Thursday, October 11, 2012

How can the Animal Kingdom become a nighttime favorite?

When Expedition Everest opened at the Animal Kingdom, the talk by the experts was that this was the attempt, or even the key, to turning the park into a full day park capable of drawing guests deep into the nighttime hours. Well that clearly has not happened, as the park is still not open after the animals "go to bed", the standard Disney excuse for the limited park hours.  In fact, the few opportunities offered by Evening Extra Magic Hours seem to have vanished as well.

So what needs to happen in order for the Animal Kingdom to shed the dreaded “half-day park” tag”? Let’s take a look at a few of my ideas.

First, it is important to note there are already plenty of attractions there that can be enjoyed at night. Everest and Primeval Whirl are great during dark hours. Dinosaur, Festival of the Lion King, Finding Nemo, and It’s Tough to Be a Bug are not effected by the loss of daylight at all. There’s also plenty of food and drink on offer as well.  The fact is, Animal Kingdom has attractions and dining options to suit later operating hours, but there’s still more to do.

People need to want to go to the Animal Kingdom at night.  In all the other parks, there is a fireworks show that does the trick, but at this park that's not an option.  There needs to be not just one special thing, but a host of smaller "night only" experiences that keep people there.

Obviously the biggest challenge is that the park is not currently equipped to showcase animals during night hours, a problem when you consider guest coming to the Animal Kingdom will rightly expect to see animals. Kilimanjaro Safaris is the only e-ticket attraction that we can assume will not be open. But it’s the centerpiece of the park, so closing it makes the night-hours marketing push difficult.

But here is the thing, Kilimanjaro Safari may not have to be lost after all.  The standard excuse is that the animals can not be out for all those long operating  hours, but is that really true?  Over at the Animal Kingdom Lodge most of the same animals are out on the savannah 20 hours of the day.  So let me throw out this idea; what about a night time safari, equipped with night-vision glasses.  My thought would be fewer people per truck and a longer duration ride with perhaps even a different path to travel.  My guess is this will need a special reservation process as people will clamor for the few available spots.  There certainly will not be the same number and variety of animals on display, but seeing any through night-vision goggles is quite an experience.

While I am not a zoologist, I think there may also be a possibility of even further enhancing the animal experience beyond Africa. During the holidays, the Bronx Zoo used to offer something called Holiday Lights. It’s a nighttime event  and one of the coolest offerings is a session with their Tigers. As nocturnal creatures, this time of the day is not spent sleeping. Instead they are very active and often a joy to watch. Perhaps an event once or twice per night in their current spot on the Maharajah Jungle Trek, with simple lighting and a narrator will do the trick. And let us not forget the bats section.  How about some soft lighting there or even some more night-vision goggles?  Very few zoos offer a true night time experience for animal viewing and Disney can really pioneer this effort.

For years, there has been a rumor about a nighttime torch light parade. That sounds like a great idea. Fireworks are not an option when you have the wellbeing of wild animals to consider, so this idea is just the thing to balance all these variables. Installing some World Showcase style torches near the Tree of Life before and after the parade can also add some interest and ambience to the experience.  If I were working at WDI, I would seriously explore the idea of using costumes and songs from the Lion King Broadway show for this parade.

Speaking of fire, I would explore the possibility of intensifying the fire effects in Kali River Rapids. Adding just a little bit of light to this ride can really be great. Imagine a water ride where you can’t really see where the water’s coming from. That would make the experience completely different at night, and probably much more thrilling.

For the kids, I would explore one or two programs, either shows or special meet and greets, that only occur at night. How about a cruise on the Discovery River around a wonderfully lit Tree of Life with the Fab Five? You could also construct a small stage for a nighttime stage show, or something along those lines. But these are things that would only occur after the sun goes down.

Ok, I made it ten paragraphs without mentioning the word I am sure you all have been thinking of since you began reading this…Avatar.  Yes, the point of handing such a huge chunk of the Animal Kingdom's real estate over to James Cameron is entirely to make the park a "full day experience".  But with the complete lack of any ideas or concepts even a year later makes me think that if this project ever actually does happen that it will be years from now.  What I am talking about above are things that Disney can do right now without hundreds of millions of dollars being spent by Cameron.

Single day tickets are the most expensive per person ticket, and the key for financial success at the Animal Kingdom, and therefore expansion.  I would think the trick is to make that single-day at least as long as it is at Disney's Hollywood Studios, making the price a better value.  But also, there needs to be a reason for park-hoppers to come back at night as well.

Right now, it is not as far from full day status as some may think.  (despite the views of the esteemed WDW Today hosts)  But Disney will need to make the night hours a special experience, and very different from the normal theme park nighttime offerings.  Considering the amazing amount of detail and architectural splendor the park has, this can be a reality without any real big-ticket investment.

by Dave McBride @davemcb1897

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