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Disney's Animal Kingdom

Robert Niles

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Published: March 17, 2014

Following the successful debut in 1989 of the park now known as Disney's Hollywood Studios, as well as the premiere of The Little Mermaid that year (which revived Disney's animation division), then-CEO Michael Eisner declared that the 1990s would be the "Disney Decade," with an unprecedented expansion of the company's theme parks. Eisner's vision was of a Walt Disney World resort that was not just a must-see in Florida, but an "only see," a place where visitors could experience everything available in Florida theme parks, and never have to leave Disney property during their vacation.

After all, Disney had a movie studio park to match Universal's. And an even bigger aquarium than SeaWorld's in Epcot. But what Walt Disney World didn't have at the start of the 1990s was a live land-animal park with thrill rides, to match Busch Gardens Tampa.

Enter Disney's Animal Kingdom.

At one point in the design process, the park was dubbed "Disney's Wild Kingdom," but Disney scrapped that name when it couldn't clear the trademark with the Mutual of Omaha insurance company, which owned the "Wild Kingdom" name thanks to its long-time syndicated TV show of the same name. Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park would include lands devoted to exhibits of African and Asian wildlife, as well as lands inspired by extinct and imaginary animals. The thrill rides would be located in the lands devoted to dinosaurs and to mythical creatures such as dragons and unicorns, as not to disturb the animals in the park's Asia and Africa sections.

Disney also designed Animal Kingdom as its largest theme park, at more than 500 acres, and located it far from the other parks and developments on property, to provide an environment as isolated as possible for the animals. Well, as isolated as possible in a park that would end up drawing more than nine million visitors a year.

But even with the many millions of dollars that Disney budgeted for its Disney Decade projects, the company didn't have an unlimited supply of cash to spend. As construction on the park approached, Disney killed its plans for the "Beastly Kingdom" land in the park, which would have included a dragon-themed roller coaster, a unicorn-themed walk-through attraction, and an enchanted Scottish restaurant.

If you're an experienced visitor to Central Florida theme parks, the preceding paragraph might cause you to say, "Wait a minute — that sounds familiar." It should. Because after Disney deep-sixed Beastly Kingdom, Universal Studios' theme park design division, Universal Creative, brought in some of the Disney Imagineering talent who'd worked on the land, and they revised the Beastly Kingdom plans into the Lost Continent land at Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park, which opened one year after Animal Kingdom. The dragon coaster became Dueling Dragons. The unicorn attraction became the Flying Unicorn family coaster. And the restaurant became the Enchanted Oak Tavern.

And if Universal's "Lost Continent" or those attraction names don't ring a bell, perhaps you might know that land in its current form, as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. With locations in place that could be easily reskinned as Hogsmeade from the Harry Potter books and films, Universal could afford to outbid Disney for the rights to Harry Potter, which ultimately provided Universal with the cash cow that allowed it to expand and revamp its theme parks around the world. (Dueling Dragons became Dragon Challenge. The Flying Unicorn is now Flight of the Hippogriff. And the Enchanted Oak Tavern transformed into the Three Broomsticks.) Would Universal have been able to create such as huge hit, or even have obtained the rights to Harry Potter, if Disney had built Beastly Kingdom, and the Lost Continent never happened? That's one of the great "what if" debates in the theme park industry.

Disney opted for what became Dinoland USA over Beastly Kingdom because it had the animated movie Dinosaur (which debuted in 2000) in production, and because it had made a multi-million-dollar investment with then-partner McDonald's restaurants to buy the world's best preserved dinosaur skeleton, the Tyrannosaurus rex "Sue." A reproduction of Sue now stands in the park, while the original went to Chicago's Field Museum. Disney also could easily repurpose the existing ride system from Disneyland's hit Indiana Jones Adventure ride as "Countdown to Extinction," which was renamed "Dinosaur" after the 2000 movie debuted.

A movie tie-in also resulted in the park's centerpiece icon, the Tree of Life. The 4D film shown in its theater, It's Tough to be a Bug, features characters from the Pixar animated film A Bug's Life, which debuted seven months after the park's opening.

Disney's Animal Kingdom opened on Earth Day, April 22, 1998 and is today the fourth most-visited theme park in America, drawing nearly 10 million visitors a year. Despite the loss of the Beastly Kingdom project, Animal Kingdom did eventually get its roller coaster, when Expedition Everest debuted in the park's Asia section in 2006. And the park will get its land based on imaginary creatures, too, as Disney is developing a land based on the James Cameron movie Avatar to replace the Camp Minnie-Mickey area that was the original site of Beastly Kingdom. Avatar will include an indoor boat ride and a Soarin'-like 3D movie ride and will open sometime in 2017.

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