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A Friday Visit with Jim Korkis: The Legend of the Lion King

By Dave Shute

Welcome back to Fridays with Jim Korkis! Jim, the dean of Disney historians, writes about Walt Disney World history every Friday on


By Jim Korkis

Disney’s animated feature The Lion King (1994) was so hugely popular that there were seven different adaptations of the story for different Disney theme parks.

The Lion King Celebration was a parade at Disneyland from 1994-1997 with six floats and dancers dressed in animal costumes. Four of the floats in that parade were later moved to Walt Disney World to be included in the Festival of the Lion King show in Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s Camp Minnie-Mickey that lasted from 1998 – 2014. It then re-opened (with some changes) in the new Harambe Theater in 2014.

A variation of this show opened in Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005 that instead of being a celebration with Simba and his friends, as it was at Walt Disney World, is a re-telling of Simba’s life by Rafiki. Disneyland Paris had The Legend of the Lion King show with human actors from 2004 -2007 in Discoveryland. That park also debuted The Lion King: Rhythms of the Pride Lands in 2019 in Frontierland.

Also in 2019, Disney California Adventure opened The Tale of the Lion King where a narrator leads a troupe of performers called the “Storytellers of the Pride Lands.”

For the Magic Kingdom, The Legend of the Lion King sponsored by Kodak premiered July 8, 1994 and lasted until February 23, 2002, when it was ousted from its theater in Fantasyland and replaced by Mickey’s PhilharMagic that opened in October 2003.

This Walt Disney World show was unique in its approach to the story of The Lion King, since it used huge, over-sized puppets that Disney dubbed “humanimals”, a human puppeteers trained by people who had worked with Jim Henson and who operated animal puppets from a cramped pit space under the stage.

Ten puppeteers did the show three times per hour and it included a pre-show with a live costumed Rafiki warming up the audience. Rafiki also appeared in the show itself, with narration to help the transition between scenes.

The Mufasa figure measured seven feet long from the tip of the tail to the top of the head, and was perched upon an eighteen foot tall Pride Rock. During the course of the show, Simba grows from a two and a half foot cub to a seven foot full grown lion. In one scene it took five puppeteers to do the movements for just that one large figure.

The stage itself was 125 feet wide, making it larger than the seating area that could hold five hundred guests. That extra width was needed for the set pieces that would move in to the viewing area from every direction, and depicted the rocky Pride lands of Africa, deep jungle, a moonlit watering hole, and the Serengeti grasslands. At the back of the stage was a huge oval screen where clips from the animated film were shown at appropriate times during the show.

“It’s hard to believe they are not live performers in costume,” said show director Fran Soeder who had also directed DHS’s Voyage of the Little Mermaid and The Hunchback of Notre Dame that also utilized puppets. “It’s like watching an animation ‘cel’ from the film come to life. Humanimals provide an exciting new way to translate an animated feature into a Disney stage show.

“Every element of this show seems to live and breathe, including Africa, where the story takes place. Each and every part of this show interacts with the others, making the aduience feel they are in the heart of the film.”

The show included the beloved songs from the film on a pre-recorded track including Circle of Life, I Can’t Wait to Be King, Be Prepared, Can You Feel the Love Tonight and Hakuna Matata. The cast included Mufassa, Simba, Nala, Scar, Zazu, Pumba, Timon and the hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed.

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Thanks, Jim! And come back next Friday for more from Jim Korkis!

In the meantime, check out his books, including his latest, Disney Never Lands, and about planned but unbuilt concepts, and Secret Stories of Walt Disney World: Things You Never You Never Knew, which reprints much material first written for this site, all published by Theme Park Press.


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