Itzazu. Itz-a-zu. Get it? It’s my “clever” marketing campaign to convince people that Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a glorified zoo in an attempt to persuade the powers that be make Disney’s Animal Kingdom live up to its potential. I won’t be utilizing this campaign because I believe that the substance of the park speaks for itself (and because I blew my marketing budget for the year earlier this week trying to convince Pixar to add a Manatee character to Finding Nemo 2). As evidenced by Disney’s “Nahtazu” campaign, and its attempt to convince a reluctant public that the park was “not a zoo,” Disney doesn’t believe that the substance of the park speaks for itself.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom is an incredibly divisive park. Based upon my opening paragraph, it might seem clear where I stand in the great debate. Although Animal Kingdom is not my favorite park, despite my comments above, I believe that Disney’s Animal Kingdom has the potential to be the best theme park at Walt Disney World. The groundwork has been laid, it’s just a matter of fleshing it out into a complete theme park concept. Despite its issues, it has an incredible number of strengths.
Animal Kingdom’s biggest problem, as I see it, is that it is too contrived. It’s as if its creators focused on style to the detriment of substance when building the park. The prime example here is DinoLand U.S.A. Many words have been spoken on all of the hidden details and backstory in DinoLand, but this backstory is nothing more than lipstick on a pig. This backstory is great, but it is not substitute for quality substance. Here, backstory is more an afterthought, added as artifice to explain away why Dinorama is such an eyesore. I couldn’t care less that it’s an “authentic” eyesore, it’s an eyesore with cheap carnival attractions, nonetheless. Quite bluntly, that carnival is an embarrassment to the rest of the theme park. It’s no different than the hideous Route 66 area of Disney California Adventure on Paradise Pier–and that was largely razed.
This issue of “style over substance” exists throughout Animal Kingdom. From the meticulously crafted posters (what was the fake poster budget for this park, like $200 million?!) and carefully weathered facades in Africa to the seating area in Flame Tree BBQ, there is a lot of style in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I could gush with superlatives over the details in that park. These details are easily the park’s biggest strength. It has details in spades that far exceed the details found in any other Disney theme park in the United States. We as Disney fans often fixate on the “Disney Details” that set Disney theme parks apart from other parks. When it comes to these details, Disney’s Animal Kingdom reigns supreme, and should be lauded by fans for its detail and theming. The problem is, these details and theming seem to exist in place of substance, which is not acceptable.
At Animal Kingdom, so much thought, time, and effort went in to making the “Disney Details” truly remarkable, but at what cost? The number of quality-themed Disney attractions is seriously lacking, to the point that for most guests, the park does not offer sufficient entertainment options to justify staying there a full day. Fans of the park typically counter with the numerous trails and animal exhibits that, in aggregate, amount to a day of entertainment for them. Animal Kingdom super-fans aside, most people are not spending a full day in the park–this is my barometer, not what super-fans do.
This leads into the next biggest issue I have with Animal Kingdom after the “style over substance” qualm, which is that the park lacks balance in its attractions. Despite its best efforts with the “Nahtazu” campaign, many of its attractions are not all that dissimilar to a well-done zoo. If a large percentage of the attractions really weren’t zoo-like, Disney wouldn’t have had to utilize the Nahtazu campaign at all. The slate of attractions could speak for itself, and there would be a clear divide between it and a zoo in the minds of guests. Running that marketing campaign is an implicit concession that a problem exists, and needs marketing to “fix” a supposedly mistaken perception among the public. The best way to fix any perception is by fixing the substance, rather than deeming the perception “mistaken” and using marketing to make your case.
Granted, attractions like Flights of Wonder and Kilimanjaro Safaris are well done “edutainment,” as they package the natural world into well-themed attractions to give guests the best of both worlds, but I believe the rest flounders from the perspective of themed entertainment because most attractions are simple ‘walk around looking at animal exhibits.’ These walking exhibits would be fine in a park with a fleshed out number of “real” attractions, but not at Animal Kingdom as it presently exits. Many of these exhibits are indistinguishable from what you’d find in a plain ole zoo (hence the “Nahtazu” campaign). Contrast these exhibits with The Living Seas pavilion when it opened. The Living Seas pavilion took guests to a fictional seabase and really sold a story around which the animals were presented. It framed the whole experience incredibly well, and made it stand out as themed, yet educational, entertainment much more than the “walk around and see stuff” methodology of Animal Kingdom.
This is not to say that the zoological attractions at Animal Kingdom are poorly done or don’t belong in the park. While I would prefer more theming to the exhibits, I would give them a pass as-is if the park had better balance. The issue is the over-abundance of these exhibits, especially in comparison to attractions traditionally found in theme parks. Animal Kingdom lacks any Omnimover attractions (or dark rides using more advanced ride systems), which I find bordering on absurd. Personally, I think Disney should have spent about half as much as it did on Everest and used the rest of the budget to add a couple more D ticket attractions to the park. Even if the Yeti worked, budgets are finite at Disney in this era (this isn’t Disney Theme Park Tycoon) and the Yeti is an AA that is only visible for a couple of seconds yet reportedly cost $25 million. Given the circumstances, that was a colossal waste of money. Introducing more traditional attractions in Animal Kingdom is admittedly a bit tricky–what interest would guests have in Audio Animatronics animals when the real thing is in the same park? The answer to this lies with the mythical and extinct creatures, I think…
I am loath to discuss it at all here since it’s an even more divisive issue than Animal Kingdom’s current quality, but I have to address the elephant in the room: Avatar Land. In the fan community, I am somewhat of a rarity–a serious Disney fan who thinks Avatar Land is the right move for Disney’s Animal Kingdom (assuming the land happens). Animal Kingdom needs a large tentpole expansion comparable to Cars Land in scope and scale. James Cameron is a perfectionist who seems unlikely to settle for a small scale home to his creations. Because of that, I think this project has the potential to go over-budget instead of under-budget because Cameron has at least some creative control and can exert force over Disney with regard to quality and detail. While I would have much rather seen an original concept for Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I think this was a case of a recognizable franchise or nothing, not a case of Avatar Land versus Mysterious Island or Beastly Kingdom. Disney, sadly, is relatively risk-averse with its domestic parks, and a Cars Land-scale Mysterious Island or Beastly Kingdom is too big of a return on investment risk to build.
Beyond that, I think the subject matter is largely irrelevant to the success of the land. Don’t like the film Avatar? So what. How many of you had seen Song of the South before experiencing Splash Mountain? A good land is dependent upon highly immersive environments and compelling attractions, not upon the story of the source film. The worlds in Avatar are undeniably gorgeous, and if Imagineering successfully brings those environments to life, I think there’s a good chance Florida will have a land that wows guests like Cars Land does. If the attractions in Avatar Land are compelling, the land will be a hit. Avatar may be a loose fit for Animal Kingdom thematically, but so long as Avatar Land presents a highly themed, gorgeous land of mythical creatures with great attractions, it will fit the Animal Kingdom theme. The story contained in the source material doesn’t really matter that much. The story of Cars is certainly not the impetus of Cars Land.
To me, Avatar Land works in Animal Kingdom for these reasons, and because it introduces the mythical land of creatures that is needed for compelling, traditional theme park attractions to balance out the more zoological elements of the park. If Disney does Avatar Land well and reimagines DinoLand, razing Dinorama to add some more quality themed attractions (and substantially enhances Dinosaur, which I feel is underrated, but is still very, very sad in comparison to Indiana Jones Adventure), Disney’s Animal Kingdom will be a much more balanced and compelling theme park, and a contender for the best park at Walt Disney World. The details and theming are already there, all that’s needed is some substance.
I realize others are likely to disagree with my overall sentiments and specifically my sentiments on Avatar Land. In the past I’ve been told that I’m missing the point of Animal Kingdom as a non-park theme park experience, but the thing is, it is a theme park. No matter how people might try to re-categorize it to shift expectations, it presents itself as one of the four Disney theme parks in Florida, but it doesn’t deliver as a theme park should. It’s understandably different in nature than the other parks, and its theme and zoological elements are accomplished exceptionally well, but it lacks the balance of experiences necessary to pass muster as a great theme park.
What do you think of Disney’s Animal Kingdom? Itzazu? Nahtazu? Share your thoughts in the comments!