The History of Discovery River Boats at Disney's Animal Kingdom

The History of Discovery River Boats at Disney's Animal Kingdom

A Ripple in Time

The story of a single attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom can’t be told without talking about the park as a whole. That’s the very nature of Animal Kingdom; its interconnecting roots are so tightly wound across the entire park as every land impacts another. These sprawling storylines mimic the park’s lived-in environment as greenery has naturally filled in over the years and has melded with the artful creations of Walt Disney Imagineering.

That’s how Animal Kingdom has gotten better as time moves on—the scenery feels more authentic every passing year with plants making themselves at home and new additions blending into the park’s purpose. But, too, as time has moved on, attractions have come and gone.

The first defunct attraction in the park’s history has left remnants of Animal Kingdom’s once-mythical future. Its ride path lives on as a crucial part of the park’s layout while being just another way Mother Earth has beautified Animal Kingdom.

This is the story of Animal Kingdom and its Discovery River Boats.

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Creating a Wild Animal Kingdom

In 1995, The Walt Disney Company announced plans to build a fourth theme park in its Orlando-based Walt Disney World complex.

Then named Disney's Wild Animal Kingdom, this idea would require a new approach by Disney; instead of mainly telling stories with audio-animatronics, the upcoming theme park would be largely characterized by its zoo-like environments and attractions using live animals. But, make no mistake about it—Disney's Wild Animal Kingdom would still be a theme park.

To avoid disturbing the live animal exhibits with thrill rides, Disney planned to create separate lands that were themed to creatures that didn’t exist.

“...[It] is going to combine the real world of animals with the extinct world of animals and with animals from mythology as well.”

Michael Eisner, former CEO of The Walt Disney Company

In addition to live animals, the idea was to have a thrilling land based on dinosaurs and another based on mythological animals.

Beastly Kingdom

The land of mythological animals, known as Beastly Kingdom, would include attractions based on friendly creatures such as unicorns, and ill-natured creatures such as dragons. The area was planned to have an interactive walkthrough maze called Quest for the Unicorn, representing the Kingdom’s kinder creatures. Beastly Kingdom’s thrilling attraction was a prominent roller coaster called Dragon’s Tower, which would have Disney’s largest audio-animatronic at the time.

DinoLand U.S.A.

Across the park, DinoLand would be a land of dinosaurs with two thrill rides. One was a mine-style roller coaster called The Excavator. The other dino-themed thrill ride would be a near replica of the Indiana Jones Adventure dark ride at Disneyland Park, named Countdown to Extinction.

Safari Village: Unifying Animal Kingdom

The three pillars of Animal Kingdom—with real, mythological, and extinct animals—were connected around the park’s icon: a 14-story artificial tree called the Tree of Life. These different sections had Animal Kingdom’s foundation of wildlife, all unified through the park’s central island: Safari Village.

“The first thing that happens to you when you enter the park is you’re plunged into this fantastic jungle environment. There’s river journeys, boat journeys you take that take you from fantasy realms to prehistoric realms.”

Joe Rohde, former creative lead of Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Planning a Riverboat Attraction

In the waterways around Safari Village, Disney sought to create a river experience with splashes of the different themes. The concept was a simple transportation ride that would float in a circle around Safari Village. The ride would have various show scenes along the banks as a taste of the different areas in the park.

As with many theme park attractions, the initial blue sky concepts were impressive and optimistic—with some rumors suggesting a dramatic encounter with the legendary underwater Kraken.

Beastly Scenes

The more promising proposed scenes were tied to the park’s impending Beastly Kingdom land. The first of which was a majestic unicorn sighting, with glorious mist around the riverbanks, adding to the mysterious effect.

The more prominent beastly scene would include an imposing dragon audio-animatronic, similar to that from the planned dragon roller coaster. The scene would be set up with a spread of rockwork as a dragon growled from inside a cave. The metallic, charred remains of fallen knights were scattered and displayed around the rocks as an instant warning to anyone who came near the cave. While the riverboat passed by, the dragon would lunge out of the cave—by use of a retractable rig for the animatronic—and furiously breathe fire at guests. The boat would narrowly escape and continue down the river.

The boat ride would also feature smaller sights such as gentle animal exhibits along the shores and Imagineer-made natural wonders such as geysers.

Wild Costs Vs. a Solid Budget

Other ambitious creative ideas for the park and the riverboat attraction were discussed during development; however, the budget for Animal Kingdom was filling up rather quickly, and compromises had to be made.

It’s important to note Animal Kingdom was being built following the major financial disappointments of the recent Euro Disney. The company’s leadership, not wanting to repeat history, gave the Animal Kingdom project a sizable yet strict budget with minimal wiggle room.

In situations like this, Disney would normally shave off some frills or get creative about how to cut expenses. One such cost-effective example was the previously mentioned dragon animatronic for the riverboat ride. In a clever way to keep costs low for the dragon, Imagineers planned on repurposing the same audio-animatronic design from Disneyland Paris’ La Taniere du Dragon in Sleeping Beauty Castle.

A Wild Oversight

Disney knew all about animatronics, but they were still new to live animals. Disney greatly underestimated just how expensive the back-of-house amenities would be for its live animals. While budget cuts could be made around the theme park, Disney could not take shortcuts with their budget for animal-related needs. This meant that significant budget cuts were on the way for the theme park portion of Animal Kingdom; creative plans were either significantly altered or removed entirely.

Dropping a Major Land

By the mid-‘90s, it was clear Animal Kingdom had to move forward without one of its major lands in order to stay on budget. As the story goes, Disney’s leadership would cut funds for either DinoLand or Beastly Kingdom.

Disney at this time was also in the early stages of producing a CGI blockbuster called Dinosaur. Not to mention, the ‘90s had a frenzy of successful dinosaur movies and TV shows. Wanting to capitalize on the upcoming Dinosaur movie and after some allegedly dramatic internal conversations, Disney decided to green-light DinoLand, shelving Beastly Kingdom for a possible future expansion. Since Beastly Kingdom no longer had funding, the land and all its attractions—including the Dragon’s Tower roller coaster—were put on hold indefinitely.

But at least the land got some representation in different promotional efforts leading up to the park’s opening, including a dragon toy for a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

That’s the Reader’s Digest version of Beastly Kingdom’s story, but it’s an important one when discussing the riverboats. This attraction, too, would be scaled down significantly. Pricey effects like the billow of a Kraken were cut without a replacement.

Post-Beastly Plans

While Beastly Kingdom may have been suspended at the time, traces of its theme still would ripple in the waters of the Discovery River. To fit within the budget, the dragon scene was distinctly whittled down and lost its impressive animatronic. The scene was modified to imply a fire-breathing dragon lurking within the cave, but guests would miss out on an incredible visual display.

It’s been said that the creative lead of Animal Kingdom, Joe Rhode, strongly advocated to keep the dragon animatronic as the attraction would’ve been severely lacking without it.

Not all the animatronics, however, were cut from the attraction. The upcoming riverboat ride would have an iguanodon animatronic to highlight the DinoLand area and the upcoming Dinosaur film. It’s pretty obvious who pushed for that decision: executives.

With the plans set, Disney worked on creating a lush theme park unlike any other in the Disney chain. Animal Kingdom and its attractions were pushing forward to its opening day in 1998.

A Wild Addition to Walt Disney World

“Welcome to a kingdom of animals…real, ancient and imagined: a kingdom ruled by lions, dinosaurs and dragons; a kingdom of balance, harmony and survival; a kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama, and learn.”

The text found on the dedication plaque at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Disney’s Animal Kingdom fittingly opened on Earth Day—April 22, 1998. This was the first Disney theme park to open in Orlando since Disney-MGM Studios debuted about a decade prior. The massive crowd was eager to see and do all that awaited inside the brand-new theme park.

From a high-stakes safari to a pre-historic mission, the fresh 500-plus-acre theme park had unexplored attractions to enjoy, with lands including Africa, Camp Minnie-Mickey, DinoLand U.S.A., and Safari Village.

Safari Village towered above the rest of the park with its centerpiece, The Tree of Life. The calm waters of Discovery River wrapped around this land. Here, guests had the chance to relax and tour the waterways aboard the Discovery River Boats.

Discovery River Boats

This attraction was a one-way transportation boat ride that took guests halfway around Safari Village. The Discovery River Boats experience started in a small queue house at one of the attraction’s two docks: either at Safari Village or at Upcountry Landing.

After waiting, guests boarded one of the ride’s seven different 62-passenger vessels, all having animal-inspired names: The Darting Dragonfly, Manatee Maiden, Scarlet Flamingo, Otter Nonsense, Leaping Lizard, Crocodile Belle, and Hasty Hippo.

The 10-minute journey was led by two cast members: a skipper who operated the free-floating boat and an animal handler who showed guests small caged creatures, such as insects and reptiles. The two cast members spieled back and forth, sharing about the park, the animals, and the landmarks seen along the river.

The waterways mostly had foliage along the banks with a few themed displays for guests to see. Those sights, however, were relatively spread out, so the skipper and the animal handler filled time throughout the majority of the journey. That said, the experience was different depending on which of the two docks riders departed from.

The Riverboat Experience from the Safari Village Dock

For those who boarded at Safari Village, the ride experience went like this. After leaving the dock, the boat floated down the river until approaching a cove. Straight ahead, a majestic unicorn reared above the water’s surface. This 12-plus-foot-tall unicorn had a pure white look early on but was soon repainted to have a marble-like appearance as a statue would. Shortly after the park opened, the unicorn was removed and never returned, leaving this area empty.

The unicorn wasn’t the only mythical encounter. After all, this portion of the river ran along the future potential site of the unbuilt Beastly Kingdom. These small scenes were just a tease of what could come to the park someday.

Dragon Rocks

A dragon-like rock formation on the left side of the river foreshadowed the dangers ahead. The boat then approached dark pointed rocks along the banks—the lair of a vicious dragon. The rocks were grimly decorated with the scorched armor of lifeless knights who failed to defeat a fearsome dragon. For all that, the demised knights were quickly deemed too frightening for Disney’s guests, so they were removed during the park’s cast member preview period. Those props never made it to the park’s opening for the public.

Still, after losing its animatronic before development and the armored knights during previews, the rocky scene managed to retain a burst of intensity. As the boat passed by, riders could hear a low growl coming from the shadowy rocks. The hidden dragon puffed a blast of fire from the caves. The dragon snarled from the darkness, never to be seen as the boats continued down Discovery River.

African Geysers

Farther along, the boat passed by active geysers that sprayed splashes of water into the sky. The voyage continued past Harambe Village for a look at the lively streets of Animal Kingdom. The boat approached its destination, but not before passing a small riverside bird exhibit and a nice vantage point of The Tree of Life.

The boat approached the ride’s second dock as all guests had to exit. This was only the halfway point around the river. The other half of the ride, which had different sights, could be experienced for those who boarded at the Upcountry Landing dock.

The Riverboat Experience from the Upcountry Landing Dock

Starting at Upcountry Landing, the ride experience went like this.

This half of the river, similar to the other, had long stretches without major scenes to look at. The skipper and animal handler kept guests entertained during down moments.

Animal Fountains

Along the river, the boat approached the first notable landmark: a group of fountains stylized like animals. The fountains were nicely designed and brightly colored as spouting water gave the scene a bit of movement.

The boat passed by the Asia section of the park, which was still under construction during Animal Kingdom’s inaugural year.

Iguanodon Animatronic

The next area the boat approached was DinoLand U.S.A., home of The Dino Institute. The animal handler onboard appropriately brought out a lizard through this area as the two cast members got on the topic of dinosaurs. All this led up to what may have been the attraction’s most impressive scene.

Turns out, an iguanodon got loose from The Dino Institute and found itself in the Discovery River. The dinosaur stood in a shallow part of the river, grunting and looking at the boat while it floated by. The articulate 35-foot animatronic slapped the water, making a splash in the Discovery River.

Returning to the Safari Village Dock

Shortly after, the boat reached the dock as one of the cast members on board shared about Animal Kingdom’s mission of conservation. Guests exited the boat once docked at Safari Village.

A Flood of Disappointment

That completed the full circle around Safari Village. Discovery River Boats helped with the flow of Animal Kingdom, connecting its major ideas into one attraction. It was relaxing, but mostly uneventful, which led to immediate disappointment among guests.

The name “Discovery River Boats” didn’t clearly communicate that it was a transportation ride. This may have led guests to expect an engaging ride experience similar to Jungle Cruise, full of witty humor and cartoonish animatronics. Instead, guests were picked up and dropped off a few minutes away with some light entertainment in between.

Long Waits

Still, the attraction pulled in large crowds, but that did more bad than good. Wait times for Discovery River Boats regularly exceeded an hour, even when the rest of the park was slow.

This caused guests to typically dedicate more than an hour of their day to cruise half the river; needless to say, the attraction itself was underwhelming given the time commitment on top of the expectations guests had. Anyone could walk from one dock to another in a fraction of the time, so Discovery River Boats was even functionally disappointing as a transportation ride.

A Prehistoric Failure

On top of these issues, the ride’s biggest draw started to wear down. Maintaining a dinosaur animatronic in the water wasn’t exactly easy—just ask the folks over at Jurassic Park. Well, the iguanodon animatronic quickly lost its realistic range of motion, adding to the growing list of reasons why Discovery River Boats continued to disappoint.

Guests weren’t the only ones left disappointed; Disney also wanted to find ways to tweak the riverboats for better results. They began refining the attraction as a means to improve guest satisfaction.

Tweaking the Riverboats Taxis

By the summer of 1998, about two months after opening, Discovery River Boats started round-trip operations. This decreased the attraction’s capacity, but it improved the value guests got out of waiting in line. Still, the adjustment wasn’t enough—Disney needed a new approach to the Discovery River Boats.

By fall time of the same year, Discovery River Boats ceased operations. After about a month of being dormant, the ride reopened under a new name: Discovery River Taxis. The updated taxi name was closer to what guests could expect from the ride. This was Disney’s attempt to raise guest satisfaction. Discovery River Taxis featured prerecorded narration, instead of relying on constant back-and-forth spieling between the skipper and animal handler.

An Uncertain Future

This version of the ride lasted for about a month as it suspended daily operations by November 1998. It reopened occasionally only in relief for peak holiday crowds. The Discovery River Taxis were practically on life support headed into 1999, and eventually, the ride shut down. The attraction was no longer listed on the park maps.

Guests were left wondering whether or not the boats would ever return. Rumors of potential new names started spreading, but Disney had something planned.

The boats would eventually reopen to a new beat.

An Upbeat Refurbishment

The riverboats reopened in March 1999, now known as the Radio Disney River Cruise. The boats were given upbeat paint jobs, and the frenetic makeover had a few more additions, making the attraction more energetic overall and exciting for kids.

The Radio Disney River Cruise Experience

As one might expect, the boats, now with a Radio Disney theme, were given new onboard audio. The Radio Disney overlay featured pre-recorded radio segments from two of the station’s hosts: Just Plain Mark and Zippy. The duo said they were broadcasting live from atop The Tree of Life. They had a few segments throughout the ride, like telling a few jokes and taking a few calls—Minnie Mouse herself even phoned up the station.

Of course, the Radio Disney River Cruise had music ranging from pop songs to tunes from The Lion King. The skipper talked during the music, sharing facts about the park and pointing out key sights on their full-circuit journey.

The new iteration of the ride, even though it focused more on Radio Disney, still had the riverside effects, like the hidden fire-breathing dragon and erupting geysers. Although, the dinosaur animatronic was eventually removed due to being unreliable.

The Beat Fades

Overall, these updates helped, but the retrofitted riverboats never impressed in any significant way. Disney tried to salvage the attraction by making it more relevant and catchy, but the updates weren’t quite enough in tune.

By August 21, 1999, about a year and some change after the park opened, Radio Disney River Cruise closed for good. Some speculated whether a new iteration were on the way, but this was it. The Discovery River was left to be taken over by the thriving plant life in Animal Kingdom.

The attraction was the first extinct ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

The Abandoned Attraction

Disney struggled to find the right approach to make the riverboats a positive experience in the park. Unfortunately, the attraction was a victim of a strict budget that significantly altered the end product. On paper, the riverboats had more exciting elements than other rides of the same type, but the execution didn’t resonate with guests. After a short run, Discovery River Boats joined the likes of Plaza Swan Boats, becoming defunct.

The park has changed some since the boats closed. Safari Village is now known as Discovery Island, but the Discovery River still runs around the area, intertwining the park’s major lands. The waterways, now filled with waterlilies, still have some motion; boats with characters or live entertainment float around the river from time to time for all to enjoy. And with a new waterside seating area, the water has served as the venue for the former Rivers of Light nighttime show and the retired KiteTails daytime show. Future shows may bring more life to the water someday as well.

The docks and queue houses are also still around, being used for character meet ‘n’ greets or seating areas during different periods.

As for the former boats—some stayed right at home in the Discovery River, once being reused for character sightings. Others have been used for transportation purposes in other locations around The Walt Disney World Resort.

Some of the familiar faces of the ride survived to some extent and have been relocated. Infamously, the iguanodon animatronic went almost completely to waste. After its time in the Discovery River, the animatronic was shipped to Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris. The animatronic was stripped of its dinosaur appearance and sat among other props on the park’s Studio Tram Tour ride. This animatronic was a hefty investment, being chosen over another impressive idea, and ultimately left to rot outside.

The unicorn figure, although on display for only a few weeks, had a happier ending to its story. The unicorn was auctioned off by Disney and now has a caring home by private owners. The unicorn is now named Beastly as a nod to Beastly Kingdom and has an active social media presence.

In-Park Remnants

While the river cruise has been closed for decades now, the attraction isn’t fully dead in the water. Some of its thematic elements can still be found in Animal Kingdom—specifically, the Dragon Rocks area. The dragon rock formation is in plain sight, with the once-fiery cave still around. The geysers also can be seen near Harambe Village. Nature has claimed these rocks as its own, almost as if Mother Earth is acting as an extra Imagineer for the park.

Animal Kingdom now has otherworldly touches as the expansion plot once reserved for Beastly Kingdom has been transformed into Pandora – The World of Avatar.

Time Flows On

It’s all a weird story—how the park came to be and how the ride turned out—but that’s what Animal Kingdom is: weird. The park has grown into its own, having the enlightening charm of nature that can’t be recreated.

Animal Kingdom is a park of discovery that can inspire with its worlds of realism and fantasy while telling a story of conservation and appreciation. The park’s educational celebration of wildlife sends guests home with a new outlook on the world. Sometimes, we just need a new perspective. Discovery River Boats did just that—letting guests view the park from another vantage point.

The water of the river still flows as time moves on, reminding parkgoers how one small ripple can change an entire park.

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