Roar or Bore? Kevin Yee on Disney World’s Lion King hotel

Written by Kevin Yee. Posted in Walt Disney World

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Published on August 21, 2012 at 4:15 am with 15 Comments

The fantastic Art of Animation resort, the first truly new hotel at Walt Disney World in a number of years, has been opening in stages. The third part just opened a bit more than a week ago, and it’s… drumroll please… unfortunately a bit of a letdown. That’s especially a bummer considering how exciting and different the first two stages were. And while we’re depressing ourselves, a peek over the construction fence at the fourth stage – Little Mermaid – appears middle of the road (neither overwhelming nor underwhelming). Let’s hope for the best there.

When stage one opened, the lobby, shop, and food court became available, as did the first wing of rooms dedicated to Finding Nemo. This area held the pool, the largest on WDW property, and it excitingly had things such as music piped in underwater. Unfortunately, the music is mission drift. I was expecting Disney-only music like you hear in the air above-water, but it’s a separate soundtrack. Orinico Flow is a great song, but why is it here? The wing hits the right notes in other ways, though. There are giant oversized character statues, including the MINE MINE MINE seagulls on the ends of the buildings. Nice touch. I also appreciated that the swirly painted decorations on the sides of the buildings were other Nemo characters, plus the EAC.

The second wing, CARS, is a masterpiece. You can pose right next to almost a dozen of the cars in real size, and the decorations make it feel like you’re really there. It lacks the full 360-degree feeling of DCA’s Cars Land, but it’s way, way more than adequate for this Value resort. Plus, it has a small crescent-shaped pool, too.

Simba: Where is that ice machine?

This new third wing is themed to Lion King, which sounds great. The movie was a surprise hit (the company was betting the bank on Pocahontas) and made an absolute ton of money. The new wing of the resort, though, is hardly the king of the hotel jungle. I’m tempted to say it’s closer to a warthog (smelly), but that’s not fair. It’s not smelly or stinky; it’s just not as good as the Nemo or CARS sections of the same hotel. As my friend Paul pointed out, if this one had opened FIRST, we’d all be raving about how much better it is than giant yo-yos and painted signs with text like “rad” and “tubular” across the tops of the hotel (that’s in reference to All-Stars and Pop Century, in case you’re wondering).

It’s still a resort themed to a Disney movie. That matters, and in a positive way. I’ve seen some folks disagree with my opinion on this, but I am still convinced that the vast majority of people who visit from out of state like the idea of staying inside a Disney movie (rather than staying inside a tropical island hotel, or a hotel themed to a seaside boardwalk). My logic is this: you can do those other things for real–there are real Polynesian hotels out there. But there aren’t other hotels where you can be in Radiator Springs! Besides, a Disney vacation should probably feature Disney things. I understand the argument that some people want to escape the characters in the evening, but let’s not forget there’s also that argument about “surrounded by the magic.” If a family comes to Walt Disney World, there’s a good chance that family is seeking the Disney magic they ALREADY know and love from the movies and characters. Extending that to the hotels is not only logical, it’s probably what a majority of families are looking for to begin with.

Rafiki is looking for the food court?

But all of that is perhaps the only positive statement I can make on the new wing. It’s not nearly as immersive as the CARS section, and it lacks the decorative elements of the Nemo section. It also lacks the pool offered by the other two, and in its place has only a “playground” to offer.

I use quotation marks because the playground is about as fun as a graveyard. Poor choice of words, perhaps, because this playground is a graveyard: there’s a single elephant skeleton for you to climb on. Oh wait, there are TWO signs nearby proclaiming that you absolutely can’t climb on the thing. How is this a “playground” again? There’s absolutely nothing to do, except perhaps walk through a tunnel behind the skeleton. It’s astonishing the chutzpah needed to label this thing a playground. It’s a bald-faced lie, really, and a bit insulting to the hotel visitors, I would think.

Tusk off!

Besides the new section lacking anything to do, it lacks fun. There’s a reliance on foliage rather than props or decoration. That’s logical in a way, given the movie’s theme, but it’s still disappointing, and a lot more boring.The ground has patterns in it, such as palm fronds pressed into the wet concrete. In that, as well as the reliance on foliage, the area feels a bit like Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but with even less lush decorations.

The sides of the buildings have painted animal decorations, but they are generic rather than specific characters from the movie. I get the vague impression those painted animals are here to honor Simba, who appears as a real statue (more on this in a second), but mostly it’s just boring.

Wallpaper is just so much cheaper.

Those details on display in the CARS wing are missing here. The entrance displays to get into the rooms have almost no details on them, in contrast to the CARS section.

Bounce house, or hotel entry?

As you step foot inside CARS, the mats underfoot pay homage to Rust-eze from the movie. Here in the Lion King area, the mats are just undecorated black mats.

All the charm of an airport check point.

Now, there ARE some character statues. Simba is high up on Pride Rock. Rafiki is on the other side of the rock. Timon and Pumbaa are on top of a log, presumably whistling away. Hyenas glare at us from atop the “playground” skeleton. And Scar sits on a rock at the far end of the wing, with Zazu nearby too.

The problem with all of these characters and their placement is that you can’t pose with them. The CARS vehicles are at ground level; these guys are way up high. It can be hard to get you and the statues into one frame. And once you do, you will look remote compared to the statues. Neat to see? Definitely. Go out of your way to visit the hotel on your vacation and take a look? Sure, why not! Rush to your travel agent and secure one of the rooms in this wing? I don’t see it. The other two wings have more energy, excitement, decorations, and flat-out theming.

Not much hakuna matata...

Let's dish!

The upcoming Little Mermaid section can be seen over the fence, and it’s going to have very large statues of the main characters (Triton, Ariel, Ursula) atop the entrances to the buildings. That style and concept was used for the Nemo section as well (plus it’s familiar from All-Stars to have huge decorations). I like that they are Disney characters, but I hope that there’s more here than the giant statues. The details have to be present for it to feel immersive and interesting.

Note that this section was built as an addition to Pop Century, so it’s older than the first three phases of Art of Animation which have opened up. Unlike those others, this one will have external hallways, which feels more motel-like.

I’m glad they built Art of Animation, and even the Lion King section is an improvement over themed environments that are non-Disney in origin. I feel a bit let down that Stage Three is so much less than Stage One and Stage Two, but it’s still worth a look.

What are your thoughts on the Lion King phase of the Art of Animation Hotel? Look for the comments section at the end of this post and share how you feel about this project.

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About Kevin Yee

Kevin Yee is an author and blogger writing about travel, tourism, and theme parks in Central Florida. He is a founding member of MiceAge and has written numerous books about Disney parks (see http://bit.ly/kevinyee).

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  • ttintagel

    I think there’s a certain demographic who will be very well-served by the new wing. I’ve seen a number of people saying that their little kids would probably love the Cars or Nemo suites, but that there’s just so much going on in them that the adults in the family wouldn’t be able to relax or unwind at all. The Lion King wing seems like it might be a good compromise between the hyperactive Cars/Nemo suites and a plain old hotel room for those families.

  • Imvaudeville

    Good article, but how can there be a review of a hotel without mentioning what the rooms are like at all. As important, if not waaayy more is what the rooms are like! This is like half a review, reviewing the outside. Ok. Get in those rooms Kevin! Weasel your way in, we know you can do it!

  • StevenW

    I never thought the Lion King can be boring. That’s amazing.

  • SpectroMan

    Definitely a little sparse and barren, but it’s a value “resort”. Granted, the prices of the suites wouldn’t lead one to believe it’s at the low end but by Disney standards, I guess it is. The one glaring omission is the separate pool – noone paying those prices should have to walk over to one of the other sections just to take a dip.

  • Johnny

    It would certainly seem that this wing of the resort is not as detailed as others, but it is just one wing. Guests are still free to use the amenities and enjoy the sites in the other nearby areas. As you pointed out, it’s certainly of the better Value Resorts on property. Also, while I do understand that many guests are interested in an immersive “Disney-esque” experience, I also appreciate the option to stay in a non-Disney themed resort such as the Polynesian. Walt Disney had more than movies in mind when he envisioned Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, and the ill-fated Mineral King Resort. It would be refreshing to see more original ideas like those. Overall, it really comes down to detail and immersion, rather than subject matter. I think we can agree that the Art of Animation Resort, Lion King wing included, is far more pleasing than the generic Pop Century and All Star Sports resorts.

  • David Hollenbeck

    I’m not familiar enough with the layout of the entire resort to say whether it was a mistake, but if the way they themed and decorated that area of the resort, you wonder, how could they NOT have a pool there? I love what they’ve done that is there, but it seems incomplete. I mean, if the Hakuna Matata log isn’t meant to cross a lazy river or fun “slilmy, yet satisfying” cove of some sort with squirting squishy bugs, I don’t know what is. When they’re walking across it in the film, you can’t tell if it’s crossing water or not, but who cares?

    Picture one end of the pool with Simba and Nala looking down from pride rock onto the pool, almost like a diving board (but not close enough to tempt anyone to try), in the middle the log scene and at the end, the graveyard, but with the skeleton as a bumpy waterslide, to sort of recreate that scene in the movie for the kids. Maybe if nothing else, they could have had an “I just can’t wait to be king” fountain play area, similar to what they did with Casey Jr. in NF. Imagine how colorful and fun that would be. Maybe that’s the issue, they went with the wrong song for this type of resort. Here, it needs to be “Just can’t wait” and if they built it near Animal Kingdom, it would be more “Circle of Life,” like this.

    What would be really daring, and unlikely, to make one of the entrances more interesting, make it so when you look up, you see the wildebeests starting to tumble over the top of the roof with the hyenas peeking their heads over the edge. Then when you walk in, there’s all these hoofprints in the mats, etc. Ok, maybe getting trampled by wildebeests won’t get you in the mood for vacation, but you ARE staying at the Lion King hotel, so you can’t say it’s WAY outside the box thinking.

    Lastly, depending on how it’s lit at night, I’d want to see a big screen that could be raised and lowered for night-only use on top of one of the buildings that had the stars projected on it and every several minutes, Mufasa comes together with a message for everyone. Sometimes it could be the same one from in the film, but that might be a bit of a downer after a while, so come up with some other items James Earl Jones could boom through the courtyard.

    I heartily agree that there should be SOMETHING on ground level so you can take a picture with it. I mean, Ed if no one else, who wouldn’t want to make a silly face with him? Obviously other characters, too, but there are so many possibilities and they stuck with statue garden? I’m not giving it an F, but after seeing the other wings, I’m with Kevin that this could have been SO stinkin’ cool. I reserve final judgement til I have actually visited the place, though.

    The only thing I disagree with Kevin about is Lion King being a surprise hit. I’m not saying you’re wrong about Pocahontas, but I worked at a Disney Store at the time the movie came out and the tidal wave of plush and other King-themed stuff was unbelievable. I also went to the premiere week sneak preview at Radio City Music Hall to see it and you could tell they were expecting BIG big things from it. It may have done even better than they thought it would, but it wasn’t like Disney looked on this as a art house level release that exploded. It’s Disney and a cadre of adorable furry creatures, how could they have low expectations? ;-)

    Dave

    • Kevin Yee

      Actually, Dave, we don’t disagree. That bit about ‘surprise hit’ wasn’t written by me and must have been added in the editing process :)

      • Yep. That was the magic of Al Lutz on those photo captions. But he is correct. Disney was producing Pocahontas and Lion King at the same time and it was Pocahontas which was their “A” picture with the bulk of the resources. It wasn’t until later in the process that they realized Lion King was strong. The box office was a pleasant surprise and the return on Pocahontas was a massive disappointment.

        Great article as always Kevin. You won’t find me staying at the Art of Animation, Pop Century or the All Stars. They are all so garish, loud and filled with unruly kids. While I hate spending the extra money, nearly all of the moderate resorts offer a more relaxing experience.

  • WinstonLily

    We just returned from a week at the Art of Animation Resort, Cars section. Based on what we saw as a daily occurence, I think I can see why Disney “cut back” on the themeing for the Lion King section. Yes, the replica cars in the Cars section are awesome, but even though there are “No Climbing” signs posted, we saw children climbing all over them. Several of the cars already had several bad scratches. Most of the children were climbing on the cars because their parents told them to “to get a good picture”! We even saw one mother lift her small child INTO the engine compartment of Mater! Every morning, a Disney cast member (or two) were wiping off the cars. The different colored rocks along the walkways are nice, but every day a Disney Cast Member is out there sweeping the stones off the sidewalk. When the kids are walking to and from the pool with only flip flops or no shoes, those little stone on the sidewalk hurt! It seems normal for little kids to walk in the stones and drag their feet, kicking the stones all over. I think Disney may look at the maintenence cost of these things and make some changes.
    Also, a cast member told us the seagulls were being set up to say “Mine, Mine, Mine” every hour!

  • Gregg Condon

    I wholeheartedly disagree with the whole “wanting to stay in the movies” thing.

    That’s what the parks are for (IMO).

    The hotels (for us) are almost an escape from the normal “Disney” but not totally “non-Disney”, if that makes sense. It’s still Disney, but not “park-Disney”.

    While I do think the new hotels look nice, it just screams too much Disney since you get a fill of the Disney franchises in the parks.

    I think this is why I didn’t wholly dislike the original DCA and I still feel if they had put the $$ they had put into DCA but still kept the original “vibe” of DCA they would likely still have had a successful park rather than, what has turned into, another studios park.

    • Chazbo6

      Kevin,

      My family just spent the last two weeks at Art of Animation in the Nemo Area (building 5) and had a wonderful time. We also saw the Lion King section open during our visit and we all agree with you that it is a major letdown compared to the high standards set by the Nemo and Cars sections.

      The murals on the walls are very bland and add no texture or immersion that the other areas have. How about a few elephants or other animals in relief on the walls if not walking in the grass or open areas? The lighting is also very minimal and may not be complete yet.

      Timone, Pumbaa and young Simba are on this huge log so high above everything that the pictures I took with my kids are almost ridiculous. Also, the elephant graveyard is merely a pass through, there is nothing that suggests a playground. A slide though the skull or some other interactivity would have been welcome.

      I almost feel like they could have done more with the area but were rushed to get it done after the early success of the Nemo and Cars sections.

      Two other comments:
      – The lion on pride rock is Mufasa, not Simba (we all agreed that it is him)
      – They were installing the speakers and framing on the tops of the stair towers on the Nemo buildings for the seagulls while we were there (“mine, mine”) Funny enough, everytime we were in that area I would always start saying that catchphrase as we walked through.

  • buzzyfan

    I expected them to do better than that.
    ———————————————————————————————–
    http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lyov3egWQb1r2ntbyo1_500.jpg

  • wdwprince

    I think maybe Disney is learning as they go with each wing. As you remember, posing with the characters at ground level resulting in one of the cars in the Cars section being keyed in the first few days.

    Guests can behave like animals. So now the animals are above the guests. Maybe Disney is making a statement?

    For the record, I kind of like the look of The Lion King. It’s kind of value resort for adults. (no playgrounds) Disney should have switched Lion King with Little Mermaid. Lion King building consists of family suites. Little Mermaid will have individual rooms.

  • goofy donald

    i don’t know to me there are parts that have a bit of an unfinished vibe to them. perhaps they just opened the area a little early to get a few extra weeks of profits in and will continue with minor details like the door mats and archways while guests are staying there.