Festival of the Lion King - Disney's Animal Kingdom
As many of you know, it was announced last year that a new land, based on the movie Avatar, would be coming to the Animal Kingdom. This new themed area will replace Camp Minnie-Mickey. Disney cautiously said that construction would begin sometime in early 2013 with the land to open three to five years later. Although Disney is very tight-lipped about the progress of this project, I feel it stands to reason that "Festival of the Lion King" will be discontinued sometime in the near future to make room for Avatar Land. So I thought I would take this opportunity to thoroughly videotape the production and give you a little history of this show before this perennial favorite leaves us - perhaps forever.
Camp Minnie-Mickey was not in the original plans of the Animal Kingdom. It was an afterthought. Initial designs called for this area to be the home of Beastly Kingdom, a land devoted to mythical creatures and legends. Included in the plans were a number of elaborately themed attractions, including a rollercoaster based on dragons.
Building Beastly Kingdom was going to be expensive so it was decided to table this land for a couple of years before starting construction. This would allow the Animal Kingdom to open and start generating revenue before moving forward with this project. In addition, this would allow Disney to concentrate its efforts on completing Asia which was not slated to be an opening day land. However, opening the Animal Kingdom without Beastly Kingdom and Asia would leave guests wanting more to do, so it was decided to throw together an inexpensive land to give audiences something else to see when visiting Disney World's newest park.
It was reasoned that a "summer camp" theme could be designed quickly, built cheaply, and utilize structures that could easily be dismantled once Beastly Kingdom was given the green light. To demonstrate how cheaply Camp Minnie-Mickey was built, let's take a look at the various attractions and facilities that grace this land. Keep in mind; I'm not trying to put Camp Minnie-Mickey down. I'm simply trying to illustrate how inexpensively it was built. We'll begin with the Meet-&-Greet Trails.
Character encounters are a big hit with guests so it was a no-brainer to include a Meet-&-Greet area in Camp Minnie-Mickey. All this attraction would require was a few paved walkways lined with shrubbery and some natural-looking pavilions.
Of course, Camp Minnie-Mickey would need someplace for guests to grab a bite to eat. But rather than construct a full-fledged restaurant, a couple of simple structures were built. Instead of providing full meals, these "huts" would offer a limited selection of snacks.
Disney also threw in a few inexpensive "statues" to add atmosphere to the area.
Even the restrooms where built for less money than their counterparts in other lands. Take a look at the sinks. These are off-the-shelf basins that were slapped onto the wall. There is absolutely no counter space to place your belongings while you wash your hands.
In the scheme of things, shows are a lot less expensive to create and produce than a full blown ride and the Imagineers knew this when planning Camp Minnie-Mickey. The first show we'll look at is "Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends." This ecologically friendly production taught youngsters about North American critters and the importance they play in the environment. During the presentation, a number of animals were brought onstage and Pocahontas would describe them to the audience and provide some interesting facts. She was assisted by two Audio-Animatronics figures, Grandmother Willow and Sprig.
The stage was modest, containing many simple props. Grandmother Willow and Sprig were acceptable AA figures, but they were certainly not sophisticated or elaborate. And the 400 audience members sat on hard wooden benches and were not protected from the elements. All-in-all, this was a relatively inexpensive show to stage.
Unfortunately, "Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends" closed on September 27, 2008. Disney gave no explanation for ending this show. However the show's closing did spark speculation among fans that perhaps Beastly Kingdome would be coming soon. As we know now, this was not the case.
"Festival of the Lion King" was to be the big draw at Camp Minnie-Mickey. Unlike "Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends" which was a small and simple show, "Festival of the Lion King" was to be a grand extravaganza with a large cast and a large audience. However, Disney still planned on staging this show as inexpensively as they possibly could. After all, this was going to be a temporary show. Let's take a look at how they cut costs.
Disney knew this show needed protection from the sun and rain. However, they decided to build a pavilion rather than a fully enclosed structure to save money. In the early years, two of the eight walls were missing, creating an open air theater-in-the-round. Not only did this save on construction costs, it saved a fortune in air-conditioning bills. In the summer months, guests sweltered in the theater as air movement was practically nonexistent. The overhead fans offered little relief. In the winter, the theater could be as cold as an icebox. In addition, the bright sunlight streaming in made lighting the show difficult. It wasn't until 2003 that the theater was finally enclosed and air-conditioning added. This was also a sign that Disney would not be converting Camp Minnie-Mickey into Beastly Kingdom anytime soon.
Another cost-cutting measure came in the form of seating. Simple, metal bleachers were installed - with no back support. Compare this to the Theater in the Wild located in Dinoland. In this theater, beautiful wooden benches (with backs) were constructed. These seats aren't particularly comfortable, but it's obvious they were intended to be permanent.
Over at Disneyland, their "Lion King Celebration" parade was ending its three year run. It was decided that four of these floats and puppets could be repurposed and used in the "Festival of the Lion King" show. So they were dismantled and shipped to Orlando.
Even though Disney cut costs where they could, they staged a quality production that pleased audiences. "Festival of the Lion King" went on to become one of the most popular shows in all of Walt Disney World.
So what happened to Beastly Kingdom?
If you follow official Disney press announcements, you'll notice that you never hear anything negative about the company. Disney rarely, if ever, admits that they made a mistake or changed their minds about something. They either put a positive spin on a negative aspect or they simply ignore the topic altogether when dealing with the general public. Such is the case with Beastly Kingdom. Disney has never given an "official" explanation for abandoning this project. However, many believe the reason lives about ten miles away from Walt Disney World at Universal's Islands of Adventure.
The "Lost Continent" was one of the "islands" that opened at this new park in May, 1999. It was themed to showcase ancient myths, legends, and mythical creatures (sound somewhat familiar). It also featured a roller coaster called Dueling Dragons.
Although Disney's plans for Beastly Kingdom were entirely different than the Lost Continent, a "dragon" coaster was to be the land's centerpiece. Not to mention, the overall themes were very similar. Many outsiders reason that Disney simply did not want to be accused of copying ideas from Universal and decided to abandon the project until another idea could be found - which ended up being Avatar Land.
So what will happen to "Festival of the Lion King" when construction begins on Avatar Land? Disney hasn't said. However, rumors suggest that the show might be relocated to the Africa section of the park - a much better fit thematically. However, this is a RUMOR. I know NOTHING official.
Now that you know the history of Camp Minnie-Mickey and "Festival of the Lion King," let's take a look at the show.
The Imagineers were faced with a challenge with their new production - a story. Using the old Disneyland floats had tied them into a Lion King theme; however, another attraction was already capitalizing on this movie over at the Magic Kingdom. In Fantasyland, "Legend of the Lion King" was retelling the story of Simba and the gang with the use of life-sized puppets. The Animal Kingdom show needed to be different. So instead of recounting Simba's life, it was decided to celebrate him instead.
"Festival of the Lion King" tells the story of a group of African tribal performers who follow Simba and his pals from one location to the next, sharing the power and majesty of the great "circle of life." The performance begins with the arrival of the show's four hosts. The formidable leader of the group is Kiume (which means masculine in Swahili). Nakawa (which means good-looking) is a handsome young man and the love interest for the beautiful Kibibi (which means princess). And finally we have the striking Zawadi (which means the gift).
Once introductions are out of the way, the group tells us that Simba and his friends will be arriving soon. In order to greet them properly, we must first learn a few animal sounds to herald their arrival. To accomplish this, the audience is divided into four sections and each is assigned an animal. Kiume presides over the elephant section. Nakawa takes the lion section. Kibibi selects the giraffe section. And Zawadi hosts the warthog section. From each group, a volunteer is selected to help lead the training session. After a trial run, the warthog section of the audience snorts, the lion section roars, the elephants trumpet, and giraffes"¦ Well, you'll have to see the show to find out what sound a giraffe makes.
At the completion of the training, all four groups make their animal sound together. Then the lights begin to dim and Kiume tells the audience to listen. As the wind howls in the background, we can make out ghostly figures as performers dance into the room. Slowly the lights come up and we witness a tribal ballet and the "Circle of Life" begins to play.
An unseen Simba then welcomes the audience to the presentation. At the completion of his greeting, the mood changes from serious to fun-loving and the tune "I Just Can't Wait to be King" begins to play. More performers enter the room along with four floats, one for each section of the audience.
As the merriment begins to die down, Timon takes center stage and sings "Hakuna Matata" with the help of Pumba who can be found on one of the floats.
However, during Timon's number, the Tumble Monkeys continually distract and harass him. Eventually, Timon submits to their antics and gives his flea-bitten friends center stage where they proceed to amaze and impress the audience with their acrobatic skills. Interwoven into the song "Hakuna Matata" are the tunes "Playmates," "Snake Charmer," "Yes, We Have No Bananas," "Hawaiian War Chant" and a few other numbers.
As the Tumble Monkeys leave the stage, Kiume enters and sings "Be Prepared." As his deep voice resonates around the room, a fire-eater enters and performs a foreboding number featuring blazing batons.
Following "Be Prepared," Nakawa and Kibibi sing "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." As they do, two "birds" dance and fly above the stage.
The next act features Zawadi singing "Circle of Life." As she does, all of the other performers circle the stage in dance and merriment.
For the celebration finale, Simba tells the audience that it's time for everyone to join in the fun. The cast breaks into "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and the audience is encouraged to sing along in competition. The giraffe and the elephant sections are assigned to sing the "wing-a-way" and the lion and warthog sections are given the "high part." Of course both groups perform admirably and no winning section can be determined.
As the number continues, children (and adults) are pulled from the audience and paraded around the room with much pageantry.
The show concludes when Timon tells the cast to "take it home." A medley of Lion King numbers is reprised as well as snippets of the acts previously seen. The presentation ends with all of the performers taking a bow to the roar Simba.
"Festival of the Lion King" has four complete casts plus understudies. On the day I videotaped this show, there were nine performances. This meant that three casts were on hand and each would perform three shows.
With the exception of Timon, all of the performers belong to Actor's Equity, a labor union representing the world of live theatrical performances.
All performers must audition every year to retain their part in the show.
The theater can seat 1,375 guests.
The show features 136 unique costumes.
The Simba puppet atop Pride Rock is 12 feet tall.
Ernie Sabella is the voice of Pumbaa and Quinton Flynn is the voice of Timon.
The first showing of "Festival of the Lion King" usually takes place at 10:30am. This show is rarely filled to capacity and you can usually arrive a couple of minutes before the show and still get a seat. For all other shows, it's best to arrive at least 15-20 minutes before the stated time.
Disney uses the giraffe section for late comers. If seats are still available in this section after the show begins, cast members will bring guests in a back door for seating here. Note, these people have missed the beginning of the show because they didn't arrive early enough.
Since the fate of "Festival of the Lion King" is unknown to the general public, I decided I should film it for posterity. Although I know there are many clips of this show already on YouTube, most of these were shot from one vantage point and offer less than stellar views. So for my video I arranged to see the show four times in a row and to have a different vantage point for each performance. Once back home, I edited the footage to offer the best angles and variety when being viewed.
Below is a video containing the complete show of "Festival of the Lion King." It is approximately 33 minutes long.
For those of you who wish to comment on this article, I have a favor to ask. Please do not chime in on the merits of Avatar Land coming to the Animal Kingdom. This is a hot topic that I'd rather not address here. This blog is about "Festival of the Lion King" and I would like to restrict the comments to that topic alone. Thank you.