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Dinoland USA Animal Kingdom

Look – it wouldn’t be the first time dinosaurs went extinct. 

Since 1998, Disney’s Animal Kingdom has played host to an entire land dedicated to the ancient reptiles that once walked the earth. From day one, Dinoland, U.S.A. has been an oddity – a meticulously designed in-joke philosophically exploring humanity’s relationship with creatures we’ve only encountered through fossil evidence and feature films. But arguably, Dinoland has always fallen a bit flat… Anchored by a swing-and-a-miss attempt to relive the glory of one of Disney’s best rides ever, then accentuated by a fan-frustrating carnival, Dinoland has never truly entered the pantheon of great Disney projects.

And now, things are changing once again. With the recent news that one of the land’s few attractions will never open again, Dinoland’s looking more desolate than ever. So what if Disney were drawing up plans to replace Dinoland entirely? Today, we’ll take the trek through the history of Dinoland and toward the conclusion many Imagineering fans have already drawn (sometimes literally)... Could Animal Kingdom’s land of ancient animals become a land of ancient adventures? Here’s our in-depth assessment of how we got here... 

Prehistory

To understand why Dinoland may be endangered, we have to remember why it exists at all. 

Wild Animal Kingdom logo
Image: Disney

Picture it: in the early ‘90s, plans for Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom were already underway. A response to (and maybe, a rejection of) the era of the “Studio” park that had preceded it, Animal Kingdom would be “a new species of theme park,” dedicated to “animals real, ancient, and imagined,” with the latter two in particular ensuring that guests would recognize this new fourth gate as “Nahtazu,” but so much more. 

By nature of reading this Editorial, you undoubtedly already know that the latter two of those lands – featuring “ancient” and “imagined” animals, respectively – were supposed to be the concepts that would most clearly and succinctly demonstrate that Animal Kingdom was worthy of Disney-level admission prices despite its admitted on-paper similarities to regional zoos. Which means you also know that as the park’s budget ballooned with back-of-house infrastructure, then-CEO Michael Eisney allegedly got cold feet about the ultra-ambitious park and its nail-biting costs in a post-Disneyland-Paris company.

Dinoland was famously greenlit, leaving the Possibilityland: Beastly Kingdom a mere legend in our library. But… why? What gave Dinoland an edge over its mythological sister?

Image: Disney

Frankly, Dinoland, U.S.A. was born of a ‘90s pop culture convergence that was too good to pass up. 

  • First came Jurassic Park. The 1993 Steven Spielberg film was a billion dollar earner before such feats were commonplace (the highest grossing film ever at the time of its release), rocketing to become a cultural phenomenon and landmark film. 
Image: Disney
  • Then came the Modern Marvel: Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland. The E-Ticket attraction (and still one of the world’s best) debuted a brand new ride system technology – the Enhanced Motion Vehicle – that combined a dark ride and simulator in one… and the team working on Animal Kingdom’s Dinoland assured Eisner they could cut costs by duplicating the hit ride’s technology and layout, simultaneously bringing the new tech to Florida, saving research and development costs, and keeping Dinoland’s budget low by opting for one single ride versus Beastly Kingdom’s minimum of two.
  • Then came the Lost Legend: Jurassic Park: The Ride. It’s not just that the 1996 attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood was a hit; it was that Universal was officially inking plans for a new theme park in Orlando that would not only clone the Hollywood attraction, but have an entire Jurassic Park land as its centerpiece.
Image: Disney
  • And yet to come was the 2000 film DINOSAUR – reportedly, a pet project of Eisner’s – which would combine cutting edge computer animation with live backgrounds to create a movie that would redefine filmmaking for the new millennium. 

Given what was happening – and what was on the horizon – it’s easy to see why Dinoland was elevated above Beastly Kingdom. It was the right land at the right time; one that would cash in on the recently-revitalized pop culture coup of dinosaurs, rise to meet Universal and its new park, integrate a highly sought-after ride system into Walt Disney World, and set the park up for success thanks to the in-production film. As for the form it took?

Dinoland, U.S.A.

Image: Disney

Animal Kingdom’s Africa transports guests to the fictional – but not fantasy – waterside village of Harambe; Asia similarly sets guests down in the misty town of Anadapur at the foot of the Himalayas. Dinoland takes you somewhere, too… it’s just not quite as far away.

Look, we’ll be the first to admit to being “Dinoland Apologists.” In fact, Theme Park Tourist published a full, in-depth Declassified Disaster: DINOLAND feature that digs into the history of the land just to mount a defense against its critics. You can see and feel that Imagineers really did want to use Dinoland to transport guests somewhere new… in this case, to a sleepy town on a quiet highway somewhere between Texas and Florida, long-since surpassed by the Interstate. Just as much as any other land at Animal Kingdom, Dinoland is rich with history and story and detail layered on by Imagineers who are building a fake place that could exist in the real world.

Image: Disney

In this case, it’s a story that begins with locals – like married couple Chester and Hester – whose long-standing gas station was a lone outpost in the quiet Diggs County… until the discovery of fossils brought archaeologists and grad students from around the world. Within, the land’s buildings tell the story of their ensuing re-use, with old fishing lodges become dorms and cafeterias for hungry students; with their professors gradually forming the Dino Institute in vacant Diggs County structures, gradually gaining funding...

Image: Disney

...up to the opening of the more prestigious Dino Institute museum and research center, where the Lost Legend: Countdown to Extinction served as the land’s only chance to get face-to-face with real, living dinosaurs.

Put another way, Dinoland has a story as pervasive and rich and layered as Batuu. Like 1994’s New Tomorrowland at Magic Kingdom or 1995’s Adventureland in Disneyland, this was an early attempt at Imagineering’s land-wide continuity, with one overarching frame story explaining every ride, show, restaurant, and shop in the land. So why didn’t people love it?

The Downfall of Dinoland

Image: Disney

Even when Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, there consensus seemed to be that Dinoland, U.S.A. was an oddity… It just… didn’t fit. From the untamed beauty of the Oasis to the craftsmen village of Discovery Island in the fantastic roots of the Tree of Life, then to photorealistic and immersive lands recalling far-flung corners of Africa and Asia… Animal Kingdom is a park of artistry and romance; it explores how the story of humanity is inextricably tied to the animals and nature our civilizations have developed within and alongside.

Dinoland took that “idea” of exploration humanity’s relationship to animals and created a philosophically clever take without stealing Jurassic Park’s M.O. of literally positioning us alongside them. It explored how we, as people, have both revered and infantilized dinosaurs; how we take for granted that giant reptiles once walked the earth and instead turn them into caricatures in cartoons; patterns on baby bibs; action figures and stuffed animals… It’s a clever way of sticking to the park’s pattern, but it’s also very different from the rest.

 

Image: Disney

Imagineers worked hard to create in Dinoland a physical place, and habitable and layered in history as Harambe or Anadapur. But Dinoland was still out of sync. Maybe it was “too close to home;” not exotic enough; maybe it didn’t have enough to do; maybe it just pales in comparison to Jurassic Park. 

Or maybe its story was so deeply embedded – so layered – that most guests just didn’t even realize it was there. Most visitors, after all, don’t view lands as puzzles that need studied to be solved, but as places that need navigated to be completed. 

And though Dinoland might’ve ridden the wave of ‘90s pop culture, the EMV, and Eisner’s shoe-in blockbuster movie Dinosaur to its completion, the land that didn’t fit didn’t get much better. In fact, it might’ve gotten worse… Read on as we dissect the downfall of Dinoland.

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Comments

I know arguably too IP-friendly, but you had me at "Gravity Falls"...

Great article Brian! I'm a big fan of imagineering ideas for the various Disney Parks, particularly the US parks. I agree that DinoLand USA is probably on its way out. And while the storyline is well developed, Chester & Hester's Dino-Rama just has a different vibe compared to Asia, Africa and Pandora. Part of me thinks that just replacing that subsection would solve much of the problems within this land. And while Dinosaur is a good ride and a fun experience, but it's not a great ride and is lacking any serious WOW moments. And because the ride is so similar to Indiana Jones Adventure, it's going to inevitably always be compared to it.

The part that I disagree with in the article is the idea for the South America re-theme and changing the Dinosaur attraction to Indiana Jones Adventure. Going back to Joe Rohde's philosophy for the park, Indiana Jones as a character and an IP doesn't really fit in within Disney's Animal Kingdom. To me, Indiana Jones fits in better in Hollywood Studios than in DAK. Every time I hear people suggest South America/Indiana Jones should replace Dino Institue/Dinosaur, it sounds more like an attempt to shoehorn in a land (South America) around an attraction (Indiana Jones), when it should be the other way around. Also, I think if Dinosaur didn't have the same track layout/ride system as Indiana Jones, nobody would be pursuing the Indiana Jones re-theme idea. Another concern I have is that there aren't any memorable animals within the Indiana Jones franchise. I googled "Indiana Jones animals" and I saw a picture of a monkey, a horse, and an elephant from the movies, plus various cats and dogs playing Indiana Jones dress up. While cute, they don't speak to the biodiversity of South America. To me that just shoudn't fit within Animal Kingdom, no matter how fun the ride is. Finally and most importantly, Animal Kingdom was meant to showcase animals of "past, present, and future." Removing the dinosaur elements altogether means you remove the animals of the past. Unless Indiana Jones goes on an adventure where he has to face dinosaurs, a key component of the park would entirely disappear.

My ideas for this area would be to find a way to keep the dinosaur element in this area of the park, replace the cheesy carnival area with attraction(s) that focus more on the discovery of prehistoric creatures, make the Dinosaur attraction more relevant and/or replace it with a more appropriate storyline/IP, and of course tie everything together.
1-Replace the entire area where C&H's Dino-Rama currently exists with the original thrill ride coaster, The Excavator! Based on the concept art I discovered on this very website, it looked super awesome, and it would fit into the whole "fossil dig site" theme that is the Dino Institute and Restaurantosaurus. Plus, Animal Kingdom as a whole could use another E-ticket attraction in the park. There is definitely room for a coaster the size of Seven Dwarves Mine Train or Slinky Dog Dash.
2-If you take a look at another re-theme that Disney did really well was the Tower of Terror in DCA that became GOTG: Mission Breakout! There they de-emphasized the scares and focused on the fun energy that the movie/characters have to make an entirely different experience using the same ride system. Although the comparisons still exist, it stands on it's own a a great attraction. If Disney chose to take a similar route with Dinosaur, they should consider using the new Ice Age IP and make the ride more fun and silly. While it may not be current, it is the third highest grossing animated movie franchise of all time (even outperforming all of Disney/Pixar's animated franchises!), and there are talks of Disney reviving the franchise for a series on Disney+. Using a more fun franchise might help take away from the comparisons to Indiana Jones Adventure, plus there are many elements within the ride that wouldn't have to change: the time travel vehicles/concept, re-skinning some of the dinosaurs, and even re-utilizing the meteor finale.
3-The overall theme of a fossil dig site works well on its own, but if they wanted to add a little more exotic element to compare to Africa and Asia, I would consider Australia. Doing a little research, a lot of interesting dinosaurs fossils have been discovered on that continent within the last ten years, and it's quickly becoming an area of interest amongst paleontologists. The architecture of Australia wouldn't be too different than the current DinoLand USA theme, but having that as a baseline could allow the imagineers to go back and add some more authentic touches to really emphasize the Australian outback atmosphere. The Boneyard, The Excavator and Dino Institute/Ice Age attractions could easily fit within an Australian setting, and even the area currently known as the Cretaceous Trail could be re-themed to the Marsupial Trail.

Thanks again for the article and allowing me to share my ideas!

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