Animal Kingdom is Walt Disney World’s newest park. Best described as a high tech fusion of theme park and zoo, Animal Kingdom is also, perhaps, Walt Disney World’s most misunderstood park. In order to understand what Animal Kingdom is, it is helpful to understand the history behind the idea.
Walt Disney was fascinated by the exotic, especially wild animals. Walt’s childhood on a farm gave him a passion for animals that never left. In the 1950s, Walt hired a series of two-person teams, often husband and wife, to create a thirteen film series of wildlife documentaries. Eight of these True-Life Adventures went on to win Academy Awards. The films, documenting the natural behavior of animals as diverse as seals and bighorn sheep, could be considered early forerunners to the work of the late Steve Irwin and Jeff Corwin today. At the time, zoos were largely dismal places, with animals contained in small, barred cages and controlled by force. As such, Disney’s True-Life Adventures provided many people with the only glimpse they could have of authentic animal behavior.
When Disneyland was in the planning phases, Walt desperately wanted to use live animals in the Jungle Cruise attraction. He saw the opportunity to bring park guests into the action of the True-Life Adventures. However, with the technology available at the time, his advisors were concerned that the animals would be difficult to maintain and control, and that wandering animals would damage the storyline of the attraction. Walt agreed to use audio-animatronic animals instead. Nonetheless, the Jungle Cruise is said to have been one of Walt’s favorite rides.
Walt’s love for animals was never forgotten by the Walt Disney Company. By the 1990s, zoo technology had come a long way. No longer have virtual prisons for the animals they house, modern zoos provided large, naturalistic habitats with an emphasis on the animals’ safety, health, and comfort. Natural barriers are now used to replace or augment railings and bars, allowing guests to feel as if they are actually in the wild with the animal. At last the world had caught up with the dream.
In 1989, Disney-MGM Studios became the newest gated park at Walt Disney World. With the early success of that park, Michael Eisner, then CEO of the Walt Disney Company, felt that the time was right for a new concept. Eisner challenged Imagineers to develop an idea for a new gated park that would be based on wild animals. Nine years and many design changes later, Animal Kingdom was born.
Animal Kingdom represents the culmination of one of Walt Disney’s greatest dreams, a dream that began in childhood on a Missouri farm. At last, Walt’s True-Life Adventures have come to life. Animals lurk around every corner, as guests stroll through faithfully recreated towns from lands as diverse as Asia and Africa. Extinct animals have found a home as well, with an entire land devoted to dinosaurs.
Animal Kingdom is as educational as it is entertaining, adding a conservation message to virtually everything it provides. Yet the lessons do not feel forced, as they are carefully woven into the storylines of the attractions. Animal Kingdom provides a venue to stroll nature trails that lead to animal exhibits, or follow the main pathways to high-tech thrill rides. This ability to create one’s own adventures makes the park appealing to guests of every age group and interest, following Walt’s mission of creating parks where the entire family could have fun together.
Yet Animal Kingdom, like all Disney parks, is not without its own share of rocky history. The original park concept called for lands dedicated to animals past, present, and mythical. While past and present are represented liberally, the only mythical creature in the current version of Animal Kingdom is the Yeti, featured prominently in the new Expedition Everest attraction.
As the story goes, Beastly Kingdom was to have been a separate land within Animal Kingdom, celebrating the creatures of myth from unicorns to dragons. However, budgetary restrictions in the belt-tightening Eisner years left Imagineers without the money to develop the additional land. Beastly Kingdom was postponed, perhaps forever.
Imagineers argued that without that land, Animal Kingdom would be only a half day park, not worth the full price of admission. Eisner’s solution was to slap together Camp Minnie-Mickey, in the same style and with the same lack of planning as Mickey’s Birthdayland, now Mickey’s Toontown Fair, in the Magic Kingdom. The Festival of the Lion King, housed in Camp Minnie-Mickey, is now one of the top rated attractions in Animal Kingdom. Besides the show, however, there is not much there other than character greetings. The Imagineers were, however, promised that Beastly Kingdom would replace Camp Minnie-Mickey the following year.
Animal Kingdom struggled immensely in its first year of operation. Guests got lost on the twisting, winding pathways. The searing Florida heat was a real problem, with guests developing heat exhaustion on a far too frequent basis. As predicted, guests were angry at the lack of attractions, feeling that their money had been wasted. The park was unable to offer a nighttime fireworks show, as is standard in other Disney parks, due to the stress that loud noises and lights would put on the animals. Consequently, guests refused to stay past 4 pm, when the animals wound down for the day.
Animal Kingdom siphoned away a significant number of guests from the other parks, without recouping those numbers by being its own major draw. This is common in the first year of a new park’s operations and, if left alone, the numbers eventually work themselves out. But in the bottom-line conscious Eisner years, this was unacceptable. The money that was earmarked for the Beastly Kingdom project the following year was instead distributed to the other parks for new attractions to bolster their attendance. Beastly Kingdom was indefinitely postponed.
In an interesting twist of fate, the Imagineers from the Beastly Kingdom project got fed up, and many left the company. It just so happened that Universal was in the design phase of their newest gated park, Islands of Adventure, and wanted to design a mythical land known as the Lost Continent. Beastly Kingdom is alive and well there, with a different name and similar though not identical attractions.
Despite the problems that have plagued Animal Kingdom, efforts have been made to expand the park, making it worthy of a full day’s admission price. And now, with Eisner’s successor Bob Iger at the helm, a new Disney Renaissance has begun. Iger has promised a new era of returning to Disney’s core values, freeing up the money to make things right. Although shareholders and long time fans remain guarded, all indications are that Iger is a man of his word. In the meantime, enjoy Animal Kingdom for what it is, a living tribute to one of Walt Disney’s greatest dreams.