Nightwatcher's Patrol #27: Beastly Kingdom

Remnants of Disney's Broken Promise
January 11, 2021

We used to go on an annual trip to Walt Disney World for a week in May (four years in a row, not trying to boast) and I love all the parks, however, I would find out something about one of the parks one day that would somewhat throw me. It seems that the Animal Kingdom park is hiding a secret who's clues are right out in the open, clues that tell of a lost kingdom that we may, sadly, never get to see. Some people know of this secret, others may not. This is my telling of the story and a tour of the remnants of what may have been. Okay, it's something about the park that has been bugging me and I wanted to get it off my chest, so I figured what better way than via a Retrojunk article. Why talk about this on Retrojunk? Because this goes back to the very beginning of Animal Kingdom's story which can be traced back to the late 1980's, so yes, it counts as retro. Just bare with me here.

The story of Animal Kingdom began back in 1989 when Disney executives began planning a new park shortly after the opening of Disney/MGM Studios (now Disney's Hollywood Studios and yes, it really was that long ago). Imagineer Joe Rohde, who had previously designed the Adventerers Club at Pleasure Island, was the one who was responsible for the idea of an animal/nature themed park.

Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde

Infact, get this, he actually brought a live 400-pound Bengal tiger with him to the pitch meeting! Probably not the safest thing to bring along but Michael Eisner, Disney CEO at the time, seemed to get the message (like he had a choice) and construction began in 1995 under the name "Disney's Wild Animal Kingdom" with imagineers traveling to Africa and Asia to make sure that every little detail was just right (you know, a usual day at the office for them * wink, wink *). The park's animals were aquired by Fall of 1997 and staff from 69 zoos around the United States were hired to care for them. The park first opened on April 22nd, 1998 and there was even a promotional tie in with the Mc Donald's Happy Meal.

A friendly word of advice Ronald, putting ten inch nails in the slide may not be the safest idea, but I digress. Notice a mythical animal in the Happy Meal?

Yep, that looks like a dragon alright. And he's hanging out with my Sorcerer Mickey figure from Disney Infinity to boot. Nice! And what's that I smell? Could it be...a McRib?!

Man, I love the McRib, it's delicious, now if only they would make it a permanent menu item. Kind of sorry that I missed that breakfast sandwich though, it looked pretty good too. And here's one more to go (as it were)

I still have one of those cups in storage somewhere. They were pretty cool but the Happy Meal the toys had them beat. Notice the dragon on the cover of the story book in this advertisement though. And just to add insult to injury...

Check out this Happy Meal box from the promotion. See anything mythical? That's right, the dragon makes appearances on both panels. He is the top carving on the Tree of Life on the left and is also a removable book mark on the right...which is kind of a fitting use for a dragon actually.

Now you're probably wondering where Beastly Kingdom fits into this little history lesson, well it's quite simple, you see Animal Kingdom consists of five main sections, four of which were completed when the park first opened: Discovery Island which is home to the park's main icon the Tree of Life...

Beautiful, isn't it?

The other three being dedicated to Africa, Asia and pre-history (DinoLand U.S.A.) which is home to my favorite ride in the park, Dinosaur. Originally called Countdown to Extinction, the first version of the ride was to be themed for the Rite of Spring segment from Fantasia but was later updated to include elements from the 2000 flop, Dinosaur...yeah. This included swapping out the Tyrannosaurus from Fantasia with the Carnotaurus from Dinosaur and let me tell you, that thing is terrifying!

The last main section went as "Camp Mini-Mickey", a rustic type summer camp that acted as a place holder for the originally intended section that never came to be, and this is where we come to the main subject of this article (sorry it took so long). When Animal Kingdom was originally conceived it was supposed to focus on three classifications of animals: those that exist today, those that used to exist but are now extinct (in this case dinosaurs) and those that only exist in the realm of fantasy. Unfortunately the fantasy section, to have been called Beastly Kingdom, was put off for a while due mostly to high costs of caring for the live animals, and the park had to open without it. Officially opened in May 2017 the section is still dedicated to fantasy, just not in the way that imagineers had originally intended, although it does fit the park's aesthetic. It's now Pandora - The World of Avatar, based on James Cameron's blockbuster movie from 2009.

Beastly Kingdom was to have two distinct sides, evil and good, each one dominated by the home of it's resident ruler; evil by Dragon Tower and good by Unicorn Grotto. Dragon Tower, home of the dragon that was seen in the Happy Meal, would have been the park's main thrill ride in which guests would ride in a rail car through the tower, all the while being lead by a flock of talking bats, as they went up against the greedy dragon in an attempt to get his treasure. Interesting fact: had the Dragon Tower ride been built it would have been Disney's first inverted roller coaster. WOAH!

Unicorn Grotto would have been home to Quest of the Unicorn, a labyrinth like adventure in which guests would go up against creatures of myth and legend with the goal being to find the grotto where the unicorn lives. The good side would also have had a musical boat ride called Fantasia Gardens where guests would be taken on a journey through some of the mythical animal scenes, namely "Dance of the Hours" and "The Pastoral Symphony" from the 1940 movie of the same name. Yeah, sorry, no "Sorcerer's Apprentice" or "A Night On Bald Mountain". Still sounds good to me though * hint, hint *.

An early concept image of Beastly Kingdom with the evil side dominated by Dragon Tower on the left and the good side center and on the right

This is an early concept picture of the Dragon Tower Ride showing the guests nearly getting barbecued by the dragon. I'll be honest, it looks like it would have been fun. And then there's this...

This cool concept picture of the dragon found it's way onto a collectible pin. You want one now, don't you? Well I might be able to help with that. I literally just now found out about this while researching for this article and according to sources these were made exclusively for imagineers when the park first opened. Only 300 of them were made and the exact number that have been kept by imagineers (and/or former imagineers) since then is unknown. Because of this the pin is considered extremely rare and that (usually) puts a hefty price tag on it. I just found one on Ebay for $34.99 but I figure that's generously low considering it's rarity. Here's what it says on the back:

WaltDisney Imagineering
Imagineer Exclusive

Go ahead and take a look there for yourselves, or on Amazon or Etsy or any other shopping site you can think of where people may be selling Disney park pins. I've also seen a similar concept art pin of the Yeti from Expedition Everest. Who knows, maybe you will luck out too. Now here are some concept images from the good side.

Unicorn Grotto looks like it would have been quite beautiful and it would have been cool to ride a boat through scenes from my favorite Disney movie (Fantasia, see my article for it). Sadly, it would seem that a meeting with a unicorn was not meant to be. Now that the sad part is over, it's time to get even sadder. You may be wondering whether anything is left of this lost kingdom, seeing as how Disney probably couldn't have covered it up completely, and can any of it still be viewed today? Well yes...and no. There are still remnants but not all of them are still visible. Here's a quick run down of some of these "ruins" as it were, and where they can be seen (or not) throughout the park.

Unicorn in the parking lot
Status: still visible

A lot of you who have visited Animal Kingdom have probably seen this area marker in the parking lot and stood there scratching your heads wondering to yourselves, "a unicorn? why a unicorn?". Well consider yourselves officially educated now. It should be noted that this little landmark has also gotten it's own pin which is part of a set that's themed for the parking lot area markers. This one is more common than the dragon pin seen above having been made available to the general public and so it should be easier to find and should also, therefore, be much cheaper.

I may just try to nab one of these little beauties for my collection too

Dragons and a Pegasus at the main entrance
Status: still visible

Not only does the main logo still show the dragon marching with the other animals, but a large effigy of his head still adorns the main entryway. And are those carvings of a Pegasus and dragon on the entryway too? Now for the remnants that can no longer be seen in the park.

A unicorn and a dragon on the river
Status: The unicorn is safe now
The dragon is no longer visible

Both of these were once part of the river boat ride along the rear perimeter of the park. The unicorn once stood on a rock near what would have been the boarder line between the good and evil sides of Beastly Kingdom. At one point it was removed from it's coveted perch and scheduled to be destroyed (what a surprise) but thankfully it was saved by a now former imagineer and currently resides in his garden at home (and we all breath a collective sigh of releaf!). As an added bonus he likes to decorate our equestrian friend for different seasons and occasions.

"Dragon Rock" and the dragon's cave are still along the river which is now closed to guests and are overgrown nowadays, which is just the same since the building that houses the dark ride in Pandora blocks any view of the river. During boat rides the tour guides would warn guests to watch out for the dragon just as they passed the cave and his "fire breath" would suddenly erupt from it. The flame effect was later turned off eliminating the illusion (and the whole point of the cave). Sadly, this was the closest we ever came to facing off with the dragon.

There is one more beastly remnant that I have heard of but never seen and can't find pictures of either. I have heard that there are still garbage can covers throughout the park that have little dragon skulls on them, I just wish I could prove it. Oh well.

When all is said and done only one question remains: There were drawn out plans for Beastly Kingdom, right? So what ever happened to them? Okay, that's a double question, but it's an interesting one, although you may not like the answer. First of all, yes, there were drawn out plans for it. Secondly, according to word from the inside (or as we on the outside like to call it, rumor), one of the imagineers who worked on the park became angry after finding out that Beastly Kingdom wasn't going to happen despite all the hard work that was going into it. He then got a hold of the plans and left Disney with them. He was later hired by Universal and gave them the Beastly Kingdom plans (the traitorous weasel!). Soon afterwards the Islands of Adventure had a new fantasy/fairytale themed area complete with a roller coaster called Dueling Dragons.

It's resemblance to Disney's forgotten dragon dream was uncanny and undeniable. Thankfully it was replaced more recently by a Harry Potter ride...unless you consider that the franchise involves dragons-DAMMIT, UNIVERSAL!!

*takes long, deep breath*

Sorry about that little out burst. Don't get me wrong, I like both Disney and Universal, I just got frustrated for a second there. Anyway, that's about all there is to say about Beastly Kingdom. It's ashame that this fantasy realm within Animal Kingdom never came to be. As a dragon fan, which I'm sure is obvious by now, I'm kind of disappointed that I never got to face one at Disney World, and at this point it looks I probably never will. I also want to make it clear that this article is in no way intended to be a suggestion to visit the theme parks. I know these places are hurting right now and it's tempting because you want to get out and do something, but despite the two vaccines that are being administered, as of this writing I have recieved my first dose, we're still not out of the woods with this pandemic yet so I wouldn't recommend visiting any theme park at this time. To many people in one place right now. Just, please, don't do it. Until I get another inspiration for an article retrojunkers, thanks for hanging out with me again and for staying on the ride this long.
*wink!* Keep the magic (and nostalgia) strong. Nightwatcher out.
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