When the Walt Disney Company announced their intentions in the mid-1990s to build a zoological-based theme park as its fourth gate at Walt Disney World, I must admit I was sufficiently underwhelmed. It wasn't exactly an original idea. Busch Gardens Dark Continent was just a hop, skip and a jump down I-4. But I kept a good thought nonetheless.
When I first visited the newly opened Disney's Animal Kingdom in the fall of 1998, my disappointment was tangible. While lushly landscaped and exquisitely themed, it remained sadly insubstantial in many ways. The Asia area was still months away from completion and the Beastly Kingdom had fallen tragically under the budget ax of a very short sighted Michael Eisner.
Years passed, and like the denizens it represents, Disney's Animal Kingdom has evolved and grown into now what I consider to be one of the shining gems of Disney theme parks. Some of my initial problems with DAK were my own decidedly misguided perceptions and expectations. It is truly a very non-traditional park that is ill served by the high speed touring plans and the uber stimulation that guests typically associate with Disney theme park experiences. E-Tickets like Expedition Everest and Dinosaur not withstanding, the central tenants of DAK are exploration and discovery. It is a place that requires a slower, more deliberate pace, for so many of its treasures are subtle in both their designs and execution. Faux-history and story permeate nearly every corner of the park, from the history and culture of Harambe, to the more light-hearted yet equally entertaining backstory of Dinoland USA.
Nearly a decade ago I found myself rushing quickly from Kilimanjaro Safaris to Countdown to Extinction to Festival of the Lion King, with little heed of the many less celebrated but still equally worthwhile features of the park. Typically by mid afternoon, my family and I were on our way to adventures in EPCOT, the Studios or the Magic Kingdom. Today I linger in places like the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail and the Maharajah Jungle Trek. I relish rather than dread a thirty minute wait for Expedition Everest so to better enjoy a true masterpiece of queue area design. I walk the Cretaceous Trail and then later note the antics of the Dino Institute interns within the walls of Restaurantosaurus. Even the much maligned Chester and Hester and their Dino-Rama tell a story both humorous and fascinating. Every visit can be an amazing journey requiring only a gentler pace and a more eager eye.
Its been a wonderful ten years of exploration. I personally look forward to a future filled with more adventure and discovery. Jambo!