Walt Disney World Memories: Preview of Disney Animal Kingdom Theme Park

Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park occupies a special place in my heart. A few days after returning to Florida in mid-March 1998 to do a professional internship at Disney, I attended a special preview of the cast member of Walt Disney World Resort’s newest park, just a few weeks before it opened. . As we approach the start of Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration on October 1, I share images I captured of this memorable trip.

During a June 1995 press conference, Disney officials announced the park revealing a magnificent Tree of Life model flanked by the conceptual art of dinosaurs and a safari vehicle. Construction began two months later, with the removal of more than 4 million cubic meters of dirt to build this lush botanical paradise.

The park, Melody Mamberg wrote in “The Making of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park,” would be based on “perpetuating love for animals and celebrating all the animals that have ever existed.” For me, it was a photographer’s yard, as I took hundreds of pictures that spring.

Disney's Animal Kingdom Map Guide to 1998

During the preview, I picked up the special edition Adventurer’s Guide, to return a few weeks later, on April 22, 1998, for a guide map of the opening day.

Customers visiting Disney’s Animal Kingdom would soon discover more than 4 million trees, plants, shrubs, and vineyards; and about 2,000 animals, representing 300 species.

Photo of Kilimanjaro Safaris

My favorite attraction on first impression was the Kilimanjaro Safaris, as each trip through the savannah of the Harambe Wildlife Reserve made me feel like I was in the heart of Africa. In all, the attraction comprises about 100 acres of the 500-acre park.

Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail at Disney's Animal Kingdom

I also frequented the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail, spending countless minutes photographing several beautiful gorillas. It remains a beloved place today, especially after the recent birth of a lowland western gorilla named Ada. Her name comes from the Igbo people of Nigeria and can be translated as “first daughter”.

ARTimals march to Disney's Animal Kingdom

In addition to my encounters with animals, I enjoyed watching the “March of the ARTimals” which was held daily from April 1998 to June 1999. This spontaneous carnival around what we now call Discovery Island featured costumes and brightly colored animal floats designed by Swiss artist Rolf Knie.

Waterfall at Disney's Animal Kingdom

The best part of Disney’s Animal Kingdom has been seeing how the park has evolved over the last 23 years. These millions of trees, shrubs and vineyards planted decades ago have blossomed and, with the addition of Pandora – The World of Avatar, the park is now a spectacular daily night experience.

I can’t wait to photograph the Tree of Life again during the 1950sth birthday celebration, when it transforms into a magic lighthouse at night. It will shine with the light of enchanted fireflies that call out the magic of nature, adding what is sure to be another memorable moment of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Be sure to follow here on the Disney Parks blog and # DisneyWorld50 on social media as we continue to chronicle this amazing moment in our history.

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