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Is DAK's Beastly Kingdom DOA? -- Part 3

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Is DAK's Beastly Kingdom DOA? -- Part 3

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December 1998. Everyone at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) is abuzz with news about Universal Studios expansion plans for its Florida property.

"I've heard that -- on opening day -- they're going to have three mega-coasters up and running."

"Well, I've heard that their 'Spiderman' attraction is going to blow the doors off 'Star Tours' and 'Body Wars.'"

"That -- plus 'Jurassic Park - The Ride,' that 'Dudley Do-Right' flume thing as well as the 'Popeye' raft ride. This new Universal park sound better than anything we've got in Florida."

Were these Imagineers frightened at the thought of all these great attractions being built in a theme park just down the street from WDW?

Hell no. The folks at WDI were thrilled that Seagrams was spending a reported $2 billion to remake their Universal Studios Florida theme park into a Disney quality resort. Why? Because that meant that the Mouse would finally have some serious competition in Orlando.

You see, Disney CEO Michael Eisner is a very competitive guy. He hates to lose -- at anything. If attendance at WDW started to noticeably slip due to the Mouse losing customers to Universal's new theme park, Michael would have to do something. Eisner's enormous ego just wouldn't be able to handle the idea of Disney being No. 2 in the Orlando market.

So he'd turn to the Imagineers and say: "Make the best attractions you can."

Not "Make the best attraction you can on a limited budget." (i.e.: WDI's recent controversial rehab of Epcot's "Journey into Imagination" ride. During its three months of operation, the revamped version of that Future World attraction racked up more guest complaints than most shows produce in a year.)

Not "Make the best attraction you can with minimal changes to the pre-existing ride building." (i.e.: The Magic Kingdom's "Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin" actually runs its ride vehicles along the very same track and layout the building's previous tenants -- Delta's "Dreamflight" and the unsponsored "Take Flight" -- used.)

Not "Make the best attraction that reflects the sponsor's agenda" (i.e.: Any exhibit you'll find inside either version of "Innoventions.")

Just "Make the best attractions you can." Period.

And WDI would absolutely love to hear Michael Eisner say this. Because -- for years now -- they've been developing ideas for absolutely killer theme park attractions, only to be told by Disney Company senior management that " Gee, we'd love to build that ... but it'd be too expensive" or "No one else in the industry is doing that" or -- worst of all -- "We don't have to try that hard."

So now -- for the first time ever -- it appeared that Walt Disney World was going to have some real competition in Florida. And the top guys at the Mouse Works must have been taking Universal's Islands of Adventure seriously, for -- in January 1999 -- they ordered WDI to work up a WDW contingency plan.

The purpose of the plan was this: Should Universal's Islands of Adventure actually begin to seriously nibble away at Disney World attendance levels in 1999, the Mouse wanted a way to quickly recapture those wandering visitors. WDI felt that the easiest way to get folks excited about going back to WDW again was to add a huge new E ticket attraction for each of the four Florida parks. More importantly, they wanted to have each of these rides up and running in time for the kick-off of Walt Disney World's 30th anniversary celebration in October 2001.

The Magic Kingdom was to have gotten "Fire Mountain," a state-of-the-art roller coaster themed around story elements from Walt Disney Pictures' Summer 2001 animated release, "Atlantis." What would have truly been intriguing about "Fire Mountain" is that it was to have been the world's first morphing coaster. Visitors would start their ride seated securely in their ride vehicle. At the midway point in the attraction -- as "Fire Mountain" erupted -- the bottom would have dropped away from their ride vehicle, leaving the riders dangling from above as they zoomed through the rest of the ride.

Over at the Disney-MGM Studios, that park's signature attraction -- "The Great Movie Ride" -- would have gotten a massive makeover. In its place, visitors would have been asked to put on 3D glasses before taking a trip through the Chinese Theater's "Villain Ride." Here, WDW visitors would have been menaced by three dimensional recreations of Disney's most famous fiends before the forces of good finally came to their rescue.

Epcot would have had its dated Future World "Horizons" pavilion pulled down to make way for the new "Mission: Space" attraction. This cutting-edge ride would use centrifugal force to give visitors the sensation of being blasted out into space. They would also feel tremendous G-forces pressing them down into their seats as well as a brief moment of weightlessness before their ride vehicle made re-entry.

As for Disney's Animal Kingdom ... well, since it was the least developed of all four of the WDW theme parks, adding just one new attraction wouldn't have given visitors enough incentive to return to DAK. So the Imagineers opted to go for broke here. They suggested adding a whole new land to Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Which land? You guessed it, kids. "Beastly Kingdom."

Disney Management reviewed WDI's plan in March of 1999 and agreed to put it into action if ... and this is a really big "if" here, folks ... it could be proven that Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure was having a significant detrimental effect of WDW's attendance levels.

So -- for the first time in the history of the Walt Disney Company -- the Imagineers actually hoped and prayed for a competitor's theme park to succeed. For -- if Islands of Adventure really had an impact on WDW's attendance -- all of their great new proposed attractions would actually make it off the drawing board.

After two months of soft openings, Universal finally did officially open Islands of Adventure (IOA) on May 28, 1999. Just as the Imagineers had hoped, IOA had it all. Three huge roller coasters. Their state-of-the-art "Spiderman" attraction. Three water-based rides ("Jurassic Park - The Ride," "Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls," and "Popeye's Bilge Rat Barges"). Everything a modern theme park needs to succeed.

Well ... almost everything.

What was missing?

Crowds.

To this day, no one knows quite what went wrong with the launch of Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure. Some blame the marketing of the new park and resort, which somehow lead the public to believe that IOA wasn't a whole new theme park, but rather just a new land that had been added to Universal Studios Florida (USF). (This certainly was a popular explanation within the boardroom at Seagrams. They asked for -- and received -- the resignations of most of USF's marketing staff.)

Whatever the reason, the crowds just did not come out for IOA during its first year of operation. Universal's new theme park under-performed in a spectacular manner, drawing less than half the projected number of bodies Seagrams had said would visit its revamped resort in 1999. Worse still, the limited number of visitors IOA got seems to have all been bodies that the new park lured away from its older Florida theme park. Unconfirmed reports suggest that attendance at Universal Studios Florida may have fallen off by as much as 30% during IOA's first few months of operation.

But worst of all -- at least from the Imagineers' point of view -- is that IOA was having virtually no impact on WDW's theme parks. As the months went by, it became obvious that -- in spite of the $2 billion Seagrams had spent -- their revamped resort was having little or no effect on Disney World attendance levels.

Without proof that IOA was impacting WDW's attendance levels, WDI's ambitious plans for adding a brand new E-Ticket attraction to each of the Disney Company's Florida theme parks by October 2001 seemed doomed to failure. Sure enough, Walt Disney Imagineering president Paul Pressler called a meeting at WDW's WDI headquarters earlier this year to announce a radical rethink of the Florida property's expansion plans.

At this meeting, Pressler said that -- since IOA had obviously proven to be a non-threat to WDW attendance levels -- there was no reason to go forward with the previously announced aggressive building program. In its place, Paul proposed a significantly spread out schedule as to which Florida Disney theme park got new attractions and when.

Pressler believed that it was now time to prioritize. WDW attraction construction money would be allocated first to whichever Disney theme park in Florida most needed a boost in attendance. That was obviously Epcot, which perpetually had problems drawing visitors back in for return visits. That's why the Walt Disney Company opted to stage its 15 month-long Millennium celebration inside this Florida park.

Under the new schedule, the first new WDW E-ticket would be built inside on Epcot. "Mission: Space" would still rocket visitors off into the cosmos. Only now these visitors would have to wait 'til 2003 before they got the chance to board Disney's shuttle simulator.

Next up would be the Disney-MGM Studios' E-Ticket. However, construction on the "Villain Ride" wouldn't even begin 'til 2003. Pressler's plan was to have the "Villain Ride" up and running by May 2004 -- just in time for the studio theme park's 15th anniversary celebration.

After that, "Fire Mountain" would rise up over at the Magic Kingdom in 2006. This volcano-based Adventureland attraction would serve as the centerpiece of WDW's 35th anniversary celebration.

Then in 2008, Disney's Animal Kingdom would finally get its new E-Ticket. Just in time for that park's 10th anniversary, "Beastly Kingdom" would throw open its doors. Visitors would then get to sample the thrills of "Dragon's Tower" and wander the leafy green maze over at "Quest for the Unicorn."

Obviously, Imagineer Joe Rohde and his DAK design team were tremendously disappointed with this last bit of news. But Rohde -- ever the optimist -- tried to stress the positive in this tough situation. "Okay, so it's going to open 10 years late," Joe said. "But at least 'Beastly Kingdom' will finally be part of Disney's Animal Kingdom."

At least, that was the plan ... until Eisner got around to visiting Universal Studio's Islands of Adventure in January 2000.

Eisner and a small entourage quietly toured the park that day, riding most of the major attractions as well as scoping out a lot of the shops and restaurants. After Michael got back to California, he told the Imagineers that he thought that -- while IOA wasn't quite up to Disney standard -- the place still looked pretty good.

There was a pause. Then Michael added "But a few of those attractions looked awfully familiar."

This is where one of the scummier secrets of the theme park industry gets revealed: theme parks regularly steal attraction ideas from one another. Just like in the computer world or the auto industry, industrial espionage is just one of the many ways that theme park companies like Disney, Universal, Six Flags, and the Cedar Fair Corporation try to stay ahead of the competition.

Of course, Disney didn't help matters by laying off hundreds of Imagineers following the disastrous opening of Euro Disney. Many of these disgruntled former Imagineers walked out the door, carrying with them the plans for the proposed attractions they had been working on when the Mouse let them go.

Among these folks were several Imagineers who had been working on the "Dragon's Tower" attraction for DAK's "Beastly Kingdom." After a few months, these former WDI employees got hired by Universal to work on their proposed second theme park for Florida. They ended up being assigned to work on that park's "Lost Continent" area.

"You guys got any ideas for attractions for this part of the park?," their Universal bosses asked.

Indeed they did.

Now, before you get all indignant about the idea of Universal stealing ride ideas from Disney, please keep in mind that the Mouse has also been doing it for years. For example: how do you suppose the Skyway and Monorail ended up in Disneyland? Walt saw similar attractions while touring amusement parks in Europe in the 1950s. He decided to "borrow" the concepts of these rides from those European venues for installation at his Anaheim park.

And -- while Tony Baxter is universally recognized as a modern master of Imagineering, having come up with the concepts for such classic Disney theme park attractions as "Big Thunder Mountain Railway" and "Splash Mountain" -- employees of Knotts Berry Farm are all too willing to point out the similarities between those attractions and Knotts' "Calico Mine Train" and "Log Ride." Given that Baxter has admitted to spending a lot of his free time back in the 1960s when he was a Disneyland employee prowling around Knotts, is it possible that Tony could have -- just like his hero, Walt -- "borrowed" the concepts for these Knotts attractions to use as the basis for "Big Thunder" and "Splash Mountain?"

Anything's possible, kids.

Anywho, back to Islands of Adventure ... is "Dueling Dragons" an obvious rip-off of "Beastly Kingdom"'s proposed "Dragon's Tower" ride? Perhaps. But how can you rip off something that hasn't actually been built yet?

Some might argue that Universal -- being the first theme park company to build a mega-coaster that featured a dragon storyline with a queue area that was themed around a decrepit castle -- must now get credit for creating that attraction. Which means Universal effectively owns that ride idea. That would mean that -- should Disney ever go forward with their "Dragon's Tower" attraction idea -- the Mouse would now appear to be copying ride ideas from Universal, rather than the other way around.

Never mind that Disney came up with the original idea for a dragon-based coaster. Never mind that Universal may have acquired the concept for their dragon coaster attraction under somewhat questionable circumstances. In the end, all that matters is: Who built the ride first? Since Universal was the first to build a dragon-based coaster, that ride concept now belongs to them.

And -- since Eisner didn't want it to appear as if Disney was stealing ride ideas from Universal -- he asked the Imagineers to remove the "Dragon's Tower" ride from all future plans for "Beastly Kingdom." But -- without the tumble-down burned-out castle (that would have served as "Dragon's Tower"'s show building) to serve as the centerpiece for this proposed addition to WDW's fourth theme park -- "Beastly Kingdom" was left without a "weenie," a strong visual element that would lure people down into this side of the park. Without "Dragon's Tower," "Beastly Kingdom" now seemed kind of pointless.

As painful as it might be, Joe Rohde and his Imagineering team now had to face facts. "Beastly Kingdom" -- as they had originally planned it -- was dead. WDI would now have to abandon all the witty plans they'd come up with for this part of the park and dream up some new attractions for DAK's east side.

Mind you, there was no time to mourn "Beastly Kingdom"'s demise. Rohde and his team were too busy fighting with Disney management over their bargain basement expansion plans for DAK's Dinoland USA. Assuming that -- when Disney's "Dinosaur" movie opens in theaters later this month -- this side of the park will see a huge surge of new traffic, Eisner ordered that several lightly themed off-the-shelf carnival-style rides be added to Dinoland USA to increase capacity.

Rohde was said to be furious when he learned of this plan, particularly since WDI had already put together an elegant expansion plan for DAK's dino area. He's reportedly particularly enraged that the name that his Imagineering team came up with for a runaway-mine-car-through-an-abandoned-dinosaur-dig ride -- the Excavator -- for Dinoland USA's "Phase II" will now be used for a smallish kiddie coaster Eisner is quickly tossing into the area.

Adding to Rohde's aggravation: DAK's 'temporary' area -- Camp Minnie-Mickey -- was becoming all the more permanent as each day went by. Exit polls showed that this area's "Festival of the Lion King" show was the most popular attraction in all of Animal Kingdom. So popular that Disney had to add additional seats to DAK's "Lion King" theater to increase the show's capacity. And -- with "Lion King III," another direct-to-video sequel to the original 1994 film, currently in the works -- it could now be years before the "Lion King" phenomenon finally fades ... leaving all the land around that once-thought-to-be-temporary theater available again for development.

As you can see, Rohde and his Imagineers didn't have time to moan over "Beastly Kingdom"'s loss. They're too busy fighting with Disney Company management, trying to keep Eisner and Co. from ruining the park with their bone-headed cost-cutting maneuvers.

But is "Beastly Kingdom" really dead? At least for the immediate future, it would seem so. Any ambitious plans the Mouse may have had for expansion of Disney's Animal Kingdom are now completely on hold.

Why for? Because there's so much other stuff at DAK that's currently in urgent need of repair. For example: Conservation Station is thought to be a complete disaster. Visitors repeatedly name that area as their least favorite part of Disney's Animal Kingdom. So the Imagineers are frantically searching for ways to fix up that facility.

And then there's Kali River Rapids. Though only a year old, the centerpiece attraction for DAK's Asia area is already falling apart. There are currently so few of that attraction's original rafts in working condition that visitors often have to wait as much as an hour in line before there's a raft available for them to board.

But all those Disney unicorn and dragon lovers out there shouldn't completely lose heart. Long-time Disney theme park observers know it's wise never to consider a really great concept for a theme park show or attraction completely dead. For the Imagineers have this awful tendency to recycle abandoned ideas.

Consider Disneyland's long proposed Discovery Bay. Though Tony Baxter hatched the concept for this Jules Verne-meets-Gold Rush-era-San-Francisco Frontierland expansion back in 1977, it wasn't until 1992 that elements of this proposed Disneyland addition finally turned up in a Disney theme park. Unfortunately for all those US-based Discovery Bay fans, the park that got the land (DiscoveryLand, to be exact) that was inspired by Tony's concept art was Disneyland - Paris. But some of Discovery Bay did finally make it off the drawing board.

So who knows? Maybe in ten years or so, some Imagineer may come with a clever way to rework the "Dragon's Tower" storyline. Perhaps that long rumored South American Disney theme park will have a Sleeping Beauty's castle with a thrill ride -- rather than a walking tour -- as its main attraction? Maybe this thrill ride will feature a huge AA version of the Maleficent dragon, snarling and breathing fire at riders as they whiz through the attraction's finale? Stranger things have happened, kids.

Here's hoping that -- some day, in some way -- dragons and unicorns turn up in a Disney theme park.

After all, there's always room for a little more magic in the Magic Kingdom.

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  • I know this article is going on 17 years old, but absolutely fascinating stuff! I've read quite a few of your articles relating to Animal Kingdom's abandoned concepts and little known history, and I hang on every word. With the information you provide being so detailed, may I ask what your sources are? Do you have connections to those involved in these events? Is this gathered from interviews and articles? I'd love to know!

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