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Beastly Kingdom concept art

During the early days of Disney’s opening of Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, imagineers had ambitious ideas for the park. With a focus on animals of the real, extinct, and fictional, Animal Kingdom aspired to teach children about the importance of conservation through interactive attractions and rides. 

The original concept intended to use three distinct areas on the chosen land–an area dedicated to real, existing animals, an area for prehistoric creatures that would later become recognized as Dinoland USA, and an area for mythological creatures that would be known as Beastly Kingdom.

Beastly Kingdom concept art

Right out of the gate, however, they were faced with an important and difficult decision, as the budget at the time would only allow for two of the three planned areas to be built in time for the planned park opening. The decision was made to prioritize existing animals and extinct animals, likely because of the upcoming theatrical release of Dinosaur (2000). Disney higher ups were likely hoping for a successful film that would generate more interest for a dinosaur-themed area of the new theme park. 

Because of this, Beastly Kingdom’s concept was set aside and planned as part of a massive expansion. The area would feature two distinct lands for creatures of light and creatures of darkness respectively. Within the creatures of light side, guests would explore an interactive garden maze and have an up close encounter with an animatronic unicorn. The maze attraction was intended as a sort of quest for guests to accomplish. While wandering the maze, guests would seek out five idols that would unlock additional areas of the maze. Along with the maze, there was also a planned boat ride attraction that would have been themed around Disney’s Fantasia. 

Quest of the Unicorn concept art

Within the creatures of darkness side was the planned big ticket attraction–a roller coaster that took guests through a decrepit castle inhabited by a fire-breathing dragon. The dragon animatronic was planned to be the largest imagineers had designed up to that point.

This spectacular thrill ride would have given guests an up close encounter with the dragon toward the end of the ride. Unfortunately, these attractions were never implemented in the park due to budget constraints after Animal Kingdom’s initial opening. Beastly Kingdom and its concepts were sidelined for many years, and Camp Minnie-Mickey was created as a temporary placeholder until plans could move forward with the development of the expansion.

Dragon Coaster concept art

However, things would change on September 20, 2011, when the news broke to the public that a new expansion would be coming to Animal Kingdom. Disney had partnered with James Cameron to bring the world of Pandora to life in a beautiful project that would see the floating mountains and unique alien species come alive inside Animal Kingdom. As exciting as the announcement was, many fans still holding onto the hope of seeing Beastly Kingdom’s development would be disappointed to learn that Pandora would be occupying the land once set aside for the Beastly Kingdom expansion.

Now inhabiting the area once intended for the Beastly Kingdom expansion is the world of Pandora. With the opening and success of this ambitious new area, the likelihood of seeing an area dedicated to mythological creatures such as dragons and unicorns has decreased drastically.

Despite this, for those eager to know about what could have been, there are surprisingly a handful of remnants left behind that show the original intentions of the creators of Animal Kingdom. As you are entering the park, keep an eye out for a designated parking lot that still utilizes the name “Unicorn”, and the dragon head carving displayed over the ticket booths at the park’s entrance. 

Dragon head carving over ticket booth

Perhaps the most interesting remnant of Beastly Kingdom was created as a sort of teaser. One of Animal Kingdom’s opening day attractions was the Discovery River Boats. This attraction served as a transportation service through Animal Kingdom that would help guests navigate the park while offering some unique views and experiences. During this leisure boat ride through the rivers of Animal Kingdom, guests would pass a dragon-shaped rock formation that trickled water from its open mouth. 

Continuing further, guests would then pass several deceased knights in melted armor scattered around a hidden cave. From within, a dragon would snarl and roar and spit fire toward the boats. This scene received backlash from families that believed the sight was too morbid and grisly for young children. The knights were removed soon after the ride’s opening, but the dragon remained a part of this attraction until its permanent closure a year later.

Though a designated area for mythological creatures never came to be, there is no lack of these creatures to be found within the park itself. Take, for example, the popular Expedition Everest roller coaster that prominently features a yeti throughout its story and ride experience. 

Expedition everest, Disney
Image: Disney

With the addition of Pandora to the park’s roster, even more fictional creatures have been introduced. Taking a ride on Flight of Passage or the Na’vi River Journey is a great way to enjoy what could have been if the concept of Beastly Kingdom had ever come to be. Though there are no dragons or unicorns to be seen within the park, the memory of them lives on.

In fact, many of the imagineers responsible for the concept of Beastly Kingdom were later picked up by Universal Studios who had been seeking talented creators for their own large expansion at the time. Many of these creators had a hand in developing the original Beastly Kingdom idea and were finally able to put their ideas to use through the development of the Lost Continent area inside Islands of Adventure. 

Though little remains of Beastly Kingdom inside Disney parks, those with a passion for the mythological can always take a trip to Universal to get their fill of unicorns, dragons, and more.

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