Huge thanks to Graydon for providing us the amazing story of how he first met, and came to own, Beastly the Unicorn!
When Animal Kingdom was being planned, the park was to have a relaxing entrance area, The Oasis, that would lead guests onto Safari Village island. That was the starting point for the Wild Animal Kingdom adventure. The lands were to be balanced with 2 lands representing animals from 2 large continents, Asia and Africa, in the back of the park, and flanking each of them, a land for animals that have gone extinct to the right, and animals of myth and legend to the left. As design and financing moved along, Eisner and his finance team began cutting the budget (and the name) due to concerns over the continuing performance of Disneyland Paris. As construction began, it was finally decided that the now named Animal Kingdom park would open with the only lands being Africa, Dinoland USA, Safari Village, and the Oasis. Asia would open one year later, and Beastly Kingdom would come as a phase 2 land at some point in the future. The Imagineers did get funding for a place-marker land that would hold Beastly Kingdom’s spot, Camp Minnie Mickey. That area was constructed very shortly before the park opened to guests, and that was the “final” lay of the lands opening on Earth Day 1998.
The Discovery River Boats:
Encircling the Safari Village Island flows the Discovery River. One of the highly advertised attractions for the new park was the Discovery River Boats. It would give guests a thrilling boat ride along the Discovery River, as well as highlights of what they would see on their travels through each land. Oddly, the most developed of these areas was the section inside what would become Beastly Kingdom.
Africa only had a cluster of geysers as you came into the area, and a fishing boat on the beach as you passed next to the land.
Asia had a boat docked along the water by the bridge leading into what would become the land, and Asian cattle grazing on the waters edge in the area where the bulk of the land was to be built.
Passing through the lake area, that now hosts Rivers of Light, were large movable brightly colored fountains made of metal and cutout to look like fanciful animals.
Passing into Dinoland, there eventually would be a large animatronic Aladar splashing and drinking in the water. Aladar was a dinosaur from the original Countdown to Extinction attraction in Dinoland, and star of the computer generated film DINOSAUR. This was installed just before the park opened and well into Disney Resort Guest previews of the park.
The Beastly Kingdom section, however, had a great deal installed. As the boats sailed into the area that would host the land, they would start a gentle curve to pass next to Camp Minnie Mickey (soon to be Beastly Kingdom). If you looked off to the right, and almost behind you as the boat started is slow curve, there was a cove with a rock outcropping sitting on the edge of the water. Standing on it, rearing up was a Unicorn. It was bright white, lit with strobing lights, and also had fog machines. The effect was that, from the mist and strobe, it would appear that the creature was rearing up and actually moving. That never worked. I guess the Imagineers forgot the park was only open dusk to dawn so the lighting effect was lost in the bright Florida sun. As the boat completed the curve, it passed under the bridge leading into Camp Minnie Mickey and you could see ruins and glyphs carved into the rocks that supported the bridge. On the lower right side under the bridge, and built right against the base of the bridge, was a stone hut that looked like a small troll or some other creature had built its home there. Passing out from under the bridge, you would see a rock outcropping on the banks of the river to the right. It became clear very quickly that this outcropping was stacked to look like a dragon laying on the waters edge. Water flowed out of its open mouth and into the river. After that the boat would pass by the Dragon rocks and cave. Large spiky dark rocks jutted up from the river and along the shoreline. Mixed among them where the remains of Knights that had challenged the Dragon. Their suits of armor where draped on the rock partially melted and in pieces, one was even skewered on his lance outside the dark cave entrance. As the boat passed the cave opening, a roar would rumble out, then a ball of fire would shoot out at the trespassing boat. The boat would escape the danger and pass into Africa.
The attraction was far from the thrilling adventure promised in the opening advertisements, due to the budget cuts. The boats were slow, and unwieldy to maneuver. Add to that the open air nature of the boat in the Florida heat, combined with their metal roofs and the slow speed through what basically is a deep trench around the island with little or no breeze, made them hot and uncomfortable. And with so little to see along the way, the guest complaints began the first day. The ride was altered 2 times to make it more appealing. They removed the dead knights and suits of armor to make it more “family friendly.” The Unicorn was removed, aged to look like an old marble statue, and put back in without the strobes and fog machines. They added animal handlers with small animals or insects on board the boats to talk about them. That drew the attention away from what little there was outside the boat, however, and still didn’t increase their popularity. The second attempt was to pipe in a “radio broadcast” from “atop the Tree of Life” with bugs from Bugs Life and the Its Tough to Be a Bug attraction. That also wasn’t a hit. So, a year after the park opened, Michael Eisner came in, rode it, and ordered it shut down.
Most of the elements of the attraction stayed there on the rivers edge rotting. The fire was turned off for the Dragon cave, and Aladar was removed and shipped to Disney Studios Paris (only to end up as a piece in their boneyard on the Studio Shuttle Tour). His skin was stripped off and he eventually rusted so badly he was trashed. The boats were docked in storage and only used for special events. They finally made their way to Epcot for firework cruises. And thus ended the Discover River Boats.
The Myths of the Discovery River Boats:
There is a lot out there online about what was, and wasn’t, on the Discovery River Boat attraction, and why they closed. I have seen people post that the Knights were never in the park, that Aladar wasn’t installed, and that the unicorn was never there (it was just a rumor). I also have seen sites post that there was an audio-animatronic Dragon for a short time, or at least a head that came out of the cave and belched fire, or that lighted eyes could be seen in the cave.
My husband and I opened Animal Kingdom as Trainers in attractions for Dinoland, and some of what we got to do was to ride the attractions once they began operation. The Unicorn and Knights were there at that point. Aladar was put in just before park opening, but after previews had started. There never was a Dragon, head, or eyes in the cave. The Imagineers had designed and built a model of the dragon, but it got cut early on. However, because this was pre-cell phone, and really pre-digital camera, there is so little proof. Eventually things come up and people dig out old vacation videos…
Beastly the Unicorns History…or Uni-story:
At some point after the attraction closed, the Unicorn was removed from the waters edge. Not all that gently either. The problem was, because you could see it from the bridge leading into Camp Minnie Mickey, park management felt it was confusing to the guests since at this point, there were no immediate plans to build Beastly Kingdom. It was placed in an out of the way backstage area, and there it lay for years. The idea of Beastly Kingdom was eventually discarded by Eisner. Then, with Bob Iger in charge, something else would occupy the land held for Beastly Kingdom. With the announcement of Avatar, Land of Pandora, the idea of a land for animals of myth and legend was dead. Before construction began, the entire site had to be cleared of all the stuff laying around and that included the Unicorn.
In 2014, my husband Bob was on the computer one night, looking at the Disney Cast Hub. They have an online auction area, and he asked me where there was a unicorn in the parks. I told him the only one I could remember was from Animal Kingdom. He said there was one on auction. I looked at the picture, which was the size of a stamp, and it looked like what I remembered. The picture showed it laying on a pallet. The description simply read “This unicorn is sure to put a smile on your face, measures 5 ½ ‘ high by 12″ wide made of plaster”. We decided to bid on it, knowing what it actually was. But the size bothered me, I thought it was bigger, but I figured Disney always uses forced perspective and it was on the water on rocks so, it could be that size. We won the auction that week, and I planned to pick it up and put in the trunk of my car with the seats down. Bob convinced me to ask a friend to bring her truck instead, and I am glad we did. When we got to the storage area where they had it, I got out of the truck and walked over to it. It was on a pallet, a double wide pallet. And the 5 ½ ‘ (foot) high 12″ (inch) wide was a miss-type of ‘ and “. It was actually 12 feet high and 5 ½ feet wide from hoof to tail. Luckily, it was made of fiberglass. It was still heavy, but we managed to get in the back of the truck with its hind quarters, back legs, and tail hanging out the back, strapped it down and drove it home.
It sat in our garage for 8 months while I figured out how to mount it in the backyard. There are 3 mounting brackets attached to its back hooves and tail. Finally, after pouring 3 concrete pads with embedded large steel bolts, we called some friends and carried him out to the backyard. Luckily, my measurements were correct and he settled into place with little trouble. I bolted him in place and the first thing our friends asked was what his name was. It seemed fitting to name him after the land he was from so it became Beastly the Unicorn.
Since we have owned him, I have been searching for pictures or video of him in the park. We weren’t allowed to bring cameras to the park pre-opening, and we were blocked out of going to the park after it opened. I have located the blueprints showing his placement in the attraction but, there are no blueprints for the statue itself. Bob went to Animal Kingdom Show Documentation office, but Disney never photographed it for show documentation purposes. I even wrote Joe Rohdy (the parks lead Imagineer) and he replied that he wasn’t in on the details that closely. I also contacted Dave Smith at the Disney Archives in Burbank, and he said they don’t keep a photo library themselves and referred me to the Walt Disney Company photo archives. However, for that you need special access that they don’t give easily. Finally, some years ago, a friend was working on a project here at Walt Disney World and he was given access to the Disney Photo archives. He found the one image Disney has of Beastly in the attraction. He also found photos of the Knights around the Dragon cave. Because of the original posts I made seeking pictures of him, I have been asked about him by several sites. One was a story on YouTube about the Discovery River Boats. That vlogger did 2 updates to his original story, expanding on Beastly’s story after exchanging emails and photos with me. That lead to another blog doing a story on him specifically. In the story, he included Beastly’s Instagram and Facebook page links. From that another blogger, who details the stories of abandoned or re-homed attraction props, reached out for an interview about him. That has led to Beastly’s Instagram page gaining followers like crazy.
Beastly has become a member of the family really. We love having him, and love that people are so excited about him. The first Christmas we had him, we decided he needed to be dressed for it, and that was followed by dressing him for all other holidays. When you own a 12-foot-tall Unicorn what else do you do? But, his photos online get so many likes, and make people so excited, it makes it fun. We have not yet entertained the idea of visitors coming to see him. At least not those we don’t know. It’s more for his safety really, you just never know. He is, I think, one of the most unique Disney memorabilia items around. He is a one of a kind item from a land that was hinted at, but will never be built. He is truly unlike other attraction props.