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Is DAK's Beastly Kingdom DOA? -- Part 2

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Is DAK's Beastly Kingdom DOA? -- Part 2

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Okay, kids -- before we get back to the story of how "Beastly Kingdom" ended up on Disney Animal Kingdom's (DAK) endangered species list -- you need to understand what the Mouse's original expectations were for its fourth Walt Disney World (WDW) theme park. Here's what Disney CEO Michael Eisner had hoped would happen when DAK opened on April 1998:

Attendance levels would go through the roof at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the Disney-MGM Studios, as a record number of visitors rushed down to Florida to check out WDW's fourth theme park.

Guests who had previously stayed on property at Walt Disney World hotels for four days would now book five day vacation packages -- just to be sure that they didn't miss any of the new shows and attractions that had recently been added to the resort.

All this extra guest traffic would result in increased revenues for WDW's hotels, shops and restaurants -- which would have an immediate positive impact on the Walt Disney Company's bottom line.

Eisner and his staff would bask in the glow of the unparalleled success of Disney's Animal Kingdom for a moment ... then get right back to work, brain-storming ideas for WDW's fifth theme park.

That what Uncle Michael had hoped would happen, anyway. Reality proved to be infinitely harsher.

In spite of the Mouse's rosy projections, Disney's Animal Kingdom -- in its first year of operation:

Actually drove down attendance levels at the other three WDW theme parks: In 1998, 8% fewer guests visited the Magic Kingdom; 9% fewer went to the Disney-MGM Studios; while Epcot's attendance levels dipped a startling 11%.

What happened? In a word -- cannibalism.

"Cannibalism" is the term Disney Company executives use to describe what happens when a brand new theme park opens and begins eating into the attendance levels of the older, more established parks at the same resort.

In 1982, when Epcot opened, that park initially cut significantly into the number of guests that annually visited the Magic Kingdom. However -- over time -- attendance levels at Magic Kingdom bounced back to what they once were after the newness of Epcot had worn off. Meanwhile, Epcot Center began drawing guests all on its own to WDW. In the end, it all worked out just fine.

A similar thing happened in May 1989, when the Disney-MGM Studio theme park threw open its gates. For almost a year, attendance levels at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot slumped while guests opted to go to the new WDW theme park rather than visiting their old favorites. But -- once again, over time -- the situation sorted itself out. Attendance levels at the older WDW parks slowly rose back up to where they once were, as the Disney-MGM Studios began luring millions of new tourists to come see Disney's Florida resort.

The Mouse had been anticipating that -- when Disney's Animal Kingdom opened -- that it too would initially bleed guests away from the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the Disney-MGM Studios. That's why Eisner had had the Imagineers add new attractions and/or complete major rehabs to each of the older WDW parks in the 18 months prior to DAK's opening.

This was Uncle Michael's brilliant scheme. He honestly believed that -- if the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the Disney-MGM Studios each had new rides and shows for visitors to see -- guests who had come down to WDW just to see Disney's Animal Kingdom during its first year of operation would still end up of staying on property an extra day or so just to check out all the new stuff at the other parks.

On paper, that really did seem like a brilliant plan. Too bad reality got in the way.

What happened to ruin Eisner's plan? For starters, Epcot's heavily hyped new thrill ride -- GM Test Track -- was beset with horrible technical problems and ended up opening a full 18 months behind schedule. So that park really had nothing new to offer to returning WDW guests the year DAK opened.

Over at the Disney-MGM Studios, a much anticipated addition to the park -- "David Copperfield's Magic Underground" restaurant -- never made it off the drawing board because the magician's outside financing for the project disappeared. It would now be months after DAK's opening before the studio theme park's next big attraction -- an East Coast version of Disneyland's "Fantasmic" -- would be ready to start entertaining WDW visitors.

As for the Magic Kingdom ... truth be told, very little thought was put into to adding new shows and attractions to WDW's first theme park. The Magic Kingdom had always been the favorite with Disney World visitors. Eisner and WDI felt that -- what with the recent "Mickey's Toontown Faire" redo as well as the 25th anniversary parade that was still running daily at the park -- there was still plenty of semi-new stuff to entice people into making a return trip to the Magic Kingdom.

So -- given all the money the Walt Disney Company had pumped into the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the Disney-MGM Studios to counter-act the effects of DAK's opening -- Eisner had anticipated that the attendance levels at WDW's older parks would only dip by 5% in 1998. He was said to be furious when -- almost across the board -- attendance fell by almost twice that amount at all three of the other WDW theme parks.

This news immediately put WDW's management team into crisis mode. The big boys in Burbank wanted attendance levels at each of the older WDW parks driven back up immediately. The managers of the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the Disney-MGM Studios reminded Eisner and Company that -- in order to do that -- they'd need money fast for new shows, parades and attractions. Eisner immediately agreed to free up some funds for the Florida park.

And where did Eisner get the money to create these new WDW shows? You guessed it, kids. He snagged the funds that had been previously earmarked for expansion of Disney's Animal Kingdom. Specifically, the money that would have been set aside for construction of "Beastly Kingdom."

Again, Rohde and his Imagineers began complaining about the short-sightedness of Disney management's fiscal planning. With that money gone, it would now be five years or more before there'd be any money in the budget to create any new significant attractions for DAK.

WDW managers admitted that this was true. But -- given all the problems that Disney's Animal Kingdom was having during its initial year of operation -- it didn't seem too wise right now to complain about the park's future. Unless these problems got resolved quickly, it didn't look like DAK would have much of a future.

What sort of problems was Disney's Animal Kingdom having back then? You name it, the park was having problems with it. For example: Due to the twisty, turny nature of the park's walkways as well as all the lush vegetation, guests were constantly getting lost as they walked through the park. Disney had to spend thousands on new, bigger signage for the theme park to help guests find their way around the place.

Then there was all the troubles with DAK's shops and restaurants. Particularly during the first eight months Disney's Animal Kingdom was open (when only the African safari adventure was up and running), the Mouse had an awful time getting guests to stay inside the theme park past 4 p.m.

What was the problem? Due to the horrible heat in Florida, most of the animals along the African safari route would go lie down in the shade -- disappearing entirely from view -- by about 10 a.m. each morning. Once DAK management learned that its African menagerie had begun dropping from sight most days before noon, it quickly put the word out to WDW's hotels to encourage their guests to visit DAK as early in the day as possible.

This resulted in a completely unworkable traffic flow situation at DAK. By 7:30 a.m. most mornings during that first summer of operation, the park would already be full. By 8 a.m., there'd be a two hour long line in the queue for the African safari ride as well as guests waiting for over an hour to get in to see "It's Tough to Be a Bug." Given that so few of Disney Animal Kingdom's restaurants had been designed to serve breakfast, there were never enough places open at that hour to handle all those sleepy, cranky people looking for food. That first summer at DAK was a complete disaster.

But -- as bad as the early morning hours at DAK were -- the late afternoon was even worse. Why for? Because the crowds -- having blown through Disney's Animal Kingdom minimal number of shows and attractions in just a few hours -- had already left the park for the day. By 4 p.m. most afternoons, you could have fired a cannon down the middle of the street in Safari Village and not have wounded a single soul.

Having the park virtually empty by late afternoon played hell with DAK's projections for food and merchandise sales. All the managers of the park's stores and restaurants were begging WDW management for help in turning around their depressed sales. (The folks running the giant "Rainforest Cafe" at the entrance of Disney's Animal Kingdom were particularly desperate. They had paid big bucks for the right to build this branch of their restaurant chain right outside the entrance to WDW's newest theme park. But most evenings, barely a third of the cavernous cafe had any guests in it.)

WDW management tried to come up with a solution to DAK's traffic flow problems. But it quickly became obvious that there'd be no quick fixes for this situation. After all, it wasn't like Disney could do here what they did at Epcot and the Disney-MGM Studios to keep guests in the park at night. Since the lights in the skies and all the noise was sure to frighten the animals, a nightly fireworks display was out of the question.

There was also some talk of creating a special night-time parade to roll through the streets of Disney's Animal Kingdom and entertain guests after dark. For a time, WDW management even considered bringing Disneyland's much maligned "Light Magic" streetacular to Florida to provide after-hours entertainment at DAK.

But Rohde and his team of WDI designers quickly killed any talk about night-time streetaculars at Disney's Animal Kingdom. They pointed out that the park's streets and trails were just too tight and narrow to allow even the smallest floats easy passage. The Imagineers reminded WDW management how much trouble DAK's small day-time parade -- "The March of the Art-imals" -- was having making its way around the park in broad daylight. Imagine how much trouble a similar parade would have making its way around DAK in the dark.

Rohde's team insisted that the solution to the traffic flow problems at Disney's Animal Kingdom was obvious: beef up the parts of the park that didn't rely on real animals. That meant adding new shows to Dinoland USA as well as finally building Beastly Kingdom. By adding these additional shows and attractions, WDW management would give guests a real reason to stay at DAK after dark -- rather than trying to trick visitors into staying with a lame after-hours parade and/or a smallish fireworks display.

Privately, officials in WDW management agreed with the Imagineers that this was the logical, reasonable way to fix Disney's Animal Kingdom. The trouble was that the folks back in Burbank weren't acting reasonably or logically right now. Disney Company management had panicked when they had seen the drastic dip in attendance at WDW's three other theme parks. Now they were running scared.

And Eisner had already okayed WDW management's decision to grab the money that had been earmarked for DAK expansion and use it for bolstering sagging attendance at the other three WDW theme parks. That meant that Imagineering had next to no money left to fix all the glaring problems at Disney's Animal Kingdom. More ominously, it now looked like it would be five years -- or more -- before WDI could afford to add any significant new attractions to DAK.

It was a very depressing time for the Disney's Animal Kingdom design team. But -- again -- Rohde told his Imagineers not to lose heart. He told them that DAK -- in particular "Beastly Kingdom" -- might still be saved yet.

For Joe knew that Seagrams / MCA was spending two billion dollars to expand its Universal Studios Florida theme park complex -- which was just down the road from WDW. And the centerpiece to this ambitious expansion project was a brand new theme park: Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure.

Rumors were flying around the theme park community that Seagrams / MCA was spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their new Florida park because they were out to top Disney. Universal wanted "Islands of Adventure" to have such amazing state-of-the-art attractions that this park would top any ride that could be found at Walt Disney World.

Secretly, Rohde and his Imagineers were hoping that Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure would be a huge success. Why for? Because the Walt Disney Company would then be embarrassed that it didn't have the best rides in Florida anymore. And then maybe the Mouse would get worried that they were starting to lose guests to the new Universal park.

If that happened ... well, then Eisner would finally have to open up his wallet then, wouldn't he? Just as a matter of pride, he'd have to insist that WDI install the greatest rides that they could come up with at each of the WDW parks. For Disney's Animal Kingdom, that could only mean that the Imagineers would finally get the chance to build "Beastly Kingdom."

That was how Joe Rohde hoped things would play out, anyway.

Well, in the spring of 1999, Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure did finally open up. Unfortunately, it was not quite the roaring success Joe had hoped for.

Worse still, some of the attractions to be found in the new park looked awfully familiar ...

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