From the iconic Tree of Life to the outer reaches of Pandora, Disney’s Animal Kingdom located in Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida will be celebrating its 25th Anniversary on Earth Day, April 22, 2023.
Though the Animal Kingdom has evolved and changed drastically during its first 25 years, it continues to be dedicated to the exploration and conservation of cultures and animal species – both real and fantastical.
The Animal Kingdom’s grand opening, in 1998, marked Disney’s newest and fourth theme park at Walt Disney World. It is Disney’s largest theme park in Florida and one of the largest in the world by area. More importantly it was a completely new thematic departure from any Disney theme park built to-date around the world.
What Is Earth Day?
Earth Day is a day designed to promote environmental protection and sustainability, celebrated annually on April 22nd. It is a global event that brings together millions of people around the world, from all backgrounds and cultures, to promote environmental awareness and action.
The first Earth Day was April 22nd, 1970, marked as part of a larger environmental movement that had been gaining momentum prior to that day. Since then, it has grown to become an annual event celebrated in more than 193 countries each year. Since 1970, Earth Day has grown to become a global movement with more than one billion people participating in focused activities and events each year.
These activities and events can range from Earth Day-themed events and festivals to clean-up projects, educational activities, and more. Earth Day serves as a reminder of the importance of protecting our planet and encourages individuals to take personal actions to reduce their environmental impact.
Each year, communities around the world come together to celebrate and promote environmental awareness and conservation. Here are five suggestions on how to get involved with Earth Day activities in your community:
- Participate in a local clean-up event
- Plant a tree -planting a tree can help reduce your carbon footprint and provide a lasting impact
- Make your home less toxic and energy-efficient
- Host an Earth Day event
- Educate yourself and others. Learn more about environmental issues and share your knowledge with your community
History of Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Disney’s Animal Kingdom is one of the most popular theme parks in the world, and it holds a special place in the hearts of Disney fans. Originally opened in 1998 on Earth Day, the park has seen a variety of changes and additions to its attractions and landscaping in the decades since.
Animal Kingdom’s First Decade
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park fittingly opened on Earth Day in 1998 in Walt Disney World, near Orlando, Florida. At just under 600 acres in size, it is the largest of the four theme parks at the Walt Disney World Resort and the largest animal-themed park in the world hosting over 7 million Guests per year. The park features more than 1,700 species of animals, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, as well as over 6,700 plants, trees and shrubs.
The park also features attractions, shows, and experiences that celebrate the beauty of nature and the connection between animals and humans. In addition, Animal Kingdom is home to the Tree of Life, the iconic centerpiece of the park.
“Conservation isn’t just the business of a few people. It’s a matter that concerns all of us.” – Walt Disney
Since its inception, Disney’s Animal Kingdom has been an ardent practitioner of conservation and preservation efforts. For example, when the park opened in 1998, it was the first major theme park to feature a dedicated Conservation Station, where park guests can learn about the issues that affect the world’s endangered species, and how they can help.
Dating back to the 1950’s, Disney has a parallel – and often unknown – history of their commitment to preserving the environment and the animals living their fragile ecosystems. In 1995 Disney created the Disney Conservation Fund, a philanthropic initiative to aid in saving wildlife and inspire action and protecting the planet’s natural resources and animal species.
Walt Disney World is also a major participant in the Disney Conservation Fund, which has generated more than $50 million for the preservation of habitats and species worldwide. These accomplishments are a testament to Disney’s commitment to conservation and preservation and its role in preserving the animal kingdom for future generations.
At Walt Disney World’s inception, back in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, preservation and utilizing unique environmental practices were a guiding principle that has been enhanced and increased over the years.
From the early use of vegetation to filter the water system at WDW, to major on-property recycling efforts to reduce Walt Disney World’s own landfill waste – to the creation and use of property wide reclaimed water system – Disney’s commitment to responsible environmental practices is Guest-facing an integrated into the narrative and overarching theme at the Animal Kingdom.
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Disney’s Animal Kingdom has become a popular destination for Guests visiting Walt Disney World due to its wide variety of attractions and unique cultural experiences. The park has attractions that feature live and Disney-created animals set in immersive rides and shows that demonstrate the beauty of Earth’s animal kingdom.
It also has a variety of shows and dining experiences, as well as classic Disney attractions like the iconic Tree of Life. Disney’s Animal Kingdom has something for everyone, making it one of the most popular theme parks in the world.
From the Tusker House Restaurant in Africa to the Yak and Yeti in Asia, and the Rainforest Cafe just outside the park’s entry gates, Guests can enjoyed a variety of international cuisines and cultural experiences during the park’s early years.
Additionally, the park offers a variety of specialty highly themed shops located throughout, including the Island Mercantile near the Tree of Life, and the Outpost gift shop at the entrance of the park.
The park boasted several different themed ‘lands’ during its first decade including:
- The Oasis – the entry area to the theme park
- Camp Minnie-Mickey
- Dinoland U.S.A. boasting the Countdown to Extinction attraction
- Discovery Island with the Tree of Life and Safari Village
- Africa with Harambe Village andKilimanjaro Safaris
- Conservation Station accessible only by the Wildlife Express Train
- Asia with the Maharajah Jungle Trek and Kali River Rapids
In 2001, Walt Disney Imagineers and Architect Peter Dominick – of Disney’s Wilderness Lodge fame – created Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. The Lodge is an African-themed deluxe resort anchoring a new Animal Kingdom Resort area of Walt Disney World. Later, in 2006, Disney expanded the Lodge to include a Disney Vacation Club offering, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas.
Though never fully realized, Animal Kingdom was designed to have another separate ‘land’ – known as the Beastly Kingdom – to highlight and display animals from mythology and other realms of fantasy.
Due to cost overruns, it was decided by then CEO Michael Eisner to cut this themed area and in its place Dinoland U.S.A. was built. If you still have in your possession early pre-opening or year-one Animal Kingdom merchandise, you may see a dragon that implied the intended Beastly Kingdom themed land planned for the park.
Animal Kingdom’s Second Act
The later half of Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s 25-year history boasts a decade-plus of great expansion of not only the park’s attractions and shows, but also its operating hours and nighttime events never realized in its early years.
Animal Kingdom’s second half of its 25-year history brought about amazing new attractions and shows including:
- Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain roller coaster
- Countdown to Extinction is re-imagined into the DINOSAUR attraction
- Adventurers Outpost character meet-and-greet area opens on Discovery Island
- Pandora-The World of Avatar new land opens replacing Camp Minnie-Mickey
- The Festival of the Lion King show is relocated within the park to a new theater
- The Rivers of Light nighttime show debuted ushering in extended nighttime park hours
Without doubt, Pandora-The World of Avatar new 12 acre themed area, opened in 2017, was the largest expansion to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Pandora is based on James Cameron’s movie Avatar where Guests can explore a fictitious moon, Pandora. The land features incredible alien landscapes and wildlife based on the story around the Na’vi – the fictitious inhabitants of Pandora.
Pandora features two iconic attractions. The E-ticket attraction being Avatar Flight of Passage and the C-ticket ride is the Na’vi River Journey. The land also includes shops and restaurants. The operational goal of adding the Pandora area is to increase the daily Guest attendance and convert the Animal Kingdom to a full-day Guest experience – many considered the Animal Kingdom a half-day park experience prior to its opening.
The structural engineering marvel taken on by Walt Disney Imagineering and in partnership with its external vendors and design team was nothing short of groundbreaking. Never in global theme park’s history had anyone attempted to ‘float’ mountains 156 feet in the air, as Pandora successfully accomplished.
Pandora also some new firsts for Disney theme parks. Gone were the standard out-and-back queue lines, attraction, retail store, and restaurant marquees that dot the landscape of nearly every theme park, including Disney’s previous parks.
This new land ushered in a new generation of ‘immersive guest experiences’ where the near-full elimination of the outside, real-world. Pandora, like the later Harry Potter and Star Wars themed lands, set the stage for the leveled-up detailing, themeing, and storytelling theme parks can provide.
Animal Kingdom’s Unique Themeing
Bringing the African Savanna and the Jungle to Central Florida
Though hundreds of design professionals brought Disney’s Animal Kingdom to fruition, one cannot go without highlighting one particular Walt Disney Imagineer, Joe Rohde.
Rohde was the lead Creative Executive and design powerhouse behind all things Animal Kingdom specific. Rohde, a Walt Disney Imagineering veteran, joined the company back in 1980 during the design and development of EPCOT Center. Over the years, he tacked on multiple iconic Disney theme park projects such as Disneyland’s re-imagined Fantasyland, Captain E-O 3D film, the Norway pavilion in World Showcase and many more.
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Joe’s contribution to Disney’s Animal Kingdom was not merely lead creative designer, Rohde was park’s gatekeeper and ultimate force behind the narrative the Animal Kingdom is trying to convey. Joe required the detailing of anything built in the Animal Kingdom be true to its original culture – if based on real-world peoples – and true to the fictional storyline of intellectual property such as Avatar and the Lion King.
This enhanced attention to detail embodies the guiding principles of all Walt Disney Imagineering projects, but it was taken to the next level by Rohde at the Animal Kingdom. There, he infused real-world props and items from far away countries with Disney-created architecture and detailing.
One of the first details Guests observe when entering the Animal Kingdom Park is the lush vegetation. Landscaping – or Area Development as we call it in the theme park design business – at a scale never previously seen in a Disney or other theme park. The concrete jungle is replaced with a Disney-created lush, living jungle of a host of plants, trees, and vegetation provided to truly transport Guests to Asia, Africa, and beyond.
It has been noted that Imagineers collected seeds from over 37 countries that were grown as part of the landscaping for the park. Disney planted 40,000 mature trees and moved four million cubic yards of dirt to bring the African Savanna and the lush jungle landscapes to the sub-tropic region of Central Florida. To put it into scale, the Animal Kingdom’s Disney-created African Savanna alone is nearly the size of Disney’s Hollywood Studios – Walt Disney World’s third theme park.
Though not a zoo, the Animal Kingdom originally acquired animals from all over the world for its plethora of animal encounters and Disney hired nearly 70 dedicated zoo staff from around the United States to care for the diverse animal species.
Exquisite Design and Themeing
The architectural detailing at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, from its opening year through today, ushered in a new era and raised the bar even for Walt Disney Imagineering. To say the theming and detailing at the Animal Kingdom – and even its adjacent Animal Kingdom Lodge – is impressive, is an understatement.
The level of detail, the minimum level of acceptable recreation of existing far-away places – both real and fantastical – is incredible. Disney’s Animal Kingdom, from a thematic storytelling through themed entertainment architecture raised the bar globally for top-level theme park design. If you look at the major theme park projects around or post-opening of DAK, it quickly becomes apparent the Guests expectations for the next generation of theme parks has increased dramatically.
From Carsland at Disney’s California Adventure to the Harry Potter lands at Universal Studios and Island of Adventure to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at both Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios; the Animal Kingdom jump started the next-gen of storytelling in highly detailed, truly immersive theme park lands. Theme park Guests have been provided more since the opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom nearly 25-years ago and going forward we will see the themed entertainment and immersive experiences in theme parks further improved upon.