It’s been 20 years since Animal Kingdom first opened its doors. Not really a standard theme park nor a zoo, it began as a half-day hybrid that, over two decades, has evolved quite a bit. By adjusting for its weaknesses and emphasizing its strengths, the work has paid off.
In the most recent Themed Entertainment Association yearly index, Animal Kingdom is now the third most attended theme park in the United States, seeing a 15% increase in guests over the year before. One can easily give credit for this to Pandora, its newest other-worldly land, but this would ignore all the more subtle reasons Animal Kingdom has become not only a great full-day experience, but currently the best park at the Walt Disney World resort. Here are four reasons to support that claim.
4. Amazing Vistas
While all of Disney’s parks have their beautiful views, Animal Kingdom graces its guests with a multitude of jaw-droppers. From the nightly glow of Pandora’s floating rocks to the sight of the Tree of Life upon entering, each of these showcase the majesty of nature, and accomplish this task in their own unique way.
The focal point of these views, such as Everest amongst the Asian themed landscape, are what Walt Disney called “weenies” because, like a weiner to a dog, they draw guests in from a distance. The creativity of the park’s vistas are that they rarely overlap their focal points, leaving each isolated for a truer sense of immersion.
There is no better evidence of this then these amazing photos by Matthew Cooper…
3. The Unpredictability of Animals
Unlike most theme parks, the experience at Animal Kingdom will vary on each visit due to its main attraction – animals. Though this can mean you don’t always see the beast you were hoping for, it usually guarantees you’ll catch a glimpse of something you hadn’t expected.
This unique unpredictability separates the majority of Animal Kingdom’s experiences from the typical controlled-experience attractions found around the rest of the resort. While it’s a small world will be the same no matter how many times you ride it, you never know what you’re getting on Kilimanjaro Safari and, with that, comes a spark of anticipation with each trip. Perhaps once you’ll see the wildebeests charge down the veldt while another visit has a lion roaring at the moon. The random actions of the animals guarantee the guests not only once-in-a-lifetime moments, but a reason to return.
2. Growing Into Its Design
When it comes to theme parks, cracks in walls and faded paint are signs of, at best, overuse, and, at worst, outright negligence. But Animal Kingdom’s design allows the park to organically grow into its own theming year after year. A new chip in a wall adds character to Harambe Village and overgrowth in the distance only helps immerse guests. That doesn’t mean that the park isn’t carefully maintained, but that the small stuff we’d notice in Tomorrowland feels natural in an Everest expedition office.
Joe Rohde, the park’s lead designer, has said that the park “has become much more focused on this idea of authenticity and realistic representation.” It is this goal that allows the park to embrace the natural wear and tear of certain design elements that would normally plague other parks, including other parks at Walt Disney World.
1. A Malleable Theme
For twenty years Animal Kingdom has been able to work with a set of themes that are specific in subject yet broad in execution: animals, nature, and exploration. With these in mind, the park has been able to add lands as distinct as Pandora without overall compromising its intended goals (Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama may be the exception here). While other parks’ theming is either so broad they could be home to almost anything (Magic Kingdom and especially Hollywood Studios) or is too specific to evolve well (Epcot), Animal Kingdom has found just the right sweet spot.
For this we must thank Joe Rohde and his leadership since day one. Rohde has lead thousands of Imagineers and other creatives towards a singular vision and his constant presence over two decades brings connective tissue to everything that has occurred at the park. This visionary and continual leadership has not happened at a Disney park since Disneyland was built. In this way, Animal Kingdom should be considered Rohde’s park, just like Disneyland is considered Walt’s park.
As you read everyday here at WDWNT.com, there is much happening around the Walt Disney World resort. Perhaps in the future, the other parks could make adjustments that will shift how well they showcase their own themes. But, for now, Animal Kingdom sits as a prime example of what a theme park can be when it is allowed to develop and mature according to its original vision.
Many thanks to Matthew Cooper for the fantastic images (including the header image) used in this article.
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