At this point in time, THE place to be on Walt Disney World property is Animal Kingdom park. Specifically, the focus of all the attention [not to mention overflow crowds and hours-long wait times] is Pandora: The World of Avatar, the new land inspired by the blockbuster movie Avatar.
Obviously, the prospects of riding on the back of a banshee will do that.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom hasn’t seen this type of excitement since opening day, nearly 20 years ago.
I was fortunate to have attended the park’s opening in 1998 and it truly was an unforgettable experience, full of the usual pomp and ceremony we’ve come to expect from a Disney park debut. The itinerary for the hundreds of invited media guests was exhausting, to say the least … a whirlwind of activity, to be sure.
Looking back at the printed media itinerary, one thing stands out: How much things have changed at WDW in the nearly 20 years since Disney’s Animal Kingdom swung open its gates.
What follows is a look at the media itinerary for the Disney’s Animal Kingdom Press Event, which was held from April 20-23, 1998. We’ll also take a look at what was there [or about to the there], as well as which attractions have taken their place in the Disney vault.
First up on the media’s to-do list after arriving on April 20 was an exclusive sneak preview of DisneyQuest in Downtown Disney, billed as The Ultimate Interactive Adventure. DisneyQuest opened later that year in Downtown Disney under the promise that it would combine the magic of Disney with the most engaging interactive technologies of the time.
The idea was to create an interactive theme park, a place where techies young and old could create there own virtual adventures on classic Disney attractions, things like CyberSpace Mountain, Buzz Lightyear’s AstroBlasters and Virtual Jungle Cruise.
Plans were in the works to expand DisneyQuest to Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto and Disneyland. The Chicago site opened, but closed quickly, while the other planned sites never made it off the drawing board.
DisneyQuest enjoyed a 19-year run at Walt Disney World before closing for good last month.
The total remake of Downtown Disney into Disney Springs left DisneyQuest in the dust. The shopping/dining/entertainment district underwent a massive rebranding and expansion over the last few years and DisneyQuest’s days were numbered. The building is being re-imagined into The NBA Experience, geared to basketball junkies, in the West Side Neighborhood.
The evening of April 20, members of the media returned to Downtown Disney, where an event called “Downtown Nights and City Lights” was held in and around Pleasure Island.
Unlike DisneyQuest, Pleasure Island was scrapped long before the Disney Springs expansion. The area offered an adult-themed night-time entertainment district, featuring dance clubs, comedy venues, restaurants, shopping and other hip, trendy offerings. Each night at midnight, New Year’s Eve-type fireworks were set off above the area.
Pleasure Island, which required a separate admission, was open from 1989 through 2008.
For the Animal Kingdom media event, guests were able rub elbows with Daisy Fuentes and David Copperfield, who served as hosts for the evening’s festivities. During the night, Blackhawk, Imajin and Usher performed. Later that night, TONIC, The Brian Setzer Orchestra and Pat Benatar were featured during a street party.
David Copperfield holds a unique place on Disney parks lore. Back in 1998, he was on the cusp of hosting his own unique attraction inside what was then known as the Disney/MGM Studios.
Copperfield Magic Underground was scheduled to open in the summer of 1998, which explains why he was in attendance at the Animal Kingdom events. Although it was heavily hyped, construction on the venue never even started. Like magic – poof! – it disappeared into Disney lore.
Tuesday, April 21, saw Animal Kingdom’s dedication ceremonies, with CEO Michael Eisner and Vice Chairman Roy E. Disney presiding over the “pomp and pageantry” from 8 to 8:30 a.m.
During the day, dedication ceremonies were held for the Rainforest Cafe and DinoLand U.S.A.
Later that night, a party dubbed “Festival of the Animals” was held at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex [now known as ESPN’s Wide World of Sports]. Guests were invited to “celebrate the wonders of the wild” for an evening of “exotic tastes, exotic rhythms and multi-cultural eats.” The evening was capped of by a performance from the legendary Stevie Wonder.
The next day, April 22, saw the official grand opening of the park. At 9 a.m., Roy E. Disney and Judson Green, president of Walt Disney Attractions, dedicated Conservation Station and honored the park’s Board of Advisors, who had played such an important, if behind the scenes, role in the development of Animal Kingdom.
The festivities concluded in the evening with a “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” wrap party at the Disney-MGM Studios. “Take a walk on the wild side,” the press itinerary said, “and become an all-out party animal as you join the rest of the herd for this finale celebration.”
Yes, 1998 was “the year of the animals,” but there was so much more going on over the entire WDW property … and beyond.
Disney Cruise Line’s first ship, the Disney Magic, debuted in July of 1998.
At Pleasure Island in Downtown Disney, the BET SoundStage and the Wildhorse Saloon opened.
DisneyQuest swung open its gates in 1998, to be followed in short order with the opening of the nearby Cirque do Soleil theater. Its featured show, La Nouba, is scheduled to close later this year after a 19-year run.
The Fantasmic! show would debut in 1998 and light to night at the Disney/MGM Studios [the park would be renamed Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2008], while in the Magic Kingdom, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin would delight guests young and old after opening in 1998.
Also in the Magic Kingdom, a new show featuring zany birds from “The Lion King” and “Aladdin” would take up residence in Adventureland. The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management replaced the Tropical Serenade show, which opened with the rest of the park in 1971. The New Management show ran until 2011 before it was replaced by the current Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room.
Finally, construction was nearing the final stages on the 1,940-room All-Star Movie Resort [it opened officially in 1999], while plans were being finalized for the 15-month millennium celebration at Epcot.
While 1998 will be remembered as the year Animal Kingdom Park opened, it also saw a number of comings and goings that, as we’ve learned over the years, is quite typical of Disney’s commitment to continually upgrade “as long as there’s imagination left in the world.”