08 April 2013

A Kingdom of Animals

A little more than a year ago I wrote a State of the Disney’s Animal Kingdom address. It’s been fourteen months since the last time I took a hard look at the park and, with the fifteenth anniversary only a couple of weeks away, now seems like the perfect time to give the park a thorough examination for 2013.

The state of Disney’s Animal Kingdom is strong. Yes, it is the youngest park of the Vacation Kingdom, and yes, there are still guests who think they’ve seen the entire park over the course of two hours, but that doesn’t mean this is the park’s lot in life. Over the past several years the park’s popularity has grown exponentially, due in no small part to the efforts of media far and wide embracing the benefits and beauty of the park. Concerns over the park, while still present, are not as widespread and infectious as anxieties for other parks, particularly Disney’s Hollywood Studios. But this doesn’t mean Disney’s Animal Kingdom should become complacent, if anything it means now is the time to grow and build and continue to bring attention upon itself.

Big changes are afoot for this park. I’m not talking about some future point that is several years away, I mean at this very moment. It was announced earlier in 2013 that a game related to Up’s Wilderness Explorers, complete with the ability to earn up to 30 badges, will be debuting this year. This game builds upon the success of trial games from the past several years and the creation of interactive environments that have become commonplace inside the Magic Kingdom. Word has not yet arrived as to a specific launch date, how gameplay will work, or in what manner the badges will be collected (stickers, digital images, stamps, or actual badges), but any activity that causes guests to dig deeper into the world of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and realize there is more than just a few E-Ticket attractions is a boon to the park.

There is also construction taking place in Harambe as we speak. Simba, Timon, and the rest of the gang from Festival of the Lion King will shortly begin a migration from Camp Minnie-Mickey to Africa. While this is being done in order to make way for further park expansion in the Camp corner of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I would be remiss if I didn’t believe that Festival of the Lion King should have always been presented in Harambe. This move is taking place out of necessity, but in my eyes it is seen as a corrective action. That said, I am curious to see what lengths are taken to imbue the queue with fresh life and not just have a line meandering through the wilderness.

Is Pandora and the universe of Avatar coming to Disney’s Animal Kingdom? All signs point to yes, but I’m still skeptical. Honestly, I owned a set of Star Wars’ Essential Guides when I was a teen, and this is a universe populated with a ridiculous amount of life forms just ready to be explored. An intergalactic animal sanctuary expanding to Earth, I’d be there days in advance just to be one of the first once to see it! With Star Wars and Mickey Mouse now brethren, this idea makes more sense to me than Pandora. But only time will tell if Avatar comes to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, if Star Wars makes the move, or if it is something else entirely.

DinoLand, U.S.A. is still a perfect postcard of a land, even if it isn’t seen as such by a variety of guests. Asia still enamors the mind and imagination, but please, fix the Yeti and let the disco era die.

The main theme in Disney’s Animal Kingdom has always been the intrinsic value of nature, and it still stands as the cornerstone of the park. It can be witnessed in every corner of the park in real and tangible ways. From the inspirational artwork to the guides and animal exhibits, the natural world is celebrated everywhere. With the rolling out of animal guides in addition to park maps, there is even less reason for the average guest to not be able to find animal encounters. Additionally, our place in the world and connections to one another is also a vital thematic element that has become a critical part of the park going experience.

Cuisine has been slowly, if not quietly, been becoming very important to Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the larger Walt Disney World. While Tusker House and Flame Tree Barbeque have long been staples of top notch food in the park, but elsewhere has been less than stellar. Tamu Tamu Refreshments has been rolling out new menu items over the past year utilizing new, at least to the park, ingredients like quinoa and tofu and giving Harambe a truly viable quick service restaurant. Giving guests more options for quality, and quick dining will only further the park’s ability to retain guests longer and bring them back return visits.

There have been plenty of subtle changes to Disney’s Animal Kingdom over the past year, with many more to come or be continued in the next year. Does the fourth gate need a few touch-ups and some special attention? Absolutely, but that doesn’t stop it from being a marquee experience that is worth the dedication of time and touring. The state of Disney’s Animal Kingdom is strong, and I foresee it only growing bigger and better in the years ahead!

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