Before the end of the 20th century, Walt Disney World had three successful theme parks and two water parks that drove in Guests from all over the world. However, Disney CEO Michael Eisner felt like Walt Disney World was missing something to compete with Florida’s most popular icons, more specifically Busch Gardens Tampa. Animal Kingdom would be the perfect addition.
The Original Vision
Its construction beginning in 1996, Animal Kingdom would be a zoo like no other. Imagineers designed it to be the largest theme park (over 500 acres) and far from other Disney properties so that animals would have more room to free roam. This theme park would feature live animal exhibits and lands based on fictional and extinct creatures while tying in references to cherished Disney films and characters. At the same time, Animal Kingdom would feature an animal hospital (currently known as the Conversation Station) where they could preserve and repopulate endangered species.
Eisner called this theme park “a kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama and learn.” He was going to name it Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom but dropped the word “Wild” due to legal issues.
Animal Kingdom opened on April 22, 1998 (Earth Day), with The Oasis, Safari Village (now called Discovery Island), Camp Mickey-Minnie, Africa, and DinoLand USA with a planned expansion called Asia. The opening day ceremony invited Primatologist Jane Goodall and other celebrities, such as Michael J. Fox, Drew Carey, and Stevie Wonder. It was also broadcasted on Good Morning America.
Like Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom had its fair share of trial and error in the beginning. Imagineers designed the layout to be like an adventure, meaning that getting lost was part of the fun. The paths were winding, and attractions were placed far back from view. To increase the difficulty, the map only featured outlines of landmarks on it without descriptions. Unfortunately, Guests got so confused by the locations of bathrooms that they began urinating in the bushes. Disney tried meeting Guests halfway by marking bathrooms with a dot on the map, but even that was not enough to direct Guests. Over time, Disney decided to clearly mark restaurants and attractions on the map instead of Guests discovering them on their own.
DinoLand USA opened with an attraction called Countdown to Extinction, which recycled the track from Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure. Less than two years later, Disney re-themed the ride to revolve around their 2000 film Dinosaur, giving the attraction the same name. In addition, Disney secured a ten-year sponsorship with McDonald’s. In 2008, McDonald’s did not renew the contract, but you can still find ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise-colored pipes on the Dinosaur attraction as well as the chemical formulas for these condiments inscribed on them.
Asia was the first expansion of the park, opening in 1999 with Kali River Rapids (a water rafting ride) and Maharajah Jungle Trek (a walkthrough exhibit of live animals). Expedition Everest opened in 2006. Then, Africa experienced its own expansion in 2015 to include Harambe Market, a quick service food and beverage location featuring authentic African cuisine.
In his original vision for Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World, Eisner imagined a world based on mythical creatures and a rollercoaster with a fire-breathing dragon. However, Eisner scrapped Beastly Kingdom due to budget cuts and replaced it with a less costly Camp Mickey-Minnie. In this campground-themed area, Guests could meet Safari Mickey and Minnie, watch a show featuring Pocahontas and live animals, explore trails, and take pictures of the Mickey and Friends statues scattered throughout the land.
This land was best known for The Festival of the Lion King, the only surviving remnant of Camp Mickey-Minnie today. The traveling show, which sang covers of songs from The Lion King, was only meant to be temporary but has lasted for 20 years.
Disney found a way to work in the abandoned Beastly Kingdom idea again through Pandora, which is based on James Cameron’s 2009 film of the same name. This land focuses on conservation and features Animal Kingdom’s most popular attraction, Flight of Passage, which takes Guests on a thrilling ride through the Valley of Mo’ara on a banshee. You’re lucky if this ride has less than a two-hour wait (it’s totally worth it!).
Rules Exclusive to Animal Kingdom
Animal Kingdom is unique, as each area has its own greeting and message about wildlife. For example, Africa greets their Guests with “Jambo” and warns about the effects of poaching. Meanwhile, DinoLand USA focuses on dinosaurs and promotes that extinction is forever.
You might have noticed that Animal Kingdom is the only park out of Disney’s four main theme parks to not include a firework show. That is because they can’t risk fragments of the fireworks landing in the animal exhibits, and the resounding booms would scare the nearby critters.
When walking around the park, you also may notice Africa Cast Members walking through DinoLand USA, or vice versa. While Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios focus more on preserving show by keeping Cast Members within their respective areas, Animal Kingdom doesn’t follow this guideline in order to promote unity across the lands. Plus, Animal Kingdom doesn’t have tunnels or as many backstage pathways, so it is impossible for some Cast Members to reach their areas without crossing multiple lands.
If you ask for a lid on your drink or a plastic straw, a Cast Member won’t give you one. To prevent garbage from entering the animal’s exhibits, Animal Kingdom reduces its plastic usage as much as possible. If an animal mistakes this plastic for food, it could get seriously injured or die.
The Disney Conservation Fund
During your adventures at Animal Kingdom, you may hear Cast Members promoting the Disney Conservation Fund or see them wearing a pin representing the organization. The Disney Conservation Fund focuses on preserving wildlife and habitats and has directed $100 million toward protecting the planet.
Certain months of the year, Disney will match donations made in the park when they are promoting the rescue of a specific species. Make sure to ask a Cast Member on your next Disney vacation!
What to Do Now
You are guaranteed to learn something new about wildlife at Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World. A fan-favorite is Kilimanjaro Safaris, a 20-minute truck ride through realistic habitats that host 34 species of wildlife. Guests love the knowledgeable guides and how close the animals walk up to the truck.
As you journey through the park, you’re also likely to come across a live animal show or a cultural performance. From flying birds to acrobats, Disney changes their shows regularly, so you can experience something new each vacation!
You’re probably wondering, Will they ever fix the Yeti? In case you don’t know, the Yeti on Expedition Everest used to reach out its arm towards riding Guests but has been broken for many years. Since the Yeti is attached to the foundation of the mountain, construction would take around 2 years. Since almost every Guest who enters Animal Kingdom rides Expedition Everest, attendance would suffer if that attraction were closed for that long. Perhaps the Yeti will be fixed after DinoLand USA gets its long-awaited refurbishment.