State of Disney Animal Kingdom Fifteen Years Later

The below State of the Union type article is written by Dave from Jambo Everyone as we host a joint celebration of Animal Kingdom's 15th anniversary. 

This week marked the 15th anniversary of Disney's Animal Kingdom, a park we at Jambo Everyone have something of an obsession with. And in light of that milestone, lets take a look back at the park's history and gaze forward into what we think might be its future, in this “State of Disney Animal Kingdom” address.

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Fifteen years ago, Disney Animal Kingdom began life in much the same way as all of the domestic parks had opened during the Michael Eisner era, debuting with a shortage of attractions but no shortage of fanfare. Disney-MGM Studios faced the same challenge when it first dropped its ropes, however the world was a much different place in the years immediately following 1989 than it was in 1998.

When Disney MGM Studios opened the economy was about to boom, and the travel business as well. It seemed each year brought a new attraction to the Studios. Almost the complete opposite can be said about the Animal Kingdom. Disney Animal Kingdom was only open for a short three years before the events of September 11 and the resulting decline in the economy and especially in tourism. The park's only real expansion was the Asia section in 1999 and the Animal Kingdom Lodge in early 2001. After that, it was five years before any real investment was made. As a result, Disney Animal Kingdom is years behind schedule.

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But the real difference between Hollywood Studios and the Animal Kingdom is that as Walt Disney Imagineering added more and more to the Studios they seemed to throw the concepts of continuity and theme out the window. The same can not be said for Disney Animal Kingdom, which still maintains much of Joe Rhode's original aesthetic vision. Yes, there are a few things like Camp Minnie-Mickey and Finding Nemo the Musical that may not conceptual fit seamlessly, but yet somehow they work reasonably well aesthetically. (Certainly they work better than a giant electric guitar in what's supposed to be 1920's Hollywood)

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My only disappointment in the first 15 years of Disney Animal Kingdom is that more zoological exhibits have not been added. However the park does a miraculous job of maintaining what is already in place. And it simply is not that easy to make changes in that department. The recent issues regarding the zebras at Kilimanjaro Safari are evidence enough that we are not exactly talking about simply adding a Johnny Depp robot here.

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And it is hard to look back at the last 15 years and not mention Expedition Everest and the “Disco Yeti”. I admit the technical issues with the audio-animatronic are disappointing, but in the face of all the budget cuts that so crippled Disney Animal Kingdom's early growth it hard for me to fault Walt Disney Imagineering  for trying to “shoot the moon” on this one. They wanted to build the most jaw-dropping animatronic ever, and they did just that. Perhaps someday the Yeti will return to its initial glory. But even as it is, Expedition Everest is everything we can ever ask for in a Disney E-Ticket, and is hardly worth complaining about.

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Having said all of that, fifteen years on and overall Disney's Animal Kingdom is indeed a more exciting place than when it opened. But it does appear the next fifteen years is when we may see the amount of additions one might have expected already, if not for the circumstances previously mentioned. So we move into the future, with Avatar being the first soon-to-be major addition to the park since the Forbidden Mountain.

Disney's partnership with James Cameron has been controversial to say the least, and has been met with what can be described as a lukewarm at best response from skeptical Disney fans and the Disney Animal Kingdom faithful. And while I will admit I am not particularly a fan of the film, and did not weep tears of joy when the announcement was made, I am also not ready to brand the idea a failure before it ever opens.

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As I said on Jambo Everyone earlier this year, there are plenty of reasons to be excited. For one, the area currently occupied by Camp Minnie-Mickey needs an upgrade and it truly lends itself to the aesthetics of the film. Crossing that bridge into Pandora has some amazing theme and detail potential. But more importantly, so far Joe Rhode has not let us down. My confidence perhaps would not be nearly as high if anyone else were leading the way.

Even more exciting is what Shakespeare called the “undiscovered country”, the unknown future before us. The potential of Disney's Animal Kingdom is immense, and perhaps it is, in fact, a new country, or more appropriately a new continent, that lies just beyond Pandora.

Or maybe it is more additions to the resident wildlife. I will always go back to what I personally think would be the best addition they can make to Disney Animal Kingdom, a pair of pandas in Asia. To me, that is the kind of thing that will bring the crowds in the most fitting of ways for this incredible park whose focus should always return to the animals.

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We won't know until we get there. Let me say with conviction that having opined on potential additions and the historical lack there of, if Disney and Joe Rhode announced tomorrow that no new attractions would be added to Disney's Animal Kingdom over the next 15 years, that instead they would focus their attention on upkeep, small tweaks and maybe a greater investment into conservation efforts, I would be perfectly happy with that.

DAK is a gorgeous place. A place where we as the planet's only guardians can learn about what Mother Nature has given us and what we can do to maintain wildlife for future generations while having loads of fun in the meantime! Walt Disney loved animals, and I can't help but be convinced he would be proud to have his name on the front gate of Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Asante Sana everyone. Come visit us at jamboeveryone.com and help us in our own conservation effort if you can.

Thanks to Dave from Jambo Everyone for this fantastic contribution to the site. I hope you all enjoyed it. All photos are either from Jambo Everyone or are copyright Disney. 

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