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Fifth Theme Park!!!1! ZOMG!!@!1!

There has been an explosion lately of rumors concerning a future fifth gate for the Florida property. Things came to a head this morning when Jim Hill posted a story with the exclusive “scoop” on the long-rumored new Walt Disney World park. Far be it for a humble Tiki god to declare shenanigans on a fellow Disney blogger, but from looking at the web searches that visitors have used to find this page over the last several months it’s obvious that there’s a great interest in rumors about a fifth gate, and I can’t help but to weigh in with my opinion on this story.

Fifth gate rumors have existed in some capacity since the opening of the Animal Kingdom in 1998. The most predominant speculation over the years has been that Disney’s next park would be centered around thrill attractions – the most state of the art, hard-core thrill rides to ever be installed in a Disney park. These rumors, which have recurred often over the years, got another boost recently due to a silly speculative article on the Motley Fool. The thrill park concept, ostensibly marketed to adults and positioned as a competitor to Universal’s Islands of Adventure park, often overlaps with the other dominant park rumor (sometimes dubbed “Shadowlands”) that would center around Disney villains.

Occasionally the villains park is also said to be the thrill park; other times, it’s pitched as a bizarro Magic Kingdom. I distinctly remember one elaborate version of the rumor that claimed that “Shadowlands” would be built on the current site of the TTC, facing the Magic Kingdom across the Seven Seas Lagoon. Its central visual icon would be Malificent’s evil and foreboding castle, thus presenting the new park as an exact visual opposite of the happy Magic Kingdom. These rumors possibly descend from earlier message board whisperings from the 1990s about a villain-themed land in the Magic Kingdom that would lie to the rear of Fantasyland; it would allegedly sit behind a new mountain with a flume ride themed to the Night on Bald Mountain segment from Fantasia.

Disney has maintained that it has no current plans to add a new gate, although blue-sky planning is no doubt being done for eventual expansion. The drawbacks for a new park are numerous. First there’s the fact that the four existing parks don’t currently stay full year round, as well as the fact that those parks aren’t remotely built out yet. Most notably, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom are far from full-day experiences at the current time. Hollywood Studios needs a massive reworking from the ground up, and Animal Kingdom has large sections that were excised for cost reasons during the park’s creation. Adding to expansion concerns is the state of the Orlando labor market; Disney has a very difficult time filling the jobs it currently has available without the burden of staffing an entirely new park. At this time, any new money or staffing would be far better used to enhance Disney’s existing properties.

The other trend in park rumors has centered around the concept of the small, highly priced boutique park. Usually these rumors surround speculation about the future use of the abandoned Discovery Island or River Country properties. The first rumor of this sort I recall surrounded discussions held between Disney and the creators of the MYST series of computer games; this concept, abandoned around the year 2000, would turn Discovery Island into a themed interactive experience based on the world of MYST. This separate gate would feature a much higher admission fee and limit the number of guests allowed in the park daily, providing a more exclusive experience.

The boutique park concept has exploded since 2000, when Sea World of Orlando introduced Discovery Cove – a premium-priced park that allows a small number of daily guests to interact closely with dolphins and other creatures. This small-park concept has been said to be a favorite of Disney parks chief Jay Rasulo, who has considered this sort of venue as a possibility for Florida as well as – allegedly – urban centers across America.

So what’s the new scoop? Jim Hill says that a new boutique park is on the way, called – wait for it – “Disney’s Night Kingdom”. No, seriously. This new experience, which Hill claims would be budgeted at $520 Million, would allegedly open in 2011 for Walt Disney World’s 40th anniversary. The park would be small – Hill claims a daily cap of 2000 guests – and would only open at 4 or 5 p.m. every day. Priced at around $300 for an evening’s admission and with a staff-to-guest ratio of 2:1, this new attraction would be an exclusive experience with a high level of service (much like guests used to experience in every Disney park).

What would this exclusive experience entail? Hill name-checks the following ‘attractions’:

  • Riding a zip line over a pool of “hungry crocodiles”
  • Hand feeding a hippopotamus
  • Night-vision tours of the “pitch-black” African savanna, where guests would be able to see close-up the “nocturnal hunting routines” of lions and hyenas
  • Spelunking a cave full of bats
  • Rock climbing
  • The opportunity to “frolic with some penguins”
  • A “state-of-the-art” stage show featuring “top Broadway talent”

The park would be entered through an enlarged version of the Adventurer’s Club, which would be relocated from its current site on Pleasure Island.

My first reaction to this could be roughly paraphrased, “WTF?” My second reaction to this might be categorized, “Bunk!” Aside from the fact that I cannot imagine that this is the best idea that Disney could come up with as a separate new park experience, there are a number of issues with the concept as described here.

First is the fact that these are not terribly unique concepts to wrap a park around. Rock climbing? The animal concepts that sound feasible – which would rule out zip-lining over hungry crocodiles – can often be experienced at major zoos. One wonders what Disney lawyers would feel about spelunking through guano-rich bat caves, or what animal activists would think of 2000 people showing up to “frolic” with penguins. Hippopotamuses are very aggressive and dangerous creatures to handle at close range, and I’m not sure what “nocturnal hunting routines” would imply. Is Disney going to leave lions and hyenas out for the night and allow them to hunt live prey? Are they going to drag frozen horse meat behind pickup trucks? Is this really “The Most Dangerous Game Dude Ranch”?

Basically, I was bewildered by this story. No doubt Disney, which offers a number of high-priced premium tours and hard-ticket events already, is confident that they can find a sufficient pool of guests willing to pay the price for deluxe experiences. While I’m not interested, certainly enough guests would be to prevent this from becoming a repeat of the Disney Institute fiasco (the first thing that sprang to my mind whilst reading these plans). But the overall concept is incoherent – why another animal park separate from Animal Kingdom? Would it have a completely separate savanna and habitat system? Backstage areas? It just doesn’t scan. Surely, I thought, it would have to be built in some way adjacent to Animal Kingdom so that support facilities could be shared. The new Western Way expansion could provide access to a new gate grafted on to the back of the park.

Then I read this little tidbit, from which Hill seems to have culled some of his information. A few posters on Disney message boards have claimed to been party to some Disney market surveys recently, surrounding something called the “Night Kingdom” which the posters seemed to think would be located at Animal Kingdom. One poster claims to have seen a video presentation by Imagineer Joe Rohde, which contained many concepts similar to Hill’s story. Rohde’s direct association with Animal Kingdom would imply a connection between the two attractions.

Additional details support the posters’ assumption that this would be a premium-priced add-on for the Animal Kingdom instead of a completely new park. The new attraction is said to open around 4 or 5 in the afternoon, roughly around the same time that Animal Kingdom usually closes. Adding on to an existing theme park would allow them to share backstage areas and support facilities, as well as allowing them to draw from the same labor pool. It would also provide more bang for Disney’s buck – $500 Million invested in upgrading and plussing Animal Kingdom (reports mention areas based on South America and the Pacific) would go a long way towards remedying the problems mentioned previously, while enabling a new stream of revenue from this “deluxe” experience.

The final verdict? Who knows what they’re up to – although they’re definitely working on something. It has been reported since at least the 1990′s that Imagineering has wanted to experiment with exclusive projects like this; Tony Baxter has long expressed the desire to create feature-length attractions that diverge from they typical theme park experience. Yet none of these seem to really match these reports. The “Night Kingdom” seems to be a random collection of experiences, and there’s certainly nothing there that can begin to justify being labeled a “fifth gate”.

In the end, the message board version sounds far more plausible and sensible than Hill’s version. A major addition to Animal Kingdom which would add exclusive, hands-on experiences and offer a unique evening complete with gourmet meal and entertainment for around $300 (with discounts available for guests with vacation packages) would be quite popular and make far, far more sense than what Hill describes.

My personal opinion (much awaited by Disney brass, no doubt) is that if this is in fact an addition to Animal Kingdom it’s a pretty good idea and, as long as it doesn’t harm the integrity of the average guest experience in the park, should be a success. I can’t fathom that Disney is betting $500 Million on a completely separate gate as Hill describes. I’m not excited about the idea of the Adventurer’s Club leaving Pleasure Island, either; while it fits that area less and less as time goes on, it seems out of place in a theme park as well. Although one wonders if Disney has plans to use the Adventurer’s Club to replace the Rainforest Cafe?

Here’s hoping that these disparate rumors congeal into something coherent and appealing. Personally, I hope that it’s something that will plus the Animal Kingdom while providing these new experiences for those willing to pay a premium. Animal Kingdom needs expansion, and Disney doesn’t need another Institute. Rohde’s involvement, if true, should guarantee something interesting at least. If anyone wants to chime in with some actual facts, let me know…

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