Thursday, April 21, 2016

Chickens Awaken: A Take on Animal Kingdom Awakens

The Mouse’s Chickens Come Home to Roost this Summer

Over the past week, the Walt Disney World Resort has unveiled its “Summer Awakens” offerings to select media members and the general public. It is quite possibly the most impressive slate that the Resort has had to boast about since the Happiest Celebration on Earth in 2005. That year brought us new offerings to each Walt Disney World theme park. Magic Kingdom received an impressive overlay to Cinderella Castle and Cinderellabration; Epcot received Soarin’; then Disney-MGM Studios received Lights, Motors, Action; and Disney’s Animal Kingdom received Lucky the Dinosaur and the promise of Expedition Everest for the following year. Fast-forward 11 years, and Magic Kingdom is getting a new stage show; Epcot is getting Soarin’ over the World and Frozen Ever After; Disney Hollywood Studios is getting a smorgasbord of Star Wars entertainment; and Disney’s Animal Kingdom is getting Rivers of Light, a projection show, nighttime safaris, and other entertainment. Very familiar to the Happiest Celebration on Earth playbook, right?

Unfortunately for Walt Disney World, the resort is stumbling face forward into “Summer Awakens” with the only solid opening dates being offered for Soarin’ and the tertiary parts of Animal Kingdom Awakens. The notable new offerings with open-ended openings are the recently delayed Rivers of Light and ( the supposedly delayed) Frozen Ever After. While Epcot really needs the one-two punch of Soarin’ and Frozen this summer, it should be fine in the interim; Disney’s Animal Kingdom seems to be the big loser with all of the uncertainty of Rivers of Light.

Since its debut in 1998, Disney’s Animal Kingdom has predominantly been a daytime only park, and the only substantial addition it has received is Expedition Everest. Its infamous Phase 2 in Beastly Kingdom never materialized but instead is coming in the form of Pandora: World of Avatar sometime in 2017. The mishandling of Avatar and failure of Rivers of Light to get afloat throw a proverbial monkey-wrench into Walt Disney World’s plans for Animal Kingdom. Disney wants guests to view Animal Kingdom as a full day experience and spend their evenings eating and shopping at the park. There is an uphill climb to make because the park has closed around 5:00 PM for its 18 year existence. Animal Kingdom Awakens is designed to change guest behavior, and Rivers of Light is the supposed to be the centerpiece and ultimate draw of the campaign. 

Rivers of Light was originally scheduled to debut April 22, but it was recently delayed indefinitely. Depending on who you trust or where you read, it was delayed for technical reasons, content, or likely: both. Rivers of Light contained no Disney IPs, no fireworks, and a bizarre story with shamans. The aforementioned media were able to see a preview of a segment of the show; however, Disney was probably better off not showing anything at all. What was shown did not seem to be well-received and at best, people are taking a “wait and see” approach. The infrastructure for a show relying on fountains and projections seems to be lacking, and the music and/or story does not appear to be memorable. This show has long been rumored to have had development problems, and Disney’s trusted nighttime entertainment wizards were not involved (perhaps Disney’s biggest mistake.) Disney has announced that a Jungle Book show will fill the void while Rivers of Light gets its kinks worked out. None of this bodes well for Rivers of Light (in its original form) or Animal Kingdom Awakens.

Disney needed a timely hit for Animal Kingdom Awakens to work; instead, the campaign boldly trudges forward this summer with its marquee attraction delayed indefinitely and an obviously thrown together Jungle Book show. The park will be competing with a brand new Star Wars fireworks spectacular at Hollywood Studios and the well-known commodities of Wishes, Main Street Electrical Parade, Fantasmic, and Illuminations Reflections of Earth.

Where Disney went wrong was allowing its second tier parks to stagnate over the past decade, putting each into panic mode while Magic Kingdom blew up into an even bigger unstoppable force. Animal Kingdom needed 2016 and 2017 all to itself and that was the alleged plan. Rumor has it that there is an entirely new Illuminations show ready to go, but it is/was being held back to give Animal Kingdom a chance at becoming a full day/nighttime park. However, Avatar appears to be coming a year too late or Animal Kingdom Awakens is too early. Magic Kingdom will continue to be number one by a wide margin. Epcot is primed for huge success with Soarin’ over the World, Frozen, and its established history of being a full day experience ending with Illuminations. Disney Hollywood Studios has the known commodity of Fantasmic, but it also has the hottest IP right now in Star Wars. While anything of substance regarding Star Wars is years away, the franchise has one of the most recognizable film scores and said scores are perfectly paired with fireworks. So, Disney has three parks with strong cases to be a guest’s nighttime destination. Animal Kingdom seems to be on the outside looking in.

Ultimately, it appears that Pandora: World of Avatar will have to do the heavy lifting for Animal Kingdom unless Rivers of Light really is a darkhorse nighttime spectacular and blows guests away. The question remains, when will Pandora open and will it have an appreciable impact on Animal Kingdom? How long does the rumored Illuminations replacement collect mothballs? How long does Wishes continue? Basically, how much rope is Disney willing/prepared to give Animal Kingdom to transition into a nighttime/full day park? Does Star Wars Experience inevitably close the window? Will Universal Orlando “awaken” and enter the fray? Apparently, we will have to wait and see.

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