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Disney World's Animal Kingdom Turns 18, but It Hasn't Grown Up Yet

By Rick Munarriz - Apr 22, 2016 at 8:06AM

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Disney World's fourth theme park opened 18 years ago, but there's a lot of change in the year ahead.

Image source: Disney.

It's Earth Day, and this means that Walt Disney's (DIS -1.11%) Animal Kingdom opened 18 years ago on this day. This was supposed to be a pretty special day for Disney World's fourth theme park. Animal Kingdom would be open well into the evening, debuting a new slate of nighttime entertainment that would include safari jeep rides in the dark showcasing nocturnal animals, animated projections on the Tree of Life centerpiece, and the Rivers of Light show as a dazzling celebration of all things fauna.

It's not happening -- at least not tonight. The park will be closing at 6:30 p.m. EST tonight, more than an hour before the sun sets. It remains Disney World's only anti-vampire attraction, refusing to stay open after dusk. A technical glitch with a major component of the Rivers of Light show is reportedly the cause for the delay that was announced a few weeks ago, and there's no timeline for when it will be corrected. Disney plans to offer a public update on the situation next month. 

The theme-park giant hosted a media event earlier this week, and it treated theme-park bloggers and travel journos to a small segment of the eventual show without many of its special effects. It also announced that a new show -- based on this month's box office hit, The Jungle Book -- will take place along the park's Discovery River this summer, suggesting that it may be several months before Rivers of Light is ready.

Disney isn't waiting. It took advantage of the media event this week to announce that all of the nighttime Animal Kingdom attractions outside of the Rivers of Light will debut during Memorial Day weekend. It's going to be a game changer, especially during the seasonally potent summer months when the park's particularly scorching during the day. 

From the Avatar-themed expansion that was originally supposed to open this year -- it's on track for a 2017 debut -- to Rivers of Light getting pushed out to who knows when, Disney World's fourth theme park can't seem to make things easy. However, as a result of neglect and massive attraction closures at Disney's Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom did overtake Disney's movie-themed park to become its third most-popular Florida park. 

Right now -- turning 18 today -- Animal Kingdom is still a work in progress. Next year, when it's operating beyond a pre-sunset curfew, and with several new nighttime experiences and the impressive recreation of Avatar's Pandora, it's going to be far-more impressive as a 19-year-old.

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