Disney's Animal Kingdom opened 24 years ago today on Earth Day

As we celebrate this Earth Day, FOX 35 is taking a look back at the history of Disney’s Animal Kingdom — which opened 24 years ago today. The park has become a fan favorite through the years thanks to popular 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 22, 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.

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.

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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.

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)

Fast forward to 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.

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.

finding nemo musical

Photo from Disney

In January 2007, ‘Finding Nemo — The Musical’ opened at the ‘Theater in the Wild’ venue inside DinoLand U.S.A. The show has been reimagined for 2022 as "Finding Nemo: The Big Blue… and Beyond!" On Friday, Disney announced the fully updated, 25-minute show will debut in summer 2022.

Another new show ‘Disney KiteTails’ debuted in October during Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration. The show has performers flying wind catchers and kites in a gala performance set to original 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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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 22, 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)

walt disney world expedition everest animal kingdom

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.

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.

Pandora – The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., opened in 2017. (Photo from Walt Disney World)

The dramatic daytime beauty of the land transforms to glow by night when bioluminescent flora and intricate nighttime experiences add a dreamlike quality to Pandora - The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Pandora brings a variety of experie

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.

Animal Kingdom milestone 24th birthday comes during Disney's 50th anniversary celebration which is going on now throughout all of the parks.