On the occasion of Disney’s Animal Kingdom 20th Anniversary, we reflect on its celebration of all animals — living, imaginary, and extinct.
And since we’re Parkeology, we’re going to focus on that last part with a Top 20 Countdown to Extinction. It’s fast! It’s a blast! It’s in the past!
Kilimanjaro Safari opened with a poacher-nabbing storyline that included a dead mother elephant, a high-speed machine-gun chase, and a giggling baby pachyderm in the back of a truck while a CM held bad guys at gunpoint.
The traumatic carcass of Big Red (the mother) didn’t even survive the park previews. They replaced her part of the story with a radio message from Warden Wilson Matua.
The poacher storyline ran for more than a decade but was eventually phased out. The gunfire was removed and the animatronic Little Red was relocated backstage near Pride Rock, Animal Kingdom’s Cast Member cafeteria.
Dinoland’s Theater in the Wild has suffered through several bad productions leading up to the Animal Kingdom 20th Anniversary.
Tarzan Rocks! (exclamation point!) evicted the original show less than a year after the park opened.
Focusing on Phil Collins’s rhythmic soundtrack to the animated movie, the show sought to inject a little late-90s “Extreme Sports” into a show about a cut dude in a loincloth.
And yes, this meant the monkeys were on rollerblades.
Flametree the Sea Serpent once roamed the waters of what is now the Rivers of Light lagoon.
Back in 2010, Parkeology regretfully offended sea serpents everywhere in a series of misguided posts. Frankly, we still don’t think he was that big a deal. But he was really mad at the time.
In 1998, you could take a train to a place with the action-packed name of Conservation Station. But since most people didn’t, Disney decided to rename it to Rafiki’s Planet Watch,. And that’s what it is still called at the time of the Animal Kingdom 20th Anniversary.
A lot of it is the same, but we will never, ever forgive them for removing the awesome elephant sanitation nozzles, which allowed you to bathe your hands under the flowing streams of a pachyderm’s nasal spout when exiting the Affection Section petting zoo.
Pocahontas and her Forest Friends was a stage production highlighting several North American species like raccoons, skunks, and otters.
Pocahontas and Grandmother Willow make a lot of sense in a Disney park. Less forgivable is the young sapling known as Sprig, whose every nightmarish gesture and exclamation makes you want to pick up the nearest ax and go to town.
In a section of the Maharajah Jungle Trek — after the Komodo Dragons but before the bats — lived a rather large, huggable grey creature known as the Malaysian Tapir.
While it looked like it should be playing keyboard in Jabba’s palace, it was a delightfully strange addition to the more familiar exhibits of early Asia.
Unfortunately, the resident tapir passed away several years ago and the exhibit became a monkey enclosure.
The middle section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom hasn’t always been known as Discovery Island. When the park first opened, it was called Safari Village.
Though it didn’t change except in name, we wish they had stuck with the original. Disney already had something called Discovery Island, which really confuses modern search engines.
A fairly recent loss is the park’s original bird show, Flights of Wonder. Featuring jokes about tour groups and hippy drug culture, the Caravan Stage provided an up-close encounter with these marvelous winged creatures.
A new show themed to Disney/Pixar’s UP opened just in time for the Animal Kingdom 20th Anniversary. But we will never forget the original show, so vital to padding capacity during Animal Kingdom’s days as a half-day park. And we will especially never forget that ill-fated summer when they performed it in a revival tent.
Perhaps our favorite past-time is watching the gangly two-headed humans as they get themselves into wild predicaments.
These creatures look conspicuously like adult fathers carrying smaller child-sized humans on their shoulders, oblivious to the low hanging ceilings of monorails, queue entries, and especially the craggy arches of the Animal Kingdom Oasis.
I once saw a child take a particularly nasty smack on the noggin while his father blithely carried him to the exit. Not long after, the park removed most of the arches, turning them into pillars of rocks. It’s probably safer that way, but way less entertaining.
These day-glo pachyderms once swayed in time to Colonel Hathi’s march in Journey Into Jungle Book before Tarzan Rocks! (exclamation point!) evicted them.
Jungle Book shows have a hard time surviving in Animal Kingdom. A nighttime spectacular based on the live action movie played briefly in the theater built for Rivers of Light, but this Bollywood spectacle disappeared in short order.
At least the hidden Baloo is still lurking in Africa, waiting to be discovered.
We’ve reached the Top 10 in our Countdown to Extinction. Fittingly, we turn to the ride that gave us that angle.
When the park first opened, Disney’s animated feature film Dinosaur had yet to debut. The park’s premier dark ride was known by the much more interesting name of Countdown to Extinction — CTX, in early internet parlance.
CTX hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years. But we do miss the days when the pterodactyl would swoop and the Compsognathus was a temperamental rope-and-pulley effect.
Most of all, we miss the beautiful bathing Styracosaurus who graced the Countdown to Extinction reflection pool at the entrance to the Dino Institute.
Today the fountain has an Iguanadon statue and a barrier of plants. But back in 1998, the pool was a more communal thing. Famous Imagineers like Joe Rohde would sometimes be caught dipping small diapered children into the cool waters.
Ah, the age of innocence.
As we celebrate the Animal Kingdom 20th Anniversary, let us pause for a moment to mourn the loss of an entire themed land.
Slapped together at the last minute, Camp Minnie-Mickey was the temporary holding zone for what was intended to be a much more elaborate take on imaginary animals. Utilizing a cutting-edge “summer camp” theme and featuring the static backpacking figures of Huey, Dewey, and Louie, Camp Minnie-Mickey turned into an accidental success story when it became the home of the park’s surprise hit, Festival of the Lion King.
It was not until the early phases of Pandora – the World of Avatar that the park could finally justify the expense of moving Festival of the Lion King out of its odd North American wilderness setting. With the new Harambe theater district complete, they were finally able to bulldoze the rest of this “temporary” land more than a decade after it opened.
The Rainforest Cafe has been there since Day One, but one of the most striking visual features of early Animal Kingdom has vanished like the rainforests of South America.
For many years, a massive sheet of water thundered from the peak of the Rainforest Cafe roof, casting an ethereal shadow over the main ticketing courtyard.
But the encroachment of nature soon took over. The jungle canopy in front of the restaurant thickened into an impenetrable darkness. With no one to witness their bewitching power, the beautiful waterfalls stopped running.
Get ready for more late-90s edginess! Animal Kingdom’s first daytime parade was something called the March of the Artimals, featuring bizarre and “artistic” interpretations of your favorite friends of the animal world.
The parade didn’t last long. It was replaced by Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade — a more standard Disney character parade around Discovery Island.
There was also a Christmas version, Mickey’s Jingle Jungle Parade. But the parade had its final performance three years ago.
Looking to flesh out its limited opening day line-up, Dinoland U.S.A. opened something called the Dinosaur Jubilee in the spot that is now Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama.
Housed in breathtakingly awful white plastic tents, the Dinosaur Jubilee was basically a temporary museum, with full-scale dinosaur fossils and an elaborate Ice Age area.
The park lost one of its Opening Day rides in the early part of this century, when the Discovery River Boats closed down.
During the Animal Kingdom 20th Anniversary, the docks were still in use as character greeting areas, but the Discovery River itself remains shrouded in mystery.
In the bend near Camp Minnie-Mickey, riders would encounter a stone formation of a dragon — which is still easily seen from the bridge to Pandora.
And just beyond the sculpture was a dark cave, in which lived a fearsome fire-breathing dragon.
The dragon — whose head is still seen above one of the ticket booths at the park entrance — was intended to foreshadow the park’s next expansion area. Beastly Kingdom would feature a dragon rollercoaster, hedgemaze, and several other attractions celebrating the “imaginary” portion of the Animal Kingdom triumvirate.
Possibly due to a competing dragon coaster down the street at Universal, the Beastly Kingdomme never materialized. Eventually, the expansion space became Pandora — The World of Avatar.
In Countdown to Extinction, as in today’s Dinosaur, time travelers bring back a live Iguanadon at the behest of Dr. Grant Seeker. You even see the creature roaming the halls of the Dino Institute.
But in Animal Kingdom’s early days, the Iguanadon would leave the Institute to frolic at the river’s edge in Dinoland U.S.A., in full view of the Discovery Riverboats.
Sadly, this magnificent animatronic was removed when the boats closed. Even more disgraceful was that Disney shipped him off to Paris, to rot in their Studio Backlot boneyard.
What discussion of extinct Animal Kingdom animals would be complete without mentioning the infamous Disco Yeti?
Technically, it’s not the disco version that’s extinct, but its predecessor — the fully functioning Yeti of Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain.
Billed as one of the largest and most elaborate Audio-Animatronic figures ever created, the Yeti was a fearsome encounter, swiping at riders during the last scene of the ride.
Unfortunately, the mechanics were so powerful that they actually ruptured something in the mountain’s support system. Unable to figure out how to extract the figure and perform the necessary repairs, they installed strobe-light on the static figure, earning him the inauspicious title of Disco Yeti.
Maybe some day Disney will figure out how to resurrect the original yeti. But in the meantime, you’d think they’d find a way to bring back the screeching hawk from Everest’s peaks, which has also disappeared in recent years.
The Lost Water Temple of Asia is an enduring Parkeology mystery. It’s something we still get questions about to this day.
No one knows what’s inside the lost water temple. What secret beasts prowl its flooded corridors? Parkeologists have been asking that question for almost a decade.
Sadly, the construction of Rivers of Light may have buried the secret forever. The entrance to the lost water temple has vanished for good.
But I have recently come into possession of a map, hinting at an obscure back entrance. Perhaps someday, I will be able to share this discovery with the world…
If the water temple is our most asked-about conquest at Parkeology, then the secret buffalo path is a close second.
On separate visits in 1998, both Ted and Shane spent many hours exploring the new park. We were quite taken with an idea heretofore unknown in Disney theme parks — unstructured exploration.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom rewarded the adventurous guest, with several themed areas that appeared to be off limits. One such path was initially labeled as a water buffalo path. It led seemingly into wild jungle on the trail between Africa and Asia.
The best part? An even more secret secondary path branched off into more remote territory — including a river fording across stepping stones that you can still spot to this day.
At the time of the Animal Kingdom 20th Anniversary, foliage has swallowed up the secret path. But there’s always a chance that some enterprising explorer will stumble onto it in the future and blaze a new trail for us to follow.
Until then, here’s to the next twenty years.