Disney’s Animal Kingdom has enjoyed a significant resurgence of attention the past several years, and deservingly so. 2016 saw the park extend its operating hours into nighttime for the first time ever. 2017 followed with the debut of a signature evening show, Rivers of Light, and the opening of a major, high-tech, thrilling land expansion, Pandora – The World of Avatar. 2018 continues the hype as the park celebrates its twentieth anniversary on April 22.
With the newfound attention comes two major things: 1.) hordes of guests, but more important 2.) a refreshing excitement for visiting the park. There is anticipation in visiting Animal Kingdom, and while maybe that could always have been said, it could never have been said with the intensity it can be now. For those who enjoy the details in theme parks, this anticipation is attached to a fresh perspective toward appreciating the park’s storytelling. And there’s one story that almost everyone misses completely.
While story is at the core of every Walt Disney World attraction and is prominent within the landscape of the many themed areas in every park, Animal Kingdom sets the standard for telling a broader story in each land, with intricacies in its connection to other lands and to the guest. There is a narrative at place in every single land within Animal Kingdom, along with an attached conservation message for the guest to hopefully glean.
The lesson of unearthing the value of nature’s past is at hand in DinoLand U.S.A., perhaps the most misunderstood area of any Walt Disney World park. At first glance, DinoLand appears to be completely offbrand for Disney: tacky, thrown together, unoriginal. It’s actually one of the most multi-layered, advanced narratives Walt Disney Imagineering has ever told.
As condensed as possible, here it is: The Dino Institute is a scientific research center for paleontologists. Right now they’re on the breakthrough of a major discovery that may involve actually going back in time to the age of dinosaurs. The Dino Institute has an intern program, and the college kids make extra cash by managing a nearby restaurant, which some of them also live in. Chester and Hester are local entrepreneurs with a zany sense of humor. They opened a roadside attraction called Dino-Rama! that directly mocks the scientific findings of The Dino Institute. It’s got everything you’d ever want in a tourist trap, and it drives the scientists nuts. Chester and Hester say it’s all in good fun, but the paleontologists only wish to be taken seriously, which is difficult when the perception of Dino-Rama! is inadvertently attached to their reputation. And so goes the ongoing feud of who has the final say in DinoLand U.S.A.
That’s the story. Here’s the real-world, operational breakdown: The thrill ride DINOSAUR, an open-air Jeep rampage through the famous dinosaur meteor shower, is housed inside The Dino Institute. The atmosphere is prestigious and the grounds are surrounded by dense foliage. Nearby is Restaurantosaurus, manned largely by participants of Disney College Program (aka, “Dino Institute’s interns”) and adorned with all the furnishings of college dorm life. Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama! is a fully fleshed-out realization of the entrepreneurs’ vision from the story, complete with a hub-and-spoke aerial flight akin to Dumbo The Flying Elephant, a madmouse roller coaster, and a kitschy gift shop filled with trinkets. The atmosphere is tacky and surrounded by cracked asphalt.
A few things of note, and then we’ll get to the kicker. First, almost nobody understands all of this. How would they? There are hints here and there, but this full story is never communicated to guests. That begs the question: Is it important that guests understand an area’s story? Should every story be accessible, or is it ok that some have a backstory that will never be fully grasped? I would argue that there are cases for both scenarios. While a story should be clear, there can also occasionally be room for artistic interpretation. However, in this situation, not understanding the intention behind the story creates a very different impression of what DinoLand is for the Guest. Even if something is intentionally tacky and off-putting… it’s still tacky and off-putting, and personally, I dislike those words being associated with a Disney park.
Some friends of mine visited Animal Kingdom for the first time several years ago, took a few steps into DinoLand, and turned around to leave the area. The unflattering cadence of Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama!, being such a harsh contrast to the tone of the rest of the park and such a drastic departure from the Disney expectation, completely disengaged them from venturing further into the area and actually experiencing the main attraction, DINOSAUR. So… DinoLand is a bit of a head-scratcher to me, and a tremendous dichotomy. Here you have such an intricate story, but told in way that goes over almost everyone’s heads and instead imprints the opposite of its intended effect. People think Disney didn’t try at all, when in fact there is just as much depth here as anywhere in Animal Kingdom. However, regardless of personal opinion toward the subject, it is undeniable that the story is impressive in its complexity.
Anyway… the kicker. The headline. The real hidden story: In DinoLand, we’ve established that there are two sides of this feud, Chester and Hester vs. The Dino Institute. Who has ultimate power? Who controls what the town is known for? That’s the source of conflict. Well, you may notice that within this land are two character greetings. Goofy and Pluto meet in Dino-Rama! and Donald Duck meets near DINOSAUR, home of The Dino Institute. This immediately links these iconic characters to the story taking place here, and pits them against each other in the feud.
In my opinion, regardless of what I think of DinoLand as a whole, if these were an intentional addition to the fabric of the land, then it was a brilliant move because it fits their personalities so well. If it was a case of coincidence, it’s still fun to think of it this way… and it makes sense to do so! Of course Pluto would be entranced by huge dinosaur bones and view DinoLand as his personal wonderland. Of course Goofy would find the joy in a tacky roadside attraction and embrace it as his dream come true. (Potatoland, anyone?) And of course Donald would side against both of them, and it would be so important to him to prove them wrong in his team’s scientific findings.
Ordinarily, we could overlook these as a simple character greeting. Just because Chip and Dale meet on Main Street, U.S.A. doesn’t mean they’re connected to the story taking place in a turn-of-the-century American small town. In the case of DinoLand, though, with as intentional as everything in Animal Kingdom is, this placement is impossible to ignore, confirmed even more by a subtle detail—costuming. If you look closely, Goofy and Pluto’s clothing matches those of the nearby Dino-Rama! Cast Members, and Donald’s professional attire actually has branding labeled as “Dino Institute.” With this simple character greeting placement, these characters are part of this story.
Not only that, but this revelation is interesting considering the history of character greetings in DinoLand. Around 2003, Donald used to meet in Dino-Rama! as “Donald Duck-osaurus,” completely adorned in a gaudy dinosaur helmet and accompanying outfit. Does this mean his allegiance used to side with Chester and Hester, but he has since been enlightened by the institute and indignant to prove Goofy and Pluto wrong?
What’s more, as this post was being written, Disney coincidentally released a new item of information to add to this narrative. Beginning summer 2018, DinoLand will play host to “a dino-tastic celebration with Donald and his friends” (two of which are Scrooge McDuck and Launchpad McQuack!). This entertainment experience surrounds the idea that Donald has just discovered that dinosaurs were the ancestors for his bird species. He’s throwing a party to celebrate, and we’re all invited. (More info on Disney Parks Blog.) Not only does this premise support the notion that Donald Duck is hard at work making discoveries at The Dino Institute, but it also offers another pawn to consider when assuming that most of the dance party elements of this experience will undoubtedly take place in the Dino-Rama! area of DinoLand, meaning Donald would be celebrating in the rival side of the tracks. Does this mean the feud is over?
This bizarre character arc probably wasn’t ever mapped out by anyone and is merely a matter of putting characters in certain places for operational reasons and then giving them themed outfits to match their surroundings. Still, though, with the relationship history Donald has with Goofy and Pluto, and the story we’ve been presented with of Dinoland, it’s fun to read the story as the trio being part of the fabric of this feud.
Park attraction photos © Disney. Character photos belong to author’s personal collection.
To learn more about Blake and read his recent posts for WDW Radio, visit his author page by clicking the link on his name at the top of this post.