Important Moments in Animal Kingdom History
Disney’s Animal Kingdom turns 20 next month. In many ways, it’s hard to believe that this iconic theme park is younger than Zendaya, but it’s true. Animal Kingdom didn’t open until the public until Earth Day of 1998 (Zendaya was already 19 months old by then). As difficult as this statement is to believe, a person born on the same day won’t be able to buy a drink (legally) in this country until April 22, 2019! So much has happened to Animal Kingdom in only two decades that it’s hard to keep up. Today, let’s take a brief look at a few key moments in the history of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
The Genesis of Animal Kingdom aka A 40-Year Slow Play
Did you know that Walt Disney is the person who came up with the idea that was the genesis for Animal Kingdom? It’s true. After Uncle Walt acquired the land for what would become Disneyland, he planned many of the attractions. One of his passion projects was Jungle Cruise, and he had a dream for it. He wanted real animals, an idea that filled his loyal employees with dread and fear. They knew the impossibilities of animal upkeep at the Happiest Place on Earth. Disney, frustrated, gave up on his dream. The idea lingered, though.
When then-CEO Michael Eisner embarked on a plan for the Disney Decade, a fourth gate at Walt Disney World was one of his goals. Eventually, park planners persuaded him that the best premise for the new locale was the one from Jungle Cruise back in 1954. Eisner consented, and Animal Kingdom became a reality in 1998, some 44 years after Walt Disney had the idea. More than anything, this series of events reinforces that great ideas are eternal.
An Earth Day to Remember
Given the eco-friendly themes of Animal Kingdom, Disney chose to open the park on Earth Day. Since then, they’ve celebrated this date as the most important one on the annual calendar, oftentimes hosting special Earth Day events. Still, 1998 is the Earth Day that everyone remembers.
When Animal Kingdom opened to the public, plenty of questions arose about its feasibility. How could Disney ensure the safety of all its animal charges? And how excited would the public be about a zoo with some theme park rides? Also, what would Disney do about the smells that animal habitats naturally create? Disney answered all of these questions in impressive fashion.
On April 22, 1998, Animal Kingdom immediately became the largest park at Walt Disney World. It spanned more than 500 acres. Equally important were its permanent residents. More than 1,000 animals had already moved into Animal Kingdom by the time visitors entered the park for the first time. They were dutifully cared for, and Disney had even somehow negated the smells. Guests expressed surprise at how pleasant that first day at the park was.
Eisner and other Disney execs hosted a grand opening ceremony. The star of this event was primatologist Jane Goodall, Ph.D., whom Disney gave a special role in the festivities. More than 2,000 guests attended the ceremony. The star of the show, however, was the iconic Tree of Life, an artificial but realistic tree that soared 145 feet into the air. It remains the focal point of Animal Kingdom to this day.
Big Plans That Didn’t Happen
Disney ran into financial issues as they planned their new theme park, a recurring problem. Virtually every Disney theme park has had plans dropped due to a budget crunch, something that’s even true of the most recent endeavor, Shanghai Disneyland. With Animal Kingdom, the cut was the deepest.
Eisner had grand plans for a fictional area called Beastly Kingdom. It was to showcase the eternal conflict between good and evil on the grandest of Disney stages. This themed land would have a good section and a bad section, complete with unique attractions fitting each one. Of particular note is the Dragon Tower roller coaster, which Disney planned as the anchor thrill ride at Animal Kingdom.
The Beastly Kingdom that Disney plotted would have become one of the best themed lands ever. And Eisner was so certain of its inclusion that hints and connects to it were incorporated in several opening day parts of Animal Kingdom as well as the park logo. Eisner ever mentioned it during his opening day speech.
Alas, budget cuts not only prevented its creation but led to one of the strangest outcomes imaginable. Disney laid off many Imagineers, several of whom found a safe landing spot at Universal Studios Orlando. They proceeded to employ many of the concepts from Beastly Kingdom in sections of that park. The next time that you see a fire-breathing dragon on top of Gringotts Bank at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, understand that you’re looking at something that had its genesis of Animal Kingdom. You can read more about Beastly Kingdom in my book, Disney Demystified Volume 2.
Big Plans That Did Happen
In the same space originally blocked off for Beastly Kingdom, Disney did something truly unexpected. Faced with pressure from Universal’s Harry Potter success, the Mouse House licensed a property that they didn’t own in 2011. The license in question was for the most popular global blockbuster of all-time, Avatar. Disney announced that they would build an entire themed land based on the movie’s fictional planet, Pandora.
For six years, this park was vaporware, something that Disney worked on but never completed. Annoyed fans openly posited whether this land was a good idea and whether Disney was motivated to finish it. And those questions and complaints instantly vanished the moment that Disney opened Pandora – The World of Avatar for the first time in 2017.
This land immediately became the most technologically advanced and visually stimulating theme park ever made. Not coincidentally, it did this on the very spot where Beastly Kingdom would have gone. In one fell swoop, Disney exorcised the demons of a previous mistake while clapping back at Universal Studios AND showing the future of theme park design. Almost a year later, lines for the two attractions here remain among the longest at Walt Disney World, and it has elevated the overall status of Animal Kingdom as (oh so much) more than just a place to entertain the kids.
While these are the four key moments, Animal Kingdom had several other noteworthy events during its illustrious existence. I’ll recap a few more of them in a follow-up article as the park’s 20th anniversary approaches.
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