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Say good-bye to Little Red: Finale of DAK's Kilimanjaro Safaris to be retooled

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Say good-bye to Little Red: Finale of DAK's Kilimanjaro Safaris to be retooled

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According to Mark Goldhaber over at MousePlanet, the Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney's Animal Kingdom is about to undergo a fairly significant rehab. And that once the redo of this ride-thru zoo is complete, one of the events that used to drive the story of this DAK attraction (I.E. Little Red has been captured by poachers! And you -- the Disney World tourist -- must now cut your safari short in order to help save him!) will then be snipped from the script.

Which I know is going to offend a lot of you purists out there. Who always complain when Disney theme attractions depart from their original storylines and/or get dumbed down.

But -- truth be told -- Kilimanjaro Safaris has never really played as well as the Imagineers had originally hoped. Which is easy to understand. Given that -- just weeks prior to the April 1998 grand opening of Disney's Animal Kingdom -- Disney execs ordered the removal of one particularly gruesome setpiece from this attraction.

What scene am I talking about? That moment in Kilimanjaro Safaris where your ride vehicle was supposed to just happen upon the enormous corpse of Little Red's mother, Big Red.

The way I hear it, the children of cast members (Who were visiting DAK as part of that theme park's Cast Member Only previews which were held back in early March) just lost it as soon as they saw that enormous fake mother elephant lying dead in the grass. These kids then cried loudly all of the way back to Kilimanjaro Safaris off-load station. Which (obviously) was not the reaction that the Imagineers had been hoping for as the action-packed finale of this attraction got underway.

Of course, the more sensible of you out there are probably already asking: "Why the hell did the Imagineers put a big bloody fake mother elephant corpse next to the Kilimanjaro Safaris ride track in the first place?"

Well, to answer that question, 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 WDW guests rode through this ride -- they'd somehow acquire 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 Kilimanjaro Safaris' underlying message.

This is why -- as 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 Miss Jobson, the attraction's pre-recorded airborne naturalist. You know? That woman who's supposedly flying over the game preserve in a plane, continually 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 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 directly at your vehicle). Your jeep avoiding erupting geysers as you chase the criminals up a not-so-dry river bed.

Copyright Disney Enterprises LLC

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 from our ride vehicle, 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 was that -- right up to the attraction's finale -- every single 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 ride vehicle (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 ofnKilimajaro 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' finale was already putting a bad taste in WDW guests' mouths during their initial ride-through of that attraction -- obviously something had to be done to fix this situation. And fast.

The only problem was that Kilimanjaro Safaris' slender plot line basically hinged on that awful moment where Big Red's tragic 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 then-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. For years now, I've been expecting that her giant plastic corpse would eventually turn up for sale over at Mouse Surplus. But -- to date -- that hasn't happened.

Anyway ... Here we are, nearly nine years later. With the Imagineers now hoping that this upcoming redo of Kilimanjaro Safaris will finally eliminate some of the story kinks that resulted of Michael Eisner's last minute edit.

Do you think this is a smart move on Disney's part? Just removing the whole Little Red storyline? Which means that -- from here on in -- this DAK attraction will just limp to a close? Or is it finally time to admit that just half a story is worse than no story at all?

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  • To be honest, I'm kind of going to miss Little Red. It's very interesting about the whole fake dead elephant corpse and I'm surprised nobody thought that through enough before spending all the money to sculpt and paint such a large story element. Anyways, I can't really judge how it will be without it until I ride it with the changes. However, it will feel more like an African safarie without the story, which is what most people go on the ride for in the first place.

  • Building off of goofystich's final comments... I can appreciate Disney wanting to tell stories with the attractions however with Kilimanjaro people are going for an African like experience....the attraction is designed to be a Africa-like experience.. and I think that is enough.

    On days when there are lots of animals out guests are so busy gawking and snapping pictures that they probably are not paying very close attention to the Big Red storyline that is unfolding.... I have always enjoyed the end of the attraction but if they severely change the ending I think it will work as well.....

    We will have to wait and see....

  • I think that the original story made sense. But I also think that a elephant corpse is too much for kids. I wish they would have thought this through prior to just weeks before opening. I have been on that attraction a number of times and was impressed with all of the time effort and money that must have went into the attraction. However, I found the ride to be very anticlimatic. The animals mostly sleep in the day time and the story was lame. My 5 year old even thought it was lame and he loves the zoo. I think Disney should fire most of the people that have been making the decisions over the past 10 or so years and just keep a handful of VERY talented people to run the show. I know the upper management has changed recently, so we'll have to wait and see what the future holds.

  • This is outstanding news. The whole Big/Little Red storyline is dumb, and I think takes away from the ride's repeatability. After driving around seeing all sorts of animals and enjoying a genuinely pleasant experience, you suddenly have to speed around to "rescue" this baby elephant.

    As we're in the era where Imagineers love to talk about how "it's all about story," this is an admirable instance where they've recognized that sometimes the story can hurt the attraction*. The ride does a great job of simulating an authentic experience, but how often does a real safari end in a poacher chase? I understand the desire to have some sort of climax, but I don't think pseudo-hokey drama is the way to go.

    * This should be required reason for all Disney theme park fans:


  • ^^^ oops, meant to say required reading.

  • Does anyone know if there are any pictures of Big Red on the web? I'm just curious to see the lengths to which the Imagineers went to create a large elephant corpse,  only to have it removed.

    With the removal of the whole Big/Little Red storyline, will the attraction be officially without a plot, or will something take its place? I really do think it needs a story, because, while I can appreciate the value of a straight-up faux African Safari, I think that's what zoos are for. People come to Disney World expecting a little more than that.

  • Wow, this was really frustrating to read.  You gotta be kidding me.  WDI went through all that just to get to a final solution I would have thought of in the first place.  I don't mean to sound cocky, but that was pretty lame.

    When I first visited DAK and the safaris, the poacher plot kinda ruined my experience.  I wanted to listen to the animal facts and watch the animals and just be immersed in the safari.  I could deal with the poaching at the end.  The "message" indeed had good intentions, but if their inspiration was from "Bambi", how could they NOT have realized Bambi's mother's death was off-screen.  Did WDI have a script writer with them??  Having "items" such as this be written as off-screen is pretty common.

    The obvious solution was to be similar to Jungle Cruise but on land and with real animals and a factual spiel.  Then the climatic poaching scene could have been dealed with.  Just a little reminder/foreshadow in the queue & beginning of the attraction may have been enough.  I think I read they were changing the final scene with the plane and trucks.  And the scene with poachers attacking you would be similar to Jungle Cruise's headhunters.

    When today's WDI think of "story", I think KS tried to be too Hollywood-story structured if you know what I mean.  "Story" can still be unstructured and not like a predictable Hollywood movie all the time.

  • I actually like the burned-out rainforest part of Kali Rapids- that's a part I know I'll stay dry in...

    I don't think that I'll miss the Big Red/Little Red storyline too much if it gets taken out.  While you're zooming around trying to find the poachers, though, you're not looking at animals...would they change the track?  Or will the last part of the ride have no animals and no story and you'll just be driving and being bored?    I am glad that they never put Big Red in there, and thanks for the heads-up- I'll know why there's an elephant corpse in Mouse Surplus if I see one.  Smart move not to put Big Red in there.  She must have looked amazingly real, though, if so many adults were sad/mad.

    If nothing else is changed in the last part of the ride, maybe the driver could answer questions from the guests.  That would fill up time (hopefully) and be educational, too.

  • What WDI failed to recognize is that one consistent storyline underpins all other experiences at WDW.  That is: you are at Disney World; in reality, everything that is happening is being done by Disney; anything else is make believe.

    Poachers at WDW are no more real than Pirates.   They are just less sexy, and they have no memorable theme song.  

    But the animals are real.  So, just like oiling the flying elephants and scooping up the cigarette butts, the assumption for guests is that Disney must be taking care of All God's Creatures great-and-small.

    A dead animal on a "live animal" ride is jarring.  In a way, it would be like Disney having a ride where you wait at a fake monorail station, thinking you'll be going to the Poly for a rum drink. Just as the train pulls in the station, it jumps the track, bursts into flames, and death screams are pumped through speakers that are cleverly-hidden in the area trash cans.  

    Then a one-armed man hops out of the bushes, saying "and that's why you always wait behind the yellow line!"   Then the whole show resets itself.

    People do not blame Gary Sinise when they get sick on Mission:SPACE and they do not blame poachers when dead rubber animals are tossed at them on the Safari.  These folks are smart enough to know this is all a Disney contrivance.  The Mouse is to blame!

  • I saw Big Red when I first rode the Safari during Cast Preview.  Since I now 'knew' the story, it has influenced every time i've experienced it since then.  But I also felt that most of the people on the truck had no idea what was going on, and would ask my companions "What was going on?" to see if they got it.  But, no, they weren't sure, and if there was no cast member holding a rifle on the poacher's jeep at the finale, they were even more confused by the elephant in the truck.  One question I always got was, "Where did that airplane land?"

    I don't offer criticism without proposing a solution, so here goes (although I know that whatever will be installed there is well underway in planning and it is much too late for suggestions, but, WTH):

    Disney produced a movie back in 1985 called Baby:Secret of the Lost Legend, which featured the Mokele-Mbembe, a cryptic animal that resembles the apatosaurus.  With the yeti inhabiting the Forbidden Mountain (that is NOT Everest you are riding up!), this would not be out of place.  So here's the story, which borrows some lines from E:E

    In the queue you hear about all the different animal you will see, and then a few that are so secretive or rare you may not see, and then animals that have been reported but never actually observed, like the Mokele-Mbembe.  Somewhere along the way, the driver spies a 'fresh' footprint of a large animal they've never seen before.  Perhaps Mokele-Mbembe?  Be on the look out!  After you pass the lions, a large tree has fallen (been pushed?) across the road, so the driver decides to shortcut down the dry riverbed,  you round the corner just in time to see the hind end of a large creature with a long tail cross the river ahead of you.  Everyone is silent as they now get a glimpse of Mokele-Mbembe.  But the driver, obviously in denial,insists it was the biggest snake he's ever seen.  He maintains it was a snake and implore passengers not to talk about his unauthorized shortcut down the river.  Signage as you leave tell of other mythical animals of world.

    Anyway, I've never been bothered by a change in story.  I only get upset when elements are removed that no discernable storyline exists.

  • I have always thought that the structured story interfered with the attraction's repeatability.  We ride once a trip, but would do it more if it were more of a straight forward safari experience.  I think that re-tooling the experience is a great idea.  Hopefully they do this well.  Good for Disney for trying.

  • Frankly, I think WDI would do well to re-theme all of Animal Kingdom. It's still, IMO, the least cohesive of any of the three parks in terms of backstory and theme. I've always found KS and Kali to be weak, weak, weak in terms of story. I mean Kali's "story" is a joke ... you're on this blank raft ride getting soaked and then all of a sudden ... THERE'S BURNING RAINFOREST OH MY GOD WHAT SHALL WE DO!!! ... and then it's back to blank raft ride again. Horrible ... simply horrible ...

    Same with KS ... you're sort of meandering along staring at all the animals ... maybe half paying attention to the hard-to-decipher radio stuff playing over the speakers ... and then all of a sudden the truck takes off, you whip around a few corners, catch a glimpse of an elephant's rear end sticking out of a truck ... and then it's over. Huh???? What happened to all the animals???

    I think AK is the most poorly planned and executed of all the Disney theme parks (except maybe DCA). The whole Dinoland area is an abomination (oh ... it's not really cheap ... it's just THEMED to look cheap!!), there is a complete dearth of things to do (Everest has helped a little bit), there are no sit down restaurants, and the whole park is too darn HOT.

    Anything WDI can do to perk this $800 million disaster up is okay by me.

  • You mean people were actually listening to a spiel at one point? Wonders never cease.

  • Good riddance. This ride's plot has always been an incredible distraction, and completely unnecessary. The animals are enough...

  • As someone who saw the original version of the ride (with the big dead red mama) I have to say that the corpse's presence or absence didn't have that much effect on the climax.  What DID destroy this ride was the gradual removal of all the other elements that made the ending exciting.  

    Once upon a time, a jeep would drive alongside your truck and fire at you.  Geysers would erupt dramatically.  The driver would negotiate the diving S-turn past the poacher's camp at ludicrous speed.  And a live cast member would greet you at the end, holding an assault rife and assuring you that Little Red was "ok".  

    All of that (with the occasional exception of the geysers) is gone.  The end of the ride has gone from a thrilling high-speed chase to a pointless low-speed slog.  I would actually prefer going straight from Pride Rock to unload: a real lion is a better finale than a fake "adventure" anyday.

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