Walt Disney World Chronicles: The Beastly Kingdom Story

by DJim Korkis
Disney Historian

Feature Article

This article appeared in the June 13, 2017 Issue #925 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

Animal Kingdom Logo
Lots of attention has been directed of late to Disney's Animal Kingdom, the fourth theme park built at Walt Disney World. Home to the recently unveiled Pandora – The World of Avatar, Disney's Animal Kingdom opened on April 22, 1998, and it is the largest single Disney theme park in the world in terms of total acreage, covering more than 500 acres.

At the theme park's dedication, Michael Eisner, then-CEO of The Walt Disney Company, read the plaque and said: "I think it explains the park the way Walt would have said it, short and concise: '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.'"

At the earliest planning sessions for the park in 1990, there was to be a section devoted to "myth and fantasy" and the animals associated with that theme. The section devoted to imaginary creatures was called Beastly Kingdom. In Beastly Kingdom, guests would have crossed over a bridge to get to a land where they could take a leisurely boat ride through strange but beautiful scenery featuring imaginary creatures and then strap themselves into a ride that would have them flying and encountering a dragon-like creature.

Today, the land meant for that area has become the home of Pandora – The World of Avatar. Of course, there are significant differences in Pandora — or are there? In Pandora, guests cross a bridge to get to a land where they can enjoy a leisurely boat ride through strange but beautiful scenery featuring imaginary creatures or they can strap themselves into a ride where they will fly through the air with a banshee, something that looks like a dragon.

In April 1998 at a presentation I attended, Joe Rohde, Executive Designer and Vice President, Creative for Walt Disney Imagineering talked to the opening team of Disney's Animal Kingdom to give them some insight into the history and development of the park.

"The narrative of the park has always been about our love for animals real, imaginary and extinct," said Rohde. "Paleontology is the love of extinct animals. It's an unrequited love. They are dead. They are never coming back."

Rohde shared, "We started by designing the fantasy part of the park first. We're Imagineers. We're Disney. We all know gryphons, dragons and unicorns and that stuff. We were buying time. We had $250,000 to spend to get going on this project. You can imagine how long $250,000 would last at Disney — about enough to have breakfast on. While we we're doing that it gave us time to start traveling around the country visiting zoos and begin to make some connections so we could figure out what the zoo conservation part of this whole thing is.

"For the Beastly Kingdom, you would cross over a bridge into an area divided into Nice, Beautiful and Dangerous. Nice would have had all the pre-adolescent stuff that appealled to kids, like unicorns. Beautiful would have been a little more edgy with minotaurs and things. Dangerous was to take you through the Jabberwock Woods to the dragon.

"We went through many different designs and suggestions, but that core foundation pretty much remained the same. The thrill rides would be in the sections designated for dinosaurs and mythical beasts so the real animals would be isolated and not disturbed by them."

The bridge that would have served as the entrance would have been based on the classic Norwegian fairy tale of "Three Billy Goats Gruff," about three goats trying to cross a bridge guarded by a fearsome troll who lives underneath. At one point, there was a discussion to have three audio-animatronics goats tied up on one side of the bridge.

The marketing material stated: "Beastly Kingdom is the realm of make-believe animals, animals that don't really exist, out of legends, out of fairy tales, out of storybooks. Like our legends and fairy tales about imaginary animals, this land is divided into realms of good and realms of evil."

At one point it was suggested that the land should be called "Beastlie Kingdomme" to give it more of a medieval storybook feeling, but that spelling was quickly abandoned for a variety of reasons, including that it was too closely associated with just European medieval creatures.

In the good realm, there would have been the following attractions:

Fantasia Gardens would have been a musical boat ride inspired by the Disney animated feature film Fantasia (1940), and similar Disney family-inclusive theme park rides like "it's a small world." The boats would have sailed past classic Greek architecture like temples and Mount Olympus, as well as floated beneath a brightly colored rainbow archway. Beautiful gardens and fountains decorated the landscape. According to the Disney press release, the attraction was described as: "A gentle musical boat ride through the animals from Disney's animated classic, Fantasia. Both the crocodiles and hippos from Dance of the Hours and the Pegasus, fauns and centaurs from Beethoven's Pastoral are found here." By the way, the Fantasia animated segment alluded to in the press release didn't feature crocodiles. It had alligators.

Quest of the Unicorn was to be an interactive walk-through that challenged guests to find and awaken five golden idols scattered through a garden maze. Each idol would provide part of the code necessary for unlocking the far end of the maze where there would be a rare encounter with an audio-animatronics unicorn in a secluded grotto with crystal waterfalls and more. The clues would have been simple enough for children to decipher. Throughout the maze there were additional magical mythological creatures like a gryphon.

In the bad realm, there would have been the following attractions:

Loch Ness Terrace was a waterfront eatery that would include periodic visits outside from the legendary sea serpent-like creature. This was not the silly sea serpent of Disney animated cartoons, but a threatening, large monster. This eatery would have been in a humble hamlet in the shadow of the nearby castle.

Dragon's Tower was to be the land's looming major icon just like the castles in other Disney theme parks. This thrill ride roller coaster was to be housed in a tall, charred and ruined castle. The story went: After a fearsome battle that devastated the original inhabitants, it had been taken over by a massive dragon as its new home. The jewel-encrusted dragon was very much inspired by the villainous Smaug in Tolkien's The Hobbit. Both greedy dragons guarded a vast hoard of untold treasures. The dragon figure was to be the largest and most sophisticated audio-animatronics creature ever built up to that time. Inhabiting the nearby caves was to be a colony of bats who were also clever thieves. Hanging overhead as the guests enter, the bats' whispers would convince the guests to help them in their plans to rob some of the dragon's riches. Guests would have been strapped into a suspended inverted roller coaster to create the sensation of flying along with the bats on this ill-advised caper in a wild chase through the dark caverns, collapsing ancient castle corridors and even the fabled gold lair. The climax would have been a confrontation with the fiery-breathed dragon, who was not pleased at the attempt to rob him.

The winged dragon would have been the major character icon of the park. DAK's logo even featured front and center the silhouette of a winged dragon marching along with the other animals. McDonald's, a corporate sponsor at the time, released a Happy Meal toy of a purple winged dragon when the park opened. Even a ticket kiosk at the entrance of the park has the head of a dragon.

As work progressed on the park, the cost of caring and maintaining the real animals caused the budget to soar past all expectations. Cuts had to be made in order to finish the park and get it open on time. Nearly 75 acres were eliminated from the Africa section. It was decided that either Dinoland or Beastly Kingdom could be built, but not both. Since Disney was already investing heavily in its animated feature Dinosaur (2000), Eisner made what he felt was the best decision.

Dragon Rock in Disney's Animal Kingdom
The budget cuts affected other things as well. One of the sections on the Discovery River Boats was the Dragon Rocks area. As originally planned, as the guests drifted by the area where the rocky outcropping seemed to resemble the head of a dragon, they would have heard a growl from inside a cave. Just as the guests moved pass the location, a dragon's head would have lunged out and unleashed a blast of fire. The dragon would have been a copy of the sleeping dragon found underneath Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant at Disneyland Paris. Basically, it would just be the front one-third of the dragon placed on a retractable device inside the cave so it could move in and out of the cave opening. However, budget cuts resulted in the guests hearing the growl and then a ball of fire flying out of the cave. After the Discovery River Boats were closed, that effect was turned off although the cave itself could be seen from Camp Minnie-Mickey.

There were other mythological creatures planned for that boat ride. The boat driver would have been worried that the dragon had awoken the Greek sea monster the Kraken. The water would begin to bubble and a huge fin would cut through the water. Only the driver pulling out a lyre and plucking a tune would put the Kraken back to sleep. Later around the bend, guests would have seen a beautiful white unicorn with a gold horn in a grove of trees, pawing at the ground. The Imagineers were assured that once all the bugs had been worked out in the new park and it started generating income that Beastly Kingdom was part of Phase II and would be built and open by 2003.

To fill the empty space and provide some additional activities for the guests, Eisner, recalling how Mickey's Birthdayland was conceived and built in only 90 days, approved the building of Camp Minnie-Mickey, where guests could meet costumed characters. In addition, the quickest and least expensive thing to add to a location was entertainment, so two temporary shows, Legend of the Lion King and Pocahontas and her Forest Friends were installed. However, after the opening of Animal Kingdom financial reports indicated that attendance would not grow significantly enough to justify the expense of the Beastly Kingdom's construction.

The real irony here is that one of the only reasons Disney's Animal Kingdom ever got built was that way back in 1993, guests who were surveyed about ideas for a fourth Walt Disney World theme park responded strongly to the idea of being able to see unicorns and dragons. In fact, you will probably see a real unicorn or dragon before you see Beastly Kingdom.

But at least now, with Pandora – The World of Avatar, you can see banshees.

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Animal Kingdom Turns 5!

Lost Projects

Other features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives.

Jim Korkis


Disney Historian and regular AllEars® Columnist Jim Korkis has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, Korkis has used his skills and historical knowledge with Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of several books, including his newest, Secret Stories of Disneyland, available in both paperback and Kindle versions.


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.