Walt Disney World is an ever-changing place. Walt Disney himself wanted the parks to be lively and up to date, never having the feel of a dusty old museum or relic. However, a balance must always be found between the old and the new. Many fans feel that during the dark days of the Eisner years, much that was traditional, classic and most of all unique was lost in favor of off the shelf rides with no real character, simply because they were cheaper to build and maintain. Regardless of personal feelings as to why certain things were done or not done, the fact remains that much has changed in the parks over the years. If you have not visited in some time, you might be caught off guard. Here, then, is a guide to the major changes that have taken place at Animal Kingdom since the park’s inception.
Animal Kingdom is Walt Disney World’s newest park, opened in 1998. Animal Kingdom was conceptualized as a completely new type of theme park, incorporating the latest in zoo technology with the special blend of thrill rides, shows, and more sedate attractions for which Disney is legendary. As the newest park, Animal Kingdom has not changed as much over time as have some of the older Disney parks. Nevertheless, those who have not visited in the past decade will find some things that are decidedly different than they were before.
Animal Kingdom is home to breeding programs for a vast array of animal species. The park also takes part in a variety of rescue programs. Therefore, the animal population itself is always expanding and changing. Many park guests delight in discovering which animals have given birth since their last visit. Cast Members are quite well educated about the specific animals in the park, and are always willing to share the information that they have.
As a completely new type of park, Animal Kingdom did not have a model to follow. Many of the changes that have taken place have occurred as real-world testing of the design has led to tweaking and perfecting of the concept. For example, the park did not offer guide maps on opening day. The Imagineers wanted to give guests a true sense of exploration. However, due to the winding pathways and jungle overgrowth, many guests simply got lost and were unable to find their way to desired attractions. Guide maps were quickly printed in response to guest complaints.
Another example of this tweaking and changing lies with the ill-fated Discovery River Boats. Original design plans for the park called for an additional land, one which would be filled with mythical creatures from unicorns to dragons. However, budgetary and time constraints demanded that the park open without that land. Originally, the Discovery River Boats would have taken guests down the river to that land. When the park opened without the land being built, the Imagineers re-conceptualized the boat ride as a preview of things to come, and envisioned dragon caves and other mysteries along the route. Budgetary constraints prevented this as well, but by the time the budget issue was realized, the boat ride was mostly constructed. The Discovery River Boats became nothing more than a slow moving transport without a real purpose. Due to major guest complaints, the ride was tweaked several times, bringing in nature presenters to showcase insects and reptiles among other quick fixes. However, once it was determined that the new land would never open, Disney eventually gave up on the River Boats altogether. Interestingly, a variation of the new land did actually open — up the street at Disney’s closest competitor, Universal Orlando. The Lost Continent at Universal’s Islands of Adventure was designed by former Imagineers who had worked on this project for Disney!
Animal Kingdom has expanded over the years. At park opening, only a small portion of Asia had been constructed. Asia has gradually grown throughout the park’s life and continues to do so to this day. Expedition Everest, the extremely popular new roller coaster, is the crown jewel of Asia. A new restaurant called Ying and Yak, from the creators of the Rainforest Café, is scheduled to open in the area in Summer 2007.
Continuing the tradition of bringing in movie characters wherever possible, the original Conservation Station has been re-made as Rafiki’s Planet Watch. The exhibits have not significantly changed however, and the addition of Rafiki from the Lion King, who can often be spotted meditating when the crowds are thin, has enhanced rather than detracting from the area.
Journey to the Jungle Book was an early Animal Kingdom show. It was replaced by the phenomenally popular Tarzan Rocks in 1999. Tarzan Rocks then closed in January 2006 to allow the outdoor theater to be fully enclosed. It is rumored that when building renovations are completed, a new show will debut.
Sometimes only the name of an attraction is changed, while the ride or show itself remains largely the same. Countdown to Extinction received a name change to allow a tie in with the movie Dinosaur. The ride itself, however, had only minor, mostly cosmetic changes.
Dinoland USA was expanded with the addition of Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama. This controversial new addition is modeled after a carnival/roadside attraction. The new area is the polar opposite of the research-based model of the original Dinoland USA, and offers one of the best roller coasters in all of Walt Disney World, the Wild Mouse-style Primeval Whirl.
Guests who visited Animal Kingdom in its early days will be mostly pleased with the changes. Very few attractions have closed or been significantly reworked. Most of the changes that were made had to do with perfecting the idea or simply expanding the park. Be sure to get a guide map so that you do not completely miss the new areas.