Not too many years ago, Disney toyed with crafting an upscale, separate-admission, after-hours experience at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (DAK), to be called Night Kingdom. That plan would use additional facilities not seen during the daytime and have lots of one-on-one attractions (ziplines, rhino encounters, etc), and it would cost a pretty penny.
I’ve seen DAK at night before and had the chance to do it again recently, since they are staying open until 8pm some nights now, and I have to say that I truly understand the logic behind their initial explorations of leveraging this park in the dark. It’s spectacular, and we’ll unpack some of the reasons below. Night Kingdom as a concept is dead now, though they’ll probably eventually build some kind of boutique park. But you can sample a bit of it with the extended DAK hours currently occurring.
Not too lit.
Whenever the subject of DAK’s usual closing time comes up, people inevitably say that the park isn’t geared for nighttime operation. The first argument usually has to do with the animals. They go to bed by twilight, which means that the marquee attraction (the safari jeep ride) has to close at dusk, and the animal walks as well. Fine, but the park has other attractions. The rides can certainly stay open later, and indeed that’s what we found when we visited recently. Even Kali River Rapids was open the whole time. It was extremely dark by the time the park closed, but this ride was still soaking guests. I should have gone just to say I’ve done it in the dark.
The place just looks more interesting at night.
After sundown, this park takes on a magical glow. I know I sound like a Disney publicist as I write that, but it’s true. I only have to point to the ladybug lights near First Aid to prove my point. The vast majority of Disney theme parks don’t have touches like this to really sparkle when the sun goes down, but this one does. Knee-level posts provide illumination just often enough to make the park look enchanting.
This was obviously planned for nighttime operations.
I am reminded most of Disneyland. Specifically, the West Side of Disneyland from the 1980s (Frontierland / New Orleans Square / Bear Country). The impression comes partly from the fact that there are few people in DAK at this hour (just like West Side Disneyland in the 80s), but mostly from the way the illumination works. It doesn’t overpower. Proper theme park lightning at night is subdued. It doesn’t overkill you with color palettes, and it does leave room for shadow and dimness. There should be patchy parts where the light doesn’t fully penetrate. It’s not Stygian darkness—you won’t bump into people—but it’s also not floodlit.
Not too lit.
Sadly, most of Disney World *is* floodlit at night. I’d never accuse the Magic Kingdom of feeling like Disneyland after dark, and lighting is one of the biggest reasons. Today’s lawsuit-happy culture encourages WDW to over-light its parks, with the result that you never get the magical feeling I remember and still crave. Walt Disney once claimed that nighttime was his favorite time of day at Disneyland, and the evidence over the decades (including my own memory!) insists that the lighting was left subdued enough to be the deciding factor. Installing floodlights might make someone less likely to trip and fall, but it also means the place seems less magical.
I do like the magical lighting of the Tree of Life. Much of the success here lies with the way they use lights inside the branches and leaves to illuminate it internally, rather than from outside. Bravo. It does much to feel different from “standard” lighting and thus feel more magical.
Internally-lit = exciting!
Speaking of ambient lighting, one explanation for the customary early closing time of DAK is that the park is not rigged for late operation in terms of lighting. To this I reply “poppycock.” If simply walking through the park after dark is not enough to convince you, I urge you to venture into the alternate path between Africa and Asia (it usually leads to the smoking area). You’ll find the foliage behind the path, out where there was once a completely unmarked but on-stage walking path in the dirt and stones, to be brilliant lit. It’s kind of exciting to see, actually.
For all the beauty of the after-dark park, though, the crowds did not stick around to see it this past weekend. The park had been busy during the day, but after the safari closed and the final Lion King bade goodbye, the crowd evaporated and the deeper regions of the park, especially, were deserted. I completely understand them not keeping Conservation Station and the train open. I’m sure they would have been 100% unpopulated if they had. In fact, I was a little shocked they kept open so many food and merchandise carts. Extrapolated to the larger park, these trends explain why the park often is NOT kept open late. Frankly, it’s hard to blame the executives on this one. I’d probably do the same if put in their shoes. Without crowds to justify staying open late, why would you stay open late? “If you build it they will come” doesn’t work if there’s nothing built.
Purple exterior lighting looks nice.
Hence the chicken-and-egg question for this park. Do they stay away at night because there are no attractions, or do the designers build no attractions because people don’t stay late? For me, this is a simple equation. If they build more (if they build ENOUGH), then people will stay late. They leave because the park still *is* a half-day park. They need more rides, certainly.
But other attractions would help. Certainly Avatar, when it comes, will change this balance. Especially if they build it on the site of the current Camp Minnie-Mickey, they will probably keep it open late so they can close the rest of the park, and empty guests directly out to the busses and parking lot.
The Dino-Rama carnival is ideal for nighttime.
Even though the concept is currently dead, I still hold out hope they will install a nighttime parade at the park. They really have conditioned their guests to expect a nighttime spectacular in the parks as reward for staying late. Absent any such show, they leave early. This isn’t just a decades-ago kind of observation; simply look at how attendance patterns changed after DCA opened World of Color. They’ve previously mapped out a nighttime parade called Rivers of Light (essentially, a next-generation SpectroMagic), and I hope it’s on the table to resurrect those plans if attendance calls for it.
Here are a few quickie updates to changes to the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom card game in the MK:
- To make the games go quicker, they’ve made some (all?) of the games last four stations rather than five.
- The medium level is now available if you’ve beaten the entire ‘easy’ mode. On medium, you might have to attack a villain twice rather than once, and you might have to use two cars at the same time. But it’s still hard to lose. They should have ratcheted up the difficulty level more.
- Spell cards ‘learn’ over time. If you use Frozone again and again and again, eventually its attack will change onscreen. Cool! (no pun intended)
- Cards 60-70 in the deck are no longer given out. These are the ‘rare’ cards and will be sold as a pack.
The Cast Crunch
I’ve heard from a Disneyland CM acquaintance that the parks in Anaheim have become super-strict on sign-in privileges. In theory, the rule has long been that you were supposed to stay with the visitors that you let into the park for free using your Main Gate Pass. In practice, for decades they have turned a blind eye to deviations from the policy. Cast Members, even those in costume, would show up at the Main Gate, let in some family or even just friends, and then report back to work. No one had to stay with anyone. There was no need to skulk about or hide the behavior; it was simply accepted practice.
A year ago, on my last visit to Anaheim, I heard rumblings that they were going to be more strict with the policy. Be that as it may, the enforcement didn’t seem to be in place then. Lately I’ve heard a different story, though. Several CMs, including at least one manager, had their sign-in privileges (basically, the Main Gate Pass) revoked for not staying with their party.
That’s a sad turn of events. While I understand the park’s position, it’s a fairly un-friendly thing to do to the folks who work for you. Why make it hard for people to want to stay in your employ? It’s a small thing, to be sure, but these things do add up.