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Road Trip: Birds Gone Wild

On the first day of Animal Kingdom’s new bird show, the birds were delightfully unscripted.

When the Great Hornbill ran onstage and an animal trainer tried to lure him offstage without being noticed, the audience suspected something was afoul. When the chickens took off in several different directions, all doubt fled — these birds had gone off script.

At the first day of Animal Kingdom’s new bird show, UP! A Great Bird Adventure, I was skeptical, but excited. The former bird show, Flights of Wonder, had a beautiful blend of education and entertainment (including the classic line that paid homage to Florida’s early tourist attractions like Weeki Wachee, Parrot Jungle and Sarasota Jungle Gardens, uttered by the hapless tour guide: “Nothing says Florida like a bird on a bicycle”), and when it closed with promises of a new show featuring characters from UP!, I cringed. Disney’s two less-kid-friendly parks, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom, seem to have launched a kid-friendly campaign. 

This is bad news on at least one front: part of the appeal of these two parks, for many, is the void of shoulder-to-shoulder parents lecturing crying toddlers that “we spent a lot of money and you’re going to have a good time” while ignoring they’ve wholly and completely disrupted their child’s routine and they’re damn lucky the kid isn’t having a meltdown by noon. First, Inside the Magic at the Studios closed. I worked at Inside the Magic and mourned its closing because of that, but I understood the reasoning — at one point it was a one-hour walking tour of the studio’s production and soundstage facilities, and not even adults are wont to spend an hour learning about foley stages and editing bays. Next, the companion Backlot Tour closed to make way for an expanded Toy Story Land, and I took that a little harder — this, along with the Great Movie Ride (now also shuttered) were the main attractions of the Disney-MGM studios when it opened in 1989. 

And now the same kid-rification seems to be sweeping through Animal Kingdom. Et tu, Flights of Wonder?

Still, it’s Disney, and entertainment is their business, so Sunday afternoon we waited with other media outlets to see what new wonders awaited.

Disney did not disappoint, and part of the reason is probably not what the parks creative team expected: bedlam. 

The show opens with a woman talking about her homeland, India (the show is scored with Indian music that’s quite calming and somewhat reminiscent of a yoga class). While she’s in the middle of a dance, a bird trainer peeks his head out and extends his hand, filled with some sort of bird treat, we assume — and that’s when the audience notices a Great Hornbill onstage, not really doing anything but kind of checking stuff out. The woman onstage seems not to notice, until she does. She plays it off well, and soon her focus is on the larger-than-life Russell and Dug, characters from UP! — this part clearly delights the kids sitting by us, suggesting Disney hit its mark with this new show. 

And then there were chickens, entering stage right and exiting… well, not where they were supposed to exit and, if I had to guess, not when they were supposed to exit, either. They flocked into the audience, under people’s legs, through the aisles… ultimately, someone backstage dispatched a chicken wrangler to corral the last of them. Onstage, the live actors didn’t miss a beat — chicken puns flew back and forth, with the jokes about the hens’ names — Waffle, for example — and hentertainment. Clearly the actors had prepared for this possibility. 

The birds continued to ad lib here and there, and the show followed the script around them. The Dug and Russell interactions didn’t annoy me as much as I’d feared, but, honestly, the show doesn’t need Russell and Dug — unless you’re a kid. For adults, though — especially adults conscious of cruelty and kindness — the show has a magic all its own. It’s not light on education and it also takes an anti-pet bird stance. As a former parrot owner, seeing the macaws take flight over the audience was breathtaking — and hearing the performers tell people that parrots don’t make good pets was even better. One of the other parrots was a surrendered pet, and that, too, gives the show some kindness credibility. (SeaWorld has run a rescued pet show for a while, but their abject cruelty to every other animal in its park more than negates that.)

The trained performances and casual education, yes, made the show fun — but what made this show great was the unpredictability of the birds themselves. Holdovers from Flights of Wonder, like Fraser Crane, returned and performed on cue. But new additions didn’t always respond as expected; the African eagle stopped the show — literally. When he wouldn’t fly offstage at the appropriate time, the emcee explained that, as the African eagle was a bird of prey, it would be a less-than-happy ending to the show if they brought out the next bird before this one returned to its roost. 

These hiccups were OK, with the trainers, the performers and, most importantly, the audience. For a long time, Disney didn’t use real animals, for a plethora of reasons. Animal Kingdom, as a park, took a chance when it opened 20 years ago. On super-cold days, the Kilimanjaro Safari won’t have as many animals out and about; the primates on the monkey island aren’t always up for an acrobatic exhibition; and I’ve personally seen a lemur masturbate a few feet away from a little boy, who turned to his dad and asked, “What’s he doing?”

Look, at this point, hardcore Disney people are used to the magical. We get that it’s a cast member’s job (for non-Disney people, that’s “employee”) to delight us. We expect every experience to be perfect and amazing. After all, that’s literally why we bought the ticket. And we’re jaded. 

To see a show go off the rails — without any of the cast members losing their cool — is something Disney cannot script. And, in all probability, it won’t happen that often. The birds will adapt to the sweaty tourists reacting to them catching a grape in mid-air. They’ll settle into their routine. 

But every now and then, they won’t. The eagle will watch the macaws fly with a calculating stare. The chickens will break rank. Someone in the audience will get pooped on. And Disney will allow it.

And that, my friends, is the true magic of Disney. 

This article originally appeared in Creative Loafing.