One of our running gags on Communicore Weekly concerns Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The call of “half-day park” is usually one of my rejoinders whenever Jeff mentions the Animal Kingdom. I joke about it being a half-day park while Jeff defends the park’s reputation. Based on the comments from people I meet in the parks and through social media, it’s pretty much half and half on the status of the park. I try to ask people why they think it’s a half-day park and most responses center around the fact that there’s just not enough to do. Sometimes they’ll add that Disney’s Hollywood Studios suffers the same issue.
I’ve thought about Animal kingdom a lot and pondered why I think of it as a half-day park. Certainly, it seems like there aren’t enough attractions, but it’s also the largest Disney theme park in the world. Shouldn’t the sheer size of the park amount to something?
Disney’s Hollywood Studios (nee Disney-MGM Studios) is a perfect example of how Eisner’s regime built parks. The three US-based parks built after EPCOT Center fit a similar mold of “build it small with the intent to grow” (which rarely happens). The Disney-MGM Studios was built specifically to be a half-day park in order to give guests an extra reason to lengthen their stay. Eisner wanted to expand the size of the park as the popularity grew. From opening, it was obvious that the Disney-MGM Studios was woefully undersized, so attractions were added. The massive fix for Disney California Adventure came with a billion dollar price tag and it’s been argued that the billion dollars should have been added at the beginning.
I’m a firm believer that the Disneyland-style park is the best design for a theme park. The revolutionary design of a single entrance with a hub-and-spoke layout offers the best experience. The fact that Disneyland is the model for four other parks around the world speaks volumes. I contend that if a company besides Disney had built EPCOT Center, it would have been a miserable failure. I love Epcot as it stands today, but not as much as the EPCOT Center from the first decade. Even then, Disney didn’t understand how to promote EPCOT Center but it’s popularity grew from word-of-mouth.
That being said, EPCOT Center was a departure from the Disneyland mold and really needed to be. It was heavily influenced by the World’s Fairs it was (sort of) replacing and offered an exciting, if not slightly homogeneous, view of the future and a handful of countries. Not many other entertainment companies could have pulled off the massive edu-tainment attractions in Future World without being totally lackluster. The sheer size of the Future World attractions screamed Disney, especially with the huge numbers of audio-animatroincs used. I guess that’s my reasoning for calling Animal Kingdom a half-day park.
It doesn’t seem like a Disney theme park to me, at all.
The Magic Kingdom-style parks are all Disney, through and through. Most of the attractions are based on Disney properties or represent the Disney model of a theme park attractions. A hallmark of a Disney attraction is story and the ability to transport you to another place. Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean is a prime example. It’s grandiose, mesmerizing and offers a great experience. EPCOT Center offered similar attractions that educated, entertained and left you feeling positive about the future. Disney’s Hollywood Studios comes close to the Disney standard but lacks the staying power of the Magic Kingdom. The last over-the-top animatronics attraction, The Great Movie Ride, offers a great experience but it was an attraction that was built on the waning edge of the animatronics; Disney experimented with new technologies after that. There was a larger focus on outside properties (Lucasfilm) that held a sentimental value and offered experiences close, but not on par with, the Magic Kingdom.
To me, the Animal Kingdom just doesn’t feel like a Disney park.
The theming and attention to detail is top notch, but I feel like you’re missing the attractions that pull you in and engage you with storytelling. There are exceptions, like the Kilimanjaro Safari and Finding Nemo, the Musical which can pull you in on their scale and charm, but many of the attractions seem to be there as space holders.
Even though the theming is a high point of the park, it doesn’t feel like Disney theming. Disney California Adventure has two amazing themed areas: Buena Vista Street and Carsland (which is a great name for a parking lot). Buena Vista Street, like Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios capitalizes on nostalgia. Buena Vista Street takes it a step further by waxing nostalgic about Walt Disney and the halcyon days of the Studio. Carsland is amazing but feels really out of place in the park. For Cars fans, though, there’s no better themed space.
Realism is Animal Kingdom’s strength; they sacrificed any fantasy architecture for a realism that’s stunning in its authenticity. Believe it or not, but Epcot is full of fantasy architecture, including the Future World pavilions. The Future World pavilions were designed to help prepare you for the attraction by telling you some of the story through the architecture. They inspire hope for the future as well as challenging our thoughts on architecture and design. World Showcase is nothing but fantasy architecture that is meant to instill a sense of nostalgia and adventure. It’s like a greatest hits of world architecture.
My argument about the theming at Animal Kingdom is that the Imagineers over-themed in order to show that they could do it. Sort of a “look at how cool we are by overtheming.” They pushed for realism as opposed to the nostalgic and fantasy themes of the Magic Kingdom, where even the scale is proportionate. As opposed to cute sight gags or tributes to former attractions and cast members, Animal Kingdom is more about realism than fantasy. To me, there’s just nothing magical about the park. I understand that the park celebrates the animal life in our world and you have to take a specific approach in order to present these themes seriously. I still see the park, like the Disney-MGM Studios, as a way for Eisner to capture the audience of an already established park; a way of keeping people on property longer.
My attempt was not to bash the Animal Kingdom, but to discuss some issues that I’ve held during my visits to the park. It’s always been last on my list of things to do as well as the park I would drop for another day at the Magic Kingdom. There were several trips in which I didn’t visit the Animal Kingdom at all. The Animal Kingdom is beautiful and has several world-class attractions, but it still doesn’t hold the appeal or magic that the other domestic parks do. The walking trails are spectacular and they’re a great way to bring the animals up close and in a tangible environment. It’s more what you’d expect from a zoo and not a theme park. But, as the marketing has said since the very beginning, it’s Nahtazu!
So, what are your thoughts on Disney’s Animal Kingdom? Is it a half-day park? Does it feel like a Disney theme park to you?
ImagiNERDing is written and edited by George Taylor
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