Is Animal Kindom a Failure?
The following excerpt was written in 2004. The author has gone on to update the piece with more current attendance figures and recent additions to the park like Expedition Everest and the Asia dining and retail complex. You can read the entire manuscript for free at Mouse Trapped.
Six years old and still not potty-trained, Disney's Animal Kingdom is an arguable flop. Maybe you already know this. Maybe you don't and your nostrils are starting to flare up because someone thinks that your beloved park is more than just a few coats shy of perfection. Either way, don't leave me now. Not yet. Wait until I've said my piece and then see how far off we really are.
Animal Kingdom is a lot like opera. It's something that the masses either avoid or fail to appreciate once exposed. There are those who feel that half a day is a generous allotment of time to devote to the bland park experience while others can spend hours admiring the finest etched details on the Tree of Life.
Animal Kingdom fans, like opera regulars, relish the fact that they are in the minority. They find it intellectually stimulating that their perspective is unique and embrace the false notion that engrossing themselves deeper into their appreciation will elevate them from the ranks of the brainless simpletons. They justify their fascination as artistic and one that requires a high caliber of intelligence to grasp. That would be fine except for one thing:
Opera has failed to attract a wider audience and so has Animal Kingdom. Since its first full year of operation in 1999 attendance has fallen every single year until a flat performance in 2003. According to Amusement Business:
-- 1999 -- 8.6 million guests
-- 2000 -- 8.3 million guests (down 4%)
-- 2001 -- 7.7 million guests (down 7%)
-- 2002 -- 7.3 million guests (down 6%)
-- 2003 -- 7.3 million guests (flat)
Before you begin to blame the faltering economy and the global funk in tourism for the perpetual slide consider two things. First, in 2000 every single Disney World park except Animal Kingdom grew its numbers. Two, in 2002 the area's other new park (Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure) managed to grow its turnstile clicks. Losing 15% of your audience over the course of five years is pitiful in an industry where word of mouth travels fast.
Birth of a Disappointment
After weeks of guest previews and dodging bad press over animal fatalities at the park Animal Kingdom officially opened on April 22, 1998. Appealing to early risers with its 7am opening and closing near dusk, would a dozen hours be enough for guests to fully enjoy everything that Disney's newest destination had to offer?
Anyone parked by the exit turnstiles found out quickly as the masses began scrambling out of the park by noon. Much to Disney's dismay people weren't "getting" the park. They would rush to the park's signature safari ride attraction, wander about to take in a show or a few of the limited number of rides and attractions then bolt before the Florida heat melted the flesh off their bones.
Disney responded by adopting the herding strategies of its parking attendants. Cast members lined up down the oft-traveled path from the front gate to Africa's Kilimanjaro Safari and tried to disrupt the beeline by directing patrons to less popular sights and attractions along the way. It proved to be a flimsy lasso so the company tried to direct traffic again by opening the park an hour later. Failing that, it bumped the opening ahead another hour to 9am. All that produced was even more sun-doused guests heading out an hour or two later than the original noontime exodus. So Disney shaved a pair of hours off its closing schedule too. Billed as a vacationer's paradise, Animal Kingdom had become an ironic 9-to-5 park. So was Animal Kingdom an all-day park or not? By squeezing the accordion of operating hours, the answer was moot. Disney had made its newest Florida theme park a half-day destination by default.
A Three Hour Tour
Literary lore has it that Dr. Dolittle talked to the animals. But if Disney had talked to its guests maybe it wouldn't have opted to "do little" to improve Walt Disney World's fourth gate while attendance took to quicksand.
Approaching the Animal Kingdom parking lot the problems start becoming evident. Visible above the area's lush green landscape is the freezer-burned broccoli floret top of the Tree of Life. As a sculpture, it's breathtaking. But to see its sickly pale hues protruding from the distance above the vibrant Florida greenery it's a leafy testament to the park's phoniness. Folks expecting an animal park to serve as a living, breathing respite from Central Florida's other audioanimatronic-intensive havens realize that they have been duped even before they're sent snaking through the asphalt.
Once inside, it only gets worse. A pair of hilly indistinguishable paths lead you to the park's hub. The thick foliage accompanied by unremarkable animal displays would be forgettable if only for one lingering distinction: it may be the last good piece of natural shade that you will be subjected to as you navigate your way through the exposed park.
The paths meet up again at a rustic bridge. To your right you'll notice the docked remnants below of the Animal Kingdom's first failed attraction. Discovery Boats opened with the park in 1998. It was a credibility killer. As one of the park's inappropriately named rides, guests soon realized that the only thing to discover on the Discovery cruises was that they had just wasted a good chunk of time floating around on a boat ride with nothing to see. Yes, there was a malfunctioning fire-breathing dragon tucked away in a cave and the serenity that filled up the void of nothingness may have been appreciated by some if it wasn't for the pointless wait for the intermittent boats.
Thankfully riders were forced to get off after experiencing only half of the journey around Discovery Island. In a tribute to bonehead architecture and a wink to Jungle Cruise comedy the park had set up a pair of docks paradox. While it would take one roughly five minutes to walk around Discovery Island to get from one dock to the other, the transportation attraction itself would run you an inconvenient half hour at least to accomplish the same thing. If the first half of the ride didn't completely snooze you, get off, get back in line, and complete the roundtrip of boredom.
Disney tried to make it work. It tied it to its Radio Disney brand as an excuse to pump out bubblegum pop music while animal handlers boarded the boat with small critters to showcase. The message was clear. Guests were being told to look inside the boat and listen to tinny AM music because there was nothing to see or hear outside of the boat.
Realizing that docks can also serve as character greeting areas the Discovery attraction was axed. Failure was put out of its misery but the same can't be said for many of the park's other shortcomings.
We'll go counterclockwise in our tour, which is fitting because we will be going back in time to Dinoland U.S.A. As one of the 30,000 outlets in the world where one can chow down on McDonald's fries and Chicken McNuggets this one comes with a lofty cover charge at the front gate. Still, the quaint premise of grad students partying at an archeological dig site works as an adequate theme - and a jolly good excuse for Disney to play it cheap by resorting to carny-influenced games, attractions and gaudy colors to dot the landscape.
Crossing under the boneyard's bridge as music by the likes of The B-52s and R.E.M. play could have set up something special. But the boneyard is lifeless with an ordinary collection of net climbs, slides and even the actual digging area which accomplished little beyond placing gravel in your kid's shoes and socks. Further out you have the park's only dark ride - Dinosaur. It opened as Countdown to Extinction but you already know that names don't stick around too long at Animal Kingdom. Once Disney's computer-rendered dud Dinosaur hit the local multiplex the ride adopted the new moniker. Why? Yes, there is an iguanodon and you are dealing with a meteor shower bent on causing extinction. But anyone who expects talking dinos or monkeys of love or any semblance of plot points from the flick that the ride is named after will be sorely disappointed.
As it stands, Dinosaur is an attraction with animatronics so cheap and a ride layout so limited that the lighting is practically pitch black. Anyone who has been to Disneyland and experienced the Indiana Jones ride will tell you that the West Coast offering is far superior to Dinosaur. So why is Dinosaur as the second generation of the same EMV technology that made the original Disneyland ride such a lousy follow-up? That's a question for the bean counters who scrapped the budget and the imagineers who were forced to surrender any form of enhancement to the ride's iffy storyline for an attraction that could have been a rival to Kilimanjaro Safaris in drawing the morning crowd the other way.
But at least the air-conditioner is running while you're inside the Dinosaur building. Head out and Primeval Whirl and Triceratops Spin are baking uninvitingly under the Florida heat. Primeval Whirl is a spinning mouse coaster, much like the portable models you may have seen at your local fair. Triceratops Spin is Dumbo with a horn in his forehead. While a lot of purists are only offended by the carnival games that Walt often denounced, I don't see any difference between that and the video game arcade installed years earlier at the Magic Kingdom's Space Mountain and before that in Disneyland's Tomorrowland. Come to think of it, with the way Disney overcharges for its food concessions all over the parks, at least these kiosks give you a shot to actually receive something commensurate to the value of the money that you're doling out.
The last Dinoland attraction is the Tarzan Rocks show. Frumpy housewives who fantasize of unattainable chiseled men wearing nothing but a loincloth and kiddies who enjoy monkeys on wheels flock to this musical stage show. The show isn't bad until you study the park's map. What is Tarzan doing in Dinoland? Animal Kingdom brags about its massive 500 acre layout yet it couldn't wedge this show in Africa where it belongs? Please!
Running along, Asia comes next. When the park first opened Asia wasn't ready. Its Tiger Rapids Run attraction that would send riders through raging white waters with tigers circling about wasn't ready. The conceptual artwork was impressive. Unfortunately Tiger Rapids Run never opened. The problem? No tigers. When things go wrong Animal Kingdom resorts to its prime directive - rename the puppy and water down the theme. Out of the remnants of Tiger Rapids Run, Kali River Rapids was born.
After being fed an anti-logging message you board your raft and begin to ascend a wood-paneled lift hill. Yes, you read right. No matter how many trees Disney had to take down to build this attraction and supply it with moving parts you are supposed to believe that Disney is the good guy with the anti-logging message.
You will see the environmental hypocrisy everywhere in the park. Enjoy the Kilimanjaro Safari's message that poachers who kill animals for their hide are evil as you squirm snugly in your upholstered safari bench seat. Take in the animal preservation exhibits as the smell of burnt critter flesh permeates from Flame Tree Barbecue and the other meat-intensive eateries. No matter where you stand ideologically no one appreciates being preached one message by the preacher who is practicing another.
But Kali River Rapids does take you past a fiery scene in which a logger's truck is stuck in the mud. Is the message here that the logger is more devoted to his craft by working while the eco-friendly family that runs the rafting business chose to close down for a break of worship? Is it a more gripping philosophical beat that nature is more powerful than human machinery? You expect the rest of the ride to reveal more, but, sadly, that's it. You go down small slide, bob around the water some and watch other park guests try to squirt your circular raft with water out of the trunk of elephant sculptures.
There are three rapid rides in Central Florida. You have Congo River Rapids at Busch Gardens Tampa. You have Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges at Islands of Adventure. Kali River Rapids is the driest of the three. We're not talking about the soak factor here, even though that's certainly true as Kali is by far the lamest and tamest of the three. No, it's also the driest in terms of themed elements, which is saying a lot when you consider that Congo River Rapids has no theme at all.
A routine bird show lies between Asia and Africa. Then we get to the park's signature attraction. Kilimanjaro Safaris is a successful ride. How can you tell? Well, it hasn't had to change its name yet, right? However, it doesn't mean that the ride didn't evolve for the worse under fire. During the park previews the poaching storyline was blunt. Big Red, the elephant matriarch, was dead. Her bloodied carcass was on display giving the riders a visually emotional attachment in finding Little Red alive and grabbing the tusk-hunting poachers.
The outcry over the dead fake elephant was enough to scrap the carcass even while the previews were still taking place. Would it be less objectionable if the safari simply alluded to Big Red's death and left it at that? Disney's animated classics like Dumbo and Bambi were childhood favorites despite the graphic images of the main characters losing their mother. Would it work? No. Some guests were still offended that Little Red was orphaned at the ride's end. Catering to the lowest common denominator, Little Red's mother was written back into the script, alive and well. Once found, Little Red is getting ready to be taken away to be reunited with its mom.
I love happy endings but what does that leave behind? The safari's finale is now in shambles as the quest to find incompetent poachers whose aim is so bad that they couldn't hit an elephant is a diluted victory. The food prep staff at the nearby Tusker House has a better animal kill-rate than these poachers. The urgency is gone and, if you look around your safari vehicle, you'll notice that many of the first-time guests have no idea what is going on. Yes, the ride works as a great way to see a variety of animals through the first part of the expedition but it loses some of that appeal due to its flawed ending. Instead of an exclamation mark Disney opted for a semicolon; pity.
Africa also has a train station. With the promise of Conservation Station and Rafiki's Planet Watch as a destination guests board on Wildlife Express trains with two levels of seats that only face the outer left side of the train. There's no reason to question the forced perspective. If Disney has walled off one side of the train and has you facing the other you expect to see a concentration of breathtaking vistas.
You fool! You get nothing. Through the shrubbery and surprisingly dull backstage animal care areas you wind around the train track to the other station. In yet another blueprint blunder the station isn't near an attraction at all. You actually have to walk through a needlessly long winding path before you get to a petting zoo and a building that houses a few minor exhibits. Why isn't there more? Why isn't the station closer? Conservation Station knows nothing about conserving your time or your energy. But as bad as it gets you're only halfway done. You still have to make that long walk back to the train station for yet another dull ride around to where you once started. While Disney did upgrade the ridiculous path with manned exhibits and sparse shade it's little more than Band-Aid strips to cover up for horrendous spatial planning.
Camp Minnie-Mickey is the last spoke off the Discovery Island hub. This is the home to Festival of the Lion King. It's a superb show. It is. There is also a Pocahontas show staged here. How good is it? Let's just say that it was originally called Grandmother Willow's Grove, okay? But how many people enter Camp Minnie-Mickey only to find that they are either too early or too late for the shows or simply not interested in character greeting stations? Camp Crystal Lake has more life than this Camp.
Yes, some will tell you that there was a master plan of attaching Beastly Kingdom here. Mythological creatures were clearly part of the plan as dragons adorn the original logo and are still etched all over the park's entrance. Beastly Kingdom would have added thrills, family diversions and given Camp Minnie-Mickey some balance with perpetually loading attractions. Five years later the necessary expansion has yet to materialize. Naturally, the record crowds and extended operating hours have failed to materialize as well.
That tree, ye of pastel foliage at a distance but of stunning art at close range, houses the 3D film It's Tough to be a Bug. As a collection of cute gags, clever parlor tricks and one of the best closing credit zingers in parkdom it works. But in a park crying for family attractions you will never witness a show where less than a half-dozen kids freak out and have to be ushered out of the theater by a frantic parent. The warnings are made but this is a park with so little to offer in terms of enclosed rides and attractions that young families rough it out anyway and are often sent scrambling out to pay the price.
In Summary of Subtraction
That's pretty much the park. Right. I left out the animal habitat exhibits. Gorilla Falls (sorry, it was renamed Pangani Forest Exploration Trail for the same reason that you can't ride Tiger Rapids Run) in Africa and Maharajah Jungle Trek in Asia are cool walkthroughs, but they are no more elaborate than the habitats you will find at your local zoo. Nobody is paying more than $50 to spend a few hours at the zoo.
But, really, that's most of the park. Doesn't sound too inspiring does it? Of course not. Disney knows this. It's why the ride that may finally win back a growth in attendance -- the Everest roller coaster in Asia -- is going in. However, it won't open until 2006 (probably in 2005). Disney will have sat on this stagnant park for eight years before giving the park the second marquee attraction that will get the turnstiles clicking. Pity the patient shareholder. Suffer the sweltering patron.
For now, what can you say about the only major theme park in Central Florida that is sometimes keeping shorter hours than the area's water parks. Don't buy the argument that the abridged hours are related to the animals. During the summer of 2003, while Animal Kingdom was closing as early as 5pm Busch Gardens Tampa was open until 10:30pm and Sea World Orlando wrapped up the day at 10pm. Even if they had to close down some of the live animal attractions -- like the Future World animals in EPCOT that must be put to bed by 6pm daily -- surely the park can stay open much later, right? No. The reason the park is closing at 5pm is because it's already nearly empty the hour before.
Things have gotten so bad that the park is bribing guests with nearly free kid meals under the condition that they extend their stay beyond lunch. Don't believe me? For $5.99 guests can buy Meal Plus Certificates for their children at most of the counter-service restaurants (it is $11.99 for adults). That includes a kid meal of their choice and vouchers for two more items. One is for a free popcorn or ice cream bar, which can run as much as $3 for the Tollhouse cookie ice cream sandwich. The other voucher is for a free bottle of water or soda -- which retails for $2.50. The beverage that comes with every kid meal is worth more than $0.49 so they are literally paying your children to have lunch, as long as they agree to the hostage situation because the tickets are supposedly (though not exactly enforced) to be used later that day.
"Nahtazu," Disney tells you. This is not a zoo. Yes, but it's also not an adequate full-day park experience. Nahtaday? Located in the heart of Florida where the sun is fierce and thunderstorms violent, most experienced park goers will suggest that you avoid Animal Kingdom on hot days or rainy days. With little to offer in terms of enclosed attractions it's sound advice. The problem is that just about every day in Florida is hot or rainy.
Six years into the fourth gate experiment and Animal Kingdom is still an incomplete attraction. Disney logic would dictate that a name change would be in order. But, you see, it used that trump card already when it had Mutual of Omaha objected to the park's original moniker: Disney's Wild Kingdom.
What's in a name? For a struggling park still rummaging for an identity it's the difference between John Doe and John Dough. That's the problem. If untapped potential was a currency Animal Kingdom would be a miser. But it's not.
It's not too late to save the place. Here are five ways to fix Animal Kingdom:
1. Beastly Kingdom. Build it. It's true that Islands of Adventure stole your thunder with Dueling Dragons but that's no reason to abandon the concept. Make your dragon coaster superior, incorporating many of the actual fire and water elements that will be used in the upcoming Tokyo DisneySea coaster. Yes, this would be in addition to Everest. Tampa Bay Busch Gardens keeps substantially longer operating hours thanks to its collection of six coasters. But always remember: Win over the thrillseeker but don't forget the young families who need a magical dark ride or two to really justify a visit to the park. A dark ride where guests board a horse-shaped vehicle that is transformed into a mythical unicorn (with the horn sprouting up from the front of the car) or magical castle ride would be a great accompaniment.
2. Fine dining. Why is every park in Animal Kingdom counter service? Yes, their offerings are decent but if you force folks through the turnstile to take a lunch break at Rainforest Café they won't come back. Every Disney park has a top-notch table service restaurant but Animal Kingdom. Change that. If you can find a way to situate the eatery with glass-walled observation areas leading into Maharajah Jungle Trek, Pangani Exploration Trail or even the Kilimanjaro Safaris animal viewing areas itself, do it. Giving a family an hour or more under an air-conditioned environment will refresh their batteries and keep them fresh enough to stay longer as opposed to a hurried half-hour experience at one of the counter-served meals.
3. Discovery Boats. Bring them back. Abandon the dock by the park's entrance as you don't want this to be the first attraction that guests see a queue for. Instead, rely on the Asia dock for round-trip excursions. But don't bank on the uninspiring vegetation to win guests over. In pockets of the river that aren't visible from the walking areas of the park add audioanimatronic scenes with characters from The Jungle Book and The Lion King and Tarzan. If you want to really ham it up you don't need something as divisive as music where tastes will always vary. Just name it Max & Goofy's Discovery Boats and alternate between the two characters to come on board with an amusing pre-recorded narrative alongside the boat's driver. Yes, two characters (if not more) so you can work shift transitions and you won't risk having the same character visible in two places at the same time.
4. Wild Wednesdays. While a lack of attractions has forced patrons out early, so has the park's mentality that there is nothing worth doing after 5pm or 6pm. Change it, one day at a time. Kick off Wild Wednesdays, where the park is open until night. Even if you have to close off certain areas of the park make it a festive affair with unique dinner menu items, merchandise specials and one-of-a-kind character, music and parade performances that will associate Animal Kingdom with a park that doesn't disappear before the sun does.
5. Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. You took some heat from Disney purists for removing the hokey Fantasyland attraction. Win them back. Camp Minnie-Mickey is dying for an actual family dark ride. This would be a void-filler. While it would work stylistically in Chester & Hester's Dinoland with its tongue-in-cheek carnival simplicity, where's the dinosaur? Sure, you can replace the hell ending with a time-hopping jaunt into prehistoric times. It would be Mr. Toad's wild ride, indeed.
This was an excerpt of the upcoming e-book Disney Whirl: A Cynic's Perspective. It was made available exclusively to ParkOutlet.com. It is still not complete but the e-book in progress is available for free at MouseTrapped.net.
If you want to check out Animal Kingdom to come up with your own opinion, the closest hotels are Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge or Disney's All Star Sports. More Walt Disney World park information can be found at MyDisney.com. Other Disney World resort hotels include:
-- Disney's All Star Movies -- At the resort
-- Disney's Wilderness Lodge -- At the resort
-- Disney's Grand Floridian -- At the resort
-- Disney's Contemporary Hotel -- Next to the Magic Kingdom
-- Disney's Polynesian -- At the resort
-- Disney's All Star Sports -- At the resort
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