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Los Angeles Times

Animal Kingdom roars open

Wednesday, April 22, 1998

If Disney builds it, the crowds will come.

That sentiment couldn't have rung truer Wednesday, when Walt Disney World unleashed its newest theme park to a bevy of fanfare, thousands of guests and a media blitzkrieg of mammoth proportions. Crowds made up of residents and tourists flocked en masse to Disney's Animal Kingdom, the resort's fourth theme park in Orlando.

The fun started before dawn, as guests lined up outside park gates at 4 a.m., some even earlier. The park's official opening time, scheduled for 7 a.m., was pushed up an hour when it became clear to Disney officials that the crowds were more than eager to get into the park. Less than two hours after opening the gates, however, the new park hit capacity (28,000 paid guests) and Disney closed the parking lot to incoming guests.

Judson Green, President of Walt Disney Attractions and Roy E. Disney, vice chairman of the Walt Disney Co. and nephew of the late Walt Disney, were on hand to dedicate the park and pay tribute to some of the conservationists that helped build it.

"I couldn't be more thrilled with Disney's Animal Kingdom," Disney told a crowd of reporter's at the park's ecological education area, Conservation Station. "But I must admit that every time I've boarded the Conservation Station train, I've felt one regret - that my dad and my uncle couldn't see it. They would have been thrilled with what has been created here and would have thought it a wonderfully appropriate addition to their company."

The grand opening celebration concluded three days of parties and media coverage. National shows including, "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," "CBS This Morning," "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" vied with local and international media for the chance to interview such celebrities as Michael J. Fox, Drew Carey and Kathy Kinney ("The Drew Carey Show"), Tia and Tamera Mowry ("Sister, Sister") and Richard Karn ("Home Improvement").

Mr. Disney, along with Walt Disney Co. President Michael Eisner, led a half-hour dedication ceremony Tuesday morning that included brightly-costumed singers and dancers; real and fictitious animals; a parade of all of Animal Kingdom's cast member employees and choir consisting of hundreds of students from area high schools.

"When we started conjuring up a fourth theme park at Walt Disney World, we knew we had to come up with something that set itself apart, something that would be novel and distinct. We considered a number of ideas, but the theme that kept topping the list was the world of animals." Eisner said. "The more we explored the idea, the more we became aware that nature is perhaps the greatest story-teller of all."

"Here, an unpredictability will take center stage," Eisner said. "On the Kilimanjaro Safari, our animal cast members do not follow a script. "Every trip will be a different adventure; every journey will bring a different story."

In addition to the main park's opening ceremony, Animal Kingdom saw several smaller dedication ceremonies during opening week, including one for "DinoLand U.S.A." and the new park's version of the Rainforest Cafe restaurant. Each opening was with substantial pomp and circumstance; brightly-costumed characters and executive speeches, flanked by the obligatory version of "The Circle of Life."

As promised, animal rights groups did picket the park on Wednesday. But near-perfect weather and the chance to experience Disney's latest creation, kept the crowds coming in droves. Lines were sometimes long, but moved smoothly. Countdown to Extinction, one of the most thrilling attractions at the park, was the only ride to experience some trouble, but it was only inoperational for a little while.

As an added bonus to Disney's stellar opening day, the United States Department of Agriculture cleared up an investigation of the park, giving it a clean bill of health. What better way to spend Earth Day?

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