April 22, 2018, marks the twentieth anniversary of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It’s such a special park, as I came to find personally while working there as part of the Disney College Program in 2016. When I came back home, I wanted to learn everything I could about the park. To celebrate the big 2-0, here are some of my favorite findings. Some were discovered in literature about the park, namely The Imagineering Field Guide to Disney’s Animal Kingdom by Alex Wright and The Making of Disney’s Animal Kingdom by Melody Malmberg. Both are insightful and eye-opening. Other facts and stories I learned “in the wild” during my Cast Member training and simply by spending so much time in the park itself. So enjoy the journey… and have a wild time!
1. The park’s original name was “Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom.”
When the park was first announced, its name was a little bit different before being shortened to the simpler “Disney’s Animal Kingdom.” Over the years, several attractions and areas have received name changes, too. DINOSAUR was first known as Countdown to Extinction; Discovery Island was originally called Safari Village; Rafiki’s Planet Watch used to be named Conversation Station; and what opened as Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail in 1998 was quickly changed to Pangani Forest Exploration Trail… before changing back to Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail in 2016.
2. Construction was a massive, intricately strategic initiative in horticulture.
The quantity of plants throughout the park was an undertaking in and of itself. Because of the goal for Guests to truly feel as if they are in the jungles of the exotic locales represented within the park, all plants were in place a full two years before the 1998 opening date. This gave them two cycles of seasons to grow into their environment.
3. The development and creation of Disney’s Animal Kingdom was closely monitored by conservation specialists.
As a measure of authenticity and accountability toward its environmental efforts and animal care, the entire conceptualization and execution of the park’s animal habitats was overseen by an advisory board comprised of respected individuals with distinguished careers in conservation and zoos, from organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, and others.
4. Every area of Disney’s Animal Kingdom has a unique conservation message.
The park features transportive environments just like every Disney theme park, but here the storytelling is truly communicated in several layers. Oasis, Discovery Island, Pandora – The World of Avatar, Africa, Asia, and DinoLand USA all have their own conservation message that they exist to relay. Some lands’ messages are clear, expressed by the obvious themes in their attractions. Others are more subtle, hinted at through details in architecture. Ask a Cast Member in any given area if you need help cracking the code. (Bonus fact: Each land also has its own themed greeting. For example, in Africa, Cast Members wave hello by saying, “Jambo!” In DinoLand USA, they exclaim, “Howdy, cousin!”)
5. When viewed aerially, the entrance plaza’s design is actually the Tree of Life.
It may be difficult to tell when walking through the busy esplanade around hundreds of Guests, but the area prior to the turnstiles, encompassed by security, ticket sales, and Outpost Shop, is indeed a beautiful mural of the Tree of Life, its roots ebbing all the way from the parking lot.
6. Br’er Fox has an ongoing feud with Park Security.
Br’er Fox, the villain known from Song of the South and Splash Mountain, occasionally roams the entrance plaza. And he’s always trying to cause a ruckus with Park Security! He’s on the top of their most wanted list, an ongoing debacle that escalated one day when he was up to some mischief yet again, only to be caught by an officer, who shouted, “Now we’ve got him! GET THAT FOX!” followed by the entire security team chasing the critter all the way backstage.
7. The Oasis takes place at the very beginning of time, before humanity tampered with nature in any form.
If you can suspend your disbelief past the stroller rental counter and Guest Relations, you’ll notice that the front of the park leading up toward the Tree of Life is meant to begin our Animal Kingdom journey at the waaay beginning, when the earth existed in its natural form and was, in every sense of the word, a true oasis.
8. Most Guests miss an extremely cool way to enter the park.
After officially entering the park just past the turnstiles, Guests are immediately faced with a choice to take one of two paths, left or right, through the Oasis. While both paths lead to the same point, their existence is partially to relay right from the get-go that this park is about exploration and adventure, to communicate that this is your journey and that there’s no right or wrong version of that. Most people miss a real hidden gem within the pathways, though. This treasure is found easiest by taking the left pathway. About halfway up the path, you’ll see a macaw habitat to your right. Head this way. First, macaws are awesome. But second, you’ll see a small swinging bridge, similar to something you might find on Tom Sawyer Island. The bridge leads into a small cave, and as you make your way through the cave’s few corners (in itself completely embodying the spirit of adventure), the reveal of the Tree of Life into your line of sight will be unparalleled from sticking to either of the two main paths (which the cave conveniently lets out at the very end of).
9. It’s Tough To Be A Bug! debuted before A Bug’s Life released.
It’s true! A Bug’s Life premiered in theaters November 14, 1998. It’s Tough To Be A Bug! was an opening-day attraction for Disney’s Animal Kingdom on April 22, 1998. For a solid seven months, Guests were unfamiliar with these characters. They might as well have been original creations specifically for the park, in the same vein as Figment or the Ghost Host. What an interesting perspective that must have been! It’s hard to imagine Disney doing the same thing today.
10. Two character greeting spaces were once functioning boat docks.
Discovery Island Character Landing and Upcountry Landing, now where Pocahontas and stars of The Jungle Book, respectively, spend time greeting Guests, were both stops for a boat cruise through the canal surrounding Discovery Island. Initially called Discovery River Taxi and then Radio Disney River Cruise, the simple, if underwhelming, ride did have a few unique highlights, including seeing a dragon and an iguanodon on the banks of the river. The ride closed in 1999.
11. The park only just fulfilled its initial purpose.
The park was dedicated on opening day as being “a kingdom of animals… real, ancient, and imagined.” While creatures “real” and “ancient” have always been part of the roster, those “imagined” haven’t been at the forefront. Sure, there are Disney characters here and there, but in this context, “imagined” referred not to specific fictional personalities, but entire species whose status was mythical. There are legends of Beastly Kingdom, but this proposed area was never built. It wasn’t until May 2017 and the opening of Pandora – The World of Avatar, a land celebrating creatures like banshees and species like the Na’vi, that Disney’s Animal Kingdom at last fulfilled the promise it made in 1998.
12. If reading the park’s narratives closely, it connects the cinematic universes of Avatar and Up.
Wilderness Explorers is a park-wide activity program for children to engage with the park’s animals and stories. The program is themed to the organization that Russell is part of in the Pixar film Up. If taking this narrative perhaps a bit more literally than intended, we notice that Wilderness Explorers exists within Pandora… meaning that, as Guests, we’re simultaneously in the universes of Up and Avatar! Who’d have thought that the Na’vi and Carl Fredricksen co-existed?
13. There used to be parades.
The park opened with March of the Artimals, an interpretive procession that frankly confused most people for how untraditional it was from the expectation of a Disney parade. The production that found more success was Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade, which debuted in October 2001 as part of the 100 Years of Magic celebration and continued through 2014. It involved Mickey Mouse and Rafiki from The Lion King leading a troupe of Disney pals on an expedition through the park. It even received a holiday overlay, transforming into Mickey’s Jingle Jungle Parade each November and December.
14. Festival of the Lion King was thrown together at the last minute.
Especially in comparison to other offerings in the park which were meticulously master-planned years in advance, Festival of the Lion King was a relatively quick fix, initially performing in a sheltered outdoor venue and borrowing floats from a Disneyland parade. The show’s location, Camp Minnie-Mickey, was built to fill space when Beastly Kingdom was canceled. The area was supposed to be temporary. It stayed open 17 years. When the land was finally repurposed as Pandora – The World of Avatar, Festival of the Lion King moved to a new theater in Africa. Since the narrative of Festival of the Lion King involves these theater performers traveling to new lands celebrating the reign of King Simba through artistic song and dance, perhaps it’s not too huge of a stretch to imagine that this new theater in Harambe was the next stop in their traveling journey after visiting Camp Minnie-Mickey.
15. Asia was the park’s first expansion.
Believe it or not, the park’s Asia area wasn’t there on opening day. It debuted a year later in spring 1999 with Maharajah Jungle Trek and Kali River Rapids.
16. The first riders of Expedition Everest were Disney Channel stars.
It wouldn’t be until 2006 that Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain was added to the park’s roster. In a sign of its time, the first passengers at the grand opening celebration of the attraction were the stars of High School Musical and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.
17. Finding Nemo: The Musical shares a connection with Frozen.
Both include songs written by married songwriting duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, also known for Broadway’s The Book of Mormon.
18. The story of Chester and Hester existed long before Dino-Rama! did.
Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama! opened in 2001, but its attractions were actually inspired by Chester & Hester’s Dinosaur Treasures, the gift shop that has been present since the park’s opening day in 1998. So at one point, the gift shop existed, but Dino-Rama! did not, and eventually the premise of the gift shop was strong enough for Imagineers to pursue an entire mini-land with which to surround the shop. I was astounded when I discovered this! I thought the shop was introduced with the rest of the area in 2001.
19. The opening of the park led to the closure of a Disney favorite.
You know that random island in the middle of Bay Lake that you pass during your ferry boat ride from Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground to Magic Kingdom? It was at one point a destination of its own, somewhat of a mini-park. Initially opening as Treasure Island in 1974, it later became known as Discovery Island with a focus on visiting exotic birds. With Disney’s Animal Kingdom being such a significant draw for much of the same purpose, Discovery Island closed in 1999, and the Safari Village area of Animal Kingdom was renamed Discovery Island in its honor. As it just so happens, the Animal Kingdom version of Discovery Island just welcomed José Carioca and Panchito Pistoles to its premises in February 2018, in a way bringing it full circle.
20. Disney’s Animal Kingdom continues a long-standing legacy began by Walt himself.
Walt Disney had an adoration for animals of all kinds. He not only featured them prominently as the subjects of his many fanciful short films and feature-length productions, but later in his career celebrated them in his True-Life Adventures documentary series. Disney’s Animal Kingdom continues a legacy that began long ago by blending high-quality Disney storytelling with important conservation themes that not only entertain Guests, but challenge them to leave the park a better person than they were when they entered it. That’s a message worth celebrating.
(All images by Blake Taylor.)
What’s your favorite Animal Kingdom memory?
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.