Walt Disney World has revealed new entertainment will be coming to Animal Kingdom on January 18, 2019, which follows rumors of cuts to offerings that will occur by this October. In this post, we’ll give you a rundown of the additions and subtractions, and dispel the “rumors” of Zootopia or Wakanda replacing Rafiki’s Planet Watch.
Let’s start with the news. As announced by the Disney Parks Blog, Animal Kingdom will celebrate the Lion King‘s 25th Anniversary with “Hakuna Matata Time Dance Party” on Discovery Island, which will feature Timon and Rafiki. This Lion King 25th Anniversary celebration will also feature three-dimensional photo opportunities re-creating scenes from the animated classic.
Normally, I’d write off a dance party as being “not for me” but after the pleasant surprise of Donald’s Dino-Bash, which features lots of clever details and cute costuming, coupled with my love of the Lion King, I’m somewhat intrigued. Entertainment has been honing the quality of these dance parties, and I’m optimistic that trend will continue here. That’s the good news; now let’s take a look at the latest rumors about Animal Kingdom cuts…
First up is Rivers of Light, which WDWNT is reporting will eliminate its live actors. We’ve been unable to confirm this with anyone in entertainment, but given the flurry of budget cuts ahead of the new fiscal year (and the buzz from Cast Members about them), we have no reason to doubt that this will occur.
As we wrote in our Rivers of Light Review, it has been a polarizing show since debuting, and its “different” style coupled with planned effects being scrapped and runtime being cut likely hasn’t helped Rivers of Light find an audience. While we enjoy Rivers of Light, it’s very much a niche product, appealing to a small minority of Walt Disney World fans and disappointing pretty much everyone else.
Cutting the four shaman characters certainly won’t help matters, but I’m honestly not sure how much it really hurts. Yes, the boats will be a bit awkward without them, but there’s a lot that’s disjointed and awkward about Rivers of Light. I’m not sure many first-time viewers will leave the show and say, “I was totally on board with the floating turtle, indiscernible mist screens, and whatever was going on for 174 seconds in the middle, but they lost me with the unguided boats.”
To us, this change feels like Walt Disney World scaling back on a show that was doomed when it had to be altered from its original form. Rivers of Light should still receive a significant overhaul if it’s intended to run for the long-term. Walt Disney World cutting anything without a corresponding replacement is never good news, and as with other start-of-fiscal budgetary reductions, this is a more a matter of insult than actual injury for guests.
Another update: we previously reported that Rafiki’s Planet Watch would be going seasonal at the end of September. This came from reports from entertainment Cast Members working the area who were advised of that. It turns out that all Cast Members at Rafiki’s Planet Watch have since been advised that the entire area is closing permanently on October 21, 2018.
We have mixed feelings about this. While we’ve enjoyed our visits to Rafiki’s Planet Watch, which is a refreshing change of pace from the frenetic pace of much of Walt Disney World, we seldom go. Taking the Wildlife Express Train there and back is a hassle, so we usually just skip it. I can’t even remember the last time we were back there.
In talking to others, this is common sentiment. With that said, so too is the disappointment of parents who take their small children there for the petting zoo and educational components of the area. It seems that areas offering hands-on activities for kids at Walt Disney World are decreasing in popularity, which is unfortunate. (At the same time, we get it: parents spend a lot of money on these vacations, and with that comes pressure to “get your money’s worth” and not “waste time” at playgrounds and the like.)
If this cut were occurring with a corresponding addition, we’d take zero issue. Rafiki’s Planet Watch is difficult to access, and has always been relatively unpopular. Wildlife Express has been pejoratively referred to as a “train to nowhere” for years, and we’re guessing it’s guest satisfaction scores aren’t the highest. Still, something doesn’t sit right about Walt Disney World making cuts while profits are at recommend highs and prices continue to increase.
One thing that surprises me about the Rafiki’s Planet Watch closure, and I guess it shouldn’t, is the enthusiasm for the closure. Many people seem to think this means Disney is preparing to build a Zootopia or Wakanda-themed land in Animal Kingdom. To the extent that I can, I want to put this speculation to rest.
There are zero credible rumors that Rafiki’s Planet Watch–or any of the real estate in its area–will be replaced by Zootopia, Wakanda, or anything whatsoever. To the contrary, I have heard from credible sources that there are no immediate plans for the area; in the long term, nothing has been greenlit.
Supposed “rumors” (air quotes) about Zootopia and Wakanda are nothing more than wishful thinking by Walt Disney World fans who don’t want to accept the reality of the closure. From a logical perspective, it doesn’t even make sense. Animal Kingdom is keeping the back-of-house animal facilities and zoological operations here; there just won’t be a guest-facing experience offered.
Moreover, there are expansion pads at Animal Kingdom that don’t require touching Rafiki’s Planet Watch. I would think that particular plot would be fairly undesirable for expansion as it would mean relocating backstage facilities…and it requires a train to access. Seriously, all of the same accessibility ‘problems’ that have plagued Rafiki’s Planet Watch would be an issue with anything that replaces it. Can you imagine the lines for the train compounded by a land that’s actually popular and only accessible via train?!
This is not to say Zootopia or Wakanda will never happen at Animal Kingdom. I think the latter is highly unlikely for a number of reasons and I’m not convinced Zootopia is an appropriate fit for DAK (but when has that mattered?). Nevertheless, my commentary here only concerns a new land replacing Rafiki’s Planet Watch. It isn’t happening.
In terms of the near to mid-term, I wouldn’t expect a ton at Animal Kingdom. Pandora has been a solid driver of attendance, and smaller-scale additions will continue to keep things fresh through Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary in 2021. Three other parks are higher priorities in the immediate future, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see something happen in Dinoland/Dino-Rama at some point towards the end of the next 5 years. Before that, I wouldn’t hold my breath about any substantial development occurring in Animal Kingdom.
What do you think about these cuts and additions at Animal Kingdom? Do you buy our reasoning that Zootopia and Wakanda are not replacing Rafiki’s Planet Watch, or do you refuse to accept reality? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment of these changes? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!