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Think This is Disney’s Worst Land Ever? Let’s “Dig” Deeper to Change Your Mind...

In defense of Dino-Rama

Image: Jennifer Lynn, Flickr (license)

There are two things we won’t deny:

  1. At first (and even second) glance, Dino-Rama feels massively out-of-place at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

  2. 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… 

Image: Disney

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.)

Image: Loren Javier, Flickr (license)

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.

Image: Jack Spence, AllEars.net

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.

Image: Jack Spence, AllEars.net

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...

Image: HarshLight, Flickr (license)

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.

Extinction event?

Image: Disney

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.

Tokyo DisneySea's Lost River Delta. Image: Disney

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...)

Disneyland Paris' Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril. Image: Disney

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. 

Image: Disney

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... 

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