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Is DAK's Beastly Kingdom DOA? -- Part 1

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Is DAK's Beastly Kingdom DOA? -- Part 1

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You can park your car in the "Unicorn" parking lot.

You can buy your admission ticket at a ticket booth with a huge dragon's head on it.

And -- for a while there -- you could even catch a glimpse of a fire-breathing monster as you took a cruise along Discovery River.

So what are the chances that Walt Disney World [WDW] guests will someday soon get the chance to visit a land at Disney's Animal Kingdom [DAK] that celebrates these mythical creatures?

These days, pretty slim. It's probably more likely that guests will see a real unicorn or dragon long before they get the chance to tour DAK's "Beastly Kingdom."

What happened? Why has the Mouse decided to scrub its years-in-the-making plans for expansion of its animal theme park? Why table what would seem to be a sure-fire addition to Disney's Florida resort?

Those who have been following the Walt Disney Company's recent cost cutting craze will not be be surprised to learn that the projected high price tag for building "Beastly Kingdom" factored heavily in upper management's recent decision to postpone indefinitely any major expansion of Disney's Animal Kingdom. After all, if times are so tough for the Mouse that they have to lay off the Magic Kingdom's marching band as well as Epcot's fife-and-drum corp, what are the chances the company would be willing to spend $200 to $300 million to add a new land to DAK? Slim to none.

Mind you, Mickey was perfectly willing to pony up the $100 million necessary to build the Animal Kingdom Safari. But that's different. That's a hotel. That 1307 room resort will start making money for the Walt Disney Company the moment it opens in the Spring of 2001.

But "Beastly Kingdom?" Recent exit surveys have suggested that -- even if Disney were to go forward with construction of this new land at DAK -- the Mouse wouldn't see a large enough increase in attendance at WDW's fourth theme park to justify the cost of actually building "Beastly Kingdom."

The real irony here is that one of the only reasons Disney's Animal Kingdom ever got built was that way back in 1993, guests who were surveyed about ideas for a fourth WDW theme park responded strongly to the notion of having a place in Florida where they could see unicorns and dragons.

Want to hear what folks were told about "Beastly Kingdom" back then? What follows is an excerpt from an exact transcript of an early marketing presentation on Disney's Animal Kingdom. It describes in great detail the fun that would have been had in this part of the proposed park:

Beastly Kingdom is the realm of make believe animals, animals that don't really exist, out of legends, out of fairy tales, out of storybooks. Like our legends and fair tales about imaginary animals, this land is divided into realms of good and realms of evil.

The evil side is dominated by DRAGON'S TOWER, a burned, wrecked castle inhabited by a greedy, fire breathing dragon. He hordes a fabulous treasure in his tower chamber. The castle is also inhabited by bats who speak to us from their upside down perches. The bats have a plan. They enlist our help trying to rob the dragon and fly us off on a wild chase. At last, we meet the fire-breathing dragon himself and barely escape un-barbecued.

The good side of this land is ruled by QUEST OF THE UNICORN. An adventure which sends us through a maze of medieval mythological creatures to seek the hidden grotto where the unicorn lives. There is also FANTASIA GARDENS. A gentle musical boat ride through the animals from Disney's animated classic, "Fantasia." Both the crocodiles and hippos from " Dance of the Hours" and the Pegasus, fauns and centaurs from Beethoven's "Pastoral" are found here.

Sounds pretty impressive, yes? Those WDW guests surveyed back in 1993 thought so. They identified "Beastly Kingdom" -- with its mix of roller coasters and imaginary animals -- as the number one reason that they'd want to visit this proposed fourth theme park.

So why wasn't "Beastly Kingdom" part of Disney's Animal Kingdom when the park opened on April 22, 1998? Again, cost played a big part in delaying construction of this highly anticipated land. But DAK's future planning had to be factored in too.

After all, it took the Walt Disney Company three years and $800 million just to get "Phase One" of DAK open. And -- since the park's name actually had the word "animal" in it -- the Imagineers felt that opening day guests would want to see some actual live animals. So the majority of DAK's capitalization was poured into building the Africa and Asian safari areas.

After that ... well, someone had to make a decision. Disney's Animal Kingdom was supposed to celebrate all animals: the live ones, the extinct ones, as well as the imaginary. The African and Asian enclosures would take care of the live animals.

But -- in doing that -- Disney blew through most of DAK's initial budget. There was only enough money left to build one more land. Which should the Mouse go for? Dragons or dinosaurs?

In the end, the deciding factor here was the money the Disney Company had already blown on the soon-to-be-released computer animated film, "Dinosaur." Even back in 1995, the Mouse had already invested upwards of $30 million into production of this movie. (Current estimates suggest that Disney may have spent as much as $150 million to finish this film, making "Dinosaur" even more expensive than James Cameron's infamously over-budget 1997 epic, "Titanic." ) Eisner wanted to make sure that Disney's "Dinosaur" movie made a return on that investment, so he insisted that DAK feature an attraction that heavily hyped the forthcoming film.

That decision angered Joe Rohde and the other Imagineers on the Disney's Animal Kingdom project. After all, one of the real reasons that DAK was being built was to keep WDW guests from leaving property to go visit Busch Gardens - Tampa Bay.

And what was Anheuser Busch's Florida theme park best known for? Its animal displays and its killer roller coasters. With African and Asia, Disney had all the animals it needed. But where were the coasters?

According to Disney's Animal Kingdom's original plans, "Dragon's Tower" was to have been this park's signature attraction. That's why the dragon was featured dead center in DAK's logo. After guests visited WDW's fourth theme park, this was going to be the ride they raved about the folks back home about.

What was so special about "Dragon's Tower?" This high tech thrill ride would have been the Walt Disney Company's first in-park use of an inverted roller coaster. This attraction would have also featured the largest AA figure ever built for a Disney theme park. The angry jewel encrusted dragon found in the ride's finale -- belching fire and smoke at your car as you zoomed on by -- would have easily dwarfed any of the dinos found in "Countdown to Extinction" (AKA the "Dinosaur" ride).

But Eisner insisted that it was more important that DAK feature an area that synergized with the upcoming "Dinosaur" film. "Beastly Kingdom" would have to wait 'til DAK's "Phase Two" ... which, back then, was to have been completed no later than Spring 2003.

So -- with this understanding that "Beastly Kingdom" hadn't been cancelled, but merely postponed -- WDI agreed to scale back their initial plans for Disney's Animal Kingdom. But, even as they mapped out plans for the "Phase One" version of DAK, the Imagineers deliberately put in some pretty broad hints of the fun yet to come when "Beastly Kingdom" finally opened. That's why you can park your car in the "Unicorn" lot as well as buy your tickets at the dragon headed ticket booth.

As for that fire-breathing dragon found in the cave down along Discovery River ... before cost over-runs in other areas of DAK severely cut in the proposed budget for this part of the park, that make-believe monster was just one of many fantasical show elements that would have been found along this part of the river. That whole stretch of Discovery River was supposed to be one big coming attraction for "Beastly Kingdom."

Had the Imagineers gotten all the money they were originally supposed to get, here's what you would have experienced after your boat pulled away from the dock and began its cruise around Discovery River:

As you passed under the main bridge leading into Safari Village, you would have seen that the water ahead was littered with the shattered lances and crumpled armor of a great many fallen knights. But what horrible fate could have befallen all of these brave adventurers? A roar from the nearby cave offers a clue.

As your boat floated past the opening of the cave, you would have seen a duplicate of the dragon found in the cavern under Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant at Disneyland - Paris. Only WDW's version would have been a lot more active than France's sleepy monster. This dragon would have craned his neck out of the cave, roared at the guests and then breathed fire their way, before once again settling back down to sleep.

At this point, your boat driver would have started to get nervous. He would explain that he was worried that the dragon's roaring would awaken the Kracken, a mythical Greek sea monster that was known to lurk along this stretch of Discovery River. Sure enough, the water around the boat begins to bubble ominously.

Off to one side, the huge fin of the Kracken suddenly cuts through the water. As the boat begins rocking back and forth, you're certain you're headed for a watery grave. Just then, your captain pulls out a lyre and begins plucking an odd tune. As the boat stops rocking and the water stops bubbling, the captain explains that music puts the Kracken back to sleep. Once that it's safe to move on, the boat continues to head up river.

Just as you round the bend, your captain points off excitedly to your left. There on the shore, you catch a glimpse of a unicorn. The beautiful white creature -- shrouded in mist as it stands in a picturesque grove of trees -- paws the earth lightly with one hoof and nods its golden horn our way. The unicorn's only visible for just an instant, but it truly is a beautiful sight.

As your boat pulls up to the dock in Harambe, you and your fellow guests would still be buzzing about the wonders you would have glimpsed on this leg of your adventure of Disney's Animal Kingdom ...

But of course ... this didn't happen. As DAK's opening day grew nearer and it became obvious that the whole project was going over budget, great show elements like the Kracken and the Unicorn got cut from the "Phase One" version of the park. In the end, there was only enough money left in the budget for put one creature along the entire length of Discovery River.

Again -- because Eisner insisted that "Dinosaur" be heavily synergized at DAK -- the Imagineers decided to build a full-scale version of Aladar, the heroic iguanadon from the forthcoming film. That's the AA dinosaur guests glimpsed roaring and splashing at water's edge as their Discovery River boat floated past Dinoland USA.

Unfortunately, this decision left the other leg of the Discovery River boat cruise a five minute cruise past nothing. So Joe Rohde begged, pleaded and wheedled ... and eventually got Eisner to kick in another couple of thousand dollars. With this tiny chunk of change, Joe was able to get the rock dragon that spews water along this part of the river built, as well as a very stripped down version of the park's fire breathing dragon.

But don't go looking for an Americanized version of Disneyland - Paris's majestic AA dragon to be found along this part of Discovery River. Rohde's Imagineers did the best they could with zero cash. All you'll find here now is a somewhat dinky cave at water's edge. As the boats went by, a ferocious roar would echo out of the cave, followed by a burst of flaming propane. These effects hinted that there was a dragon somewhere deep back inside that cave ... but guests never really got a glimpse of the thing.

As you might imagine, WDW visitors were pretty unimpressed with what they saw along Discovery River once DAK opened. In fact, this was the ride that guests singled out -- right from Opening Day -- as the worst attraction in all of Disney's Animal Kingdom. After waiting in line for over an hour to board the boats, they were furious to find that there was virtually nothing to see along the water during their five minute journey to Harambe.

The Imagineers were obviously embarrassed by this situation. It was particularly frustrating to WDI because they knew that they had a solution to the Discovery River problem, ready to go. But Disney management was too cheap to put up the money to make the fixes.

But that had been typical of Disney management's handling of the whole DAK project. Given the choice between doing things the right way and the inexpensive way, the Mouse always opted to go cheap.

Take -- for instance -- how the Mouse handled the park's capacity problems. When it became obvious that Asia was not going to ready in time for Disney's Animal Kingdom's April 1998 opening, the Imagineers began warning Disney management that DAK would not have a full day's worth of shows and attractions. After having paid full price for admission, guests were sure to complain if they only got a half day's worth of entertainment.

Eisner's solution? Slap in a temporary land, similar to the "Mickey's Birthdayland" area that the company had created for WDW's Magic Kingdom way back in April 1988. From its first conceptual drawing right through to the first guest walking into Mickey's house, "Mickey's Birthdayland" had only taken 90 days to install.

Rohde and his Imagineers was appalled at Eisner's suggestion. But -- rather than tell the boss that his idea was terrible and that they wanted nothing to do with it -- the DAK design team insisted that they were far too busy supervising construction in the rest of the park to work up any new temporary lands.

So Eisner ordered WDW's entertainment office to take over the project. Using "Mickey's Birthdayland" as their template, the entertainment staff came up with the concept for "Camp Minnie-Mickey." Since there was no money available for even the cheapest of off-the-shelf rides, the WDW team opted to build "Camp Minnie-Mickey" around two low budget stage shows and several no budget character encounter areas.

How quickly and cheaply was "Camp Minnie-Mickey" thrown together? Do the float units the characters perform on in "Festival of the Lion King " look familiar? They should. They're the exact same parade floats that Disneyland ran up and down Main Street USA during the three year run of its "Lion King Celebration" parade.

Having this rapidly slapped together area sitting alongside lands that they'd spent years designing really irked the Imagineers. But Rohde advised his team to be patient and hold their tongues. After all, once Disney's Animal Kingdom opened on April 22, 1998 and proved to be a huge success, then WDI would finally get the time and the money necessary to fix all the stuff that was wrong with the park.

Then the Imagineers could get the chance to put back all the stuff that was cut out of Discovery River. Then they could quietly pull the plug on that monstrosity, "Camp Minnie-Mickey." Then WDI could finally get around to DAK's "Phase Two" and build Beastly Kingdom.

Well, April 22, 1998 arrived and Disney's Animal Kingdom opened ...

But -- after that -- things didn't quite go according to plan.

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  • They should build this instead of the 'Avatar' themed land that they will be building there. Seriously, aliens in Animal Kingdom? Seems a bit unrelated to me, at least.

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