Thursday, May 23, 2024

What I Want From An Animal Kingdom Renovation


I like Animal Kingdom, I really do.  But it is currently the park that needs the most work.  I am always an advocate for visiting all four parks on your Disney World vacation, but if you really had to skip one, my easy recommendation would be Animal Kingdom.  And that pains me! But it's the truth.

Walt Disney World usually does their renovations in cycles, so there's almost always one park that is in need of some love while the others are operating at peak efficiency (or close to it).  In the pre-Toy Story Land days, that park was Hollywood Studios.  In recent years, it has been Epcot, though that park at least managed to remain a fun, full day park, even if you had to walk all the way around the construction walls to get there.

Animal Kingdom now occupies that spot. But there's good news on that front, as work looks like it's finally beginning on the transformation of Dinoland into Tropical Americas.  The renovation of Dinoland has been rumored for years - we even wrote a post about what we would want to see there. But in the last couple of years, some actual plans have formulated, most recently in last year's D23 announcement, which appears to be progressing based on some recent permits that have been filed.  

So while we're still far away from actually seeing what the Imagineers can come up with, we at least are on the right track to getting Animal Kingdom back to respectability.  Tropical Americas is the only major change coming (if you don't count a Zootopia show replacing It's Tough to Be a Bug in the Tree of Life, though that's also a net positive) but that doesn't mean that more shouldn't be done.

In this post, I wanted to talk about some things that I personally would like to see in an Animal Kingdom overhaul.  I'm writing this from the perspective that Tropical Americas is a go, so I'm not going to throw out random "fun" ideas on how to improve the park.  Instead I'm going to assume that the rumors we've heard have been (largely) true, and that these suggestions would fit with the plans as they currently exist.  So let's start with one that is pretty close to a guarantee:

Replace Dinosaur with Indiana Jones Adventure

Whether this is something that I want more than any other option is irrelevant, as this seems like the most likely solution.  The reason this works is that the two rides (Indiana Jones is at Disneyland in California) operate on very similar ride systems.  Indiana Jones Adventure might not be the newest, shiniest ride, but it's a modern classic for a reason.

I actually like Dinosaur, as I'm on the record here saying.  I think it's kitschy fun, even if it's not as good as it probably should be, and is definitely looking dated.  But Indiana Jones is objectively a superior attraction, so that automatically makes this an upgrade.  Plus it would be a clone of an existing ride in the infrastructure of a similar ride.  There's really no reason NOT to do it.  Dinosaur is currently the top attraction in Dinoland, but that doesn't mean Indiana Jones has be the top dog when it replaces it.  In fact, using a clone of this ride should save some money, leading to ...

Put a New E-Ticket Attraction in Tropical Americas

Assuming the other "half" of Tropical Americas is going to be Encanto related, this is where I would look for a new top tier ride.  I don't know that I even have a great suggestion on what that should be, though some kind of ride through the Madrigals' casita would be the obvious choice.  Encanto is hugely popular and I think this land needs something more than Indiana Jones to draw people in.  Indy can be the Millennium Falcon Smugglers Run of this land, while whatever ride goes here should be the Rise of the Resistance.  This automatically elevates the area - taking the top ride and turning into the secondary ride means that the new top ride should be even better.

Perhaps the more relevant comparison in this case is that Indy should be the Na'vi River Journey of this area, while Encanto should be the Avatar Flight of Passage.  This brings up something important about this new renovation - Animal Kingdom needs a bona fide competitor to Flight of Passage for "best ride in the park" status.  The last major renovation at Animal Kingdom was the construction of Pandora, which led to record crowds at the park and a rejuvenated interest in the rest of the parks' offerings.  Pandora should be the blueprint here - at least two rides, one of which should be a cutting edge attractio that will be a draw unto itself.

Flight of Passage is so clearly the best ride in this park that I'm not even sure what the second best one would be.  That's where Encanto comes in.  Even if subjectively it's not "better", there should at least be a discussion.  A side effect of that might be to shift Flight of Passage to the Genie+ service (thus making it actually useful) while the shiny new ride would be Individual Lightning Lane and virtual queue only.  Get people talking about this park again.

Put in a new Table Service Restaurant 

Animal Kingdom actually has a pretty decent quick service selection, including Sa'Tuli Canteen in Pandora, and Flame Tree Barbecue on Discovery Island.  There's even a quick service restaurant in Dinoland, Restaurantasaurus.  But I can't say I've ever actually eaten there and it often seems like a ghost town (like much of Dinoland in general).

But when it comes to table service restaurants, Animal Kingdom is decidedly lacking.  There are really only four of them - Tiffins (which can be expensive and off-putting), Yak & Yeti (nice, but not spectacular), Rainforest Cafe (kitschy and kind of fun for kids) and Tusker House (a character meal, and by design expensive and niche).

Obviously something will go in Tropical Americas, but it makes more sense to me for it to be a table service restaurant rather than another quick service place.  This can lean into Mexican and Central American cuisine, and could be something wholly unique and interesting for this park.  I for one am looking for a "go to" restaurant in Animal Kingdom; with the park being so isolated from the surrounding resorts, they really need something that can stand out here and be of interest to all groups of guests.

Extend Park Hours, Especially at Night

Animal Kingdom tends to open before any of the other parks, often by 8:00 for regular guests.  But it also closes earlier - by far - than any of the other parks.  While Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios don't close until 9:00 at the earliest, Animal Kingdom is often closed by 6:00 or 7:00.  I suspect this is because it is currently the least popular park, and therefore doesn't have the demand to be open late and Disney can avoid paying staff later into the night.

By renovating Dinoland, this problem will likely solve itself.  But Animal Kingdom definitely needs to be open later.  Closing at 6:00 almost effectively eliminates the table service dinner; staying open to 9:00 brings that back in, which would fit well with this new restaurant we're creating in Tropical Americas.  It also allows the park to be seen once the sun goes down, which is always the most pleasant time to visit any park and really shows Pandora and the Tree of Life in all of their glory.  It's a chicken and egg situation - guests staying longer will prompt Disney to keep the park open later, and more attractions will get guests to stay later.

Create a New Nighttime Spectacular

This is another benefit of having the park stay open after dark - a nighttime show.  Ever since Rivers of Light closed in March of 2020 (along with everything else for Covid), the Discovery River lagoon has been missing something.  Kite Tails was a short-lived production that took place there, but it was only a daytime show.  

Whatever you thought of Rivers of Light (and based on the fact that the show was tweaked a few times in its three year run), having a nighttime show at all is a big plus for any park.  Nighttime spectaculars are the bread and butter of a Disney vacation, and often leave the last memory you have when walking out of a park at the end of a long day.

There really isn't a non-financial reason why there hasn't been a nighttime show at Animal Kingdom in four years.  As I understand it, there are very specific guidelines for shows at this park, due to not wanting to spook the animals (which I fully support).  But I trust Imagineering to come up with something within those guidelines that will make everyone happy at the end of the day.  I've said numerous times in the past that a show like World of Color, based on lights, music and water projections, would be the perfect fit for this park.

There are probably more that I'm not thinking of right now, but the above list all basically tie together.  Tropical Americas is the first domino (and a big one) but that should present more opportunities to do what Disney does best - entertain and amaze.  Animal Kingdom is in real need of help but if done right, this park will be back to getting a lot of buzz and having people plan vacations around the new land.

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