Remembering Disney’s Animal Kingdom Opening Day, April 22 1998

tree of life

Disney's Animal Kingdom's Tree of Life

In April of 1998, I had long since moved on from my time as a cast member on Main Street, USA and so had my mother and husband, who had been cast members too. I was working as a travel agent and had actually taken on the role of leisure and cruise manager while the company I worked for was expanding that department. My mother had left All-Star Sports and Mickey’s Star Traders to become a cruise agent at that same company. My husband had moved on from working hourly jobs too and had just started in the IT field. We’d been married for less than two years and were enjoying our newly built home in Ocoee, Florida. Of course we were still passholders as our love of Disney parks had not gone anywhere, even if we had hung up our name tags.

It had been exciting following along the development of Disney’s Animal Kingdom while we were cast members. I still have the little cast member booklet with facts about the park, which labeled it “Disney’s WILD Animal Kingdom” before the name change cause by copyright issues removed the ‘wild’ from the equation. My mom in particular had been fascinated with the process and had taken an interest in Imagineer Joe Rohde and his dedication to every detail within the park. So of course we planned to be there for Opening Day, auspiciously taking place on Earth Day in 1998.

It was exciting to see and hear the then-CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner speaking as he dedicated the park —

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.
β€”Michael Eisner April 22, 1998

If I recall correctly (forgive what 12 years and 3 kids have done to my memory cells), Circle of Life played after he spoke. What I do remember vividly was instead of the usual Disney celebratory confetti canons to mark the park being opened – we were showered with beautiful fresh rose petals. The combination of the beauty, excitement and magic brought a tear to our eyes for sure.

tree of life close up

just a few of the over 300 creatures carved into the Tree of Life's trunk

When we entered the park, we had no expectations for certain rides or attractions to fill our time. Having grown up being a child of the EPCOT Center 80’s, I had crafted a great respect for the details beyond the rides. I didn’t need or want to be entertained and thrilled at every turn, I wanted to explore and enjoy. Animal Kingdom is a park of discovery, where each visit is slightly different and each turn might bring a new treasure to light. I think it’s a perfect metaphor for the need to stop and smell the roses in life. You can look at the Tree of Life from afar and walk right by it thinking it’s just another tree – but upon closer inspection it is teeming with details and amazement covering every inch. You could visit the park dozens of times and never discover the rooms within Pizzafari (I once used an entire roll of film there-before digital cameras of course), which are by themselves a work of art.

As reactions to the park got around, I found myself defending the park to all I met. “There’s nothing to DO there!” I’d hear. I’d share my opinions of the details and discoveries that awaited them, but it is sometimes hard to convince people who only keep their head down and race to the safari. Disney has attempted to assuage naysayers who demand more thrills and excitement with the addition of Expedition Everest but the fact remains that more than any other park, Animal Kingdom seems to have the reputation as the boring little brother of the family.Β  I urge everyone to look beyond what Animal Kingdom has to offer in terms of a traditional theme park, and see it for what it is, an ever-changing adventure for the senses.

Happy Birthday, Animal Kingdom! My heart will always hold that same excitement it found on Opening Day. Thank you for 12 years of wonderful memories, with many more in store I’m sure.

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  • TheAngelForever

    Love all of the facts and memories from you. Animal Kingdom is extra special to me. My first adventure there was on my honeymoon with TechyDad. It was our first trip to Disney together and exploring Animal Kingdom was extra special.

  • http://adisneymomsthoughts.blogspot.com/ Beth

    Beautifully written! Thanks for sharing. I wish I had been there on opening day. I couldn't agree more- too many people overlook the amazing details in that park! thanks again.

  • flamingoshake

    I've always loved the Animal Kingdom! I remember visiting shortly after it opened and (having never been to Epcot) being surprised that I wasn't overwhelmed by activity. Even still, most of my favorite Disney memories are from that park. I remember the Bug's Life show/ride, and how happily traumatized it left us at the end. The Tree of Life and the sounds (lack of) and smell of the park early in the morning is just beautiful and serene.

  • http://southernwebgirl.blogspot.com Southern Web Girl

    I too love Animal Kingdom! It really is a park where you can stop and smell the roses. My husband and I are spending a half-day here this Saturday after we arrive in Orlando and plan to just take it slow, see the animals, explore trails we have not explored yet, even after 3 or 4 visits! Then we'll return later in the week for the thrill rides.

  • http://sweetandsavorytooth.com Heather I.

    I was on the college program when AK opened, so I went the day before (I think they called it cast preview day) and had the best time EVER! They were doing a bunch of press tapings and needed people in the park to make it look occupied. ALL the food was free, even Rainforest Cafe, we saw some celebs, and got to be on Good Morning America, too. For this reason, AK will always hold a special place in my heart. It's also my husband's favorite park :)
    Thanks for the sweet reminder!

  • charlesaguillon

    I was able to go to a Cast Member preview day. In fact the program is framed in my house still. We had a great time eating free at Rain Forest Cafe as cast members trained. A funny memory is the Lion King Show—the monkeys did not have their suits in yet and were in red tights!!! Safari still had the original story where the Mama elephant dies and no rails, no doors, no nothing!!! We slid around on that ride like crazy! It was also the first day the elephants were released and they were all huddled in a circle as they were shy! Great memory!

  • http://ohamanda.com/?page_id=20 ohamanda

    We went to Animal Kingdom the July after it opened. It did feel “empty” but we loved it…and I don't even like animals! It's one of my fave parks (as seen in my numerous Disney Mom Panelist answers…). How fun that you were there opening day!

  • http://zannaland.com Zanna

    What wonderful memories!

  • http://zannaland.com Zanna

    Thank you so much! It was a wonderful day for sure. Happy to hear you enjoy
    it too!

  • http://zannaland.com Zanna

    I agree completely! I have never sat all the way back in my seat on It's
    Tough to Be a Bug every since that first visit. πŸ˜‰ I agree about the smell –
    if I wake up early enough and go outside around here I think “ooh, it smells
    like an Animal Kingdom Day!” :)

  • http://zannaland.com Zanna

    I like the way you do things – that's a great plan!

  • http://zannaland.com Zanna

    That's so cool! You and Charles in the comment below should get together and
    compare cast member stories! πŸ˜‰ I do wish I was still working there then,
    but then I probably would've been working that day instead of at Opening
    Day. πŸ˜‰

  • http://zannaland.com Zanna

    What great memories, thanks for sharing, Charles! I remember reading about
    that part of the safari but if I'm remembering it correctly, they had
    already changed it before opening day so we didn't see it. There was,
    however a cast member at the “Little Red” truck waving and telling us Little
    Red was ok. Too funny about no rails and doors! I actually had no idea you
    were a cast member (we didn't get to talk much last visit!) we'll have to
    compare stories in May. :)

  • http://zannaland.com Zanna

    Yay Amanda! πŸ˜€ I'm glad I found so many Animal Kingdom fans here that
    appreciate the beauty of that park. :)

  • http://zannaland.com Zanna

    What wonderful memories!

  • http://zannaland.com Zanna

    Thank you so much! It was a wonderful day for sure. Happy to hear you enjoy
    it too!

  • http://zannaland.com Zanna

    I agree completely! I have never sat all the way back in my seat on It's
    Tough to Be a Bug every since that first visit. πŸ˜‰ I agree about the smell –
    if I wake up early enough and go outside around here I think “ooh, it smells
    like an Animal Kingdom Day!” :)

  • http://zannaland.com Zanna

    I like the way you do things – that's a great plan!

  • http://zannaland.com Zanna

    That's so cool! You and Charles in the comment below should get together and
    compare cast member stories! πŸ˜‰ I do wish I was still working there then,
    but then I probably would've been working that day instead of at Opening
    Day. πŸ˜‰

  • http://zannaland.com Zanna

    What great memories, thanks for sharing, Charles! I remember reading about
    that part of the safari but if I'm remembering it correctly, they had
    already changed it before opening day so we didn't see it. There was,
    however a cast member at the “Little Red” truck waving and telling us Little
    Red was ok. Too funny about no rails and doors! I actually had no idea you
    were a cast member (we didn't get to talk much last visit!) we'll have to
    compare stories in May. :)

  • http://zannaland.com Zanna

    Yay Amanda! πŸ˜€ I'm glad I found so many Animal Kingdom fans here that
    appreciate the beauty of that park. :)

  • charlesaguillon

    Well I was a CM wannabe! One of my college roomates was a CM and he invited me to fly out and come as his guest but it was very cool!

  • http://zannaland.com Zanna

    OH! Ok. Well hey, you still got to do the cool CM stuff so it worked out! πŸ˜‰