I’m just going to come out and say it: Disney’s Animal Kingdom used to be my least favorite theme park. My aversion to DAK can be traced back to childhood, when, on a family vacation in 2000, I became convinced that a rabid Carnotaurus was in actual pursuit of our time-traveling rover. Had Disney managed to construct the first-ever full-sized, sprinting Audio-Animatronic dinosaur, it would have marked an unparalleled technological advance for the company; in its current form, however, DAK’s DINOSAUR attraction is certainly still intense enough to spook a nervous 10-year-old… or a nervous 28-year-old.
Combined with my general distaste for the stinkbug and leg tickler effects in It’s Tough to Be a Bug! — another semi-traumatic experience on the same ill-fated family trip — I developed an overwhelmingly negative view of the park that persisted for nearly two decades. When I returned to Walt Disney World for the first time as an adult in 2016, I conveniently “forgot” to add DAK to my itinerary as I reacquainted myself with all of my favorite attractions at Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
I might have happily gone on this way forever had Disney not debuted Pandora – The World of Avatar in the spring of 2017, and with it, a new E ticket attraction called Flight of Passage. While I felt no strong impetus to explore any kind of Avatar-themed land, its signature attraction was receiving rave reviews across the board.
“Pandora’s Flight of Passage made me cry literal tears of joy,” Erika Owen wrote in Travel and Leisure, explaining that she’d never felt so utterly transported by a theme park attraction before. (I may be biased here as a self-proclaimed cynic, but I always listen to the skeptics when it comes to reviews like these. If an attraction is innovative and entrancing enough to overcome even the most ambivalent or anti-Disney guest, chances are much higher that you — or in this case, I — will also enjoy your own experience with it.)
Similar reviews kept pouring in from bloggers and theme park aficionados. Flight of Passage was, by various accounts, “immersive,” “dynamic,” and “beautifully clear,” incorporating flawless 3D visuals and exceptional synchronization to enhance its realistic narrative (relatively speaking — we are talking about flying on the back of a banshee, after all). I was skeptical of the hype, but undeniably intrigued by the ride’s premise and newfangled technology.
In December 2018, my fiancé and I planned a 10-day trip to Walt Disney World. Neither of us had set foot in the resort in years (two for me, 20+ for him), and expectations were approaching an all-time high. Between Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party and a FASTPASS reservation for Slinky Dog Dash, I reluctantly penciled in one day at Animal Kingdom and tried to muster up my best grin-and-bear it attitude, still certain I would be disappointed by the park the way I had been as a child. When the day came, we pushed past the turnstiles and I vowed, however halfheartedly, to keep an open mind.
Together, we sidestepped the Tree of Life Theater and its creepy-crawly performers and swiped the stranded Iguanodon from under the falling meteor as quickly as possible (un-eager as I was to confront the Carnotaurus-shaped nightmares of my childhood). With every hour we spent in the park, though, I felt my reservations start to dissolve among DAK’s abundant wildlife, flourishing foliage, and breathtaking vistas. Even on a busy day, Animal Kingdom lacked the frenetic vibe of Magic Kingdom or Disney’s Hollywood Studios, instead presenting an immaculate green oasis that seemed to directly contradict my preconceived ideas of what a thrill-based vacation destination should look like.
Just like they did with Epcot in 1982, Disney had once again subverted the model of a traditional theme park. They transformed the 403-acre grounds into a safe harbor for endangered animals while spearheading conservation efforts and developing some of the most innovative attractions among any Disney park to date… and I had been sleeping on it the entire time.
As twilight fell over the floating mountains of Pandora, I instinctively reached down to stroke the back of the banshee I was riding. With tears welling up in my eyes and a smile on my face, it finally hit me. I didn’t hate Animal Kingdom: not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.
Can you tell Animal Kingdom has been on my brain this week?
Over at Theme Park Tourist, I published the second installment of my Disney Parks history series and took a behind-the-scenes look at DAK’s lost attractions, Jane Goodall’s contribution to the iconic Tree of Life, and the 400-lb. tiger that convinced then-CEO Michael Eisner to incorporate animal attractions in the park:
“Before Animal Kingdom played host to one of today’s most technologically advanced and awe-inspiring theme park attractions, before it debuted the most fearsome Audio-Animatronic in Disney Parks history, before it opened its exquisitely-crafted, naturally-sourced habitats to over 2,000 exotic animals, it was little more than a glorified dirt pit and fireworks testing grounds. According to Disney Legend Marty Sklar (as interviewed by Chuck Schmidt for Disney’s Animal Kingdom: An Unofficial History), the patch of land located at the southwesternmost tip of the Walt Disney World property was so remote and so barren that Imagineers could borrow shovelfuls of dirt to fill in empty areas around Epcot, without once thinking that the land would eventually be repurposed as Disney’s fourth theme park.
Of course, you’d never know that by looking at the park today. After its controversial opening on Earth Day 1998, Disney’s Animal Kingdom has become one of the most beloved and celebrated parks across any of the company’s six properties, noted for its lush, colorful landscape, captivating wildlife, and superlative thrill rides. As with each of Disney’s previous projects, however, the company hit a fair number of bumps in the road before they got to their final destination.”
Find the rest of the article on Theme Park Tourist here.