CONCEPT ART: A Fascinating Deep-Dive Into Beastly Kingdom – The Never-Built Land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Editor’s Note: Below you’ll find a fascinating deep-dive into the creation of Beastly Kingdom at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and how and why it was eventually scrapped, left on the back burner, and ultimately dumped in favor of the then-nascent Pandora: The World of AVATAR. The piece, written by Joe Notaro, remains unchanged as it was published in early 2016, and still retains relics of the time. There are mentions of Dragon Challenge at Islands of Adventure, which has since been replaced with Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, and there’s still the question of whether Pandora would meet expectations. Of course, The World of AVATAR opened a year after this was published, and after that first ride on Flight of Passage, we were absolutely convinced. Still, it’s fun to play with the notion of a Beastly Kingdom––we talked about the proposed land’s feature attraction, Dragon Tower, in this year’s March Madness countdown of top never-built attractions, and whenever I pass by that bridge to Pandora, I love peering out at the dragon statue that peeks out from the lush foliage. Enjoy the read!
Disney Stuck on the Drawing Board: Beastly Kingdom – by Joe Notaro
In anticipation for the completion and opening of Pandora: The World of AVATAR in 2017, it seemed appropriate to look back at an original plan that would have occupied the now future space that Avatar will inhabit. It seems time to resurrect the Stuck on the Drawingboard series.
Of all of the lands of Animal Kingdom that were operational on opening day on April 22, 1998, there was planned to be a land that visitors were both hopeful and excited to see constructed. Sadly that expansion never came, and now the land that replaced it. is being transformed into Pandora: The World of Avatar.
Beastly Kingdom was immediately a rock-solid plan in the minds of Disney executives. Animal Kingdom was supposed to feature animals of all types; those in real-life, those who walked the planet but have become extinct, and finally animals of the mystical realm. These plans would have placed Beastly Kingdom squarely in the area inhabited by Camp Minnie-Mickey. What people do not know, is that Camp Minnie-Mickey had a remnant of the un-built Beastly Kingdom: A dragon shaped fountain within its boundaries. The plan of Beastly Kingdom was to create an area for all mythical and fantastical animals including unicorns, dragons, and sea monsters, among others.
The land would have been broken up into two distinct areas: A good “realm” and an evil “realm”. Each of these “realms” of Beastly Kingdom would have a “weenie” or landmark distinguishing itself from the other. The good side would feature an attraction called Quest of the Unicorn, as well as a Fantasia-styled boat ride. The evil side of Beastly Kingdom would have featured Dragon Tower, an old castle in ruins inhabited by a fire breathing Dragon. As such the land would have been one of the focal points of the park, and likely would have kept Animal Kingdom from its initial failures.
The area never came to be, and much to do with budgeting and finances. Rumor has it that Michael Eisner had to choose between the Beastly Kingdom area and the Dinoland area as costs soared on the park. Seeing as Disney was in production of the movie DINOSAUR, which was a pet project of Eisner’s and already had hundreds of millions of dollars sunk into it, they believed that would be the better land to create and promote the film. (How did that film make again?) As such, Camp Minnie-Mickey was put in as a last-minute placeholder so they could come back to the project later. Many of the Imagineers involved with the project eventually left the company in some sort of disgust at the failure of the construction amid the planning and man hours used in creation. Many of these Imagineers found their way to Universal, and were involved and used most elements from Beastly Kingdom in the creation of The Lost Continent. Proof of this was found in Dueling Dragons (now known as Dragon Challenge) as the concept of two dueling dragons within a ruined castle was lifted straight from the Animal Kingdom plans.
In an interesting aside, maybe Disney executives had the right idea, as the land that former Imagineers created has since been “swallowed” by the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and was never really all that popular with guests (nor was the park until Potter opened, for that matter.) It appears that some of the issues revolved around a convoluted story and a disjointed theme.
Some elements of Beastly Kingdom are still evident in Animal Kingdom even today:
The marquee of the park logo still includes a silhouette dragon among the animals walking behind the Animal Kingdom name.
One of the parking lots of the park was and still is titled Unicorn.
There is a statue of a dragonhead above the ticket booths, though no dragon exists in the park.
Fire blasts would fly from a cave near Camp Minnie-Mickey while guests passed on the Discovery River Cruise. This also included a suit of armor and an overhead announcement to all of the guests on-board the vessels of the short-lived attraction.
Beastly Kingdom was an enormous undertaking that the Disney Company decided was not cost-effective or feasible with the opening of the park, or even in the years following once it was mostly copied for Islands of Adventure. Though there were and still are elements of the Beastly Kingdom concept included in the park (proving the seriousness of the creation of the land), this land has been permanently shelved in favor of AVATAR and Expedition Everest, two attractions also centering on mythical creatures, whether they are from ancient lore or the silver screen.
What we are left with is this simple question: What could have been and will AVATAR surpass what this never-created land might have been?