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Tale of a Dragon

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.

Tale of a Dragon

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There's always one of them at every party. The wet blanket. That loud mouthed jerk who spoils everyone's fun by revealing how a trick was done. The smart ass who takes the wind out of your sails by deliberately sharing something that was supposed to be secret.

Well, this week, kids, I'm that smart ass. I'm the loud mouthed cad with the bad news. The guy who gets to break the hearts of Disney dweebs everywhere. For I'm the one who gets to tell you -- despite what you may have heard or seen this week -- that construction is NOT about to begun on any attractions for DAK's long awaited Beastly Kingdom.

To be brutally honest here, unless "Reign if Fire" -- this year's would-be summer blockbuster from Walt Disney Studios -- is an out-and-out smash, it's pretty damned unlikely that this long-promised expansion area for Disney's Animal Kingdom is ever going to make it off WDI's drawing board.

That said, I also have to say that it's perfectly understandable how this rumor got started. After all, I too have seen those pictures over at the E.B. Effects web page. A few kind DCACentral.com readers were nice enough to send me links to that site last week. And -- after looking these photos over -- I can understand how people might misinterpret all these melted suits of metal as being props that E.B. was creating to help decorate DAK's long awaited "Dragon's Tower" (AKA "Dare the Dragon") roller coaster.

Only that's not what E.B. Effects built these suits of armor for, kids. All these gnarly looking knights weren't constructed for some DAK attraction that hasn't opened yet. But rather, they were built back in 1997 for a Disney's Animal Kingdom ride that actually closed back in August 2000: The Discovery River Ride (AKA the water taxis AKA the Radio Disney River Cruise).

How many of you DCACentral.com readers out there actually remember the Discovery River boats? These large, open air, 62 passenger vessels (similar to the "Friendships" launches that regularly cruise across Epcot's World Showcase lagoon) that were supposed to depart every ten minutes and take WDW guests on a leisurely cruise halfway around Discovery Island? Most people don't recall this DAK attraction because the Discovery River boat ride -- in its original form, anyway -- only ran for the first six months that the theme park was open.

And why was that, kids? Well, most Disney World visitors just hated the idea that they'd waited in line for a half hour or more for something that turned out to be a non-attraction. So they'd complain (quite vocally, in fact) to Guest Relations. Which is why WDI kept shutting down the Discovery River boat ride for retheming / revamping. In a desperate effort to turn this disparaged attraction into something that WDW visitors might actually enjoy.

And what exactly was the problem with DAK's Discovery River boats? Some say that the real reason that this ride got such a bad rap was that its primary boat dock was located too close to DAK's entrance. After all, the Discovery River boat ride was the very first attraction guests would see as they entered the park (after exiting the Oasis and walking over the bridge toward the park's Safari Village area).

So, since the typical tourist automatically queues up for the very first attraction he sees (which explains those enormous lines for Spaceship Earth that you'll usually encounter if you enter Epcot early in the morning), the bulk of DAK's visitors quickly made their way to the Safari Village dock. Once there, these WDW visitors would look out at those authentically distressed looking vessels (with colorful names like the "Hasty Hippo," " Darting Dragonfly" and "Otter Nonsense") and think that they were about to depart on a ride that would be at least as much fun as the "Jungle Cruise" over at WDW's Magic Kingdom was.

Of course, the description of the Discovery River ride that guests had read in the park's pre-opening literature didn't help matters. It said that this DAK attraction would give WDW visitors ...

"... a preview of the fascinating lands of Disney's Animal Kingdom. You'll depart from Safari Village and cruise past the foreboding Dragon Rocks, where fearsome bellows and gusts of real fire emanate from a rocky lair. Farther upriver, as steaming geysers erupt right beside your boat, you'll get a waterside view of Harambe just before you exit at Upcountry Landing near Africa. You may also depart from Upcountry Landing to complete your tour of Discovery River. You'll pass the shores of Asia, an exciting new land opening in early 1999. Then sail around giant animal sculptures that rise from the depths to spout water through the air. Be careful when you cruise by DinoLand, U.S.A. -- you just may startle a 35-foot dinosaur feeding in the river!"

Now doesn't that sound like a fun ride? The problem is that -- due to last minute budget cuts (not to mention creative compromises) -- the Discovery River boat ride never quite lived up to its pre-opening hype.

Take, for example, the attraction's Dragon Rocks area. As originally designed, this section of the Discovery River boat ride was basically supposed to be a coming attraction for Beastly Kingdom (a proposed expansion area for the park that was to have celebrated mythical creatures). And what better way is there to do that than give WDW visitors an up-close encounter with a fire breathing dragon?

According to the Imagineers' initial plans for this area of the attraction, the sequence was supposed to play out something like this: After passing under the Oasis bridge, guests on board the Discovery River boat would have spied a rough rock cave right at the water's edge. Out in the river, ringing the mouth of the cave, there would have been this series of jousting lances sticking up out of the mud. Spiked on top of each of these lances would be the battered armor of some unfortunate knight who had battled the dragon and lost.

("Hey, I bet that the battered armor that Jim's describing here is actually the stuff that's in those pictures that are up on the E.B. Effects web page," I can hear you saying. Well, yes they are, Mr. / Ms. Smarty Pants. Now please try not to get ahead of the rest of the class, okay?)

Anyway ... Had WDI gotten all the money that they needed to do this particular piece of the Discovery River ride right, the sequence would have continued along these lines: As your boat slowly moved by the cave's mouth, a ferocious growl would have echoed out of the darkness. Then -- as all of the tourists on board suddenly turned their attention toward the river bank -- the long neck and enormous head of a fire breathing dragon would come craning out of the cavern.

The repulsive reptile would have evilly eyeballed your vessel 'til the boat made it into the safety zone. Whereupon -- after throwing open its mouth -- this nasty looking beast would have sent a huge plume of fire out across the water (supposedly meant to scorch all you follks riding in the boat) before retreating back into its cave ... to await the next boatload of Discovery River passengers that passed its way.

Sounds pretty cool, doesn't it? The best part is: WDI thought that it had come up with a pretty affordable way to pull off DAK's dragon effect. They were just going to re-use the molds that Imagineer Terri Hardin had created for Disneyland Paris' dragon. (You know? That enormous Audio Animatromic figure that "sleeps" in La Taniere du Dragon under DLP's Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant.) They'd recreate the front third of DLP's dragon, put it on a retractable rig that they'd build inside of that waterfront cave and -- Presto Changeo! -- Animal Kingdom's Discovery River boat ride would get one killer special effects sequence for this attraction at a basically bargain basement price.

The only problem was ... the money that the Imagineers needed to do DAK's dragon effect right ended up getting cut from the park's Phase One budget. It seems that Disney's accountants had radically under-estimated the amount of money that the Mouse would have to sink into Animal Kingdom's back-of-the-house areas (I.E. The animals' behind-the-scenes barns, the mostly out-of-sight safety features that keep the critters from getting out of their cages and eating the tourists, etc.). As a direct result, WDI was ordered to reduce the scope of most of DAK's in-park attractions.

For the Discovery River ride, this meant that the attraction would go from actually showing guests a full sized fire breathing dragon to merely suggesting that there was one hidden somewhere in that cave at water's edge. In the new scaled down version of this sequence -- as the boat floated by the cavern -- WDW visitors would hear ferocious growls echoing out of the darkness. And -- eventually after their vessel floated into the safety area -- a ball of fire would come shooting out of the cave and roll across the water.

Mind you, I don't need to tell you folks that there's a big difference -- entertainment-wise -- from actually seeing an enormous Audio Animatronic creature come out of a cave and breath fire at you and having it suggested that perhaps there might be a dragon somewhere in that cavern that you're just now floating by. Mind you, the Imagineers did the best they could with the money they had. But -- as one of my less refined Texas based pals would put it -- "That's a huge difference between chicken salad and chicken sh*t."

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