Animal Kingdom OPENING DAY April 22, 1998

Reuter's Reports Gates at AK Close Early
Bruce's Opening Day Report
Disney's Animal Kingdom Greets First Guests
Dedication of the Animal Kingdom

Crowds Force New Disney Theme Park To Close Gates

Wednesday April 22 2:27 PM EDT ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters)Walt Disney Co. opened its Animal Kingdom theme park in Florida to the public Wednesday but was soon forced by over-capacity crowds to turn away visitors, company officials said.

Some families waited overnight outside the gates, which opened an hour early at 6 a.m., only to close 75 minutes later, Disney spokesman Bill Warren said.

Disney does not release attendance figures, but company sources told Reuters that 28,000 paid visitors made it through the turnstiles before the gates closed.

With about 5,000 journalists and a large number of guests with annual passes, the total attendance could have reached 35,000.

The $800 million Animal Kingdom, located near Orlando, joins Walt Disney World's other central Florida attractions — the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney-MGM Studios.

More than 200 species of captive-bred animals were imported for the park in what was described as the greatest migration of zoo animals ever. Many of them live on a 500-acre, painstakingly replicated African savannah, Disney officials said.

Judson Green, president of Walt Disney Attractions, told Reuters that Disney planned to expand further in the Orlando area, though no other theme parks were in the planning or development stage.

"We have the acreage, but I don't even have a list," Green said. "We've disciplined ourselves not to think about new theme parks until Animal Kingdom was up and running."

Reuters/Variety ^REUTERS@

Bruce's Opening Day Report

Opening Day at Disney's Animal Kingdom — or How I convinced myself to get up at 4:30 a.m. and like it!

Upon advice of cast members, I managed to get myself on-property by 5:30, past the parking gate by 5:40, and in line by 5:50. I anticipated that Disney would be merciful, especially as the crowd was threatening to outnumber the substantial security force present, and we were admitted promptly at 6 a.m., a full hour before the promised time.

I had visited AK a month earlier, during cast member preview days. Because of circumstances and my host that day, I missed several things. I caught most of them in the next hour. All day, I never felt obliged to wait more than 10 minutes in line, except for the stage shows which require 30 minutes.

I heard that the parking lot was full and closed by 7 a.m., and that the turnstiles were locked to non-resort guests by 9 a.m. Perhaps 15% of the parks capacity of 22,000 seem to have been media, with rows of booths for radio stations, and several areas roped off and lit for TV standup.

In addition to Disney's own survey crews, several media crews were interviewing random guests, as well. I had a pithy comment prepared about Walt's desire to have live animals on Disneyland's "Jungle Cruise" in 1955 having finally come true, but probably because I was ready, I wasn't invited to interview.

I took two trips each through "It's Tough To Be a Bug" and "Countdown to Extinction". Good shows both, although CTX seems to have a few bugs of its own yet. My jiggle limit lies somewhere between "Big Thunder" and "Space Mountain", and I'd say this was closer to the latter, but still okay by my standards. (OTOH, I turned down an invitation to ride a third time. YMMV.)

"Kilimanjaro Safari" is going to vary in results according to the whim of the animals. Best advice: go very early, and also late. "Gorilla Falls" should always have some animals on view, but since it's a walking tour, interesting activity tends to clog the pathway and limit interaction with the hosts and hostesses.

I saw all three stage shows, and rate both "Journey into the Jungle Book" and "Festival of the Lion King" among the best of their sort Disney has done. The Jungle Book cast I saw today wasn't as impressive as those I saw last month (without costumes), and I miss Kaa's big scene which was cut for time, but with three or four casts, some are always going to be better than others. The Pocahontas show at "Grandmother Willow's Grove" was a big step down. It was fun to watch a few animals run across the stage, but the writing was poor and rather pedantic.

While there has been a derisive thread on rec.arts.disney.parks lately about "Plant Kingdom", I have to say I am most impressed by the landscaping. Without taking anything away from the substantial animal exhibits, the grounds are simply stunning for a freshly opened park. There are six times the number of plant species as animal, and they are every bit as well presented. I've heard that backstage tours will start in June — I'm waiting for the horticultural tours!

While there is no table service restaurant in the park (Rainforest Cafe is outside, and their service is distinctly undisnical), there are some substantial offerings among the counter service spots. I skipped Donald's Breakfastosaurus, but the buffet looked inviting when I peeked. I lunched at the Flame Tree Barbecue on their combo platter: decent BBQ to my taste, but I know that's often a matter of where you're from. Tuskers has an ambitious menu that even includes prime rib; I supped there on a bread bowl" chicken salad whose onions and peppers outweighed the chicken, and the bread, while substantial, was in no way used as a bowl. The Safari Amber beer was quite potable as well.

I spent the whole day at the park — 14 hours in all. Will this be a full day's entertainment for you and your family? Well, it depends. If you go expecting "rides" you're likely to be done in two hours. If you consider stage shows as well, make it four. However, if you are willing to slow yourself to match the pace of this most relaxed of the parks and take the time to meet the animals on their own terms; if you are as enthralled as I by the wonderful carvings not just on the Tree of Life, but on every building, lamppost, and sign; if you are the sort to notice and appreciate a conversation with a cast member from a foreign country or the way they made the concrete pathways look like muddy dirt paths with leaves and sticks in them; then you can indeed blow an entire day here.

I don't know if the Animal Kingdom is going to become my favorite of the four major parks, but it's already got the Studios beat and Epcot would be next on my list if it weren't for the variety and quality of dining options there. I plan to go back often, and expect to enjoy this very different sort of park each time I do.

If you have any questions about AK, please let me know. An extra excuse to go visit and find out is always welcome.

Bruce aka Zazu

Disney's Animal Kingdom Greets First Guests Wednesday at Walt Disney World Resort

Wednesday April 22, 1:15 pm Eastern Time Company Press Release SOURCE: Walt Disney World Media Relations

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., April 22 /PRNewswire/ — Visitors from around the world flocked to Walt Disney World Resort Wednesday for the grand opening of Disney's Animal Kingdom, where the park's first guests were greeted with rose petal confetti, African bands and a keepsake grand-opening lithograph.

“We could think of no more appropriate day to introduce Disney's Animal Kingdom to the world than today, April 22, which, as you know, is Earth Day,'' said Judson Green, president of Walt Disney Attractions, addressing a group of honored guests at the park's Conservation Station. “Twenty-eight years ago, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson introduced the idea of a national celebration of nature and the environment…It is our fervent hope that Disney's Animal Kingdom will be a living embodiment of that same spirit.''

The first guests through the gate were Brenda Herr of St. Petersburg, Fla., her husband, Damon Chepren and their son, Devon, who slept in their car the night before in their quest to become the first guest family. The family received a lifetime pass to Walt Disney theme parks worldwide.

Park officials also paid tribute to their “Honorary First Family,'' rhino crusader Michael Werikhe and his daughters, Acacia, 9, and Kora, 7, in a ceremony at the park's Conservation Station. Werikhe, known throughout the world as “Rhino Man,'' has led a one-man crusade to boost public awareness of the plight of the black rhinoceros. He has walked thousands of miles across four continents to raise millions of dollars for the conservation and survival of the endangered black rhino.

Roy Disney, vice chairman of The Walt Disney Company [NYSE:DIS – news], presented Werikhe and his family with a giant “Key of Life,'' in the shape of The Tree of Life, the park's massive icon. In addition, Walt Disney World is making a contribution in support of Werikhe's conservation work. Over the past three years, Disney Wildlife Conservation fund has contributed more than $3 million to conservation efforts worldwide.

“Werikhe is one of the great eco-heroes of our time, thanks to his tireless efforts to walk the globe on behalf of the black rhino,'' Disney said. “With our Honorary First Family on hand, we invite all who cherish the striking beauty of animals and nature to venture out and witness the wonders that are here.''

Werikhe is one of four eco-heroes who share their stories through interactive displays with guests at Conservation Station. He said it was Walt Disney who first inspired him through early films about nature and conservation.

“This is like a dream come true — it's like being on the top of Mount Everest,'' Werikhe said.

Disney's Animal Kingdom is the fourth Walt Disney World theme park. With 500 acres, a realistic African safari, thrill attractions and live entertainment, the Park celebrates the whole realm of animals — real, extinct and imaginary. It's the first new Walt Disney World theme park to open since Disney-MGM Studios in 1989. The Magic Kingdom opened with Walt Disney World Resort in 1971 and Epcot followed in 1982.

SOURCE: Walt Disney World Media Relations

Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort Dedicated Tuesday in African-Themed Spectacle

Tuesday April 21, 11:47 am Eastern Time Company Press Release SOURCE: Walt Disney World Media Relations

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., April 21 /PRNewswire/ — Dancers gyrated to the beat of two dozen African drummers. A rhythmic choir 500 strong chanted in Zulu. And an opening act featuring life-size animal puppets, 1,500 costumed Disney cast members and the joyous strains of the award-winning “Circle of Life'' set the scene Tuesday for The Walt Disney Company [NYSE:DIS – news] Chairman Michael Eisner to dedicate Disney's Animal Kingdom — the fourth theme park of Walt Disney World Resort.

The park opens to the public April 22.

Flanked by Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew and vice chairman of The Walt Disney Company, Eisner lauded the new park, based on the world of animals, as “novel and distinct.''

“Nature is perhaps the greatest storyteller of all,'' Eisner told an audience of thousands of invited guests at the entrance to Disney's Animal Kingdom. “From the smallest ant to the biggest bull elephant, the true-life stories of animals are fascinating and ever changing — indeed, that's the one aspect that sets the Animal Kingdom apart.''

Also distinguishing the dedication ceremony was the performance of ``Circle of Life'' by composer and Grammy Award-winner Lebo M of “The Lion King'' on Broadway. During the song, costumed performers carried giant kinetic sculptures of animals including an elephant, a lion, a triceratops and a dragon.

Eisner praised the work and wisdom of the park's advisory board, a team of naturalists, environmentalists and zoologists that includes Terry Maple, Zoo Atlanta director; William Conway, Wildlife Conservation Society president; and Roger Caras, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). He also recognized special guest and consultant Jane Goodall, renowned for her work with chimpanzees in the wild.

From cattle-grazing flatlands, the 500-acre Disney's Animal Kingdom was transformed with millions of trees and plants into a lush jungle, forest and savannah habitat mimicking the natural homes of many of the 1,000 animals who will live there. The park combines high adventure with real exotic animals, close encounters with prehistoric creatures and Broadway-style shows featuring beloved Disney characters.

Throughout Walt Disney's film career, he was enamored of all creatures inhabiting the planet and based his animation and award-winning ``True-Life Adventures'' film series on many of them, said Walt's nephew, Roy.

“Just as this theme park has its roots in our films, it also represents a major departure,'' Disney said. “Once a movie is completed, it's done forever. On the other hand, Disney's Animal Kingdom — like the animal world itself — will evolve and grow. It's truly a living thing… something we are consciously and proudly calling 'Disney's.'''

Humanity's enduring fascination with animals — the park's central theme — is the focus of The Tree of Life, which stands 145 feet high in the center of Disney's Animal Kingdom hub, Safari Village. Its trunk carved with 325 animals, the massive tree houses a theater featuring ``It's Tough to be a Bug,'' a laugh-filled 3-D film and special effects show starring Earth's least-known wild creatures — insects.

The “lands'' of Disney's Animal Kingdom extend, spoke-like, from The Tree of Life and Safari Village area. DinoLand U.S.A. is a dig site featuring The Boneyard, a prehistoric playground, and Countdown to Extinction, where huge dinosaurs threaten time-traveling guests on a high-speed journey into the Cretaceous era.

In Africa, guests travel from the “coastal'' village of Harambe, with its authentic marketplace and thatched Swahili roofs, to the lush forests and vast grasslands of Africa. They board large, open-sided vehicles for the high adventure of a real safari, encountering herds of hippos, giraffes, zebras and many other African species. The quest culminates in a race to save a herd of elephants from ivory poachers.

Other lands of Disney's Animal Kingdom are Camp Minnie-Mickey, home of the Broadway-style ``Festival of The Lion King,'' and Asia, which opens in 1999 with the river-raft thrill ride Tiger Rapids Run.

In a gesture reminiscent of the one 43 years ago when Walt Disney read from the plaque dedicating Disneyland in Anaheim, Eisner read from the dedication plaque for Disney's Animal Kingdom:

“Welcome to a kingdom of animals … real, ancient and imagined:

A kingdom ruled by lions, dinosaurs and dragons;

A kingdom of balance, harmony and survival;

A kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama … and learn.“

SOURCE: Walt Disney World Media Relations