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Right out the gate, Dinoland was somewhat of an oddity at Animal Kingdom. Despite similar scope and equally embedded storytelling, Disney's recreation of Diggs County simply didn't fit among the park's Africa and Asia. And though it opened with Countdown to Extinction as its single ride, Dinoland would subtly – but substantially – change. Here are the three ingredients that make up today's Dinoland... and why each failed to become the hit Disney hoped... 

1. DINOSAUR

Image: Disney

Imagineers sold executives on the idea of Dinoland hinging on the EMV, the ride system that had catapulted Disneyland into the modern “Ride the Movies” movement with the world-class, ultra-beloved, fantastically fun Modern Marvel: Indiana Jones Adventure. Of course having the EMV at Disney World would be a win, and the idea of an off-roading safari through a jungle of dinosaurs isn’t at all a bad concept.

But look… anyone who’s read our in-depth look at the Lost Legend: Countdown to Extinction knows that Disney’s plans for an Indiana-Jones-equivalent prehistoric safari quickly encountered some cut corners. Don’t misunderstand: Dinoland’s dark ride lives up to its (laughably bad) tagline – “It’s fast. It’s a blast. It’s in the past.” – but it’s also severely uneven, hampered by continuous re-writes to fix its narrative problems, broken figures, large expanses of darkness, laughably cheesy effects, and an uneven tone that underwrites it all.

Image: Disney

In isolation? It’s a fun ride. But in 1998, positioning an ultra-intense, dark, terrifying, loud, rough, scary attraction as one of two rides at Disney’s Animal Kingdom? It was… a choice. 

And that choice was made all the more odd when, in 2000, the ride was briefly closed and then reopened as DINOSAUR, ostensibly tying it to the now-completely-forgotten film that helped greenlight the land. Combined with the changes made to “lessen” the ride’s intensity at that time and the many effects that have flickered out of existence since, Dinosaur is rough in more ways than one.

And frankly, it’s never been able to overcome the simple, foundational hurdle that it’s just not Indiana Jones Adventure. For Disney Parks aficionados, it’s practically mean that Disney World is this close to having a duplicate of one of the best dark rides ever designed, right down to the rides’ nearly-identical layouts. So yes, Dinosaur is “good.” If you didn’t know Indiana Jones Adventure existed (which of course, most Disney World guests do not), you might even think it’s “really good.” But it’s not Indiana Jones Adventure.

2. Chester & Hester's Dino-Rama

Dinoland opened alongside Animal Kingdom in 1998. In 2000, Countdown to Extinction became the increasingly-uneven Dinosaur. Meanwhile, attendance at the new theme park allegedly wasn’t keeping up pace. Part of the problem? While guests reportedly liked Disney’s Animal Kingdom, it simply didn’t have enough to do. And, like… yeah… Three years into existing, Animal Kingdom offered just three noteworthy rides: Kilimanjaro Safaris, DINOSAUR, and Kali River Rapids. 

Disney has faced this problem many times. Today, the popular solution is Toy Story Land, a veritable panacea for parks that just don’t have enough to do. It’s an easy, quick, relatively inexpensive way to inject “cheap and cheerful” family attractions into the park with a universally-recognized IP and off-the-shelf rides. That’s why almost every Disney Resort on Earth has a Toy Story Land. Even before Woody and Buzz began literally reigning over carnival rides, Disney California Adventure’s quick fix solution was 2002’s “a bug’s land,” an (arguably more charming than Toy Story Land) attempt to miniaturize guests and inject some family flat ride capacity into an underbuilt park.

Image: Disney

It’s somewhat curious that Animal Kingdom didn’t opt for “a bug’s land” behind the Tree of Life in its own quick-fix push to add family capacity to the park. Instead, in 2002, it debuted Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama. Building off of the land’s existing mythology and doubling down on that clever case study of the land’s thematic message, Dino-Rama was… well… another choice.

Look, we spent a good chunk of our Declassified Disaster: DINOLAND feature defending Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama and how it really does fit into that deeply layered and embedded story that permeates through Dinoland. It is a fitting representation of a roadside attraction anchored by the dino-Dumbo TriceraTop Spin carnival ride and the practically-mobile Primeval Whirl wild mouse coaster that looks like it just unfolded from a tractor-trailer. And fittingly, Disney Imagineers expanded Chester & Hester’s “blacktop” parking lot and set up their prehistoric county fair there.

Image: Disney

But even if we can narratively excuse Dino-Rama, there’s just no denying that it only added to the “differentness” of Dinoland. To travel from the foot of Expedition Everest and the mystical, reflective, and otherworldly Serka Zong into… a top-40-hits fun fair of clanging carnival games and whizzing roller coasters…

And given that most guests don’t look at lands like puzzles to be solved, you can see why the narrative of Dinoland grew increasingly negative. Casual guests and fans alike took Dino-Rama at face value (which is fair!) and decreed that Disney had cheaped out. Now, Dolly Parton is fond of saying “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap,” and that’s true of Dino-Rama – where extensive placemaking sold the illusion of a roadside carnival. But at the end of the day, it was a relatively “cheap and cheerful” solution to the problem.

3. Primeval Whirl

Image: Disney

Speaking of problems, Dino-Rama’s roller coaster – Primeval Whirl – has been one in its own right. Just as it’s odd that Disney opted to build Dino-Rama instead of merely duplicating California Adventure’s “a bug’s land” that was in production at the same time, they made another curious choice in Primeval Whirl. Animal Kingdom’s coaster was built by French ride manufacturer Reverchon rather than the tried-and-true Mack Rides who built California Adventure’s Mulholland Madness (today, Goofy’s Sky School) at the same time. It was, to put it lightly, a bad decision.

In 2001 – a year before Primeval Whirl opened – Twister at Lightwater Valley in the U.K. (a Reverchon coaster of the same model as Primeval Whirl) experienced a two-train collision, with a 20-year old rider dying of head trauma.

In 2007, a Disney Cast Member died after allegedly falling off of a platform on Primeval Whirl.

In 2011, another Cast Member died after allegedly suffering a traumatic head injury while working on the ride.

In 2015, a Lightwater Valley worker was reportedly flung 40-feet into the air after being struck by a vehicle on the same Twister coaster that caused a death in 2001 

In 2019, a young boy fell from Lightwater Valley’s Twister coaster and was airlifted to a hospital in critical condition.

Image: Joel Rogers, coastergallery.com. Used with permission.

Three weeks later – on June 17, 2019, Primeval Whirl officially switched to “seasonal” status – a common death knell for Disney Parks rides, and unlike rides hidden away in showbuildings, a quiet coaster in a blacktop parking lot sure doesn’t look great… In any case, “seasonal” status suggested that Primeval Whirl would only open during the busiest weeks of the summer and winter seasons and otherwise remain standing but not operating. 

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic suggested that “busy weeks of the summer and winter seasons” might be a thing of the past entirely… We have yet to recognize the full, decade-long ramifications of the potentially crippling effects of the 2020 pandemic on the slate of projects across Disney and Universal Parks… But we do know that Primeval Whirl will never re-open. On July 16, 2020, Disney officials confirmed that the coaster was closed for good.

It’s unlikely that Disney is in any rush to remove the steel ride… Such an expense would be ludicrous amid the reported $900 million in capital cuts to Parks projects. Plus, if Disney did remove Primeval Whirl, Dino-Rama would look even more pathetic than it already does, making the “parking lot” look even more like an empty expanse, and with a single spinning dino-Dumbo as its only visual point of interest. Yikes. So what, exactly is left of Dinoland, U.S.A.?

Image: Disney

DINOSAUR? Declining.

Dino-Rama? Detested.

Primeval Whirl? Deleted. 

So maybe it's time we chalk Dinoland up to a lost cause and shift our focus to a much more fun conversation: what could be? Our dreams finish up on the next page.

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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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