The next item in our (seemingly never-endless) list of what I’d like to see taken care of this year at WDW? Survey says…
#7 – Finish the Animal Kingdom!
Again, I know. Putting something like this on a list has a depth of insight akin to saying that I should probably eat some lunch tomorrow. Still, it’s my list so this is how we’re going to roll.
The Animal Kingdom is a very strange creature, so to speak. It’s different from the other Disney parks in many ways, some of which are confusing and occasionally off-putting to fans. Yet most of these differences exist by choice, as the park was intentionally designed to embrace a somewhat different ideology than its predecessors. For some, it’s their favorite park. Others find it a disappointment. But both sides can agree on one thing – it’s definitely unfinished.
The problem with analyzing Animal Kingdom is that one must realize which flaws stem from its design (these are few) and which resulted from the constant budget cuts that plagued its creation (these are many). The first Disney park built after Eisner’s creative breakdown, the park that opened in 1998 was significantly pared down from what had been originally announced. After all the ballyhoo and hype, guests found a large and beautiful park with precious little to do – only two actual ride-based attractions were ready on opening day. This disappointment made a strong negative impression on many fans – myself included – and the bad buzz helped contribute to years of severe attendance problems. The perception of the Animal Kingdom as a half-day park (if that) has changed over the years, especially with the addition of Expedition Everest in 2006, and the park’s popularity has grown. It also doesn’t hurt that several other projects have debuted since that make Animal Kingdom look much better in comparison.
But it’s not just the epic failure of California Adventure and Disney Studios Paris that have rehabilitated the image of Animal Kingdom; there’s a lot to admire about the fourth Orlando park. As in most cases, the park’s shortcomings rest on the shoulders of the accountants in Burbank rather than the talented creative staff responsible for its design. If received wisdom is to be believed, the park’s greatest blemishes – the underwhelming Camp Minnie-Mickey and the horrific carnyfest that was added on to Dinoland – were mandated by corporate against the wishes of the park’s creative team. What funding WDI managed to obtain for the park was well spent; the facilities that do exist, aside from those mentioned above, are extremely scenic and full of minute detail. Most importantly, thanks to Imagineer Joe Rohde, who served as the park’s creative guru, the park has a unified and clear vision and purpose for being. That’s something that’s missing from many of the more recent parks, and something that I’ve hoped to see more of in the other three Florida parks at least. Unlike the lesser parks mentioned before, what’s been built at Animal Kingdom is actually worthy of the Disney name; once they fill in the blanks, the current disjointed layout will be resolved and the park will be more than a half-day experience.
The obvious place to start, and certain to be the locus of any fan discussion of Animal Kingdom expansion, is the site formerly intended for the “Beastly Kingdom”.
I won’t bother rehashing the entire story here, as it’s been told often elsewhere, but we need to bring it up because the Beastly Kingdom is bound to be the most pined-for yet unbuilt park area since Tony Baxter’s Discovery Bay. Intended to complete the park’s conceptual trinity of animals living, extinct and mythical, the often-delayed land would have featured an inverted rollercoaster through a burned-out castle where guests would encounter a life-sized animatronic dragon. Visitors would find their way through a hedgerow maze to meet a unicorn, and there would be a family-friendly boat ride through scenes from the film Fantasia.
Instead, Eisner diverted the funding for the area and had the parks’ entertainment division quickly slap together Camp Minnie-Mickey to fill the space with some zero-budget character greeting areas and the Festival of the Lion King show, which consisted of repurposed parade floats from Disneyland. Fans have spent the years since looking for any hopeful sign of the concept’s re-emergence, with rumors waxing and waning leaving only disappointment in their wake. In the meantime, Universal’s Islands of Adventures opened, featuring a coaster that eerily resembled design concepts for the Dragon’s Tower. It seems that now, even if the Beastly concept returns at some future date, it will be far different from the plans announced in the 1990s.
So what form will this expansion take? Rumors within the last year insist that once again the wheels of progress are turning and that something is in the works for the former Beastly site. Some point to the closure last October of the Pocahontas and her Forest Friends show as evidence that Disney is starting to clear the way for construction. Reliable sources reported late last year that site prep would indeed begin in 2009, but recent economic events make this possibility frustratingly speculative.
The latest and more frequently reported gossip is that the new expansion will, in some form, involve a take on Tokyo DisneySea’s Mysterious Island area. This will most likely result in some variation of that park’s Journey to the Center of the Earth attraction, with that ride’s giant lava monster animatronic possibly replaced by another creature. Other rumors add some version of DisneySea’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea dark ride to the mix. Whether this area will actually be called “Mysterious Island”, whether it will retain the full Vernian theming of that area, and whether Animal Kingdom will sprout a second mountain with a recreation of Tokyo’s Mount Prometheus – these aspects are all unknown. But one would hope that the great success that Expedition Everest brought the park has shown the executives that new attractions actually attract people – so that’s why they call them that! – and that maybe there’s something behind the idea that visitors aren’t going to show up unless you actually have something for them to do when they arrive. So let’s look where these hoped-for attractions will go:
In the image above, we see the area once intended for Beastly Kingdom, and now partially occupied by Camp Minnie-Mickey. One can easily see the amount of empty space available for expansion, and how small the current character-themed area is. The small Pocahontas theater is now empty, and the prevailing assumption is if expansion should occur in this area, the Festival of the Lion King would be moved to Africa where it is thematically more appropriate. Whether the expansion here should prove Beastly or Mysterious, it needs to be done well and as soon as possible. Only when the realm of fantastical creatures is added to the park will its original vision be complete. But after that, what’s next?
Another likely area of expansion will be this plot, shaded in blue, that was to be the original footprint of Asia’s rapids ride. The original concept for Tiger Rapids Run was that aside from being merely a thrill ride, the twelve-person rafts would take guests down a winding Asian river past live tigers and other creatures. It would be an aquatic version of the Kilimajaro Safari, with exciting show scenes and a whitewater finale. The ever-present budget cuts of the era pared the ride down to its current size, shaded in green, and the resulting Kali River Rapids is the short and unimpressive result.
The upside is that much of this area is clear and available for expansion, and it’s railroad-adjacent site would give that seemingly random attraction some added purpose. The land would also link up with the Conservation Station site, incorporating that area more sensibly with the park’s layout. It would also soak up more of the park’s crowds, and additional routes to Africa and other areas of the park would alleviate some of the brutal congestion that affects the park’s main pedestrian corridor.
The final likely area for future expansion is shown above, adjacent to Expedition Everest and north of Dinoland. I’ve no idea what is intended for this spot, but it has a prime location along the Asia-Dinoland corridor.
So, there are many possible sites for expansion – what should Disney build? Fans might immediately reel off the list of already-conceived but unbuilt attractions, like the Excavator wooden coaster intended for Dinoland. If Mysterious Island does indeed replace Beastly Kingdom, I think that the original myth-derived concept could easily be expanded to serve as the creative basis for an entirely separate gate for the future, perhaps combined with ideas from Rohde’s proposed “Mythia” expansion for Disneyland. Disney has expressed at least vague interest in the past of adding areas themed to Australia, South America and North America, so one assumes that they at least have an idea of where they’d like to install these new lands. Sadly, management jumped the gun and already imported Soarin’ Over California to Florida; I always thought the attraction would, with a new ride film, work nicely as part of an Australian area where the enormous and unsightly show building could conveniently be cloaked to look like Ayers Rock.
What this park needs most immediately is capacity; new rides to soak up guests and keep them in the park for longer than a few hours. It also needs indoor attractions because Animal Kingdom, whether by design or necessity, can be miserably, oppressively hot. Yet the balmiest of Disney’s parks also features the least opportunities to be inside – only one of its seven rides take place indoors. Aside from the list of E-tickets fans could reel off, the park really needs some solid C- and D-ticket attractions. These are the rides that complete the unique fabric of the “old growth” Disney parks – it’s attractions like the Peoplemover, Peter Pan’s Flight or The Enchanted Tiki Room that make Disney special. Animal Kingdom also needs at least a couple of the epic E-tickets like Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, Spaceship Earth or Journey into Imagination that people expect at a Disney park.
None of this should obstruct the main goals of the Animal Kingdom, or remove its focus from live animals. But there does need to be a mix of attractions, so guests have something to do on those days when the animals are feeling sleepy or it’s just too rainy or hot to enjoy the outdoor elements of the park. Areas of the park devoted to fantasy and prehistoric creatures should provide plenty of opportunities for these more traditional attractions – I recall rumors once for a more family-friendly dinosaur-themed dark ride that, while probably purely speculative, would in fact be a great idea for a starting place.
I’ve no doubt that the Imagineers are more than up to the task, or that Rohde and company don’t already have a backlog of ideas they’d like to work on. So it’s up to our friends in Burbank to provide a little stimulus of their own and release some funds for expansion. The park is more than ten years old now, so it’s time to at least fill in the empty spaces that should have been complete on opening day.