The Mouse's Wild Side: Disney's New Animal Kingdom

Walt Disney World is the proud site of a new Disney theme park: Animal Kingdom. Joseph Szadkowski reports on this new destination which combines adventure, education and fun.

Photo courtesy and © 1998 Jacquie Kubin.

"This whole park is about the real animals found in Africa, Asia and even the extinct dinosaurs," said Tom Sze, a Walt Disney World (WDW) architect. "It teaches and celebrates all these marvelous creatures from the biggest wild African elephant to the smallest stink bug."

Walt Disney's desire to learn and teach is legendary at Walt Disney World, particularly in the Imagineering Department -- the place where Disney magic is created. "Arnie Stuvard, our senior executive in Imagineering, worked with Walt around the time he created Disneyland in Anaheim, California," said Rick Rothschild, executive producer at Imagineering. "He talks about a time where Walt was walking through the hallways of the studio, and nobody came up and asked him any questions, and it seemed like everything was working fine and that was the moment that worried him the most." A Zoo, Disney Style The newest park addition in Florida's Walt Disney World Resort is the spectacular Animal Kingdom, a 500 acre environment that comes from a collaboration between experts in different aspects of animal behavior and the creative minds of the Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) team. A celebration of all animals, Animal Kingdom presents visitors with an environment that allows them to interact intimately with its inhabitants. Imagineers and caretakers have created a world that presents them in all their furred, feathered and colorful glory.

The awe-inspiring Tree of Life stands 145 feet tall and begs to be inspected more closely with hundreds of bas relief etched into the body of the tree. © 1998 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

The park's centerpiece is the incredible Tree of Life, which Sze likens to being the eighth wonder of the world. "The Tree of Life is amazing. The body of the tree has 325 bas-relief that are viewable from every angle," said Sze. "As you walk around the park, it is often within your vision and you will always be finding a new crustacean, wild horse or butterfly amongst its branches and bark." Surrounded by the park's Oasis, a collection of rocky grottos teaming with brightly plumed birds and anteaters, the architectured Tree of Life hides one of Animal Kingdom's most interesting and educational features, the 3D animated story, "It's Tough to be a Bug."

Designing Bugs Simultaneously "We started with the notion that bugs are the largest single species of creatures; they make up more than 80% of all the things that move around the Earth," said Rothschild. "In developing the story, we realized that most people see bugs as being pests. So we got together with a team of top entomologists and asked them if they had eight minutes in which to tell a story about bugs, what would be the three most important things that could be said."

The response that the WDI team received was that without bugs, we could not exist. The entomologists wanted to see an attraction that would make human visitors, young and old, not only look at bugs as either beautiful like butterflies or amazing in what they can do, like ants, but also appreciated for their incredible contributions to the environment. In other words, without the crawling Dung Beetle that eats waste or the buzzing bee that pollinates plants and crops, we humans would have a hard time surviving. "Knowing the story that we wanted to tell, we were also aware of the fact that Pixar was developing the movie A Bug's Life, starring Flik the Ant and Hopper the Grasshopper," said Rothschild. "We thought if we could bring those characters in to tell our story, that would be great." At that time, Pixar was in the early process of development which presented some additional challenges for the production team. "The Disney organization was getting the animatronics to work with Pixar, who was doing the animation of Flik and Hopper. Rhythm and Hues, who won an Academy Award for Babe, did all the other bugs and backgrounds," said Rothschild. "We needed to bring all those people together with the Disney forces to create a seamless experience for the audience member. Only at this time, Pixar was not very far in the process. In fact, they did not have one solid animation of Hopper and we needed to begin building this eight foot animated figure of him for the attraction. I think this might be the only time that the attraction for a film was built before the film was done. It made it very interesting at times," he added.

For the Disney animatronics team there were some very special problems when creating the moving figures to accent the 3D animated film. First, the animatronic characters are seen by the audience just before the film begins. "Creating the animated figure of Hopper was a big new step in terms of the fact that he is certainly the most sophisticated figure we have done to date for a couple of reasons, one being his scale," said Rothschild. "We are talking about a grasshopper that is eight feet tall and he has to move like he does on film and in real-life." The challenge for the team is that the audience sees him one minute in the theater as an animatronic and then thirty seconds later animated on screen. The animatronic figure needed to move and walk in a manner so that the audience would believe that Hopper had moved from the stage to the screen. Flik presented similar challenges in that the audience finds a blue hued ant in the ceiling of the theater (within the roots and substructure of the Tree of Life, a very appropriate place for an ant to hang out) and then five seconds later, he also walks into the film. "The whole approach to the way we developed the faces to articulate when compared against the animation film's articulation was a challenge which I think we delivered well on," said Rothschild. Another bug for the designers to work out was in placing the mechanical workings of the animatronics into the thin limbs that are characteristic of an insect, and then getting him to take his place quickly, appearing almost like magic before the audience. "Hopper has to go from not being seen to being seen in less than two seconds and it is almost a feat of magic and an extraordinary thing to watch with the lights on," said Rothschild. "To me that is a real tribute to thirty plus years of learning and a tremendous continued tenacity on the part of the guys and gals who build these figures and say, `We may have never done this before but we think maybe we can' and then they do it!"

Countdown to Extinction in DinoLand U.S.A. takes one back to the age of dinosaurs courtesy of Disney Imagineers. © 1998 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

These Aren't Your Father's Animatronics

Flik and Hopper are not the only animatronic creatures in the Kingdom. From the elephants, gorillas and giant butterflies found in the Rain Forest Cafe, to the dinosaurs in the DinoLand U.S.A. thrill ride Countdown to Extinction, there are numerous animals infused with electrical life. Walking beneath the skeletal remains of a T-Rex, explorers entering DinoLand U.S.A. first stroll past a bone yard. The bone yard gives visitors the chance to dig in the dirt and uncover the replica remains of a woolly mammoth. In this area, there are archeology lessons, lots of people to answer questions, and slides, rope bridges and fountains within which to play. "We wanted to give everybody an opportunity to enjoy and learn about dinosaurs on their own level and to celebrate them," said Ann Malmlund, show producer. "The bone yard gives visitors the ability to touch and discover cast replicas of real dinosaur bones." Walt Disney personally directed the building of the first animatronic Disney Dinosaurs more than thirty-five years ago for the New York World's Fair. Then the Disney Imagineers built a meandering ride through a prehistoric world of slowly moving massive creatures. Today's Imagineers have created the fast paced, thrill ride Countdown to Extinction, a trans-dimensional journey that takes groups of twelve in a Time Rover vehicle back to the exact moment of the dinosaurs' extinction.

The wait in line is fascinating as journeyers pass through a foyer where fossil molds, as well as some of the survivors of the dinosaur age, are on display. Once in the rotunda, visitors in line are entertained with the story of the dinosaurs extinction which, they learn, most likely came about from the impact of a large asteroid. How scientists know this is by a layer of asteroid dust, called the KT boundary, that exists below the earth's surface. Actually, throughout DinoLand, observant visitors will see soft shelled turtles, lizards and beetles that are descendants of the creatures that survived the asteroids. It is at this point that the very young children, noticeably excited, wonder if the dinosaurs they are about to encounter are scary. Countdown to Extinction contains, according to Walt Disney Imagineers, the most exciting audio-animatronic figures ever created. Throughout the experience amazed riders come face to face with iguanodon, pterodactyl, compsognathers, alioramous and the show's big bad guy, the carnotaurus. "We chose the carnotaurus because we know so much about him," said Malmlund. "A near complete skeleton of the carnotaurus was uncovered in Argentina, but the discovery was particularly unique in that when the dinosaur fell, his skin left an impression in the mud so we know that his hide was rough and covered in bumps and knobs." The beast in Countdown to Extinction is larger than his ancestors and his features, as with some of the other animatrons, were exaggerated. "Sometimes the ride moves very fast and the dinosaurs leap out of nowhere," said Malmlund. "By exaggerating things a little we were able to insure that visitors were able to see some of the nuances with only a quick glimpse." Countdown is filled with sudden surprises, but is fun for all ages. One young man who was frightened to get on the ride exited afterwards with a sigh of relief and happiness that he had mustered up the courage. "It was neat and I was only a little scared," said six year-old James Correira from South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. "I liked all of the dinosaurs in the ride and I learned that they are not scary at all. I also learned that they died when they were hit with an asteroid." Well, James, maybe they aren't too scary for you but I doubt many would want to meet a hungry carnotaurus in a dark alley.

All types of animals inhabit the grounds of Disney's Animal Kingdom. Photo courtesy and © 1998 Jacquie Kubin.

Natural Delights Education at Animal Kingdom does not only come from man-made animatronic exhibits. For instance, some of the gentlest learning is done while watching a real-life black rhinoceros lumber across the Kilimanjaro Safaris roadway. The Safari presents visitors with a 100-acre African Serengeti-inspired savannah, or grass land. It is here that the lion's share of the Animal Kingdom inhabitants live. Harambe Village serves as the gateway to the Safari and the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail. Before taking the safari journey, visitors who walk down the trails will find themselves staring face to face with a family of hippos who swim gracefully before the plexi-glass viewing windows.

Down another trail, children can be heard exclaiming their amazement at a family of silverback gorillas. The mother has made herself and her young baby a bedlike nest right next to the protective window. She seems to watch the mothers and children on the other side almost as intently as they watch her. In the background, a proud father roughhouses a bit with his teenage son before stopping to snack on some of the plants growing within his home. Visitors are also able to stop within what seems to be an open-aired aviary where colorful birds fly directly overhead.

It is then on to the Kilimanjaro Safaris, an open rover ride through grasslands filled with sable antelope, reticulated giraffes, rhinoceroses, Thompson's gazelles and other wonderful animals native to Africa. The stars of this journey though are the elephants. These graceful giants are part of the conservation story told by Kilimanjaro Safaris while visitors wait to board the vehicles and en route. Disney has outfitted the rovers with "two-way" radios through which the driver keeps in contact with the reserve's warden. Through their conversation, riders learn that the Thompson's Gazelle is called a Tommy by natives and that the white and black rhinoceros, along with the elephant, have been killed to the point of endangerment. In fact, there are less than 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild. Adding a bit of danger to the ride, as it crosses an old bridge, the rover almost seems to slip into the river below. Beyond the curve, riders can see the African Elephants with flapping ears and searching trunks walk, eat and play in a pond no more than thirty feet from the vehicle. As the rover continues through the grassland there is a sudden urgent call from the warden in his plane overhead. It seems that poachers have tried to capture Big Red and her calf, Little Red. The warden requests the rovers help to block off the poachers' escape. Of course, this being Disney, everything works out, the elephants are rescued and the last animal visitors see on the Safari is an animatronic Little Red in the back of a truck. The learning continues throughout the park via fun activities and wonderfully produced stage shows such as the "Journey into Jungle Book" at DinoLand U.S.A. or the "Festival of the Lion King" in Camp Minnie-Mickey.

As theme parks go, Animal Kingdom is a leopard that has changed its spots. The Imagineers have pulled out their bags of tricks, adding in some new surprises, to allow park-goers to visit, experience and think about the world animal population's beauty, necessity and magnificence. Animal Kingdom makes for a great day that will flash back to visitors often. Joseph Szadkowski writes on various aspects of popular culture and is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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