Disney's Animal Kingdom: The First Year

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

As we continue to celebrate Disney's Animal Kingdom's 22nd anniversary this month, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at the park's first year of operation and, in particular, some of the things that only existed during that year.

To try to get the general public to understand that Disney's Animal Kingdom Park was not like the typical zoo a person might visit in a city but a new type of theme park, in 2002 WDW through its Yellow Shoes Creative Marketing division brought on Mark Simon to storyboard a 30-second commercial spot.

An advertising campaign for Disney's Animal Kingdom Park included both real and mythical creatures.

The final commercial was produced by Jim Derusha, of Alpha Wolf Productions, and consisted of various DAK cast members declaring "Nahtazu," a fictional word that when pronounced sounded like "not a zoo." The commercial ended with the tag line: "Disney's Animal Kingdom. It's many, many things but remember… it's Nahtazu!" Disney stopped using the term in 2006 as it strengthened its connections with the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums).

The idea of it not being a zoo came from Imagineer Joe Rohde, executive designer and senior vice president, Creative for Walt Disney Imagineering. In a presentation to DAK cast members on June 14, 1998 he stated:

"When I became involved in Disney's Animal Kingdom it was late 1989, Disney sent a group of MBAs out across the country visiting and researching zoos around the nation and they came back with a terrifically negative report that basically said, "Look. There's a zoo in every city, in every town in this country. They're all subsidized by the city, by the state, by the federal government. People pay a third of what they pay to get into our parks to come in…they stay for two hours…they buy a drink…they can go whenever they want…why would we ever do a zoo?" End of question, right?

"We the Disney Company simply cannot do what is out there already if for no other reason than we're gonna charge you $50 or more to do it. So it has to be different, it has to be new, it has to be unlike anything else you can do or we simply cannot pursue it as a line of business because we can't make our per cap.

"There's still people in the company who will refer to this as a 'zoo' and I mean, by no means, any disrespect or disdain to what a zoo is. It is a thing that exists in the world and is loved and valued, obviously, by their presence around the country and the world, by gazillions of people. The world doesn't need another big, expensive zoo with a bunch of immersion exhibits in it. That is not a real pressing need on the planet.

"Now, on the other hand, what we are trying to do is profoundly subjective, even in ways that I think many education professionals would consider to be almost dangerous. A theme park is all about you in a very specific context. Nothing happens to you…nothing is said to you…nothing is seen by you…that isn't governed by the overarching narrative umbrella that holds you in that place. When you move through a space, the space is crafted to specific narrative impact on you. That's what Disney's Animal Kingdom is. It is not a zoo."

The general public still did not understand the difference since DAK was unlike any other Disney theme park. Because of massive budget cuts, the park featured few attractions when it opened and some Disney fans referred to it as a "half day park" because it was felt that it took only a half a day to experience everything.

Ironically, it was physically the largest Disney theme park at 500 acres with over 1,000 animals representing 250 species.

Here are a few things that were at DAK when it opened in 1998 but no longer exist:

Discovery River Boats

Discovery River Boats closed just over a year later in August 1999, making it the first DAK attraction to close.

It was intended to be a much more ambitious experience with previews of the upcoming Beastly Kingdom along the route including encounters with a unicorn, a kraken that would attack the boat and the head of a fire-breathing dragon extending out of a waterfront cave.

Budget cuts resulted in the ride becoming more of just a one-way transportation system between the dock from Safari Village near Dinoland U.S.A. and the Upcountry Landings dock in Asia. The trip took approximately seven to 10 minutes and was similar to the Friendship Boats at the World Showcase Lagoon.

As there was a skipper telling bad jokes and sharing information about the park, guests expected it would be something more like the Jungle Cruise, since the boats looked similar in design. People were very disappointed that it wasn't especially when long boarding lines originally resulted because of the misunderstanding. There were seven boats that were named Manatee Maiden, Leaping Lizard, Scarlet Flamingo, Otter Nonsense, Hasty Hippo, Crocodile Belle, and Darting Dragonfly.

Guests did see a few things on the voyage around the Tree of Life, including a series of hot springs geysers along the shores of Africa, animal water sculptures at the Discovery Lagoon, and a large audio-animatronics Iguanodon playing in the water near DinoLand U.S.A. that foreshadowed the Countdown to Extinction attraction where that dinosaur plays a key role in the story.

The attraction was renamed in November 1998 to the Discovery River Taxi to emphasize it was just transportation and had prerecorded narration. Animal handlers with small animals were added on the boat as part of the park's animal education initiative, but did not prove to be a guest satisfier.

In March 1999, the attraction was once again renamed and was called Radio Disney River Cruise playing commentary from Radio Disney disc jockeys Just Plain Mark and Zippy with music that the guests were told was being broadcast from the top of the Tree of Life. It wasn't.

When the attraction finally closed, the boats were stored in a backstage marina and the docks used occasionally for character meet and greet opportunities or additional seating. Two of the boats were later relocated to Magic Kingdom's Contemporary Resort where they were repurposed for a Pirates & Pals fireworks voyage on Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon.

Camp Minnie-Mickey

Although Camp Minnie-Mickey was meant to be a temporary placeholder, it lasted almost 16 years from 1998 to 2014, when it was replaced by Pandora: The World of Avatar.

Realizing there would be not enough shows and attractions on opening day, CEO Michael Eisner recalled how Mickey's Birthdayland, a temporary location, was built in only 90 days 1988 in the Magic Kingdom. Eisner felt that something similar devoted to Disney characters would mimic that success.

Camp Minnie-Mickey was themed to be a rural five acre summer fishing camp in the woodlands of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York where the characters were on vacation. This theme was echoed in the landscape, architecture, and street furniture that provided a homemade feeling.

At the Greeting Trails, guests could usually find Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy. In random places throughout the land other characters like Chip, Dale, Koda, Pocahontas, Meeko, Baloo, King Louie among others appeared.

Along the river were three-dimensional fiberglass figures of Donald Duck fishing and catching a rubber boot; Mickey, Pluto and Goofy fishing; and Huey, Dewey, and Louie backpacking with Daisy Duck.

The camp's assembly hall, seating 1,375 guests, was the home for the half hour The Festival of the Lion King musical show that did not tell an abbreviated version of the famous animated feature's plot, but was a tune-filled tribal celebration with audience participation and some unexpected surprises.

The other show was the 12-minute Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends in Grandma Willow's Grove. The genesis of the show came from the animal education cast at Disney's Animal Kingdom. It was meant to be similar to the animal meet-and-greet shows at zoos and other animal parks, where a trainer or two brings out one animal at a time and talks about the animal's characteristics to the audience.

Pocahontas is worried that the forest is being cut down indiscriminately and runs to Grandma Willow for advice. She reminds Pocahontas of a prophecy that one creature has a special gift to protect the forest, but that Pocahontas herself must discover the identity of that creature giving her the opportunity to interact with several different animals including a raccoon, a snake, rabbits, opossums, a skunk, a porcupine and others while in the process educating the audience about them. The show was written to utilize the natural behaviors of the animals. The animals sometimes decided they didn't want to appear which is why so many different types of animals rotated throughout the years in the show.

A live character performer portrayed Pocahontas and there were two puppeteers who were underneath the stage for Sprig and Grandmother Willow. Grandma Willow came from the Disneyland Spirit of Pocahontas show that closed in September 1997. Finally, Pocahontas realizes that the creature of the prophecy must be human beings. "Humans can destroy the forest, but we can also save it. The Earth is our home too. If we take care of it, it will take care of us!"

While there was no restaurant in the land, guests could get funnel cakes, corn dogs and beverages cookies and ice cream sandwiches at Camp Soft Serve (also known as Campside Funnel Cakes and later Forest Trail Funnel Cakes) and cookies and ice cream sandwiches at Campfire Treats (also known as Chip and Dale's Cookie Cabin).

The March of The ARTanimals Parade

The Disney publicity release described it as: "It's not a parade...it's not a procession...so what is it? Join us and find out as we present our fun, zany and fanciful one-of-a-kind 'moving celebration' of imagination and living art inspired by the world of animals".

It was different than other Disney theme park parades and was more of a carnival/Mardi Gras approach meant to represent a bunch of artists getting together to create their impressions of animals out of "found" items. The parade was designed to maneuver around the narrow pathways yet still stand out from the surrounding lush landscaping.

Designed by Swiss artist Rolf Knie, the parade was supposed to represent an informal and intimate celebration and featured no Disney characters or Disney music. Some of the costumes even showed the faces of the "artists" who were sculptors, weavers and painters.

Originally titled March of the Animals, the avant-garde approach initially confused the guests so the name was changed to emphasize that it was an artistic interpretation. A band and storyteller were added to accompany the parade performers. Later, the costumes were used for entertainment and photo opportunities in the Safari Village area.

The instrumental music included songs with animal references like Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing, Flight of the Bumblebee, Baby Elephant Walk, Tiger Rag, Itsy Bitsy Spider and Aba Daba Honeymoon.

The six unusual floats included a lion playing a xylophone made from wooden gazelle skeletons, a frog wearing a straw hat and red-and-white striped jacket crooning to some dancing frogs, and a queen bee sitting on her honey throne while other bees tickled her with a flower and swirling ribbons.

The 15-minute parade started near Pizzafari and wound its way through Asia and past Dinoland USA but with viewing available only on one side of the route. It only lasted a year.

Journey into Jungle Book

The 1,500 seat Theater in the Wild in the Dinoland USA area has featured only three stage shows: Journey into the Jungle Book (1998-1999), Tarzan Rocks! (1999-2006) and Finding Nemo - The Musical (2007-Present).

Journey Into the Jungle Book was a roughly 25-minute show that condensed the story of Mowgli and his animal encounters in the jungles of India from Disney's animated feature film The Jungle Book (1967) featuring the popular songs including Bare Necessities and I Wanna Be Like You.

It featured some costumed characters, human performers and innovative puppetry. During cast previews, the masks for characters had not been finished, so audiences could see the performers' faces and loved it.

Later, when the show debuted and the masks had arrived, it seemed to lose its connection with the audience. Some of the costumes looked like bushes and trees that when positioned differently became animals.

The Show Director was Fran Soeder, who had previously directed The Legend of the Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Voyage of The Little Mermaid.

After a year, the show was replaced with the high-energy half-hour concert style presentation called Tarzan Rocks (1999) directed by Reed Jones to tie-in with the release of the animated feature film based on the Lord of the Jungle.

Dinosaur Jubilee

This was a quickly produced and relatively inexpensive addition to provide an additional experience for guests. It looked temporary and sparse but it was also one of the few attractions at DAK that had air conditioning. It disappeared in early spring 2001 to be replaced by Chester and Hester's Dino-rama.

The guide map stated, "Meander through dino artifacts – see casts of spectacular real dinosaur skeletons!"

It was located in a large white plastic tent around the corner from the Cretaceous Trail, opposite Chester and Hester's shop. It was a museum-like exhibit of fossils and skeleton casts that supposedly represented some of the fictitious Dino Institute's findings in the area.

In addition, comical guided tours of the displays four times a day by some of the Institute's grad student interns were offered for about the first year.

The displays featuring casts supplied by the Black Hills Institute and Triebold Paleontology included among other prehistoric animals one of the most complete Tyrannosaurs Rex skeletons in existence at the time, two triceratops (with a nameplate that misspelled the name of the paleontologist who discovered one of them whose name was actually Dr. W.R. Garstka), a Edmontosaurus, a Pachycephalosaurus, two Tylosaurus with a Pteranodon in one of its jaws, and an Archelon.

There was even an elaborate area devoted to the Ice Age. The full skeletons were positioned in poses similar to what might be found at a Natural History museum, and there were ferns and other plants from the era mixed in with the models.

In 2000, the name of the attraction changed to Dinosaur Jubilee 2000 in honor of the millennium. The exhibit added some interactive versions of an audio-animatronics mammoth and a sabre tooth tiger. These creatures were not skeletons but covered with fur.

As a precursor to the forthcoming Chester & Hester's Dino-Rama a series of simple carnival style games were setup outside of the Dinosaur Jubilee area.

A giant, rather tacky looking, purple inflatable T-Rex, as well a banner at the entrance to Dinoland, were put in place to direct more guests to the Jubilee. The background story to explain these new additions was that the Dino Institute grad students were putting on a carnival in order to raise money.

Fossil Preparation Lab

Dino-Sue was named after paleontologist Sue Hendrickson who found a remarkable skeleton in 1990 at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in western South Dakota. Never before had such a complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton been unearthed with about 90 percent of the 350 bones intact.

The original Sue lived during the Late Cretaceous Period, in the Mesozoic Era. She weighed several tons, and her skeleton is a whopping 40 feet long, and 13 feet tall making her the largest Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered.

In October 1997, The Chicago Field Museum paid a record $8.4 million for the prehistoric treasure at auction, helped by donations from Walt Disney World, McDonald's and the California State University system.

Rushing to finish the skeleton for a big millennium exhibit, the Chicago Field Museum had seven people working full time on the bones, including as part of the deal for Disney's and McDonald's contributions having three scientists headed by paleontologist Bruce Schumacher who worked on it in the Fossil Preparation Lab in DinoLand.

Millions of visitors observed the preparation of Sue's bones through glass windows in both labs. The DAK team (like one in Chicago at the Field Museum) carefully removed the South Dakota rock in which the bones were fossilized 67 million years ago, doing the work behind glass in a public viewing area in the temporary structure.

Every day, a paleontologist worked cleaning, cataloguing and photographing a genuine fossilized dinosaur bone, while a couple of cameras with monitors showed a close up view of the work being undertaken.

"People sometimes have a hard time realizing that these are real bones," Schumacher said. "We try to go out and talk to people at different times during the day, and sometimes we find that they think we're just actors pretending to work, on a set made to look like a science lab because it is at Disney."

Guests could watch through the glass windows, read colorful displays, and ask questions of a Disney attendant stationed outside. In addition, the lab had the sounds of a dinosaur roaring piped in periodically over the loud speaker. The paleontologists heard it hundreds of a time a day and would joke that it sounded more like a big toilet flushing than a dinosaur.

The work was tedious. Once cleaned, fragments of the bones were glued together. Any cracks in the bones were filled with industrial-strength Krazy Glue to hold them together and prevent more crumbling. Gaps or missing bones were molded from clay.

In addition, they made molds of the bones so that three replicas could be created. In 1999, the bones were loaded into crates and shipped back to Chicago the same way they arrived: by a special moving company that used air-conditioned, climate-controlled trucks, the kind used to move fine art. Security guards accompanied the bones. The Fossil Preparation Lab was closed.

Two of the replicas went on a national tour sponsored by McDonald's, visiting over 18 U.S. cities beginning in July 2000. The third replica now stands outdoors in DinoLand U.S.A. near the entrance to the Dinosaur attraction.

Things are constantly changing at Walt Disney World theme parks, and even though DAK has only been around for two decades, many things have already disappeared, including things that most DAK fans never even knew existed that first year of the park, such as the hidden Water Buffalo Path and the Water Temple on Discovery River.