Disney's Animal Kingdom:
A Distorted Mirror
by Ken Sanes
"And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he
put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to
grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of
life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good
and evil." Genesis.2.
Sitting on the southwest portion of Walt
Disney World's property in Central Florida is the newest theme park to be
added to the company's kingdom of fantasy. "Disney’s Animal Kingdom", is a
500-acre mélange of simulation and authenticity, fact and fantasy, archetype
and entertainment. Disney describes it as a nature park, but "nature" park
would be closer to the truth. Actual nature, after all, is too unpredictable
and dangerous, and lacks sufficient entertainment value for a postmodern
theme park. Instead, Disney's Animal Kingdom offers visitors a spectacular
version of the "nature" of media-saturated America, known for Tarzan movies,
contrived documentaries about the wild, and the science-fictionalization of
just about everything from toothpaste commercials to TV news.
The park can perhaps best be
described as a giant, immersive storybook that lets visitors not only meet
its characters but act out their roles. Like video game players and
audiences in movie rides, visitors become part of what appears to be a
living fantasy or a materialized work of fiction that has been designed to
play on their fears and desires.
Disney believes that this ability to immerse visitors in a work of
fiction is one of the park's great strengths and it liberally uses the
images of storybooks and theater to describe its new creation. In a
promotional column that was on the Internet, attributed to Michael Eisner,
who was then Chairman & Chief Executive Officer of the Walt Disney Company,
Disney says the park is "like an open book, with a dramatic and humorous
plot that features adventures, conflicts and the unpredictable antics of
live animals in their own environments…The entire Park is an incredible
stage set with Disney artists creating forests, streams and waterfalls,
dense tropical jungles and savannas filled with natural beauty, where the
animals will live."
The story the park recounts is one that is popular in the entertainment
industry based (as we will see) on a fictionalized and commercialized
version of environmentalism. It depicts an innocent unfallen nature, which
is a cornucopia of life, that is threatened by a malevolent irresponsible
humanity. Visitors become the story's heroes by symbolically defeating the
villains and helping return the world to its proper balance. That makes
Disney's Animal Kingdom one of a growing number of eco-adventures that try
to turn the visitor into cyber-Tarzan, the nature savior, who routs invaders
from a society corrupted by avarice.
At the most basic archetypal level, the story embodied in the park is
also a myth about life versus death. Visitors participate in the myth by
trying to save an uncorrupted realm of Eden-like nature from falling into
the realm of death brought by society. Many of Disney's theme park
attractions similarly take visitors into a world of innocence before the
fall. But, here, visitors get to pretend they are fighting to keep the fall
from taking place, as they defend unfallen nature against its despoilers.
The Tree of Life
The central symbol that is the focus of these ideas is the Tree of Life
in the attraction, Safari Village, which is the "hub" that visitors pass
through on their way to other parts of the park. Like Main Street U.S.A.,
which is the gateway into the Magic Kingdom, and which conveys a mythic
vision of a more innocent America, so the fabricated Tree of Life is a giant
symbol visitors must pass "through" to enter the Animal Kingdom's mythic
With thousands of fabricated branches, more 100,000 "leaves" of many
colors attached by hand, and a diameter of 170 feet at its root base, the
Tree of Life towers 14 stories above visitors and dominates the landscape.
As Disney describes it in promotional material that appears on the web site
referred to above, the structure is "surrounded by shimmering pools and
greenery filled with a host of birds and small mammals. The trunk of the
tree is intricately carved with a swirling tapestry of animal forms that
symbolize the richness and diversity of animal life on Earth."
The towering fabricated tree, intended to evoke awe in visitors, and
giving birth to animal forms in its trunk and branches, is a numinous and
Godlike symbol of nature, Mother Nature to be more precise. In its branching
structure, it is a symbol of the branching arms of evolution,
to animal forms out of the matrix of itself. Some religious conservatives
claim that environmentalists make a god of nature. That accusation takes
things more than a little too far (except perhaps in the case of
pantheists). But if they are looking for something that suggests the
deification of nature, here it is,
14 stories high,
a work of art (and not a bad work of art) that looks like the fabricated idol of
"It is a tree like none other, rising 14 graceful stories into the sky,
its leafy canopy spreading 160 feet across the landscape, its upraised
branches beckon: Come, take a closer look…." says Disney promotional
material, in prose that could come out of a televangelist's Sunday sermon.
"True, the lofty icon is made by humans. But its story is the awe-inspiring
tale of all of Earth's animals and the interconnected nature of all living
things. Carved into the tree's gnarled roots, mighty trunk and sturdy
branches is a rich tapestry of more than 350 animals -- from the mighty lion
to the playful dolphin."
Nature as Fiction
Both the tree and surrounding attraction, Safari Village, are encircled
by an artificial waterway, Discovery River, "where guests can board launches
to journey past the forbidding Dragon Rocks and brave steaming geysers and
mythical creatures on their way upriver." That description inevitably calls
up associations to the story of various journeying heroes from mythology
such as Odysseus -- or at least the versions of those stories most of us
know from movies and television. The waterway also can't help but call up
associations to the rivers that were associated with another tree of life in
another unfallen world, in the Garden of Eden, which Adam and Eve were
forced to exit on their way to the fallen world of toil and death that is
human history.** In any case, "Discovery River" appears to be the gateway to
the exotic realms beyond and serves to bound off the inner sanctum of the
Tree of Life.
Not unexpectedly, given this symbolism, the park is full of material
images of a nature that is unfallen, unblemished, and rich with luxuriance,
that are intended to induce a sense of optimism and well-being in visitors.
The attraction, the Oasis, for example, is intended to convey a sense of
spiritual refreshment: "Guests enter Disney's Animal Kingdom through the
cool green of this lush garden," Disney promotional literature says.
"Colorful and unusual animals inhabit an exotic landscape of streams and
grottoes, waterfalls and glades. The feel of the cool mist, the scent of the
flowers, the sight and sound of the playful animals immerse guests
immediately into Nature with a capital 'N.' "
The park is similarly full of images of exotic mystery in which the
promise is made that visitors will experience wonders and mysteries beyond
the mundane world.
In addition to these depictions of nature as
something that is (mostly) innocent, and full of wonder, the park also uses
various techniques to evoke parenting urges in visitors and direct those
urges toward nature as a whole. It focuses visitor attention on baby animals
and gentle creatures that have physical and behavioral characteristics that
we are biologically programmed to respond to with urges to nurture and
protect. Thus, the attraction the Conservation Station includes the
"Affection Section" where, according to Disney, visitors "can touch and make
friends with gentle domestic animals." The Conservation Station also
includes picture windows that look into veterinary labs, operating rooms,
brooder rooms, and nurseries so visitors can witness living heroes and role
models tending to animals. And the park, along with a number of other Disney
parks, make it possible for guests to add a dollar to the price of
merchandise, which is contributed to a Disney fund for the environment.
But no story would be complete without depictions of danger, conflict and
victory and here too Disney's Animal Kingdom doesn't disappoint. The park
depicts conflicts that pit nature against nature and man against nature,
although the central conflict that frames the park is definitely that of man
versus nature, with man as the villain. Perhaps the best example of how this
conflict is portrayed can be seen in Kilimanjaro Safaris, a safari
simulation ride that is part of the park's 110-acre re-creation of an
African wilderness. As described in an accompanying article on this site,
Kilimanjaro Safaris takes riders on an invented journey in a "safari
vehicle" into a realm of nature that is overflowing with life and innocence,
full of animal families caring for their young, that is intended to evoke
the protective and parenting urges referred to earlier. In the course of the
ride, poachers appear and riders then play the heroes who save nature from
the intruders. The ride thus draws visitors into the basic story line that
frames the park as a whole, in which good nature is saved by good people
(visitors) from malevolent human exploiters.
Disney claims that all of this makes the park a form of education that
teaches visitors about nature in a way that promotes environmentalism. As
the column attributed to Michael Eisner puts it, "As storytellers, we are in
a unique position to communicate a deeper understanding of animals as
partners in the great web of life. We know we will amaze our guests with an
unparalleled variety of adventures. But, more important, we will be able to
bring the message of wilderness protection and wildlife conservation to
millions of people….when they leave, we believe they will carry with them a
new and heightened knowledge and respect for the beauty and complexity of
the animal kingdom."
In other words, the park is intended to be a kind of social activism and
a vehicle for moral uplift that can improve us as people. Its avowed
intention is to make us more benevolent in our attitude toward nature by
evoking certain emotions in us. Another statement in Disney promotional
literature is even more straightforward about this goal: "Inspiring a love
of animals and concern for their welfare is the underlying theme, both
subtle and obvious, throughout Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park," it says.
Disney's Animal Kingdom as an
Immersive Simulation Machine
To bring all this about, Disney offers an immersive stage set that weaves
together elements of nature with fabrications. The set includes genuine
animals and animatronic animals depicting both real and imaginary creatures;
it includes genuine trees and artificial trees that once again depict both
real trees and something fantastic, as in the Tree of Life. This blending of
the authentic and fake is often so seamless and the two categories overlap
so much, it can be hard to decide what is what. The fake trees, for example,
are not only expertly modeled after genuine trees, but they have
genuine-appearing textures that were (most likely) transferred via molds or
imprints. And even many of the genuine plants and animals are a kind of
invention, raised in zoos and nurseries, from which they could be put to use
as living images in zoo theater.
The Disney stage set also relies on stealth forms of simulation, which
are intended to hide anything that might interfere with the illusion that
the sights and sounds are natural and authentic. It uses hidden moats and
escarpments to separate animals that might otherwise kill and eat each
other, for example. And such natural-appearing features as trees, stumps,
clumps of reeds and rocky pools actually conceal feeding stations for the
animals. The animals have to move from feeding station to feeding station to
eat, thus "encouraging herds of antelope, hippos or giraffes to move from
one area to another throughout the day" and creating "a complete scenario of
life in the wild," according to Disney. The high-tech infrastructure that
makes everything go is similarly built behind and beneath the
natural-appearing fabrications, so it can be hidden from view.
Ultimately, what all this conceals is the fact that the entire park is an
enormous machine of simulation, monitored, maintained and controlled by
computers -- an icon not of nature but of contemporary culture, which uses
advanced forms of art and technology to create fantastic versions of the
world in order to induce emotions and experiences in audiences. Throw in the
blending of the physical fabrications with electronic visual and auditory
images and special effects, and rides disguised as various forms of
transportation, and you have the essence of the contemporary theme park as
only science fiction could have once imagined it.
Disney learned some of these lessons from a rich history of zoo and
nature exhibits that goes back to the German showman Carl Hagenbeck's early,
masterful, nature park in which fabricated rocks and moats that blended in
with the surrounding nature also acted as disguised barriers to contain the
animals. With people in costumes from exotic lands, and architectural
re-creations, Hagenbeck offered visitors an early theme park. His ideas were
one influence among others on American zoos for a number of decades. Later,
of course, Disney came along and created fabricated environments that
borrowed from that other great source of stage sets -- Hollywood -- to place
visitors inside the illusion, in Disneyland and Disney World.
These were the two most important influences*** that helped inspire the
new themed zoos and zoo-like theme park attractions that can now be found
around the United States and, increasingly, the world. For these themed
forms of nature, the job of displaying animals has been replaced by efforts
to place visitors inside simulations of rain forests, oceans and other
fantastic "re-creations" of nature.
In many ways, of course, these new creations represent a considerable
advance in human artistry. They are the culmination of a learning process
that started with the creation of the first "virtual realities" in the caves
of ancient Europe, and undoubtedly before that. In this century and, in
particular, in the last two decades, this learning process has given us the
ability to re-create the sights and scenes of the world and make fantasies
The Weaving Together of Fact and Fantasy,
the Simulated and the
But there are a great many things that are unnerving about Disney's
Animal Kingdom and they deserve greater attention than they are receiving.
First, there is the seamless weaving together of simulations and authentic
objects. It isn't merely that these places can use authentic objects and
scenes from the world as models in order to invent something that seems
authentic. In addition, a great many objects, animals and so on, are taken
up -- "appropriated", as some would say -- and woven into the fabrications,
so they are turned into images and forms of theater. In Dinoland U.S.A., for
example, exotic and primitive-looking trees and plants are used to create
the illusion that visitors have traveled back in time. Even the scientists
tending to the animals in a clinic as they are watched by an audience have
been turned into actors in living theater, as the suffering of animals under
their care are incorporated into the drama.
Art and fiction have always used elements of the world as models and raw
material, of course. But never have we had such a capacity to convert life
Second, there is the obvious blending of fact and fantasy. Here we
discover that visitors not only encounter things that can be forms of nature
or fabrications but that, also, both the actual nature and the fabrications
can depict living or extinct forms of authentic nature or they can depict
fantastic forms of nature. As Disney promotional material puts it, the park
tells "the story of all animals -- real, imaginary and extinct -- with
thrilling attractions, dramatic landscapes and close encounters with exotic
creatures." Even the activities visitors engage in can involve fiction or
nonfiction. Visitors, for example, learn the environmental theme by
participating in that safari ride in which they defeat fictional poachers
and they also learn it by donating money to genuine environmental causes.
Like the blending together of genuine and fabricated objects, so fact and
fantasy are often seamlessly woven together in ways that blur the
distinction between fiction and the nonfiction world.
Third, there is the fact that the depiction of nature and the simplified,
dramatized environmentalism of the park themselves look like fantasies. But
unlike the fantasies referred to above, they masquerade as something factual
and authentic. Here, we see that in place of the complexities of ecological
issues, with their mix of disputed scientific questions, political and
territorial struggles, moral claims, and economic needs and desires, the
park offers visitors a simplified story in which they play the heroes. In
place of nature, which is often brutal and mindless, it depicts a humanized,
romanticized utopia designed to play the innocent victim.
Fourth, there is the fact that Disney's motives in creating and offering
the park to the public are disguised as well, since, much as Disney may wrap
itself in flag of environmentalism, all the talk about conservation is
mostly a way of providing legitimation by linking the park to a popular
political movement. It is also a way of letting visitors play the heroes in
an exciting story that is made more compelling because it seems to be about
So Disney really appropriated the environmental theme for its own
purposes, in order to offer entertainment that wears the mask of education
and social activism. It even appropriated environmentalists in its creation
of a park advisory board of well-known biologists and conservationists. To
sum up this fourth reason for concern, Disney offers education and social
activism that is an ultra-simplifed ideology really in the service of
It is true that Disney's Animal Kingdom may do some good
in the way it sensitizes millions of people to the need to live in greater
harmony with nature. But far more is lost in the confusion of nature and
artifice, fact and fantasy, reality and entertainment.
You can Continue
or go to the main page for
Disney's Distorted Mirror
or read more on simulation at:
Age of Simulation
© 1996-2011 Ken Sanes
- - - - - -
* This idea about the significance of guests entering the Magic Kingdom
through Main Street U.S.A. is taken from an essay on the Internet.
Hopefully, I will find the reference at a later date and add it. It's been a
long time since I've been there, but a map of the Magic Kingdom bears out
this description of how guests enter the park.
** There are other associations one might make to the waterway and
fabricated, multi-colored, tree -- Joseph's coat of many colors; the River
Styx that surrounded the Greek underworld, and so on. What is most relevant
for the purposes of this kind of analysis is what the creators had on their
minds and how park visitors and readers of Disney promotional texts
experience these descriptions and attractions.
*** Hagenbeck's creations inspired American zoos from early in the
century to create natural-appearing enclosures, so this was a theme in
American zoos from early on. The history of fabricated environments also has
to include circuses and early amusement parks such as Coney Island, museum
dioramas, animal displays before Hagenbeck, fantasy architecture and
gardens, the history of the theater and the stage sets of Hollywood.
- - - - - -
-- The image from Disney's Animal Kingdom, above, is via Wikimedia Commons.
It is a baobab sculpture, taken at Disney's
Animal Kingdom by Raul654 on January 16, 2005.
-- This essay is based on three "editions" of Disney's Animal Kingdom
Newspaper, which is Disney promotional material that was
on a page (that is no longer there) on a web site that was linked to
Expedia. At the time
it was written, the park had not yet opened. There have been minor
changes in the essay since.