Disney World History: Animal Kingdom and its fan-favorite attractions

As we approach the start of the Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration, dubbed ‘The World’s Most Magical Celebration,’ we are taking a look back at the history of Disney’s Animal Kingdom — a park that includes many fan-favorite attractions like ‘Expedition Everest,’ ‘DINOSAUR,’ and ‘Avatar Flight of Passage.’

Plans for Disney’s Animal Kingdom were announced on June 20th, 1995. Disney said that a core team of seven Walt Disney Imagineers traveled the globe in search of the essential look of life in the wild. The team traveled more than 500,000 miles, which is equal to circling the globe 20 times.

Ground reportedly broke for the park on August 4th, 1995. It then officially opened to the public on April 22nd, 1998, which was Earth Day. It was at this point that Animal Kingdom became the final of Walt Disney World’s four theme parks and it was its largest one yet.

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1998: Special edition Adventurer's Guide and an opening day guide map (Photos from Walt Disney World)

Disney said that the park, which spans over 500 acres, is now home to about 2,000 animals, representing 300 species. It is broken into five major lands: ‘Africa,’ ‘Asia,’ ‘DinoLand U.S.A,’ ‘Discovery Island,’ and ‘Pandora — The World of Avatar.’ There are also more than four million trees, plants, shrubs, vines, grasses, and ferns planted. 3,000 plant species, including ones from every continent except Antarctica, are represented.

At the heart of it all is the ‘Tree of Life,’ which Disney said features more than 300 carved animal images. Ten artists and three Imagineers worked full-time for 18 months to create the carvings. Once started, sculptors had between six and ten hours to create the finished image before the plaster hardened. On top, there are more than 103,000 transparent, five-shades-of-green, leaves.

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Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom (Photo from Walt Disney World)

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The ‘Africa’ land included the attraction ‘Kilimanjaro Safaris’ upon opening in 1998. Disney said that the attraction encompasses about 100 acres of the 500-acre park. To build the ride’s path, the Walt Disney Imagineering design team matched concrete with the surrounding soil, then rolled tires through it, and tossed stones, dirt, and twigs into it. This created a bumpy experience, replicating a remote African road.

Throughout the safari, guests see animals like rhinos, elephants, giraffes, antelopes, lions, crocodiles, and more. Walt Disney was said to be a lover of animals since he was a young child. When he was four, his family moved from Chicago to a farm in Missouri. He helped take care of farm animals there and learned how to draw many of them.

Miles the giraffe was said to be the first animal to arrive at Animal Kingdom. As the park took in more animals, some started to be born there. Disney said that the first animal born at the park was a kudu, which is a large African antelope, on October 5th, 1996. Then, on November 4th, 1997, a gorilla gave birth to a male named Jabari.

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Gorillas at Kilimanjaro Safaris (Photo from Walt Disney World)

Coming to the present day, Animal Kingdom has become one of the leading zoo hospitals in North America. Disney said that they have an emphasis on advanced imaging, digital radiology, ultrasound, and endoscopy. They are also one of only two animal hospitals in U.S. zoos that has computed tomography (CT) scanners on the premises. This increases the staff’s ability to quickly diagnose and treat animals.

The Disney Conservation Fund has also reportedly raised more than $70 million for 600 nonprofit organizations working to reverse the decline of wildlife across the globe since 1995.

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Meanwhile, at ‘DinoLand U.S.A,’ Disney explored species of prehistoric times. There are several attractions for guests to enjoy, including both shows and rides. The fan-favorite for many is ‘DINOSAUR,’ a thrilling attraction that takes guests back 65 million years to visit dinosaurs like the Alioramus, Carnotaurus, and more.

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DINOSAUR (Photo from Walt Disney World)

In January 2007, ‘Finding Nemo — The Musical’ opened at the ‘Theater in the Wild’ venue inside DinoLand U.S.A. Disney announced earlier this month that the show would be reimagined, featuring many of the same characters from the animated film, ‘Finding Nemo.’ The updated show will debut in 2022.

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Photo from Disney

Another new show coming to Animal Kingdom is 'Disney KiteTails,’ located at the Discovery River Amphitheater near DinoLand U.S.A. It will debut on October 1st, which is the first day of Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Several times a day, Disney said that performers will fly wind catchers and kites in a gala performance set to original, worldbeat arrangements of favorite Disney songs. The show features colorful oversized props and kites. Some moments even take place over water, as kites up to 30-feet-long of Disney’s animal friends fly.

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"Disney KiteTails" coming to Animal Kingdom (Disney)

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In March 1999, ‘Asia’ debuted at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The area includes attractions like the Kali River Rapids, the Maharajah Jungle Trek, and the introduction of tigers and other new animal species. However, there was one attraction that would open several years later that became fundamental to the park: ‘Expedition Everest.’

Plans for Expedition Everest were announced on April 22nd, 2003. Disney said that Imagineers went to great lengths to create an attraction rich in storytelling, authenticity, and detail. They even traveled to Nepal to research the region’s architecture and culture. It was not until April 7th, 2006, that the ride officially opened.

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Expedition Everest (Photo from Walt Disney World)

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Expedition Everest (Photo from Walt Disney World)

Towering at nearly 200 feet tall and occupying a 6.2-acre site, Disney said that riders are taken on a race through the Himalayan mountains on a speeding train before encountering a twisted piece of track and a massive yeti. This is just one of 18 mountain attractions across Disney parks worldwide.

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In December 2000, ‘Safari Village’ at Animal Kingdom was renamed ‘Discovery Island,’ Disney said. The area includes ‘The Tree of Life’ and ‘The Tree of Life Theater,’ which features the ‘It’s Tough to be a Bug’ 3D and special-effects show. There are also gifts and food emporiums for park guests to enjoy.

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The last of the lands, ‘Pandora — The World at Avatar,’ opened on May 27th, 2017. Inspired by the film ‘Avatar,’ the land brings park guests to Pandora. There are massive floating mountains and bioluminescent rainforests to observe. Disney said that the 22 mountains created peak at about 130 feet above the valley floor. A team of over 60 artisans contributed to their development.

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Pandora -- The World of Avatar (Photo from Walt Disney World)

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Pandora -- The World of Avatar (Photo from Walt Disney World)

Inside Pandora, there are two attractions to enjoy: the ‘Avatar Flight of Passage’ and the ‘Na’vi River Journey.’ The first of the rides palces guests on the back of a mountain banshee on a 3D adventure. The latter attraction brings riders deep into a bioluminescent rainforest to see the Na’vi Shaman of Songs on the Na’vi River.

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During The World’s Most Magical Celebration, which kicks off on October 1st and will go for 18 months as new experiences debut across the entire Florida resort, several changes will be observed at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

As mentioned before, the Disney KiteTails show will debut on day one of the festivities. Then, in 2022, the reimagined ‘Finding Nemo — The Musical’ will begin. And during the entire celebration, nighttime lightning enhancements will hit the iconic ‘Tree of Life,’ making it seem as if fireflies are inhabiting it.

For everything you need to know about the upcoming festivities, check out ‘What to expect during Disney World's 50th anniversary celebration’ by FOX 35. We will also air specials on Disney’s past and future at 7:30 p.m. on both Wednesday and Thursday. Be sure to tune in.

Watch FOX 35 Orlando for what’s to come during Disney’s 50th anniversary celebration.