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PENNIES FROM KEVIN - Seven Years, My Africa!

It's a big anniversary year for Disney. But there's a certain anniversary that is being studiously ignored. Except at TPI!

Written by Kevin Baxter
Published: June 19, 2005 at 4:28 PM

I got back from Spain in late April and discovered I missed an important Disney anniversary! No, not Disneyland's, which I haven't been able to escape. Nope. In fact, I think almost everyone missed this anniversary. On April 22, Animal Kingdom turned seven! So what? Well, remember Michael Eisner's oh-so-intelligent Seven-Year Plan? The plan that new Disney parks would open small but become "complete" in seven years. Well, it's seven years later... Is AK complete?

Pardon me while I laugh up my spleen. The opening of Expedition Everest NEXT YEAR will bring the park up to about 50% complete. Then again, Tarzan Rocks is expected to close next year and a new show to fill its shoes after enclosing the theater, so the park may not hit 50% until late 2006, if by then. (If you question the 50% number, compare the park to others in the area. Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios Florida and SeaWorld Orlando are all 100-percenters. Islands of Adventure is probably at 75%. Epcot's probably 125%! AK clearly is nowhere near as complete as IOA. Hence, 50%.)

Most of us here at TPI never believed in the Seven-Year Plan in the first place. Not the fact that it was a stupid plan. No, 99% of us know that already. Some of us questioned whether seven years was at all realistic. Especially those of us who had actually been to Disney/MGM Studios before the Seven-Year Plan ever came into being. D/MGM opened on May 1, 1989 with a whopping seven attractions: Great Movie Ride, Backstage Studio shuttle tour, Magic of Disney Animation, Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, Behind the Scenes Special Effects walking tour, Superstar Television and the Monster Sound Show. As if that meager attraction list weren't bad enough, five of them were blatant ripoffs of Universal Studios Hollywood attractions. And they weren't as good! (I was there in late May, and the Indy show still wasn't running! The place seriously sucked!) Three more - Star Tours; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids play area; and a live show in the New York area - opened the following year, bringing the total to a whopping ten two years after operation. In 1991 MuppetVision showed up, Voyage of the Little Mermaid showed up in 1992, the Tower of Terror and the Theater of the Stars in 1994, and then nothing until 1998, as WDW was apparently gearing up for Animal Kingdom. 1998 brought Fantasmic, and the following year brought Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, Bear in the Big Blue House (now Playhouse Disney) and Sounds Dangerous. Now it will take more research than I am willing to do to figure out how many attractions the park had each year, as some closed, some opened and sometimes theaters sat empty. For example, the Monster Sound Show was gone for quite some time before Sounds Dangerous filled its slot. The original Superstar Television theater operated Doug Live for quite a while but sits empty now. Behind the Scenes disappeared quickly and was replaced with the dreadful Backstage Pass, which was eventually replaced with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. And the New York theater sat empty after Hunchback closed until the space was used for the brand-new Lights! Motors! Action! stunt show. But for all intents and purposes, the three new attractions in 1999 made the park complete. (Some might argue, but that's another column!) TEN YEARS!

Now let's go back to AK. It opened in 1998 with Kilimanjaro Safaris, the Boneyard, Countdown to Extinction (now Dinosaur), Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail (now Pangani Forest Exploration Trail), the Wildlife Express train to Conservation Station, It's Tough to be a Bug, Flights of Wonder, Festival of the Lion King, Pocahontas and her Forest Friends and Journey into Jungle Book. I'm not including the various animal exhibits as I consider those scenery, since they are there to look at and aren't attractions (the highly-themed trails DO count in my book, though). And I'm not including the boring train ride out to Conservation Station and its different areas as different attractions (which TPI does for some unknown reason.) So that's ten. Way more than D/MGM (but D/MGM was a total joke when it opened). And like D/MGM, the following year brought attractions that had been planned for the opening of the park: Kali River Rapids and Maharajah Jungle Trek. Tarzan Rocks replaced the Jungle Book show, which seems odd. (After one whole year? It must've been crappy!) So we were up to twelve, which was still two more than D/MGM after two years. Then we "got" TriceraTop Spin in 2001 and Primeval Whirl in 2002. In four years we were up to fourteen, still two more than D/MGM. And rumors of the long-delayed Beastly Kingdom were still burning up the internet.

So here we are, three years after that and we still have fourteen attractions! Sound familiar? You'd think Disney would know better. D/MGM was not a popular park until it got ToT, but it still didn't get REALLY popular until 1999. But at least D/MGM was somewhat popular at one point before that. AK has never been popular. (Yeah, yeah, it is the Number Five US park, but that's ONLY due to Park Hoppers. You know nobody would go there if it was a standalone park!) So what is the problem with AK?

It's almost like they are doing this on purpose! Camp Minnie/Mickey was built on the cheap so it could be inexpensively demolished to make room for Beastly Kingdom. So why couldn't they build another "cheap" theater for the Jungle Book show here, instead of replacing it so quickly? Or how about a permanent indoor theater in Africa, which would have been a more appropriate spot than friggin' Dinoland USA! As if that inanity isn't enough, the park often closes the unpopular Pocahontas show during slow periods, giving the park even fewer entertainment options.

Clearly Disney believes Expedition Everest will be the park's savior, but they should have learned from California Misadventure that even a proven crowd-pleaser isn't enough for a park people aren't interested in. Tower of Terror added maybe 15 minutes to a day at DCA, and Everest should do about the same. (Adding ToT to D/MGM accomplished the same, but the park was already show-heavy, so it was easy to fill a day there.) So now people will escape AK at 12:15 instead of at noon now. Whoopee! And then what?

Disney has blue sky plans to either add yet another crowd-pleasing E-Ticket - Tokyo DisneySea's Journey to the Center of the Earth - or to have a Narnia land replace Beastly Kingdom if the film does well this winter. Considering Disney cannot resist attractions with movie tie-ins, Narnia is extremely likely if the film hits $200 million. Even so, whatever Disney comes up with, it simply isn't going to appear until 2008, at the absolute earliest. Meaning that even Disney/MGM's Ten-Year Plan has been thrown out the window. A Twelve-Year Plan then? Fifteen-Year? Maybe we should all start praying for the raging success of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe so we can see at least a 75% complete park in our lifetimes!

Those are my two pennies... gimme yours!

Readers' Opinions

From Anthony Murphy on June 20, 2005 at 2:13 PM
I will admit, at the beginning AK was a mess. However, now I believe that it is up and running pretty well. Everest is taking awhile and will boost the park, but it is doing well in my opinion. What I think they should have done was wait until they opened Asia into the park to make it complete. I think the rest of the park has now gotten better! We used to go once every other trip (we go once a year), but now we go once (still, Ak can be done in a day!) Animal Kingdom has plenty of great attractions like the Safaris, Dinosaur, the walking treks, and Festival of the Lion King. After Everest, they just need to make more places to eat. AK is still devloping, but it is not all that bad!!!
From Ben Mills on June 20, 2005 at 3:18 PM
Well, this is yet another reason why Disney shouldn't be getting rid of Lucky the dinosaur. (Dear God, I hope it's coming to the WDS...)

What AK needs is a dinner show, but at lunch time. AK doesn't stay open late enough to operate a dinner show. So, a lunch show. WITH ANIMALS! To be honest, I'm an impatient little punkass kid. I don't like having to stand around waiting for animals to show themselves to me. And when they do, they just sit there and yawn! Pathetic. So Disney need a lunch time show that has animals doing stunts, in a completely non-circus way. Part of me wants to see a Lion on a BMX, but they other part realises that's not practical. So how about something that pretends to care about the animals' welfare, like they do at SeaWorld? And then, once you've had the meal out of the way, the trainers bring some animals round from table to table, so all the audience can meet the animals. That would be great.

If that doesn't work, take groups of 48 guests, stick them on a raft, build a little fake coast out at the back of the park, and dump them there. Hey presto! Lost: The Ride.

From Kevin Baxter on June 21, 2005 at 2:43 AM
LOL! And it would probably be less irritating.

I have said FOREVER that a new ANIMAL-BASED LAND would be a lifesaver for the park. It would be cheaper than a huge E-Ticket, and would help fill out a day better. And there are plenty of ideas.

Australia: Getting animals would be a snap, so all they would need is an attraction or two. And they could even open in stages. Get the animal "walkabout" open. Then build a D-Ticket and finally open an E-Ticket as the grand finale. There's Nemo, but he's already at the Living Seas. But this could also be good for a 20K Leagues ride featuring the fish and fowl and other creatures. Of course, something involving Kanga and Roo (and their friends) would be great for a D-Ticket. How about an Ayers Rock coaster? Too much like Everest? Well, just build the Rock and put it all BEHIND it. It'd be cheaper. Just some ideas.

North America would be easy, since no one wants to see a full land of that. So how about a river-themed flume ride featuring the various animals (and areas) of the US, Canada, Mexico and Central America, since there are plenty of countries up here besides the US. Make it last at least 20 minutes - like Kilimanjaro - give it a PotC drop or two, add a trail nextdoor, and you've really got a major addition.

The river ride could be used for South America too, as an Amazon ride. With a trail, duh. Give us a simulator or something that can introduce us to the different countries of South America and you've got yet another solution that would probably cost as much as Expedition Everest has.

From Melinda Webster on June 21, 2005 at 6:36 AM
Wasn't there a river ride when the park first opened? I remember taking a boat ride, that we waited for an hour for. All it was, was a tour guied that that brought out snakes and spiders and things that fit into those little glass boxes. I remember not liking it, and then the next time we went back it was gone. It had two boarding locations, one when you first enter the park where the bridge is, but you had to enter near the entrance to Dinoland and the other was on the other side of the park near africa. Does anyone else remember this?
From Ben Mills on June 21, 2005 at 7:33 AM
Discovery Island Tours, or something. Got shut down because it was unsafe, badly recieved by the public, and had minisule capacity. Also, Disney are trying to hide all exidence of Beastly Kingdom these days, and the ride featured a very large hint at it...
From J. Dana on June 21, 2005 at 1:01 PM
Actually, when Animal Kingdom opened, it was announced that the park wouldn't be "mature" until 20 years!!!! TWENTY FREAKIN YEARS!!!! How's that for a snail's pace (that should be the new logo)...I used to work there, so maybe that's where I heard that number...regardless, Disney isn't hurrying with AK's future development...as evidence by the SLOOOOOOW pace of the Everest...Universal could have built five new attractions in the amount of time it took Disney to build Everest...of course, allowing guests to SEE the "work in progress" (pardon our mess as we bring you new adventures) is part of Disney's biggest marketing success. Guests will plan to come back to see what's new. So, I think the slow Everest pace is deliberate (if not completely irritating).

That said, I think Everest will be HUGE for AK..it's not just a ride. It's coming with a new shopping area (of course) and new restaurants AND new animal exnibits. It's almost a whole land unto itself...I'm really anxious to see it. And has anyone else noticed how picturesque the actual mountain structure looks? If you stand on the bridge in Africa and look across the River, you see the Tree of Life and Everest together overlooking the river...it's an INCREDIBLE photo op, that's for sure...I admire the effort that goes into making this park beautiful.

HOWEVER, speaking of Narnia....from what I've heard, the "Beastly Kingdom" attractions have already been themed to Narnia and Imagineers are waiting on pins and needles in the hope that this turns out to be a HUGE franchise windfall for Disney. A big box office will put Narnia attractions on the fast-track...we can expect to see a few "cheap" Narnia attractions to start with, but major additions are already planned. It's all up to Narnia's box office appeal...as Yoda says, "On this, all depends."

From Kevin Baxter on June 21, 2005 at 3:18 PM
Well, at least Narnia was at WETA and not ILM, so it shouldn't look as fakey as most ILM films do. Hopefully that will help, because I think the film is going to be a bit of a hard sell to boys.

It's nice to hear that there is a little more to Everest than just the Mountain, especially if it has a decent sit-down restaurant. (Ben, showing off animals is SUPPOSED to be the point of the Pocahontas show. Yeah, it's poorly done, but that is supposedly the point.) Still, there is really no excuse for a three-year construction cycle. To be (kinda) fair, the first year was clearing land, as the coaster itself wasn't started until March 2004. But a year to clear land? I wonder if that was delayed by budget bickering. Regardless, two years is still fairly ridiculous and the vast majority of that is for Everest's exterior, as the coaster track went up fairly quickly.

Still, I don't think this is going to be the savior the park needs. The added stuff will probably bring it up to 60%, but I think the park needs to be at 80% before people will stop complaining about it.

From Joe Lane on June 24, 2005 at 8:06 PM
I know how much you can't stand the guy, Kevin, but Jim Hill wrote an article back in February explaining that Disney's cost-cutting in building DAK may have cost them more than they planned on saving.

According to the piece, Disney used corregrated metal in their entire park's drainage system. Well, the pipes are falling apart now, causing small sinkholes all over the park. A repair/replacement project could cost upwards of $67 million.

If it isn't one thing...

From Valerie Orris on June 24, 2005 at 10:38 PM
Gag Me! With a spoon! Even when my daughter was 6 years old she new better! She rated her favorite parks in a 1-4 rating- 1 Magic Kingdom 2 EPCOT 3 MGM (Hello? BITBBH) 4 AK- DUH She could've seen any of the animals at any stupid zoo! And the characters- you can see those anywhere! Dumb Combo! Hello? Disney? Eisner? READ ME!
From Kevin Baxter on June 25, 2005 at 12:59 AM
The problem with AK isn't with the animal stuff, though. Most of the problems at AK are with the other stuff, like Dinorama, the slowass Dinosaur, Tarzan (in Dinoland!), Kali River Rapids, Camp Minnie/Mickey. Not that Pocahontas and Conservation Station are helping, but they are really the only animal-related problems seem to be those. And the best attraction in the park is also animal-related, so blaming the animal side of things is pretty lame. It works over at SeaWorld. It works over at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay. Because it isn't working here doesn't mean it's the concept that is the problem. It's Disney that's the problem.
From Michael Patalano on July 17, 2005 at 12:04 PM
A) Between Monster Soundshow and Sounds Dangerous was a MS-like attraction except it had the 101 Dalmations.

B) Backlot Theater is still there (empty). It has not been affected by LMA

C) The reason BK never got made (or at least one reason) is that FotLK got so popular. In fact, it is now closed in a permanent theater now (and air conditioned).

D) On many nights during the summer, AK is open until 10pm. The only thing AK needs to improve at night is lighting. The only areas that are adequatly lit are Dinoland and the Tree of Life. (Which looks great at night)

E) I think a lot of people miss the great theming in Dinorama. Many think that Disney just built it on a parking lot, but in reality, all that had to be made. The subtle theming like the cars, parking lot and signs are great. Also, despite what people think, this area gets really crowded. And it shines at night.

-Michael


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