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Why For was the Excavator never built at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park?

Jim Hill

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Why For was the Excavator never built at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park?

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Fluffy-Not-Fat sent me a new Why For question earlier this week, saying:

As a longtime fan, it's great that you've begun writing theme park history stories again. Those stories were always my favorite part of your site.

So now that I've kissed your butt a little, I was wondering if you'd take a request: I'm a coaster enthusiast. And I'd love to see a story on JHM about the coaster which was supposed to be one of Dinoland U.S.A.'s opening day attractions that never got built.

Please note the roller coaster that looms in the background of this piece of concept art
for Dinoland, U.S.A.'s Boneyard kiddie play-and-exploration area
. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

You're asking about the Excavator. Which according to the initial marketing study for Disney's Animal Kingdom (which The Walt Disney Company did back in the Summer of 1993) was supposed to be ...

... a rollicking coaster ride through a section of the dig supposedly too dangerous to enter. Somehow, we've gotten in and are having a real good time.

So how would the Excavator have fit in at DAK? Well, you have to understand that Dinoland U.S.A. has a very specific backstory. According to the mythology that the Imagineers created for this Animal Kingdom "land," this part of the park started out life as the site of a sand and gravel company. And Chester and Hester's was just the local gas station which used to service & fuel up all of the trucks and heavy equipment that would then rumble in & out of this worksite.

In the center of this Dinoland U.S.A. concept painting, please note the red backhoe which
has a massive dinosaur bone dangling from it. This is the archaelogical discovery that
set this area's transformation from sand-and-gravel pit to paleontological playground
into motion. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But then one day, as a backhoe is digging up sand to load into the back of a dump truck, the workmen uncovered this massive dinosaur bone. So they called in the scientists. Who then discovered that - just below the surface of this huge sand & gravel pit - is the archaeological find of the century. An area that's just loaded with all of these perfectly preserved fossils.

So the wealthy benefactor for a local college immediately swoops in and buys up this sand & gravel pit - lock, stock and T-Rex bones. And he then turns what used to be this sand pit's on-site field offices (i.e. where the workmen used to go change & shower after a sweaty day of hauling gravel. More importantly, where the employee cafeteria was located) into a dorm for the students of that college's paleontology department. Who will now spend their summers working this newly-discovered dig.

And if you're really paying attention as you walk by Restaurantosaurus, you can see ample evidence of these crazy college students. From that pyramid of beer cans which has been built right next to those chairs which have been set out on this building's roof to those piles of shoes, clothes and underwear which have been placed down by the shore of Discovery River (which is supposed to suggest that these kids have gone skinny-dipping), it's clear that a group of hard-working, hormone-crazed university students are now calling this place home. At least for the summer.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"And what of Chester & Hester?," you ask. Well, since they could no longer rely on selling fuel to all of the trucks that used to trundle in & out of this sand pit (not to mention selling gas & oil to all the hard-working men who used to haul gravel here), Chester & Hester had to kind of reinvent themselves. And since this former sand & gravel pit is now a world-famous archaeological site ... Well, they're getting lots of looky-loos lately. Tourists driving out to see if they can spot any dinosaur bones and then going away disappointed, because (according the backstory that the Imagineers have put together for Dinoland, U.S.A. ) this site is now closed to the public.

Sensing that there's money to be made here if they just give the tourists what they wants, Chester & Hester transform their remote gas station into this dinosaur-themed roadside attraction.

"And where does the Dino Institute fit into Dinoland, U.S.A.'s overall story?," you query. Well, that same wealthy benefactor who initially bought this sand & gravel pit for that unnamed university then became obsessed with the central mystery of this amazing archaeological site. As in: Why is it that so many perfectly preserved dinosaur skeletons can be found in this one spot? What exactly happened here millions & millions of years ago?

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And the only way to solve this particular mystery is - of course - to travel back into time and then attempt to observe whatever it was that actually caused this massive dino die-off. So this wealthy benefactor then pours billions into the creation of the Dino Institute, which specialized in chronological research. Which then results in the invention of the Time Rover. And then ... Wait a minute. We're kind of getting away from what was supposed to be the main focus of today's Why For column. Which was the Excavator.

 Anyway ... In the initial mythology that the Imagineers worked out for Dinoland, U.S.A., the Excavator was supposedly to be a piece of equipment which was left over from this archaeological site's sand-and-gravel-pit days. It was this series of ore cars that had once been used to haul materials up out of the heart of this pit over to the area where the dump trucks got loaded up. But over time, due to over-digging, as the sand in this pit began to shift, the Excavator began to be really unsafe to operate.

So the sand and gravel company then basically shut this series of ore cars down. And the Excavator stands empty and abandoned for a few years, becoming even more rickety and unsafe. And then that wealthy benefactor buys this sand-and-gravel pit and sets all of these crazy college students loose on this massive archaeological site.

Close-up of initial Disney's Animal Kingdom concept painting
which shows where the Excavator was originally supposed to
be built inside of the borders of Dinoland, U.S.A. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"And what do these college kids do with this obviously unsafe piece of industrial equipment?," you ask. Why they fire it up again, of course. Not only because the Excavator is fun for them to ride. But also because they're now using these old, rusty ore cars to haul some of the larger dinosaur bones that they've discovered around this archaeological site back to base camp.

Which explains the whole " .... section of the dig supposedly too dangerous to enter" part of the Excavator's mythology. And for the " ... Somehow, we've gotten in and are having a real good time" part of this backstory ... As Guests moved through the queue for this proposed Dinoland, U.S.A. attraction towards the load / unload area, they were to have walked past literally dozens of "Condemned" signs. Not to mention all sorts of safety barriers that this sand-and-gravel-pit's workmen had set up that the college students have recently pulled down.

As for the layout of this proposed DAK thrill ride, the Imagineers were looking to one-up Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. So instead of rolling past a T-Rex fossil that was sticking out of this attraction's rockwork ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... On the Excavator, your ore car was actually supposed to zoom through a massive dinosaur skeleton.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And before you came back into the load / unload area, your ore car was supposed to loop by Chester & Hester's. Where one of the folk art dinosaur sculptures that they'd built for their roadside attraction would suddenly lurch to life and then menace a trainload of tourists.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

This sounds like a really fun attraction, don't you think? So why wasn't Dinoland, U.S.A.'s Excavator ever built?

Well, to be blunt, the Imagineers learned a lot of hard lessons on Disney's Animal Kingdom. Chief among these is that - when you're building an attraction which is supposed to be used to display animals - much of your budget is going to spent on things that the public never ever sees or appreciates. Perimeter fencing and safety moats, for starters. Not to mention all of those back-of-the-house barns where your ridiculously expensive menagerie then goes to bed down for the night. Which has to be custom-built because (of course) a facility that fits a giraffe isn't going to work for an elephant or a hippo.

And as the projected cost of what was then-known-as Disney's Wild Animal Kingdom began to mount (quickly moving from its originally-budgeted $600 million to over $850 million), pieces of this project began falling by the wayside. First to be dropped was Beastlie Kingdomme, which was cut as an Opening Day "land" for this theme park back in January of 1994.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Next to be pushed back was the Excavator. Mostly because the Imagineers felt that - if they just reused the ride vehicle & track layout which had been developed for the Indiana Jones Adventure (which - let's remember - was supposed to open at Disneyland Park in March of 1995) for Countdown to Extinction / Dinosaur ... Well, that was a way to get a thrill ride into Disney's Animal Kingdom's opening day assortment of attractions without then having to spend all of the time & the money necessary to design & develop a custom-built coaster like the Excavator.

"So once Disney's Animal Kingdom opened in April of 1998, why didn't the Imagineers then circle back around to the idea of building the Excavator?," you ask. "I mean, clearly WDI thought that this theme park needed a coaster / runaway mine train ride. Otherwise they never would have built Expedition Everest. So why didn't they just go ahead with construction of the Excavator?"

Well, you have to remember that - right after Disney's Animal Kingdom opened - two of the main complaints that Guests had about this "Nahtazu" was A) there weren't enough rides, shows and attractions here to warrant calling DAK a full-day theme park and B) very few of Animal Kingdom's attractions were kid friendly.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

So given that WDI felt that it had to address these particular Guest concerns quickly, the Imagineers took the DAK expansion pad which had been set aside for the Excavator and then built Chester & Hester's Dino-Rama right on top of that. Which was this brand-new mini-land that featured kid-friendly carnival rides like TriceraTop Spin and Primeval Whirl.

And as for the Excavator ride concept ... Well, for a time, it was part of the initial ride line-up for Hong Kong Disneyland.  In the official November 1999 announcement of this 126-hectare theme park, Adventureland was supposed to have been home to a high-profile attraction which was supposed to have given Guests ...

... the opportunity to venture into a wild untamed world and ride a roller coaster through a dark jungle filled with mysterious surprises.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And according to what I've heard from the Imagineers who actually worked on this proposed HKDL attraction, this coaster was initially supposed to have been the replacement for Adventureland's Jungle Cruise. Which (back in 1999, anyway) was thought to be too slow, low tech & old-fashioned to really appeal to the sophisticated folks who live in Hong Kong.

So in the place of The Jungle Cruise, the Imagineers wanted to build a thrill ride that took the Excavator's ride system and then married that to all of the AA figures that Guests see as they roll through DAK's "Dinosaur" ride. Now place this coaster / runaway mine train inside of a thick, Primeval-looking jungle and you've then got a thrill ride which would blow the doors off of Universal's Jurassic Park River Adventure.

And as for this proposed coaster's post-show area (i.e. where the kids who were too small to ride could wait while their parents / older siblings were experiencing this HKDL attraction) ... Well, WDI was looking to possibly reuse that Boneyard play-and-exploration area which they had initially designed & built for Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But as happened with Disney's Animal Kingdom back in 1994, the financial realities that the Imagineers were dealing with when it came to the Penny's Bay worksite eventually resulted in a severe reduction-in-scope on this particular project. So instead of building a version of Disneyland which would have replaced Frontierland's placid Rivers of America with a whitewater raft ride (which - for all of you Disney's America fans out there - was WDI just attempting to repurpose the Lewis and Clark Expedition attraction concept which had initially been developed for the Native American section of this history-based theme park) ... What Hong Kong Disneyland wound up with instead was a super-sized version of Adventureland.  But instead of having Frontierland's steamboats and canoes float past Tom Sawyer's Island, this theme park's central waterway had Jungle Cruise launches chugging past Tarzan's Treehouse.

But that's kind of the nature of the beast when it comes to Disney theme parks. The Imagineers propose something during the initial development phase of a project. And then the construction timeline shifts and/or the budget gets revised. And as a direct result, an attraction which sounds like it would have been a heck of a lot of fun never quite makes it off of the drawing board.

Anyway, that's the story of DAK's Excavator. Please remember that if you have any Disney-related questions which you'd like to see answered as part of a future edition of this JHM column to send your queries along to [email protected].

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  • You meant to write "ore" cars and not "oar" cars, right?

  • Adam --

    Your right ... Er ... You're right. I meant ore car instead of oar car. Thanks for pointing out that typo. It's now been corrected.


  • Another great Why For! Thanks, Jim.

  • another cool why for story of what attraction never became a reality. for figured in the end costs besides trying to figure out how to pull off the thing is what caused the Imagineers in the end to wind up having to accept the Excavator was never ment to be and thus denying vistors what could have been a future fun attraction.

  • Very little of Dino-Rama is kid friendly despite the attempt. The rides are geared for 6 year olds and higher. Nothing is suitable for 2 to 5 year olds, who must settle for the exhibits and shows.

    That Excavator backstory is not only lame. It is a pedantic, boring, and needlessly complicated backstory. The ride is unoriginal. It borrows too much from other rides without much innovation. Passing through a dinosaur skeleton for a second time via the Excavator instead of Big Thunder Mountain is as exciting as digging out dinosaur bones. By definition, it isn't exciting. It is a long dragged out scientific experiment that tests everyone's patience.

    I can't wait for Avatar. There is more promise with this new land. May Dino-Rama disappear; however, I hope to learn more on where they will put Avatar whether at Dino-Rama or Mickey's Camp.

  • Visited DAK in 2007. Still nothing to do there. Safari ride is joke.

    Can I get my money and that day of my life back?

  • Was the Excavator supposed to be a traditional style wooden roller coaster (it appears that it could have been from the pre-production artwork), or would it have been a steel coaster with wooden (or simulated wood) supports?

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