life, and provide a sort of “preview” of the adventures that waited within each land branching out from the hub.
So for example, a hot springs and geysers outside of Africa would bubble and erupt, with a waterside goat exhibit on Harambe’s shore...
...and in a secluded grove in the waters along the edge of Dinoland, the boat would pass by a towering, playful animatronic Iguanodon – the very one riders on Countdown to Extinction had brought back aboard their Time Rovers!
And outside of Camp Minnie-Mickey, the boats would sail past gnarled, twisted, jagged volcanic rocks and a dark cavern where a plume of flames and a guttural, echoing roar would signal something sinister inside...
…Wait a minute…
The Discovery River Boats didn’t last long. When Animal Kingdom opened, it featured only four rides (including the River Boats and the Wildlife Express transportation train), which meant that lines quickly grew to an hour or more, with guests expecting a Jungle Cruise style adventure. As a mere means of transportation from one end of the gargantuan park to another, the River Boats were sunk.
They were hastily renamed the Discovery River Taxi (to make it clear that it wasn't an attraction in and of itself) before being oddly repurposed as the Radio Disney River Cruise for a short second life.
That also spelled the end for the unusual and cryptic flame throwing display. Obviously, it wasn’t meant to act as a preview of Camp Minnie-Mickey. In fact, it was supposed to be a sign of things to come.
From the earliest concepts of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, executives and designers had agreed on one very important thing: if Disney hoped to charge Disney Park prices, it had to be abundantly clear to visitors that this new addition to Walt Disney World was much, much more than a zoo.
And that makes sense, given that most visitors to Walt Disney World would be coming from within an hour’s drive of a local or regional zoo of their own, and that even the best zoos in the entire world couldn’t have justified carrying Disney’s admission price.
So Disney’s coup for making Animal Kingdom a clear theme park experience infused with Disney storytelling was two-fold: as the park’s dedication noted, it would include more than real animals… it would have ancient and imagined ones, too.
For the latter, you’d have to look no further than Beastly Kingdom, an entire themed land dedicated to creatures that inspire legend, story, song, and myth. Crossing the bridge over the Discovery River, guests would enter into a fantasy world rules by good and evil. A forking path in a dense wood would lead to two opposing realms.
To the right, a fanciful path would lead into a beautiful marble oasis of fountains, arches, columns, and dancing water. This peaceful kingdom would feature two standout attractions. First, a family dark ride (the park’s first) would be a leisurely boat ride through the ornate gardens featured in the “Dance of the Hours” segment from the 1940 classic Fantasia, including encounter the film’s dancing hippos, ostriches, and crocodiles.
The real would-be wonder from Beastly Kingdom would’ve been Quest for the Unicorn, a groundbreaking walkthrough attraction. Guests would’ve been released into a truly boundless hedge maze, making their way through fantastic realm to awaken four bronze creatures, each of whom protected one piece of the four part code used to unlock the Unicorn’s Grotto. Only those who dutifully collected each piece of the code would be rewarded with an ethereal, unforgettable face-to-face encounter with the Unicorn and its tranquil cavern…
Meanwhile, having chosen the path to the left back at the land’s entrance would lead guests through a darkened, lantern-lit forest. It would weave and twist, leading to a desolate medieval village of torch-lit stone pubs with the deteriorating ruins of a long-abandoned castle on the hill overhead.
This half of the land would be a scorched battlefield where anxious peasants would be in constant fear of the malicious dragon, roosting in the castle’s vaults.
Guests would gather before this crumbling fortress to see hints of the mysterious dragon that bartenders at the local pub and inn spoke of. And like clockwork, the dragon would remind gathered guests of his presence by appearing, masked in shadow, with massive claws gripping the castle's edge. With a bellowing breath of fire, the barely-seen figure would set a waterfall aflame, sending scorching plumes reining down the castle's facade.
And therein would reside the land’s headliner, and a new anchor for the entire park: Dragon Tower, a dark ride / coaster combo through the heart of the castle for a one-on-one encounter with the towering dragon himself.
Beastly Kingdom would be the next evolution in Disney’s storytelling. This incredible land would take the photorealism of Animal Kingdom’s Africa and Asia and infuse it with fantasy, creating a living, habitable world that just happened to include unthinkable creatures and unimaginable adventures. In one fell swoop, Beastly Kingdom would double Animal Kingdom’s attraction lineup and provide it with both a high-capacity family dark ride, a thrill ride beyond anything Disney had created before, and a new mythology that could grow and evolve. Larger than life, the land would be emotional, moving, and quite literally legendary.
And just like that, it was cancelled.
Animal Kingdom was a brave return to form for The Walt Disney Company that, under Eisner, had green-lit practically no large-scale projects after the disastrous opening of Disneyland Paris, cancelling and closing ambitious expansions and rides.
Early on in the development of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the gargantuan cost for the cutting edge park ballooned. Executives had underestimated the price for behind-the-scenes zoological ammenities, fencing, exhibit design, and animal acquisition and care (all things the average park goer wouldn't notice, mind you) making the already-skittish Eisner rethink the park's grand scale.
According to insiders, the blown budget and Parisian pressures put Eisner in a bind. He was faced with the nearly impossible choice of choosing either Beastly Kingdom or Dinoland to open on time alongside Animal Kingdom’s grand opening. To his thinking, both of the would-be lands served to elevate Animal Kingdom beyond what could be found in a typical zoo, but only one could be financed in time.
The other, it was presumed, would open in a “Phase II” expansion after the park recouped some of its initial cost, coming online when the park needed a resurgence of public interest.
Ultimately, the team designing the park's Dinoland was given the go ahead. It made a great deal of sense to all involved for a number of reasons:
- The merchandising potential behind dinosaurs was enormous.
- Eisner's gut feelings (wrong as they had been in the past) and his laser-like focus on pet projects he deemed his own told him that the 2000 film DINOSAUR would forever reshape animation and filmography. Dinoland would be the perfect companion to prime audiences for the big screen iguanodon family adventure, and later to accompany it.
- The team designing the park's Dinoland made an unbeatable concession: they could combine the high-speed roller coaster planned for the land with the tranquil family dark ride through the age of dinosaurs into one attraction. Better yet, Countdown to Extinction would re-use the technology and even track layout developed for Disneyland's brand-new Indiana Jones Adventure, saving big bucks on research and development.
So Dinoland was built, and a portion of the land set aside for its companion, Beastly Kingdom, was temporarily turned into the placeholder Camp Minnie-Mickey. However, Beastly Kingdom and an expansion to Dinoland to include the wild Excavator roller coaster would happen… just… not yet.
That wasn’t good enough for Imagineers.
While you can certainly see that the pieces are in place to understand how Disney unintentionally built the Lost Continent, it’s important to know how Imagineering works.
While many of the household names Disney Parks fans recognize remain the same for decades and decades, the truth is that Imagineering (and its peers, like Universal Creative) are fluid spaces where contracted workers ebb and flow from project to project, in effect going where the jobs are. That’s industry standard.
For example, many of the themed entertainment designers, engineers, and construction firms (altogether, “Imagineers”) that Disney contracted for the five-year rebuild of Disney California Adventure were then laid off (amicably and expectedly), and simply moved north to Universal Studios Hollywood to facilitate the multi-year expansion there. And once that capped off, many doubtlessly moved back to Disneyland for the Star Wars land while others may have migrated on to PANDORA, Skull Island, Volcano Bay, and onward…
But the ‘90s were a particularly frustrating time for those in themed entertainment. We’ve spoken at length about the financial failure of Disneyland Paris and its catastrophic result, and how Eisner placed a stop order on any and all large-scale projects across the Parks division. Closures of classics ran rampant and mismanagement crippled the Disney Parks for decades – the origin of many of our Lost Legends (and a few ensuing Disaster Files, too).
And for many Imagineers – even high-ranking ones – the cancellation of Beastly Kingdom was a last straw. While the opening of Animal Kingdom would’ve seen many designers move on, the rate here was unprecedented. After years of declining investment from Disney and a growing landfill of abandoned and downsized projects with no end to Eisner’s penny-pinching regime in sight, Imagineers were fed up. So they collected up their designs and headed out into the world to try to find a theme park owner that would be willing to bring their hard work to life.
In this case, they found a willing creative ear just a few miles north of Animal Kingdom…