Baobab sculpture at Disney's Animal Kingdom

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 realm.*

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, giving birth 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 life itself. 

"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 remarkably lifelike.

The Weaving Together of Fact and Fantasy,
the Simulated and the Authentic

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 into theater.

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 the world.

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 entertainment.
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:
The Age of Simulation

© 1996-2011 Ken Sanes

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* 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.

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 -- 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.