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An Elephant's Tale

Jim Hill

Jim's musings on the history of and rumors about movies, TV shows, books and theme parks including Disneyland, Walt Disney World. Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

An Elephant's Tale

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One of the more fun parts of doing a column like this is that nice people -- like yourselves -- will come forward with weird bits of information that I didn't have access to. Their mission: to help fill in the blanks on parts of the story that I may have inadvertently missed out on. Recently, a number of Walt Disney World cast members were nice enough to come forward and share their memories of the "Dragon Rocks" section of Animal Kingdom's Discovery River Boat ride.

I'm particularly grateful to Skipper John, who had sent along a pointer to a web site that he had started to pay tribute to DAK's defunct Discovery River Boat ride; unfortunately, his web site is no more. But while perusing Skipper John's web page when it was still up, I got a real kick out to finally being able to read the spiel that the Imagineers had crafted for this section of DAK's Discovery River Boat ride. I just love that groaner of an explanation as to why the dragon was blowing fire at the guests: "Yes, he seems unhappy to be awakened ... must be because he's been working nights."

But, for me, the most interesting piece of mail that I got last week was this note from Michael S. He claims that -- during those cast-member-only previews that were held at DAK back in March 1998 -- that he actually got to see all of that nasty looking armor that E.B. Effects built for Disney. That -- when Michael and his wife took their very first voyage down Discovery River -- that all those beaten up pieces of armor were already in place around the mouth of the cave.

The way Michael S. describes it: "The knights were right in front of the cave. Dangling, floating, just in general dead. It was very disturbing, but very cool."

Now for the really intriguing part: The very next week, when Michael went back to DAK and re-rode the Discovery River boat ride, all the armor had been removed.

So what happened here? If the Imagineers had already gone to all the trouble of putting these props in place around "Dragon Rocks," then why did Disney suddenly decide to pull the knights out of the park? The explanation is simple, folks: The Mouse has a real squeamish streak. By that I mean, the Walt Disney Company is especially concerned with elements of its attractions that may offend theme park goers. Which is most likely why Mickey said "Nighty Night" to the knights.

Think that's an over-simplification? Then let's talk about Big Red, the big fake dead mother elephant that Disney pulled out of Animal Kingdom's Kilimanjaro Safari attraction just weeks prior to that theme park's grand opening. All because Big Red's presence supposedly really spooked the kiddies.

So why exactly did this ersatz elephant really get the hook? A better question might be: What was a giant faux pachyderm corpse doing in this DAK attraction in the first place?

To answer this, you have to understand that -- back when the Imagineers were initially designing Disney's Animal Kingdom -- they were honestly hoping to use this new WDW theme park to help educate people about conservation. However, recognizing that the Epcot approach (I.E. sugar-coating an attraction's key concepts, then cramming them down the guest's throat) wasn't exactly working, the guys at WDI decided to take a different tact.

This time around, the Imagineers' goal was try and be subtle. To fold important information about conservation right into the very plot of the attraction. All with the hope that -- as guests rode through the ride -- they'd somehow get a clue.

This is why -- as guests float through DAK's "Kali River Rapids" -- they suddenly encounter that stretch of fake, burned out rain forest. The idea that these WDW visitors are supposed to get (particularly as they narrowly miss being crushed by that teetering logging truck) is that "Cutting down the rain forest is bad."

Okay, I'll admit it. This is not exactly subtle storytelling. The point is that the Imagineers meant well. That -- by including this overly grim sequence in DAK's "Kali River Rapids" -- they were honestly trying to find an entertaining way to teach theme park visitors about the merits of conservation. (Whether or not anyone actually remembers this message after the second half of Kali River Rapids -- where they're almost drowned like rats -- remains to be seen. Anyway ...)

This brings us back to the Big Red story. When mapping out possible story lines for DAK's Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction, the Imagineers struggled to find a way to make guests aware of the dangers of poaching. After knocking around a number of ideas, these guys finally decided to borrow a page from "Bambi."

You remember "Bambi," don't you? The Disney film that taught us all that "Hunting was bad" by killing off Bambi's mother? Well, WDI decided to use the very same plot device to nail home the "Kilimanjaro Safaris" underlying message.

This is why -- once you enter the queue area for "Kilimanjaro Safari" -- you're constantly fed information about Big and Little Red. While telling guests about all the other animals that they're about to see, the overhead monitors and voice-over narration in the pre-show -- every so often -- also mentions KS's newest addition: the cute baby calf -- Little Red -- that Big Red recently gave birth to.

This seemingly minor plot thread continues to weave through the narrative of the first two thirds of DAK's "Kilimanjaro Safaris" ride. As your driver takes your vehicle through all of the other animal enclosures, he repeatedly checks in with the attraction's pre-recorded airborne naturalist -- you know, that woman that's supposedly flying over the game preserve in a plane -- always asking "Have you seen Big Red yet?"

The rest of the attraction's story line is just as carefully laid out. The off-hand radio message that suggests that there may be poachers lurking about. The back gate to the game preserve that seems to have been busted in.

So now your driver finally takes you through the elephant paddock (where -- if you're lucky -- you actually get to see a pachyderm or two) where you begin looking for Big Red and Little Red. Only the mother and child elephant are nowhere to be seen. So your driver continues on, taking you past the lions' den ...

When suddenly your driver spies it! Big Red's enormous bloody corpse off by the side of the road (partially obscured by tall grass). Since her tusks have sawn cut off, this is obviously the work of poachers. Your driver quickly radios in a report, and is immediately ordered to give chase.

This was the moment that the Imagineers had hoped would be seen as "Kilimanjaro Safaris"'s thrilling finale. The high speed pursuit of Big Red's killers (highlighted by the poachers actually firing a few rounds from a machine gun at your vehicle). Your jeep avoiding erupting geysers as you chase the criminals up a not-so-dry river bed.

"Kilimanjaro"'s climax comes when we catch a quick glimpse of the authorities, who have successfully captured the poachers as well as rescuing Little Red. As we wave good-bye to our new Audio Animatronic baby elephant friend, we're told that -- as a reward for helping to capture these criminals -- we're now going to be given access to the most exclusive part of Harambe's game preserve: the Gorilla Falls research station. As we exit our jeep, we're told to just follow the signs to our next adventure.

On paper, this sounds like an exciting if fairly innocuous to end the attraction, right? Well, imagine WDI's dismay when they actually began cycling WDW cast members and annual passholders through DAK's "Kilimanjaro Safaris" ride and found that they were getting dozens of complaints about the dead Big Red.

What exactly was the guests' problem with the faux elephant corpse? Well, where WDI seems to have miscalculated with DAK's "Kilimajaro Safaris" ride was that -- right up to the attraction's finale -- every other animal that WDW visitors had seen had been real. Not Audio Animatronics. But really-for-real zebras, gazelles and hippos. All roaming free.

So now -- in the closing moments of the show -- the "Kilimanjaro Safaris" vehicle suddenly rolls past what looks like an authentic dead elephant. Which is why most of the children on board the jeep (as well as some of the more gullible adults) immediately burst into tears. Because a really-for-real animal had seemingly been killed.

Just like Bambi's mother.

Typical of the comments heard in "Kilimanjaro Safaris"'s off-load area was this line: "I can't believe that they actually let the poachers kill that elephant. I'm never going on that ride again."

It was the latter portion of that guest's comment that particularly concerned the Imagineers. For they were really counting of "Kilimajaro Safaris" re-ride-ability (I.E. due to the unpredictable nature of all of the animals on display in DAK's signature attraction, WDW guests were virtually guaranteed a different experience every time they rode the ride ... which -- hopefully -- would translate into guests riding "Kilimanjaro Safaris" two or three times over the course of their WDW vacation) to help put WDW's newest theme park on the map.

But -- if "Kilimanjaro Safaris"'s finale was already putting a bad taste in WDW guests' mouths after their very first ride through the attraction -- obviously something had to be done to fix this situation. And fast.

The only problem was that "Kilimanjaro Safaris"'s slender plot line virtually hinged on that awful moment where Big Red's death was revealed. Without that moment, everything that followed -- the pursuit of the poachers up the not-so-dry river bed, etc. -- made absolutely no sense. And it wasn't like the Imagineers actually had the option of redoing the attraction at this point. Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park was due to open to the public in less than four weeks.

The "What to do about the dead elephant?" question flew up the Disney chain of command until it landed on the desk of the company's CEO, Michael Eisner. Eisner -- who had been a big fan of DAK's conservation message -- was obviously reluctant to remove the Big Red sequence. He felt that the powerful image of that dead mother elephant lying by the side of the road gave WDW visitors a poignant reminder of the real cost of poaching.

But then there were all these complaints that DAK Guest Services was reportedly receiving from all those angry parents whose children had supposedly been traumatized by glimpsing the dead Big Red near the end of "Kilimanjaro Safaris." Surely Eisner couldn't ignore all these negative comments. After all, Disney World resort's family friendly image might be at stake (not to mention the $800 million that the company had just invested in the construction of WDW's newest theme park).

Not sure exactly what he should do, Eisner hemmed and hawed for a couple of days. Finally -- just three weeks prior to DAK's grand opening -- one of Michael's minions actually watched "Bambi" and learned the real secret behind the film's powerful anti-hunting message. Enlightened, the flunky quickly shared this crucial bit of info with his boss:

Yes, "Bambi" is a memorable and powerfully moving motion picture because they shoot Bambi's mother. But the important thing to remember is Bambi's mom is killed off-camera. You hear the shot, but never actually see the mama deer go down. Her death is implied.

Eisner was thrilled when he got this news (for it meant that no expensive, last minute fixes for DAK's signature attraction were necessary). He immediately told the Imagineers to pull the fake dead mother elephant out of "Kilimanjaro Safaris" and to rewrite the attraction's script so that Big Red's death is not seen but implied.

This seemingly minor series of changes virtually eliminated all guest complaints about DAK's "Kilimanjaro Safaris" ride. True, due to the deliberately vague language that the drivers now use while taking their vehicle full of WDW visitors through the attraction's finale ("Big Red is down!" rather than the previous, more specific "Big Red has been shot!"), some guests get off the ride and have absolutely no idea what has just happened. All they know is that they were enjoying looking at some African animals ... and then -- suddenly -- their jeep sped up.

But this -- as far as Michael Eisner was concerned -- was the sort of vague guest complaint that the Walt Disney Company could happily live with. Which is why DAK's "Kilimanjaro Safaris" opened on April 22, 1998 with its dead Big Red hidden well out of sight somewhere backstage. (As I mentioned previously, this enormous fake elephant corpse is probably sharing a shelf in some WDW warehouse with "Dragon Rocks"'s dead knights.) The attraction has been running -- virtually unchanged -- ever since then.

Mind you, this isn't the first time that the Imagineers were forced to change a WDW attraction because of guest complaints about excessive gore. Remind me sometime to tell you guys about the wardrobe change that WDI was forced to make to Disney-MGM Studio's "Great Movie Ride." Does anyone else out there remember when your tram driver used to "bleed" when he or she get shot?

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