Those roars coming from Disney’s Animal Kingdom aren’t necessarily from its four-legged residents. The theme park experienced new waves of human-based outbursts this month as its “Festival of the Lion King” show was re-restaged to incorporate fan favorites, including the tumble monkeys.
The production has been monkey-free since Walt Disney World’s pandemic shutdown began in March 2020. The park reopened four months later, and a revised version of the show — dubbed “A Celebration of the Festival of the Lion King” — was unveiled at Animal Kingdom in May 2021. It ran until early July of this year.
The new name was longer, but the show’s ranks were thinner, a move considered a pandemic precaution, which benched the tumble monkey characters and grounded the birdlike aerialist.
Now things are more like the olden days of, oh, 2019 in the Harambe Theater. The four tumblers in each show have been greeted by enthusiastic cheers when introduced. Although I can’t say their routines are exactly the same as before, it’s close enough during an up-tempo version of “Hakuna Matada” that again featuring trampoline work, acrobatics, dramatic swings dramatically from high bar to high bar, full body slams, a human ladder bit and a snippet of “Yes! We Have No Bananas.” (More on “Bananas” later.)
The performers I saw also got into the monkey-like business of the roles with expressive faces and animal behaviors incorporated. That added humor and spark.
The show goes for the awe factor with a performer who flies tethered above the stage and audience during the “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” ballad, a birdie pas de deux that takes flight. The audience sitting with me, six days after the show’s return, watched intently but mostly held their applause until the end of the number.
For the uninitiated, “Festival of the Lion King” features four live singers, the costumed Timon character on stage, dancers in animal-inspired costumes, stilt walkers, a fire twirler, floats with big animatronics alongside the four acrobats and aerialists. The stage rolls out to the center of the space, surrounded on four sides by audience members, and transforms into multiple looks as visitors watch. The music is from Disney’s 1994 “Lion King” film and material unrelated to the film. The story is not a retelling of the motion picture.
The show opened along with Animal Kingdom in 1998. It debuted in an open-sided theater in the Camp Minnie-Mickey area. The structure later was enclosed. Then, Camp Minnie-Mickey was closed to make room for Pandora: The World of Avatar and a virtual clone of the theater was built in the park’s Africa section. The current space opened in 2014.
The recent reboot hasn’t reset the entire production to where it was in the beforetimes. It is not preceded sides of the theater being assigned animal counterparts and learning to mimic their noises. (How else would you know the sound of a giraffe?) I was never a big fan of that part, but it tied in effectively with the crowd participation during “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” There’s also no parade of youngsters on floor during that song, which added chaos to the proceedings.
The subtractions align with the trend of shorter theme-park shows, including the new “Finding Nemo: The Big Blue … and Beyond.”
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Some Disney fans make reference to “Festival of Lion King” scoring well with audiences in surveys. I can believe that, although, who knows, that may be suburban legend or data from, well, the 1990s. What I’m noticing in real life is less enthusiasm from audiences. Lots of folks used to clap along with the “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” music as the performers entered from all four corners. Folks would gasp as the bird launched into the air, perfectly timed with the soaring music. There was more of hand-jive action during “Hakuna Matada.”
One might argue the show is old and getting crusty. But one might also argue that it has elements you seldom get elsewhere — not even on TikTok — such as trampoline acts, Broadway-level costuming, live performances with Elton John-Tim Rice music.
What would you do to tweak this show?
“Yes! We Have No Bananas” sent me down an internet rabbit hole. I was surprised to learn that the song, written by Frank Silver and Irving Cohn, will turn 100 years old next year. It was recorded by Billy Jones and Ernie Hare and topped the Billboard charts in the U.S. for five weeks in 1923. It was considered a novelty song, and spurred a sequel “I’ve Got the Yes! We Have No Bananas Blues.”
The Wikipedia page for “Bananas” mixes a Greek fruit stand in Long Island, Al Jolson, Belfast, the Hallelujah Chorus, public domain, “Betty and Veronica,” David Niven, “The English Patient,” “The Brady Bunch,” Eddie Cantor, “Sesame Street,” assorted global banana shortages and Louis Prima, who recorded “Bananas” along the way and was also the voice of King Louie in Disney’s 1967 animated film “The Jungle Book.”
Yes, there’s always a Disney connection, even with bananas, today.
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