In the late 1990's, I covered the

Disney Beat for The Orlando Weekly.

Here are some of the my musings!

Village people

10/7/1999

 

BY RAY KAMPF

 

They say any publicity is good publicity, and it must be true. Prior to last week, I really didn't care what Disney was doing for the millennium. I'd seen those scary jumbo-puppet people mingling with the Miss America contestants during the pageant on TV, but they just didn't spark my interest in Epcot 2000. Then I heard about the Israel/Arab controversy. When I hear "boycott," I need to see what the flap is all about.

 

The new Millennium Village is a condensed version of Epcot's World Showcase, where 24 foreign countries come together in harmony under one roof. Situated between the Canadian and United Kingdom pavilions, this "village" includes countries that you don't find on the established Wold Showcase promenade. That is, if you don't count Scotland, which is sorta part of the U.K. pavilion, and Brazil, which is represented all summer by rowdy Portuguese-speaking students grouped together by T-shirt color.

 

At its entrance, Millennium Village sets a tone not of cultural harmony but of transient architecture. Set way off the promenade between the classic brickwork of England and the substantial wood structure of the Yukon stage is something that looks like a cardboard façade and has the impact of a carnival fun house. It's a confusing but jubilant swath of blue and yellow ribbon arches that tout the approaching new age. An international "cast member" -- one of the many that Disney imports -- urged my group to hustle through the doors as the "show" was about to start. It dawned on me why this building is so far off the promenade: If they only let in so many people at a time, there's going to be a long line.

 

The perimeter of the "lobby" was made up of eight small stages dedicated to various countries. My view of Israel was blocked by a large sculpture centerpiece. I did see the flat computer monitors made out of translucent plastic that are embedded into the centerpiece display. They're designed to be touched and used, being at kid level, but they look real easy to break. In fact, the whole lobby looks like it could easily come apart piece by piece. A slew of cast members in garb native to their country interacted with guests, as it seems they are trained to do. Then the show started. One by one, those costumed natives greeted everyone in their language while they popped onto their country's stage. When they all said what they needed to, the drapes parted and we were let into the Village. Well, actually into the bottleneck.

 

The first two exhibits -- Brazil on one side, Scotland on the other -- are energetic and interactive. Everyone had to stop and look. Scotland pays tribute to its history of inventors through the medium of mini golf. The display offers anyone the chance to try and get a ball up a ramp. The floor is carpeted in green, as in any mini golf course, but flanked in plaid. It's very pretty and I'm sure teaches a great deal about Scotland, but being the first exhibit, I felt pressure to keep moving and flew right past it. And if you're supposed to be quiet on a golf course, it won't happen anyway with the Brazilian game show going on across the path.

 

The huge video game that dominates the Brazil exhibit is apparently based on a TV game show down in Rio. It involves the audience holding up paddles that control the action on the jumbo screen. Wrapped around the sides of the exhibit was something about rainforests, but everyone watching the soccer match between a toucan and some other animal on the video screen was too enthralled to care. The crowd was loud and boisterous every time they flipped their paddles in the air and the toucan kicked the ball away from the goal. The lessons I learned at these exhibits: Scots invented mini golf courses and Brazilians are as loud on display as they are in line for Space Mountain. My party and I moved on to Saudi Arabia.

 

What pulled me in first was the free coffee and figs they were handing out. I felt like I was in Costco, if Costco was in a tent made of gold lamé. The whole Saudi exhibit looks like a set from a Vegas Ali Babba review. I stumbled into one tent to see a movie about a wayward occidental who, due to his pride, was lost in the desert. A Saudi, who found him, gave him shelter, food and taught him the ways of the dessert for three days, for that is the custom. The lesson was about how stories, friendship and hospitality need to be shared if they are to be worth something. But I have a feeling that most people in the tent with me were just intrigued by the way the movie was projected on a waterfall. Another part of the Saudi exhibit involves getting four people onto a springy three-dimensional map of an oasis. The trick is to work together and get a ball to move around the map and up into the palace at the top. After my team accomplished the task, the cast member working the "floating map" ride said, "Thank you for visiting and I hope you have learned something of my country." I thought, what was there to learn? We put a ball in a hole. Sure, we had to work as a team, but that's a standard thing in these types of games. Maybe the lesson is that life in Saudi Arabia is a matter of staying balanced.

 

Looming above the Saudi exhibit is the Swedish exhibit. If Saudi Arabia's looked like a road movie gone awry, Sweden's looks like a salute to "2001: A Space Odyssey." Four large eggs, each linked by catwalks, are perched one level up. Each egg represents a season in Sweden, though I confess I didn't initially catch on. The spring and summer eggs are devoted to plants; I was more intrigued by the mushy flooring. Fall was contained in a not-fully inflated, yellow cellophane balloon. I have a feeling it isn't quite done yet. Finally, in the winter egg, I grasped the season thing, as it was cold and there was a snowman. It all made sense in a Scan Design kind of way. But as I emerged from the winter egg, I saw in the distance what I came to see: Israel.

 

A line stood waiting to go on the Journey to Jerusalem. Told the wait was 20 minutes, I looked first at the Israel agricultural exhibit. The best part was the large stone wall in the back of the exhibit. I questioned the small holes in it that looked like bullets made them, but was relieved upon peering through that it was nothing more than slides of farming equipment. When I walked away and glanced back, I saw other people looking through the holes. I realized how we were very cleverly tricked into playing a part in the re-creation of the Wailing Wall, and that everyone who looks through the holes looks as if they are praying. It was not the controversy I was looking for, but it was sneaky nonetheless.

 

The preshow was a film about a Jerusalem tour guide who was showing us all the "Capital of ... (here it comes I thought ... say it: Capital of Israel) ... the millennium. For this is where time began." What a cop out. As our video tour ended King David appeared before the guide. He said we'd not really seen Jerusalem, for Jerusalem is in the people and her stories of faith. With that the automatic door opened into an auditorium of flight simulators facing three large screens, at which point someone quipped, "Jews in space!"

 

I should have known right from the start the movie wasn't going to be what I expected. Taking off in a computer-generated library that looked like something from MYST, a red book flew off a shelf and into our face. Emblazoned in gold were the words "Stories of Faith." The stories were ones I remember from Sunday school and Danny Kaye Parables. Wise King Solomon and King Harrod I knew, but I was unfamiliar with Queen Helena. I realized at that point that King David, who had been narrating, really wasn't telling stories, he was just mentioning characters and settings. So, using the visuals, I tried putting together the Queen Helena story, but mixed in with her visuals was a man carrying a cross through the streets and wearing a crown of thorns. I was a bit confused. I felt like I was missing something. Like the controversy. Indeed, there was no real need for the motion simulators except, perhaps, to keep people from walking out. Jews in Space at least would have been exciting, but this was Ride the Bible, and moving pews were not really necessary. King David then talked about how Jerusalem is a place of faith for all: Jews, Muslims and Christians. When the screen showed a cross, the Star of David and the moon all hovering over the darkened skyline of Jerusalem, I realized the movie was very PC and something worse than controversial: It was dull.

 

Afterward we fell out into the crux of any Disney attraction, the gift shop. This one is a gauntlet of countries hawking their handmade souvenirs. By this time every culture was starting to look alike to me. The usual question is, what token am I going to buy to remember this place? But the signs at the exit asked, "What is your gift to the world?" The lesson here is not what we get but what we give. It's about what each country has to offer. Scotland gives us inventors, Brazil offers game shows, Sweden gives us eggs, Saudi Arabia gives us, well, I'm not quite sure other than figs and coffee, and Israel gives us faith, which is nice even though I wanted controversy. But when it comes to gifts we seldom get what we want.

The Fun of Ratting Out The Mouse

10/21/1999

 

BY RAY KAMPF

 

We in Orlando share something special. It's a secret -- the secret of what really goes on backstage at Walt Disney World.

 

We don't derive this knowledge from the Sentinel or Bill Shafer's showbiz-type reports on WESH-Channel 2, but from plain, old gossip. Most people work for, have worked for or know someone who works for Disney. The biggest benefit to knowing them isn't the free pass. It's the stories. Anyone who has ever done time on the mean streets of Epcot has vomit stories, lost kid stories, obnoxious tourist stories and stories about slaving for the capitalist Mouse that doles out pixie dust faster than raises. These are the folks that brighten a dinner party.

 

David Koenig's new book, "More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland," is filled with these stories. It's a follow-up to his original "1995 Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland." (The book that fell in between those two was "Mouse Under Glass," which focused on Disney animation.) Koenig, who has never been a cast member himself, has gathered the urban legends of Disneyland and compiled them in one place. Because he's dealing with Disneyland and not Disney World, the details of his stories may be new to some of us. But Disney World has its own versions of each tale.

 

Koenig writes about a would-be skinhead invasion of the park; we have horror stories about working The Night of Joy. He has guests falling from skyrides; we have guests falling from parking-lot trams. He has children being conceived in Tomorrowland; we have children being born in Tomorrowland toilets. He has a tourist struck dead from a flying cleat off a boat in the Happiest Place on Earth; we have African birds struck dead by a tourist-transport vehicle in a protected wildlife game preserve. He has union strikes and management backlash, and well, so do we.

 

It's a lot of gossip and a lot of fun, but there is an underlying message, which we, as a people who live close to the Mouse, have known for some time: Disney has changed. With stories from old-timers and the days of Walt acting like a kid in the park, to stories of the security department becoming a profit center for the Magic Kingdom, Koenig demonstrates that the Disney company has gone from a show to a business.

 

One example is the philosophy that has permeated current cast members: Why give the guests the best when they are willing to pay the same amount for the mediocre? The stories of cutbacks, eliminated positions and turning every store on Main Street into a Costco of plush Mickeys and T-shirts is not limited to the West Coast. And they make for good commiseration stories among cast members.

 

Eyes and Ears, the in-house company newsletter for Disney World cast members, publishes the official "stories" Disney wants everyone to know and talk about. How guests love the new turkey-leg wagon is good PR. How the Journey to Jerusalem ride at Millennium Village was redesigned following the Arab-American flap is not. For that story you need to ask someone who worked on the exhibit. And isn't that what Disney is all about, anyway -- telling stories?

 

When it's all broken down, every entertainment company is about spinning yarns to keep an audience happy. Walt took storytelling to a new level in animation and dark rides. Even the hotels and restaurants have a story to tell. But the best tales are always the ones you're not supposed to know -- the ones about human foibles, anger, lust and revenge. If the Disney company doesn't want to tell those kind of stories, Disney cast members sure do. And Koenig lets them.

Lions & Tigers & Wares, Oh My!

Looking beyond the dead beasts at Disney's new zoo: An unusual tour of the Animal kingdom

4/16/1998

 

BY JEFF TRUESDELL AND RAY KAMPF

 

 

In his plans for Disneyland and the original Jungle Cruise, Walt Disney envisioned placing real animals along the river’s banks. Zoo people told him that wild animals are, for the most part, nocturnal and that guests would see them just laying about, if at all. Walt responded with robot lions and tigers that would perform the way he wanted, and on cue. That way he could guarantee no uncooperative critters to screw up his beloved storytelling.

 

If only that were true now.

 

Still a week from its April 22 "official" opening, Disney’s fourth and largest Orlando theme park, Animal Kingdom, has been stung by a publicity backlash not felt by the company since it was suggested that Walt was a snitch for the FBI. Rising from vast bulldozed acreage that was radically altered to create a showplace for conservation of the natural environment, Disney’s Animal Kingdom proves that real animals are far less reliable -- not to mention durable -- than Disney’s fabled fakes. The tally of dead beasts so far includes four cheetah cubs, two rhinoceroses, two hippopotamuses, three herd animals and two West African cranes, the latter of which were run over by tour buses in a park preserve.

 

Animal-rights activists have glowered their I-told-you-so’s even as Disney’s response -- after all, the company imported some 1,000 creatures -- has been almost nonchalant: Hey, it happens.

 

It’s easy to see how.

 

"Whoa! Whoa! WHOA!" shouted the passenger on the open-air Kilimanjaro Safari bus as it entered the park’s Harambe Wildlife Reserve during a preview day preceding the public opening.

 

Ashley, the driver, hit the brakes. Every other passenger immediately slid to the right and looked down to see a small waterfowl step out from in front of the high vehicle.

 

"Is she right in front of the tire or on the side?" asked Ashley, her view of the bird completely blocked.

 

"She’s right at the side where your back tire might hit her," said the first passenger, now standing and straining to see. "Don’t they move?"

 

"They usually do," said Ashley, easing off the brake and inching forward -- another road kill narrowly averted.

 

One could argue that it’s all part of working out the bugs, although even the phrase "working out the bugs" at an animal park carries a suddenly sinister meaning.

 

But that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. For weeks Disney has had the Animal Kingdom up and running -- testing rides, tweaking shows, sharpening scripts, making sure the food arrives hot, the desserts are pushed hard and the souvenirs are restocked as fast as possible. At the same time the animals -- those that survive -- also have been adjusting to new quarters, which include wide-open spaces on the effectively recreated African savannah during the daytime and surveillance camera-monitored, concrete-floor pens at night.

 

There has been no attempt at illusion during this phase. Disney’s mandate to maintain the magic is quickly shattered when staff members in work costumes wander up to the understated main entrance looking just as lost as the guests. Inside the park, preview visitors have bumped into packs of new employees dressed in streetclothes on their orientation tours. Even those hired, costumed and put in place don’t always know what they’re doing -- or more importantly, where they are.

 

"I was totally lost until 15 minutes ago," confesses Barb, a Disney worker stationed near the path that leads from the centerpiece Tree of Life to Camp Minnie-Mickey. (The visitor could have sworn he was bounding toward Dinoland U.S.A., a themed land on the other side of the park.)

 

Barb is not alone.

 

Confusing or just plain nonexistent directional signs are but one of the treats that guests will find at the Animal Kingdom. In unauthorized visits (meaning Disney didn’t want us there yet, and we had to sneak in), Orlando Weekly also was able to document more than a few examples where the smoothing-out process wrought big changes. And we don’t just mean the park’s name, which originally was Wild Animal Kingdom until the Mutual of Omaha people got protective of their "Wild Kingdom" identity and caused Disney to back off.

 

For instance, even as real animals in the new park drop dead, the make-believe elephant that Disney initially killed off at the hands of poachers on the safari tour now gets to live. The reason: Children (and Disney CEO Michael Eisner) found its man-made carcass too, well, disturbing.

Campaigning to save the planet is one thing. But you just can’t spook the kids. Not when you’re Disney.

 

Unlike other theme parks here, this one opens with no lush promenade or parade plaza; even the first gift shops are a good walk past the entrance. Instead you are eased in through narrow, interlocking trails that are surrounded with lush, green landscaping and lined with virtually hidden animal enclosures. A tone is quickly set; look or you’ll miss something.

 

That emphasis on personal discoveries marks the Animal Kingdom as Disney’s most passive park. It’s also why, despite being the biggest, it can accommodate the fewest people.

 

Yet it’s still the broccoli on Disney’s plate; you know it’s supposed to be good for you, but it’s nowhere near as fun as downing a whipped-cream cake. Kids -- and parents -- expecting to be plopped into the world of "The Jungle Book" will be let down; here there are real lions, not a meet-and-greet with Simba from "The Lion King." Even the small-scale, twice-daily March of the Animals proceeds without a single familiar face from Disney’s pantheon. Rather, the parade’s costumed characters are colorfully dressed as anonymous elephants and insects, queen bees and bugs; the big finish is -- you’ll never guess -- a praying mantis.

 

Yes, there are rides (and in Dinoland U.S.A., one really good one). But if the Magic Kingdom is a playground, and Epcot an international bazaar, and Disney-MGM a peek behind movie and TV screens, then Animal Kingdom wants you to think -- about endangered species, about shrinking rainforests, about man’s selfish and alarming imprint on a planet with limited resources.

 

And if you aren’t made to think about those things hard enough, Animal Kingdom employs a fresh tool: guilt.

 

"Would you like to donate $1 to the Disney Conservation Fund?" asks Staci, pausing at the register before ringing up the final sale on a roll of film. "Yes" gets you a sticker; donate $3 and you get a plastic shopping bag that is just a wee bit nicer than the usual plastic shopping bag. "Most people give a dollar," Staci helpfully explains. "A lot of people say, ‘Keep the change.’" One person gave her 20 bucks.

 

It’s a pitch you’ll hear with every retail purchase. Disney’s Wildlife Conservation Fund, according to a brochure, "promotes global wildlife conservation by working with scientists, educators and organizations committed to preserving the earth’s biodiversity." Grants so far have gone to support such nonprofit groups as Save the Manatee Club, the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

 

Fund raising has not come easily to all Disney workers. "It took me a while to get used to asking people for it," allows Emily, a sales clerk in the Mombasa Marketplace, part of the park’s Africa section. "I didn’t want them to think that this is just a big money trap. But," she adds, singing the song of the converted, "100 percent of it goes to help the animals."

 

Those animals -- at least the captive ones here -- turn up in remarkably well-designed and convincing settings. It ain’t Africa, or anywhere near it. But it sure doesn’t look like Florida, either.

 

Animal Kingdom reasserts the focus on Walt’s storytelling genius. In both Disneyland and Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, he created themed lands so deliberately vague -- Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Adventureland -- they could embrace any tale told. Ditto this latest expansion. It’s all right there in the Animal Kingdom logo, which depicts five hoofed creatures in silhouette, from the majestic (lion) to the massive (elephant) to the mythical (dragon) to the missing (dinosaur) to the mundane (we’re not positive, but let’s call it a goat). Almost any animal you can imagine fits in there somewhere. And who doesn’t like animals?

 

Likewise, the new park’s conceptual "lands" are all-encompassing. When Epcot opened there were designs for an African pavilion; it finally was ruled out because it’s not a country but a continent. Yet here, where Africa is depicted as a dusty, sun-bleached outpost, it’s a perfect fit. You can’t actually place the setting anywhere specific. But neither can you argue that it doesn’t match its description as an East African port, a hazy depiction that becomes the jumping-off point for the most solemn, heavy-handed preaching of the park’s message, in attractions from Conservation Station, a beautifully done interpretive exhibit and petting zoo, to Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail, on which you really feel that you are wandering a jungle path (albeit paved with asphalt).

 

When it opens next year, Asia presumably will have the same loose geographical characterization. (Will it represent the China part? The India part? Does it really matter?)

 

A third area, Camp Minnie-Mickey, seems like a real throw-together, tacked on and likely to be rethought later. An early plan assumed this to be a showplace for make-believe animals; that idea was dropped as the opening drew closer and they needed to focus on the real ones. Camp Minnie-Mickey hosts the Festival of the Lion King show, but the draw is the huts where costumed characters are trotted out to meet the tykes -- and which make Camp Minnie-Mickey resemble nothing more than a really, really nice interstate rest area.

 

Surrounding the Tree of Life, Safari Village combines shops and snack stands in bright, colorful buildings that are indistinguishable from one another. That tree -- with no obvious front or back (and, during preview days, no clearly marked entrance to the 3-D movie on bugs being shown inside) is the root cause of the disorientation at the park’s center. No matter: The detailed carvings of animal shapes that cover its huge trunk and root extensions send you searching à la "Where’s Waldo?" to find and name that critter.

 

Overheard:

 

He: "That’s an armadillo."

 

She: "That’s not an armadillo. That’s a praying mantis."

 

And about that tree: As the icon of the park, it presumably should make a statement as strong as Cinderella’s Castle or Epcot’s big ball. Amazing though it is, it’s a mild disappointment. The problem is scale. It stands 15 stories tall, but those 15 stories do not shoot straight up like the side of a building. Instead, the effect is like standing at the bottom of a hill and looking up; the view from the top may be fantastic, yet from the wide base there’s just not a lot to get excited about. But again, look close: More than a few species are caged in by the elaborate root system.

 

The same might be said of employees who find themselves acting as apologists for animals that tend to be most active in the evening and early morning, when the park crowds will be thinnest. Guests who strain in the shadow of the tree during midday to spy the Asian small-clawed otter are met by Linda, a worker who tells them, "They’re on the other side of the island sleeping. They’re very lazy." Like it’s the otters’ fault.

 

Refusing to let facts get in the way of a good time, however, the park truly peaks in the fantastical Dinoland U.S.A. Unlike the rest of Animal Kingdom, the aim here is pure whimsy. The result is quirky personality that is both engaging and entertaining, from the themed-to-death Restaurant-osaurus (representing the marriage of Mickey and McDonald’s, which underwrote Dinoland U.S.A. and here hawks McDonald’s fries, Happy Meals and Chicken McNuggets) to The Boneyard, the requisite slides-and-soft-surfaces playground for kids that is modeled after an archaeological dig site. And in Chester and Hester’s Dinosaur Treasures, Dinoland U.S.A. has the most inviting and over-the-top gift shop in the park -- if you can find it.

 

What isn’t revealed, of course, is always most interesting, and here Disney vastly undersells the skeletal cast of a brachiosaurus that serves as the "Oldengate Bridge" under which guests walk to enter the area. It’s a copy of the most complete fossil of its type ever found, the original having been auctioned off last year for a staggering $8.36 million to Chicago’s Field Museum, whose bid was funded in large part by Disney and McDonald’s to accomplish this display. That bid sent up a red flag about the encroaching influence of commerce in a world formerly left to scientists. (A buyer who said he wanted the fossil so he could return it to its finders at the Black Hill Institute for Geological Research in South Dakota dropped out of the bidding at $1.2 million.) For its part, McDonald’s planned to cart its own two life-size casts of the fossil -- dubbed Sue for Susan Hendrickson, the field paleontologist who discovered it in 1990 -- around the world to show off.

 

An easy-to-miss plaque next to the "bridge" does list the Field Museum as the home of the original bones, and describes the brachiosaurus -- at 52 feet tall and more than 80 feet long -- as "one of the largest creatures that ever walked the earth." But that selective presentation is another red flag.

 

Animal Kingdom has a message to sell, but Disney only volunteers what they want you to hear. And indeed, Disney is selectively pruning the local animal population so as not to interfere with its imported animal population.

 

Case in point: Visitors on one preview day caught the train in Africa for a short glimpse behind the scenes of the 100-acre Harambe Preserve, then strode from the drop-off point down an overly long path to Conservation Station. There, they looked through glass as a surgeon prepared to work on an anesthetized raccoon. An interpretative guide said the raccoon had been found on Disney property with an apparent injury, which explained its bandaged legs. (Not said was whether Disney ran over those, too.)

 

So why the ultrasound treatment that followed?

 

Apparently they wanted to know if the animal was pregnant; in truth, revealed a behind-the-scenes worker much later, Disney regularly catches raccoons to sterilize them so they can’t reproduce once they’re let loose in the parks’ environs again.

 

Somehow, that fact didn’t make it into the spiel.

 

Such population control underscores the Animal Kingdom’s greatest irony: the resurrection of Big Red, the make-believe momma elephant, on the same safari tour where real animals have died real deaths.

 

Big Red, and her offspring Little Red, provide the thread that weaves together the story behind Kilimanjaro Safaris, one of only two genuine "rides" in the new park. (Like the train to Conservation Station, the Discovery River Boats that circle the park’s core are used more for transit than thrills; the latter encounter a fire-breathing beast and an exploding geyser, but really it’s just a critter cruise that lets animal keepers show guests small reptiles and invertebrates up close. "But in a box," says Cathy, a keeper carting a bearded dragon lizard. "Some people have phobias, and we don’t want to see them jump in the water.")

 

The Kilimanjaro Safari tours cut across Florida terrain masterfully redesigned to evoke "part of the wild Africa that we’re all working to save," says Ashley, who spits out her script as she drives. And the sturdy, man-made landscape of berms, gullies and rock outcroppings is designed so that each tour bus stays just beyond the sight lines of the preceding and following vehicles, which are separated by what seems like less than 90 seconds.

 

Here are the hippos, giraffes, wildebeests, cheetahs, white rhinos, lions, baboons, storks, crocodiles and other resettled animals, inviting snapshots and excited finger-pointing as the bus rumbles along. "We are moving into elephant country now. Hopefully we’ll see our two most famous residents," says Ashley.

 

Alas, the taped audio says that poachers have shot Big Red first, and Little Red is missing. That sets the safari off on a scramble to catch them. The bus passes their camp -- ivory tusks are stockpiled -- and briefly races alongside them before spotting rangers who have wrangled the evildoers and saved Little Red. Big Red? Although she’s never seen, guests are now assured, "She’ll be fine."

 

Guests may not be, however. The seatbelt-less ride on hard seats is as bumpy and jarring as being dragged through a rock garden.

 

It’s like an air cushion, however, compared to the violent hurtling through nearly constant darkness that is Countdown to Extinction.

 

Here is Dinoland U.S.A.’s signature ride -- Animal Kingdom’s equivalent to Space Mountain or Tower of Terror. There’s a storyline -- told with uncharacteristic fumbling -- about a Time Rover sent back to retrieve a dinosaur just moments before an asteroid shower wipes them out, and the predictable sendoff, "What could go wrong?" We know the basic routine from the "Jurassic Park" movies and even Universal’s "Back to the Future" ride, a simulator in which a stationary vehicle jerks about to match the images on a huge screen. But imagine that the image doesn’t move, and it’s the vehicle that tumbles forward at an ever-accelerating pace. Add in rapid flashes of dinosaur jaws, a screeching soundtrack and a howl at the end that not only makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up but grabs it and yanks, and you’ve got a one-way race through a high-tech funhouse that demands you hang on with both hands.

 

It also is not kid-friendly. "Children come out of there crying all the time," says Tara, a Disney employee at the exit of the ride that increased the number of posted warnings as the test period wore on. (Gone is a concluding high-pressure burst of air -- perhaps meant as a dinosaur’s hot breath? -- that had sent both riders and workers out of the attraction complaining of popped ears.)

 

Countdown to Extinction is the one piece of Animal Kingdom that rewards visitors who will go expecting a theme-park experience. In all other areas, Animal Kingdom is a calculated risk that looms as something of a hard sell.

 

Not so long ago, Disney decided that its visitors of the ’90s were ready for more stimulating challenges and created the Disney Institute as a learning vacation. It tanked; today that campus is given over almost entirely to business and management seminars.

 

Have they overestimated people’s desire to learn again? Animal Kingdom confronts the challenge. The audience would seem to be the post-yuppie, post- hippie generation among whom the environment is a cause that reverberates. But the enlightened will see the corporate muscle behind the message and charge the other way. Grandparents will turn out -- it reflects their pace -- but kids can find more fun and stimulation in a science museum, and for a lot less than the $44.52 adult admission charged for anyone over age 9.

 

Disney knows this. That’s why they’ve filled the shelves with a crowd-pleasing compromise: the stuffed Safari Mickeys (and Safari Poohs, Safari Donalds, Safari Plutos, et. al.) that try to sell Animal Kingdom as a place to take the family. It might even work.

 

But if, come Christmas, they start stringing the Tree of Life with lights, you’ll know they’re questioning their purpose, too.