The Four Dragon Kings of the Theme Parks

When it comes to mythical beasts, dragons are royalty.  Unicorns are upper class, a little bit snooty, sort of pampered.  Griffins are middle class, your sort of everyday run-of-the-mill hybrid creatures, and jackalopes are like the serfs tending to the fields and making jokes about the unicorns behind their backs.  The other mythical beasts fall somewhere in the middle (except sea serpents, who are a bunch of pathetic losers).

Dragons are the ones that everybody loves.  They fly, they breathe fire, they horde gold.  They’re just like capitalists, if capitalists could fly and breathe fire.

Does not count.

When it comes to fantasy stories, dragons always make an appearance.  Want to frighten a small village?  Call in a dragon.  Need to trap a princess in a tower?  Give her to a dragon.  Want a knight to prove his worth?  Ask him to alphabetize the periodic table … while playing chess with a dragon.  And since Disney and Fantasy often go hand in hand, it may surprise you to learn that in all of Walt Disney World’s magical theme parks, there are only four dragons.

Apparently dragons are territorial.  This may come as a shock to anyone who has not felt the crunch of his predecessors’ bones beneath his boots on his way to a dragon’s cave, but it’s true.  When Disney World came along, the Dragon Congress got together and decided how they were going to divvy up the parks.  According to old dragon bylaws, each park can contain only one dragon king.  All other dragons were strictly verboten (a dragonish term meaning “tonsils” — dragons are not very good at vocabulary, but sometimes luck into phrases that actually make sense).

Animal Kingdom

Long time Disney fans know that Animal Kingdom included a dragon from the very beginning.  A dragon still appears as part of the logo and a dragon head can be found above one of the ticket booths at the entrance to the park.

There was in fact to be a whole land known as Beastly Kingdomme, a realm of mythical creatures which featured a major thrill ride known as Dragon Tower.  Animal Kingdom was like a junkie in need of a capacity fix, but when the economy tanked shortly after Animal Kingdom opened, the expensive new land was axed in favor of a spinning coaster, a Dumbo clone, and the largest orange dinosaur money can buy.

We all win.

Beastly Kingdomme rumors still pop up from time to time, but the Dragon Tower coaster is probably off the drawing boards, since another local theme park already has a similar ride, called Dragon Gravel Parking Lot.

Dragon cave, from the Harambe side.

But while the Tower never did emerge, a Dragon King nonetheless rules the Animal Kingdom.  His lair is hidden now, around a secret bend of the river that was once plied by the Discovery River Boats.  As the boats traversed the waterway past Camp Minnie-Mickey, they would encounter the Dragon King himself, apparently in a bit of discomfort after consuming a meal of Mexicans Mexican food the night before.  Large blasts of flame would spurt from his cave as the boat passed, and you could hear his ferocious growls.  Now that the River Boats are long gone, the only evidence of him is in a rock sculpture on the banks of the river, visible only from the Camp Minnie Mickey bridge.

Epcot

Epcot also had a dragon from day one.  He was a friendly little feller, with two tiny wings, horns of a steer, and royal purple pigment.  That’s right, it’s famed naturalist John Muir.

No, no, of course it was Figment, the star of the Imagination pavilion.  Unlike his brother over at Animal Kingdom, Figment is a happy dragon, and a rather inquisitive one at that.  He has become one of the most beloved of all park characters, and even possessed a bit of political savvy, staging a comeback after he had been deposed for a few years following a disastrous rehab of Journey Into Imagination

Famous Comebacks

Figment still delights guests to this day, with such magical experiences as blaring train horns and skunk smells.  Hey, blame the writers; it’s not his fault.  He also leads the way in Epcot merchandising, with his own keychains, plush dolls, figurines, t-shirts, and nose hair clippers.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

At first, it’s hard to remember where the Dragon King of the Studios lives.  But he’s not really hidden at all.  He’s out in the open, playing host to one of the park’s core attractions.  But his presence is strictly a two-dimensional one.  He’s also one of two dragons on this list to star in his own motion picture.

Mushu the Dragon was Mulan’s funny, tiny sidekick, a dragon with a heart of gold.  As he explains in the Magic of Disney Animation, he was originally supposed to be a two-headed dragon, but animators killed the idea when they realized that having two Eddie Murphy talking heads in the same movie might be like watching Norbit and Pluto Nash simultaneously.  For this, they were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

To be fair, Mushu’s show is funny enough and informative, without going on too long.  Its major downside is that it can’t live up to the original Back to Neverland, which featured an animated Robin Williams.  It does beg the question of what else might be different if Eddie Murphy replaced Robin Williams.

If you thought it was unwatchable before…

By now you’re probably wondering why Mushu is the king, and not Maleficent, who reigns over Fantasmic.  The answer is simple:  I forgot about her until after this article was mostly written.  But also, she appears only on select nights.  Plus, she’s really a fairy who happens to take dragon form.  Plus, she’s female, so she can’t be a king.  Please circle whichever excuse works best.

Magic Kingdom

Of all the Disney parks, one might expect the Magic Kingdom to have the strongest dragon presence.  It is after all the land of fairy tales and make-believe.  If this were Paris, we’d have no trouble finding the dragon, since he lives in the basement of Sleeping Beauty castle, and is probably the best animatronic dragon ever created.

But believe it or not, the Magic Kingdom had been without a dragon king for some time now, and only recently did he regain the crown.  With the return of the Main Street Electrical Parade, Elliot the Dragon now blows smoke and disappears for crowds every night, like the mob snitch that he is.

I have a great fondness for Elliot, mainly because of the disappearing gimmick, and the fact that his movie has faded into obscurity.  At the time when the Electrical Parade was being created, Elliot would have been a major new Disney star, that last gasp of 70s animation before the 80s came along and nearly destroyed everything.

Do kids today even know who Elliot is?  I doubt it.  But he’s still the highlight of the parade, and a wicked cool sight to see coming down the darkened Main Street, smoke pouring from his nostrils.  It’s pure Disney magic.

If only I could remember the name of the boy who owns him.

You’re Fat!

 

At least according to statistics you are.  If you are an American then chances are good that you can’t fit into those huge pants of yours and it’s all Disney’s fault.
 
Donald’s Lipitor prescription has not helped.
 
Disney is pushing the Disney Dining plan these days… hard.  It’s not because they are generous types who want guests to save money and have more convenience (regardless of what the promotional materials might say), no it is because they make more money that way.
 
Kobayashi knows how to work the system.
It has become a game of sorts for visitors who are on the dining plan to see just how much value they can squeeze out of the daily allotment of meals they have pre-purchased.  Can they order the most expensive item on the menu?  Can they score a reservation at the most desired (i.e.: expensive) restaurants? Can they somehow consume enough each day to validate the money they have already spent on meals?
 
Feel like a muffin?
Although the media may overly simplify the situation by showing stock slow motion montages of bloated bellies and muffin tops on the nightly news the truth is we are a nation of fat people.  Obesity rates are at an all time high and the United States is officially the fattest major nation in the world (a couple of tiny South Pacific island nations are even fatter, but they basically eat American diets now anyway).
 
Better get a bucket!
One might argue that creating a dining plan that rewards users for over consuming (and even challenges them to do so) is not very responsible, it is not really Disney’s fault.  We are a country of Mr. Creosotes cramming as much as we can fit down our gullets, hopefully stopping just before we burst.  Visit the Tokyo Disney Resort and you will find that “large” portions there (and in fact throughout Japan) would not pass for the smallest sizes we find here.  A “large” soft drink might be 12 ounces, not the 64-ounce monstrosities we commonly find in convenience stores and fast food joints.  You also will be hard pressed to find an obese person in Japan. Clearly this goes beyond the berms of Disney parks and is a cultural dilemma. 
 
More is NEVER enough.
Take a trip to the local strip of fast food chains and you will see some pretty incredible things.  KFC has the Double Down that does not even pretend to be anything more than it is: a fried chicken, mayo and bacon “sandwich” that might kill you before it hits your stomach.  Friendly’s now has a hamburger that replaces the bun with two full sized grilled cheese sandwiches!  What’s going on out there?  Have we all lost our minds? Of course we have the right to eat what we want and as long as I don’t get any second hand lard coming my way I’m OK with it, but I’m just saying…
 
NOT a joke!
But what about that dining plan?  Disney offers healthy alternatives… you could blow your dining credits on carrot sticks and apple slices, but you know you won’t.  And Disney does not exactly make the process easy to understand or simple in any way either.  Forget the idea of getting fat… your on vacation, but how do you know what is allowed and what is not?

Simple, easy and fun!
According to the current Disney Dining Plan you can choose either the regular “Dining Plan” or the more expensive and comprehensive “Deluxe Dining Plan” and then sweeten the deal with the “Wine and Dine” program if you choose.
Just follow these simple rules:
For the regular Dining Plan you’ll receive the following:
                2 Meals Per Day: For the regular Dining Plan you’ll receive one table service meal and one quick service meal each day of your stay. (At select restaurants)
                1 Snack Per Day: In addition to the 2 meals you’ll also receive 1 snack every day. A snack includes one of the following: frozen ice cream novelty, popsicle, fruit bar, popcorn scoop (single serving box), single serving grab bag of chips, single piece of whole fruit, 20-oz. bottle of Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite or Dasani water, medium fountain soft drink or juice, 12-oz. coffee, hot chocolate or hot tea.
DELUXE Dining Plan: This is a more flexible (and more expensive) option for diners where you’ll receive the following:
                3 Meals: On the Deluxe Dining Plan you’ll receive 3 meals each day of your stay. The 3 meals can be any combination of sit down or counter service so you have the choice of eating at any Disney restaurant on the list. If you choose a table service meal that will include one appetizer, one entree, one dessert (lunch and dinner only) and one non-alcoholic beverage OR one Full Buffet. If you choose a counter service meal that will include one entree (or complete combo meal), one dessert (lunch or dinner only), one juice (breakfast only) and one non-alcoholic beverage.
                2 Snacks: In addition to the 3 meals you’ll also receive 2 snacks every day. A snack includes one of the following: frozen ice cream novelty, popsicle, fruit bar, popcorn scoop (single serving box), single serving grab bag of chips, single piece of whole fruit, 20-oz. bottle of Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite or Dasani water, medium fountain soft drink or juice, 12-oz. coffee, hot chocolate or hot tea.
Wine and Dine Option: For an extra $39.99/day you can add a daily bottle of wine to your package. You know… because alcohol always makes things healthier.
 
 
Nothing says fine dining experience like charts and graphs.
Simple right?  Now remember a few simple restrictions:
• After 5:00 pm a snack is now considered a meal.
• Drinking from a water fountain between 10:00 am and 1:00 pm counts as your beverage for lunch. 
• Leftovers taken with you roll over to count as the following days meals. 
• If more than 4 adults are in your party and less then 3 children are present and one of those children is not under the age of 4 but over the age of 6 months and is either a Taurus, Leo or Gemini then additional “Goofy Giveaway” vouchers will be required in order to gain entrance to any Disney dining location. 
• Bacon is always extra and is not included in any Disney Dining plan unless the optional ©Disney premium smoked meats package has been selected.
And so on.
 
Still not joking.
The Disney restaurants are under incredible pressure to keep costs per meal down.  It is no longer about providing the best meal or the best guest experience, it is now about working the cost per meal down below the price of that paid on the dining plans.  If you happen to stroll in and pay out of pocket you are in many ways getting taken advantage of, often receiving a watered down product tailor made to meet the price point of the dining plan.
 
Warren Buffett chooses the Platinum Plan of course, and that bar he is eating is pure gold.
On top of all that Disney now offers both “Premium” and “Platinum” packages.  These include everything in the Deluxe Dining plan plus an assortment of recreational and luxury amenities that range from golf to spa treatments to backstage tours and horse back rides…. Oh I long for the days when you could just buy a meal where you wanted it and when you wanted it and did not need to be on any plan.
But lest you think that this type of plan is something new for Disney. In fact Disney has been offering all inclusive premium programs for decades though in the past it was like the Wild West, a no holds barred free for all of over consumption…

The sky’s the limit.
Witness the fabled Gold Key Card offered by the now defunct Magic Kingdom Club.  Not unlike the mythical American Express Black card the Gold Key Card was something seldom seen, something few knew about and something that offered the holder exceptional status.
 
Black is the new gold.

Walt Disney World truly was your oyster with this card in your wallet. Throughout the 80’s, before the Eisner appointed MBAs weeded through a myriad of other issues they set their sights on, this small program represented a tremendous value and was a little known secret.  The Gold Key card was literally your key to the kingdom.
In order to get one you had to be a member of the Magic Kingdom Club, which at that time was mainly available to employees of larger corporations.  It was the deluxe plan, the fanciest and most all-inclusive plan they ever offered.
This meant that the program not only included your hotel room and unlimited park admission and transportation but also all meals, all snacks, all recreational facilities, all tours and all gratuities.
 
“I’m King of Disney World!”

Sure, there were some theoretical rules, printed right on the back of the card it says that it may not be used at arcades, the Empress Room (the most luxurious restaurant on the Empress Lily and therefore in all of Walt Disney World) or for alcoholic beverages.  However these rules were rarely enforced, especially in the early 80’s when seemingly no one on property had ever seen one of these cards or had any idea what it did or did not come with.
Rules are for losers.

Presenting it would often be met with confusion and discussion among managers and staff before ultimately being accepted (often after a mysterious call was made).  Once those gates opened you were royalty, King of Disney World. Feel like a lobster?  How about 4 of them?  Would you like dessert?  Try one of everything on the menu. Want to rent a water sprite (back when they really were fast)?  Just flash this card and take it for as long as you want… all day if you like.  Unlimited Golf, admission to River Country or snacks from anyplace on property was all there for the taking. Nothing was out of bounds and nothing was off limits.
 
Would you like a Sebastian with that sir?
I vividly recall not only using this with my family at the Empress Room circa1983 but my father’s utter amazement when he ordered several bottles of wine which were all included.  As we waddled out of the restaurant my entire family was amazed at how fast and loose Disney was playing with the rules.
 
“Ah yes, this Chateau d’Yquem will do just fine.
Now get it to Teevtee’s table, pronto!”
As the years went one the program became better known and by the late 80’s the rules were being more strictly enforced, even then few of the limitations or restrictions of today’s dining plans were in effect. Then sadly by the early 90’s Disney caught on.  The MBAs finally worked their way down to this program and I am sure were shocked to see what they found.  The door was slammed shut and the program terminated, of course eventually the entire Magic Kingdom Club was dismantled as well.
 
You don’t mess with Disney.

Disney was no longer a family run business or even an underdog go-getter of a company.  No, it was now a huge mega conglomerate and had no tolerance for gluttony.  You play by Disney’s rules now or you don’t play at all.
For those of us who were lucky enough to have held a Gold Key Card there was always room for one more mint, after all, it was wafer thin.

Disney World’s Ugliest Show Building

You may have noticed that parkeology.com is looking a little different lately.  Please do not be alarmed.  We are merely refurbishing this area for your future enjoyment.  Plus, we have a bet with Madonna to see who can reinvent themselves the most.  So far the score is Parkeology: 2, Madonna 141.  But if we find the Golden Snitch, that gap will close in a hurry.

Hey, even Disney parks make changes, right?  Have you seen those new signs that they hang on construction walls lately?  They are sponsored now.  Yes, Disney has actually suckered some poor company into ponying up money for their construction walls, rather than for the attractions themselves.  This reminds me of when they tricked Brawny into sponsoring “Hand Washing Tips” in the bathroom.  I’m expecting sponsored toilet paper any moment now.

Basically the construction signs are now “themed.”  This means that they are essentially the same old “Pardon Our Pixie Dust” signs, but also have an inspirational quote from Walt Disney on them, as well as the sponsor’s logo, sort of like an Adopt-A-Highway program.  I tried to get someone to sponsor the parkeology.com redesign, but the only people were interested were British Petroleum and the guy that runs Dustin Diamond’s website.  Teevtee’s dentist chipped in a couple bucks, but I think he was expecting me to get him some coffee.  Anyway, no signs.

As a wise man once said, the only constant is “change.”   And death taxes, I think.  At Walt Disney World, things have continued to change and evolve, and sometimes those changes result in some pretty ugly warts on the face of the property.  Can Disney build beautiful show buildings?  Of course they can.  Everything from faux mountains to sleek futurism.  There’s rarely a misstep.  When they do go wrong, it can usually be covered up by painting it the same color as the Floridian sky.

“What show building?” Soarin’ asked innocently.

But sometimes circumstances force their hand.  Like for instance, if you built a brand new theme park.  And then only planned for approximately 2 rides in the entire park.  And some walking trails.  Maybe a movie or something.  And a bird show.

When Animal Kingdom opened, there was so little in the way of bona fide attractions, that the park’s equivalent of the World Showcase Friendships was counted as an actual ride.  Twice.  (hey, it had 2 docks).  Kali River Rapids was still several months off.  Everest wasn’t even on the drawing boards, and the ride-boosting Dinorama — Dinorama! — wouldn’t be along for another 3 years.  To say that Animal Kingdom was low on capacity is like saying Michael Bay is low on artistic ambition — an understatement at best.

See that segment from Animal Kingdom’s opening day map?  That’s a rendering of the Flights of Wonder bird show (S), housed in the Caravan Stage along the trail from Africa to what would eventually become Asia.  I want you to note something in that rendering:  You can see the bleachers.

Animal Kingdom opened on Earth Day, which is in April, and the Florida weather can be quite pleasant then.  But by the time July rolls around, if you are sitting on exposed bleachers watching birds cavort for half an hour, you might as well be a Smash Mouth song, because you are gonna fry, baby.

Shade was needed, and fast.  The only problem is that in order to accommodate swooping birds and clear sight lines, this was no easy feat.  It involved raising towering columns to support a canvas covering, and this wasn’t going to happen overnight.  There was only one solution:  The Caravan Stage had to close down for rehab.

But remember, this is the park that counted the Cretaceous Trail (a walking path through the magical land of ferns) as an attraction.  Studying Animal Kingdom’s capacity was like studying Jessica Simpson’s brain cells:  Statistical sample too low to measure.  The Caravan Stage might close, but Flights of Wonder was staying open, no matter what.

Enter the Tent to End All Tents.

A large rectangular tent was erected on the plot adjacent to the Caravan Stage, and here a smaller scale version of Flights of Wonder was performed.  The show itself was not that bad, but the tent…  The tent looked like a staged revival tent from the Bible Belt in the 1950s.  Or like something the Hebrews carried out of the desert.  It was blocky, white, and made of plastic, like a Hefty Bag.

Reverend Dan’s Gospel Hour and Birds of Prey Demonstration

The chairs were standard-issue metal folding chairs, of the kind found in a church basement (or from Disney’s prodigious convention space), and the floor — oh, the horrible floor — was straight off the Brady Bunch’s front lawn.  Dark green astroturf oozed like a living carpet fugitive from a Stephen King novel, all the way up onto the makeshift wooden stage where the bird handlers ran through their script, accompanied by some generic Asian props and a fervent hope that if they paid their dues now, their double major in Ornithology and Theater might some day pay off.

Remember, this whole thing existed because of problems with Florida heat, so surrounding the perimeter on all sides were these awful metal cage fans, circulating the stale air of a few hundred sweaty tourists, some of whom had to sit on the scratchy astro turf because there were not enough chairs.  Birds flew to and fro overhead (though not too far overhead; this was not a very tall tent) while bare metal speaker stands blasted out the narration.  I couldn’t make this stuff up.  Nor would I want to.

I only saw this revival tent version of Flights of Wonder once, and then thankfully the Caravan Stage re-emerged from its rehab.  But I’ve never been able to shake the memory of this experience, so blatantly awful, so un-Disneyfied.  I think I have a picture of it around here somewhere, but my attempts to find it have turned up nothing.  Maybe the hideousness of it scarred my camera lens.  If you remember seeing the show, or maybe even have a picture of it, feel free to drop us a comment and commiserate with us.

And always remember:  When it comes to Disney World, Tents Are Bad.

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