If there’s one thing that Disney Parks fans love, it’s a good story.
There’s nothing more sensational for Imagineering insiders than to step into a new world. Whether exploring the exotic river delta of Adventureland, traveling through time in Epcot classics, or returning to the historically haunted Hollywood Tower Hotel, a deeply ingrained and thoughtfully crafted story – a sense of place, plot, and purpose – tends to be the thing that sets a Disney attraction, land, or theme park apart from the rest.
And here at Theme Park Tourist, we even called out Disney for its boardwalks, backlots, and carnivals; “creative cop-out” lands that seem to lack the storytelling and heart (and budget) that Disney fans take such pride in. But maybe we don’t have the full story… Today, let’s take a tour through Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama, said by some to be the worst Disney Parks land ever! The tale of this “cheap-out” carnival supposedly built on an old bit of Animal Kingdom parking lot may not be exactly what it seems…
The Disney difference
Back in the early days of Disney Imagineering, romanticism was key. Think of Adventureland or Frontierland. Neither could be traced to a pin placement on a map; neither was a recreation of any real place; neither was even traceable to a specific year. Rather, they were created by Walt’s early designers as habitable movie sets; places that “never were, but always will be;” living embodiments of pop culture’s imagery of “adventure” or the frontier.
By the early 1990s – as designers gathered their plans for a fourth park at Walt Disney World – their M.O. had changed. Seemingly in response to the beige studio parks that they themselves had pioneered (and had quickly spread around the globe), Disney’s next park would be different. Led by Joe Rohde, Imagineers began to pencil in a park featuring animals.
One lingering question around the new Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom park: What would differentiate it from a zoo? After all, guests at Walt Disney World may come from around the globe, but most visitors have a zoo little more than a day trip away… and even the world’s best zoos would be unlikely to command the kind of admission price Disney’s park would ask for. The answer? This new park would recreate not just the natural world, but the civilizations shaped by it. Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom would be made of photorealistic, lived-in lands transporting guests to far-flung corners of the globe where authentic exploration and animal encounters would await...
And while Disneyland and Magic Kingdom transport guests to imagined, romanticized times and places, the lands at Animal Kingdom would instead be shaped by time, sending guests around the world to see how humans had developed within and alongside wildlife in lands that look real enough to be postcards.
Africa would come to life as the village of Harambe and the savannah beyond, where ecotourism wildlife safaris would be the village’s (and park’s) signature attraction.
Discovery Island stood as an artisan village; a hub of the celebration of nature, built into the winding root systems of the towering, central Tree of Life.
Asia would be embodied in Anadapur, a riverside Kingdom whose misty ruins now served as a wildlife sanctuary, including a river ride through animal habitats.
And so it would go for two more lands, which would take guests to places no zoo would dare go...
Ancient animals... almost
As we know from Michael Eisner’s opening day dedication, Disney’s Animal Kingdom was eventually organized by a guiding principle that it celebrate animals “real, ancient, and imagined.” Those latter two, it was thought, would be Disney’s coup; the difference that would ensure Disney’s Animal Kingdom was “Nahtazū” (or at least, not just a zoo) in the eyes of the public.
In those concept plans, the park’s Africa, Asia, and Discovery Island would be joined by two others: the grounded Dinoland, U.S.A. and the ethereal Beastly Kingdom. While plenty has been said about the latter (including our in-depth and much-cited Possibilityland: Beastly Kingdom feature), fans sometimes forget that Dinoland is just as conceptually unique.
Even then, it was decided that Dinoland would be set somewhere in the United States; a once-sleepy desert town unexpectedly enlivened by the discovery of fossils, initiating a decades-long transformation into a… well… a tourist trap. In a clever set-up, that initial dino-discovery (plus a few decades of time) would’ve segmented the land in two, each featuring a significant ride.
First, the fossil find would’ve drawn academics from around the country who slowly established the Dino Institute. Eventually, this field research group would construct the Dino Institute and – in the 1970s – its research museum.
Given that Imagineers originally intended each of the park’s lands to have its own “Kilimanjaro Safaris” equivalent, the Dino Institute would house Dinoland’s: a “time traveling” family attraction wherein guests would board Ankylosaurus shaped vehicles and travel to a prehistoric jungle (outdoors, behind the Institute showbuilding) to tour past Audio-Animatronic dinosaurs in their “natural” habitats.
The second half of the land would belong to the locals who, spurred by the influx of grad students, would’ve restaged sleepy Diggs County as a roadside attraction of dinosaur “wonders,” including the towering Excavator - a steel roller coaster (cleverly disguised as wooden) rumbling through the town and passing “artisan”-made dinosaur sculptures (think reclaimed rusted metal sculptures) amid the long-since-emptied dig pits of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.
Obviously, neither the Excavator nor the family safari came to be. Why? When guests stepped into Dinoland at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1999, the land resembled its original incarnation, but with at least a few notable changes… We’ll dig into the final Dinoland on the next page.
At the height of Animal Kingdom’s concept, the park would’ve opened with no less than seven headlining attractions - Kilimanjaro Safaris in Africa, three attractions in Beastly Kingdom, Asia’s Kali River Rapids, and Dinoland’s safari and Excavator. But the ‘90s were a tough time at the Walt Disney Company thanks, in large part, to the failure of Disneyland Paris. The infamously overbuilt project sidelined or downsized nearly every major project in the works at the time. All the while, Animal Kingdom’s projected price tag was growing.
Of course, it came down to funding either Beastly Kingdom or Dinoland for opening alongside the park in 1999. Executives opted for the latter. Why?
Jurassic Park had elevated dinosaurs as never before in the public consciousness.
Disney was working on its own film - an Eisner pet project called Dinosaur - that would debut just a few years after Animal Kingdom, with spectacular synergistic opportunities.
Dinosaurs are an evergreen source of merchandising.
- Imagineers had made a case for combining Dinoland’s two planned attractions - the thrilling Excavator and the placid safari through a prehistoric jungle - by using the technology and ride layout developed for Disneyland’s Modern Marvel: Indiana Jones Adventure, thus presenting a cost-savings for Dinoland over Beastly Kingdom’s much grander scale and three attractions.
Unsurprisingly, the newly-rearranged and cost-conscious Dinoland won out. Maybe that in itself tainted Disney Parks fans’ attitudes toward Dinoland… But you might be surprised what guests found there when they entered the park in 1999...
Like Harambe and Anadapur, Dinoland, too, is “real” place with a rich story behind it – just not quite as far from home. Dinoland neither transports us to the world of the Dinosaurs, nor brings them to ours (a hair too close to 1993’s Jurassic Park, already a ride at Universal Studios Hollywood and under construction just a few miles north at the new Universal's Islands of Adventure park). In fact, Dinoland is set in a quiet town in Diggs County somewhere in the U.S. (in-park evidence shows, perhaps even in Florida…).
Set along U.S. Highway 498, the idea's simple: we're tourists who've been drawn to a town built by dinosaurs. Not literally, of course… But back in the 1940s, the quiet unincorporated territory within Diggs County was little more than a paltry gas station built by a couple on their own farmland; a sleepy, silent spot for refueling, perfectly positioned at the dawn of the “road trip” era. We can imagine, for example, that families in sedans might’ve stopped in Diggs County en route to newly-opened Roadside Wonders: Weeki Wachee Springs or Gatorland; “tourist traps” blooming along U.S. highways leading to Florida’s beaches.
Everything would change in 1947, when amateur fossil hunters would stumble upon dinosaur remains in Diggs County. (Note the irony of fossils being discovered near a Sinclair gas station, whose iconic dinosaur logo reminds us that gas is derived from fossil fuels...) By the 1950s, paleontological grad students flooded to Diggs County to unearth a treasure trove of fossil remains, overtaking an old fishing lodge nearby to establish “The Dino Institute.”
In the ‘70s, the Dino Institute had grown in prestige, earning the construction of a real, purpose-built museum facility showcasing some of the local finds in classic paleontological exhibitions. Enter Dr. Helen Marsh, the newly-appointed president of the Dino Institute who, in the '90s, oversaw the acquisition of Chrono-Tech, a scientific start-up researching time travel... a potential future for dino-study...
But nevermind that sci-fi pipe-dream. The narrative of the land begins now, with our arrival. When we step into Diggs County, it's at the crossroads of three competing visions by its three primary inhabitants:
- The academics; the Dino Institute's scholarly researchers, holed up behind the '70s white concrete exterior of the Dino Institute, who study the realities of prehistory and carefully arrange hands-off exhibitions to pass knowledge of the prehistoric world on to us.
- The grad students; the modern class of paleontology students for whom Diggs County has become an adopted home and college party town. Evidence of their playful nature can be seen around the land (particularly in affixing the "-osaurus" suffix to anything in sight, leaving their lawn chairs and coolers on rooftops, and commandeering the land's radio broadcast with songs such as “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M. and "Godzilla" by Blue Oyster Cult).
- The locals. For example, that gas station – around since the '40s – is still here! Its proprietors - a now-elderly Chester and Hester - have clearly bought into the dino-frenzy, spending the last few decades converting their old farmland and gas station into a roadside delight... much to the chagrin of the academics, who balk at their scholarly subjects being hocked as a tourist trap.
In 1999, it was Chester and Hester's Dinosaur Treasures that initially told the story of the locals - a folksy, gaudy, and intentionally-obnoxious store affixed with decades of signage and outrageously crafted dinosaur sculptures meant to lure roadtripping families off the highway. Rubber tire planters, rusted gas pumps, old service station garage doors, and cartoon dinosaurs spoke to the "locals'" appropriation of dinosaurs... And it wasn't about to end.
Remember how the dreamy, Blue Sky concept of Disney’s Animal Kingdom would’ve brought seven headlining attractions to the park? It opened with just two – the starring Kilimanjaro Safaris and the terrifying Countdown to Extinction. And though guests could spend days exploring the park’s hidden corners, uncovering the built-in histories of its themed lands, encountering animals, and discovering the park’s stellar shows, not everyone had such a thoughtful evaluation of its offerings.
Animal Kingdom was quickly labeled as beautiful, but only worthy of a half-day visit. What’s worse, families reported that there was practically nothing for their kids to enjoy beyond Dinoland’s Digsite. Animal Kingdom needed a fast influx of family attractions to both break from the park’s ultra-serious cultural design and to add capacity in the massive park with so few rides. There were no family dark rides at all; very few Disney characters could exist in such photorealistic lands; Fantasyland flat rides would stand out like a sore thumb in most of the park… Except…
In 2002, an expansion overtook the former Dinosaur Jubilee tented exhibit area inside Dinoland. That (temporary) tent staffed by humorous “Dino Institute” students and filled with their findings was torn down, and in its place Disney created… an old, cracked asphalt blacktop parking lot. No, really…
Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama
Entering Dinoland, U.S.A. now, something significant has changed. Half of the land has... well... evolved. Just off of the striped highway that now slices its way through the land, the saturated colors of Chester & Hester's Dino-Rama take center stage. Atop faded parking space lines and cracked blacktop asphalt faded in the Florida sun, a comic-book carnival of dayglo dinosaurs reigns.
The mini-land is lorded over by the massive, smiling "cementosaurus" that acts as a gateway from the park's Asia, strung up with popcorn lights and looming over carnival games like "Whack-a-Packycepholosaur," "Mammoth Marathon," and "Bronto-Score." In its center stands the TriceraTop Spin, a pastel-painted, triceratop-encircled ride akin to Dumbo the Flying Elephant, here guarded by multi-colored fair fencing and a ramshackle queue covering that looks of it was handbuilt.
The land's highlight, though, is the Primeval Whirl, a spinning "wild mouse" roller coaster ostensibly poking fun at the goings-on at the nearby Dino Institute. The off-the-shelf carnival coaster is adorned with spinning props and cartoon-stylized "scientists" depicted in the station as it clatters and shuffles through its lattice work of bare, exposed steel.
For most guests, what they see in Dino-Rama is a loud, obnoxious zone that dispenses with Animal Kingdom’s thoughtful style in favor of the swirling TriceraTop Spin (its name a spoof of the “top spin” carnival ride) and the comic-book-stylized Primeval Whirl, a spinning “wild mouse” coaster through cut-out set pieces and props made by the French manufacturer Reverchon.
But can that really be all their is to this 2002 addition to Disney's Animal Kingdom? Did Imagineers suddenly forget everything they knew when they designed the park? Can it be that Disney simply set lazily-themed carnival rides in the middle of the park for no reason? Of course not. Read on as we (try to) defend Dino-Rama...
In defense of Dino-Rama
There are two things we won’t deny:
At first (and even second) glance, Dino-Rama feels massively out-of-place at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Dino-Rama is, admittedly, what it looks like: a “cheap-and-cheerful” way of bolstering Animal Kingdom’s family friendliness and ride count with quick, off-the-shelf carnival rides.
But in all fairness, those same two points can also be lodged against “a bug’s land,” Pixar Pier, and Toy Story Land – lightly-themed areas packed with carnival rides, with the latter becoming a standard at almost every Disney Resort on Earth. And believe it or not, Dino-Rama might have the best story of all three... Bear with us…
Since Animal Kingdom’s opening, the story of Chester & Hester has been wrapped into Dinoland as representatives of the "local" point-of-view. This couple – the long-time proprietors of the service station in Diggs County – were the first to cash-in on the dino-craze that moved in in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Even in 1999, guests in Dinoland could see their fossil-finding handiwork, with their dino-emblazoned Sinclair gas pumps long since rusted and their gas station retrofitted into a purposefully-playful, strategically-tacky “visitors center” advertising “DIRT CHEAP”souvenirs and meteor-painted “GOING OUT OF EXISTENCE SALE - EVERYTHING MUST GO!” billboards.
That shop - Chester & Hester’s Dinosaur Treasures - even displays an old-time photograph of Chester & Hester at their station’s opening, proudly displaying their first dollar in a frame. (That, by the way, is the kind of world-building you only expect from Disney’s best classic lands, and new-age favorites like Buena Vista Street or Galaxy’s Edge.)
Surely, in isolation, this obtrusively-adorned gift shop was comprehensible as a tongue-in-cheek part of Diggs County’s story; a historic building with layers and layers of story added to it as “Dinoland’s” tourism ebbed and flowed. But in 2002, the story was “retconned.” Now, Chester & Hester and their newfound wealth would purchase a parking lot just on the other side of Highway 498, bringing in a series of traveling fair rides to build their own dino-carnival for tourists.
In keeping with the story, Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama is not a charmingly mid-century attraction. It’s full-blown 2002: an oversaturated cartoon carnival of smiling dinosaur cutouts, massive concrete creatures, and buzzing, ringing, and flashing midway games.
Sure, if you’re willing to look closely, you’ll see quaint ‘50s details like planters ringed with old service station tires, reclaimed license plates painted over with directional signs, and - at one time - a parking lot with prop sedans. Even the "cementosaurus" is supposed to convey the time-honored tradition of roadside icons (think, "the world's largest ball of yarn!") meant to lure tourists in.
Perhaps the ultimate evidence of just how masterfully designed Dino-Rama is meant to be is - of all things - the much-maligned "asphalt parking lot" it's built on. Even Imagineers fans have been known to spread the rumor that Disney literally built Dino-Rama on a bit of leftover, broken parking lot.
The truth is, Imagineers painstakingly created that cracked blacktop... In fact, since Florida's climate is simply too hot and wet for real asphalt, the parking lot was carved of scenic concrete to appear like cracked blacktop. The same art form and products that created Cars Land's Cadillac Range or Batuu's Black Spires also formed that parking lot...
But think of it this way - of all of Disney’s “cheap and cheerful” lands, Dino-Rama not only has the best excuse to exist within its land’s story; it’s also deeply tied to the heart of Animal Kingdom. If Animal Kingdom is about exploring how human stories are shaped by nature and wildlife, then maybe – just maybe – “Dino-Rama” is a piece of the story of dinosaurs...
Just as Anadapur’s misty temples have been made a sanctuary for wildlife, or Pandora’s bioluminescent jungles are overtaking the militaristic remains of human interference, perhaps the way dinosaurs intermingle with the human story is here; as attractions; as marvels; as bones that have literally created entire tourist towns; as the unfathomable idea that giant feathered lizards once walked the earth, so incomprehensible that they've become characters in our children's minds. The dichotomy of Dinoland's story - half stoic academia, half outrageous pop culture - isn't so different from the real story of dinosaurs.
Though we argue that there may be more intention and artistic integrity to Dinoland that most visitors ever notice, the fact remains that Dino-Rama is increasingly recognized (fairly or unfairly!) as the weakest part of Disney's Animal Kingdom and its otherwise cohesive style.
To make matters worse, the land's anchor attraction – the Modern Marvel: DINOSAUR – never became the fan-favorite Eisner hoped (for reasons we explored in that full, standalone feature). Most notably, the ride will forever be unfavorably compared the Indiana Jones attraction it's technically a near-clone of... a ride Disney's Animal Kingdom is so close to having but for swapped set dressings... which is why, several years ago, we started off wondering whether Dinoland should simply be re-imagined entirely as a South America-themed land with Indiana Jones as its focus - technically a better fit for Animal Kingdom's continental layout anyway.
Of course, that seemed like (and was) armchair Imagineering... until rumors began to build that such a retheme was actually being considered among many Blue Sky concepts. (Yes, we'll take credit for the idea.)
It might've even become more possible recently. After a tragic history wherein two Cast Members have died in two separate incidences with the coaster (in 2007 and 2011), the troublesome Primeval Whirl closed unexpectedly in August 2019, apparently awaiting a replacement part. Unfortunately for Disney, the ride's manufacturer - Reverchon - went bankrupt in 2008. Though some of its assets were retained by fellow manufacturer Zamperla, parts for the coaster must be custom built... an expensive and frustrating process that just may be the cherry-on-top for a historically troubled ride. (We may never know why Disney didn't instead choose the tried-and-true Mack Rides, who built the very similar Goofy's Sky School coaster at Disney California Adventure a year before...)
And wouldn't it be interesting to see the concept of the Excavator unearthed and overlayed with an Indiana Jones-style mine cart coaster through South American ruins?
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Does the temporary closure of Primeval Whirl spell the end of Dino-Rama? Of course not. And the return of Jurassic World may just be enough of a boon to keep Dinoland from extinction. But it is interesting to think what Disney Imagineers could do with the odd-man-out among Animal Kingdom's hyper-realistic lands...
Life imitates art
If you ask most fans of Imagineering, Animal Kingdom is an absolute pinnacle of the power of themed design. The Oasis, Pandora, Asia, Africa, and Discovery Island feel so incredibly real that guests simply gaze in awe at the layers upon layers of life built into the villages, towns, and outposts each contains. The exceptional photorealism of these lands means that – for most guests – there’s no “deep dive” necessary; a casual glance is enough to convince the mind and heart that these lands are “real” and loaded with centuries of detail, and to simply accept that every single detail must’ve been authentic.
Despite popular belief, that same intense level of realism is behind Dino-Rama, too. But in this particular case, Disney may have hidden the story too well and, in their quest for realism, overshot the goal. Imagineers so perfectly crafted the feeling of a cheap-and-cheerful roadside amusement park, most guests (and even fans) give the land a cursory glance and arrive at a logical conclusion: that Disney cheaped out and built dino-dressed carnival rides. Even tried-and-true Disney Parks aficionados are known to balk that Disney built part of Dinoland on a reclaimed bit of parking lot… Apparently not realizing the effort that went into making that parking lot! (In fact, visit AllEars.net for even more amazing Dinoland details...)
And to be fair, Dinorama was cheap and is cheerful; a relatively low-cost way to add much-needed family capacity to the park. Like Disney California Adventure’s “a bug’s land” or Hollywood Studios’ Toy Story Land, the choice of a lightly-dressed carnival was no accident, but a budget-conscious way of expanding the park’s offerings and family appeal. We won’t debate that the inclusion of boardwalks, backlots, and carnivals in Disney Parks is a justified frustration for fans who see them as creative cop-outs.
But next time you visit Dinoland and its Dinorama, consider that there’s more than may initially meet the eye to the land. In fact, it’s layered in decades worth of story… if you’re willing to dig...