First things first, I highly encourage you to read Tom's post if you haven't. No worries, I'll wait.
All good? Faboo!
Animal Kingdom opened in 1998. Like all theme parks, you open a park with just enough to get people in the gates to start bringing in cash flow. Then, when you see what works and what doesn't work, you make adjustments and additions (and, in some cases, remove things that simply don't work).
As an example, think of visiting the Magic Kingdom today, but we remove the following attractions: Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, the Carousel of Progress, the TTA, and Big Thunder Mountain. These were add-ons post-opening.
Or, another example, picture visiting Disney's Hollywood Studios, but without Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, Star Tours, Muppet*Vision 3D, Beauty and the Beast: Live on Stage, Voyage of the Little Mermaid, and Tower of Terror. Again, add-ons that took some time to show up in the park.
It is expected that within the first five years of operation, you should add a quick succession of new and exciting things to keep a park fresh and relevant and build a fan base by encouraging repeat business. This usually involves tossing money at a park.
Why didn't Animal Kingdom get that infusion of revenue? Two big issues come to mind. First, a LOT of money was being shuffled off to California to finish Disney's California Adventure, which opened in 2001. Although I wasn't in on board meetings, my guess is that the thought was that these two parks would be come financial sister parks. When DCA was done and in its opening year surge, that money would be sent back to Florida to do the phase two attractions for Animal Kingdom. Then, when Animal Kingdom had its surge, that money would go back to DCA. When this method works, it works great. When one of the parks doesn't live up to financial expectations (yeah, I'm looking at you EuroDisney!), then it can really gum up the works.
Two snags came up in this plan in this case. First, DCA wasn't as successful as it had been hoped, largely due (in my view) to a complete misread about "local pride". Californians have a large number of "California" parks that are easily accessible and less expensive than a Disney product. Why would someone spend a lot of money to go to a replica of a Californian boardwalk experience when you could drive a few miles up the road and go to the real thing in Long Beach for a fraction of the price. As a result, DCA wasn't the draw that the bean counters had hoped, and so there wasn't money to put back into the pool.
But far greater an issue was the tragedies of September 11, 2001 and the way that fear (and in some cases logistics and financial issues) kept people from traveling. I had the experience to be living in Orlando on that date, and I don't think I can describe in words just how severe a hit to the tourism industry that one day made. I'm sure there are spreadsheets out there talking about the financial losses in hard numbers, but within 24 hours, everything suddenly stopped. It took several years for things to settle, but when everything finally did return back to normalcy, I have no doubt that every theme park and resort area was put on a big board and put in order of needs to try and assess where the money needed to be spent.
If it took a decade to resolve the eyesore, potential liability juggernaut, and income draining abyss that was the second half of Pop Century (now Art of Animation), then no surprise that Animal Kingdom wasn't getting money. Even if Animal Kingdom wasn't (and isn't) as great as it could be, at least it wasn't a series of abandoned hulls of buildings! And although Animal Kingdom might be near the top of needing a creative infusion on some people's lists, DCA was a much bigger problem. As in a billion dollar problem. So once again, any money that would have been allocated for big expansions in Animal Kingdom went west. To throw a bone to Animal Kingdom, the park was given Everest and Finding Nemo: The Musical.
All in all, whether it is a statement people agree with or not, the higher ups don't see Animal Kingdom as being the worst disaster in the Disney portfolio. With it as the fourth-most visited amusement park in the United States, it is easy to see why they aren't concerned about the rate of feet through the gates.
Nonetheless, when they saw a marketing bonanza to jump on (whether because they saw value in it or simply saw the value in denying it to that other theme park area down the road), they took it, and they needed the space available in Animal Kingdom to make it work. Thus, Avatar coming to Animal Kingdom, whether for good or bad, was born. Like any other theme park decision, it is all about dollars more than sense. ;)
That all being said, I think there's still room for improvement at Animal Kingdom. What would I do to "fix" some of the "problems" with Animal Kingdom? (Yes, this is a case of "If I ran the Nahtahzu"...)
1. Take Dinoland USA and make that the location for "Avatar Land". Put in a new E-ticket ride (although not necessarily a thrill ride!), but then also take Dinosaur and make it into an Avatar-themed experience. What kind of Avatar-themed experience? As I've not seen the movie, I have no idea what would work specifically, but that's why I'm not in charge of that project.
2. Move Camp Minnie Mickey to Rafiki's Planet Watch. Or, specifically, since the only major thing that is there is Festival of the Lion King, move that to a new theater back at Rafiki's Planet Watch. You can also add the character meet and greet trails back there as well, whether you do them outside or do them in an air conditioned facility. I'd also put a kid-centric quick service dining option back there, as well as a water play area. Yes, I'm talking about putting something for the kids to do out of the way, but remember--no Dinoland USA means no Boneyard play area and no Dumbo knock-off, so you need to redirect those kids somewhere to keep the grown ups happy, too.
3. Let the dust settle on those moves, and then really look at the real estate you've got at the current Camp Minnie Mickey. That's a valuable property there--close to the entrance and ready for new development. And who knows...there might be some other big-name project that can be synergized into that slot, for a licensing fee. What I'd love to see? South America--perhaps to tie in with the new theme park that will someday open in South America, maybe connected to the currently furloughed Jungle Cruise movie. There's lots of possibilities with that idea, however.
And that is my quick "gee, I can't believe it is Friday and I have how many deadlines" look at why Animal Kingdom is the way it is and what I think would be an easy way to resolve some of the major issues without breaking the bank.
But in the end...seeing an influx of cash going towards Animal Kingdom would be a nice surprise. After all, it does get the feet in the gate. Why not give them revenue to match those kind of attendance numbers?