What’s the Deal With the Carnival Rides at Disney’s Animal Kingdom? The History of DinoLand USA

If you go to Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World, you’ll find many colorful and immersive areas highlighting the natural wonders and wildlife from around the world.

Tree of Life

DinoLand USA, however, is really not on theme, perse. This colorful land appears at first glance to be an old-fashioned, dinosaur-themed carnival, the sort of roadside attraction you might find on Route 66. It’s such a sharp contrast with other parts of Animal Kingdom and even with some areas of DinoLand itself (like the more sophisticated research institute hosting the Dinosaur ride and the Dig Site).

The Dino Institute is markedly more serious than its carnival cousin.

In fact, the seemingly random jumble of dinosaur-themed carnival attractions actually reflects a complex and fascinating history – both for the actual history of DinoLand USA, and for the in-park lore Imagineers created for the area.

These real and fictional histories have in turn influenced each other, so let’s dig into the past and present of DinoLand USA!

The Original Plan for DinoLand USA

DinoLand USA’s story begins with the ambitious plans for Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom in the 1990s. The concept of Animal Kingdom was very different from past Disney Parks, as it would combine wildlife conservation with theme park attractions. Disney wanted to avoid making the Park be simply another zoo, as there were plenty of other zoos across America. So while most of the Park’s areas focused primarily on wildlife sightings and interaction, two areas were envisioned for more of a classic theme park approach. The first was Beastly Kingdom (based on mythical creatures), and the second was DinoLand USA.

Beastly Kingdom, split between light and dark portions, would have been an enchanting and wonderful experience.

In contrast to the rest of the Park, DinoLand USA was meant to host two exciting attractions. The first, the Excavator, would send guests zooming on a seemingly rickety (actually steel) roller coaster through excavation sites. If you didn’t enjoy thrill rides, you could instead enjoy a primeval safari, traveling back in time to see animatronic dinosaurs in their natural habitats. Together, they would have made for fun and engaging rides, standing out from the other areas of the Park (but not as much as the carnival we got instead). However, before Animal Kingdom opened to the public in 1998, it went through some unexpected changes.

Cost Cuts and Changes

During the later years of Michael Eisner’s tenure as CEO, Disney became infamous for budget cuts, which had ramifications across many areas of the company. One such victim was Animal Kingdom, which was proving very expensive due to the need to support the many animals. Disney decided to make several critical cuts to the Park’s planned attractions. First of all, Beastly Kingdom, which would have had its own amazing attractions, was postponed indefinitely; that area ended up being permanently suspended and now hosts Avatar-themed Pandora. Second, DinoLand USA’s opening attractions needed to be trimmed down.

Countdown to Extinction took the concept of a peaceful safari and turned it into a race against time as the meteors descended.

Ultimately, Disney chose to condense and combine the two envisioned attractions into a single ride. Countdown to Extinction would take the idea of a safari jeep ride through prehistory and turn it into a bit of a thrill ride. It would neither have the intense excitement of a roller coaster nor the laid back feel of a typical dark ride. Rather, it would be more along the lines of Indiana Jones Adventure, which opened at Disneyland Anaheim just a few years prior in 1995. But even after combining the two rides, Imagineers had to make further budget cuts, limiting the full potential of the final product.

DinoLand’s In-Park Backstory

According to the lore created by Imagineers, DinoLand USA actually started out as a small town in Diggs County. One day in 1947, paleontologists uncovered dinosaur bones near a Sinclair gas station, and everything changed for the sleepy town. Grad students arrived from all over the country to launch fossil hunts. You could even be a part of the discoveries at the Boneyard playground, digging and climbing on enormous bones. Gradually, these intrepid students founded the Dino Institute, which initially used a fishing lodge (now Restaurantosaurus) but later got its own museum building. In addition, Chester and Hester – the owners of the gas station where the first fossils were discovered – turned their business into the cheesy, roadside Dinosaur Treasures gift shop.

Chester and Hester would become more and more prominent as the town expanded its dino tourism.

This was just the beginning for DinoLand USA, though. The Dino Institute invited the famed Dr. Helen Marsh to lead the institute, and she quickly set a new path for paleontology: time travel. After buying out the Chrono Teck Inc. company, she established a new facility that doubled as a museum and as a lab researching time travel. Her plan was to launch time travel tours of the Mesozoic Era – sort of like the initial concept for a peaceful dinosaur safari ride. But chief scientist, Dr. Grant Seeker, had a different idea: enlist guests in a mission to save a dinosaur just before their extinction via meteor. This formed the premise for DinoLand USA’s single ride on opening day: Countdown to Extinction.

Countdown to Extinction’s Transformation

In 2000, Disney released the film Dinosaur, showing the adventures of dinosaurs struggling to survive in the wake of the meteor extinction. It was a very ambitious project at the time, combining new CGI animation with live-action scenery for a realistic and amazing experience. Disney had high hopes for the film, and they decided to promote it at the Parks. So, in one of the first cases of Disney inserting its franchises into preexisting rides, Countdown to Extinction was modified into the ride DINOSAUR in 2000. While the new ride followed the basic premise of the original ride, there were many changes to account for the new Dinosaur theme.

Dinosaur had amazing visuals for its time, and the opening preview wowed audiences.

In the present ride, you’re specifically going back in time to save an Iguanodon – which just so happens to be the protagonist of Dinosaur. Similarly, since the main enemies faced in the movie were predatory Carnotaurs, the Carnotaurus took on a larger role in the new ride. Moreover, to make DINOSAUR more kid-friendly, the thrill ride elements of the attraction have been scaled down. For instance, the motion intensity from Countdown to Extinction was reduced, and lighting and other set pieces were altered to make things seem less threatening to riders.

The Carnotaur hunts you down throughout DINOSAUR.

However, Countdown to Extinction’s revision into DINOSAUR backfired. It opened a couple weeks before Dinosaur released in theaters – but the film flopped. While the movie made a lot of money at the box office, critics panned the production, especially the goofy contrast between the realistic graphics and the talking dinosaurs. The lack of interest in Dinosaur meant that Disney couldn’t count on the movie being a selling point for the namesake ride. Plus, DINOSAUR has proved to be too scary for many kids while not exciting enough for thrill seekers. Therefore, the ride has suffered neglect over the years, and Disney has had to turn to other ways to attract guests.

Chester & Hester’s Big Break

Going back to the fictional timeline for DinoLand USA, this is where Chester and Hester take the spotlight. They formerly just had their dino store-turned gas station, but Imagineers decided to take the idea of a dinosaur-themed tourist trap to the next level with a full-fledged carnival. In 2002, Disney opened Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama, replacing a number of previous DinoLand features like the Dinosaur Jubilee and the Fossil Preparation Lab. Now, rather than making realistic paleontology the land’s main focus, the theme is now a cornier (but still fun) celebration of dinosaurs. Within the in-Park story, the elderly entrepreneur couple Chester and Hester, after gaining a lot of money at their shop, decided to invest in the dino craze even more.

Chester and Hester put up plenty of signs to lure tourists in.

The Dino-Rama, supposed to be a cheap set of carnival attractions in a parking lot off Highway 498, is actually a feat of Imagineering immersion. The seemingly cracked asphalt blacktop, for instance, is in fact cleverly disguised concrete, made to last Florida’s dry and wet weather. The cheesy billboards, classic carnival games, and other attractions seem like tourist trap material, but they all received high-quality designing. Together, they make Dino-Rama fit in with the rest of DinoLand’s wacky blend of scientific research and small-town marketing. It’s a fluid evolution of the town’s history, which stands at the crossroads between the scientific sense of discovery with dinosaurs and the broader sense of wonder and imagination that dinosaurs inspire in people.

Restaurantosaurus

Many people miss the detailed backstory for DinoLand USA, sometimes even thinking the floor of Dino-Rama is really cheap asphalt. However, DinoLand USA has a rich fictional backstory to discover, if you know where to look. One great place to connect with DinoLand’s immersive past is at Restaurantosaurus, a Quick Service stop that offers burgers, chicken nuggets, and other basic American grub. As you might recall from earlier, the graduate students from the digs first met here to form the Dino Institute, and the restaurant contains many “historical” markers from those wild days. In fact, the name for the place within the lore was simply “Restaurant”; students added the extra suffix to the name after the dinosaur boom – literally patched onto the old sign.

Initially just a fishing lodge and normal restaurant in local history, Restaurantosaurs is now a hub for many young paleontologists.

Restaurantosaurus is split up into several different sections tied to DinoLand’s paleontology backstory. Part of the former fishing lodge is a visitor center of sorts. The mini museum hosts various bones and other fossils that students dug up at the Boneyard. The lodge also has “historical” photos of the digs, as well as portraits of key individuals like dig funder Clarence P. Wilkerson. Then there’s the “Hip Joint” recreation room, with various trophies showcasing the grad students’ extracurricular escapades. For instance, there are painted rocks that interns brought from their hometowns. In addition, there are awards such as the Golden Trowel Trophy, which is given to whoever made the most finds that year. The grad students even used the restaurant as a makeshift dormitory.

Funny notes like this give testament to the crazy grad students’ penchant for troublemaking.

You can find even more intricate details outside the main restaurant area, in a Quonset maintenance garage for the excavation teams’ vehicles and other dig equipment. The interior displays several mechanics’ dinosaur-themed art, like paintings made with oil and grease and a skeleton made out of wrenches and other random tools. The gas cans are from the Sinclair brand (just like Chester and Hester’s old gas station), tying back to Sinclair’s dinosaur theme. Adjacent to the maintenance facility, there are several tents for auxiliary storage, with more fun things to discover. For example, one of the exits seems to have a bucket of water at the top, one of the mischievous students’ many pranks.

This cartoon on a wall was evidently sketched by a local mechanic in between repairing dig vehicles.

Not only that, but the restaurant also has some interesting ties to Disney’s larger history with dinosaurs. If you look around the lodge, you can see fanciful dinosaur sketches from the Rite of Spring piece in Fantasia. Plus, there’s a photograph of Walt Disney himself alongside some of the animatronic dinosaurs used for the Ford’s Magic Skyway attraction at the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. In addition, circling back to Dinoland’s fictional history, there’s a framed picture of Hester and Chester, with the title “American Gothic Revised”. All of these different features make the Restaurantosaurus a treasure trove of lore, so be sure to stop there for a bite to eat next time you’re in DinoLand.

Other Story Clues in DinoLand

Of course, even if you don’t eat at Restaurantosaurus, you can find more tidbits of the crazy grad life in the town across DinoLand. The Boneyard is another good place to check out. On the upper level of the Boneyard, you can see the fenced-off lounge area. The lounge not only has recreational amenities like lawn chairs, but also a whiteboard with fun info on the different students. There are also various notice boards meant for the interns participating in the digs, and they leave all sorts of strange messages on them. One announcement board even has an old map of DinoLand, including Countdown to Extinction. Also, some of the music played around DinoLand consists of a radio station hosted by students, and sometimes they’ll make fun quips.

This map, found on a sign board outside the Boneyard, shows how Dinoland looked when it first opened.

Don’t forget to also check out Chester and Hester’s Dinosaur Treasures, which they still keep running even with their new carnival attractions. The walls of the store are filled to the brim with miscellaneous dinosaur knick knacks. Don’t forget that the shop used to be a gas station; some of the signs are painted over, and you can see old gas pumps. There used to be another interesting Easter egg in the Dino-Rama, in the now-closed Primeval Whirl. The roller coaster had a story about traveling back in time to the meteors that wiped out the dinosaurs. This was a callback to Countdown to Extinction/DINOSAUR, and the track also jerked the cars left and right, similar to the motions used to travel back in time with Dr. Seeker.

Donald and Friends

Strangely enough, though, the most recent addition to DinoLand USA in 2018 has little to do with the town’s backstory. In Donald’s Dino-Bash, Donald, Pluto, Launchpad McQuack (Ducktales), and other classic Disney characters take the stage and dance to groovy music. They’re also available for photos and autographs. Chip and Dale even wear goofy-looking dinosaur costumes.

This unusual dinosaur was apparently one of Donald’s ancestors (probably from Scotland)

The reason for Disney cast’s presence in DinoLand is that Donald discovered his ancestral ties with dinosaurs and wanted to get back to his roots. It might take some inspiration from Breakfastosaurus. That was a former character breakfast at Restaurantosaurus where Donald learned about his dinosaur ancestors. Is this a sign that Disney might be shifting away from the small town backstory they’ve created for DinoLand USA? We’ll have to wait and see.

With Scrooge McDuck and other Disney characters showing up in Dinoland, could the town be taking a new turn in its history?

As you can see, DinoLand USA has a fascinating history in real life and in fiction. If you want to learn even more, you can be like a paleontologist and search around the Park for more clues tied to DinoLand’s story. You never know what exciting discoveries you might make at DinoLand.

What’s your favorite part of DinoLand USA? Let us know in the comments!

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