January 8, 2010

Disney's Animal Kingdom: A True-Life Adventure (Part Five)

Editor's Note: Today, I continue with Part 5 of the popular series on the creation, trials, (trails?) and tribulations of Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park. For newer readers, Part One of this popular series begins here. In this segment, we continue with our opening day exploration of the park, contrasting it to the original plans and to Disney's other three Florida parks.

Disney's fourth major theme park in Florida, Disney's Animal Kingdom, is a delight to behold. Visually stunning, the place also starts by significantly departing from standard Disney theme park design. Multiple paths meet visitors beyond the entrance gates instead of a single walkway to a central point. The abundance of flora and fauna overwhelms and surprises, setting the pace for the day. The emphasis is on nature and animals, not man, his world or his culture.

The park's icon is the magnificent Tree of Life, another instant masterpiece from the Disney Imagineers. As with Epcot's Spaceship Earth, guests just stand and stare upon discovering it. It is a good thing the Tree is spectacular. Truth be told, other than The Tree of Life and the animals themselves, there wasn't much to photograph at this park upon opening. Budget cuts were obvious throughout the park, effecting the length of stay and the overall satisfaction of park guests. While the extensive plant life created the appropriate mood for the park, it also created limited sight lines and one consistently green (and some would say boring) backdrop. Beyond Safari Village, the other lands had a minimal number of attractions and structures. One entire area, Asia, was incomplete and set for a later opening date.

Even the magnificent Tree of Life was not left unscathed by budget reductions. Instead of an attraction of noteworthy significance, housed inside its stunning architecture is a 3D film themed to the upcoming Pixar release "A Bug's Life".

Such obvious shortcomings aside, Disney's Animal Kingdom is in many ways the perfect fourth park for the vacationing guest. After a few days of touring the busier, more established parks, a day at Animal Kingdom seems an oasis of calm and serenity. The pace is slower, the touring more casual, and the overall effect very relaxing. However, in contrast to its laid back presentation, the newest the park is also unexpectedly serious in tone and controversial upon closer inspection. Along with perceptions this is "Disney's Zoo", this makes Animal Kingdom a difficult park to market to both first time and returning guests.

Top: the gorgeous Tree of Life.
Above: an unused concept for Oasis Gardens.

Where Florida's Magic Kingdom sells fairy tales, and Disney's Hollywood Studios promotes the company's latest films, Animal Kingdom is different and more akin to Epcot. This park is fun, but it is unmistakably a thinking man's park. The difference? Where Epcot challenges us to advance through human knowledge and excellence, Animal Kingdom purports humans as equal animals and to the world he inhabits, essentially degrading man from his rightful place as steward of God's creation.

That said, like its predecessors, the Animal Kingdom theme park is first and foremost a business venture, so it is designed to appeal to the masses. Business needs and financial expectations demanded it. One of Disney's best storytelling tools involves playing with the emotions of its fans, and the universal appeal of animal life and how it is presented succeeds in drawing us in. Taking turns, guest encounters with the park's habitants are charming, fascinating, thrilling, and even scary.

Disney's WILD Animal Kingdom- until copyright issues got in the way!

The emotional connection with its audience goes even deeper than appealing to our love for animals. At this park, varying worldviews and spiritualities are foundational elements promoted by Disney’s attention to detail in storytelling- very new for Disney, a very bold risk. All this is done extremely carefully as to not offend anyone and gain bad publicity or lose the financial rewards associated with an enjoyable experience, so Disney shrewdly straddles the lines between man as guardian and steward of creation with man as equal with the rest of creation, an important distinction.

Above, an alternate concept for the Tree of Life and the park entrance.

The designers and creators of the park took their jobs and their mission seriously. The Oasis area was once named Genesis Gardens during the planning stages, with the Tree of Life a direct reference found in the holy books of all three major religions. In these books, Man and woman were created by God and placed in this beautiful garden. In the center stood the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is only when the first couple disobey God and eat of the forbidden fruit that they are banished from this paradise- and must await a savior for their sin of disobedience.

With Disney's version of this Garden of Eden, guests have a chance to return to this glorious place, and they rarely are disappointed. The Imagineer’s creation here attempts to mimick God's Earthly creation. Like the creation it imitates, Animal Kingdom is masterfully done with a loving and intentional hand. Under the lead of Master Imagineer Joe Rohde, the environment the they designed does not fail in creating the most beautiful place they have ever conceived. This setting for the park is satisfying to the soul!

Photograph courtesy Main Street Gazette

However, in this Eden, man may return to favor by harmoniously blending with his surroundings. The concept of Gaia is the realm of belief in this kingdom; the Earth as a seen as a single living creature, able to sustain life on its own. Heady stuff for a theme park. Yet, it is all presented so well, so warmly, so convincingly, that it is easy to forget Disney is teaching theology here- and one that is in direct opposition to the beliefs of many of its guests.

Walking a thin line between offending paying guests by proclaiming (or should we say subtly teaching) earth worship theology (sometimes not so subtle- see photo above), Disney Imagineers and planners have embraced the new age/old school pagan philosophies. This is directly in opposition to the classic Judeo-Christian teachings, showing those truths as real for today as when they were written: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities- his eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse...They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator- who is forever praised."

Although this park does educate in worldview, when it entertains, it does so spectacularly! No where else is this done so elegantly as in the Africa section of the park, beginning with the ultra-realistic Harambe village and its premier attraction , Kilimanjaro Safaris. The village is alive with musicians and other townspeople; the area sporting realistic shops and restaurants. Instead of the playful and romanticized Adventureland, Animal Kingdom's Africa is quite authentic.

Since park opening in 1998 (and to this day), this stunning safari experience is the centerpiece of the park. It begins on the jeeps found in the farthest reaching section of land. This is the not-to-be-missed attraction- some would say in the whole of Walt Disney World- and one that succeeds in giving the guests more wildlife encounters than expected. The atmosphere convincingly transports riders to the Dark Continent and leaves them with the truly important message of conservation and animal care as they depart.

Departing from the safari jeeps, visitors journey onto the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail on their way back to the village of Harambe. In this verdant valley, a troop of incredible creatures roam freely within yards of the path. Other animals are encountered and presented in a way which makes watching them fascinating. Down thre road, an excursion aboard the Wildlife Express train to Conservation Station, Disney's behind the scenes visitor center, impresses with their animal care. This small behind-the-scenes facility is part Epcot style Future World pavilion and part animal hospital.

Although guests are temporarily removed from the park magic by being able to look at the zoo's structures, the payoff is the ability to watch zoologists at work and to speak with experts in the field.

Above- the unrealized plan for a very lengthy rapids attraction.

Moving on down the way from Africa, the Flights of Wonder bird show is found at the outpost of the soon to open Asia section of the park. In a few months from opening, when guests can enter the village, they’ll discover another exploration trail revealing tigers, bats, and komodo dragons as well as an exciting but very brief white water rapid ride. The Imagineers had planned something much longer and more extravagant, but the money needed to complete the entire adventure fell by the wayside.

By 2000, Countdown had changed its name to the generic "Dinosaur",
and the quickly designed Jubilee was not yet extinct.
Photo from DiscoveryRiverBoats.com

Having completed the tour of the areas celebrating real animals, opening day guests also ventured to Dinoland, U.S.A., seeking encounters with those creatures prehistoric and extinct. Countdown to Extinction, a time machine journey gone awry, is the central attraction here. 

Hosted in a facility designed to resemble a museum of natural history, Countdown is a fast-paced, loud, and quite scary adventure. Riders board a time machine vehicle to race against time and save a dinosaur before a fatal meteor shower that threatens to destroy.

The layout of the track is an exact copy of the extremely popular and cutting edge Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland, a concession to rising costs associated with building Animal Kingdom. Competitively, it is a direct answer to the Jurassic Park attractions planned at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

Above concept art of Excavator courtesy Disney and More.

The extinct Excavator coaster.
Finished off due to an Indy knockoff and soaring budgets.

Even this seemingly innocent science fiction time travel adventure reinforces an evolutionary focused theory that dinosaurs were destroyed by a meteor storm, compared to the great flood that many creation believing scientists think accomplished the same end result. Regardless, it is a large scale thrilling encounter, an "E" ticket not soon to be forgotten. Aside from the prehistoric botanical gardens, an imaginative child’s playground, and a stage show based on The Jungle Book, not much is found here as the planned Excavator coaster (above) fell also prey to additional budget cuts.

On the opposite side of the Tree of Life, Camp Minnie-Mickey concludes our journey of Animal Kingdom at opening. This land was originally planned as Beastly Kingdom (or Kingdomme), bringing the fantasy element of the park. Focusing on dragons, unicorns, griffins, and other creatures of the imagination, dwindling budgets aborted the plan. Eventually, character greeting kiosks replaced the plans and transformed into an entire land.

Even in this backwoods Fantasyland, philosophy and theology exist hand in hand with entertainment. A small stage show with North American animals starring Pocohontas and Grandmother Willow, is enjoyable, yet sports a strong animist worldview, teaching nature itself possesses a soul. Once more, these are quite intellectual concepts for a theme park- and ones again in opposition to Judeo-Christian beliefs of many of the park's guests.

The major revue, and some would say the best theater presentation in the park, is the misplaced The Festival of the Lion King, a highly energetic show with gifted performers featuring recycled floats from of an old Disneyland parade. It is a deserving crowd favorite and a fitting way to end the day.

As we will discover in the next part of the series, park guests were less than enthusiastic, branding the park a half day experience. Visitors also viewed the park a nothing more than a fancy zoo. Disney Imagineering, advertising and accounting had a big problem on their hands. Animal Kingdom wasn't nearly the public disaster of the soon-coming California Adventure at Disneyland or the awful Walt Disney Studios in Paris, but it had its own share of difficulties- and visitor numbers continued to decrease year after year. What did the Walt Disney Company choose to do? Stay tuned for Part 6...

(Concept art and top photo copyright The Walt Disney Company. All other photos copyright Mark Taft.)


Vintage Disneyland Tickets said...

Amazing review, best and most detailed anywhere! "Kilimanjaro Safari" is by far the premier attraction here, worth the price of admission alone. As an old "Lion Country Safari" kid myself, the Kilimanjaro Safari is what LCS was supposed to be.

I totally missed "Countdown to Extinction" maybe its all those paths but I never even saw it? Sounds fun!

I throughly enjoyed the Wildlife Express train to Conservation Station, great little ride and what a fantastic look at what makes this park work.

Unfortunately, it was my first Florida trip (2008) and we too thought Animal Kingdom was a 1/2 day affair, its not, you really need a whole day there!

The was a super scary Roller Coaster too (Everest?) I had to rest after that one!

Looking forward to part 6, thank you so much for all your hard work on your blog.

Mark said...

I was a Lion Country Safari kid, too! Loved the place- even the cheesy jeep ride.