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Mike Scopa

It Just Doesn't Theme Right

What's up with the theming at the Animal Kingdom?

Friday, July 1, 2005
by Mike Scopa, staff writer

So in April I flew to Orlando for the Disneyland 50th celebration and put together a list of things I wanted to see. That list included Cinderellabration in Magic Kingdom, Soarin' in Epcot's Future World, Lights! Motors! Action! Extreme Stunt Show in Disney/MGM Studios, and also Lucky the Dinosaur in Disney's Animal Kingdom.

It was my pursuit of Lucky that finally put me over the edge. Yep, put me over the edge regarding something that has been bothering me for a long time.

In this session, I'd like to get something off my chest regarding a few things in Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Can We Talk?

I guess I'd like to start this discussion by commending the Imagineers on the creation of Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park. Yeah, yeah, it's NaHTaZu… we've heard it before.

They are right. It should not be looked upon as being a zoo, but a very well planned out and engineered animal theme park.

Many years went into the planning and construction of this fourth Walt Disney World theme park.

When it opened on April 22, 1998—Earth Day by the way—hopes were high.

I think the jury is still on whether this park has hit the mark on all counts. That is, we've all been conditioned to expect an assortment of things from a Disney theme park.

We expect to be entertained and thrilled by unique attractions. We also like to be faced with exciting dining decisions as we enjoy the very special dining cuisines that are found in the parks. Most importantly, however, attractions and restaurants contribute to the overall theming of the park.

I think that's where I'm having just a wee bit of a problem with Disney's Animal Kingdom.

So let's look at this theme park and see what we can discover.

Discovery Island

I like Discovery Island. Every theme park should have a central hub around which the rest of the park areas can revolve. The Tree of Life serves for Disney's Animal Kingdom what Cinderella Castle does for the Magic Kingdom, the Great Movie Ride for the Studios, or the World Showcase Lagoon for Epcot.

It's Tough to Be a Bug may not be an attraction for the very young… eight-foot, multi-legged creatures scare me, too… but it fits the theme of the park. After all, bugs are animals aren't they?

The Discovery Island Trails are probably a much unappreciated part of Discovery Island. I think everyone should make a point to walk around these trails… you never know what you'll find.

I give Discovery Island a thumbs-up for fitting in real well with the theme of Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Camp Minnie-Mickey

How can we not give thumbs-up to Camp Minnie-Mickey?

Whether you have small children or not, you should think about taking in "Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends." It's one of those attractions where you can sit and relax, and maybe even learn something. I think it's a much underappreciated attraction.

The Festival of the Lion King was always a favorite attraction of mine. Then they had to go and enclose the theater and apply air conditioning. Now it's really a favorite of mine.

Why? Well, the enclosed theater adds a bit of a dramatic flair to the performance due to such components as lighting and sound. If you haven't seen this attraction since they enclosed the theater then you have no idea what you're missing.

I think Camp Minnie-Mickey certainly is in synch with the theme of the park.

Africa

Africa is great. It has two major attractions that I always seem to be drawn to when in this part of the theme park.

First, there is the Kilimanjaro Safaris, which takes you through the African Savannah. By the way, hit this early in the day when it's cool and the animals are easily seen. Do I have to tell you that this is a definite Fastpass attraction? No? Good.

I also like the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail. I'm not particularly an animal lover. Don't get me wrong; I don't wear fur coats and alligator shoes. It's just that some people are pure animal lovers and I'm not quite there, but I do enjoy this attraction.

I think what I like best about this attraction is that I can go through it at my own pace.

If any area of the park fits into the overall theme, it's definitely Africa.

Rafiki's Planet Watch

This concept has good intentions. The objective here is to provide inspiration to the young guests in the treatment and care of animals, and to gain a deep understanding of the importance of conservation.

Habitat Habit, Conservation Station, and Affection Section all serve this purpose. Obviously, there's some educational activity going on here—the folks running the show have found a way to make it so interesting that the children don't realize that while they are enjoying themselves they are also learning some very valuable lessons.

To get to Rafiki's Planet Watch, guests must ride the Wildlife Express Train. When you depart from this train, you have to walk a distance to Habitat Habit and even farther to Conservation Station and Affection Section.

This may be a bit too much for little feet, especially in the summer in a theme park that was designed to emulate the heat and humidity found close to the equator. For those who love to ride trains, however, this is for you. Just keep in mind that while the train ride is pleasant, you have a bit of a trek to the several attractions awaiting you.

Rafiki's Planet Watch gets thumbs up. Not only does it subscribe to the theme of the park, but it also teaches the children that we are guests of this planet and we need to treat it and the animals as best we can.

Asia

We are coming down the home stretch and so far, the theme park is getting good marks from us. Asia is a pretty popular part of Disney's Animal Kingdom and will become even more popular in 2006.

The top attraction is the Kali River Rapids. It's not only a thrill ride but can cool you off on those steamy hot days. Better hit this one early in the day and if needed, use a Fastpass.

One underrated attraction in this theme park is Flights of Wonder. Here is another opportunity to relax and enjoy a bit of an education regarding birds and be quite entertained as you learn.

The Maharajah Jungle Trek is another attraction you can enjoy at your own pace. You will find some pretty exotic animals here. It's a favorite attraction of mine.

Of course, unless you've been sleeping in a cave the last year or so, you are aware that in Spring 2006, Asia becomes home to Expedition Everest, which may be the most thrilling roller coaster-type attraction ever built. The guess is that it will officially open on April 22, 2006, so plan accordingly.

There's no doubt that Asia has beautifully taken on the intended theme of the park.

It looks like every area has really… oh wait. We haven't covered ALL the areas within Disney's Animal Kingdom. We have one more to go. I think there's trouble up ahead.

DinoLand U.S.A.

This is our last stop in Disney's Animal Kingdom and it's here that I seem to have a bit of a problem.

The Boneyard is cute and I'm sure as a little boy I would have loved to have a playground like that. It seems to fit in real well.

Tarzan Rocks! is one of my favorite attractions in the park… but shouldn't it be in Africa? I know it's between Dinoland USA and Asia but c'mon… it should have been in Africa guys.

And oh by the way… can anyone please tell me why it's heading off to the Orient, namely Hong Kong? Even worse, I spoke with a cast member who works at Tarzan Rocks and he told me that it's possible that the new show will be based on The Jungle Book. I hope he's wrong.

Dinosaur, previously known as Countdown to Extinction, is a very exciting attraction and very popular. It's a great fit for Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Okay, now we're getting to an area that I really can't figure out. It's known as Dino-Rama, and the two "attractions" are Primeval Whirl and TriceraTop Spin. Primeval Whirl is sort of a spinning roller coaster and TriceraTop Spin is sort of like a Dumbo-type attraction.

I guess my problem with these two attractions is that they just seem out of place. I think the Imagineering budget for these two attractions was somewhere in the area of $27.

Where's the imagination? Where's the creativity?

I'm sure there are guests and their families who enjoy this area of the park—more power to them. There are many, however, who will stop and say, "Wait a minute. Am I in a Disney theme park or at a local amusement park?" Guests have been spoiled to expect top-of-the-line attractions, and I'm talking well thought out themed attractions that relate to the overall theme of the park. After all, why do you think they call them theme parks?

It just doesn't theme right.

I have no choice but to also take a shot at those fossil fun games. Let's see if we can name all of them:

  • Fossil Fueler
  • Mammoth Marathon
  • Comet Crasher
  • Whacka Packadinosaur
  • Bronto Score

These are the type of games you would see at a carnival. Yessir, step right up and win the little lady a 75 cent trinket… it will cost you only a few dollars to earn it.

So why are there games like this in Disney's Animal Kingdom but not in the other parks?

Remember the Penny Arcade in Magic Kingdom? Gone.

Remember the Innoventions area where you had to dish out money to try something? Not there.

I remember in the mid-'90s when they turned the New York Street area into something of a area with games hitting the bell with a mallet… basketball… bean bag game… all kinds of stuff. That didn't go well so now they do this?

And how about a few years back when the MGM New York Street area had games of skill lining the street? Vanished.

However, in a specifically theme park we see these Coney Island type games.

Hey folks, why go to a place like Coney Island or some seaside resort or your run-of-the-mill amusement park for free when you can plunk down some serious money to get into this theme park and then an additional few dollars to try your luck at these skill games…?

It's just my opinion, but I find it insulting to be asked to pay money to get into the park, and then asked for money again to play these games.

So I ask again, "Where do we see this in other theme parks?" What, did they run out of ideas? Is this supposed to be the area for the kids? So they put a couple of generic rides in and they slap a facade on each one to fall in line with the theme of the park… pretty sad.

I have to ask the question. "What would Walt think?"

Why not a dark ride that takes us through the prehistoric era of dinosaurs? You can make it interesting without being a bit ominous like Dinosaur?

Maybe something along the line like a combo exhibit hall and dark ride.

I really don't think that DinoLand USA is completely themed right for this park.

Perhaps when they designed the other portions of the park and found out that… oops, we really don't have enough attractions, they decided to dump this into the park.

Maybe what could have been placed here was a semi-roller coaster ride indoors (seem to be the thing these days) and have the ride vehicles go through the different prehistoric periods.

I think that this just stands out like a sore thumb, and I dare say, un-Disneylike because, quite frankly, little, if any thought was put into this area. Again let me remind you of the early days of Innoventions when you would walk through and find hundreds of kids playing video games. What? A Disney theme park experience is supposed to be unique; supposed to be a different kind of entertainment. Why spend money to travel to Florida, pay for a room, spend money on theme park tickets, and then just do what you could probably do at home at the local amusement park?

Maybe someday I'll understand. Maybe I'm wrong about this.

But whenever I walk through DinoLand I just have to think that Walt is spinning in his grave and frowning upon a theme park that has an area like this one.

Like I said, it just doesn't theme right.

Next time

OK… let's have some fun. Over the years I have found some interesting things to do in the theme parks that you may not know about. I'll tell you about these secret fun things to do next time.


Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Mike here.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Scopa first visited Walt Disney World almost 30 years ago. Planning a trip was simple back in the 1970s, with only the Magic Kingdom and a few Disney-owned resorts in Orlando.

Over the past 11 years, Mike has been perfecting his WDW trip-planning skills as he has hosted chats and bulletin boards about Disney for a Fortune 100 company.

Mike brings his experience to MousePlanet in a series of lessons to help you with all the phases of planning a WDW trip.

Mike pays special attention to all the details that ensure your family has the best possible time at the Happiest Place on Earth.

You can contact Mike here.

OTHER LINKS

Here are trip reports that Mike has written that are part of MousePlanet's archives:

Michael Scopa -- August 1999 -- Walt Disney World (CSR)

Michael J. Scopa -- July 1997 -- Walt Disney World (WL/CBR)

Mike Scopa -- July 1994 -- Walt Disney World (WL / CBR)

Also, don't miss Lani Teshima's column, “The Trip Planner” for more travel planning information.

Get the latest info about the resort at “Park Update: Walt Disney World.”

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