Walt Disney World has shared potential big expansion plans for Animal Kingdom, with areas proposed for Encanto and Indiana Jones. Additionally, a new Zootopia attraction has been officially announced for DAK. This post shares details, concept art, and everything we know about the plan–plus comprehensive commentary about why this is happening and whether we think these are potentially good or bad additions for Animal Kingdom.
This news was announced during the “A Celebration of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” presentation at Destination D23 on September 8, 2023. Disney Parks, Experiences and Products Chairman Josh D’Amaro offered a sneak peek at concept art for the future in addition and teased what was to come in a few years.
This was one of many announcements and reveals at the 2023 Destination D23. Others include a reimagining of Test Track at EPCOT, Pirates of the Caribbean tavern in Magic Kingdom, new scene with Ahsoka in Star Tours, a first look at the Audio Animatronics in Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, and much more. And that’s just what has been shared so far for Walt Disney World! We’ll have a recap of every announcement very soon.
During the Animal Kingdom expansion segment of the Destination D23 presentation, Bruce Vaughn, Chief Creative Officer at Walt Disney Imagineering, joined Josh D’Amaro on stage for another “Blue Sky” look at what’s possible when dreaming big at Disney Parks.
They began by focusing on Magic Kingdom, which is not as far along in development. For Walt Disney World’s castle park, the duo reiterated its intentions to build ‘Beyond Big Thunder’ with yet-unknown plans. From there, Vaughn and D’Amaro turned to Animal Kingdom expansion to share some specifics and potential possibilities, with concept art.
First, a new show based on “Zootopia” is being created for the Tree of Life theater at Disney’s Animal Kingdom! This is an official announcement that’s actually happening. For sure. (Well, unless it gets cancelled!)
The current concept for the new “Zootopia” experience has guests visiting the different biomes you only glimpse in the film, traveling along with Judy Hopps, Nick Wilde and other characters.
On the official front, Disney officially announced that Imagineering is planning to reimagine Dinoland U.S.A. into a new land inspired by a region sometimes referred to as “Tropical Americas.” As part of their research, Imagineers are looking at some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet in the regions just north and south of the equator in the Western Hemisphere–the northern part of South America, stretching up into Central America.
As part of this, new experiences inspired by “Encanto” – the Academy Award winning Walt Disney Animation Studios film – and the fan-favorite adventurer Indiana Jones “are being considered” for the reimagined land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Bruce says there’s a long way to go and a lot more to discover but Imagineering teams working on Walt Disney World are up for the challenge.
Note that the second paragraph above is NOT an official announcement, but the concept art is quite detailed, and it sounds more likely to come to fruition than what was shared last year at the D23 Expo. According to Josh, something is definitely happening with Dinoland becoming the Tropical Americas, and it sure sounds like that something will most likely be Encanto and Indiana Jones.
With that said, I seem to recall writing last year that the Moana and Zootopia lands proposed as replacements for Dinoland at Animal Kingdom were closer to being greenlit and funded than the Beyond Big Thunder plan. And now, Zootopia won’t get its own land at DAK (thankfully) and Moana is missing entirely. So who really knows.
Let’s discuss the why of that, which is quite simply that Animal Kingdom desperately needs more attractions. You might notice that each year when ticket prices increase, Walt Disney World highlights how 1-day admission still starts at only $109 and has since the introduction of the date-based system back in October 2018.
You might also notice that Animal Kingdom always has the lowest Genie+ price of any of the parks. Despite that, Lightning Lane availability is more abundant at DAK than any other park, in large part because many guests elect not to purchase Genie+ at Animal Kingdom. And for good reason, as it’s least necessary there (which is precisely why it costs less in the first place–the value proposition is lower).
Regular readers of this site know this, as we’ve hammered home time and time again that crowds and long lines are the easiest to “beat” at Animal Kingdom, so you don’t need to pay extra to skip the lines. This is discussed in countless posts, including in our Best Time-Saving Strategies for Walt Disney World, which says all you need to know for DAK is “don’t go during the middle of the day.”
The post-Pandora bump is officially over, and there’s a good chance that Disney’s Hollywood Studios and EPCOT are going to start cannibalizing Animal Kingdom attendance this year and in 2024. (Our guess: Animal Kingdom is the biggest underperformer of Walt Disney World’s parks in 2023 and 2024.)
If you visited Animal Kingdom shortly after Pandora – World of Avatar opened, this might be shocking to read. The park had just made a big push for staying in the park after dark (for pretty much the first time ever), adding an ‘eternal sunset’ effect and artificial lighting on Kilimanjaro Safaris, plus a variety of evening entertainment. Animal Kingdom stayed open later to accommodate the Pandora crowds, and the Rivers of Light nighttime spectacular gave people plenty of things to do until 9 pm and beyond.
The ‘downfall’ of Animal Kingdom in the evening started pre-closure, but has only accelerated since. Rivers of Light is gone for good and there’s no dedicated nighttime entertainment beyond the Tree of Life Awakenings. And those are only offered during the times of year when Animal Kingdom is open at night, which is pretty much only in the winter due to earlier sunset times.
While diehard Walt Disney World fans (like us!) clamor for Animal Kingdom to stay open later, there’s a good reason for the earlier closing time: lack of demand. This is what all of the above about avoiding crowds and not buying Genie+ gets at. If you arrive early or stay late, you’ll find Animal Kingdom to be the least crowded park at Walt Disney World.
To be entirely honest, I’m somewhat surprised that Animal Kingdom still closes as late as it does (7 pm or 8 pm most nights), as crowd levels absolutely do not dictate it. My best guess is that Walt Disney World management fears that if the park closes any early, attendance would drop further, as shorter hours would signal to guests that it’s not “worth” as much as the other parks. That could create a vicious cycle of lower demand causing shorter hours causing even lower demand.
Suffice to say, the situation at Animal Kingdom is likely worse than the reported attendance statistics that place it in 4th place of Walt Disney World theme parks. appears. If observed crowd levels and wait times are any indication, Animal Kingdom is doing a far worse job at keeping people in the park than was the case in 2019. It probably has the lowest ‘duration of visit’ of any park at Walt Disney World, and by a wide margin.
This is a problem because it contributes to increased crowding at Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and EPCOT in the evenings. It might make visitors more inclined to split a day between EPCOT and Animal Kingdom, potentially in part explaining why Disney has maintained the 2 pm Park Hopping rule. It also might mean people skipping Animal Kingdom entirely and shortening their trips as a result. That’s a problem for a number of reasons, but losing a hotel night is the biggest.
Going forward, there’s also the threat of Universal’s Epic Universe looming on the horizon. While people reading this might be the outliers who will take long vacations and spend a day doing every park, the average tourist is going to be forced to make tough decisions. Both in terms of which Disney and Universal theme parks they visit, and at which of the two complexes they stay on-site. Animal Kingdom being viewed (once again) as a half-day park or skippable by large numbers of casual guests is a problem, and closes the gap between staying at Universal Orlando and at Walt Disney World for at least some potential visitors.
All of this reinforces the reality that Animal Kingdom is the park at Walt Disney World with the most urgent need for additions. Pandora – World of Avatar is still incredibly popular, but it alone doesn’t have the drawing power. That’s especially true for the aforementioned guests who are budgeting their time and see DAK as the lower-value park in terms of hours and offerings (rides, nighttime spectaculars, etc.)
After seeing the dismal attendance numbers for DAK last year, I’m honestly surprised that Walt Disney World hasn’t acted with a greater sense of urgency up until now. Keep in mind that these numbers are not “news” to Walt Disney World–they would’ve seen these trends emerge over 12 months ago.
The Moana and Zootopia Land teases at last year’s D23 Expo should’ve been an official announcement, and construction should’ve started by now. (Absent the company’s debt and streaming woes, I’m guessing it would’ve. But frankly, I’m honestly glad that wasn’t official, as I feel like we dodged a bullet–the new potential concept is far preferable.) Failing that, Walt Disney World management should be adding entertainment or doing something.
So from that perspective, it makes sense that Animal Kingdom would be getting expansion. It’s the park furthest removed from the last development cycle, and the park most in need of major additions with both marketable drawing power and the ability to retain guests throughout the day.
More than anything else, this is what dictates expansion plans at Walt Disney World. It’s not about where certain ride or land ideas will fit best thematically, it’s about which Disney recent intellectual property “needs” to have more of a presence at Walt Disney World, and which park needs additions.
From there, Imagineering tries to make it work, shoehorning concepts that otherwise may be thematically incongruous with narrative framework, backstory in the queue, or other narrative exposition. It’s arguably a bit like the tail wagging the dog, at least for theme park purists. And we certainly aren’t defending the practice, but it is what it is.
This is precisely why Encanto and Zootopia would get a presence in Animal Kingdom. To this day, both movies still rank highly on monthly and annual lists of movies per Nielsen ‘minutes streamed’ data. Given that they’re not new releases, that demonstrates staying power and the likelihood of longevity, meaning they’re ‘deserving’ of a greater theme park presence at Walt Disney World if you’re going by guest expectations and demand.
In my anecdotal observations, Encanto also does seem to do really well in moving merchandise. I’m not sure if the same can be said for Zootopia, but I think that could change in a theme park setting with clever designs. What little we’ve seen of the food & beverage program for Zootopia at Shanghai Disneyland suggests there’s a ton of potential there.
Indiana Jones is an entirely different story, and likely isn’t being chosen because Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny did gangbuster numbers at the box office (it didn’t). Rather, it’s because that is a logical fit for a reimagining of Dinosaur’s ride system. In this case, the inclusion of Indiana Jones is arguably a case of Imagineering righting a past wrong!
With that said, we are predisposed towards skepticism with just about any IP proposals for Animal Kingdom. Moreso here than any other park, and that includes EPCOT. Although we’re old school EPCOT Center fans, we are also cognizant of the fact that the version of that park we loved has been dead for decades.
When it comes to EPCOT, we’d rather have fresh and new ideas even if they deviate from the original mission of the park. Not only because that’s better than the prior ‘dead mall’ vibe, but because the ship sailed on old EPCOT ages ago. Modernizing the park for current audiences while being respectful of the past is the realistic best-case scenario for EPCOT.
But this is a post about Animal Kingdom, not EPCOT. The difference is that, by and large, Animal Kingdom is still what old school EPCOT Center fans wish that park still was: thematically pure. There have been a couple of close calls over the years, but legendary Imagineer and “guardian” of Animal Kingdom, Joe Rohde, always managed to work his magic and make alien additions feel like perfect fits.
That’s precisely the criticism when Pandora – World of Avatar was first announced, and it was absolutely scathing. Walt Disney World fans as a whole questioned a land about Blue Alien Sex Cats, and Animal Kingdom purists were livid that an inconsequential blockbuster movie would be added to their beloved zoological theme park.
For our part, we were never in the vehemently anti-Avatar camp, noting first that you should never bet against James Cameron. That is still true, and I think it’s sentiment that is now widely-held, but it most definitely was not the case a decade ago when Bob Iger made the big and bold bet on bringing Avatar to Animal Kingdom. Cameron’s vision for an Avatar film franchise and a half-dozen sequels (or whatever) was viewed as a joke.
Second, that what truly matters is the setting of Avatar and not the substance; even if the characters and films were forgettable or didn’t quite fit Animal Kingdom, the environment of Pandora could offer a canvas akin to fan darling Beastly Kingdom (above; concept art from The Making of Animal Kingdombook) as a ‘mythical’ land. During development, I went as far to say the concept Pandora had a greater wow-factor than Beastly Kingdom.
Fast forward almost a decade since that announcement, and Pandora – World of Avatar is a beloved land that silenced all (or at least most) critics of that addition. Meanwhile, Avatar’s first (of several) sequel went on to gross a ton of money, shutting up everyone who claimed the franchise had no pop culture impact.
The key difference between then and now is that Joe Rohde and his deft touch have since left Imagineering, so he won’t be around to spearhead this addition. I’ll be honest–the exact same announcement could’ve been made today, but if Joe Rohde were the one up on stage offering reassurances, I would felt much better about it. He is one of the few modern Imagineers to have earned that trust, and his ability to world-build and thoughtfully integrate intellectual property where it otherwise might not belong was pretty incredible.
For his part, Joe Rohde has previously pushed back against fan requests for Zootopia land in Animal Kingdom. According to Rohde, Zootopia’s “animals are proxies for humans and human issues rather than animals in their own right facing animal-related issues. We try to enforce the ‘no pants’ rule. Classic characters excepted.”
Of course, who am I to argue with Joe Rohde? That’s why I’m absolutely relieved that the Zootopia land from Shanghai Disneyland is NOT being cloned to Animal Kingdom. It would’ve been a poor fit that only made sense on a superficial level (“animals are animals”). Once you start thinking about the actual themes, motifs, settings, and subtext of Zootopia, it’s a really inappropriate for Animal Kingdom. One of those things that would “work” fine for casual guests who don’t really care or think about theme, but one that would’ve upset a lot of diehard Walt Disney World fans.
Nevertheless, I have no major issue with Zootopia inside the Tree of Life. It’s tucked away and relatively insignificant, and the animals and their biomes will be highlighted rather than the metropolis they inhabit in Zootopia. It’s still not ideal, but I feel like Disney IP in the parks and thematic integrity are a “pick your battles” type of thing. At least for me, this is not a battle worth picking. I’m totally fine with it. Hopefully it gives Animal Kingdom a bit of a shot in the arm, and more guests into the beautiful Tree of Life theater.
As for Encanto and Indiana Jones, I want to be excited about this news–and absolutely would be over the moon if it were official. But it’s not, so a celebration seems premature. Instead, I’ll just point out what’s probably obvious–that Dinosaur and Indiana Jones Adventure use the exact same ride system, and the latter is exponentially superior. Like, it’s not even close.
Pretty much any Disneyland diehard who grew up on Indiana Jones Adventure laughs when they experience Dinosaur–and not at the pre-show (okay, at that too–it’s lowkey hilarious). Suffice to say, reimagining Dinosaur to Indiana Jones Adventure would be a dramatic improvement. And I say that as a diehard dinosaur (lowercase “d”) fan. My hope would be that this adventure with Indiana Jones also features dinosaurs. Best of both worlds!
Beyond that, I do not dislike or disagree with Indiana Jones or Encanto in Animal Kingdom from a thematic perspective. The refrain from fans in the lead-up to this announcement has been that these films don’t center around animals, and thus do not fit into Animal Kingdom. But frankly, I think both could work really well thematically.
The negative sentiment reminds me of the sentiment surrounding Avatar when that land was announced. And again, we’ve covered how it’s now received by fans. In my view, the setting and sentiment of both film franchises make them potentially good fits. This is especially true if there are environments and elements of South America (and whatever setting is chosen for the Indiana Jones ‘temple’ in Animal Kingdom), and the areas focus on the actual wildlife native to both regions of the world in addition to the animals in the films, which are not anthropomorphic.
In short, an expansion of Animal Kingdom that contextualizes Disney intellectual property into a real world Tropical Americas setting is pretty much ideal (of what’s realistic). There’s a lot of potential here, and these are two huge areas of the world that currently don’t have much representation anywhere at Walt Disney World, and could end up being great fits for Animal Kingdom that increase its ecological diversity–and its range of rides.
Ultimately, we’re looking forward to seeing Animal Kingdom expanded and having its ride roster increased to a more formidable on par with the other parks. Regardless of everything else, the realities of operations and attendance dynamics dictate that Animal Kingdom receive more to capture and maintain guest’s attention and time.
As for whether these particular intellectual properties are good choices, thematically and otherwise, that’ll truly come down to execution. All else being equally, I think this is a much better choice than Moana and Zootopia lands replacing Dinoland–and by an incredibly wide margin. We already know Indiana Jones Adventure is great, and an Encanto dark ride a la Mystic Manor could also be fantastic. And I’m confident Imagineers can do the Tropical Americas setting justice, regardless of IPs. Suffice to say, there’s serious home run potential with this pitch.
Given all of that, it’d be nice to get official confirmation of Encanto and Indiana Jones in Animal Kingdom. This is *the* concept for this area. We’ve been around long enough to have learned lessons from the Avatar announcement over a decade ago, and think some fans who might express knee-jerk negativity will end up being wrong in the end. While Joe Rohde is no longer around to shepherd this expansion, there’s (hopefully) enough reverence for Animal Kingdom’s thematic integrity to make sure these movies are properly contextualized in the park.
What do you think of the Zootopia addition announced for Animal Kingdom at the 2023 Destination D23 event? What about the potential of Indiana Jones and/or Encanto in DAK? Excited or underwhelmed by the (possible) plan? Or, are you in wait and see mode with this? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? 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!