A Friday Visit with Jim Korkis: The Festival of the Lion King
By Dave Shute
THE FESTIVAL OF THE LION KING
By Jim Korkis
Because of the construction of the upcoming Pandora: The World of Avatar (to open May 27. 2017), the Festival of the Lion King stage show was relocated from Camp Minnie-Mickey where it premiered April 22, 1998 to the new Harambe Theater in the Africa section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom beginning June 2014.
This popular musical show is unique because, unlike most of the other Disney entertainment shows, it does not tell an abbreviated version of the famous animated feature’s plot. Instead, this theatrical experience is a tune-filled tribal celebration with audience participation and some unexpected surprises.
In order to accommodate the number of performances, there are three full casts, plus understudies, and all of them must be brought up to speed periodically with paid “pick up” rehearsals during the year to keep the show sharp. In addition, there is the large behind-the-scenes technical staff handling costuming, lighting, props, sound, and more.
The Festival of the Lion King was a last-minute placeholder for an area that itself was a last-minute addition when plans for a Beastly Kingdom section for the park were halted. Putting on a temporary show was cheaper than investing in building a ride attraction, quicker to create, and was also easier to change once a decision was made about exactly what the area should be.
Since its premiere in 1998, this joyous celebration has become the longest-running stage show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom with enthusiastic guests returning multiple times. The show was designed by Walt Disney World Creative Entertainment, but the performance venue was created by Walt Disney Imagineering.
The theater environment suggests an African savannah where an extraordinary group of humans and animals adorned in decorative feathers and ornate beads on 136 costumes have gathered to present a musical revue.
The action-packed The Festival of the Lion King is hosted by four human performers with Swahili names attired as traditional African tribal leaders: Kiume (“masculine and strong”), Nakawa (“good-looking”), Kibibi (“princess”), and Zawadi (“the gift”). They instruct the guests on how to participate with the performers several times during the show.
It wouldn’t be a true party without some of the cast from the original film! A twelve-foot-high animated Simba stands on Pride Rock keeping time to the pounding rhythm with his feet while interacting with the audience.
Lovable Pumbaa claims his tiny feet keep him confined to the massive Warthog float. However, his companion Timon gleefully struts to the center platform leading the audience in a vocal competition during the song The Lion Sleep Tonight. Since the beginning of 2009, Timon has sported an articulated head that allows his mouth to move when he is talking and his eyes to blink.
The impressive floats that serve as intriguing set pieces are actually recycled from The Lion King Celebration parade that ran at Disneyland from 1994-1997.
Along with performers in African tribal robes and various animal costumes, the center stage spotlights several specialty acts, include a group of zany, bouncing acrobats, tribal stilt walkers precariously navigating the area, a death defying fire juggler and a breathtaking high wire aerialist who soars high above the audience. Each increasingly amazing routine is choreographed to a memorable song from the classic movie.
A beloved audience favorite is the flexible gymnasts in yellow-orange skintight costumes called the Tumble Monkeys. These mischievous and energetic creatures wildly swing and flip on the overhead rings and bars as the hapless Timon tries to sing. Their extensive training includes not only the skillful and fast-moving routine itself but insight into how to move and think like a monkey, including grooming audience members in the front row.
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Thanks, Jim! And come back next Friday for more from Jim Korkis!
In the meantime, check out his books, including Secret Stories of Walt Disney World: Things You Never You Never Knew, which reprints much material first written for this site, and The Vault of Walt: Volume 4, and his contributions to The easy Guide to Your Walt Disney World Visit, all published by Theme Park Press.