Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Wish Upon a Blue Sky, The Top 30 Disney Attractions Never Built #25: The Asian Safari and the Animal Kingdom Dilemma

Warning: this is the longest article you've ever read in your life. It might be better for you to engage in a shorter activity, like fully exploring Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. This is an article about Animal Kingdom. It literally is EVERY thought anyone's ever had about Animal Kingdom. Don't say you haven't been warned. It's about cloning, and more safaris, and C-Tickets, dorms (don't ask), and disco. And it's about what could be done to make Animal Kingdom fresher than ever! To be absolutely fair to you, the reader, I've constructed a full Table of Contents for your upcoming journey, to help you navigate the Light and Dark Worlds. Let the century begin.

Animal Kingdom in More Words Than You’ve Ever Wanted
I.               A Discussion on Clones
1.    Types of Clones
2.    Best Clones
3.    Worst Clones
4.    Secret Clones (Clone Variations)
II.             The Second Safari
A.    The Asian Safari
B.    The Ride Itself
III.           The Animal Kingdom Dilemma: A Full Critique
A.    The Ambition of Animal Kingdom
B.    Animal Kingdom’s Lovers and Haters
C.    Land by Land
1.    The Oasis
2.    Discovery Island
a.     Tree of Life
b.    It’s Tough to Be a Bug
3.    The Shows
a.     Festival of the Lion King
b.    Finding Nemo
4.    Kilimanjaro Safaris/Africa
5.    Conservation Station
6.    Everest
7.    Asia/Kali River Rapids
8.    Dinoland
a.     The Theming
b.    Dino-Vomit
c.     Countdown to Extinction (NOT Dinosaur)
D.    Where Are the People?
1.    The Half-Day Park
2.    The Nahtazu
3.    Attendance
E.    Theming and Message
1.    Reality vs. Escapist Theming
2.    Hypocrisy
3.    Naïveté
4.    Negativity
F.    What Would You Do?
1.    Consistent Message
2.    Enjoying the Park
3.    Headliners/E-Tickets
4.    Dinoland
5.    Characters, C-Tickets, Immersive Theming, Phase II Expansion
6.    Extras: Dining, Behind the Scenes, Nitghttime Fun
IV.           Fin

A. Post-Show Video

Clones, and the Attacks of Said Clones

It is strangely and inherently paradoxical that Disney fans (and casual visitors) seem to at once welcome and disdain duplicated attractions. It’s one of the many ongoing battles that designers fight with executives on, that fans write to executives on, and that fans argue with each other on. Over the internet age, Disney fans have taken to call this subject the “cloning” phenomenon. Each interested party has its own views on the subject, frankly in a rather black-and-white perspective. “Cloning sucks/is terrible/is bad” is what many old-school Disney fans say. “Cloning is best for business” is what executives say. Yet in this day and age of discussion boards and online forums, there are honestly few areas contention that should be less black-and-white than the cloning question.

Disney, and other theme park chains/franchises/what have you are part of the cloning business. It comes with the territory. Ever since Walt proclaimed that his new planned community would have, at the head of Phase 1, a theme park similar to Disneyland, cloning has become part of the lexicon of the theme park business. This implies, since we’ve been doing this for almost 50 years now (yes kids, WDW’s 50th is right around the corner, not that Disney would actually do much of anything about it), that there are many, many examples of cloning within the theme park ranks, and there are. But when it comes to sound business decisions, especially when branded entertainment is involved, cloning goes only so far. Hitting the “Expand Forever” button does not work, as the Six Flags overexposure of the early 2000s would suggest. So, like many other business decisions, it’s important to straddle the line when cloning is involved.

It's good to see Jay Rasulo's team finally got some sun

With this sort of subject, one that is not necessarily black-and-white, it is not what is done but rather how it is executed. Execution, for the most part, is everything. I have yet to meet a person who is so religiously against cloning that he or she despises the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, or Tokyo Disneyland. These are, after all, clones, are they not? Yet even the most pants-on-head devout who would so much microwave his own spleen before being subjected to another clone thinks MK and TDL really isn’t so bad, all things considered. So the question is, just where exactly is the line of demarcation? At what point do the “Exploitation!” alarm bells sound?

Thanks Disney

At both ends of the spectrum, it’s easy to see where both sides are coming from. The hardcore fans do not like clones. Setting aside the aesthetic and metagaming reasons here, clones are duplicated at different parks, and since hardcore fans are frequent visitors at multiple resorts, they do not like to see a “new ride” being touted at Disneyland when it is “just an old ride” from WDW. “Why should I go see Winnie the Pooh at Disneyland when I’ve already seen it at Disney World?” the thinking goes. That’s hard to argue. Cloned attractions lower the uniqueness, and therefore the value, of a particular park or resort. The executives, of course, love cloning. If a particular attraction is popular at one resort (and more importantly, gets more merchandising revenue), of course it would make sense to duplicate that popularity at another property. As Kirk Wise would say, “If they laughed at one banana peel, they’ll laugh twice as hard at two banana peels!” A cloned attraction all but guarantees success without paying as much overhead for more design and R&D, and as a result the attraction’s budget would be greatly reduced. It’s less risky and has a built-in audience, like a movie sequel. It’s executive nirvana. The casual visitor, stuck in the middle, doesn’t really care that much either way. The casual visitor doesn’t visit multiple Disney resorts, so a SoCal local will be thrilled that she finally gets to ride Tower of Terror (too soon?)

Of course, this brings the question to the casual visitor, as to everyone, on whether the cloned attraction was properly executed. After all, some attractions are far more popular on one coast than the other. A cloned attraction done improperly can ruin the impact. There are several ways to both succeed and fail in instituting a cloned attraction, and Disney has tested every method under the sun in its 45-year cloning history. 

The easiest way to hit a home run with a clone is to simply take the original attraction and expand on it; either give it some additional scenes, construct more elaborate sets, or build more sophisticated vehicles. Probably the best examples of this are the Walt Disney World versions of Splash Mountain and the Haunted Mansion. Both took the baseline model of the original, enhanced it, added new scenes that augmented the story and did not detract, and literally upgraded every element possible. In my opinion, this is the best way to execute a clone.

Another equally valid implementation of a clone is to twist the original design due to space limitations, while still retaining the original scope and scale (and budget) of the original. Notice how most instances of the first method I mentioned were applied at WDW (where there is space aplenty), and most instances in this second method can be found at Disneyland, where space considerations come into play. The best examples of this second method are Disneyland’s Space Mountain and Buzz Lightyear attractions. In each, space (no pun intended) was much more limited, and the attractions had to be fit into much smaller buildings (DL’s Space Mountain dome is famously set on top of a warehouse, unlike the massive WDW cone that contains the entire ’75 attraction). However, the scope of each attraction (the E-Ticket Space and the C-Ticket Buzz) was kept appropriately, and each attraction was redesigned but not condensed. Both are great examples of cloning done well, and artistically creative to boot.

We now get to our less creative (and popular) options. One implementation strategy that became more and more popular among executives as time went on is the idea to make the attraction a literal clone, i.e., what we call in the…whatever business…as “borrowing wholesale.” Disney likes this option because it doesn’t have to pay designers and construction engineers to redesign the thing. They just cut and paste. Examples of this are Soarin’ at Epcot and Midway Mania at DHS (sorry *cough* Toy Story Mania). Little to no effort was put into differentiating these attractions, save for the design of the initial queue area. This is where Disney starts getting into some trouble. In the first two above methods, casual fans and hardcore fans would still be delighted at the new attractions. Though hardcore fans would balk somewhat at the fact that these attractions are clones, they’re still excited that they get to ride the Disneyland version of Space Mountain. Unfortunately, there is no “Disneyland version” of Soarin or Midway Mania, there’s just Soarin or Midway Mania. “I already saw it in Florida, so I don’t have to see it in California,” the thinking goes. We all know friends or relatives who have told us this while on vacation. This puts Disney in the very real situation that attractions can actually lose potential visitors if attractions are cloned wholesale and not enhanced or changed in some way.

A Ghost of Christmas Past

This, of course, inevitably brings us to the darkest of options, one that really gets Disney into trouble. We’ll call it the Pressler Option. It’s when Disney wants to clone an attraction but won’t put up the money to actually clone it, and instead makes some “creative edits” that would be the equivalent of cutting 30% of a Shakespeare play because the theater company would only pay for a certain amount of costumes. These are executives gone bad. They think “whatever, the average visitor won’t notice or care” and pat themselves on the back for saving a few million dollars off the bottom line while they hitch another round-trip first-class plane ride to Burbank for a “creative summit” at a five-star hotel that they pay with the company black card. Anyway, these attractions now become less popular than they should be, making it questionable whether Disney should have spent the money on cloning the attraction when they could have just built a scaled-down new attraction instead (that would probably be cheaper). 

This tactic was very popular during the 1998-2004 period. Disneyland’s Winnie the Pooh truncated several scenes from the WDW and TDL versions without adding anything in return. Practically every clone at DCA was a watered-down version of its original in some fashion. Probably the most famous of these was Disneyland’s Tower of Terror. Whether West Coasters want to admit it or not, DCA’s Tower was a shaved-down version of WDW’s original Tower. WDW’s Tower cost approximately $135 million in 1994 dollars, which adjusted for inflation would have been $172 million in 2004 dollars. DCA’s Tower, opened in 2004, cost approximately $115 million. This was a deliberate attempt to save $60 million by Pressler and Harriss. There was no “let’s make it better” agenda on their part. This notion did not exist in their minds. Everything that was done suggests the attraction was on a cut budget: the non-themed queue area, the lack of a fully-themed entrance area and exposure, the lack of ornation on the building itself, the playfully forgetful way the ignored theming the load/exit hallways (Pressler probably hired the same warehouse interior decorator who designed the exit hallways for Mission: Space), and oh yeah the fact that they castrated the attraction by removing the fifth-dimension room, thus eliminating the need for the vehicles to be self-guided for an extended period of time (but yay we save money!). It always boggled me that West Coasters legitimately thought it was the superior version. I mean, opinions are opinions, and more power to you, but you like the DCA version because it’s…shorter and worse? They replaced the fifth-dimension with a mirror! Lord Almighty.

But there’s another, sort of secret method to cloning. We’ve seen it happen before a few times, with mixed results. But it’s a very fascinating case study, nonetheless. We see it more in amusement parks than theme parks, actually, since theme parks have more tools in their chests. I’m talking about the clones that aren’t actually clones, the ones that are like the red-headed cousins of the original attractions. Where the designers take a previously existing theme or (more likely) ride mechanism and duplicate it, but with an entirely new story or context. It’s very obvious with amusement parks. B&M has a cool new concept that’s just the bee’s knees (Batman: The Ride, the inverted coaster, ladies and gentlemen!), and they give amusement park operators variations on the theme. Batman: The Ride adds 20+ feet to the lift hill and a few more inversions and becomes Raptor. Raptor mutates and becomes Montu. Montu morphs and becomes Alpengeist. And Alpengeist is the best inverted coaster invented by man, so we’re not going further with that metaphor. So, an inverted coaster is an inverted coaster, but there are many variations on the theme. The Rolling Stones and Aerosmith are both rock n’ roll. You get the idea.

They're also both creepily old and incredibly high

Disney has really done this sort of “clone variation” a few times, since over the years they’ve much preferred the “just clone the damn thing” method. But there are a few examples of clone variations. Star Tours and Body Wars are good examples. Indiana Jones and Dinosaur is another. These attractions aren’t close enough to be siblings, but close enough to be cousins.

A part of me wishes Disney actually did this kind of clone variation more often. You know they’ve had to come up with several theme ideas for new technologies (the simulator, the EMV), with each being different enough to provide its own story and its own spirit. It shows me that they’re actually putting in the time to think through these things, and are creative enough to think, “what else could this be?” And, more importantly, it would show that Disney was willing to spend the money on multiple ideas without resorting to full cloning. I’d call that a step in the right direction.

I like Bruce Vaughn's new hat

What makes me sad is that we missed out on one of the all-time greatest “kind of a clone but really not” attractions. Some attractions you expect to get cloned, like Splash Mountain, Star Tours, Captain EO, because they’re so easy to either transplant or quickly re-theme. And the attractions are of an appropriate attraction length and scale to limit the costs of infrastructure. Any ride 5 minutes or less (or any theater attraction) is ripe for cloning because of these reduced costs. You know what kinds of attractions Disney really doesn’t want to clone? Expensive ones. These are attractions that traverse a space (i.e. have moving ride vehicles) that are either very, very long (10+ minutes) or require major investments in new technology. So what kinds of attractions does that include? Really anything from prehistoric EPCOT Center (SSE, Horizons, UOE, World of Motion, Journey Into Imagination), plus The Great Movie Ride. No way these would ever be cloned nowadays, not even close. Even Tower of Terror got a clone, Indy got a clone variation (Dinosaur), and even Test Track got a clone variation (Radiator Springs Racers). But not these other cats. No sir. No ma’am. Too much hassle. Oh, you know I actually almost forgot one from the list of “no way:” Kilimanjaro Safaris.

Actually, as far as single attractions go, the Safaris might be at the top of the list of “no way, no how.” It’s a 20+ minutes jeep ride through very meticulous and well-kept Disney landscaping and involves live animals (a no-go area for park operators who don’t want to wake up with ulcers). Oh, by the way, did I mention that the attraction takes up one hundred acres?! I mean, you could make Universe of Energy twice as long and turn Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye into Jan and Paul Crouch and it still would be more likely to get cloned somewhere.

This Pre-historic swamp needs SOME MORE COLOR

Yet, one of the greatest “what-if” attractions at Animal Kingdom is exactly that. Another Safaris. Another 100 acres of animals. More meticulous landscaping. And not sponsored by the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Safari 2: The Asian Awakening

It’s almost inconceivable. A second safari. This one, in Asia. To this day, the land set aside for the Asia safari can still be seen from park overview maps and Google satellites. The attraction that the safari turned into, Kali River Rapids, doesn’t take up even a fraction of that massive space. Disney has not used the land for much of anything in the 18+ years Animal Kingdom’s been open. But think about it. Another safari. For Asian animals. This one, on the water.

Yes indeed, the former Tiger River Run (eventually Tiger Rapids Run, eventually Tiger River Rapids, eventually Kali River Rapids) was going to be a boat safari. While the exact information is unclear, there are a few pictures floating around that clearly show a driver guiding the boat. But whether the boat would have been guided by a spieling captain, or would have been free-floating with a recorded spiel, has not been verified.

The Asia Safari concept

What we do know is that the Asia Safari/Tiger River Run would have been a cross between Kilimanjaro Safaris and Kali River Rapids. Guests would have boarded a massive bateaux/shoot-the-chutes-esque boat for their journey down the river (the boats themselves were similar to the boats used in the Jurassic Park River Adventure at Universal Studios, which creates an intriguing question mark in itself…after all, the plans for Animal Kingdom were released before any Jurassic Park plans were put into production…). The boats would have either been captained by a Cast Member or been free-floating down the river. The basic setup would have been very similar to KRR: guests would travel through bamboo forests and into the offices of the local Anandapur rafting expedition company, much as the Kilimanjaro Safaris are a staple of Harambe. A queue area featuring similar buildings to the Tiger Temple and the Painted Pavilion would have been used. Joe Rohde and his team, I’m sure, would have gone even more over the top in designing this queue for the much-expanded Asian Safari ride.

The ride itself would have been a very long and memorable trip through the bamboo forests of Asia, past a wide variety of Asian animals, especially the tigers of the ride’s namesake, through temples Jungle Cruise-style, and finally through a thrilling whitewater rapids segment at the end of the journey. The idea of the loggers burning sections of the forest would have also been featured, similar to the existence of the poachers on the Kilimanjaro Safaris, a foreboding warning/theme of dangerous human meddling in the midst of a natural paradise. But to think that Tiger River Run would have been a safari every bit as qualified as KS, and adding temples and burning forests and thrilling rapids on top of that, it certainly would have given Animal Kingdom a counterweight to the African safari, not only thematically but also operationally, as one would think that the Animal Kingdom crowds would have split between the African and Asian safaris. To have two attractions that feature an Epcot length, riding through a Joe Rohde animal paradise, would have certainly given Animal Kingdom enormous credibility even among its detractors.

So then the question becomes, is this sort of “cloning” acceptable? The cloning that involves variation on a theme? And what would it have done to Animal Kingdom? Would it have been a necessary addition or just more of the same? Would it have been too much of a good thing? And how would it have contributed to the themes of the park?

The Animal Kingdom Dilemma

I’m going to engage in something that you probably won’t see again until I’m done with this particular series. I’ve spent the bulk of my ink for Wish Upon a Blue Sky talking about the history of the lost attractions of Disney, without really diving into the semiotics and meta-attributes of the theme parks themselves.

However, to me Animal Kingdom is one of the most fascinating Disney theme park case studies in its history, along with Euro Disney and DCA. I’m not talking about the business of how the park was built, or the budgeting, but approaching the parks as you would as the Animal Kingdom VP. Looking at the Profit & Loss, and the margins, and the endless market data and surveys, let’s ask, “does Animal Kingdom work as a park?” What are its strengths and weaknesses? From a marketing perspective, what are the core competencies of the park vs. other parks (Disney parks included)? What marketing advantages does it have? What is the perceived value? How does it draw in guests? How does it keep guests? How does it convince guests to come back? What are the killer apps? Animal Kingdom is one of the most polarizing theme parks on the planet earth. Many people love it, many people hate it, many people will visit but not come back. So here’s a dissertation you will probably not see again in this series: I’m about to do a blow-by-blow, no stone unturned critique of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It will probably act as my Master’s Thesis of this entire series, since I can’t for the life of me imagine how I’m going to top something so random. Maybe I’ll end with a half-twist. Let’s see if I can get the approval of the French judge.

Hehehehehe he's so adorable!

Animal Kingdom's Ambition

To begin, what I really admire about Animal Kingdom is its thematic ambition. More and more recently, new theme parks seem to fall into two camps: either cheap knock-offs looking to save the company money rather than bring in guests (DCA, Disney Studios Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland) or stereotypical “fun parks,” a bunch of themed lands strung together like a macaroni necklace with some fun rides here and there (Islands of Adventure, Tokyo DisneySeas, Shangai Disneyland). Now, don’t get me wrong, IOA and TDS are very well done, they’re nice to look at and they have a lot of high-quality attractions. But they don’t have ambition. They’re ambition is to be fun theme parks (again, nothing wrong with that). But Epcot has ambition (educating guests about the world, showcasing future technologies, world peace, etc.). SeaWorld has ambition (a sea-life park involved in the care of its animals and real-world programs that help animals in need). Heck, even Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios had ambition, back in the day (back when they were concerned with showcasing how movies were made and letting audiences see real movie sets and be involved with live tapings). And Animal Kingdom has ambition. Not just with the idea of the “animal park,” similar to SeaWorld, but with thematic and allegorical ambition.

The thematic ambition stems from the deliberate choice by head designer Joe Rohde to make the themed areas of the park closer to the real world than its fantasy-based counterparts. The Magic Kingdom’s Adventureland is an idealized version of Africa, Asia, and the South Seas, a “Disney version.” The buildings are clean and colorful, the tiki birds talk and sing, and robotic elephants squirt water (or not) for our entertainment. Nature, and the real world, has been tamed, colonial-style. At Animal Kingdom, by contrast, guests are encouraged to “get closer to nature.” To reflect on the theme of “real animals” (using no animatronics when live animals would do), Animal Kingdom’s designers devised the park as a real-world recreation of continental locales. As Joe Rohde is fond of repeating in interviews and on Travel Channel specials, there are exposed telephone wires in Africa’s Harambe area, there are prayer rugs and discarded bicycles around Asia’s Anandapur, Dinoland is not an actual Dinoland but a excavatorial dig site populated by college students, and the park’s “Main Street” avenue is instead a trip into a live forest, where real birds and lizards live. No talking tiki birds here.

The allegorical ambition is the idea that Animal Kingdom’s attractions and themed areas reflect real-world problems. Kilimanjaro Safaris is an allegory of the poaching problem in Africa. Kali River Rapids is an allegory for the global deforestation problem. Unlike the Magic Kingdom, Disney dared to step out of the fantasy realm and touch the real world, with all its troubles.

So, while I admire Animal Kingdom’s ambition, the last few paragraphs were simply a stage-setter for a balanced critique of the park. Because certainly, as we will see, this ambition sometimes gets Animal Kingdom in trouble.

Animal Kingdom's Lovers and Haters

With this background, let’s take a bird’s-eye view of the Animal Kingdom idea. Animal Kingdom is in many ways a beautiful theme park. It has lush gardens and flora, winding pathways, and countless live animals living in a natural habitat. At its best, Animal Kingdom can certainly remind us of paradise. Animal Kingdom is the biggest of the Disney parks, at 500 acres, though most of it entails backstage areas and is thus inaccessible to the general public. However, despite its size, Animal Kingdom only has seven actual rides, plus exhibits and live shows. This is certainly the first of Animal Kingdom’s major problems, as we will discuss.

Since it opened on Earth Day 1998, Animal Kingdom has received very mixed reviews, and has always been either third or fourth among the four Walt Disney World theme parks in terms of attendance. Guests cited many reasons why they did not enjoy the park, and backed them up by only visiting Animal Kingdom in the morning and early afternoon (prompting Disney to turn Animal Kingdom into a literal 9-to-5 operation for many years), and then never visiting the park again during their WDW vacation. Guests complained about how hot the park was, how few attractions were offered, the confusing nature of the park layout (made worse by the fact that the main drags are surrounded by forests of trees), the small walkways (that could barely fit the truncated character parades), and the lack of shade and air-conditioning. However, guests do love the natural animal exhibits, along with many of the park’s signature attractions.

Two camps quickly formed, online and elsewhere. Most of the general public gave a collective yawn where Animal Kingdom was concerned, for the reasons described above. This gave rise to a very vocal opposing group who would defend Animal Kingdom to the death. To them, those who did not like Animal Kingdom were equivalent to the Philistines, like those who do not like French restaurants or art museums. These fans blamed the mainstream for not “understanding” or “getting” Animal Kingdom, and not “having the right attitude.” They would frequently say that Animal Kingdom is a “stop and smell the roses” kind of place, and that to fully enjoy the park guests need to slow down and appreciate it.

So which side is right? Is Animal Kingdom just misunderstood? Or are there things going on beneath the waterline, apart from the obvious guest concerns about the park. After all, if the park really was good, wouldn’t more people be visiting? Wouldn’t they stay longer? Wouldn’t they visit more often? With the park framework now in mind, let’s dig a little deeper and highlight the pros and cons of each of Animal Kingdom’s major attractions and themed areas. You might want to get comfortable for this one.

Or don't! We're going into the Theme Park Critic Zone!

The Oasis

Oops, bad search

We’ll start where the guests do. I enjoy the Oasis simply because it provides something different. While so many parks go for variations on the Main Street theme, with the Oasis Disney was trying to really buck the trend. It’s amazing how practically every theme park built in the last few decades, if they are going into full “theme park mode” (parks like Epcot or SeaWorld don’t go this route and instead have simpler entrance plazas) will go for the Main Street variation. After all, it is the axis mundi of the theme park experience: funnel the guests through one controlled entrance, and lead them directly to the center of the park (preferably toward the major landmark/weenie of the park). Many theme parks present a near carbon-copy of Main Street, with just slight theme variations. DHS’s Hollywood Boulevard and IOA’s Port of Entry are perfect examples; they’re both a Main Street in a time warp (or in IOA’s case, a fantasy warp). But the intentions are the same. The Oasis, by contrast, is meant to be different. It tells guests it’s okay to get lost and wander. Unlike the single boulevard of Main Street, the Oasis is a series of meandering paths. Unlike Main Street, it is covered in trees, with no vistas or views of what’s ahead, no shops or restaurants or signs of civilization anywhere. Above all, it envelops you in the Animal Kingdom theme and introduces the tone of the park. It’s like visiting the rainforest exhibits that are found at many zoos around the country, except this rainforest is necessary to enter the theme park itself. So for its ambition, and its uniqueness, I applaud it.

However, there are some questions as to the Oasis’s effectiveness. Let’s see if we can gleam why. The first obvious one is the fact that some (and probably most) guests aren’t interested in playing “hide the theme park” at eight o’clock in the morning, or after they’ve survived the scorching Gehenna of the Animal Kingdom parking lot. While fans of the park would criticize these guests as the takeover of the Philistines (the guests who race past Main Street and Tomorrowland on their way to Space Mountain, and not giving a lick about anything in between attractions), many of these guests are simply looking to go on the attractions, the safari ride and the Lion King show and the Everest roller coaster they’ve heard so much about. Instead they find themselves in the middle of a forest with no directional signs. It could be quite disconcerting. One of the major flaws (in my opinion) of the park is that, sometimes, it forces you to adapt to its unique tone. Rather than try to cater to as many people as possible (as Magic Kingdom does), Animal Kingdom says “stop and smell the roses…or else.” This is not the way to endear yourself to casual park visitors. Compelling guests through a nature trail maze before they’ve seen anything interesting is not giving them a chance to accept the park. In addition to that, the animals featured in the small Oasis exhibits are very rarely seen. They’re often bounding about on only one side of the exhibit, or hiding in the back. The animal spotting takes real patience, and the exhibits themselves are unremarkable. Which, in a sense, almost eliminates much of the attraction of the area. 

Another issue to this subject is the fact that the Oasis is over the so-called “line of demarcation” when it comes to attractions. I have many friends from my days at Disneyland who are absolutely stumped as to why Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln isn’t more popular than it is. As it stands, it usually plays to audiences consisting of about 15-20% of the total house. Of course, no one will argue that it’s a poor attraction, so why the lack of interest? My response is that there’s a line of demarcation that separates the theme park proper from the front entrance. Psychologically, once a guest is in the park, she will not explore down Main Street until she is seriously considering leaving the park. It’s a psychological barrier. The deeper she goes down Main Street toward the entrance, the more this is true. Once she makes it to the Hub at the beginning of her day, she will stay in the park proper to ride the attractions until she is thinking of leaving. Mr. Lincoln is so off the beaten path that only those who are just entering the park or who are leaving the park will attend, and once one makes the conscious decision to walk down Main Street to the end and see Mr. Lincoln, she will inevitably have to resist the temptation to leave the park. In my view, this same phenomenon occurs with the Oasis. It is off the beaten path, toward the exit to the park (and in fact past the big sign that says “EXIT”), and past the line of demarcation. So, when Disney encourages guests to stop and smell the flowers to begin with, guests are really only stopping if they’re coming in or going out, and in both instances they’re most likely to just keep going to their destination, losing the effect. I mean, let’s face it, guests are walking toward the exit because they’re tired, not because they want to see more animals.

In addition, the Oasis gives the impression that it lacks wonder and amazement. Guests are used to seeing a fairy tail castle, or the Chinese Theater, or Spaceship Earth as they enter the park. Instead, they just get a lot of trees. Though we applaud Animal Kingdom for bucking trends, Walt Disney did stress the importance of a weenie at the end of every street to entice guests into the park, and now we’re ignoring that edict. There is no big “wow” upon entry to the park. For most guests, there is nothing that holds interest, and the Oasis is in fact disorienting by presenting so many winding paths.

Also, as I will discuss in more detail later, Disney has really swung for the fences at Animal Kingdom in terms of theming, demonstrating that it’s supposed to be the “natural” park, without the animatronic fantasy fakery of many of the other parks. Unfortunately, if you aim high and miss, you open yourself up to claims of elitism and hypocrisy. As an example, Animal Kingdom claims it is more authentic than other parks (with the exposed telephone lines and abandoned bicycles) yet what sits at the park entrance as the first thing the guests see? A Rainforest Café. The ultimate in animatronic fakery.

And what sits at the very center of the park as the park’s icon? A very, very fake tree. There is, in fact, nothing natural about the Tree of Life. It is no more a tree than Splash Mountain is a real mountain. This is very awkward for the “natural park” to try to explain. Because if you admit that “well, sometimes it’s okay to have some fantasy,” the next obvious question is “why don’t you have more fantasy in Africa and Asia and put some bloody air conditioning into these buildings? It takes quite a tap dance on Disney’s part to try to explain this.

Discovery Island

Dang it! I keep screwing up these searches! It's not like
this has anything to do with the term "Discovery Island!"

Next, we’re going to lump Discovery Island, the former Discovery Boats, the Tree of Life, and It’s Tough to Be a Bug into the same bucket. Discovery Island, formerly Safari Village until guests got upset that there was no safari in safari village (seriously). Discovery Island is the park’s Hub, the land that leads to all other lands. Discovery Island is quite remarkable in its depiction of vivid equatorial African architecture, with its main shops and restaurants painted in dramatic rainbow colors. It truly is some impressive architecture. It also houses the park’s major icon, the Tree of Life, a stunning architectural marvel. Around the tree of life are several trails and animal exhibits. In another unfortunate case of Disney’s insistence that guests “stop and smell the roses” and Animal Kingdom, the gardens and exhibits are not clearly marked or advertised, causing them to be very sparsely visited by guests. Disney, as Disney does, responded by closing some of the animal exhibits and accusing the public for not caring (unfortunately current Disney can’t seem to keep up with former Disney’s ambitions). However, many have called the Tree of Life area the most spectacular part of the park, and it certainly is quite something. I think Disney could really enhance the Animal Kingdom aesthetic by focusing on what this area gets right: dramatic scenery combined with natural beauty. Paint the rest of the park with this philosophy and it could be stunning through and through. It’s certainly something that feels very “Disney,” something that you don’t see at SeaWorld or Busch Gardens.

We’ve already discussed the negative guest effects of the Discovery Boats here, but to quickly rehash, the Discovery Boats were the first attraction that guests experienced in the park, but was not intended to be an attraction so much as transportation to Asia (guests had very little to see on the ride). The attraction was also relatively slow-loading, which caused lines to grow for a very boring attraction. This did not make people happy to lose so much time by riding a boat that had barely anything to see. Disney couldn’t handle the constant complaining and the Discovery Boats didn’t last very long.

Finally, there’s bugs. Lots of bugs. The Tree of Life houses a 3-D film starring the lovable characters of Pixar’s 86th most popular film. It is quite, let’s say, “interesting” that a show like It’s Tough to be a Bug is housed inside the Tree of Life, since the two concepts are total opposites. Bugs is computer animated, short, and humorous. The Tree of Life is stunning and magnificent, something to savor for the eyes. Disney can certainly be accused of mixing metaphors here. Bugs is another attraction that divides Animal Kingdom fans and detractors: some say it inappropriately contrasts with the more serious and natural tones of the park, others think it’s great that there’s an attraction to break up the monotony and introduce a little bit of the funny into a park that takes itself too seriously. I’m honestly indifferent toward the tone itself: I don’t think it goes too overboard and the show overall is good quality, though I think the length of the presentation is too short in order to increase capacity and get people moving through the line (the show is 8 minutes long rather than the 3-D/AA show standard of 12-20 minutes). But maybe that’s a good thing. 

The biggest concern I (and most other people) have about the show is the mere fact that the audience spends the whole film getting attacked by bugs. I mean seriously, it’s very strange what Michael Eisner thinks is appropriate for family theme parks. Those who don’t like bugs are terrified and won’t see the show. Those who don’t mind bugs but don’t like getting attacked by them (like me…while I don’t mind insects on the whole I do prefer “no bugs” to giant honking spiders the size of Volkswagons) will spend the entire show on edge, wondering what’s going to spit or attack them next. This could also be part of the reason why the show is so short. However, since the show has less time than most for story and character development, it mostly turns into a gag and gimmick fest, which means if you don’t like the gimmicks you’re not seeing the show. And without so much story, it’s not so much entertaining as it is just shock value. I honestly haven’t been to a show (on either coast) where a family/child/woman of any age doesn’t run out of the show terrified. Especially as Bugs reaches to its 20th (!) year, we know there are far better things Disney could be doing with 3-D technology. At right in the heart of the park, in the belly of the park’s central icon! The Tree of Life is not only at the center of the park physically, but it also serves as the emotional heart of the park. Shouldn’t the presentation inside (like Spaceship Earth or The Great Movie Ride) be more special? As it stands, in a park begging for more family attractions we’re presented with a collection of edgy effects that freak most kids out. What’s worse, the park is also limited on the number of indoor attractions, which means when it rains there is a good number of young families who decide to roll the dice and wander in, paying the price. Shouldn’t the iconic center of the park present something that speaks to Disney’s higher qualities and aspirations, rather than a gag fest that terrifies kids? I think they can do better.

The Shows

A quick aside to talk about the excellent Broadway-style presentations of Lion King and Finding Nemo, since they both exist in a kind of nether-realm/no-man’s land in the park proper. It’s quite impressive that Animal Kingdom somehow managed to snag two of the best all-time theme park Broadway-style shows in one park…and heaven only knows where the park would be without these two excellent presentations. It certainly ranks among the best such shows in Disney’s canon, sometimes hearkening back to the glory days of Disneyland’s Fantasyland Theater, the chameleonic arena that housed the excellent Beauty & the Beast and Pocahontas presentations. Festival of the Lion King is particularly impressive because it is so inventive. It’s like Mardi Gras with Elton John music (though to be fair, there is nary a Mardi Gras without Elton John music). It is a Disney Broadway show and a Super Bowl halftime blowout all mixed into one, and I for one am thoroughly entertained by it. We hear the word “spectacular” a lot (especially in Disney’s promotional materials), but this is one of the occasions we can really mean it. For family audiences, it ranks right up with the safaris as the most memorable attraction at Animal Kingdom. Finding Nemo is another entry into this same category, and though it is certainly a well-presented production, I have a few more reservations about it (we’ll get to those in a minute).  But as it stands, certainly no one could argue that Nemo is anything but technologically impressive and emotionally satisfying. The presentation of puppets in the Avenue Q-style, though strange, I think is one of the better ways the subject matter could have been presented. Honestly, the only real improvements to the technology in my opinion would have been to include some backgrounds (digital projections if you had to) to better simulate the ocean environment. Also, I think it’s worth noting with some humor that this show was questioned for its length upon its debut in 2007 (35 minutes, which is stretching the acceptability level of acceptability for a theme park show) yet we now have a Frozen musical at DCA that is well over an hour. It’s funny when conventional wisdom is whole-heartedly ignored. Check that, no it’s not.

I have few complaints about these shows, but I do have a small amount worth mentioning. First is the obvious “temporary” treatment Disney gives to these presentations (stage shows after all can be replaced much faster than permanent attractions, which is why Theater in the Wild has barely any exterior decoration to coincide thematically with the Nemo show) which gets in the way of operational concerns. Since the theaters could be taken down quickly, Disney has apparently used this as an excuse to not provide any adequate shade or girth to the waiting areas. Even if the shows are not big-budget attractions, and therefore not worthy of a standard pre-show/queue area setup, can Disney really refuse to afford some canopies for the waiting areas? This is the hottest park in the world (as Disney is continuously told on endless guest surveys yet steadfastly does nothing about) and you won’t even afford your guests paying $100+ for a day ticket some nominal shading? I mean come on! In addition, the guest corridors/walkways leading to and from these two theaters are incredibly tight, leading to a stampede situation at the beginning and end of every show. And Disney still continuously brags about the park’s enormous acreage! Unbelieveable. Also, for some reason Disney saw fit for the Theater in the Wild to have the most uncomfortable seats in the history of the world. The wooden “benches” are more hernia-inducing than a night at P.F. Chang’s. They are literally terrible, and should be illegal. Outlawed. Ostracized. And the bleacher seats at FOTLK aren’t much better. And before I forget, I have one quick general comment: I know the Theater in the Wild is supposed to be a “temporary” stage set up by the “college student/researchers” who are digging in Dinoland (cue the rap), and the shows presented therein are supposed to be “traveling” shows set up for their entertainment, but come on, you look stupid when you put a Jungle Book, then a Tarzan, then a Finding Nemo show in Dinoland. These shows have absolutely nothing to do with dinosaurs! Where’s the cartoonization theme police on this one? Again, I’ll quote Disney’s constant bragging that Animal Kingdom is the biggest park in Disney’s lineup. And you have to put Tarzan in Dinoland. That’s just plain lazy.

Aside from operational (and intenstinal) concerns, I can say (and this is the only time you’ll here me say) that I have absolutely no major concerns about FOTLK. It’s that solid. By only comment is why Disney can’t do more of this kind of thing in terms of pacing and presentation. By seeing the show I feel Animal Kingdom could be better served by having a Lion King presentation in the Tree of Life Theater rather than the bug brigade. It certainly makes sense to me. Anyway, high praise for Lion King. Nemo I have some pointed issues with. First is the odd choice of making a musical out of a non-musical film. Certainly it could be done, but it is very hit and miss (see the absolutely god-awful Toy Story musical that DCA was almost subjected to). I can see why they did the show to begin with, since Finding Nemo was the biggest name in Disney animation at the time (and since they had just bought Pixar, you knew it was going to be all Nemo, all the time), but it is weird that they decided to bring music into it. Fortunately, I don’t think it hurt the show much, however the songs are for the most part unmemorable. The choruses many of us can remember and hum afterwards (Big Blue World, Go with the Flow, Just Keep Swimming), but who really can remember the rest of the lyrics to these songs? Come on. Sing it with me…Go with the Flooo … oooooo … oooooowwwwwww….then what? Or what about Just Keep Swimming? Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming swimming swimming what do we do we swim swim…and then what? I don’t even know. You can tell a great song because you know all (or at least some) of the lyrics. If you’re reading this I know you know all the lyrics to Under the Sea. DON’T DENY IT. I do too. But not for any of the Nemo songs. It’s not a big complaint, but the songs are fun ditties that are below “memorable.” The big complaint I DO have is the fourth-wall breaking nature of the presentation. The actors holding the puppets are fine, Julie Taymor’s Lion King Broadway show has set the precedent and it works great. But in the Lion King Broadway show, the actors never break character. The puppet-holders don’t turn to the audience and say “watch how I can sing without a puppet in my hand!” Finding Nemo is an excellent story, one that can survive quite satisfactorily on its own. Just present the damn story. Instead, we’re treated to some Anne Hamburger we’re-too-hip-for-Disney asides (haven’t you seen Jaws??!!) and the show has the feel that it’s been produced by people who are embarrassed to do a traditional Disney show for the soccer mom crowd. They go on this DCA-style kick and bring in these lame attempts to be hip and edgy, which are totally unnecessary. Do the producers really think the minivan brigade thinks the only thing that would make Finding Nemo better was more pop culture references? Now it doesn’t happen too often, which is why I still have a relatively high opinion at the show, but the moment at the end where the actors/performers holding the Marlin/Nemo puppets let go of thire puppets and move to the center of the stage to sing is one of the most cringe-inducing moments in Disney show history, and that’s saying something. THE SHOW IS NOT ABOUT YOU AND HOW WELL YOU CAN SING. IT IS ABOUT THE CHARACTERS AND THEIR PERSONAL JOURNEYS. STOP BEING A DIVA AND PLAY YOUR CHARACTER. IF YOU CAN’T GO AN ENTIRE SHOW WITHOUT YELLING “LOOK AT ME!” TO THE AUDIENCE THEN GET THE HELL OUT OF DISNEY AND GET OVER YOURSELF. As you can see, I hate the Anne Hamburger attitude. Rant over.

Kilimanjaro Safaris and Africa

Just imagine...

It’s time to talk about the real meat (so to speak) of the park, the headliner, the big magilla, the Animal Kingdom safari (which is, unfortunately, the only one) and the land that surrounds it. Make no mistake, Africa itself, once an elaborate bustling land in the original Animal Kingdom designs, turned out to be little more than a spot of land to host the safari attraction, much like how Bear Country was created specifically to house the Country Bears. Unfortunately, despite its excellent attention to detail, functionally the Africa/Harambe area is little more than a funnel to the E-Ticket at the end of the street, with shops to the right and a restaurant/bar to the left. I commented on my feeling on the theming of Africa/Harambe in the Animal Kingdom introduction, and will do so again in my wrap-up, so I don’t want to remunerate anything here.

Before moving on to the safaris, I’m going to talk quickly (yeah right) about Pangani, Maharajah, and Flights of Wonder (since they are all animal presentations, similar to those you can find at SeaWorld/Busch Gardens or zoos, I’m going to paint them all with the same brush). Regardless of how many times you’ve seen live animals, it never seems to get old. The animal trails and safaris, despite all the thrill rides in between, are truly what Animal Kingdom is all about, and what makes it unique from the other Disney parks. Unlike the clockwork creations of Disney’s other parks, at these animal exhibits guest can walk at their own pace, and “get lost” down the animal trails. And you’re not human unless you’re at least curious to look at live animals, especially in a mostly natural setting like at Animal Kingdom. Whenever I ride the safari or walk the trails, I’m reminded constantly by the reactions of kids and their parents, that families absolutely adore animals, and the sense of wonder and awe they get from seeing an elephant is very similar to their reaction to seeing Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse, which makes me wistful of why Disney hasn’t done more with Animal Kingdom. They could legitimately have a hit on their hands if they applied themselves. 

Speaking specifically about the nature walks and Flights of Wonder, these attractions are undoubtedly well-done, a step above similar offerings at SeaWorlds and zoos around America and the world. They are elaborately detailed and offer a wealth of information regarding animals. However, given this, they are at least similar to other nature trails and animal shows that one can find at the city zoo or at SeaWorld. This presents sort of a problem for Disney. These exhibits are some of the few attractions at Animal Kingdom, yet they are similar to animal exhibits found at many zoos around the country, zoos where the guests do not have to pay $100 to get in. The slightly more elaborate presentation does not push Animal Kingdom so high as to justify this expense for the guest. In my opinion, Disney could do one of two things to help alleviate this problem: 1) Create some elements for Pangani, Maharajah, and Flights of Wonder that are truly unique, to the point where families would truly remember where they saw them when reminiscing years later (I have no idea what kinds of elements this would be), or 2) Create many more such exhibits (and safaris, *cough*) so guests feel they’ve gotten more of their money’s worth. I am of the opinion that Animal Kingdom should have at least one nature trail/show and one safari for each land in the park (no doubt the Cretaceous Trail was intended to be the “nature walk” of the Dinoland area, until it was turned into Plant-R-Us. But seriously, how cool would it be if Disney had an epic Dino-Trail with animatronic dinos and interactive stations a la the raptors and triceratops encounters from Islands of Adventure? Holy Moses, would that be exciting). These are, after all, what guests are looking for.

And speaking of safari, it’s time to talk about Animal Kingdom’s main headliner. As I stated, the Kilimanjaro Safaris is the thesis attraction at the park, much like Spaceship Earth at Epcot and the Great Movie Ride at DHS. It exemplifies what makes Animal Kingdom so exciting (and why, again, WE NEED MORE OF THEM. Can you imagine if Animal Kingdom had a necklace of safaris like EPCOT Center used to have a collection of omnimovers? You couldn’t be able to pry us away from the park!) It all comes down to the fact that it’s cool to watch animals in a more natural setting. Though certainly the animals are in a controlled environment, it is much better than watching them through the bars of a cage. And when our safari vehicle actually pulls up next to the giraffe as she eats away at the trees…what a moment! Parents are taking just as many pictures of their kids’ expressions of pure joy and wonder as they are of the animals! And the safaris provide plenty of living, breathing animals, doing the things they do. Not only that, but they also have many animals that you don’t see anywhere else. That’s another important point. The safaris themselves hit many of the theme park geek turn-on buttons. It is a major, elaborately themed E-Ticket. It’s over 20 minutes long. It delivers elements that we haven’t seen before. And because the animals do what they do, it guarantees that each ride is different every single time. It’s basically the formula for our favorite EPCOT Center attractions, plus a huge repeatability element. It’s just super sexy. And the theming and iconography of the attraction is a step beyond too: this is the 21st century version of the Jungle Cruise, like Tower of Terror is the 21st century Haunted Mansion and Temple of the Forbidden Eye is the 21st century Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s a quantum leap beyond, like Disney used to be good at doing. And furthermore, it’s the kind of Jungle Cruise that Walt originally wanted, with the live animals and elaborately-themed ruins and natural settings and everything. And better still, the unpredictable nature of the attraction demands a live tour guide drive the jeep and deliver the narration, just like some of our old-school Disney favorites (Jungle Cruise, the former Living with the Land, GMR). It’s finally fulfilling Walt’s dream of taking his guests inside his Tru-Life Adventures. Think about it, that’s exactly what we’re doing! How cool is that? This attraction is a true Disney headliner, Animal Kingdom’s killer app attraction. It’s the reason why people pay admission. And, in my opinion, for good reason.

I’ve heard/read some commentators make some points against the environment as presented by Disney in the safaris: that it’s backgrounds feel more like barriers, that it still feels like riding around in a zoo rather than a real safari, etc. I don’t agree. I think Disney did a fantastic job with the environment. It enters into that Disney hyper-real thought-space that it mimics a real safari while being slightly better (for a 20 minute journey) in that you get to see the maximum amount and variety of animals in a short period of time. My only big complaint to the presentation itself is that sometimes there is an obvious maintenance road, or ranger truck, or Africa Trek Tour, or high hanging rope bridges, that pull you out of the thought-space and back into reality. Which is a shame, because the rest of the presentation is spectacular.

As for the storyline, I would have liked them to have kept the Warden Mutua/Ms. Jobson radio banter, even if they ditched the poacher storyline. Mutua and Jobson are still presented in the queue area as potentially major characters, and then they don’t appear at all in the attraction itself, which is puzzling. To a casual guest this might not be too noticeable, but to a fan who knows the context it’s just plain lazy. They couldn’t just re-do the radio dialogue with the same (or similar) actors when the storyline changed? The radio banter provided some much-needed filler during the transition portions of the attraction, when the jeeps would drive in between environments and guests would have nothing to look at but the skipper’s favorite plants (there’s one, there’s one, there’s one). The radio dialogue kept the audience engaged with what was going on for these scenes, and gave some more depth and detail to the environment. 

Now, since Disney didn’t really bother to give the safari guide more dialogue choices, these transition periods have nothing but awkward, dead silence. And there are quite a few of them; they add up. Since the changes have been made I’ve heard far more quiet comments from kids to their parents like “where’d the animals go?” or “what’s going on?” It is noticeable, and it’s a shame Disney doesn’t do anything about it. Also, while I applaud Disney’s choice to do away with the incredibly lame poacher storyline (more on that in a minute), Disney did their Disney thing and replaced the former climax with…yeah, nothing really. A wider area for the scimitar-horned oryx. Really, that’s it. I understand, absent the former storyline, there’s no need for an uber-climax. But you need something as a little “wave goodbye” that clues the audience into the fact that the ride is ending. For example, the Jungle Cruise has Trader Sam, GMR has the movie montage, Living with the Land has that weird Amnesty International commercial/display thing, Maelstrom had the oil rig/storm. The most famous example of course is the hitchhiking ghosts. But the safaris now don’t have an ending. It’s very similar to WDW’s Pirates of the Caribbean, which has the treasure room and then boom! Exit to your left. Theme park design 101 says don’t do that. Good grief, couldn’t they have done something?

All this is a warm-up to what (used to be) the main beef with KS, and that was the awful poacher side-storyline. Thankfully, Disney has jettisoned this storyline in favor of…well…nothing, but like Superstar Limo when something is so bad, then nothing is better than something. The poaching storyline also (coincidentally or not) touches upon the main problems I have with Animal Kingdom’s mission, so I can explore that a little bit here. The main deal with the poaching storyline was that, not only was it fake, but it completely hijacked the experience. The appeal of the ride is on the viewing of live animals in a safari environment. That’s the rock that supports the appeal of the attraction. Disney took up significant amount of time away from the animals not only to set up the poachers, but then to “chase” them at the end. And, since we had the added “reality” dimension of animals, this artificial poaching story was even more grating, like putting animatronics from the Jungle Cruise in at the end when the audience had just experienced 20 minutes of living, breathing animals. 

It also sent the message that simply seeing the animals wasn’t “good enough” to entertain the Nintendo crowd, so a bad guy and a chase scene had to be shoehorned in, lest anyone get bored. (This also dives into the problem on why Animal Kingdom has such a problem with its message…if you’re going for realism Disney, fine…but own it.) And Disney even caved little by little on the poaching message as well, despite being so adamant about it. During previews, the poachers had killed Big Red, and her dead body was laid on the ground for all the kindergarteners to see. The dead body went away quickly, but Big Red was still dead in the story, and Little Red was the only one saved. This lasted for a little while (a few years I think? I can’t recall), and when Disney got complaints from parents, they would take the hard-line (which, good for them), and say that the death of Big Red was similar to the death of Bambi’s Mother or several other Disney characters, and that it served the purpose of delivering the message about how evil poaching was. Well, eventually, Disney caved to the lowest common denominator (as usual), and Big Red was written back in, alive, so sayeth the added ranger face character who sat by the rescue truck and told the passing jeep that “Big Red is OOOOHHHHKAY!” As a result, now the ending was a complete disaster, since our safari was cut short to chase the most incompetent poachers the world has ever seen since they couldn’t hit a stationary elephant from ten feet away. The worst part of the whole affair was that our safari was cut short. As we all remember, the radio call from base came to our jeep while we were entering the warthog section. Any random animal (warthog, oryx, ostrich, or rhino) seen from this point on would have been summarily ignored by the safari guide as we lurched to catch the incompetent poachers. Many guests would think they got short-changed, to say the least.

A final word on the Animal Kingdom message here. I will go into more detail during the wrap-up, but the poaching storyline was emblematic of the problem with Animal Kingdom’s overall message, and not just because they commandeered a perfectly good safari to slam home a message about poaching. The aforementioned problems are two-fold: 1) That Disney is being highly hypocritical in its message, and 2) Looks incredibly naïve and Pollyanna in its quest to “tackle the issues of the real world” (and make no mistake, that is what Animal Kingdom is pretending to do). Thankfully, the hypocrisy at the safaris is no longer an issue, thanks to the elimination of the poacher storyline. But when it was presented, it was hard not to cringe a little bit. Think about how killing animals is bad when you ride the safaris, and think about how saving and preserving animals is good at Conservation Station. Think about this as you sit in your upholstered seat riding the safaris. And think about this when you smell the burning meat from Flame Tree Barbecue. Go ahead, Disney. Tell us again how much you like animals. If you’re going to have a real-world message, put your money where your mouth is and own up to it. And speaking of Animal Kingdom’s naïveté, I’m sure there are some people on Disney’s staff who thought they were “doing a good thing” by preaching against poaching. But, let’s be clear, of all the big problems that Africa currently faces, I don’t think poaching is really high up the list. Endless poverty, AIDS, tribal and national wars, no science and engineering education, these are big problems with Africa. Disney runs the risk of becoming exactly what critics said it would be: a Mickey Mouse operation, with a Mickey Mouse message. It’s not doing itself any favors here.

Conservation Station 

Conservation Station/Rafiki’s Planet Watch is just…

Scar's expression is exactly how I feel right now

It’s good intentioned, to be sure. It’s an animal exhibit that’s kind of about veterinary science and has a petting zoo. I don’t want to be too mean here, so we’ll call it…”underwhelming.” Yes, that’s good. We could also say it holds little to no interest level to anyone over the age of ten. But that would be mean. It’s actually kind of a shame, because Conservation Station could have been the most educational attraction in the park, in a Communicore/Behind the Seeds kind of way. The potential certainly was there. The petting zoo is a kid’s favorite, sure. But the rest of it strays WAY too far into the educational department that, unless you’re there for a special occasion such as an animal birthing, very few people would actually see the point. A little more entertaining presentation would have gone a long way here. But the BIG mistake Disney made here was the location. Guests have to go out of their way to take a train that leads to and only leads to the Conservation Station. The time investment to make to get out there is a real pain. Most people won’t even know it’s there unless they study the park map. In addition, the long (AND HOT) trail in between the attraction and the train station is oftentimes too much to ask for if you have kids, which is not good for a kid-centric attraction. So Disney, why isn’t there more? Why is the train so far from the attraction? Why is it out in the middle of nowhere? And even worse, why is the train ride itself so underwhelming as well? Could you imagine how cool a TRAIN RIDE through the ARFICAN SAFARI VELDT could have been? Why don’t you see even anything remotely interesting on the train ride? A quality train ride could have delivered traffic to Conservation Station by itself. Finally, Conservation Station is a victim of Disney Brand Management drive-by homicide, since they (again) thought that since the public wasn’t visiting Conservation Station the real solution was to change the name! That’ll solve everything! I refuse to call the place Rafiki’s Planet Watch, for the same reason I don’t call the Discovery Boats the Radio Disney River Cruise and why I don’t call Animal Kingdom a Nahtazu.

THIS is not a zoo. Okay? See the difference?

Expedition Fix the Damn Yeti

We have a special little section here for Everest, since it really is in a world all its own, sort of apart from the park proper, like the Matterhorn being perennially stuck between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Everest was a real saving grace from the park, though it had to drag park executives kicking and screaming into delivering the money to get the thing built. Everest is an impressive engineering achievement (as really any Disney “mountain” attraction is) with some legitimately thrilling rollercoastering and an impressive mountain and themescape surrounding it. The views from the main lift and the top of the mountain pass are quite stunning, and the drop is pretty epic. And yet, it’s always impressive that Disney can pull off a legitimately thrilling ride WITHOUT it actually being “too” thrilling, i.e. too thrilling for many family members. It’s quite a thin line to balance, but it helps that EE does not have any inversions at all and the ride is very smooth, though it does have a big drop and a backwards-in-the-dark section that keeps the Big Thunder crowd from riding. All in all, a solid effort…

But not an A+ effort, or even an outstanding effort. Most people like to compare EE with the 800-pound gorilla E-Tickets like Tower, Indy, and DLP’s Space Mountain. In my opinion, EE is not on this superior plane of existence. Not that it’s not fun, or worth riding multiple times per visit. But I do get a little apprehensive when people tout it as worthy in the line of E-Ticket succession. It is, in my opinion, a (small) step down. While certainly it is a roller coaster, and therefore it is not necessary to have art direction and three-dimensional interaction on the level of Tower or Indy, but let’s take a step back a minute. First of all, one of the most common misconceptions is that EE was as expensive as Tower or Indy. This is not the case. While the $100 million number is continuously quoted for EE’s final construction budget, it’s worth noting that Indy’s $105 million and Tower’s $135 million price tags came ten years earlier. Adjusting for inflation to EE’s time, Indy would have cost $135 million and Tower a whopping $178 million. Or, conversely, in the 1994/95 time period EE would have cost $76 million. That’s quite a step down from the budgets of the big 1990s E-Tickets. So clearly, EE could not be as elaborate. But even setting aside the budget, there are a few realities about EE that no one seems willing to admit or discuss: 1) Only a small portion of the ride is actually thrilling 2) Only a small portion of the ride is themed (not just well, but at all) 3) About 2/3rds of the major effects flat-out don’t work (the pass at the top and the Disco Yeti) 4) The backwards portion of the attraction is not only unthemed but gives guests a big, fat look into the mountain’s inner workings and backstage mechanicals, a big no-no for themed design 5) By all accounts, the pacing’s all shot to hell 6) DISCO DEMOLITION!

I’ll show you what I mean. Below is a time tracker (not a Tim Tracker, note the extra “e”) of the elements of the Everest ride itself, down to the (approximate) second. This is the time from the dispatch through to the break zone. The total ride time on EE is about 2 minutes and 45 seconds. No animals were harmed during the making of the time tracker.

0:00 – 0:28 Dispatch and Lift A
0:28 – 0:40 The mellow little joyride through Plantland
0:40 – 1:05 The major lift hill to the top of the mountain
1:05 – 1:15 One big left turn until the stop at the top pass
1:15 – 1:28 Stop and watch a twisted track just sit there
1:28 – 1:50 The backwards portion
1:50 – 2:04 Projection Yeti roars, does a track dance, notices you’re there
2:04 – 2:35 The major drop and the actual roller coaster portion
2:35 – 2:45 Feel the city breakin and everybody shakin you’re stayin alive
2:45            Annnnnnd….Scene

Let’s take note of a few things. The total 2:45 ride time is pretty standard, as roller coasters go. Yet, look at the amount of time where you experience an actual thrilling roller coaster ride. By my count, it’s the backwards portion, the drop, and the disco (no, the little jaunt through the flowers at the beginning does not count as “thrilling” in any adult sense. Come on). That’s a total of 63 seconds. 63 seconds of a 2 minute, 45 second ride is actually spent as a thrilling roller coaster. 63 seconds is not good roller coaster time. In fact, the first 1:28 could be said that nothing interesting happens at all, besides a nice view from the lift. That’s more than half the ride! And you’re trying to convince us this a worthy descendent of the mega E-Tickets? And what’s worse, the attraction can’t stop tripping over itself when it comes to pacing. The ride never stops getting out of its own way. Look at the times. If you were to break down each of these sections into “scenes,” the longest scene is actually the 35 second trek up the main lift hill! That’s NOT GOOD. Unlike the thrill/theming combinations of Big Thunder, or Splash Mountain, or even Maelstrom, the action does not flow. It stops and starts. Notice the thrill rides I mentioned all have different “phases” of their respective rides, separated by drops, lift hills, or other transitional elements (Disappear! Disappear!). Yet each element is either a transition into a show scene or a show scene itself. In 2016, EE has one show scene, and that’s the Yeti projection. The effects at the top of the mountain don’t work. There are no themed elements before the main lift. The backwards portion is in pitch dark, with no themed elements. The drop and roller coaster portion has no themed elements. This is what I mean when I say it has no pacing: it rapidly goes from theming to no theming and from boring to thrilling on a whim, with no buildup. There’s a reason why kids today still have an easier time remembering what happened in Pirates and Mansion than in EE or Toy Story Mania. On Big Thunder, you’re always in the themescape. Even the slow parts of Splash are themed to the hilt. Maelstrom has a progression of scenes, and the action of the boats carries the action of the story, and vice-versa. We get nothing like this with Everest. Can’t we have something to look at on the top of the mountain? While we’re going backwards, why can’t we zoom through a massive icy cave like in the Matterhorn? Why doesn’t the projecto-yeti room have snow effects? What is the point of the first 1:05 of the ride? Can’t we put it in some kind of show building? Good golly, the Adventure Express at Kings Island is better themed than this! Everest just doesn’t measure up. Though fun, it’s fun mostly because it’s a roller coaster, just like many roller coasters not only around the country, but in Central Florida. And while I’m certainly happy that Animal Kingdom had the wherewithal to build a ride like this, it’s not even close to being enough. Disney completed Step 1 of the “Animal Kingdom Rejuvenation Plan” but completely ignored Steps 2-10. An E-Ticket is nice (albeit not one on the level of the safaris), but Animal Kingdom is still a half-day park. Where are the B- and C-Ticket rides like the ones scattered around Disneyland? Where are the family rides? Where are the indoor rides? Where are the immersive experiences? They still have a lot of work to do. And Disco Yeti is pathetic. Fix it.

Asia and the "Other" Rapids 

Asia has, in my opinion, some of the best theming in the park, at least as far as detail goes. The level of detail in Anandapur is quite stunning. While I disagree slightly with the presentation, the level of care and themed elements in its presentation is off the charts. You really, legitimately feel like you are in another world, or in this case another part of the world. And that is very, very impressive to be able to do that successfully. Usually only parks with a big castle in the middle are able to pull that off with any consistency. This is also, coincidentally, where we will start talking about Kali River Rapids once again. Ah, you remember when we were talking about that? Way back when you started reading this article in January 2013?

Unfortunately, the devolution of the Asian safari concept turned the once-promising Asian river safari adventure into a slightly-guised up amusement park rapids right. Which, I’m sorry, it is. The queue area is fantastic, one thinks the queue is the one thing that survived the budget cuts from the original safari. And let’s be fair, I think it’s safe to say that KRR is one of the better raft rides in the country, as far as that goes. Yet, disappointingly, there really isn’t much competition for this type of attraction (isn’t that kind of weird? Usually amusement park staples of this kind have plenty of “interesting” presentations around the country). Anyway, KRR is just too similar to other rapids rides to be worth a separate vacation trip to Animal Kingdom. It is certainly a step above with its phenomenally realistic rainforest setting, but this, alas, does little in terms of excitement when there are no animals or natural wonders like waterfalls to look at. There are no temple ruins or statues, no props besides the logging truck. Just trees, and a river. Which is a shame, because KRR suddenly becomes a target for angry people who waited 60 minutes for a rapids ride. And, since the attraction doesn’t offer much in the storytelling department, it degrades itself to the level of a one-hit wonder. As Splash Mountain patrons know, rides that have a strong propensity for getting one wet will be far less visited when it’s not warm out, and that could include both wintertime and spring/fall in the early morning or after sundown. And, with KRR, since there’s no story saving grace or animatronics or animals or other entertainment elements, the ride is exclusively about whether one wants to get wet. Unlike Splash Mountain, family members won’t convince themselves to go on despite the possibility of getting wet. At KRR, you can ride it if it’s hot. If it’s not hot, you don’t ride it. I think that’s (or at least should be) quite under the level of acceptability for Disney ride attractiveness standards.

And like the safaris, we can make a quick aside to comment on the hypocrisy/naïveté theme that’s been cropping up here. KRR is another big offender here. Let’s start with hypocrisy. Go ahead, take in the message in the queue and via the burning/stuck truck that logging and killing trees is bad…after you’ve climbed up the WOOD-PANELED LIFT HILL at the beginning of the attraction. That’s right, no matter how many trees Disney chops down to make the ride, and the park, and the resort, they still have the gall to lecture the theme parks tourist about anti-logging and “preserving nature.” Sigh. As for naïveté, let’s think about what the abandoned/stuck truck in the middle of the burned section of the forest actually means here. The queue area warns there are loggers in the area, and that’s bad. The river takes us to a section that’s been logged, but the truck, I dunno, got stuck? Or it’s in danger of burning because there’s a possibility of a wildfire? Does Disney make it clear what happened, or why the truck’s abandoned? Are they saying the logger’s stupid for getting his truck stuck in the mud (and if that’s the case, surely he’ll be back to log another day, and nothing will change)? Are they implying that loggers cause wildfires (which is, on the whole, not true)? Are the loggers more evil than the enterprising raft company who cut down areas of the forest to make its headquarters, its river launch, and its wooden lift hill? Are they saying that nature is more powerful than human greed/machines/destruction? But there’s literally nothing said about this. It’s just…there. Now it’s time for you to get squirted by elephant statues. “Half-baked” doesn’t even begin to describe this.


Hey, I finally got a search right!

Finally, we come to, really, what should be the coolest area of the park, Dinoland. I mean seriously, it’s the truth that in any animal park that has a “Dinoland,” the Dinoland will be the best place. I mean come on. It’s dinosaurs! And now we’re talking about Disney! Think of what they could do to bring dinosaurs to life in front of our very eyes, Jurassic Park style! They could have interactive dino museums, dinosaur nature walks and encounters, walk-around dinosaurs, dinosaur safaris (indoor and outdoor!), helicopter rides, simulator rides, jeep rides, maybe a roller coaster or two, water rides and rapids rides, a walking tour/safari, maybe a rock climb/playground thing, and how about a Lost Temple-esque Journey to the Center of the Earth-style mega-ride with dinosaurs! Holy Hera! Think of all the fun we’re going to have when…

What’s that? Dinoland is…a jeep ride in almost pitch darkness, a kid’s playground, and some carnival rides? Wait…what? Are you kidding me? No, I’m serious…Are you KIDDING me?! You’re not kidding me. Well, looks like Christmas isn’t coming this year, kids.

To call Dinoland a little disappointing is like saying the Pope is a little Catholic. Compared to the shear mind-bending amount of awesomeness that 1990s DISNEY could have put into a Dinoland, what we got…I almost don’t feel like talking about it.

And it’s so random. Dinoland is themed as a location where a bunch of grad students are setting up shop for an archaeological dig site. Much like the Disney Hollywood Studios “oh they’re just backlots and sets, they don’t have to look finished” excuse to go cheap and lazy with the theming, everything in Dinoland has the excuse of “well, grad students build this, so it’s supposed to look cheap.” I hate when theme parks do this. So what we get is a run-down shantytown/carnival that we paid $100 a day to have the privilege of experiencing. And the B-52’s play “Love Shack” as you enter underneath the dinosaur bridge. We might as well be at Cedar Fair. We can visit an ordinary kids’ playground with rope climbs and slides that’s great only for putting crap in your kids’ shoes. We used to have the honor of visiting one of the 36,525 McDonald’s fast-food locations, now we have the honor of being served a bacon cheeseburger and a chicken sandwich that are just like the other bacon cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches found at every other burger restaurant at the resort. And we get to do it while, as quoted from the Walt Disney World website, we “delight in paleontology student humor…in a dino-themed dorm.” Yes, the preeminent dinosaur-themed restaurant in the Disney canon is themed to a college dorm cafeteria. What will they think of next?

Disney's Dinoland Deluxe Resort!

Before we countdown to my readers’ extinction, let’s take a quick detour to talk about the pile of dog vomit called Dino-Rama. It holds the immortal distinction of being the single worst area in any Disney park, anywhere. And to that, bravo, I guess. It’s honestly like we’ve stepped into some Bizarro Earth-2 Disney where Walt lived to be 100 and went senile and said “forget everything I taught you fellas. Just give the rubes some garish iron rides on asphalt, some shill games, and some cheap, naked thrills.” I honestly can’t think of a coherent way to explain this travesty. It literally flies in the face of everything even close to theme park common sense. It’s like Delmonico’s putting a bowl of Easy Mac on the menu. It’s like the editors of Twelve Years a Slave deciding to slip in a clip of the latest Tyler Perry movie into the middle of Act II. This place has zero imagination, zero creativity, zero any good feelings. It has all the atmosphere of a local church carnival (“but it’s supposed to look like that!” they say), and it was built with a budget of about $23. I’ll try to put this as succinctly as I can…people pay $100+ to get into the theme park. They pay much more than that for the plane ride to Orlando and the four-star hotel they’re staying at. They expect, no, demand a top-of-the-line presentation. And yet you’re comfortable delivering something to them that they could get at any local kiddie park or county fair? You’re really comfortable with that? It’s insulting. It’s obscene. Games you can play at a carnival. It has nothing to do with the theme and overall mission of the park (in fact, you could argue it’s what the park argues against), where its cheap decorations and ironic “let’s make fun of extinction” attitude plays directly against the lushness and the efforts at serious realism and animal preservation in the park proper. And speaking of carnival games, haven’t we learned our lesson that guests are insulted to be asked to pay money to get into the park and then pay more money for games inside? The Penny Arcade, the Paradise Pier games, the Starcade on both coasts, Innoventions, New York Street, even DisneyQuest, have all diminished or disappeared. There are good reasons for that. That’s all I’ll say about this travesty, which was dumped into the park by Paul Pressler when his executives were (CONSTANTLY) told by guest surveys that Animal Kingdom lacked attractions for a full-day’s experience. This was his way of shutting them up, and pretending to do something about the problem by adding to the bottom line number of attractions to the park, but certainly not its dignity. What a disgrace.

We move on to the last, but certainly not least, of Animal Kingdom’s headliners, Countdown to Extinction (No Nahtazu or Radio Disney here either), which is in my opinion the scariest attraction at the entire resort (and now that Alien Encounter is no longer with us, that’s an easier claim to make). I’d also go out on a limb and say that it is the most thrilling ride at the resort, in the exact sense of the term. It is, in many ways, the 21st Century evolution of the old-school haunted house/dark rides of the 1920s, banging around in the dark as you’re being menaced by monsters and zooming through an incoherent setting. It’s too bad the Fun House TV special (that Foxxy was so kind to post Here recently) was produced in 1997, because certainly CTX would be a cornerstone reference to the Haunted Pretzel rides of the old-school amusement parks. And I think CTX is the most reminiscent of this tradition than any other of the mega 1990s E-Tickets. I love how thrilling and scary CTX is, and how daringly Disney decided to produce such a ride, despite the possible loss of several family members, young and old, in the ridership numbers. The entire atmosphere is ominous and the pace of the thrills is well-done. The time travel effect used to be cool, not so much anymore, the Carnotaurus is a real demonic force of nature in the Snow White witch mode (and in fact, the dino’s lunge at the end of the chase is quite reminiscent of the witch’s jewel ambush in the original WDW Snow White’s Adventures), and of course the EMV technology is quite appropriate for the thrill quotient and the interaction with the dinosaurs. It is, to be sure, quite a ride.

Yet, as we know, Dinosaur has come up somewhat short (notice I use the new name when I mention shortcomings…it’s my way) in the satisfaction department, both on guest feedback and attendance. After all, Dinosaur , upon its creation in 1998, was supposed to be the headliner that magnetically pulled guests to the opposite side of the park from the safaris, much like Splash Mountain does with Space Mountain. It was supposed to be the equal counterweight to even out guest traffic. And the idea was certainly there: Indiana Jones at Disneyland had been a hit to end all hits upon its opening in 1995, so an Indy-style attraction with dinosaurs just screams “cool.” Yet it did not do so. It was always a distant second to the safaris in terms of crowd draw, then a distant third once Everest opened, and it was put in such a strangely remote location (no funneled Harambe and Baobab Tree weenie here) that even KRR regularly eclipses it in terms of crowd draw in the middle of the day. Even in the first few years, Disney tied the attraction into the 2000 Disney dino movie dud Dinosaur my making the iguanodon featured in the attraction the same iguanodon as in the movie. Yet, the tie-in was cheap and didn’t do much of anything. First of all, the movie was a dud, and less than a year after its release no one would have been able to tell you or the clipboard in your hand what the name of the iguanodon was, which is a bad sign. Second, you’d think Disney would have learned its lesson from Snow White and Stitch’s Great Mistake that tying a kid’s franchise to a terrifying attraction is not the best way to go. And lastly, such a cheap effort was made with the movie tie-in (Aladar the iguanodon received a grand total of 1) a statue in the pool/fountain outside the attraction, 2) a three second hello in the pre- and post-show videos, and 3) an animatronic at the end of the attraction in which he stares and does nothing), that even people who actually liked the movie wouldn’t have gotten anything out of it. Aladar doesn’t even talk like he does in the movie, nor are there any love monkeys (boy that takes me back to all the endless circa-2000 Disney Channel commercials), nor any plot points or references to the movie at all. What was the point again? Oh, that’s right. “From the makers of Rafiki’s Planet Watch that has nothing to do with Rafiki!” So, what’s the deal? Is this just a product of poor placement, with no real buildup to draw guests to this corner of the park? I don’t think that’s the only reason. 

There are some genuine concerns and inconsistencies with the attraction. By all accounts, Joe Rohde was beset on all sides by the accountaneering hack-jobbers, and had to triage the situation. It certainly shows. Rather than producing an epic animatronics extravaganza, the attraction was bathed in darkness, allowing Imagineers to better hide the fact that many of the animatronics are minimalist and, shall we say, less than evolved (the pterodactyl is so bad it might as well be made of paper mache, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually was). The ride layout and art direction is so limited that an enormous percentage of the ride time is in pure, complete darkness, and when it’s not usually only the foreground dinosaurs are highlighted and the backgrounds are blacked out (I’ve taken a few backstage tours through Dinosaur when I was a CP, and most of the back walls are literally blank, or covered in black plastic. Really.). The EMV movement also makes the ride even more disorienting, since the vehicles are bucking and pitching, and can be havoc on bad backs. All in all, the ride is very dark and confusing. My biggest problem from a storytelling/art direction standpoint is not just that the attraction is bathed in darkness and the backgrounds ignored, but that it ignores several key thematic nuances. Even if most of the ride was in the dark, you need an establishing shot, like the ship battle in Pirates or the lava pit in Indy. This tells the audience where they are, and sets their expectations. Without the establishing shot you risk losing the audience to confusion. There also needs to be a clear shot of the climax, like Indy’s giant rolling ball, so the audience will remember it as a takeaway. Dinosaur’s climax takes place in almost complete darkness and is more of a surprise with the picture flash and booming stereo base. Without these elements, guests are continuously reminded that they’re riding in a dark warehouse full of robot dinosaurs. Disney can do much better.

So Where Are the People?

Disney’s Animal Kingdom was created in the late 1990s to be a worthy addition to the Walt Disney World theme park canon. Its design was carefully planned and maintained to be several steps beyond the Disney MGM-Studios project, which was rushed into production to beat Universal Studios out of the gate, and was largely unfinished. Animal Kingdom was being planned at a time when executives and Imagineers thought that they had already hit several home runs and were looking for something beyond just simple entertainment. Animal Kingdom was planned around the same time as other shoot-for-the-moon projects like Westcot, Port Disney and Disney’s America, all of whom were planned to be much more than simple theme parks. They were to be truly unique experiences. And so was Animal Kingdom. The idea was certainly ripe for the plucking. Aside from the obvious lures of providing a park full of live animals and tackling the responsibility of advocating conservation efforts, there were a few other enticements as well. Joe Rohde would get the chance to design a park based on realism, with all its grit and grime, in contrast to the utopian, cleaned up castle parks Disney was used to doing (at the time, Disney had opened six theme parks, and four of them were castle parks). It was also almost irresistible for Disney to take on the Disney theme park equivalent of a zoo. Disney was on the lookout for unique variations of the theme park idea at the time, and having already tackled the formats of the World’s Fair (Epcot/Westcot), the Hollywood studio tour (DHS, Burbank MGM Studio Backlot, Disney MGM-Studios Paris), the aquarium/sea life park (Port Disney/DisneySea), and the American historical site/museum (Disney’s America). Honestly, the zoo concept at this point was probably the only square on the board Disney hadn’t bought out yet. And to think about it, it would be irresistible to do a zoo, since zoos represent the ancient forerunner to the theme park concept, even connecting animal enclosures with the medieval European pleasure gardens that were the nascent theme parks. And lastly, as we all know, Michael Eisner was in charge of Disney at the time, and boy does Michael Eisner like to play his “Theme Park Monopoly” games with his competitors. While this is certainly only a rumor that Eisner liked to undercut the competition with Disney versions of their best work, the evidence certainly bares the theory out. Pleasure Island was created to compete with Church Street Station, MGM-Studios was created to compete with Universal, Living Seas to compete with SeaWorld, Mission: Space to compete with the Kennedy Space Center, and of course, Animal Kingdom to compete with the zoological Busch Gardens Tampa. While certainly this was not the only reason, I’m sure it was a most compelling one to push Eisner to approve an $800 million theme park when Euro Disney was drowning in red ink. “Hey, other people can do animal parks well, we can get in on that action!” Sure you can!

Animal Kingdom opened, but as I’ve enumerated, there were several problems. The guests weren’t showing up from Day 1. There were several reasons for this. The first was because it had so little to offer in terms of attractions and experiences that it became literally a half-day park. An overwhelming amount of guest surveys and crowd patterns suggest guests arrive in the morning, leave in the afternoon, and not visit again during a typical week-long vacation. And they honestly don’t have much reason to. The park was significantly paired down from what was originally planned (and actually, announced, which was worse), plus there was a lot of hype from the Disney PR machine, yet Disney delivered only four actual rides on opening day. Everything else was either an exhibit or a show (and actually, one of the four rides was the Wildlife Express train, which is 99% transportation). And unfortunately, Disney has only added three additional rides since then in the aggregate (since the Discovery Boats have closed in the meantime). Guests also thought that the park was very hot, and did not hold up well in the rain (since only about half the rides are enclosed), and since Florida is either A) hot or B) rainy 99% of the time, this convinced guests to leave and not come back.

The funniest reason why guests weren’t returning/visiting the park was the fact that guests, much to Disney’s dismay, thought that Animal Kingdom was a zoo. This, apparently, bothered Disney to no end. Disney wanted Animal Kingdom to be as far beyond a zoo the just as the Magic Kingdom is far beyond an amusement park. Problem is, Disney barely got out of the gate in delivering on that promise. I mean, in a way the guests were absolutely right, with so few experiences that were different than a typical zoo or a park like Busch Gardens, then, once you saw the animals and did the safari and walked the animal trails, was there a reason to come back? So, in typical modern Disney fashion, Disney thought that if they changed the marketing message, then the tourists would be able to “get” that the park wasn’t a zoo. Which is strange, because guests came to this conclusion by actually going into the park and experiencing it. You weren’t going to change their mind with a marketing message. But did you think that stopped them? No! Out of Disney Resort closed-circuit TV hell comes the Nahtazu campaign, the bane of any young Disney park-goer in the early 2000s. It’s not a zoo, we promise! Nahtazu, damnit! And funny enough, it made things even worse, since the marketing campaign suddenly gave the park a split personality and started confusing people. Is it a zoo or not? It certainly seems like a zoo…it’s dominated by animal exhibits and shows, the park closes early so the animals can go to sleep (so they said), so how is it not like a zoo again? For crying out loud, if you have the word “animal” in your title, you’re just begging for it. I mean, if it’s not a zoo, where are the rides? If Disney wanted to get away from the zoo designation then they have to build more animal-less rides.

Of course, this is one of the many instances of Disney using surveys just to find select information and ignoring the actual problem. Maybe guests don’t really care about the zoo-like nature of the park and really just want to see more things to do? Maybe the low survey scores were a symptom of DCA-it is, with precious few “Disney-style” attractions and too many carnival rides? This is why people think it’s a half-baked park. And it doesn’t stop there. Guests also complained the park was sorely lacking in the foods department, with no outstanding table service eateries (and let’s be real, a Rainforest Café in this setting is insulting). I mean, what do guests expect from Disney? They expect unique themed attractions, exciting and distinctive cuisine and restaurants, and a quality overall themed atmosphere that whisks them away to an exotic state of mind. The Animal Kingdom fans may decry the critics as theme park Philistines, but people who don’t “get” the park, or “don’t know how to have a good time” at the park, are in no way to blame. Walt said to John Hench that if guests did not like an attraction, that only meant that the Imagineers were being poor communicators. Guests are the only ones allowed to judge whether a concept works, and the guests have spoken. As a business, Disney should know better than to blame the mindset of the customer when the message is not being communicated. Another Walt lesson summarily ignored by the modern Disney MBA executive factory. The fault here is squarely with the presentation, nothing else. It’s a presentation of few rides, garish carnival rides, a reputation as a half-day park, hit-or-miss reality theming, a lack of memorable E-Tickets, little to no immersive family attractions, and a split personality (zoo or Nahtazu?). Blame the guests all you want, but it won’t help your numbers. According to Amusement Business, here were Animal Kingdom’s attendance numbers after its first operating year:

1999: 8.6 million
2000: 8.3 million
2001: 7.8 million
2002: 7.3 million
2003: 7.3 million

Keep in mind these are half the attendance numbers of the Magic Kingdom over the same period. People visited MK for multiple days but never came back to Animal Kingdom. I guess the message didn’t connect that it wasn’t a zoo? And before you blame the world economic factors (as Disney did), keep in mind that every other Disney park in Florida grew their attendance in the year 2000 except Animal Kingdom, and in 2002 (during the 9/11 recession) Universal’s Islands of Adventure park actually grew in attendance despite not having any new attraction offerings. Make no bones about it, losing 15% of your attendance in four years is awful. So if it’s not a zoo, then what is it? Until Disney figures this out, Animal Kingdom will always be stuck in a endless identity crisis. Disney eventually threw in the towel and changed Animal Kingdom’s operating hours to (literally) 9-to-5 every day, even during the summer. And this was when similar animal parks (Busch Gardens and SeaWorld) were closing at 10 pm or later. Hilariously, Disney had made Animal Kingdom a half-day park by default. Even Typhoon Lagoon was open longer than Animal Kingdom! Disney didn’t close the park early because of the animals. They closed it early because the park was deserted after the 3 o’clock parade ended. (Strangely, Disney did random things like offer meal deals for families, pre Meal Plan. For $5.99 for kids and $11.99 for adults you would get a meal plus two vouchers for a snack and an extra drink…but they were only good in the afternoon and evening. Yeah, that piece of marketing genius failed too). Fans of Animal Kingdom are quite content in their superiority, like fans of the things they like to consider “higher forms of art,” they are haughtily comfortable that they enjoy something that the rabble tries to avoid or “doesn’t get,” they love the fact that they’re bucking the grain and providing a unique perspective. That’s fine, and they’re entitled to their opinions, but all their love for Animal Kingdom has not enabled it to attract a wide audience, as Epcot does.

Theming and Message

Let’s now climax our discussion of two of the main points of contention with the park, namely, the theming and the message. In terms of theming, on the surface it would seem that your opinion of Animal Kingdom’s thematic choices comes down to mere preference: do you enjoy reality-based theming or escapism-based theming? Yet, in my opinion I don’t think it’s as simple as that. First of all, Animal Kingdom does not go for full reality-based theming. Despite its discarded bicycles and exposed telephone wires, Animal Kingdom does dabble quite a bit in escapism. I mean, we know that these are not full representations of African and Asian villages. If it was, there would not be modern cash registers, or Fastpass kiosks, or cold drinking fountains, or automated hand dryers in the bathroom. The pathways aren’t covered in dirt and manure, there aren’t ponds of urine in the street, and there aren’t people begging for food. So, Animal Kingdom’ themed areas still participate in escapism theming. So the question is, not whether Animal Kingdom has escapism theming, but how much it has, where it draws the line, and why. This is where Animal Kingdom gets into trouble. Because the escapism element is there, but in its quest for reality, Animal Kingdom has forgotten that escapism is a huge part of its entertainment appeal, and has trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality. On the Haunted Mansion, it’s fun to pretend that we are riding through a graveyard, because the Haunted Mansion never forgets that it is entertainment, and not real. But when riding Kilimanjaro Safaris, we are told that we are driven by an “authentic” tour guide on a “real” safari, with a “real” Baobab Tree and a “real” 100 year-old rickety old bridge. It somehow seems cheesy and dishonest, like your mom telling you that the spoon full of peas is actually an airplane. So clearly, Animal Kingdom tries to embrace escapism. The problem is, of course, that now that we have established this dichotomy between realism and escapism, the escapism elements take away from the main attraction, which is the real animals. And then, of course, there were the poachers. Were we supposed to pretend they were real too? Animal Kingdom really gets into trouble when it mixes these two paints together. And what about Rainforest Café? In a park that brags about its “realism,” here the guests are presented the epitome of fake environments as the first thing guest see as they enter the park. Talk about getting off on the wrong foot. Wasn’t this park supposed to be the opposite of what Rainforest Café represented? And yet Disney hits us over the head with corporate sponsorship immediately upon entering a park trying to be dedicated to real-world conservation issues. For shame.

We’ll enter a transition between the theming and message issues by talking about Disney’s opinion of its own themed spaces. In a way, Disney’s reality-based Africa and Asia areas actually hurts the park image, and the image of the two areas, rather than help. If they presented the themes of the areas as escapism, similar to Adventureland and New Orleans Square, then the response to any reality-based criticism would be easier. The buildings on Main Street not 100% built to scale? That’s because it’s idealized. It’s escapism. African river cruises aren’t placed next to south seas tiki bird shows and Caribbean-inspired pirates in the real world? Escapism. But Animal Kingdom is performing without a net. It’s pretending to be realistic. But when it’s not, it opens itself up to criticism. Does Disney really think that poaching and deforestation are the main problems in third-world nations? Have they ever been to Rwanda and thought “man, this place would be so much better if people stopped killing the white rhinoceros?” I mean, if Disney can rally against poaching and deforestation, why can’t they rally against AIDS, or world hunger, or poverty, or lack of clean water, or tribal wars, or political and religious corruption? In a nutshell, Disney is deciding to swim, but in the shallow end. But by stepping into the pool in the first place (which the Magic Kingdom avoids), Animal Kingdom opens itself up to pointed criticism. And when it doesn’t make any risky claims or dares to take on tough issues, the park looks simplistic and naïve, as does its parent company. How is Harambe not every bit as escapist as Frontierland when the main problems of African nations aren’t even mentioned? How can they claim to be reality-based? Both Harambe and Adventureland attempt to be “exotic” in order to be entertaining and entice guests, but while Adventureland is the idealized exotic, should we be asking Disney why they think Harambe is exotic, when it’s supposed to be realistic? Is it because it’s poor? Is it because it’s made up of different people than Florida tourists? Could this be considered racist? Isn’t the avoidance of these issues suggesting that Disney is trying to construct a world that’s just as fantasy-based as any other? And is realism really that exotic? After all, “realism” didn’t work with Disney’s studios-based parks, or DCA. Is it a no-brainer that guests prefer the fantasy and escapism? How much of the real world is to intrude for guests to still have a good time, and experience that “Disney magic?” These are questions that theme park philosophers (wow, did I just invent a new academic designation?) have grappled with since the theme park came into being, and will grapple with for some time to come (jeez, I’m making it sound like a religion. All Hail Doom). But Animal Kingdom needs to be aware that its reality theming invites these kinds of questions, and so far it hasn’t really had any answers.

I stated before in the Kilimanjaro Safari that Animal Kingdom had two major leaks in  communicating its message: 1) Hypocrisy and 2) Naivete. Make no mistake, Animal Kingdom was aiming for a higher message when it opened, and in its intentions has a higher social-consciousness aim than any park in the Disney canon with the possible exception of Epcot. But again, Disney only decided to swim in the shallow end, and because of that, reflects as if it is ignorant of the real problems of the world. In addition, Disney is not only trying to raise social awareness but also doing while entertaining. As Disney has learned with Epcot and other similar arrangements, this can be a sticky proposition and, at best, hit or miss. After all, as Epcot has taught us, it’s hard to make educational things fun, and fun things educational. And at Animal Kingdom, they didn’t really succeed. Animal Kingdom has a pro-environmental message. That’s fine. And very appropriate. But the subject is so sensitive that any amount of pressure one way or the other could undermine and collapse your whole message, and turn it into an overbearing diatribe. Let’s start with the hypocrisy. Disney rails against killing animals in Kilimanjaro Safaris while sizzling meat cooks next door at the Tusker House. Disney rails against killing trees at KRR, though the lift hill is wood-paneled and a whole slew of trees had to be cut down to build not just the ride, but the entire park (and especially Dino-Rama, with nary a tree in sight). Disney is a major global conglomerate. Though it certainly does make clear efforts to diminish its waste, carbon footprint, what have you, saving the earth is NOT its top priority. Making money is, so it can stay in business. If saving the planet was really top of mind, they would close down all of its theme parks, to prevent burning energy and producing waste. It would shut down World of Color during times of drought. It would also close its water parks and hotel pools during drought conditions, letting the community take the water instead. But it doesn’t do these things. It produces enormous waste, and expends enormous amounts of energy. This is not in itself a bad thing. 

But what is bad is expecting us to ignore these facts and pretend that Disney is the hero because there’s an anti-logging scene in the rapids ride. Listen to Disney talk about preserving animals and how great nature can be, all while ignoring that the animals at the park are not free, and instead securely jailed inside a zoo. It rings quite false. The subject of naïveté lies in the fact that Disney provides no real solutions to the issues it raises. What are we supposed to do, as taxpaying American citizens, to stop poaching in Africa? Disney doesn’t say. I’ll again return to the logging scene in KRR. What is Disney’s message here? That loggers are evil? Or just stupid? It doesn’t specify. And it gets worse. Disney, for all its green rhetoric, doesn’t give any real answers. It doesn’t want to be accused in the public eye of giving people instructions to lobby against a particular group (like loggers). It doesn’t want to suggest to people that real change involves real sacrifices. Presumably, that would ruin everyone’s fun day at the zoo. Or Nahtazu. (There’s that nasty escapism vs. realism question again). All Disney is trying to do is for you to “be aware” that these issues exist. That’s it. What environmental causes does it want us to join? What sacrifices are to be made? Should we avoid companies who support logging or killing animals? There are no deep thoughts, no sophisticated arguments. Because, the deeper one gets into these issues, the more questions arise, and the more gray the environment gets. It’s true that logging can be bad in a pre-existing ecosystem (I learned that from FernGully. And that black smoke monsters can operate heavy machinery). But, logging can sometimes be good for an overgrown environment. And there’s no mention of the fact that, should anti-logging policies be enacted, it would trigger a major loss of jobs and an enormous spike of the price of lumber. Yet, Disney’s simple world suggest these pro-environment policies are easy answers to mankind’s evils. And for those of you who would argue that Disney shouldn’t be involved with these sophisticated arguments, or that it’s “just a theme park,” I’d remind you that Disney is intentionally aiming for higher social awareness in this park. The makers of the park were clearly intending to raise “meaningful” issues. If Disney wasn’t prepared to face these arguments, why invite them in the first place?

And it also raises the issue of how hard it is to straddle the edutainment line. So few entries in the theme park canon have succeeded at both. At worst, attempting to serve two masters can leave both wanting, and creating an attraction that is neither educational nor entertaining. Where have we heard that before? Conservation Station. But the educational aspect of it requires that the attraction be as complete as possible in its subject matter. Practically every Epcot edutainment attraction provides ample history and context on its subject. Yet Animal Kingdom visitors get fake poachers with terrible aim and a kill ratio lower than Slippy Toad in Star Fox 64. It also helps in the edutainment business if you can actually make the subject matter entertaining. Killing animals and trees doesn’t leave a lot of room for Cranium Command-style laughs. It’s hard to tell with Disney’s cartoonized fake poachers how serious they’re actually being with the subject. It comes off to some as being just plain irresponsible. This is what critics feared Disney would become during the Disney’s America debacle: when it takes on serious subjects and completely drops the ball by not delivering the proper tone or a full understanding of context.

A random thought, could Animal Kingdom’s exploration of these negative subjects be another reason why guests are not visiting or returning? When you think about it, practically every attraction at Animal Kingdom is either guilt-inducing or obsessed with death, or both. The lessons in the safaris are about killing animals. KRR is about killing trees. Dinoland is about killing the dinosaurs (and strangely, Dino-Rama is about celebrating the killing of the dinosaurs). Conservation Station makes you guilty that you’re not doing enough to protect the animals, as are the safaris, and KRR makes you guilty about the rainforest. Even It’s Tough to be a Bug preaches that you’re not doing enough to appreciate the bugs in the world. Could this be another reason, that being the idea that guests might think Animal Kingdom dwells on negative subjects and downer issues, that casual visitors don’t sing Animal Kingdom’s praises? While I’m sure it’s not the main issue, I don’t think it’s something that can be ignored either.

What Would I Do?

So it’s finally time to get to the only reason anyone is still reading this article, groaning under the weight of its own self-importance as it is. If you used the table of contents to skip down to the end here, I certainly wouldn’t blame you. I only wish I, as the writer, had the opportunity to do that too! The question, in a nutshell, is “can Animal Kingdom be so-called ‘fixed’”? I’ve done my best, so far, to present every possible angle and opinion that casual and frequent guests alike may have of Animal Kingdom’s offerings. I’ve also given my opinions of what I believe works for the park, and what doesn’t. However, though it’s not I requirement I am of the belief that critics should at least make the effort of suggesting fixes when criticizing, if anything so as to champion a spirit of progress rather than repression. So what would I do to fix Animal Kingdom as I see it?

A quick rule first: I am not assuming an unlimited budget here. It is far too tempting, and too easy, to play armchair Imagineer and dream up 40 E-Ticket rides, each with its own land and character parade. There’s really no challenge there. And at any rate, it’s not at all realistic. It would be bad form to suggest changes that could never happen in the real world. “If only you would spend $4 billion on Animal Kingdom, it would be great!” I’m sure it would, but all the Cast Members who just got fired because Disney had to close Disneyland Paris to make it happen won’t particularly enjoy it. Also, it goes without saying that I’m only looking to develop properties that Disney currently has the rights to. We’re to assume current real-world conditions. Let’s assume a budget approximately the size of last decade’s DCA expansion, since this is a similar “save the franchise” situation. The one liberty I’m taking is that I’m replacing WDI’s current formation of bureaucratic nonsense with a 1990s-style WDI that knows how to get more out of less. For example, if we were to build another safari, it shouldn’t cost much more than $150 million. I’m not using the current crop of Imagineers who somehow made a Fantasyland kiddie coaster and a 5-minute Ariel dark ride cost $100 million apiece, or made an extra land at DCA (consisting of a grand total of two flat rides and an E-Ticket based on 15 year-old technology) cost half a billion dollars. So, the one trip to Fantasyland I’m taking is that I’m assuming the Imagineers know how to manage a construction budget.

The first thing we have to finalize, before any attraction construction is to take place, is a consistent message for the park. I have no preference for which side Disney chooses, but if Disney is going to get some skin in the game, it has to get serious and go all the way. It has to talk about the hard issues, if it’s going to talk at all, or it risks looking naïve and irresponsible. Or, it could remain neutral. If that’s the case, then over-handed sermonizing about issues like poaching and anti-logging need to be removed. The point is to have a consistent message, and carry it through every part of the park. Since it would be completely disruptive to the current infrastructure if Disney chose the more activist route, for the purposes of this exercise I will assume they’ll go with the more neutral stance. If this is the case, I would suggest Disney proceed with the following: 1) Identify which experiences are to be entertaining (Everest, CTX), which are to be educational (Conservation Station), and which are to be edutainment (the safaris and animal trails). Then make it clear what the respective tone will be for each experience. Entertaining attractions need to be as entertaining as possible, with little education to get in the way. Educational attractions should be made more educational, etc. Make it clear to your guests what the purpose of each experience is. This was also the main problem with Disney’s America, where movies and exhibits about slavery were adjacent to the Lewis and Clark river rapids ride and the Industrial Revolution roller coaster. The trick is to somehow create a sense of place where education and thrill rides can live together. 2) Disney can still send a pro-environment message.  To do this, stick to presenting facts about the natural world, and don’t go beyond. This would be similar to the pre-show video presentation for Circle of Life in the Land pavilion at Epcot. Have information kiosks around the park, have information available at every merchandise store, have information available at every attraction marked as “educational” or “edutainment.” But stick to facts. “Such and such many species go extinct every 7 years.” “Such and such tons of waste are poured into the oceans each year.” But don’t allegorize it, like the poaching debacle. Stick to facts. And then, provide information about what causes guests can involve themselves with, or donate to, should they wish to become involved: the Cornucopia Institute, Sierra Club, Earth Policy Institute, etc. Provide information on all of them. If you’re concerned about corporate land use, here is some information about the Nature Conservancy. This way, Disney could get involved without actually getting involved. If Disney wants to do more, they can guarantee that a certain portion of every dollar donated to these organizations (through Disney of course) would be matched by the company (say, 30 cents to every dollar, or something similar). That would certainly go a long way to help environmental causes, and the key difference is Disney is letting the guests make up their own minds and decide for themselves. Those who don’t wish to become involved don’t have to, and aren’t lectured to do so. Everybody wins.

Addendum to these points, I think Animal Kingdom would be best served if it let guests decide for themselves how they would like to enjoy the park. Those who wish to just ride the rides can do so without molestation, and those who wish to stop to savor the atmosphere will have a wonderful time. But at no time should guests be “forced” to stop and smell the roses if they don’t want to. This leads to unhappy tourists. Let them set their own pace. Pathways should be clear and easy to follow, while at the same time diversions (such as the Tree of Life gardens) should have some more effective advertising so more people are drawn to the areas “off the beaten path.” The best example would be the Oasis. Guests shouldn’t be forced into a labyrinthine forest if they just want to get to the safari. Obviously this would involve major construction, but have a single pathway through the middle of the Oasis, clearly marked, with animal exhibits and additional paths/walkways on the sides, should guests wish to wander and explore. The layout currently is similar to having Maelstrom riders be forced to watch the Spirit of Norway after every ride. It’s already bad enough they had to wait for the theater to open. By forcing guests to watch the movie, what do you think their attitude would be? Would this have caused more Maelstrom ridership, or less? It’s the same idea. Let people have fun if they want to have fun. If you’re actively trying to prevent people from having fun, why are you in the theme park business?

So, let’s get down to business and talk about what specifically could be done to the attractions to the park. What is working for Animal Kingdom currently is that, unlike DCA, it has a strong thematic foundation. The Tru-Life Adventures milieu has been a Disney staple for 60+ years, much like the Tomorrowland concept. It’s part of Disney’s DNA. And as of yet, Animal Kingdom is the only Disney park that fully exemplifies this space. People love animals, and animal adventures. As countless Adventurelands have shown us, Disney can expertly provide the stage for unparalleled exotic adventures. It’s a great place to start. And not only that, but the park already has several areas that are full of detail and need little to no changes. Which is quite refreshing. Here is a numbered list, in no particular order, of modifications I would like to see at Animal Kingdom, given the budget parameters discussed:

1)  Headliners. Marquee attractions. E-Tickets. As Expedition Everest proved beyond all doubt, a compelling major attraction is the most effective way to increase attendance immediately. Busch Gardens is able to stay open several hours later than Animal Kingdom because of its extensive roster of headliner attractions. Now, before we get into which $500 million Zootopia-themed giga-coaster to build, let’s be realistic about this. The headliner attraction at Animal Kingdom is Kilimanjaro Safaris, not Everest. The safaris is one of the most effective headliners at any Disney theme park, because it combines a modern-day Indiana Jones-style E-Ticket experience with a thesis attraction, and attraction that best sums up a park’s values, like Horizons or GMR. Animal Kingdom would suffer more to lose the safaris than to lose Everest. Because this is what guests go to Animal Kingdom to see. They can see rides similar to Everest at DHS, Busch Gardens, or Islands of Adventure. They can’t really experience a safari as good as KS anywhere else. To that end, my first recommendation, given a limited budget, is to replace KRR with the Asian river safari (complete with rapids section, of course, in case anyone is sad that we’re losing that element). If EPCOT Center can work so well with multiple, similar, thesis attractions (Spaceship Earth, Horizons, World of Motion, Journey Into Imagination), then certainly Animal Kingdom could succeed with a comparable lineup.  If we had just enough money in the budget for one major attraction, this attraction is what I feel would be most effective. Give the people what they want. And for heaven’s sake, make sure we can ride it at night. In addition, I applaud Animal Kingdom’s efforts to provide a impetus to be open after the sun goes down by A) actually making its most popular attraction rideable at night and B) constructing (or attempting to) a nighttime spectacular, World of Color-style. This was also a major leak at DCA a decade ago: there was no big reason for people to stay until nightfall! DCA was losing out big time on stay time and revenues for restaurants and shops (not to mention clicks for those who come just to watch the nighttime show). Why was Animal Kingdom the only WDW park without a nighttime show? Did Disney seriously not want the nighttime revenues? Having your headliner rides open late, having a compelling nighttime show, and having quality dinner options (we’ll get to that in a minute) are the gateways to more revenues! Yay money! Just please, don’t make it suck. Too late.

2) If given sufficient funds to go beyond a new major attraction and the nighttime show, our main priority should be Dinoland. For the love of God, you MUST build out Dinoland. I honestly would be okay with spending the rest of entire budget just focused on Dinoland. There will be plenty of room in between Everest and The Oasis for a full-blown version of Dinoland (even more when we bulldoze Dino-Rama and move Thater in the Wild to, you know, anwhere). Spend as much money on Dinoland as you can. This might be news to some people, but DINOSAURS ARE COOL. The dinosaur exhibits are always the most popular exhibits at any natural history museum around the country. And Disney has the opportunity to create full dinosaur experiences, where you can have adventures with dinosaurs, instead of just looking at statues and bones. It’s an enormous opportunity that Disney is missing. I’ve detailed the ideas for Dinoland in the Dinoland section, but here is a quick listed recap of some of the ideas that could be implemented: interactive dino museums, dinosaur nature walks and encounters, walk-around dinosaurs, dinosaur safaris (indoor and outdoor!), helicopter rides, simulator rides, jeep rides, maybe a roller coaster or two (Excavator-style), water rides and rapids rides, a walking tour/safari, maybe a rock climb/playground thing (The Boneyard the size of Adventure Isle), dark rides in the style of Mr. Toad, and how about a Lost Temple-esque Journey to the Center of the Earth-style mega-ride with dinosaurs! Anything Disney. Anything. CTX can easily be repurposed (with track layout intact) as a more interesting time-travel/Journey to the Center of the Earth experience. What a land this could be! I don’t think anything more needs to be said here. I feel this area is a place where the more money Disney will spend, the more money it will make. More so than even Avatar or Beastlie Kingdomme, in my opinion. Dinosaurs are cool.

3) Characters, Immersive theming, C-Tickets, and Phase II new lands. These concepts are all somewhat interconnected, so I’m combining them into one bullet point. Now I know it’s laughable to even mention the term “Phase II,” since at Disney “Phase II” means “yeah, right.” But we can humor ourselves can’t we? As Animal Kingdom grows itself out, it needs to be focused on delivering two things as much as possible: animals and characters. We know people come to Animal Kingdom for the animals, but we also know that people don’t know Disney because of its nature conservation efforts, they know Disney for its animated characters. And it’s a HUGE roster of animated characters. People not only expect but demand that such characters be included in the proceedings. Lion King, Jungle Book, Tarzan, and Bambi are just the major animal pictures that are presented in the natural animal world. These characters should be prominent. Yet practically every Disney animated movie has some form of animal characters in them, from Jiminy Cricket to Zootopia. One need only to pick and choose. Give them some exposure, it’s what guests like to see and it’s Disney’s major competitive advantage over competing products like Busch Gardens. Expanding on that point, Disney needs to use these characters in themed, immersive family-friendly attraction, expanding the roster to include many more family-friendly B-, C- and D-Tickets. Matt Ouiment and Greg Emmer hammered this concept home in their revitalization of the Disneyland Resort in the 2000s. Guests come to Disney for immersive, family-friendly attractions. Pirates, Mansion, Small World, Jungle Cruise, Buzz Lightyear, Horizons, Journey Into Imagination, Toy Story Mania, and Ariel’s Adventure all run the gamut from B- to E-Ticket, but these are the attractions guests think of most when they think of Disney. Walt wanted to keep the family together as much as possible. Don’t stray from the true path. A Jungle Book boat ride would be nice, maybe this could replace the Discovery Boats? I would also recommend a new show in the Tree of Life theater (as discussed before). I would love to see a Lion King show here, but if we’re unwilling to discard FOTLK, then any multi-media extravaganza could go here. Just make it family-friendly. As we all know, a big reason why Disneyland and WDW’s Magic Kingdom excel is because of their extensive roster of minor attraction, like the PeopleMover, the Tiki Room, the riverboats, etc. These rides are inexpensive! Add to the park capacity! Increase that stay time! Re-invent the discovery river. Family dark rides, family boat rides, animal walking trails, etc. all work. What are you waiting for? You can add thrills with some Soarin-like attractions, or family recreations like the Casey Jr. train. But build those perpetually loading attractions. Keep guests out of the sun and the rain and give them something to do. Also, it goes without saying that many of these rides should be indoors. That’s something that seems to be easily forgotten nowadays. And put something to see on that Wildlife Express train! Maybe have it chug through a prolonged section of the new Asia safari? Make Conservation Station more interesting, make a train ride that people will be willing to ride even if they don’t get off at Conservation Station. Now, obviously, implementing even half of the ideas I’ve described above would more than exhaust our budget. But notice how we can re-invigorate Animal Kingdom without building an entirely new land (which for some reason some people think is the only way to help the park)! There are plenty of good expansion ideas, and since we’re on a limited budget we’ll only mention them here: Beastlie Kingdomme/Mythia, Mysterious Island, The Arctic (wouldn’t that be cool? Literally?) Australia, South America, and North America are all solid ideas. And honestly, Avatar isn’t that bad of an idea either. It isn’t. As long as it has quality attractions, some thrills and some family diversions, it will be a good addition. Any extra land built should try to include a safari, an interactive walking trail, and maybe even a Soarin-like experience, as well as of course the requisite E-Ticket magilla rides and family rides.

4) Extras: Dining, Behind the Scenes Tours, Nighttime fun. This is sort of our “miscellaneous” section, since each would be too small for its own bullet point, since each section up to this point could fill a Disney Annual Report. We’ll clean up the loose ends that haven’t been mentioned in any of the previous topics. First, why oh why are there so few table-service options at Animal Kingdom, and the ones that are perfunctory at best? Why are they more Electric Umbrella than Coral Reef? Does Disney know how much money could be made if they had several, unique animal experiences adjacent to these restaurants? Every other Disney theme park in the US has at least one high-quality dining experience. Animal Kingdom should have several restaurants with animal observation areas. Can you imagine the dollar signs? Restaurants like Jiko’s or Coral Reef would blow the doors off the place. Restaurants in an animal environment with animal observation areas. I shouldn’t have to explain this to anyone. Secondly, why do I feel as if Animal Kingdom is sorely lacking in the behind-the-scenes tours department? Is it because there’s just one safari? Animal Kingdom should be ground zero for behind the scenes tours. There should be more tours here than at every other Disney park combined. There should be tours just centered around the plant life. There should be tours about the architecture. And about 100 tours with the animals. One Wild Africa Trek is not enough. They need more, much more. Go absolutely crazy. Addendum to that, why is there no National Geographic, or Animal Planet, or Discovery Channel show at Animal Kingdom? Universal Studios gained huge notoriety by filming Nickelodeon shows on property. Why aren’t there animal shows at Animal Kingdom? Let’s go, synergy people! And lastly, I’m trying to think of a way that Disney could actually leverage its “Night Kingdom” idea. Wouldn’t it be cool if the park actually did change at night? Instead of, you know, not? There could be totally different safari and animal experiences, maybe a nighttime parade, maybe have unique merchandise and dinner items, special character meals, music and frivolity like at Glowfest/ElecTRONica? Could you imagine if people actually wanted to go to Animal Kingdom at night, instead of the other parks? What a Bizarro World! Animal Kingdom might actually be considered a success and, you know, make money!

So that’s it, that’s more than anyone in the world has said or written about Animal Kingdom. For those who have stuck around til the end, seriously, God bless you. You made it! I knew you would! (And guess who made it back with you?)

Did you know this article is officially 1/5th the length of Prisoner of Azkaban? Don’t know why I mentioned that.

To me, Animal Kingdom is the most fascinating park to discuss. It’s not near-perfect like Magic Kingdom, where the only real points of discussion are “where to expand” and “where to put back old attractions.” And it’s not near-hopeless like DCA was, where the only real discussion was “how much to tear down and build new things on top.” Animal Kingdom perfectly straddles the line between “amazing” and “almost.” You could go on for hours (as we have already) discussing the pros and cons, the ins and outs, the successes and failures. It seems to me that everyone has their own unique opinion about Animal Kingdom. I only hope that I have, in some small way, been able to contribute to the discussion.

Now as a reward, please enjoy the greatest post-show experience of all time:

**Send Jeff a line at, or follow him on Twitter @Parkscopejeff. 

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  1. Read most of this (I admit it: I skipped over some of the fantasy fix-it talk), and it reminded me of another trip report a friend of mine wrote a few years ago:

    Animal Kingdom is one of those parks that I've spent more time discussing than time I've likely spent inside of it. As sort of basic statements about the place, I:

    -find Rohde's "placemaking" with recreating Asian/African tourist hubs minus everything that makes those places what they are frankly a bit insulting. It is said that imitation is flattery; I would suggest that is situational. In this case, it's quite literally a white washed version of reality. Germany's Phantasialand comes closer to getting West Africa right.

    -In the point about variations: There's tons of existing ride systems that are 100% good and work well for what is necessary. In the case of an Asian water safari, well, Columbus Zoo literally did exactly that ride already utilizing a OD Hopkins Super Flume as the ride system. Fort Wayne Children's Zoo also has a flume (I think it's a Hopkins too) in their Australian area. And then I would be remiss to forget Singapore Zoo's Amazon River Flume, complete with elevator lift. All of this is "off the shelf technology," and much of the mechanicals are decades old in production. But goddamnit, they work. Designing the enclosures doesn't require $100 million dollars, especially since they've already got the animals.

    -The huge canal they've got for the old ferries would be great for a cable drawn boat attraction that fast loads - enclose portions and you have an effective replacement for a train. Use video screens to spice up those dead zones.

    -Animal Kingdom embracing what it is - a zoo - is the best potential outcome. But there's so much about the message of what the parks at their core were intended to do (reassuring consumerist public) that goes completely against the message required for conservation. You can't tell people to keep buying crap if that is inherently the problem with our world.

    Overall, really cool read.

  2. Thanks for the link, Alan! And thank you for your comments. A few questions/notes:

    1) How would you improve the Africa/Asia area to make it more realistic? Having not been to these tourist hubs myself, I'd like to hear your take on what Disney could do to improve this.
    2) It's amazing how Disney can get the simplest things to cost $100 million. I don't want to look at WDI expenditure reports because I enjoy keeping my inner organs from catapulting out of my mouth, but to me how they can get a kiddie coaster to cost $100 million will always be the "golden toilet seat" moment in Disney's history. Animal Kingdom especially does not need to have complex ride mechanisms. Put guests in a Super Flume and point them at animals, or Disney characters. That's about 80% of the battle. This should not be that expensive.
    3) Totally agree with the Discovery Boats fix. The main problem was the low capacity, and the lack of many interesting things to see. The river needs to move again. Though, I would suggest animal encounters or animatronic scenes from Jungle Book/Bambi/Tarzan/what have you to spice up the dead zones. I'm very wary of adding video screens, since nowadays I feel it's akin to movie franchises throwing in CG scenes when a model or location shoot would have looked much better. I'm bitter towards CGI, as I am towards digital screens for theme parks (unless used with good reason, of course).
    4) As you say, Animal Kingdom is a zoo just as much as it is a theme park. Pretending to ignore this fact, or telling people to ignore it, will not change this fact. People are smarter than that. Just as they're smart enough to see through a paper-thin conservation message.

    By the way, I'm loving your hidden rides series! I can't believe how many of those you're going to be writing!

    I will definitely read your friend's rollercoasterphilosophy article once I'm recovered from the coma I've put myself in. I skimmed it for a second and noticed he gave letter grade scores to the individual attractions. I'm interested to what he has to say. All the best!

    1. Jeremy from that site and I have had many, many a long argument. He has a review of The Beast that is something like 23 pages long; it is a thing I'd recommend reading sometime. His thesis on ride pacing helped get him a job working at Thinkwell, so he clearly was doing something right. I think you'd be hardpressed to find any longform writing in HTML base that's more geared for the hyper nerd when it comes to stuff outside Disney. I guess there's my own from rec.roller-coaster/my blog, but that's kinda pompous to make those claims about my own work.

      Anyways, by the points-

      1) I don't know what being realistic is necessarily good either. Phantasialand's Africa section is staffed almost entirely people on work visas from West African countries. On one hand, at least it isn't Brittany, Anglo-Saxon w/Full Sail on her name tag, trying to pretend as though you and her are in sub-saharan Africa. However, and perhaps more damaging, is that it fetishizes this world; it's a sort of non-erotic pornography. If Disney Dakar/Nairobi isn't so bad, then what's the big deal with the real one? The same can be said of World Showcase too (another thing Jeremy and I agree on more than not).

      2) I would love to see the numbers. I almost feel as though I need to see them. Like, is there some sort of indirect/facilities and administrative cost that Disney assigns to their R&D budgets? None of it makes a lick of sense to me. And of course, with what is there now, you still have an off the shelf ride: KRR is just an Intamin river raft attraction, little different from many others in vehicle or mechanisms.

      3) Digital screens vs. nothing - I take the screens every time. Even if it is strange and possibly bad. I went to Movieland Studios in Italy earlier this year, and it is impossible to say that the rides there meet "Disney quality". Hell, its impossible to say they meet Six Flags quality in most cases. But they're weird. Like really weird to the point where they are curiosities. They have a monorail there called "Back to the Backstage" which has a ripoff Italian Christopher Lloyd appearing at video screens set along the course to discuss aspects of attractions at the park. The operator wears his own Emmett Brown costume too. Effort has been applied in all the strangest ways and it is amazing.

      What I'm saying is - give me a ride like that, even a mediocre ride, but give me something with novelty. Something like the Gondoletta boat ride at Efteling with larger capacity vehicles that acts as a constant loader would be awesome.

      4) There's so many ways to do it properly - hell, tie it into Adventures by Disney too along with a more standard conservation method. See if you can get some families to pony up $25K to see gorillas in Gabon. Why not? I just think their challenge is deeper rooted. With Zoos (less aquariums because they inherently lack breeding programs), most in the US are nonprofits and/or community operated. Being part of the largest media corporation in history, it's tougher to sell with your sponsors that you want people to not buy as much stuff. I feel as though Disney is a strong enough brand to be able to do this and not alienate the corporate hands feeding them cash, but they seem less than enthusiastic to even risk that income. I get why, I just don't think much of it as a stance.

  3. Jeff, Tiffins just opened and fills part of the upscale dining quotient for DAK.

  4. This series has quickly become my most anticipated reading in the theme park world. It harkens back to the classic Jim Hill articles in the best way. Absolutely love it! Please keep writing more of these.