What Went Wrong With Disney’s Zoo

By failing to tackle the complexities of the ecological issues it presents, Disney’s Animal Kingdom gives its critics the ammunition they need to denigrate the company’s environmental message. Worse still, it’s not very fun.

It shouldn’t be shocking to anyone that Disney Imagineers would attempt to create a zoo on the grounds of Walt Disney World. Over the past two decades, Disney has systematically recreated any non-Disney diversion interesting enough to draw visitors away from Orlando for more than four hours. When guests started leaving the Disney grounds at night to have adult fun at Orlando’s Church Street Station—voila!—Pleasure Island, Disney’s own nightclub and entertainment complex, popped out of the shores of Lake Buena Vista on Disney’s property. Universal announced intentions to build a movie studio-based theme park in Orlando, and before Universal even had a chance to break ground on its first non-Burbank operation, Disney created its own park in the form of Disney-MGM Studios. One of the last remaining non-Disney tourist draws lies 100 miles to the southwest of Orlando in Tampa’s Busch Gardens. As much as children love the fictional animals of Disney’s animated films, they enjoy the real ones even more; as a result, Busch Gardens has performed well even while operating under the shadow of the Disney brand name.

Beyond the obvious revenue benefits, the lure of creating a zoo must of have been nearly irresistible to Disney’s Imagineers. The original, classic zoo stands as the Cro-Magnon forerunner to Disney’s own Disneyland Park. Furthermore, years of jokes about Disneyland’s plastic lions and tiki birds must have eaten away at them; the ability to show their stuff with real, live animals had to be seen as an opportunity that couldn’t be missed.

A slew of design successes in the 90s—Disneyland Paris and its excellent Space Mountain, Disneyland’s Indiana Jones and Roger Rabbit rides, MGM’s Tower of Terror —provide ample evidence that the 90s were a golden age for Disney’s attractions, bettering the high standards set by earlier, genre-defining classics like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. While I was keenly aware of these achievements, my visit in late 1999 to Disney’s Animal Kingdom park had me concerned: was this new park going to be “smart” enough to pull off what it was attempting? Listening to opening day interviews with the Disney executives, it was clear that Disney was aiming higher with this park than with its others (Epcot excluded), attempting to raise social consciousness while entertaining. An exciting goal, no doubt, but exciting primarily because it’s almost never been successfully done before. Educational things are rarely fun (at least not to most people), and fun things are rarely educational. I never thought Disney particularly succeeded in combining education and fun at Epcot; could they really pull it off in this different context?

The entrance to the park, termed “The Oasis,” is a lush jungle of tropical plants and birds. For a Disney entrance, the Oasis was disappointingly pedestrian: instead of a grand vista of the enjoyments to come I saw a lot of trees. There’s an often-repeated quote from Walt Disney concerning the layout of park attractions—”there’s got to be a ‘weenie’ at the end of every street”—and in this, Animal Kingdom fails miserably. It’s hard to tell you’re even walking in the right direction, let alone walking towards something that might hold interest. Using the signposts as our guide—and not our own sense of navigation, dictated by the grounds—we arrived at the center of the park.

The centerpiece of the park is an elaborately carved concrete “Tree of Life,” holding an attraction called It’s Tough to Be a Bug. It’s a 3-D movie in the vein of Captain Eo or Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, with a little more audio-animatronic showmanship built in. Filled with the little practical gimmicks that made Honey, I Shrunk the Audience so popular, I spent most of the movie feeling a little skittish, wondering what was going to hiss, attack, or rush by my feet during the course of the show. Not surprisingly, the now-standard “spraying of water” occurred, along with an irritating “hit” on the back when I was getting a simulated wasp sting.

After seeing so many Disney 3-D films over the past few years, I couldn’t help feeling that this shtick had gotten a little old. Although the show’s practical effects caused the audience to sit up and laugh at themselves, the effects seemed less entertaining than simply clever. (My brother, having not been at a Disney park for a period of five years or so, noticed that an old taboo had been abolished: virtually every new attraction involved spraying water on guests, and this included shows as diverse as Tough to Be a Bug, Alien Encounter, and Winnie the Pooh. I suspect that if It’s a Small World were developed today, spitting animals and water-gun-toting children of the world would somehow make their way into the attraction. This is progress?)

Leaving the theater, it was hard not to be under whelmed by the bug show. Isn’t there something else that can be done with 3-D movie technology? (Judging by my later experience at Universal’s Spiderman ride, the answer: yes!) Moreover, considering its location at the geographic and emotional center of the park, under the Tree of Life, couldn’t this attraction have been a little more special?

The next step was the “Asia” portion of the park, which promised a look at the native animals of that region, as well as the Kali River Rapids, a “shoot-the-rapids” boat-ride that has very similar counterparts in amusement parks across the country.

Asia looks spectacular. I’ve only been to Tokyo once for five days so I’m hardly an Asia expert, but Animal Kingdom’s Asia looks a lot like what I suspect the real thing does. Not that realism should be a goal of a theme park—fun should always be #1—but Disney’s Asia was beautiful to look at, and I really had the sense that I was somewhere else besides Central Florida. The queuing area for Kali River Rapids was similarly impressive, which is why it was such a disappointment when I got on the ride and took off down the “river.” The big problem with the ride was not that it was too short, or that it lacked any real excitement, though correcting both of these shortfalls wouldn’t have hurt. The big problem with the ride was, in fact, the big problem with the entire park, and that was its preachy, overbearing, pro-environment attitude.

It’s not that I’m anti-environment: a pro-environment theme is fine, and probably appropriate for this park. But Disney’s recommendations about solving today’s environmental crises are to “think” about them, and to “be aware.” Not “make sacrifices,” or “contribute to important environmental causes,” or “avoid companies with anti-green policies.”

Sophisticated arguments pro or con concerning the environment are hard to find at Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Kali River Rapids has one scene that showcases a logging truck hauling lumber from a burnt-out forest. The fire and smoke elements are supposed to give the riders the feeling that what has happened here is bad, and the people who did this are evil, or at best, misguided. It’s never brought up that making the green decision involves making real sacrifice, like loss of jobs or escalating prices, or that perhaps logging under certain circumstances could actually be a correct decision. I’m not taking one side or the other, but Disney’s simple view of the situation doesn’t acknowledge that pro-environmental decisions could be anything but right-minded.

Some would probably argue that asking for Animal Kingdom to have that kind of nuance is asking too much: after all, it’s only an amusement park. Nevertheless, in walking around Animal Kingdom, it’s clear that its designers felt they were on a mission to develop something more meaningful than the other Disney parks, something that would touch people and cause them to think. There’s too much here that’s supposed to be educational—and unfortunately, it’s neither educational nor fun—to warrant simply being evaluated as an ordinary amusement park. (“There must be SOME good reason for this,” is probably the only thing you could have been muttering to yourself as you wandered around the phenomenally boring Conservation Station.) Animal Kingdom takes on big topics, and in doing so, it invites this kind of criticism.

The most ballyhooed attraction at the park—the wild animal safari through a simulated “Africa”—was our next step, and given that FastPass let us skip past hundreds of other paying guests, my spirits were brightened. It’s this attraction that Disney has called out more than any other, precisely because it’s an update of the Adventureland standby, the Jungle Cruise. Instead of being in a boat, however, you’re in an appropriately weathered safari bus, and instead of viewing fiberglass audio-animatronic animals, real, breathing, walking animals are on display.

Like the Jungle Cruise, the ride narration is supplied by a real person rather than a pre-recorded voice-over. The nature of the attraction requires it: since it can’t be known ahead of time exactly which animals will be out-and-about, only a live tour guide would suffice. It’s not entirely unscripted, however: at several moments during the tour, one of our pre-recorded compatriots from “home base” interrupts and tells us of poacher activity in the area. I almost forgot to mention: catching poachers is the “premise” for the ride. Looking at animals in natural surroundings wouldn’t be good enough, apparently; if there isn’t a chase scene and a bad guy, then evidently the ride wouldn’t be able to hold anyone’s attention.

Through Disney’s attempt to feign authenticity, we managed to get a tour guide with an incredibly thick South African accent that was unintelligible throughout a pretty sizable portion of the ride. Regardless, the main point of the ride was to see animals, not hear a tour guide, and on that count I give the attraction generally positive marks. We saw a lot of animals: giraffes, rhinos, hippos, and hordes of other animals that I hadn’t seen before (nor seen since.) I didn’t really feel the illusion that I was in Africa, mainly because the vistas are relatively small in scale. Instead of gazing across a huge plain populated by hundreds of animals, I typically saw just a few animals at close range, and behind them by a few feet were some artificial hills, presumably there to hide the attraction’s “internals.” The feeling was more of driving around a cage-less zoo rather than the Dark Continent. Not bad, but not particularly revolutionary, either.

Where the attraction failed for me was its fundamental concept that seeing animals wasn’t enough; a storyline had to be artificially constructed around them to keep us, the audience, engaged. A particularly notable moment happened at the end of the safari that crystallized a lot of my feelings toward the park. We received another pre-recorded radio alert from “home base” telling us that the poachers we were tracking were in fact just around the bend. The tour guide called us to action, and the bus lurched forward after its prey. As we were rounding the corner, however, a small group of warthogs became visible, which caused our tour guide to launch into an unbelievably quick spiel (“…and-here-on-the-left-you-see-a-herd-of-African-warthogs…”) concerning the small pack of animals to our vehicle’s left. Before the spiel even ended, our safari truck had left the animals in the dust, us now well on our way to catching the poacher. The net effect was a feeling that I’d been shortchanged on seeing the real animals in favor of catching our fake poacher. In all, a disappointment…but more on this later.

That anyone, let alone Disney, could combine the incredible ride vehicles from Indiana Jones with dinosaurs and come up with a tedious ride is mind-boggling. Yet somehow that happened with Dinosaur (called Countdown to Extinction when I was visiting the park), a dark, confusing mess of a thrill ride. In the world of movies—where Disney’s theme park rides draw both their theoretical and thematic foundations—there’s something called the “establishing shot.” The establishing shot is the wide-angle image that is used to set the time and place for the movie. The same principle applies to attractions as well: Disneyland’s Indiana Jones has it in the brief moments while your jeep “bounces” down the faux-temple stairs and you see its mammoth interior: the swinging rope bridge, the pool of lava, the enormous, fire-breathing stone carving of the god Mara. One glimpse of this sight and you know where you are—right in the middle of the Indiana Jones adventure of your dreams—and even though you’d never thought about it before, it’s just like you imagined it would be. Dinosaur —like Universal’s Jurassic Park boat ride—lacks this sense of place, and it never recovers. As a result, I felt like I was riding around in a warehouse filled with mechanical dinosaurs. To be sure, that’s what I was doing, but Disney’s best rides let me push that thought to the back of my mind. Dinosaur never let me forget it.

The attraction reaches when it shouldn’t—the difficult effect of having proto-birds flying over the ride vehicle look simply like plaster casts attached to moving sticks—and the places where it should excel, like making the prime antagonist of the piece—a carnosaur —seem truly alive, fall flat. It shakes a lot, but never seems real.

The ride has its moments: the time travel effect with its lasers is neat; the final lunge of the dinosaur toward your vehicle at the end of the ride is thrilling; yet when it was over, I really didn’t care if I rode on it again or not. That I was bathed in complete darkness with absolutely nothing happening for over a third of the ride didn’t help, either.

More than any other park it has built, Disney’s Animal Kingdom has trouble making a clear distinction between fantasy and reality. Back in the Magic Kingdom, when the Jungle Cruise boat captain takes you through the ancient Cambodian temple and tells you that it’s hundreds of years old, you know it’s not true—just like nothing else in the ride is—but it’s fun to pretend and play along. When the tour guide for Animal Kingdom’s “authentic” safari tells you that the decrepit bridge you’re crossing was built in the late nineteenth century, it not only feels dishonest, it feels like an attempt to upstage the stars of the show: the living animals that populate the safari grounds. Do I really need to be given the ridiculous premise that we’re chasing poachers off of the land? Aren’t the animals exciting enough on their own? If not, Disney shouldn’t have gone to the trouble of uprooting these animals from their native lands to make them sit in the middle of Florida dodging buses. (Okay, I know they’re from other zoos, and I’m sure they’re well taken care of. Regardless…)

Key mistakes are made elsewhere in Animal Kingdom. The park gets off on the wrong foot by placing yet another one of Walt Disney World’s Rainforest Cafes at the entrance gate. It’s not that I have a problem with overt commercialization in Disney’s parks: that’s been going on for quite some time without damaging the experience in any significant way. But this park is supposed to be different—it’s supposed to be “real”—and the faux-environmental attitude found at a Rainforest Cafe rings false in a way that the park’s designers should have avoided.

So can Animal Kingdom be fixed? Possibly. If Disney toned down its green rhetoric and upped its real commitment to the environment by 1) doing something itself, and 2) telling its visitors how they could actually help, that would be a big step in the right direction. The problems to solve would then be: 1) to decide which parts of the park should be fun and which parts of the park should be educational. Having them co-exist in a single attraction, as I’ve felt since I first visited Epcot, is a nearly impossible burden. 2) Per decision 1, make the attractions themselves either more fun or more educational, and 3) assuming there’s going to be a combination of both types of attractions, create an atmosphere where a roller coaster sitting next to a wild animal preserve doesn’t seem like a contradiction.

Combining education and fun isn’t easy, and in fact, Disney has only pulled it off successfully in one instance I can think of: its animation tour in Disney-MGM studios. Animation is a subject that Disney knows more about than anyone else, and because of that familiarity, the attraction has an authoritativeness that Animal Kingdom simply doesn’t. Moreover, despite the fact that animation is big business, it’s not really a “serious” business: accordingly, no one faults Disney for having a good time with the subject matter. The same isn’t true for the environment, or with real animals, either. Not taking its animals seriously, as it does in the safari show by upstaging them with fake poachers, is irresponsible, and showcases Disney at its worst: when it tackles complex subjects and handles them in a ham-handed way, confirming its critics’ worst fears.

Note: This Disney article first appeared on LaughingPlace.com, where I’m a semi-regular columnist.

One thought on “What Went Wrong With Disney’s Zoo

  1. Hey..you are right about a lot here. Esp. the entrance to the park. It is so …nothing. No sense of arrival at all. I had the good fortune of earning a 6 month internship there at WDI in 1990 and worked under Joe Rhode on this project. When I was there, the entrance to the park was supposed to be a huge ark that you passed through that was filled with empty, open cages. In the pavement below you was to be all kinds of hoof prints, etc. As if the animals had left the ark and gone to inhabit the park. The central icon was to be possibly a huge 2 story carousel with all kinds of animals instead of horses. I remember during a meeting I was sitting in on, that M. Eisner did not like this idea …so I guess that’s why it was dropped. There was to be an area called “Mythia” too…I have no idea why it disappeared…it was really cool. I also think that the walkways are way too darn narrow. I was just there this past week to hit “Everest” and it was ridiculous trying to navigate between all the strollers…and the park was not even that crowded. Everest is a blast, btw. Really beautiful to look at and the new area surrounding is a “10”! The only down side is now I guess we never will get a Matterhorn in our WDW Fantasyland. I wish they would just plop it down on top of our weak Toon Town and grassy nole that was once 20K. That’s a lot of property going to waste there! Our Fantasylnad has no backdrop now…I have to close my eyes when I walk through there…I’m in denial about the whole situation. At least the dormant 20K was still adding atmosphere! *sigh*

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