Dinoland U.S.A. – Badly Themed or Themed to be Bad?

Does Dinoland U.S.A in Disney’s Animal Kingdom get a bad rap for being a poorly themed area of the park, or are most guests overlooking the deeper story and detailed theming that exists here.

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I have to admit that at first, I was quite surprised that Disney seemingly put such little effort and time into an area of such a generally highly themed park. I was taken aback at the cheap looking rollercoaster and somewhat bothered by the use of another “off the shelf spinner” attraction that existed here. Not to mention the typical carnival games that suck even more money from my wallet. However, that was before I started to learn more about the story and started to look at the details that exist here. After gathering information from a number of sources, the story generally goes like this.

Diggs County (the official name of Dinoland U.S.A.) was nothing more than a speck on a map, allegedly along Florida’s Route 498 (Numbered for the opening date of Animal Kingdom, April 1998). Nothing significant existed on the property except an old gas station and fishing lodge.

One day, a few amateur fossil hunters were wandering through and discovered fossils in the area. After contacting their scientist friends and investors, they pooled their money to purchase as much of the land as possible, with the exception of one hold out, the young couple that ran the gas station, Chester and Hester. As the findings were found to be fairly significant they formed the Dino Institute and took over the fishing lodge for their headquarters. They gained popularity and notoriety in the scientific community, acquired additional funding, and added on to the lodge as much as possible until they finally out grew it.

Chester and Hester Actual Characters

The new Dino Institute was built providing a brand new building that was a significant upgrade from the fishing lodge. Now able to hold new equipment and techniques, they were able to develop Time Travel. For a fee, tourists were able to travel back in time at the Dino Institute and this fee would continue to fund the Institute’s research. (This is the attraction is now known as “Dinosaur”, but when it originally opened was “Count Down to Extinction”, and that helps it better tie into the story later on.)

Over time, Chester and Hester saw the influx of tourism to their small town. Not wanting to miss out on the flow of tourism dollars, they started by turning their gas station into a souvenir store, and put up signs along the highway to welcome and draw in visitors. (for those of you who know what I am talking about, think of Wall Drug in South Dakota.)

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As the area continued to grow, the tourism dollars continued to come in. The old fishing lodge was first turned into a cafeteria and lounge for the interns of the Dino Institute when the new building was built. Ultimately, the fishing lodge because a restaurant for tourists, and the intern’s influence on the now “Restaurantosaurus” can easily be seen in the theming and decoration on the walls.

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Eventually, in addition to the converted gas station/souvenir tourist trap, Chester and Hester decided to create their own ride, “Countdown to Extinction” calling it “Primeval Whirl”. (and this is where the old name of “Dinosaur” actually ties the two together. The theming of “Primeval Whirl” is also traveling back in time and counting down to the dinos’ impending doom.) Additionally, they added TriceraTop Spin as well as several carnival games, all Dinosaur themed of course.

Once we understand the backstory, we can start to see how the details of the land add to the story. You can see why they used old tires as planters. You can tell that the shop is supposed to look tacky and themed to be like one of the old roadside stands you see all over the country. Even the pavement is themed for the land. The “highway” runs from where the area starts, and down in front of the souvenir shop, and is intentionally themed to look like a rundown highway. The “parking lot” that the attractions sit on is actually not a parking lot at all. It is in fact stamped and dyed concrete that has been carefully cracked and painted, including the parking lot striping, to look like an old run down parking lot.

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Even the carnival games themselves have that “kitschy” feel to them. However, you’ll notice that none of the prizes you win are Disney related. They are all things like Dinosaurs and snakes, etc. as Disney would not let their own images be associated with the land. That’s all part of the theming as well.

Even the Restaurantosaurus makes a lot more sense once you understand that it was a converted fishing lodge that was used by interns and students as a lounge. It helps tie the lodge theming with all the tacky knick knacks and demonstrates the intern’s love of tacking “osaurus” onto anything they could.

I think that most people can agree that the theming does match the story well. It would be difficult to argue otherwise. However, now that we can agree on general acceptance that the land is intentionally themed to be cheap and tacky because that is the backstory, the point is easily argued that even with the understanding of the backstory, the theme is not something that should be in a Disney park, let alone Animal Kingdom.

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If we look at Animal Kingdom as a whole, it seems to be very focused on environmentalism, conservation, and education. To go from hyper-realistic African and Asian environments, with wildlife, to a replica of a roadside tourist trap does not really seem to fit in. At the same time, they are building Pandora, a completely imagined environment, but at least it fits into the themes or environmentalism and conservation, if it relates to broad themes of the movie.

Don’t misunderstand me. I do like the area, and I appreciate it even more now that I understand the story better. There are lots of small touches that you don’t notice, or understand, until you know the story behind the area. It also reminds me of many road trips that I have taken, and actually seen places that are almost exactly the same as what’s in Animal Kingdom. On the other hand, I know a lot of people don’t like it or think it’s actually cheap, not themed to be that way. Sure, it’s no Expedition Everest, but it’s not supposed to be. That area was a lot more expensive to build than it looks, and that means that Imagineering did their job.

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So in summary, it is a well themed area that is themed to look bad. That may not come across right away to the average guest who is just passing through, wondering why Disney would have place these tacky rides in a parking lot in the corner of Animal Kingdom. However, just because it’s supposed to be that way, and fits the story, does not necessarily mean that the area fits in the park as a whole. I also find it interesting that I hear two very distinct sides of this argument. I have heard some “insiders” say that this is one of their favorite lands in all of Disney World. I have also hear from people, that do understand the backstory, that they think it’s an eyesore that needs to be replaced.

Also, as a point of reference, here’s a few pictures I found of actual roadside attractions that are similar to what Disney is going for:

Dino World Cave City KY

Dino World Plant City FL

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What do you think? Do you love it or hate it? Should it be there or not? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section below.

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Also, if you ever have any questions that you want me to address specifically in an article, or article suggestions, please feel free to contact me directly at saddlesoreswanson@gmail.com.

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One thought on “Dinoland U.S.A. – Badly Themed or Themed to be Bad?

  1. Even though it’s “themed to be bad,” that was only done because they weren’t given the budget to do something really good. They did a wonderful job within those limitations.

    That said, the current theme is not emotionally or aesthetically compelling like rest of the park. And dinosaurs have tremendous resonance with people. As a result, Dinoland has HUGE untapped potential. Imagine volcanic rock work with fossils, etc., in the C&H area, and a small coaster through that. Imagine that the pathways are redesigned to draw people towards the entrance to Dinosaur, with Dinosaur: Countdown to Extinction being plussed with scenery in lieu of the current pitch-black areas. Suddenly we’d have another great land at AK.

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