Theme Park History: A short history of Disney's Animal Kingdom

August 23, 2013, 2:17 PM · 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.

The Tree of Life at 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 as isolated environment 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 part 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 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 "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 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. 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. No opening date for that project has been announced.

Next: Universal's Islands of Adventure


Replies (9)

August 23, 2013 at 2:48 PM · No "what if's" Disney made a valiant effort, and I love those parks, but individually, Sea World, Busch Gardens and Universal have surpassed the Disney efforts. Disney needs to do a better job of "keeping up with the Joneses"
August 23, 2013 at 3:01 PM · Nice article. This short history lesson also proves how Disney's management has faltered in Central Florida and opened the doors to much better and fresher offerings at Universal Orlando.

One wonders if the serious dollars Comcast (UO's parent company) is investing in the Harry Potter land to open in 2014 at Universal Studios Florida will pay dividends in Universal finally moving ahead in overall attendance at the Central Florida theme parks.

Might at least one of Disney's Orlando parks fall behind Universal? That remains to be seen. However, what's crystal clear right now is Disney's offerings are looking mighty stale next to Universal's considerable construction efforts.

- Brian

August 23, 2013 at 3:01 PM · Great Article! I love learning the history and stories behind the parks.
August 23, 2013 at 6:18 PM · Doug, I have to agree. I'll take Busch Gardens over DAK any day, simply because it's less crowded and has some great thrill rides.

Brian, if Universal ever becomes as popular as Disney when it comes to yearly attendance, you won't be able to walk in either park. Universal was PACKED on our last day this July. I had never seen anything like it in all the years we have gone.

August 23, 2013 at 6:51 PM · The Universal parks will never surpass the Disney parks in attendance. First of all, the family factor will always be in Disney's favor, and you need to win the families to win the attendance battle, especially in Central Florida. I find it hard to believe that any family with kids under 13 (which make up a large majority of Orlando's tourism) would choose Universal instead of Disney. Granted, Harry Potter and now Despicable Me are big with kids and that has certainly swayed families to Universal, but most of those will do Universal in addition to Disney, not instead of. I bet there are very few families with younger kids that would choose Universal over Disney if they could only afford to visit one resort, especially if it's their first visit to Orlando.

Maybe even more importantly, the Disney brand worldwide is, and will be for the forseeable future, unbeatable. The name Disney has stood for family entertainment for 90 years. Just the name brings an association for people that name Universal cannot. And internationally, Disney is much, much better known than Universal. European, Asian, and South American tourist make up a fairly significant portion of Disney's attendance compared to Universal.

And as far as IOA or USF overtaking at least Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios in attendance, I don't see that happening either. Most families who visit Magic Kingdom and Epcot get park hoppers and visit all four parks. Very few tourists at least just go to Magic Kingdom without visiting the three other parks. So as long Magic Kingdom leads the world in theme park attendance, the rest of the WDW parks will never be far behind.

As for Animal Kingdom, I still prefer it to Busch Gardens. The lands are much better themed and more immersive. Busch has nothing like Kilimanjaro Safaris (at least not for free). The shows at DAK are much better. And while Busch has some great thrill rides, they are mostly not much better than a Six Flags coaster in terms of theming. Cheetah Hunt is the best themed, but it doesn't compare to Everest in themeing, even with Disco Yeti. The one advantage Busch has is a much wider variety of animals, and many more walk through animal exhibits. Oh and Howl-O-Scream is amazing too. But DAK still wins for me. Just wait til Avatar: World of Pandora opens!

August 23, 2013 at 7:09 PM · I had always wondered why they went with Dinoland USa, and now I know why. Thanks TPI. Funny that they made the land based on a rather forgettable CGI movie.
Wow, could you imagine Disney doing that again?! Making a whole land based on a very forgettable CGI movie that did well but became rather obscure and not a very profitable licence?
Good thing Disney learns from their mistakes, right?
August 23, 2013 at 8:27 PM · I thought it was interesting that there was pretty much no mention (unless I missed it) of the rapids ride that came with Animal Kingdom. Maybe it is because it is one of the more underwhelming Disney versions of a ride system that is used in many theme parks. It's a classic ride concept, but the first time it was at the WDW resort in any park. However, it is so short.... and compared to the one at DLR's California Adventure.... I'd say it was somewhat disappointing. But having said that, being in Florida.... a rapid ride was much needed and this park brought one finally to WDW resort.
August 23, 2013 at 9:15 PM · ^i beg to differ. I find Montu to be incredibly themed along the track. Busch Gardens does put more work into the landscaping and theming than Six Flags does.
August 24, 2013 at 2:39 PM · I suppose Disney went with Dinoland because most young children go through a phase of really liking dinosaurs. I agree that Grizzly River is better by far than Kali River (would you believe I have never got wet on that ride!!) but it has improved since 1998 but all the Disney parks in Florida could do with a bit of a kick up the backside, yet we all keep coming back, see you in September.

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