Why Animal Kingdom Is Disney’s Best Park
Note: This piece was formerly written for Animal Kingdom’s 20th birthday and was titled “Happy Birthday, and Thank You, Animal Kingdom.”
Any good Disney Parks piece should start where it all began
In March, as we stood inside the Opera House at Disneyland Park, looking on at the map of the original Disneyland, a discussion ensued…
“Fantasyland doesn’t totally fit the theme. It's sort of just a way to sneak kiddie rides into the park.”
“Well the theme is 'dreams, ideals, and hard facts that make America'…”
“Yea, and ‘dreams’ is right in there!”
“Yea but Tomorrowland is really the part that has that covered.
So I thought for a second…
“They do different things. Look at how the park is arranged. Whether you go left and around or right and around, Fantasyland isn’t the first thing you come across. There’s an operations reason for that, obviously, but it also signals that our most fantastical dreams don’t come first. You have to choose how you get there.
“To the left, West, and the past on a timeline, you have the frontier. Along with Adventureland, this is about the willingness to explore. And it's a commemoration to those who already explored to get us where we are today, literally. Go that route, and boots-on-the-ground exploration is the route to your dreams.
“To the right, forward on a timeline, you have Tomorrowland. This is of course about the dreams we have yet to make a reality, but which we will continue to push to make come true. Go that way, and innovation and science are the route to your dreams.
“And straight ahead, to the north (like the north star) is what really guides us. It’s fantasy. It’s the things that are maybe neither past nor present. And as you move from yesterday to tomorrow (or vice versa if you always start to the right like we do), you’ll always pass through a bit of fantasy. It’s not something you can ignore or avoid.”
Now, this analysis is somewhat sloppy (and in truth was much sloppier when I first said it), but this post isn’t really about Disneyland and its design. It’s about Disney's Animal Kingdom and how that park has impacted me. And what that discussion reveals is something about me—I care.
I care to see how the park communicates, and I care what it represents. For that, I thank Disney's Animal Kingdom and its lead designer, Imagineer Extraordinaire, Joe Rohde.
A Kingdom of Balance, Harmony and Survival
I was nine years old and already an admittedly spoiled veteran of probably three Walt Disney World trips when Disney's Animal Kingdom opened. For the first few years, I thought nothing of it.
The following year, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith (a ride I can be regularly found attacking on twitter these days) secured Disney-MGM Studios’ place as my favorite park into my teenage years. (Besides being a little young, I was the teenager Michael Eisner was looking to win over.)
What could a zoo masquerading as a theme park possibly have to compete with the thrills of Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster? (Keep in mind that Expedition Everest would not open until 2006.) And so, through my years as a rotten little child and angsty teenager, I ignored Animal Kingdom.
I missed out on a lot, of course. I was wrong.
The dedication to Disney's Animal Kingdom is:
Welcome to a kingdom of animals... real, ancient and imagined: a kingdom ruled by lions, dinosaurs and dragons; a kingdom of balance, harmony and survival; a kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama, and learn.
— Michael D. Eisner, April 22, 1998
Although the word is not explicitly in there, what "balance, harmony, and survival" refer to, besides just animals, is nature.
There are two Disney theme parks in the world that truly transcend their themes—Tokyo DisneySea and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. What’s brilliant about these two parks is the ambitious simplicity of their themes, and how much the Imagineers extracted from them.
In a word, Tokyo DisneySea’s theme is “nautical.” But rather than just building a water park (which many of us probably thought Tokyo DisneySea was) or a theme park with a few ships here and there, Tokyo DisneySea is mostly about people and culture. It’s specifically about how we as people relate to the sea.
Likewise, take a look at the lands of Animal Kingdom: Oasis, Discovery Island, Africa, Asia, Dinoland, U.S.A, and Pandora – The World of Avatar. There is no “Tiger Land” or “Animals of the Ocean.” All of these lands, and their attractions, are about people, how we relate to nature, and what we can learn from that. So let's explore...
A Tour of Disney's Animal Kingdom
When you enter Animal Kingdom, you pass by Rainforest Café, perhaps the most quintessential piece of human-animal relation……just kidding...
When you enter Animal Kingdom, you start at Oasis. Oasis eases you into the park with the utmost familiarity. You walk through a collection of animal exhibits, not wholly unlike those you might find in a zoo.
There are multiple paths through Oasis, highlighting a key sub-theme of the park, and that is that, like nature, the park is deep and complex. There is no one right way. There is no one possible way.
As you cross the bridge from Oasis onto Discovery Island, the park begins to reveal itself. There is of course, the Tree of Life, the famous icon of the park. I'll leave it to Joe Rohde to address the significance of the tree:
20th anniversary meditations. One of the terms used for the big thingy in the center of a Park is “icon.” Icons are meant to signify something. So, presumably such monumental features must convey ideas or values that resonate with their location. The etymology of the word icon reveals two meanings: likeness and simile. In this case, likeness is pretty obvious… It looks like a tree. So let’s move on to simile. In case, you were sleeping in English class, simile refers to a comparison of the qualities of two possibly unlike things to create a third descriptive effect...in a phrase which employs the word “like”… as in poet Robert Burns line, “My Luve is like a red, red rose.” The tree is like the world of nature. Like nature, it presents a vast branching form which, though vast, is all interconnected to form a single thing. The tree is filled with beauty and diversity, like nature. And like nature, the tree rewards ever closer inspection, revealing more and more to those who take the time to observe. The tree is like the park, in that it appears to be real, but is in fact a creation. If I were Robert Burns, I might say “my park is like a big big tree.” This is not to say that the tree is not also a metaphor… But, if there’s anything to take away from high school English class it is that a metaphor and simile are not the same thing.
Personally, I’ve always liked to look to the right toward Expedition Everest, getting a glimpse of the peaks to be reached.
Discovery Island is, as its name unambiguously suggests, about discovery. It is the place from which you’ll discover the rest of the park. It is, moreover, itself a place to be discovered. The Discovery Island Trails, meandering around the Tree of Life, are among the most underrated attractions in all of Walt Disney World. Even more than Oasis, they reveal the depth of the park, as they bring not only new animals to light as you explore deeper and deeper, but new details on the Tree of Life.
The flagship attraction on Discovery Island is It’s Tough to Be a Bug. This is a favorite of mine, mostly for the reactions of the rest of the audience (which maybe makes me a bit of a sadist). But beyond the shock value, there’s a lesson in the ride.
Oasis was typical. It was comfortable. It was exotic animals as you’re used to seeing them—in captivity, as you have the freedom to wander about as you please. (NB: This isn't a commentary on the conditions of captivity, at all.)
It’s Tough to Be a Bug flips the script. It is you who are “captive” and subject to the wills and whims of the bugs.
It is, moreover, a theatrical reminder about the responsibility that humans have as to maintaining a healthy relationship with animals. And so Disney's Animal Kingdom takes its first step, with this simple attraction, to show us our connection with nature in a new way.
We’ll proceed counter-clockwise, heading first to Dinoland, U.S.A. Yes, you really have to stretch your mind to fit Dinoland, U.S.A. nicely into things, but allow me to help you.
Perhaps when I said there’s no “Lion Land,” you rightly identified Dinoland, U.S.A. as a counterpoint. Of course, it isn’t “Dinoland,” it’s “Dinoland, U.S.A.,” and it is something of a reminder that our relationships aren’t just with the animals of today, but of the past.
The Boneyard is an area of exploration where children can uncover fossils. TriceraTop Spin and Primeval Whirl, in the Dino-Rama carnival area, are a whimsical reminder of the role dinosaurs played in many of our childhoods. For the aerial carousel, imagineers could have gone with a flying dinosaur, but they didn't. Perhaps in a nod to Dumbo, they went with a dinosaur that cannot fly. But it's also an ode to the fact that dinosaurs, real as they were, have always been a bit fantastical to us.
The flagship attraction, DINOSAUR, is an admittedly over-the-top adventure back in time to save a species from extinction. Perhaps the lesson here is that if we do a better job today, we can avoid the horrors of back-wrenching time travel to save species from extinction.
The next two lands, Asia and Africa, are more about how human culture is touched by nature. In Asia, nature creates the possibility of adventure. Kali River Rapids and Expedition Everest are natural thrill rides. Who needs a rock band to throw a concert as inspiration for a ride?? Look at the beautiful world around it—the excitement is already there! And of course there is the fantastical aspect of the search for the Yeti in Expedition Everest.
The true beauty is in the details, though. Consider the prayer flags that pepper Asia. We’ve all seen them, and if you’re anything like me you thought “oh yea, that looks like Asia I guess.” But they aren’t just a design feature. The prayer flags come from Tiebtan culture, and they come in five colors, representing five elements: land, sea, sky, air, and fire. See? Human and nature.
But color isn’t the only thing you’ll notice about the prayer flags. Prayer flags and prayer ribbons are exposed to nature for a reason. The more tattered they become by the elements, the more one’s prayers are said to be answered. Nature is literally the bridge between a man and his gods.
Next is Africa, the birthplace of humanity. We cannot talk about Africa without mentioning Kilimanjaro Safaris. Kilimanjaro Safaris is the largest of all Disney attractions, and likely the one that will be most expensive over its lifetime. The ride through the African savanna used to have more of a story (relating to catching poachers), but has since shifted to allow guests to enjoy a mostly peaceful ride through nature.
It would have been sufficient to stop there. Africa has animals, people go on safaris there. Throw in the exploration trails, and you've got a great animal-centric world. But Joe Rohde and Disney took it a step further.
Africa is populated by the port city of Harambe. Ports may make for good scenery, but they also signify nature as a driving force for the development of civilization. Civilizations for centuries lived and died by their ability to conduct commerce through ports. Having access to waterways has long been a difference-maker in cities that thrived and cities that failed. Harambe even bears the markers of many a port city, with buildings worn away by ferocious weather.
I can't talk about Africa without mentioning Dawa Bar and the Tam Tam Drummers. The Tam Tam Drummers are my favorite performance in all of Walt Disney World. Dawa Bar is probably my favorite spot in the resort. Dawa probably refers to either the Kenyan cocktail or the river in Ethiopia, but I can't help but think the etymology is tied to the Arabic "da'wah" meaning "invitation.” Because everything in Animal Kingdom means something.
Finally, there is Pandora. Pandora is a controversial land, as new things always are. The reliance on such out-of-this-world intellectual property in a place about human and nature concerned many, myself included.
But I saved Pandora for last for a reason. The flagship rides of every land—It’s Tough to Be a Bug, DINOSAUR, Expedition Everest, and Kilimanjaro Safaris—are all explicit tales of, even lessons on, the ties between man and nature.
Avatar Flight of Passage takes this to an entirely new level. It puts you face to face with nature. It uses technology to put you in touch with nature. It’s the only attraction in Animal Kingdom where you get to ride an animal, which is good, because most situations in the world where you can do that are utterly inhumane.
Flight of Passage is about breaking down the barriers between man and nature and creating an emotional connection between man and beast. In that way, this single ride encapsulates everything the Disney’s Animal Kingdom is trying to do—it connects you to nature. Maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on it.
I won't pretend to have covered even half of Animal Kingdom in that tour. I left out fantastic attractions, like Festival of the Lion King, Rivers of Light, and Finding Nemo – The Musical. I failed to mention every walking trail (there are plenty). And I neglected Rafiki’s Planet Watch, an area off Africa that more directly addresses the message of conservation.
I even failed to mention the sounds. Oh the sounds. When you walk from Discovery Island into Harambe as the musicians play. You hear them only in the distance at first, and then you walk up and over the bridge and the festivity of the scene is revealed in a powerful rush. And when you wander from Africa into Pandora, and the sounds transform from natural and familiar to something just a little out of this world.
You can’t cover everything Animal Kingdom has to offer in a single piece. I certainly can’t, because I haven’t seen everything it has to offer.
A Slow, Never-ending Lesson
So, what about me? How did I grow from a Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster lovin’ teenager into an adult with an appreciation for, above all, the “theme” in theme park?
I could try and concoct a story about the moment it all hit me, but there’s really no such moment. Things stick out, believe me. There’s the first time I wandered through Discovery Island Trails. There’s that first August afternoon where I grabbed a beer at Dawa Bar and smiled at the excitement of guests young and old as they joined in with the Tam Tam Drummers. And there’s the time I found my first “fichwa” Mickey, a true Imagineering brilliancy.
But the truth is there was no such moment. The reason for that is the park itself. Recall the above quote from Joe Rohde about the Tree of Life: “And like nature, the tree rewards ever closer inspection, revealing more and more to those who take the time to observe.”
The same is true of the park, of course. It takes time to really understand Disney’s Animal Kingdom. And that is what makes it a special place.
My favorite line of attack on Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster these days is that you wait in a stuffy, sweaty, plain cement box for 2 hours to ride an 82-second ride. When I was a teenager, it was worth it. And I get why it still is for some people—it’s a really exciting 82 seconds.
But for me, nothing beats the time it will take me to understand Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Nothing beats a place where there is more to everything than meets the eye. Because that's the real lesson of the place, to me.
I get that it's about nature and conservation. And I get that if you love those things, you probably love the park. But even if you don't, the park should impress you in its design. Just look at how every inch of it takes this theme—nature—and pulls on it like a thread, finding more and more intricacy in how we as humans relate to nature.
Disney's Animal Kingdom is a place that showed me how a theme park could mean something. It showed me how the beauty of place is not just in moments of flashiness or even ingenious details, but in the story and lessons it manages to impart. And for that, I’m grateful.