Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom

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Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park is going to celebrate its 20th birthday on Earth Day, April 22, 2018 and Carol and I are planning to be there to join in the festivities.

As Carol started making plans for the trip I spent a few minutes reflecting on our first visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It was in November 1999, about a year and a half after the park opened. Carol and I were both very excited to see the new theme park we had read so much about. We are both animal lovers and we were mesmerized by all we had read about the Tree of Life and those amazing animal carvings.

It was also our very first trip to Walt Disney World with each other. Carol was a seasoned Disney veteran; she had been to Walt Disney World fourteen times before we went together. I was a mere rookie with only four previous trips under my belt.

The brochures describing the new park really piqued our interest. The Tree of Life, the safari ride, the exotic lands, it all sounded so interesting! Here are a few panels I pulled from that old brochure; click on the image to see a larger version.

Brochure Highlites

From the time we first passed through the entrance gate we were captivated. Nothing disappointed us; Disney’s Animal Kingdom was everything we expected and more.

Carol and the Tree of Life

Joe Rohde, the Imagineer who was in charge of the design and construction of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, had done an amazing job!

Yes, back in those early years we heard all of the negative comments:

“It’s just a zoo; we have one of those at home. Why would I waste a day at Disney by going to a zoo?”

“It’s a half-day park; there’s not much there.”

I suppose that if your idea of enjoying a theme park is rushing from one thrill ride to the next . . . well maybe you’re right. There wasn’t much there for you in the earliest days.

But it was never like that for Carol and I. It became my ‘second-favourite’ park almost immediately. The Magic Kingdom will always hold the number one ranking for me, just because it was my first Disney Park, but Animal Kingdom is next in line. For Carol it’s different — Animal Kingdom is number one for her.

We love wandering the side trails on Discovery Island to spot the animals there.

Saddle Billed Stork

Kangaroo and deer on a Side Trail

It’s a treat when we can get a close-up view of the animal carvings on the Tree of Life.

Tree of Life 1999

Animal Carving

Animal Carving

If those otters across from Pizzafari are out playing I just lean on the railing and wait . . . Carol can watch those critters for hours!


“Miss our FastPass for Kilimanjaro Safaris? I don’t care, I’m watching otters!”

Did you notice the title of this blog? “Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom”

That’s what the park was called throughout the design process and during construction. The original logo design looked like this.

Wild Animal Kingdom Logo

Shortly before the park opened ‘Wild’ was dropped from the name and the newly adopted logo was the one still in use today.

Animal Kingdom Logo

Hey . . . what the heck is that dragon doing in the logo?

At the official park opening ceremony on April 22nd 1998 Disney CEO Michael D. Eisner said, “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.”
Dragons again . . . Hmmm?

Let’s look back to an article from the Winter 1995 issue of The Magic Years Newsletter. Click on the image to see a larger version that you can read.

Magic Years Newsletter Winter 1995

When this article was published the Animal Kingdom Park had been under construction for several years and it was still referred to as ‘Wild Animal Kingdom’.

The description of the park talks about the Tree of Life as well as three ‘major sections’ dealing with real animals, mythical animals and extinct animals. The ‘real animals’ are the ones we see today all through the park and the ‘extinct animals’ are the ones we see in Dinoland, USA. Look back to the two logos . . . the triceratops represents the extinct animals.

The dragon in the logos was intended to represent Beastly Kingdom, a land which would pay tribute to ‘mythical animals’ such as dragons, unicorns and griffins. One of the planned attractions was a roller coaster named Dragon Tower and another was called Quest of the Unicorn, but alas, Beastly Kingdom was never built.

When the park opened in 1998 a hastily-built Camp Minnie-Mickey occupied the space which had been set aside for Beastly Kingdom and construction of the area devoted to ‘mythical animals’ was rumored to be part of an expansion planned for 2003.

Of course since Camp Minnie-Mickey has now been transformed into Pandora, it is unlikely we’ll ever see a Beastly Kingdom.

Here is the park map from our first trip in 1999. Click on the image to see a larger version.

1999 Animal Kingdom Map

Did you notice that the island where the Tree of Life stands was still called ‘Safari Village’ in 1999?

As I mentioned earlier, Carol and I were instant fans of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but for many others that wasn’t the case. Attendance didn’t meet the company’s forecasts or expectations and it wasn’t long before năhtăzÅ« began to appear in ads for the park.


This series of terrific television adds was designed to convince Disney guests that Animal Kingdom was năhtăzū (Not A Zoo) but that it was much, much more than a zoo.

In our minds it was certainly more than a zoo! Carol and I enjoyed the animals . . . the Kilimanjaro Safari ride, the Pangani Forest Trail and the Maharajah Jungle Trek. But there was so much more than animals for us . . . the Festival of the Lion King Show, the Conservation Station, Tarzan Rocks, and the chance to see and hear about African and Asian cultures.

For Carol and I it was definitely năhtăzū!

Over the years a few new attractions were added and attendance slowly began to climb.

Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade made it’s debut October 1, 2001 as part of the 100 Years of Magic Celebration and ran until May 31, 2014 when it closed to make way for construction of Pandora and many new Avatar themed attractions.

Jammin Jungle Parade

Jammin Jungle Parade

Jammin' Jungle Parade

Expedition Everest officially opened on April 7, 2006. This thrilling roller coaster takes guests on a high speed trip through Disney’s tallest mountain, which of course is a replica of the world’s tallest mountain, Mount Everest.

Expedition Everest 2013

Expedition Everest

For some reason I cannot fathom, Carol loves Expedition Everest. She claims that she doesn’t like roller coasters and will not ride Rock ‘N Roller Coaster or Space Mountain. She does ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train but ‘Everest’ is her favorite!

Expedition Everest

She can only handle it once, so I usually ride with her, then take a second ride using the single rider line. It moves very quickly!

The Yak & Yeti Restaurant opened in Anandapur on November 14, 2007.

Yak and Yeti Exterior

2007 Yak and Yeti

It’s a terrific place for lunch or dinner. Carol and I often stop for lunch at Yak & Yeti’s quick service counter.

Egg Rolls

We each order egg rolls and share an order of fried rice. It’s just the right amount for the two of us and there’s always a shaded table available in the outdoor seating area behind the restaurant.

By 2016 plenty of folks had decided that Disney’s Animal Kingdom was more than a half-day park. Over 10 million guests visited during the year.

Carol and I took part in the 10th Anniversary Celebration on Earth Day, April 22, 2008. Stay tuned for a future blog where I’ll talk about those 10th Anniversary Celebrations and some of the newest attractions that have been added.

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Gary hails from Canada and he’s a lifelong Disney fan. In the 1950s he watched the original Mickey Mouse Club and The Wonderful World of Disney on a snowy old black-and-white television. Gary was mesmerized by the Disneyland that Walt introduced to the world during those Sunday night shows! In 1977 he took his young family to Walt Disney World for the first time and suddenly that Disney magic he experienced as a child was rekindled. Since then Gary and his wife Carol have enjoyed about 70 trips to Walt Disney World, 11 trips to Disneyland and 11 Disney Cruises.

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6 Replies to “Disney’s Wild Animal Kingdom”

  1. I remember when I went to WDW with my father as a retirement trip for him back in 1995. We stayed onsite for the first time at All Star Sports and absolutely loved it. I also remember being told by a bus driver that there was a whole new animal park being built and that he pointed over to where it was going to be as we were driving to a park. He was really excited about it. I have since visited 3x with my own family – 2005, 2008, 2016, and I am going back next summer, 2019 for my 50th bday! I always feel that I wait too long in my trip to go to AK and I am already hot and tired before I get there. I don’t do it justice, I am sure. I love it though, and will plan to visit early in my trip for at least 1 day, if not more. I know how detailed everything is and i feel that I need to appreciate it more.

  2. What a great blog! The history lesson was quite interesting and informative plus it was fun to see pics of you youngins and the parks evolution!! When we finally go back next week I will once again be seeing the world through my camera lens and admiring the minute details of this beautiful imagineered world.

  3. My favorite park. Who doesn’t have a photo of their fist up the ape’s nose while waiting in the queue for “it’s tough to be a bug?” Also, Expedition Everest looks a lot different when viewing from the top of Summit Plummet at the water park.

  4. Thanks for the great article. Animal Kingdom is my favorite park for so many reasons. I do love animals, but this park goes so far beyond animals. The details in everything down to leaves stamped in the ground are amazing. Even after all the times we go I still see/find something new. Love how they updated the tree of life trails so you not only can see a better view of the carvings but you get away from the crowds and feel like you are far away from a crowded theme park. I do miss Tarzan Rocks as that was my favorite show, but they have added so many other great things to experience.

  5. Animal Kingdom is 20! Where has the time gone? I have memories of my grandparents visiting friends in Orlando at the time it opened and we asked if they would please go and see it and tell us about it.
    Luckily they did, and I still have the opening week tshirt they bought me with a hippo on.
    I adore the walking trails the most in the park. I have taken so many wonderful pictures and could spend hours just looking at the details.
    Have a great trip in April!

  6. Coming from a person who has panic attacks, my biggest complaint about Animal Kingdom is the signage. I’m sure Disney designed the park to feel like you’re “lost in the jungle” but that’s exactly what I don’t like. I totally get lost even with a map. So for me it’s Kilimanjaro Safaris, Lion King and OUT. For anyone else, it’s a great park and definitely not a zoo.

    [Gary writes: You are absolutely right Jane. The park was built to give the impression that you are ‘in the jungle’ but hopefully not everyone feels lost!

    In 2008 Carol and I enjoyed a presentation by Joe Rohde, the Imagineer who was responsible for the design and construction of Animal Kingdom. Throughout the process he and his team wanted the park to showcase what he called ‘the intrinsic value of nature.’ He told us that the Imagineers placed much more emphasis on the landscape than they did on the architecture.

    That’s why there are no straight lines in Animal Kingdom and the signage is subtle; it is meant to look wild and natural.]