Remembering Camp Minnie-Mickeyby Jeff Kober, contributing writer
Most people know that Camp Minnie-Mickey has closed to make way for an AVATAR-inspired land, set to open by early 2017. Camp Minnie-Mickey has been around for more than 15 years, since the opening of Disney's Animal Kingdom Park.
What most people might not know is that this is one of the few times in Disney park history that an entire land has closed to be made into something completely different than what it was before. Of course, new Tomorrowlands have been added from time to time in both Disneyland Park and the Magic Kingdom Park. Some lands, like Paradise Pier have been re-imagined. Others, like Critter Country at Disneyland Park have evolved from being an Indian Village to being Bear Country to being Critter Country. But elements and themes always remained from the attraction prior. Even the entrance to Disney California Adventure was completely overhauled to become Buena Vista Street, but at least it used its foot print and many of its building structures.
This is an entire change—not just in themes, but probably in anything we have enjoyed there before. Even the trees of that area may be completely removed to create the unique Avatar forests that will come to life in a way never before seen.
Camp Minnie-Mickey was not the first theme imagined for this land. Beastly Kingdom was an elaborate land with such themes/attractions as Dragon Tower, Fantasia Gardens, and Quest of/for the Unicorn. Budget cutbacks required other creative, low-cost ideas. The idea that won was Camp Minnie-Mickey. Many lament that Beastly Kingdom was never built, however, that is not the purpose of this article. camp Minnie-Mickey's history as playing the "backup" to Beastly Kingdom is the reason many have readily dismissed this area of the charms that it did hold. And that's what we will remember today.
Daisy leads Huey, Dewey and Louis on a camping journey. The thought was that the fictional animals of Disney could be a substitute for the mythical ones intended to be part of the park. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.
Out in the Adirondacks
Speaking of our reference to Bear Country earlier, I've always thought of this as Walt Disney World's Bear Country. Bear Country's charm was the idea that it was tucked away from the rest of Disneyland crowds. It's only main attraction at that time, The Country Bear Jamboree, was what brought people to that corner of the park, but it was the setting that made you stay and enjoy. As dense and lush as Disney's Animal Kingdom is, Camp Minnie-Mickey seemed even more so—tucked away in a corner of it's own. Unlike the Northwest Woods that were the inspiration of Bear Country, here you got a sense of the backwoods of the Adirondacks in northern New York state.
Pavement, seating, signage, lighting—even the bathrooms helped to set the tone of this themed land.
Nestled in various corners, were four character meet 'n' greet stations. The characters changed over time. Sometimes you would find Pocahontas or Baloo. Often times you would fine Winnie the Pooh and friends. But Mickey or one of his gang, would always be nearby.
Want a funnel cake while at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park? You'd have to come here to get one. There were food and beverage kiosks and retail stands. But there were never permanent restaurants or shopping spaces. In some ways, it made the place feel more remote. But it also left one thinking that Camp Minnie-Mickey would never be a permanent land.
Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends
One of the attractions that opened with the entire land was Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends. This was loosely based on the Spirit of Pocahontas show that was on the New York Street Backlot around the same time as when the movie premiered. Unlike the earlier show, this wasn't just a singing/dancing version of the movie. Rather, it focused on a variety of animals, such as birds, porcupines, snakes and skunks, that were not only part of the cast, but were part of the environmental message that underscored the show. These animal actors were under the direction of the same team that continues to make Flights of Wonder happen daily at the park. The show ran until 2008, when it eventually fell to being more of a stroller parking area. But, in its time, it held the attention of young ones, and many a child came running up to the stage to gather the paper oak leaves that would blow through the breeze at the end of the show during the reprise of "Colors of the Wind."
Festival of The Lion King
Of course this is the signature attraction of this land, but it wasn't the only The Lion King offering on property. When it opened in 1998, it was the fourth Lion King attraction at the Walt Disney World resort. Many may remember the puppet attraction, Legend of The Lion King, in Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom. That show was replaced with Mickey's PhilarMagic. At Epcot, Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable opened in 1995 to replace Symbiosis. It's still there today. Most don't remember that there was, at one time, a Making of The Lion King attraction at Disney-MGM Studios.
The success of The Lion King and the timing of Disney's Animal Kingdom couldn't have been better. Small wonder that the lion enclosure in Kilimanjaro Safaris has a similar look and feel to Pride Rock. There was thought of creating a show inside the Tree of Life based on The Lion King. But Michael Eisner caught hold of Pixar's work on A Bug's Life, and that became the inspiration for It's Tough to Be a Bug. Meanwhile, the Lion King Celebration at Disneyland Park was coming to a conclusion, and the possibility of using concepts from that became real. Take a look at old YouTube videos, you'll recognize some of the floats were used in Festival of the Lion King, especially the elephant and giraffe. But the show was very different than the parade, and, in short order, the show became one of the most favorite theatrical attractions in all of Walt Disney World.
The show was originally staged outside with just a roof covering it. But, with its success, the opportunity came to not only add additional seating in the "Lion" and "Giraffe" seating sections, but to enclose it, as well. The enclosure helped to make the lighting for the show come alive. But the real magic was in its performers who gave their whole heart and soul for each performance. Because my youngest child loves this show so much, it may not be an overstatement that I've seen the show some 100 times during the last 15 years. And I can't remember a single poor performance. Indeed, I think the performances of the last year or so have been some of the best ever.
There is something very touching about the show—literally. Part of it is the interaction the cast has with the guests—whether it's quizzing them on the sound a giraffe makes, doing high-fives with the tumble monkeys or bringing children up to be part of the parade. I particularly loved how one special child would be selected and sent before Timon where he would exclaim "Give yourselves a big hand. Great job!" Then looking directly at the child,"Especially you. You were great!"
But there's something more. What is really cool is to see the interaction between the cast members. It begins with the taunting between the Prince and Queen and then what follows are two sets of hugs between the two. From there it's a Festival of Friendship. You see the cast subtelly making eye contact with each other or giving each other a quick high-five as they parade past each other. It's especially notable among the tumble monkeys and, even more so, the hyena fire dancer. You really sense that this is a family that enjoys working together.
No ensemble is more successful than when all act together as a team. But, I have to mention one more individual who stands above any performer in any entertainment attraction at Walt Disney World. It's Timon. The friends of Timon make this character come alive. Timon is the one performer who never seems to take a break during the show. When not on stage, he is constantly focused and responding in character to what is going on centerstage. And when Timon is centerstage, it's simply delightful. Thank you for your performance, Timon.
The Festival of the Lion King is being moved to Africa at Disney's Animal Kingdom. We have no reason to believe that the show won't be the very same as it was in Africa. But they did modify it extensively in Disneyland Hong Kong as they did when they brought it in from California. Also, with a six-month gap between the old show and the new show, it's very possible that the cast will be very different when it re-opens. I hope the comraderie of this ensemble never departs from the show.
Meanwhile, work is now underway on the new land. As Walt Disney once said about Disneyland, it will never be completed, but will always grow as long as there is imagination in the world. From the imagination of James Cameron, we will see something very new and different in a few years. But, until then, we can remember with some nostalgia Camp Minnie-Mickey.
Do you have any favorite memories of Camp Minnie-Mickey? What will you miss most? Please share those memories with us.