Animal Kingdom: We Got Next – The Quiet Transformation

In 2007, Disney announced a massive makeover of the ailing Disney’s California Adventure park, located on Disney property in California. The fan community rejoiced. We religiously followed every phase of the project, from the demolition of the Whoopie Goldberg theater, to the removal of the Hub Cap icon, to the eradication of the giant lines spelling California inside the California park located in California, to the tragic deconstruction of the much beloved Maliboomer. Basically, we celebrated the removal of all the crap, and the arrival of good things, such as Duffy the Disney Bear.

In 2009, Disney announced the largest expansion in Magic Kingdom history. The fan community — if not rejoiced — then at least spent the next five years bickering about its success. We religiously chronicled every aspect of the Fantasyland project, from the Tangled restrooms to the Belle’s Village restrooms to the Carolwood Station restrooms to the interactive Pooh queue. Basically we celebrated the removal of all vacant crap, and the arrival of new opportunities for poo jokes.

In 2011, Disney announced that Avatar Land would become Animal Kingdom’s largest expansion since Asia. The fan community revolted, called Bob Iger and James Cameron several vile names, then promptly forgot about the whole thing.

Inspirational proverbs on Animal Kingdom Refurbishment walls -- also the plot of Dumbo.

Inspirational proverbs on Animal Kingdom Refurbishment walls — also the plot of Dumbo.

As we close the book on a summer that contained the last little bit of the Fantasyland expansion, one would expect all eyes to turn to Animal Kingdom for the next massive Walt Disney World project. But nobody seems interested. Over in the Magic Kingdom, guests are packing the Mine Train queue to the brim, making a nicely themed kiddy coaster the hottest ticket around. In Hollywood Studios, executives are riding the success of last winter’s mega-hit to untouchable levels of merchandising opportunities, on a shoestring budget/promotion that must make them giggle whenever they look at Diagon Alley. Over in Epcot, more Frozen seems to be on the way, with everyone playing will-they-or-won’t-they at the Norway pavilion.

Meanwhile, walls have quietly gone up all over Animal Kingdom for what I feel is the most exciting Walt Disney World project since, well, Everest.

Nice panels with animal facts on some of the refurb walls -- but still not as good as the animal bathroom facts at Conservation Station.

Nice panels with animal facts on some of the refurb walls — but still not as good as the animal bathroom facts at Conservation Station.

The apathy probably stems from two things. First, people really seem to dislike Avatar and/or feel that Disney could have picked something more “Disney.” I myself agree that Avatar is not my first (or second or third) choice for a new themed land. But on the other hand, I think people may be acting a little too self-righteous about the Avatar thing, as if we all didn’t see the movie at least once in the theater. For whatever shortcomings the movie has, it is nowhere near as bad as the three Star Wars prequels, a franchise which everyone seems to think is a better choice for a Disney land. It also is lightyears ahead of other Disney sci-fi-with-alien-animals stories (John Carter Land). Nobody seems to be grumbling about how bad Transformers sucked when Universal put in an awesome ride. I think Avatar will ultimately end up being just a brand name, and the allure of the new land will be in the bioluminescence, the awesome creature designs, the alien flora and fauna which will be incredible even if you didn’t care about the weird story of a space marine who plays Cranium Command with a blue version of Dances With Wolves. It’s going to be the Alien Dinosaur Institute, sponsored by a generous grant from James Cameron Corporation. And what could be more Disney than an alien telling of Pocahontas?

Secondly, Avatar Land is still three years away from opening. It’s locked away behind trees and walls. We can’t even see it rising in the distance. So it’s hard to get really excited yet. But there is so much happening around the park — some of which will start opening next year — that I think it may catch some fans off guard.

I took a quick spin around Animal Kingdom this afternoon. There is literally something new happening every dozen yards or so.

It starts in the parking lot, where a new expanse of asphalt is beginning to spread over what was once a grass field. Call it the largest parking lot expansion in Disney history. As a fan, it will be fun to speculate what the new lot will be called, because obsessing over parking lot names is what fans do best. Personally, I’m rooting for Leonopteryx Rex, because I think that will be the hardest for tram drivers to pronounce.

The front of the Tree of Life is encircled with walls. It’s Tough To Be a Bug is actually under refurbishment while they work on the tree. Rumor says that some components of the nighttime makeover will be added, transforming the Tree of Life into the Mother Tree or whatever the heck that thing in Avatar was called. Or maybe just as background to the Rivers of Light nighttime water spectacular.

Welcome to Wall Land

Welcome to Wall Land

Here a crew is seen power washing a cement tree in full view of the public. Because magic.

Here a crew is seen power washing a cement tree in full view of the public. Because magic.

Speaking of that, walls are now up around the lagoon from Dinoland all the way around to the Gibbons viewing area in Asia. This is to install viewing zones for the Rivers of Light, which seems to me to be a massive amount of viewing. Not quite up to the sheer mileage of the Illuminations viewing spots, but on par with World of Color in DCA. Portable dams are also installed in the lagoon itself in preparation for the fountain installations.

Nice paneling on these refurb walls on the trail between Dinoland and Nemo.

Nice paneling on these refurb walls on the trail between Dinoland and Nemo.

At Everest, the walls take a decidedly Asian turn

At Everest, the walls take a decidedly Asian turn

Behold, the beauty of the portable dam

Behold, the beauty of the portable dam

There were some Imagineers toodling around in a speedboat. When they spotted me taking pictures of the portable dams, they zipped away!

There were some Imagineers toodling around in a speedboat. When they spotted me taking pictures of the portable dams, they zipped away!

Returning for just a moment to Discovery Island, the main shop on the right is being readied for a huge expansion. Ground has been cleared, and vertical construction should begin soon (or may have already begun behind the walls.

Why, it's some Disney construction workers, back from lunch!

Why, it’s some Disney construction workers, back from lunch!

Not pictured, a new animal exhibit is being readied on the path from Discovery Island back to Africa, rumored to be the new home of the Cottontop Tamarins.

In the back of Africa, more ground is being cleared next to Zawadi Traders/Mombosa, which is rumored to be another full-service restaurant.

Side note: Mombasa is my favorite Animal Kingdom shop. Sorry, Chester and Hester.

Side note: Mombasa is my favorite Animal Kingdom shop. Sorry, Chester and Hester.

Not pictured, infrastructure work has begun on the Safari itself, in preparation for the Nighttime version of the Safari.

The first phase of the massive expansion actually opened earlier this year, when the Lion King show moved to Africa. The pathway to Pandora is inaccessible, of course.

Beautiful panoramic vista of the pathway to Pandora, obscured by ugly green canvas screen.

Beautiful panoramic vista of the pathway to Pandora, obscured by ugly green canvas screen.

And at last we come to the walls of the main entrance to Pandora. The foliage is so thick that you literally can’t see anything behind it, just the top of a trailer of some kind. Disney has also turned this into a smoking section — probably to discourage anyone from trying to go back there.

Beyond these smokers lies a vast world of blue elves.

Beyond these smokers lies a vast world of blue elves.

All these various projects should open in phases over the next several years, which will make coming to Animal Kingdom a slightly different experience every time. So much of it is dedicated to turning this park into a nighttime destination as well, which I think will be a huge treat for guests, since Animal Kingdom is already an enchanting place after dark, and a pretty rare opportunity in its current state.

I guess the point of all this is: Even if you don’t care about Avatar the movie, I think Animal Kingdom is poised to become the most exciting park project in the last decade, and if you spend too much time scoffing at giant blue people, you’ll miss the fun watching the transformation.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go back to stalking the new Starbucks location.

 

14 thoughts on “Animal Kingdom: We Got Next – The Quiet Transformation

  1. Shane, you’ve made me feel a bit better about Avatar land, but it still bugs me, especially considering I have a feeling the Avatar sequels are going to be flops, because when was the last time the average Joe thought about that movie? go ask someone if they can even remember the characters’ names and I’ll guarantee you they wont be able to, as much money as it made it was a flash in the pan phenomena soon forgotten by the same fickle public that made it such a hit in the first place

    also Shane, this is off topic but I’d like your thoughts on this matter, I have heard that the ticket prices for the Disney parks are going up, it’s already going to be years before I can afford to go back and now I don’t even know, this seems to be part of a rising trend of the Disney parks becoming yet another passtime only for the wealthy while the working class is SOL, which is the opposite of the way it was in the past when Disney was a place EVERYONE went to for vacation

  2. The problem I have with Avatar ( and your statement about the Star Wars prequels) is that it is ONE movie that is 4 years old now. The original 3 Star Wars films are over 20 years old each and have a HUGE following for the entire time. Yes the prequels weren’t that great but the fan base is outspoken and loyal. When is the last time you saw someone walking around anywhere with an Avatar tshirt on?

    The Star Wars brand is infinitely stronger than the Avatar brand thus making it a much more solid base to build a park around. I’d wager a large sum of money and say that there is more anticipation from the general public about the new Star Wars movie than the new Avatar movie and there in lies the problem with this expansion and no one caring about it.

    • It goes without saying that Avatar is not even in the same galaxy as Star Wars when it comes to branding. As I said, it’s just going to be a label on a sign. The rest of it will be “highly themed amazing alien world” and it won’t matter if you like the movie or not.

      Besides, I think we’ll end up getting both. Star Wars is not a good fit for AK, and whatever ends up happening with it will be on a much larger scale than Avatar Land. So we don’t have pick one or the other. If we had to, we’d all pick Star Wars in a heartbeat, in spite of the prequels, but we’ll get our Star Wars Land soon enough (or Star Wars Park).

      • I don’t think Avatar is a good fit for AK though. Like you said, its an alien world we will be getting NOT an animal world. I’d much rather them go back to the original proposal and add the mythical creatures area which was integrated into the park from the get go.

        This alien world is going to be grossly out of place in that park and a much bigger “shock” than Dino land is once you walk into that part of the park. It just doesn’t fit.

        • Well Ryan when they first announced Avatar at AK I had your same reaction and blogged about it here. I have also discussed this with Shane.

          I think Avatar fits ok with AK. Not great but OK. Ultimately the movie and the park share intersecting messages about nature being more powerful than technology.

          To Shane’s point I have no doubt that the implementation will be solid. As long as they execute it well it will be a hit.

          Listen I am always complaining that they only build licensed attractions now. Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, Avatar, Disney animation. To me it is all boring. Nothing new anymore. So in a way having a less established world of source material is a good thing. It gives them more creative leeway to do new things and be less slavish to the source material.

          At the end if the day I too would prefer the original mythical creature concept but that ship has sailed. At least they are making a sizeable investment into AK which is great.

          Also the entire purpose if this is to extend AK operating hours into the night and the glow in the dark nature if Avatar helps them get there.

  3. Thanks for this great post, it’s really getting me excited for our upcoming trip. Think any of the walls will be down before November?

    • Unfortunately, I don’t think any of it will be ready to open by November. Maybe the Cottontop Tamarin enclosure, as it looks pretty well along. I’m not sure when It’s Tough To Be a Bug finishes its rehab, but it might also be open. Of course, I don’t expect you will notice anything different just yet. Time to plan a trip for late 2015, when Rivers of Light is getting close to debut.

  4. I cannot agree with you more. I was walking around on saturday and it felt like a rat in a maze with all of the walls haha.

    • There really are a lot of them. Solid walls from Dinoland all the way around the lagoon to the Gibbons. At least they’ve taken an effort to dress them up with some nice posters and things. Still no concept art though.

  5. Very solid points all around. While I generally feel white-hot neutrality towards Avatar as a film, I can’t deny that a massive floating mountain with really-real waterfalls pouring down surrounded by a glowing forest of alien plants has the potential to be an incredible themed environment unlike anything else out there.

    • Exactly. The world itself will be stunning, and it doesn’t matter that it has an “Avatar” label on the sign out front.

  6. The secretive Disney Imagineer races back towards shelter once spotted. These creatures are rarely observed in the wild, and are known for their avoidance of park guests.

    • DAK will soon introduce a conservation effort to Save the Imagineer. Donate $1 at every transaction.

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