The main theme behind Disney’s Animal Kingdom is – and has always been – wildlife conservation. To help really drive that message home, CEO Michael Eisner loved the idea of a hard-hitting storyline about evil poachers on Kilimanjaro Safari. It was only a side storyline, with the main draw of the attraction being the live animals in a safari-like setting like it is today, but the end result was maybe a little too harsh for the Disney park crowds. This led to backlash and the complete removal of this plot. Let’s talk about the beloved elephants – Big Red and her young baby, Little Red.

Kilimanjaro Safari opened alongside Disney’s Animal Kingdom on April 22, 1998. Besides the storyline of Big Red and Little Red, it was almost exactly the same attraction it is today. It was a peaceful, sightseeing experience with live animals in “Africa.” That is until guests were shocked as they stumbled upon something horrifying.

Safari Jeep

In the queue, guests watch Warden Wilson Mutua introduce us to some of the animals we might see on our safari. Two of these animals are the aforementioned elephants named Big Red and her young calf Little Red. The video shows clips of them playing together, bathing, walking around, and generally being adorable. Signs hung on all the walls around you asking that you look for and report any signs of poaching to the nearest ranger post. Later guests loaded onto their jeep and saw beautiful animals like giraffes, zebras, and even lions. Guests would occasionally hear warnings on the walkie-talkie radio from the warden to keep an eye out for poachers, who may be targeting the animals.

Everything is going splendidly until the jeep drives right next to the body of Big Red; a pretty graphic scene – she has been killed and poached. While her body was not that of a real elephant, just a lifelike figure, most kids probably would not understand that. Even worse, her baby, Little Red, is nowhere to be found.

Big Red's Body

Just as we are trying to mourn the loss of Big Red, we see the poacher’s jeep drive by. Our safari jeep speeds up to chase them. Both jeeps are neck and neck for the majority of the chase. The only thing separating us is a couple of geysers that keep erupting. Finally, the poacher’s jeep gets away, or so it seems. However, our jeep soon catches up to find the poachers captured by the warden’s guards and held at gunpoint.

Luckily, the animatronic Little Red can be seen safely inside the guard’s jeep. He is alive and well, but still motherless. Your tour guide & driver might have even said something like “That’s Little Red! We rescued him from the poachers after they killed his mom!” You know, just in case the already frightened and vulnerable kids did not fully understand the storyline before. Now they do. Oops.

The Elephant, Little Red

Believe it or not, the full storyline and graphic Big Red scene did not even last longer than the cast member and annual pass holder previews. The huge backlash and angry letters from parents came immediately. This resulted in the body of Big Red being removed for the grand opening of Animal Kingdom. It was never put back, either. Instead, There were changes to the script that alluded to Big Red’s death. Even that was too much for parents though, so there were more changes to the script that specified that Big Red was also in the custody of the warden’s guards and was “going to be just fine.”

Slowly and slowly though, the effects of the storyline were removed. First, the plane and jeep chase portions were removed. Then in 2012, the final scene where the poachers are captured and Little Red was saved was also removed. Finally, the geysers and poacher’s campsites were removed.

Today, the queue is still pretty much the same. There are still signs all over the walls advising guests to report any signs of poachers. Warden Wilson Mutua still tells guests all about Big Red and Little Red in the pre-show video, even though you cannot find them in the attraction itself anymore. A few years ago, we were able to see a real mother and baby elephant on the ride. It was not Big Red and Little Red, of course. It was a natural coincidence that an elephant just happened to recently give birth in Animal Kingdom.

While we understand the importance of such a hard-hitting theme on Kilimanjaro Safari, as parents, we also get why it had to be removed. If The Walt Disney Company was ever able to build an adult-only theme park – these graphic scenes and storyline likely would have been more successful.