When it comes to Beastly Kingdom, we are not the first to pass this way. The demise of Beastly Kingdom has been well-chronicled by Disney historians. Is there any chance we will ever get to experience this mythical place, all these years later?
The answer is a resounding yes! You can visit many of the hallowed sites today!
What Was Beastly Kingdom?
Michael Eisner once promised that Animal Kingdom would celebrate all animals — real, prehistoric, and imagined. Africa would take care of the real. Dinoland would handle the prehistoric. And a massive themed land called Beastly Kingdom (sometimes fancifully spelled as Beastly Kingdomme) would complete the trifecta.
Here was the realm of dragons and unicorns, krakens and Fantasia.
- A forbidding black monolith known as Dragon Tower loomed over the land, home to a fire-breathing death serpent.
- A fanciful hedge maze beckoned guests deep into the unicorn’s magical forest.
- And on the water’s edge, a fearsome sea creature would menace the Discovery River Boats that often passed by.
When Animal Kingdom finally opened, Africa and Dinoland were ready to go. Beastly Kingdom not so much.
In its place was a temporary land of Disney characters known as Camp Minnie-Mickey. It hosted a Lion King stage show, a Pocahontas animal encounter, and some character greeting walking trails.
Over the years, Beastly Kingdom has acquired a mythological status to match its subject matter. Most hard-core fans are aware of it. So what makes it greater than any of the other concepts that have gone by the wayside over the years?
Maybe because we kinda sorta got it.
Wait… Disney Actually Built Beastly Kingdom?
Like I said. Sort of.
Early promotional material for the park all talked about Beastly Kingdom as if it were a foregone conclusion. Maybe just a little delayed because of budget. You know how it is.
Look no further than the official Animal Kingdom logo, which if you squinted at it under the light of a full moon, you could sort of see a hidden image of a dragon in there…
By which I mean, there is a giant silhouette of a dragon smack in the middle of the darn logo.
The ticket windows at the front of the park have more of this subliminal imagery… By which I mean, there is a 600-pound three-dimensional sculpted head of a dragon mounted over one of the buildings. Not to mention a bas relief of unicorns and pegasus behind it.
There’s even an entire section of the parking lot labeled “Unicorn” for those of you who think “Peacock” is the only mythological creature represented.
But the most obvious example is the Discovery River Boats.
Long-time park fans will remember this ill-fated attraction. The Discovery River Boats circled Safari Village (now called Discovery Island), with 2 separate docks for passengers to get on and off. It was a leisurely trip to show off the “sights.”
And it was so bad, they closed it a year later. It was never seen again.
Okay, So What Were the Discovery River Boats?
On paper, the Discovery River Boats don’t sound all that terrible.
In Africa, guests would get an up-close look at the detailed Harambe shoreline.
In Asia, the boats ventured into the lagoon now used by Rivers of Light and KiteTails. There a bizarre sculpture of a sea monster (lovingly chronicled by Parkeology years ago) frolicked in the tepid Florida water.
Passing through Dinoland, guests would encounter the most impressive set piece on the river: A full-sized animatronic Iguanodon bathing in a lagoon. Check out the sad fate of Aladar in this early Parkeology exclusive.
But between Dinoland and Africa, the mythological stuff really kicked in.
As the Discovery River Boats rounded the corner towards the Camp Minnie-Mickey section of the park, a cloud of fog would envelope the boat. And then… there it is!
A proud, gleaming unicorn standing on shore, rearing up from a rocky outcropping with his front hooves in the air. This unicorn was all white, almost marble in appearance. This was to be the very same unicorn from the Quest for the Unicorn hedge maze planned for Beastly Kingdom.
You might say he was the mascot of the land, along with the dragon. Sort of the Animal Kingdom version of the Funmeister. And while the dragon was clearly meant for evil, the unicorn represented good.
But as we will come to learn, “good” is a pretty low bar on the Discovery River Boats.
Though an elaborate animatronic unicorn was planned for the hedge maze, the beast on the riverside was just a statue. No projection mapping. Not even a triumphant whinny coming from hidden speakers. He was just sort of… there.
According to legend, he never even made it to Opening Day, though some say he did survive for a few official weeks of operating time. Disney removed the statue sometime around park opening.
What Remains of the Unicorn?
The saga of the unicorn statue is one of the more delicious theme park stories out there.
After being removed, the statue apparently sat around in some Disney backstage area for many years. Around the time of the Pandora construction, somebody decided to clean house and it was placed for auction to Disney Cast Members. Whoever made that decision clearly had no idea of the statue’s significance. It was labeled simply a “plaster unicorn” (it’s actually fiberglass) with no mention of where it came from. They even went so far as to mislabel the dimensions as 12″, making it sound much smaller than its actual 12-foot height.
This explains why a Cast Member named Graydon Van Ert was able to snag it with a winning bid of $215.
Graydon transferred the unicorn to his backyard. And it now has an Instagram account, because of course it does. The appropriately named Beastly the Unicorn features many hilarious photos of the unicorn decked out for various holidays.
As to the original majestic rock upon which Beastly once reared up in a shroud of fog… We are happy to report that the statue base can still be seen in Animal Kingdom today! As you approach the bridge to Pandora, it can be seen off in the distance along the shoreline to the left.
The Troll Bridge
Your boat now passes beneath the Camp Minnie-Mickey bridge, where your on-board guide would point out several interesting carvings on the underside of the bridge, much to his embarrassment. A silly dragon head, a trilobyte, maybe a not-so-hidden Mickey. This is what passed for sight-seeing on the Discovery River Boats. But hey, it’s kind of in the realm of fantasy, right?
Some literature calls this a Troll Bridge, though there was nothing especially troll-ish about it. Do trolls carve bad animal pictographs? We don’t really know. As you came out the other side of the bridge, there was a weird sort of stone hut with a very narrow window. Maybe the troll lived here.
This was about the time that people started wondering how much time was left in the ride.
What Remains of the Troll Bridge?
Of course the bridge itself is still there. Where it was once a naturalistic faux stone and wood bridge, it has been completely re-themed to match the abandoned industrial look of Pandora.
As that picture shows, the wall underneath the bridge is now smooth concrete, as opposed to the charming rock masonry of the Beastly Kingdom days. The petroglyphs are gone.
The weird troll hut (or whatever it was) is also gone. But interestingly enough, its foundation remains. It seems to be the source of that creeping vine spreading out onto the bridge.
The Dragon Rocks Waterfall
Just past the bridge, a “natural” rock formation appeared on the shore, in the shape of a dragon. This craggy beast was on all fours, with a spiny back and a gaping maw of stalagmite teeth. He apparently was the exit point of an underground stream, since a small waterfall gushed from his mouth into the Discovery River.
We are not overstating things when we say that for most of the ride’s operation (after other show scenes had disappeared, broke, or been turned off), this was the highlight of the entire trip.
What Remains of the Dragon Rocks?
In spite having nothing to do with Pandora, the dragon sculpture remains to this day! He’s easy to spot from the Pandora bridge. Maybe he passes for a banshee.
Sadly, he no longer vomits a waterfall. It seems that his well of creativity has run dry
The Fire-Breathing Dragon Cave
This was by far the most memorable of the Beastly Kingdom offerings. For a few weeks at least. As your boat wound deeper into the jungle, you passed by a foreboding stand of loose boulders, craggy formations, and sinister caves.
During park previews, these rocks were littered with the scorched carcasses of fallen knights — including one impaled on a spear at the highest point of the cliff. Apparently, in a park that depicted slaughtered elephants, gigantic spiders descending into a darkened theater of children, and an Alioramus literally swallowing another creature alive, these images were deemed too intense.
Like the unicorn, they were removed before the park officially opened.
But the dragon himself was not removed. During the early days of the ride’s operation, he would blast great fireballs from the shadows of cave. This always got a little gasp from the audience.
Let’s be clear here. You never saw any actual dragon in flagrante. Only a big puff of fire not much different from the cowboy scene in the Great Movie Ride. If you wanted a glimpse of this foul creature in all his scaly glory, you’d just have to wait for the planned Dragon Tower roller coaster inside Beastly Kingdom. Disney had plans for a massive animatronic, similar to the dragon found in Sleeping Beauty Castle in Paris.
Of course, you’d still be waiting. And the fire effect from the dragon’s cave also stopped working a few weeks after the ride opened, so this quickly became just a trip past some weird rocks.
What Remains of the Dragon Cave?
Now you get closer to the Dragon Cave now than you ever could during the time of the Discovery River Boats. In fact, you can literally stand on top of it!
When the Festival of the Lion King moved to Africa from Camp Minnie-Mickey to make way for Pandora, Disney built a boardwalk path between the two lands, on the bank of the Discovery River.
Vines and creeper plants have engulfed most of the dragon rocks today, but there is a nice little overlook right over the original cave. We spent a good deal of time staring down into the gloom at the boardwalk foundation, marveling at the history lying forgotten beneath our feet.
In addition to lots of trash, I am 73% sure that I saw natural gas pipes down there that would have powered the flame effect. But I am also 89% sure that it is just an irrigation line.
The planned encounter with the sea creature known as the kraken never materialized in park form. So guests were left with a rather tepid trip through lily pads as they approached another bridge.
Unlike the Camp-Minnie Mickey bridge, guests did not use this passage. It was a service bridge for backstage supply vehicles. Passing under the bridge, guests found themselves transitioning to Africa.
However, off the left was a small lagoon, just past the dragon cave. It’s an odd depression in the shoreline that looks like it was intended for some sort of show scene. At least one of the Discovery River Boats was reputed to contain a “rumbling” device that would make it feel like the Kraken had just swam under the boat.
Was this the planned spot for the Kraken attack?
I am 62% sure that it was. But I am 94% sure that it wasn’t.
What Happened to the Mysterious Lagoon?
It’s still there. And much like the dragon cave, you can walk directly over it.
It makes for one of the strangest features on the Pandora boardwalk. Looking at pool from the Pandora side of the boardwalk railing, it seems not much bigger than a hot tub. A mere puddle, even.
But that’s because the boardwalk itself covers most of the lagoon itself. The walkway is wide to accommodate the early morning crowds for Flight of Passage, so this body of water is out of sight directly underneath unsuspecting Pandora visitors.
When the water is clear, you can spot some concrete barriers under the water. Maybe these were intended to mount more show features that were cut for budgetary reasons. Or maybe they are just a normal feature when building a man-made river. Either way, this pool is the perfect spot for reflection as you wonder what could have been.
Though technically part of Africa, the geyser rocks were another basic show element that counted as a “highlight” on the early Discovery River Boat tour. As you passed the geyser fields, columns of steam and spray would jet out into the air. If you were lucky, you might catch a bit of mist on the hot Florida day.
Yes, that’s what “lucky” means on the Discovery River Boats.
This otherworldly ecological feature helped to transition away from Beastly Kingdom and into the more civilized and developed shoreline of Harambe.
What Remains of the Geyser Field?
Why, everything remains! Except maybe the actual geysers.
When the aforementioned new theater for the Festival of the Lion King opened, we were suddenly able to walk right around Harambe and stare longingly at the old geyser fields. Which of course have been turned off for decades now.
They are literally opposite of the restrooms. So if you want to see any geyser activity, [ insert restroom joke here. Bonus points if you mention Yak and Yeti ].
Sorry, if that’s inappropriate. But heck, it’s more entertaining than the Discovery River Boats.
So What Doomed Beastly Kingdom?
We’ve come to the end of our walking tour through the land they almost built.
Why did we never get to race through Dragon’s Tower, battle a kraken, or pet a unicorn?
The answer, as always, seems to be money. The park was already massively overbudgeted, forcing executives to choose between Dinoland and Beastly Kingdom for the grand opening. Asia would follow within a year, bumping out Beastly Kingdom even further.
Then there was the little matter of Islands of Adventure at Universal Studios. It had its own mythical fantasy land known as the Lost Continent. It too had a dragon coaster and a unicorn ride. And that park opened within a year of Animal Kingdom. Normally Disney and Universal don’t have a problem ripping off each other’s best ideas. But this time the similarities proved a little too close to comfort.
And then on top of everything, the economy went south.
Guests often derided Animal Kingdom as a half-day park early in its history. Expansion was definitely needed. But the American economy was shaken by the terrorist events of 9/11 and the ensuing Iraq war in the early 2000s. When they finally got around to expanding Animal Kingdom, they did it on the cheap.
That’s when we got the only thing worse than the Discovery River Boats: Chester and Hester’s Dinorama.
Forgive us if we skip the walking tour for that one.
The following video offers a great look at the Discovery River Boats from just after Animal Kingdom opened in April, 1998.
You won’t see any unicorn, kraken, or fire-breathing dragon. We aren’t kidding about how quickly they removed them.
But you can see clear views of all of the features mentioned in our walking tour, including the mysterious pool.