Unlike any other Disney Park, Disney's Animal Kingdom exists because of an overriding vision of one Imagineer, Joe Rohde.
Rohde had risen up the ranks of Walt Disney Imagineering, working on EPCOT attractions such as the Mexico Pavilion and the Maelstrom attraction in the Norway pavilion. He also worked on the 1983 "New Fantasyland" at Disneyland as well as the 3D film Captain EO for both Disneyland and EPCOT. In 1989 he designed the Adventurer's Club in Walt Disney World's Pleasure Island.
When pitching the idea for an animal park, to win over then Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Rohde brought in a 400 pound Bengal tiger to the pitch meeting.
Eisner greenlit the park in 1995. construction began in earnest in 1996. animal care facilities were built. Landscape designer Paul Comstock oversaw the installation of literally thousands of trees, shrubs and grasses.
The parks many animal residents were introduced to their new habitats in 1997. The park opened on Earth Day of 1998 to much fanfare. The park's entrance area is known as "the Oasis" it is a heavily landscaped area meant to contrast the outside world and bring guests into unspoiled nature. Early in it's development, it was known as "Genesis Gardens" but that name was decided to be too religious-sounding.
Leaving the Oasis, guests come upon the Safari Village, later re-named Discovery Island (after an attraction of that name elsewhere in Walt Disney World closed.) In the center of Discovery Island stands The Tree Of Life. The "Tree" is actually a cleverly disguised oil rig and features sculpted carvings of animals all along it's trunk with over 8000 branches and 102,000 artificial leaves.
For inside the tree, Imagineers considered many concepts including a show based on The Lion King before then CEO Michael Eisner suggested a show based on the then upcoming Disney/Pixar film A Bugs Life. The show was developed into It's Tough To Be A Bug, a 4-D show featuring Flik and Hopper from the film.
The Park's Africa section takes place in the fictional east African port of Harambe. Harambe is the home of the parks star attraction, The Kilimanjaro Safaris. Park guests ride in a safari vehicle and observe the various forms of animal life in the "Harambe Wildlife Preserve". In the early days of the park there was a subplot on the ride where you chased poachers who were hunting elephants and ended with you rescuing the elephant "Little Red" from the poachers. The poacher subplot was dropped around 2007 because it was distracting to the focal point of the attraction which is the animals themselves.
After riding the safari, guests explore the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail (The name was changed to Pangani Forest Exploration Trail in August of 1998 but the name was changed back in 2016).
Taking a train from Harambe station takes guests to Rafiki's Planet Watch with it's main attraction, Conservation Station.
Two lands were in development to round out the park, one being DinoLand U.S.A which would be a dinosaur themed land and Beastly Kingdom a land based on fantasy animals. ultimately DinoLand was built with Beastly Kingdom being put on the backburner for a future expansion. Unfortunately, many of the Imagineers who worked on Beastly Kingdom went on to work on Universal's Islands Of Adventure Park and took some of the concepts for Beastly Kingdom when designing the Lost Continent area of that park and the Dueling Dragons roller coaster.
DinoLand USA, as it was built on opening day included the thrilling Countdown To Extinction (Later re-named Dinosaur after the 2000 animated film) attraction using the Enhanced Motion Vehicle from the Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland to rescue an iguanodon before the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs hits. The other feature on opening day was the Boneyard, a children's play area. This was joined in 2002 by the unbelievably tacky Chester and Hester's Dino-Rama featuring triceratop spin and the Primeval Whirl "wildmouse"-style roller coaster which was removed in 2020.
The first new land in the park was Asia which opened in the Summer of 1999 and featured Kali River Rapids and the Maharajah Jungle Trek which let guests get up close with Sumatran tigers.
The first major expansion of the park arrived in 2006 with the opening of Expedition Everest: Legend Of The Forbidden Mountain which opened in 2006. The attraction takes place in the fictional village of Serka Zong where guests board a converted tea train for an encounter with the legendary Yeti.
The Yeti was the most complicated Audio-Animatronic Walt Disney Imagineering had ever built which also ended up being it's downfall.
The Yeti is supposedly so powerful that it was causing damage to the structure of the mountain. Only a few months after the attraction opened the Yeti was put in what is referred to as B mode which is basically putting a strobe light on it to simulate motion. (Many Disney Fans refer to it derisively as Disco Yeti.) The Yeti has sadly now been in this state for the past 16 years. Joe Rohde said for many years he would fix the yeti but it has yet to happen.
In 2011, it was announced that a land based on the hit film Avatar would be coming to Disney's Animal Kingdom. The land would be built on the site of what was Camp Minnie-Mickey, a temporary land which was built on the same site once earmarked for Beastly Kingdom.
Whether the Avatar theming fits the parks mission statement is debatable. nevertheless Rohde and company delivered an amazing land with two headline attractions. One being Na'vi River Journey which is okay but feels like the beginning of a much better ride with one impressive animatronic and the other is Flight Of Passage which is basically a avatar themed simulator similar to EPCOT's Soarin'.
On November 23rd 2020 Joe Rohde announced his retirement from Walt Disney Imagineering effective in 2021. Many Disney fans (myself included) feared that with Rohde gone, Disney's Animal Kingdom would suffer the same fate as other Disney Parks (Such as EPCOT and Disney's Hollywood Studios) that have had their mission statement and theme compromised by Disney CEO Bob Iger's "Everything must be tied to an Intellectual Property" mantra. As of right now the future does not look promising. It's Tough To Be A Bug is expected to be replaced by a 4D film based on the film Zootopia which Rohde has said is inappropriate for the park. Dinoland USA will be replaced with a South American themed area with attractions based on the film Encanto which has nothing to do with animals and Dinosaur is expected to be replaced with an Indiana Jones ride which also has nothing to do with animals. It looks like Disney's Animal Kingdom will follow the other Disney Parks into becoming glorified commercials for Intellectual Properties.