Walt originally wanted real animals on Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise, and with Disney’s Animal Kingdom, he finally got that wish… and much, much more.
D23 brings us an Earth Day edition of Dateline Disney, all about the opening of this very special park.
In September 1997, a promotional brochure was handed out at Walt Disney World Resort touting “A Disney animal adventure like no other.” It went on to explain, “In the spring of 1998, a fourth Walt Disney World park will be unveiled, Disney’s Animal Kingdom. You’ll embark on a heart-pounding, heart-warming expedition into the world of animals. Whether real, imaginary, or extinct, the animals who rule Disney’s Animal Kingdom bring to life a day of adventure into the mysteries, marvels, and thrills of the ever-unfolding story of animals.”
Join us for a look back at the opening festivities and the main attractions at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, with some archival concept art from Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI).
This Walt Disney Imagineering concept art shows a pleasant drive through the peaceful savannah on the Kilimanjaro Safaris trucks.
Roots of the Animal Attraction
One million people from around the world have journeyed through the Oasis “entry plaza” of Disney’s Animal Kingdom since the park opened on more than 500 acres of wilderness on April 22, 1998—Earth Day. It was the first Disney theme park where visitors could connect with real animals in ways never before thought possible.
This Kilimanjaro Safaris concept art shows the thrill of getting close to hungry crocodiles and hippos. Note the buzzard perched on the tree awaiting any “leftovers.”
But in a way, animals have always been on the “drawing board.” Walt Disney’s original vision for Jungle Cruise at Disneyland included a winding river journey through a fierce jungle with live animals. Zoologists warned Walt that the animals would sleep during the park’s operating hours, so Audio-Animatronics® animals took the place of live ones when Disneyland opened in 1955. Fast-forward some 35 years to then-CEO Michael Eisner’s idea for an animal-themed experience at Walt Disney World Resort, and the idea Walt once had for Jungle Cruise was finally dusted off and ready to be explored again… but on a much grander scale.
Harambe Village, depicted in this concept art, transports Walt Disney World guests to a typical African town with its authentic architecture and storytelling.
An Elephant-sized Opening
The grand opening press event was nothing short of sensational. After all, it was smack in the middle of what Michael Eisner had declared “The Disney Decade.” The festivities began on Monday, April 20, at Downtown Disney with an evening of food, fun, live music, and entertainers, including Daisy Fuentes and David Copperfield. On Pleasure Island, guests were invited to indulge with hors d’oeuvres and cocktails while dancing to the music of Blackhawk, presented by Wildhorse Saloon. Black Entertainment Television added to the line-up with music by Usher and Imajin. And on Downtown Disney’s West Side, Tonic, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and Pat Benatar kicked off a street party. Guests also had the chance to get a sneak peek at “The Ultimate Interactive Adventure!,” DisneyQuest.
The official dedication ceremony was held at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, April 21, and officiated by Michael Eisner and Roy E. Disney, vice chairman, followed by a Rainforest Café dedication and breakfast, hosted by Al Weiss, president, Walt Disney World Resort Resort and Steven Schussler, senior vice president of marketing and development. Later that day at 3:30 p.m., DinoLand U.S.A. received its official dedication, sponsored by McDonald’s. Judson Green, president, Walt Disney Attractions, and Jack Greenberg, Chairman and CEO, McDonald’s U.S.A., were on hand to celebrate the land’s opening. Finally, on Wednesday, April 22, 1998, Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened to the public at 7 a.m.
DinoLand U.S.A., seen in the concept art here, takes visitors into the world of dinosaurs and begins with an archaeological dig.
Tree of Life… and Other Attractions of Note
One of the most impressive parts of this “new species of theme park” is the massive, beautifully crafted Tree of Life, the centerpiece and icon of the park. Under the “roots” of this tree lives a whole society of insects from A Bug’s Life, who populate the 3D attraction It’s Tough to Be a Bug. Interestingly, though, the attraction opened well before the actual film. As a matter of fact, the Orlando Sentinel news story that ran on September 26, 1997, described it this way: “Safari Village will be anchored by the 14-story park icon—the Tree of Life. The tree’s trunk is carved with the shapes of various creatures. Inside the trunk, visitors will watch a 3D movie about insects. The movie is created by the company that made Toy Story.”
This concept for Discovery Island shows off the bright colors and designs of the buildings located there.
About the iconic Tree of Life, Joe Rohde, senior vice president, WDI, and Animal Kingdom chief designer, says, “We needed some kind of symbol that embodies what the biggest of the big ideas is really about. The park is about nature, so a building doesn’t make sense. We narrowed it down to a tree pretty quickly. The tree is a symbol of the richness, diversity, and grandeur of life on Earth.”
“The tree requires you to slow down,” Joe reflects, summing up the reason WDI decided to add so much detail to it. “It’s like nature in that it will reward the longest, slowest, most attentive rate of attention.” Just like so much does at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
The Imagineering ideas for Disney’s Animal Kingdom culminate in this concept art for the Tree of Life, including a mixture of wildlife roaming “free” around the iconic leafed structure.
For a more in-depth look at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park, check out the Summer issue of Disney twenty-three magazine, where Joe Rhode gives us a complete insider’s guide to the planning and creation of this amazing theme park.