Farewell to the Festival of the Lion King?by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I haven’t written a lot about Disney's Animal Kingdom Park because I was never really as fond of it as I am of the other three Walt Disney World parks. I don’t believe it is a “half-day park” with very little to offer as other Disney fans claim in an attempt to explain why they don’t spend much time there.
I am not fond of the park because I do not care for its design layout. Since I moved to Florida to help my parents who had some medical and mobility issues, I quickly discovered that Animal Kingdom was not a friendly park to people in their situation. The hike from handicapped parking to the turnstiles was lengthy, the trek from the turnstiles to the Oasis hub was long and then journeying to any other section of the park was another killer walk both there and back.
Many of the rides were too extreme for my parents, including the bumpiness of the Kilimanjaro Safari, Kali River Rapids and Countdown to Extinction (now Dinosaur). Even It’s Tough to Be a Bug pokes you unexpectedly in the back.
My parents, when they were in their 20s, spent several years in India and the Far East and were looking forward to triggering memories of their experiences in those locations. Once we finally made it to the Oasis area, mom and dad loved the design and attention to detail and, after a rest, enjoyed some of the live-action shows and food but not enough to want to return to the park frequently. The other parks offered more benches, less walking, more shade, more “everyone can enjoy” attractions, and other benefits.
I know the park is supposed to resemble going through actual jungles with its twists and turns, uneven walkways, disorientation and discovering unexpected joys hidden in the overgrown landscaping, but, once upon a time, Walt Disney knew there had to be a balance between the actual experience and guest comfort and convenience. Among other things, he changed the real dirt street of Frontierland into something more accessible and friendly for guests and always made sure there was enough seating, shade, clear directions, and things that an entire family could enjoy together.
The Disney Company really should include, as it once did, Imagineers who physically resemble the rest of today’s general population who are older, less flexible and more obese and have those Imagineers who sign off on a new attraction.
Basically, they should quite literally remember Rule No. 2 in “Mickey’s Ten Commandments” that Imagineer Marty Sklar first proposed at a 1987 meeting of the American Association of Museums. Marty based those rules on Walt’s own philosophy.
Rule No. 2 is “Wear your guest's shoes - Insist that designers, staff and your board members experience your facility as visitors as often as possible.”
I was working at the Disney Institute when DAK first opened and got to experience from behind-the-scenes the development and building of the park. I have an extensive interview done with Imagineer Joe Rohde that I should take some time to finally transcribe (there are many great interviews out there in the collections of several Disney historians that are still waiting to be transcribed, a grueling and time intensive task) since it contains so many insights into what design choices were made and some of the back stories.
Animal Kingdom is a beautiful park with many interesting stories, but it is not a guest-friendly park like the other three WDW parks. I have an eager 7-year-old nephew who enjoys going to the park (especially getting wet on Kali River Rapids), but despite his enormous love of animals, he does not enjoy the long, long walk to get inside or to leave the park when he is tired and cranky at the end of the day.
At the moment of the infamous 9/11 tragedy, I was standing in a Animal Kingdom conference room in the middle of doing my presentation on Walt Disney’s love of wildlife and his incorporation of it into his films and Disneyland. The cast members were eager to share with guests that the park was part of a long Disney tradition. I saw how much they loved their park and wanted others to do so, as well. It’s just a shame the park wasn’t better designed to accommodate guests.
Food locations, attractions, stores and more are always constantly changing at Disney, often without advance notice. Disney can also change its mind at the last minute about a proposed change.
Recent rumors have prompted me to write about a show that not only my parents and I always enjoyed at Animal Kingdom, but remains highly popular with Disney guests even today.
For almost a decade and a half (since its official opening on April 22, 1998), eager guests have left their worries behind them as they partied along with The Festival of the Lion King. This popular musical show is unique because, unlike most of the other Disney entertainment shows, it does not tell an abbreviated version of the famous animated feature’s plot. Instead, this theatrical experience is a tune-filled tribal celebration with audience participation and some unexpected surprises.
Lately, there has been discussion that the show is on the chopping block supposedly because the land will be repurposed for something else. Certainly, like (one of my favorite Disney stage shows ever) the long-gone Hunchback of Notre Dame—A Musical Adventure show at Disney-MGM Studios, it is an expensive show to continue to produce. It has a large cast of Equity performers,the acting union that also covers Broadway stage actors. Equity sets a minimum wage, length of time a performer can work, working conditions and more requirements that are not comparable for other WDW cast members and can add to the overall costs.
In order to accommodate the number of performances, there are three full casts, plus understudies and all of them must be brought up to speed periodically with paid “pick up” rehearsals during the year to keep the show sharp. In addition, there is the large behind-the-scenes technical staff handling costuming, lighting, props, sound, and more.
So the Disney Company has to constantly review whether this expenditure of time, labor and money is beneficial. One of the reasons Merlin and the Sword in the Stone Ceremony disappeared at Magic Kingdom was not because of the cost of the sole performer, but because of the necessity of a technician handling the effects (eg. sound cues, sword release, etc.).
Like Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends, The Festival of the Lion King was a last-minute placeholder for an area that itself was a last-minute addition when plans for a Beastlie Kingdomme section were halted.
Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends was originally planned to be just an animal meet-and-greet show handled by the education staff at Animal Kingdom. The proposal evolved into a low-budget character show aimed primarily at children (which is why there was the character of the young little Sprig puppet so that children could relate through an “identification figure”) utilizing a major prop of Grandmother Willow from Disneyland’s The Spirit of Pocahontas show that closed in September 1997.
Putting on a temporary show was cheaper than investing in building a ride attraction and was also easier to change once a decision was made about exactly what the area should be. Another temporary show was The Festival of the Lion King.
Located in the rustic Camp Minnie Mickey section of Animal Kingdom, The Festival of the Lion King is generally performed eight times a day, seven days a week beginning around 10 a.m. ET.
Since its premiere in 1998, this joyous celebration has become the longest-running stage show at Animal Kingdom with enthusiastic guests returning multiple times.
It remains one of the most highly rated experiences at Animal Kingdom, but the Disney Company feels it may have outlived its usefulness, especially without a current major franchise supporting it as the Disney Princess franchise continues to support the even longer-running Beauty and the Beast—Live On Stage show at Disney Hollywood Studios.
The energetic half-hour musical show provides seating on sturdy metal benches for 1,375 guests. The enclosed air-conditioned (it wasn’t always enclosed or air-conditioned because it was to be temporary) theatre-in-the-round is separated into four triangle-tiered sections providing every member of the audience with an excellent viewing opportunity. The show was designed by Walt Disney World Creative Entertainment, but the performance venue was created by Walt Disney Imagineering.
“The best option available for the gathering of a large group is the camp’s assembly hall, where all the campers come together to sing songs and tell stories. This led us to our material and color palettes, and the architectural styling of the building,” commented Imagineer Alex Wright about the hexagonal timber structure.
The playhouse interior is divided into four sections appropriately labeled Elephant, Giraffe, Warthog or Lion. Towering floats representing each of these animals slide into the four pathways near the audience. A rock hewn versatile platform stage in the middle of the theater provides an opportunity for a variety of exciting experiences.
The theater environment suggests an African savannah where an extraordinary group of humans and animals adorned in decorative feathers and ornate beads on 136 costumes have gathered to present a musical revue.
The action-packed The Festival of the Lion King is hosted by four human performers with Swahili names attired as traditional African tribal leaders: Kiume ("masculine and strong"), Nakawa ("good-looking"), Kibibi ("princess"), and Zawadi ("the gift"). They instruct the guests on how to participate with the performers several times during the show.
It wouldn’t be a true party without some of the cast from the original film! A 12-foot-high animated Simba stands on Pride Rock keeping time to the pounding rhythm with his feet while interacting with the audience.
Lovable Pumbaa claims his tiny feet keep him confined to the massive Warthog float. However, his companion Timon gleefully struts to the center platform leading the audience in a vocal competition during the song The Lion Sleep Tonight. Since the beginning of 2009, Timon has sported an articulated head that allows his mouth to move when he is talking and his eyes to blink.
Along with performers in African tribal robes and various animal costumes, the center stage spotlights several specialty acts, include a group of zany, bouncing acrobats, tribal stilt walkers precariously navigating the area, a death defying fire juggler and a breathtaking high wire aerialist who soars high above the audience. Each increasingly amazing routine is choreographed to a memorable song from the classic movie.
A beloved audience favorite is the flexible gymnasts in yellow-orange skintight costumes called the Tumble Monkeys. These mischievous and energetic creatures wildly swing and flip on the overhead rings and bars as the hapless Timon tries to sing. Their extensive training includes not only the skillful and fast-moving routine itself but insight into how to move and think like a monkey, including grooming audience members in the front row.
Joey Hagerty, one of the current tumble monkeys, actually won a bronze medal in 2008 at the Olympics in Beijing. There is a great video of Hagerty talking about his role in The Festival of the Lion King.
The impressive floats that serve as intriguing set pieces are actually recycled from The Lion King Celebration parade that ran at Disneyland from 1994-1997. Remember at the time, the goal was to hold down costs on a temporary show. They were modified and updated for Walt Disney World, including removing Simba’s sweetheart, Nala, and Mufasa's face in an overhead spinning sun design from the Lion float. While the Disneyland parade featured six floats, only four floats are utilized in the The Festival of the Lion King.
The highlight of the show is its colorful finale where dozens of performers in elaborate costumes fill the entire room encouraging the audience to join in with the lively festivities. The finale not only reprises all the beloved songs, but also showcases gasp-inducing excerpts from the talented specialty artists that thrilled the audience earlier.
The award-winning music from the famous movie provides the backdrop for the show beginning with a rousing chorus of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” as the grand floats move into their onstage positions. A playful rendition of “Hakuna Matata” stirs up the acrobatic Tumble Monkeys who leap about singly and in pairs in a non-stop comedic exhibition.
“Be Prepared” sets the theme for a mock battle of tribal warriors on stilts as an onstage performer juggles fire. This dark mood lightens when a female high-wire aerialist garbed as a magical bird dances with her male partner to the love duet “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” The emotion-laden ballet is so intense that she literally takes to air and spins high above the audience.
The show comes to a conclusion with a full cast chorus of “The Circle of Life” followed by a finale reprising all the previous songs as the audience happily joins in before they exit the theater.
Whether the rumored demise of the The Festival of the Lion King is permanent or merely temporary so that the show can be relocated elsewhere is also a topic for debate. I just wanted to share some information and celebrate a show that I always enjoyed and feel exhibits true Disney showmanship.
I have friends who love Animal Kingdom, and I think it is long overdue for me to pull out my notes and documents from the opening of the park and discuss some of the outstanding attention to detail and storytelling in the park. The job of a Disney historian is to not only to research and record information but, most importantly, to share it with others.
So while Animal Kingdom is not my first choice to visit (even after my parents died a few years ago), it is definitely deserving of having its stories told.