Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened on Earth Day in 1998. During the early design and development phases, it was decided that the theme park would be split into three different areas. These areas were to be based on animals that currently inhabit the earth, animals from the past, and animals that only exist in our imaginations. Guests can walk anywhere in the park to see live animals and sometimes interact with them. The dinosaur area was originally planned to be a bit more technologically interesting, but the budget was cut. The area of the park with mythical, fantastical creatures was going to be called the Beastly Kingdom, which would have featured creatures like unicorns and dragons.

Unfortunately, though, Disney’s accountants had seriously underestimated the cost of a theme park-zoo hybrid like the Animal Kingdom. Since the presence and care for live animals was a crucial element for the new park, budgets had to be cut for something else. CEO Michael Eisner wanted to help promote their upcoming film, Dinosaur, so the Beastly Kingdom had to be postponed. Eisner planned to build it in “phase 2” of Animal Kingdom’s expansion., but that never worked out. Today, the area that was supposed to be the Beastly Kingdom is Pandora–The World of Avatar.

Discovery River Boats

Discovery River Boats was an opening day attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The attraction functioned like the railroad attractions in other Magic Kingdom-style parks; you could also compare it to the Monorail in some ways. Guests could take the entire tour around the park or use it to disembark in another area for easier, and possibly more entertaining, transportation than on foot.

Guests got onto a riverboat at one of two docking stations in the park. They could s ride the boat to the next station or get off at the original station after making a full circle tour around the river. Tour guides would bring around live, caged creatures for guests to look at as they also explained their park surroundings like a real riverboat tour. Creatures included the likes of geckos, scorpions, etc. Around the riverbanks were live birds and other small animals that tour guides would talk about, similar to Kilimanjaro’s Safari.

Original docking station

The initial plan for Discovery River Boats was to have lots of interesting show elements, highlighting and promoting other elements of Animal Kingdom. When the Beastly Kingdom was cut, Imagineers still wanted to keep some of the mythical creature scenes in this attraction.

During cast member and pass holder previews, before the official opening day, there was a scene that was quickly removed. In this scene, an unseen dragon hidden in the caves would shoot fire into the open air as boats passed by. The most gruesome part? Outside the cave were graphic depictions of the charred human remains of the dragon’s previous victims. Obviously, this was not well received by parents and other guests, so these remains were removed before the official opening date.

Fire breathing Dragon

The hidden dragon element was only made because the original plan for a full-size animatronic dragon had to be scratched. Eisner wanted to build a full-scale iguanodon dinosaur animatronic to help promote Countdown to Extinction. Countdown to Extinction was the first version of the ride now called Dinosaur in the Animal Kingdom. So, a life-size iguanodon was built. What became of this animatronic after the removal of its home attraction? He was skinned and sent to Disneyland Paris to be displayed as part of their tram tour.

Iguanodon animatronic on the Discovery River Boats

The negative feedback for the riverboat ride was really intense. The ride was boring and confusing, and the violent and graphic nature of the removed dragon scene was still lingering over Eisner and Imagineers. Overall, guests really hated the attraction. Sometimes it is the rides like this that make you think, what if the Beastly Kingdom were created instead of DinoLand at the Animal Kingdom? Could Discovery River Boats have been more successful? What if The Walt Disney World Company had enough money in the budget to create the original plan for the park with all three themed areas? How would Walt Disney World be different today? Would Pandora even exist? We will probably never know. For now, all we can do is remember this weird attraction for what it was.

Abandoned Discovery River Boats docking station

If you would like to see the old riverboats or docking stations, they are still there! While crossing any of the bridges over water in the parks, look down that river and see what you find. Only one of these boats was removed. It is now used at the Transportation and Ticket Center to bring guests to and from the Magic Kingdom.