The Dark Kingdom: The missing Disney theme park

The Dark Kingdom: The missing Disney theme park

For many kids, especially those who grew up with Walt Disney's animated features, the thought of being able to visit Disneyland was one of the most exciting prospects in the world. I myself am a child of the 90s and, when I was a kid, I was desperate to visit the Magic Kingdom and meet my favourite Disney characters in person when Walt Disney designed what was intended to be the happiest place on earth, and experience the same captivating enchantment that they felt while watching the big screen. Detractors often accuse Disney stories of being overly-sentimental. It's certainly true that a lot of adults, after growing up, find the Disney experience a bit too saccharine, and end up empathising more with those famous Disney villains than the heroes or princesses. But what if there was a theme park experience for those people, with sinister rides and a gothic environment? I can't be the only person out there clamouring for a dark Disney.

For years, rumours have circulated among theme park fans, that Disney was planning a park solely for Disney villains, something which the corporation has often denied. Something about Disney seems to inspire gossip and urban legends: just think about how many people believe the ridiculous story that Walt Disney had himself cryogenically frozen, for example.

But the company is also notoriously secretive about its business ventures and guards them very well. Still, a new theme park isn't something you can knock up in the space of an afternoon. It's a profoundly expensive endeavour. So is there any credence to the Dark Disney tittle-tattle? Or was the bad-guy theme park really in the pipeline at one point?

The first hint at a villain-exclusive venture occurred in 1991, when Disney, then owned by CEO Michael Eisner, opened the Disney Villains shop in Fantasyland. This gift shop was meant to sell spooky merchandise centred around Disney's most famous antagonists, in an attempt to appeal to adolescent or young adult fans.

This macabre boutique closed its doors for a brief period in 1997 when it was used exclusively to sell merchandise from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but it made a return a year later under the name of "The Villain's Lair." Another store called "Villains in Vogue" opened on September 14, 1998 at Disney's Hollywood Studios (then known as Disney-MGM Studios) in Walt Disney World, California, since the Orlando shop had performed so well. Since these had done well, there was talk of making more villain-focused attractions in the future.

Furthermore, Walt Disney World's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage was closing down. This expensive and expansive attraction had been a feature of the park since 1971 and, although the aquatic journey in the Nautilus was popular with guests, it was notoriously expensive to maintain, and had a low hourly loading capacity for an attraction of its size. It was closed in 1996 and, for a while, Disney had a vacant plot of land that they didn't know what to do with. Various ideas were tossed around by Imagineers (that's Disney's R&D for those of you who are confused by the term) but one proposal piqued the public's interest: Villain Mountain.

This concept was pitched as a high-octane flume ride in lieu of Splash Mountain, in which guests would ride Hades' ferry through a Disneyesque version of the underworld, encountering classic Disney villains along the way. This would culminate with an incredible climax with an animatronic version of the demon king Chernabog from Fantasia. Michael Eisner, who wanted a new attraction with which to counter Universal Studios'  Islands of Adventure, set to open summer of 1999, was apparently behind the project. Concept art and plans were drawn up in anticipation of the new concept, but nothing came of it. A lot of these concepts leaked on the internet and provoked feverish speculation on the part of Disney fans.

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But Disney held on the concept, and in the mid-2000s, another leak alleged that Disney was planning on building a brand new park called The Dark Kingdom, an evil reflection of the heroic Magic Kingdom. Apparently, the Dark Kingdom was to feature attractions based on Captain Hook, Ursula, Jafar, Gaston, and the centrepiece was meant to be Maleficent's forbidding cliffside castle. The site of this new park was planned to replace Disney's California Adventure, which had had disastrous attendance rates: at one point as few as 400 people attended California Adventure in a whole day, and Veteran Imagineer Marty Sklar once said of it: "I liked it better as a parking lot."

This concept also never got off the ground. There are many different reasons why this highly-profitable venture had to be cancelled, but chief amongst them was Disney's expensive acquisitions of Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm. Yup: Disney had just bought the rights to the whole Star Wars franchise, and nearly every Marvel superhero. These were hot properties; we know that Disney has been desperate to make the Star Wars franchise a key part of their theme parks and that was going to cost them. The newly-acquired properties were simply considered to be higher priority than any villain-themed park was, so again, the idea was shelved.

In recent years however, Disney Villains have only had more prominence, even though they don't have their own park yet. In 2014 Angelina Jolie starred as Sleeping Beauty villain Maleficent in an antagonist-driven origin story which made around $800 million, and Jolie has been quoted as stating that a sequel is being developed. In light of the success of this venture, Disney has also proposed that Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians be given her own movie, starring Oscar-winning actress Emma Stone, and over on the Disney Channel, Descendants, a live-action TV movie about the kids of famous Disney villains performed very well in terms of ratings.

Not only this but in 2013 a 13-hour Disney Villains event, entitled Villains Unleashed, was a sensation at Disney's Hollywood Studios. So there's clearly a profit to be made from Disney Villains; it's not as though people wouldn't want a park that caters to a dark Disney, but it seems to be no closer to fruition than it was back in the 90s. Demand is there, there's no question about that, but the actual business logistics of building a new park mean that it's always going to be unlikely.

As noted Disney historian and expert, Jim Hill, stated in a recent interview: "There's the way the public thinks Disney works and the way it actually works. The Dark Kingdom is a fantasy online because it's easy to build a park entirely out of rollercoasters or a place that celebrates Disney Villains. The hard reality is that since they opened Disney's Animal Kingdom, they haven't been about adding a fifth park because when they added the fourth one, it cannibalised attendance at other parks. It speaks volumes that Disney is spending $600 million [or more] on Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, when they spent two-thirds of that to build Animal Kingdom. It's more about making what we have here work."

Maybe one day we'll see a villainous version of a Disney park, and as Hill himself notes, no idea is ever completely thrown out, but currently it seems like a remote possibility. Still, if fans keep the dream alive then it could come true. Come on Disney: embrace the dark side for a change. In the meantime, check out how you could make an appearance in Star Wars Episode IX.

Featured illustration by Egarcigu