20 April 2021

Truly in the Past

Disney’s Animal Kingdom has always been a different species of theme park, combining the educational components of Epcot, with the thrills of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and merged with zoological exhibits that put children and families in close contact with animals they may never get to see in the wild, or certainly not in an environment as close to their own as the Imagineers could make it. When the park opened, its premiere thrill attraction was Countdown to Extinction, otherwise known as Dinosaur. Kali River Rapids hadn’t yet drenched its first guest, and Expedition Everest was a dream, and almost a decade, away, but guests could still get up close and personal with some prehistoric pals and predators.
Before we get into what makes Countdown to Extinction different than today’s Dinosaur, it is worth looking briefly into how the attraction came to be. Prior to the park’s opening a decision was made to build DinoLand USA over Beastly Kingdom, leaving the land of dragons and unicorns for an expansion that would never come to pass. Even within the planning of DinoLand, there was to be a rollercoaster extraordinaire, The Excavator, with an edutainment style dark ride as a secondary attraction. The history of the land and its attractions is a rollercoaster in its own right, but at the end of the day, Jurassic Park had just captivated the minds of the country, costs were cut, Disneyland’s layout and Enhanced Motion Vehicles (EMVs) were copied from the Indiana Jones Adventure, and Countdown to Extinction was born.

If you were to go back and revisit the original Countdown to Extinction today, the changes would be noticeable even as you approached the entrance. Aladar, the iguanodon, was not present in the fountain in front of The Dino Institute, instead a stature of a styracosaurus stood guard. Additionally, you had to be a little bit taller to experience the time rovers, 46” instead of today’s 40”, the reasons would soon become clear. From there, the Countdown to Extinction queue experience remained mostly the same as Dinosaur until you boarded your time rover and began your trip back to the Cretaceous.
The time tunnel included pyrotechnic and laser light effects, though the laser lights have returned in recent years. Once your time travel journey to the past is complete, Countdown to Extinction’s differences become very clear. The ride is darker, the sounds louder, the movement of the vehicle has more whipping and jerking than today. The pterodactyl and compsognathus would swoop in or leap over the vehicle, respectively. Once the attraction became Dinosaur, spotlights would be used for many years as these effects were prone to mechanical issues, with the compys now being a screen effect. When you come across the iguanodon in the ride’s finale a laser light net would secure him so that he could return with you and, instead of one last run in with the charging carnotaurus, guests would be facing down a meteor.
Some of the most drastic changes in Countdown to Extinction, however, came from the carnotaurus itself. With the attraction darker, the second run in with the carnotaurus include losing all power and lights, the room going dark, the thundering sound of approaching feet, the carnotaurus moving from a far away distance to right atop the time rover during the blackout, and rising up with a deafening roar. It safe to say that many children, and more than a few adults, who met the height requirement left the attraction shaken. Which is ironic, considering that a vast majority of the merchandise for the attraction, including a picture book, were directed at children.
Then CEO and Chairman of The Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner, wanted Countdown to Extinction to have more synergy with the upcoming feature release of Dinosaur. The name was changed, the statue out front transformed, and the sound, lighting, and movement effects inside the attraction were altered to make it a more family friendly experience. Regardless of the changes, however, this different kind of thrill has a loyal and dedicated fan base that continues to take their chances to glimpse a piece of the Cretaceous period.

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