When you think of Disney parks and Walt Disney, you probably go right to Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, or Epcot. Which makes sense because those are the parks that Walt spoke directly about and developed ideas and plans for. For a newer and very unique Disney park like Animal Kingdom, it might be hard to see on the surface where Walt’s influence is. But it turns out his philosophy and influence are all over the park!
Of course you can’t have an Animal Kingdom without animals, but having real live animals in a Disney theme park is something that Walt Disney wanted to do from the beginning of Disneyland. During the development of the Jungle Cruise, an opening day Disneyland attraction, Walt wanted guests to be able to see the majesty of real animals in person on the attraction. But they quickly determined that in order to have a consistent ride experience for guests, animatronics would be the more sensible way to go.
Photo credit: Disney
Animal Kingdom is full of trails, exhibits, and animals that lets guests experience being up close to live animals. Even sometimes witness the miracle of life in the animal world! Kilimanjaro Safaris is basically the real, wildlife adventure that Walt wanted to have in his parks. Imagineers have been able to develop techniques to have a consistent ride experience for everyone (like putting food close to the ride vehicle path to attract the animals!) to make one of Walt’s own dreams a reality.
Disney Films In The Park
When Walt was thinking of attractions, specifically dark rides, to develop for Disneyland, he knew that to get guests to have an instant connection to the park, he should use Disney films that guests were familiar with. For instance, the story of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride is based on the Walt Disney film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) and is still an attraction you can still ride today.
Photo credit: Disney
From The Lion King, A Bug’s Life, to Up, Imagineers know that guests will already have a relationship with the characters and story from loving the movies they’re based on. UP! A Great Bird Adventure recently replaced the longtime bird-behavior show, Flights of Wonder. The show still focuses on natural behaviors of birds, but offers a fun Up spin featuring Russel and Dug, that might entice younger guests to watch the show!
The Disney philosophy in developing anything, from an attraction to a quick service location, all starts with the story. And Animal Kingdom really goes to infinity and beyond! One of my favorites is the backstory of Harambe Village. It’s a coastal town that was once occupied by European settlers. But after a peaceful revolution, the village is now run by the people of Harambe, who have maintained its important status as an East African port village. You can even find the remains of a fort wall embedded in the pavement of the land!
Fort wall remnants in Harambe. Photo credit: WDW Info
Walt envisioned Main Street U.S.A. as the opening curtain, or preamble to Disneyland. The Oasis acts as the Main Street of Animal Kingdom, but instead of buildings, windows, and shops, you encounter animal exhibits, foliage, and paw prints in the pavement. But the Oasis still takes you out of Central Florida and immerses you into a whole new adventure.
At the edge of the Oasis, you’ll reach the Tree of Life, Animal Kingdom’s park icon. Much like Cinderella Castle, this central focus point (what Walt would call a “weenie”) draws guests in to the hub. The hub was a new way to layout an amusement park when Walt was developing Disneyland, and that concept is still used in newer Disney parks like Animal Kingdom.
“Keep Moving Forward”
Above all, one of the most prominent ways you can see Walt Disney in Animal Kingdom, is in his famous philosophy of “keep moving forward.” Central to this idea is not dwelling on the past and going down new paths, leading to things that are better than before.
For instance, Pandora: The World of Avatar, was a land that many Disney purists (myself included) were skeptical about how it would tie in to the park. And also that it would be replacing the area that housed Camp Minnie-Mickey. When Pandora opened in 2017 it was clear that it was not only as immersive as any other Disney land, but that it fit in with Animal Kingdom perfectly with themes of biodiversity and conservation.
Walt Disney in 1964 on the shores of Disneyland's Jungle Cruise. Photo credit: Disney
So, even though Walt Disney himself was never able to develop Animal Kingdom directly, his legacy lives on in many ways throughout the park!