Animal distraction 

Did you hear the blood-curdling howl that came roaring out of Disney's Animal Kingdom earlier this month?

It didn't come from the lions in the park's Africa section or from the tigers in the Asia enclosure. It didn't even come from visitors who'd just learned about the recent $2 ticket price increase.

No, this anguished scream came out of Animal Kingdom's management suites. These suits just learned that -- during a banner year for Disney World, when record numbers of tourists entered the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney/MGM -- attendance at Animal Kingdom actually dropped in 2000 to 8.6 million, or 300,000 fewer than in 1999, according to Amusement Business.

In the nearly three years it's been open, Disney's fourth Orlando park has never met attendance or revenue projections. Despite the 10 years and $800 million spent to develop the park, exit polls of visitors -- many of whom check out by early afternoon -- say they doubt they'll return anytime soon because there's just not enough to do.

This last fact truly infuriates the Imagineers. Since the park opened, they've been pushing to add new rides and shows. But the boys back in Burbank kept postponing construction, confident that Animal Kingdom had an ace up its sleeve with Dinoland U.S.A.'s thrill ride, "Countdown to Extinction."

Though it debuted at the park's opening in April 1998, this wild ride through a prehistoric jungle was actually inspired by "Dinosaur," a Disney animated film that wouldn't open in theaters until May 2000. Management was certain that, once "Dinosaur" opened and became a huge international sensation, guests would flock to Animal Kingdom for a first-hand experience. How certain? On the very day "Dinosaur" opened in theaters nationwide last May, the Mouse changed the name of "Countdown to Extinction" to "Dinosaur: The Ride."

There was only one slight snag in the plan: "Dinosaur" the movie -- which debuts next week on Disney home video and DVD -- was far shy of a monster hit.

This put the Mouse in an awful spot. Why? Because the $150 million budgeted for new rides and shows to the park during its first few years already had been diverted to build a new luxury hotel right next door to Animal Kingdom.

When it opens this April, Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge will be a wonder. This six-story, 1,300-room, African-themed resort wraps around a 33-acre animal paddock. With room rates from $199 to $570 a night, the hotel will give guests the privilege of looking out their window to gaze upon live giraffes, zebras and gazelles. The big question: If Animal Kingdom continues its reputation for not having enough to do, will the hotel become a less desirable place to stay? If so, it could be decades before Disney's newest resort covers its construction costs.

That's why the Mouse has finally -- some might say frantically -- begun adding new attractions to the park. First up this spring is the "Triceratops Spin" ride for Dinoland U.S.A. Early next year, this "Dumbo the Flying Elephant"-style ride will be joined by "Primeval Whirl," a family-style roller coaster.

The Mouse realizes that off-the-shelf carnival rides like these aren't going to get guests excited about coming back to Animal Kingdom. That's why Disney put the word out last month that "Beastly Kingdom" is coming off the drawing board. This long-rumored addition to Animal Kingdom -- a section that celebrates animals that never existed -- could open to the public as early as 2004.

The proposed showcase attraction for this part of the park was to be called "Dragon's Tower," and it would have been Disney's first inverted roller coaster. It's well known in theme-park circles that the Imagineer who designed "Dragon's Tower" was laid off back in the early 1990s. With the idea still in his head, this guy walked out of Imagineering and headed over Universal Studios, which was wrapping up plans for Islands of Adventure at the time. The result is that IOA's Lost Continent section now has an inverted coaster serving as its centerpiece, with a concept, storyline, queue area and theme that certain whispers say were inspired by the Mouse's plans for what would have been the Beastly Kingdom's signature attraction.

What's Disney going to build now instead of "Dragon's Tower"? In an Orlando Sentinel article about the rumored revival of Beastly Kingdom, a Mouse House spokesman hinted that plans were in the works for a new Disney coaster that used a unicorn as its story hook. So, who wants to be the first to tell Disney World executives about "The Flying Unicorn," the family-friendly coaster that Universal added to Islands of Adventure's Lost Continent section last summer?

Given the nearly billion dollars that Disney poured into constructing its Animal Kingdom park and resort hotel, Mickey's not about to give up on its investment. But Mouse management remains puzzled as to why the park -- which their market surveys told them would be a smash hit -- hasn't really caught on with the public. Veteran Imagineers insist the answer is obvious: When you build half a theme park, guests will only want to spend half a day exploring the place. That makes the place half as successful as it should be, which means you only make half as much money as you expected to.

Disney should just be happy that -- as guests exit Animal Kingdom -- they aren't asking for half of their admission price back.

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