Countdown To Extinction

[Note: This attraction is now called Dinosaur]

On April 22nd, 1998, The Walt Disney Company held an official Grand Opening for its fourth Florida resort theme park, a tremendous facility that represents a major departure from the kind of high-tech, remote-controlled worlds that Disney has traditionally created. On many levels, Animal Kingdom is a very bold move, one for which the company has accepted a number of risks they've never faced before: first, this new 500-acre environment boasts only one major thrill ride; second, the wide-open boulevards of many of their parks have been replaced with narrower, more intimate walkways and footpaths, winding through a landscape planted with over 4,000,000 trees, shrubs, vines and ferms; and finally, the park includes approximately 1,000 "cast members" whose behaviors are far from predictable - 200 different species of living, breathing animals including elephants, giraffe, zebras, hippos, rare black rhinos, lions, cheetahs, gorillas, antelope, kangaroo, and more.

By tackling these risks head-on, Disney has come up with the most beautiful park they've ever created, a continuously evolving experience that promises much more excitement in the years to come. And as for Animal Kingdom's one major thrill ride, Countdown To Extinction, Disney has once again pushed the envelope in ways it's never been pushed, improving upon their spectacular "Indiana Jones Adventure." Fellow Thrillseekers, get ready to take a walk on the wild side.

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When walking through the parking lot to the admissions gates, you can scan the horizon looking for a tell-tale landmark, like EPCOT's Spaceship Earth, or the Magic Kingdom's Castle, but there's none to be seen. This Kingdom is nestled behind a dense wall of green splendor, an immediate tip-off that you're about to enter a world that requires exploration to discover its many pleasures. Once past the ticket booths, you'll find yourself strolling through the tropical shade of the Oasis where, if you take the time to peek into the foliage, you'll spot macaws, deer, iguanas, sloths, tree kangaroos and anteaters. And no, you won't hear any Audio-Animatronic® hissing or clacking... these critters are the real deal and they're almost close enough to touch.

Even without the fauna, the flora alone here is pretty remarkable. As Walt Disney Imagineering landscape architect Bill Evans said, "We cast trees as characters into the landscape, taking into consideration size, shade and accent." Paul Comstock, AK's lead creative designer adds that "Disney is the first to 'build' a realistic African savannah. [The park's] 4 million plants represent 3,000 species - a huge, open-air experiment." Comstock traveled to 37 states and 28 countries, including Madagascar, Botswana, South Africa, Bali, Thailand, Tasmania, Nepal and China to fill out the park's colorful root-bearing roster.

After the first tree was planted in December of 1995, an Acacia xanthophlosa, the remaining plantlife was flown in from the four corners of the earth, resulting in over 40,000 trees, 2,000 species of shrubs, 260 separate types of grasses and the third largest collection of cycads, ancient fern-like plants, in North America. All this means that as you venture down every new fork in the many paths that lead you through this park, you'll come upon one lush pocket of natural wonder after another. It's easy to forget you're just a few miles away from downtown Orlando.

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Straight ahead is the Safari Village, the hub of AK's four existing "lands," and its centerpiece, the Tree of Life - the Animal Kingdom's metaphoric emblem. The Tree of Life blends nature and technology in a way that only Disney can, combining a natural setting at its base (whose inhabitants include flamingoes, otters, lemur, axis deer, cranes, storks, tortoises and red kangaroo) with a 145-foot-tall man-made sculpture. The wood-textured surface carvings of its gnarled trunk and branches display 325 images of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects, twisting together in an amalgam of the planet's dominant, non-human population.

To build this incredible icon took over 18 months and involved a crew of thousands. Its massive support structure was erected using an engineering scheme similar to that employed for offshore oil rigs and giant expansion joints built into each branch unit allow it to sway in the wind. The tree's trunk is 50 feet wide and its "root system" crawls out to spread over an area 170 feet in diameter. And check this out - each of its more than 103,000 leaves was attached by hand. Zsolt Hormay, the Tree of Life's chief sculptor and senior production designer worked with a team of 20 additional artists to create what Joe Rohde, WDI's vice president and executive designer for AK, called "the most impressive artistic and engineering feat that we have achieved since the original Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland." Take one look and you'll see that he's right.

Down underneath the Tree, inside a 430-person theatre, you can see "It's Tough to Be A Bug!," a tongue-in-cheek tribute to those little fellas at the bottom of the food chain. This 3-D film, Audio-Animatronics and special effects entertainment is AK's most popular show, so be sure to catch an early performance if you can.

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Once through ogling the Tree of Life, you can choose your next destination. The park features four main sections: Africa, home to the Kilimanjaro Safaris; Camp Minnie-Mickey, called a "character greeting/show area" in the park literature; Asia, a land under development that currently presents the "Flights of Wonder" bird show at its Caravan Stage; and DinoLand U.S.A., where the mighty Countdown resides.

Though you might be tempted to bypass everything else in favor of CTE, the Kilimanjaro Safaris are a must-see as well, for if Animal Kingdom is about one attraction, it's this 32-passenger, open-sided lorry journey through the African savannah. Trundling over the sunburnt red earth, these all-terrain vehicles take us past hundreds of animals, seemingly roaming free and sometimes crossing directly in our path. I say "seemingly" because, of course, various herds of creatures must be kept separate from both us and their predators/prey. Miraculously, the Disney folks have devised an unseen network of barriers to accomplish these partitions without destroying the illusion.

Because of the animals' free-roving dispositions, each trip will offer a new experience. Keep in mind that there's a downside to this unpredictability: sometimes, just like on a real safari, many of the animals will be napping or otherwise engaged in activities outside our view (I wonder what provisions Disney has taken regarding the critters'...ahem... reproductive instincts). But if reality is what you want, reality is what you get. I was a little disappointed to miss out on any lion sitings, but there was plenty to entertain. Plus, Disney has injected a note of drama to the trip by adding a storyline involving ivory poachers and two friendly elephants, "Big Red" and her baby "Little Red." Will the dastardly villians harm our pachyderm pals?! The chase is on!

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The walkway to DinoLand U.S.A. leads directly into the Boneyard, where both parents and their offspring can join in on a paleontological dig, uncovering the skeletal remains of long-extinct beasts. Continuing, you'll find the Cretaceous Trail, a trek through cycads and palms past animals that can trace their lineage directly back to prehistoric life, such as Chinese alligators and soft shell turtles.

But AK's thrill ride superstar is to be found at the end of a long avenue, sitting behind a large reflecting pool. Without the declarative signage, you might mistake this building for an innocuous administrative center... which is pretty much what it is. Welcome to the Dino Institute, a formerly secret research facility dedicated to the study of all things big, loud and dead. The first interior space looks very much like a museum hall a bit past its prime. There are wall paintings, dioramas and plaques that spell out a very familiar story, in unimaginative detail. Just another routine natural history exhibit... yawn.

There is one detail that captures your attention: the illustration of a giant meteor impact, the presumed "extinction-level event" that meant the end of the line for just about every living thing on Earth. "Gee, sure am glad we weren't around for that."

Rounding a corner to the left, we enter a circular rotunda filled with more murals, fossils and one very large dino skeleton. The information panel here explains that these dry bones are what's left of something called the "Carnotaurus," a fierce-lookin' meat-eater of the highest order. While waiting in the rotunda, a multimedia show explains why we no longer have to worry about a chance encounter with a real Carnotaurus. Scientists have evidence to believe that a blazing asteriod, six miles wide and hurtling through the cosmos at the breakneck speed of 60,000 miles per hour, slammed into our home planet and kicked up so much debris that it created a "nuclear winter," blocking out the Sun's live-supporting rays. The plants were first to go, followed by the herbivores, and then the carnivores. It's a sad story, folks.

Soon, we're separated into groups and instructed to enter the institute's briefing room. Passing the Dino Institute shield, we can read that their motto is "Exploration - Excavation - Exultation." Get psyched for a little exultation, friends.

On a huge wallscreen, Dr. Helen Marsh joins us via a "live" video conference (and if you're a fan of the old "Cosby" show, you'll have no trouble recognizing who is portraying the estimable Dr. Marsh).

She welcomes us and explains that the "quaint" exhibits we've just left behind are not what the Institute really has to offer. You want to study dinosaurs? Then it's time to do so on a more personal basis. The Dino Institute technicians have developed the Time Rover, a vehicle that will take us 65 millions years in reverse and allow us to safely view these animals in their animated glory.

She hands us over to Dr. Grant Seeker (yuck, yuck, get it? "grant seeker"), a techie who's just supposed to explain the safety procedures. The ambitious Grant has a great idea - he's modified a Time Rover so that he can send us back to the very end of the Cretaceous period and have us grab a live iguanodon, bringing it back for further study. Sure, we'll be cruising through the primordial muck just minutes before that big ol' asteroid is supposed to hit... but, hey, don't worry... we'll get outta there in plenty of time. As if it's any reassurance, he promises to stay in contact, courtesy of our on-board "time link" radio communicators. Dr. Marsh steps in to firmly assure us and Dr. Grant that there's to be no fooling around; we are to make the previously assigned trip, without fail.

Of course, once she's left the room, Dr. Grant gives us the proverbial wink and sends us on our way.

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We're ushered down a hallway leading into the very depths of the Dino Institute, their "Underground Research Facility." As we step beneath the final transom, there's a sternly-written sign posted overhead. Friends, if you've got a young Thrillseeker in tow or are a bit weak of nerve yourself, you should read it and pay attention. Certain key phrases stand out in bold: "...highly turbulent... sharp drops... sudden turns... total darkness... frightening..." This ain't just hype, people. I saw more than one poor young soul step away from a Time Rover in tears, having failed to bail when they had the chance.

As many of you know well, CTE utilizes the same "motion-base" vehicles that rip through Disneyland's "Indiana Jones" mega-dark-ride. CTE is just as churning, just as violent, but it goes the Indy ride one better by adding the engrossing storyline, on-board audio and some real shocks. CTE is a Disney attraction but it is also - without question - the wildest, loudest, scariest sucker they've come up with to date. Be warned.

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In the dimly lit room, surrounded by throbbing, humming energy generators, we pile into our Time Rover. Our hosts have graciously included a personal belongings pouch in front of each seat, should the going get a little rough, and we are urged to take advantage of this option. Kiss Today goodbye; Yesterday beckons...

The Rover turns a corner and enters a tunnel lined with all sorts of shiny gizmos. Lights begin to flash; a thick fog envelopes the vehicle; a low grumble begins to build. We suddenly begin floating from side to side. Moving forward, we're surrounded by a field of twinkling star-like points of light and - Pow! - we shudder forward into darkness.

Our Time Rover cautiously rumbles ahead, swinging to the left... and on the right, a little too close for comfort, there they are - a whole mess o' dinos. Thankfully, they don't pay us much attention; you're a little grateful we made this trip at night. Yikes! - a towering alioramus, with its head held high, is finishing up a writhing one-course meal; all that's left to swallow is the swinging tail of one very unfortunate lizard. Gulp!

Dr. Seeker has a fix on the iguanodon's position; it's time to grab our cargo and get the heck home, and not a moment too soon. Fragments of the asteroid are already starting to rain down around us, spewing trails of white-hot vapor. We climb up a little hill, dodging the falling rock- whoa! - we careen off course, our headlights busted, thundering down into the pitch-blackness of uncharted territory. Looks like the dino droppings are about to hit the fan-

Aaaarrrgh! It's a carnotaurus! And he looks pretty danged hungry! This hulking, screaming (and I mean screaming) monster lunges, snaps and claws at us, inches from our soft, tender flesh. We respond with panicked hollering, cowering, sobbing - better put the pedal to the metal!

We plow away, lurching over the uneven terrain, with the carnotaurus hot on our tail. Uh, oh... the vehicle's power levels are dropping... and so are the flaming rocks! All bets are off, kiddies!

The Time Rover thunders ahead, rampaging out of control through the prehistoric undergrowth. Watch out for that nest of baby pterodactyls! We swerve in the nick of time, but Momma's comin' and she's ticked off! She swoops overhead, shrieking like a banshee. Ay Carumba!

Bigger chunks of stone are hitting and the ground is shaking hard. Man, where the heck is that iguanodon?! We shudder through another dark patch... our wheels are stuck in gravel! As the tires spin wildly to no avail, the Rover is immobile. Crunch! Something big is charging at us from the left... it's that tenacious carnotaurus! His head pokes around a tree and he ROARS. "Come on, move, baby, move!"

The wheel treads take a bite out of the terrain and we jump ahead... with the bellowing carnotaurus running alongside! At the last second, we escape, charging to the right. More bad news: we're informed that the Big One is gonna hit any second; all Hell is breaking loose, and if we don't get back into our Time Portal soon, we're gonna be extinct.

There's the iguanodon, standing on a splintered tree! Hop on, fella; we gotta split now. A huge log has fallen in our path! We swing this way and that- and here's comes that asteroid! It's total chaos: a roaring wind gathers with incredible force; the air echoes with ear-splitting screams; the carnotaurus is dead ahead! We're doomed!-

We rocket back into the Time Portal and home to the safety of the Institute. Holy muthah...

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Back where we started, we can see on overhead monitors that our little hitchhiker is now loose in the building, but that's now someone else's problem. Get me offa this thing!

Fellow Thrillseekers, compared with the gentle tranquility of the rest of the Animal Kingdom, Countdown To Extinction is completely insane. I had the chance to ride through this frantic maelstrom alone, and I'll tell ya, once the Rover got underway, I was plenty sorry I didn't have some company. Along with the overpowering sound and the wicked action of the vehicle, the threatening proximity of the robotic dinos is phenomenal. Surprisingly, there are one or two effects that wouldn't qualify as cutting-edge; the Momma pterodactyl diving from above is alittle below par and the carnotaurus' hide is painted a garish, unnatural orange. I figure the Imagineers hoped this detail might temper some of the more terrifying aspects of its attacks but if that's the case, they were blissfully unsuccessful.

As I've said on these pages before, Disney's got at whole new attitude 'bout thrill rides these days. Sure, they'll continue to create the G-rated wonders that kids of all ages can enjoy. But when it's time to play rough, they'll no longer shrink from the task. When the continuing work on the Asia section is complete late this year or early next year, we'll have the Tiger Rapids Run to quench our Thrillseeking thirst. And when the Disney/MGM Studio park's Rock & Roller Coaster clocks in for duty (whose nifty exterior is pictured at left/above), anybody who harbors lingering doubts about the Imagineers' new commitment to major scream machines will be silenced once and for all.

To all those talented professionals who were a part of CTE's development, I can only say: "keep on truckin'!" You good people are our salvation.

Animal Kingdom logo artwork and photography as indicated © 1998 The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.




© Robert Coker.
All Rights Reserved
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