ORLANDO — When Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened 20 years ago, it was light on thrills and heavy on conservation.
On April 22, 1998, Earth Day, the Orlando park had a single thrill ride, Countdown to Extinction, and a handful of shows like It’s Tough to Be a Bug and Festival of the Lion King.
The real draw of the new park was the 110-acre mock African savanna and thousands of animals that call the park home. A towering Tree of Life park centerpiece was crafted from a refitted oil platform with more than 300 animals carved into its baobob tree-style trunk.
Two decades later, the attractions have grown to include Pandora: The World of Avatar, a sprawling imaginarium in the vein of James Cameron’s film. But the core mission of animal conservation remains the same. That focus may have kept the park from the dismal fates of others, at a time when animal entertainment has fallen out of favor with the public.
Animal Kingdom celebrates it’s 20th anniversary on Sunday with a special opening ceremony and appearances by those who helped bring the park to life two decades ago — including chief designer Joe Rohde.
"The vision for the park is to create stories that offer us adventures with animals real and imagined ... that remind us of our own connections to the world of nature," said Rohde, an imagineer tasked with heading the designer of the park in 1989. "That never changes."
Animal Kingdom was an $800 million question when it first opened. It’s not a zoo, but a sizeable chunk of its 580 acres are devoted to housing and showcasing live animals. A St. Petersburg Times story from opening day noted the "magic missing" from the park, and questioned if guests would be satisfied with a Disney park with education as its theme.
At the time, some of the park was still under construction, including the area that was to become Asia and contain the Expedition Everest roller coaster. Disney executives had already spent nine years designing the park and making room for a veterinary staff to care for thousands of animals and 25 different endangered species.
Chuck Schmidt, a 48-year veteran journalist of the Staten Island Advance in New York, was there opening day and recently wrote about his experiences covering the Disney parks in his book, Animal Kingdom: An Unofficial History.
Schmidt said the park’s marketed emphasis on environmental conservation appealed to him even before he stepped foot in the park.
"The park seemed a little light on stuff in the beginning," he said. "But the whole idea of conservation and animal welfare was enough for me. The amount of detail is incredible. Animal Kingdom is the type of park where you should take your time."
Disney’s only park with live animals as attractions has escaped the level of scrutiny of other parks like SeaWorld. Though both Orlando parks are accredited institutions through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Animal Kingdom hasn’t felt the sting of plunging attendance or been forced out of business like the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus after it retired its elephants.
Matthew Liebman, director of litigation with the Animal League Defense Fund — the non-profit leading some of the fight against SeaWorld — doesn’t see the same level of "animal exploitation on display at SeaWorld or Ringling."
"Animal Kingdom, because it uses more naturalistic enclosures and doesn’t force animals to perform, has avoided much of the public backlash," he said. "Though no theme park can replace the natural world, where animals are free to flourish within their own communities."
Schmidt thinks the park’s executives worked with foresight.
"They knew right off the bat that Disney would be really scrutinized with a park dealing with animals," he said. "The imagineers knew they had to have above and beyond good care, and they’ve always stuck to that philosophy.
"(The keepers) treat these animals like we treat members of our family."
Looking back more than 20 years, Rohde still sees the park in the center of his life. He’s never stopped working on it.
"My kids were born and raised to young men during this period," he said. "It is not just a park anniversary for me, but a kind of life anniversary."
In the next 20 years, Rohde hopes Animal Kingdom becomes "recognized in the nation and the world as a place of importance to conservation and nature."
Rohde looks fondly on two creations he knows intimately — Expedition Everest and Pandora, which opened in May of 2017.
"I love the area around Expedition Everest, especially the queue and the little courtyard below the Nepalese temple; it’s exactly like being back in the Himalayas," he said. "And my favorite attraction now is Avatar Flight of Passage."
"I still see things I haven’t seen before... and I designed it."
Contact Chelsea Tatham at [email protected] Follow @chelseatatham.