Friday, August 14, 2020

Failure to Launch: Nighttime at Animal Kingdom

Recently word came down that two panned Animal Kingdom attractions were closed for good. On the one hand, it's not too surprising. Rivers of Light never functioned to show standards and Primeval Whirl is a literal death trap. But the staggard closures of attractions at Animal Kingdom point to a bigger issue and problem facing the park that haunts it to this day. Animal Kingdom, at best, remains a half-day park and any attempts to expand into the early evening and night time have failed.

First, why does this matter? If guests enjoy the park then who cares, after all, Flight of Passage is rated by many as the best ride in Orlando. First, there's a value proposition for those purchasing one-day tickets. While these who travel to WDW purchase multiday tickets there is still a good chunk of the audience who purchases one-day tickets and to them, a poor value is something they'll take back to their friends. Second, WDW has to increase infrastructure to handle their guests. A park that is built with the ability to serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner that only serves the first two means another location, like a hotel or park, needs to pick up the slack. This reduces profits and revenue. 
Bob Iger showed with California Adventure what the Disney Parks goal would be for the next decade: increase profits through additional character experiences and robust nighttime experience with profit-making enterprises. In DCA this was Carsland, Glow Fest, and World of Color. Carsland extended guest stays through the afternoon and into the evening, guests would eat their dinner in DCA at one of the new dining venues, and stay and watch World of Color. Glow Fest, which started as a way to pull people away from WoC into Hollywood before the shows begin, soon gained its own fandom and became a profit driver too. Glow was so successful that revamped versions, elecTRONica and Mad T Party, followed. What DCA showed was a model where a park can be turned around and live up to its full potential with strategic additions.

The next logical park to execute this plan was Animal Kingdom. DAK would flourish in the mornings with brisk breakfast sales and steady lunch crowd as guests rode Kilimanjaro Safaris or Dinosaur would lead into quiet late afternoons and nearly empty park at closing. Even with the addition of the massive Expedition Everest attraction and mini-land, the needle didn't move very far. The nickname of "half a day park" and "just a zoo" floated around a lot during this time, to the point Disney created the infamous "Nhatazu" ad campaign.

Seeing the problems with the park were not getting better, despite it having a similar attraction count to Hollywood Studios, Disney began looking for ways to expand the park at night. First up was a new land, Pandora, that also just so conveniently featured scenes with glow in the dark plats at night. Sweet!
Officially revealed in 2014, Rivers of Light at Animal Kingdom would "be an innovative show unlike anything ever seen in Disney Parks, combining live music, floating lanterns, water screens and swirling animal imagery". Then Disney announced a new nighttime safari overlay to Kilimanjaro Safaris, including installing a massive fake sunset in the distance on the savanah. Finally, a new night entertainment package in Discovery Island was announced including artists and a new projection show on the Tree of Life.

To round this up, here is what Animal Kingdom's new offerings for 2016 to 2017 looked like:
  • Pandora: World of Avatar (with notable nighttime element)
  • Rivers of Light
  • Tree of Life Awakening
  • Kilimanjaro Safaris After Dark
  • Discovery Island, Africa, and Asia entertainment
  • Tiffins restaurant and Nomad Lounge
The pieces were there with an equitable DCA analog. Pandora would be Carsland with a new land full of things to do (including a nighttime component), Rivers of Light would fill in for World of Color, Tree of Life Awakening, and new entertainment for Glow Fest, and Tiffins for Carthay Circle. The media were invited out, previews were had, and hyperbole was spilled

But looking at that list above, it's clear something went wrong. Out of the things above, only two exist a scant four years later. What happened? If something is actively bad that's just boring, but instead, I believe the failure to launch an Animal Kingdom nighttime program is way more interesting because the individual pieces had potential and some even were outstanding. So what happened?

It's easy to lay everything at the feet of Rivers of Light, and I see why. Upon its announcement, Rivers of Light was hailed as the east coast version of World of Color. People expected the show to push the existing WoC tech and show infrastructure into the future with more elements and an animal-focused storyline. Instead, the show went through a development hell several times. During the design phase, major parts of the project were reworked after at the time Parks and Resorts President Tom Staggs was disappointed in the product and demanded changes. Once a new show was worked out the test and adjust phase completely fell apart with whole swaths of the show rewritten or removed, such as the individual lanterns on the river. What debuted did not live up to the expectations set by Disney or the fandom.

The show debuted in early 2017, roughly 8 months after the original opening date. Shortly after opening Rivers of Light cut the live performer preshow and in the show, further cutting the wow factor back. Facing continued low ratings from guests Disney threw a hail mary by retooling the show again with more characters. Rivers of Light: We Are One replaces the custom animal animation with scenes from the live-action The Lion King Remake. It did not go over well, with the few Rivers of Light fans displeased and the remaining guests unimpressed.

It is unfair to say Rivers of Light is a bad show or irredeemable. What it suffers from is the expectations of Disney nighttime shows. World of Color is 25 minutes long, Illuminations: Reflections of Earth around 21 minutes, and Rivers of Light clocking in at 15 minutes. I am not against a short nighttime show, in fact, I argue that a shorter show is preferable if it packs a punch such as the Marathon of Mayhem at HHN29 which ran for 10 minutes. Rivers of Light could be cut down to hit several grand reveals of the show elements (boats, flowers, fountains, etc) then get out before it overstays its welcome. 

Rivers of Light was just one piece of the problem, if surrounded by other engaging experiences it likely would have hummed along as a nightcap and not the direct draw.

The biggest blunder was Pandora at night. Based on the "ocean wide, puddle deep" movie Avatar directed by James Cameron, the new land was Disney's first direct "response" to Potter at Universal by creating a next-level immersive land. Putting aside worries about what is in effect a war movie and putting it in Animal Kingdom, the land was designed to bring the foliage and wildlife of the moon to life. One of the most impressive moments from the movie was when the avatar of the main protagonist... *goes to Google to search name* Jake explores the bioluminescent jungle.

One of the biggest selling points of the land was the bioluminescent effects including interactive glowing flooring, glowing plants, and more. Famously Jim Hill stated people will love it so much they're going to wait in line twice to get in the land (once in the morning, again at night) to see it. Disney continuously pushed this dual nature of Pandora right up till opening. The nighttime effects were... disappointing.

While impressive in long exposure photos the actual effect was less impressive than hoped. The interactive floors couldn't be implemented outdoors and the effect wasn't installed indoors anywhere. The floating mountains featured projection mapping, but in terms of the park it was not the most impressive (more on that later). The alien plants were cool but the remaining glow effects were paint splatter on the ground or massive banks of LED lighting on existing plants. Not something I'd call bioluminescent and falls short of the nighttime "wow" of Radiator Springs at night.

How about one of the best attractions Disney's ever done, and one of the best at Walt Disney World, Kilimanjaro Safaris After Dark? Disney installed a massive LED screen on the edge of the savannah to mimic a perpetual sunset and advertised exclusive nighttime animals like hyenas. The new nighttime safari received good reviews but the attraction never transcended above "the normal attraction but at night".

Around Discovery Island at dusk, to act as a holding area for Rivers of Light, Disney brought out musicians and installed a new projection show on the Tree of Life called Tree of Life Awakens. The projection show alternates between several versions of the show highlighting different animals and music. The shows are spontaneous, fun, well done, and very good. The musicians were good but like most things Disney they were some of the first things to be cut once a larger profit was desired. The Discovery Island, and further offerings in Asia, Africa, and Dinoland were quaint at night but never reached the levels of adoration and love that Glowfest and elecTRONica received at DCA for their "street entertainment that kept people entertained before the main show and also sold food and drink". Glowfest, elecTRONica, and the follow up Mad T Party all offered expansive experiences that transformed the lands into something new. Additionally, Disney tapped into local talent who advertised their shows on nascent social media, something that DAK never received.

When the nighttime offerings don't drive attendance or day-long stays then the new upscale bar and restaurant, Tiffins and Nomad Lounge, suffer in the end. Both are fantastic new dining locations for the park, offering great dishes and drinks. But after a lack of Rivers of Light package bookings and lower than expected nighttime visits the restaurant and bar adjusted their offerings over the course of several years and their quality suffered

At the end of the day, Animal Kingdom's nighttime plans died from a million paper cuts and disappointments. Their keystone nighttime show disappointed, the new land didn't drive the nighttime visits they hoped for, new attractions never transcended, and the new entertainment didn't hook guests. Originally I was going to end this article with "what I would have done" as if I was some sort of expert in themed entertainment, hospitality management, or long term planning (spoiler: I'm not). Instead I'll end with this: it sucks that Animal Kingdom can't find a satisfying nighttime experience since so much of what was there prior to 2016 looks fantastic at night. I firmly believe Disney can figure out a way to reboot the nighttime experience at the park and hope they look at DCA more closely on lessons learned.

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