Disney’s Animal Kingdom is not a zoo.
In fact, it’s so much not a zoo that an early commercial for the Park described it using the made-up, African-sounding word “Nahtazu” (say it out loud)!
However, because it actually is an accredited zoo, it still must fulfill certain functions of a zoo – namely, to keep its animals fed, healthy, happy, and as undisturbed by human visitors as possible. But it’s not easy to do this when the Disney theme park requirements of immersive design and architecture mean that the Imagineers can’t just create habitats and enclosures like the kind you’d see at your local zoo.
Instead, they have needed to create an elaborate system that allows for the comfort and care of the many animals who inhabit this Animal Kingdom without breaking the illusion of Guests being in Africa, Asia, and the other global locales recreated throughout the park. This has led to a secret side to Animal Kingdom, one seen only by the cast members and the animals.
But that doesn’t mean Disney hasn’t let slip some of those secrets over time, giving us a glimpse into the Animal Kingdom as viewed by the animals themselves.
The 2007 Disney Editions book The Imagineering Field Guide to Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World gives some of the best insights behind the curtain at the ways in which the Imagineers built Animal Kingdom for both human Guests and animal inhabitants. Written ostensibly by “The Imagineers” (though credited on the copyright page to Imagineer Alex Wright), this slim tome explicitly notes in a page heading that the Animal Kingdom is “Not (Just) a Zoo.”
As Wright explains,
Disney’s Animal Kingdom is an accredited zoo, but it’s also much more than that. It is a theme park featuring stories about animals and the ways in which humans interact with them. As such, it is capable of delving into levels of intellectual stimulation that are beyond the reach of zoos that merely present animals to view and offer accompanying information to round out the experience. These facilities typically don’t have at their disposal the resources or the storytelling background to go any further. Animal Kingdom is built on a story foundation that encompasses . . . how we interact with animals.
This means that the Imagineers placed equal importance on the stories that the animals help them tell – stories focused on the appreciation of animal life and the natural world, awareness of the issues that confront both, and the need for conservation by humanity to protect them – as they did on “just” creating safe enclosures for the animals.
Any of the attractions at Animal Kingdom that utilize living animals, then, need to look very different from a zoo. Guests are meant to feel immersed in an experience of nature, and not realize that they’re technically at a zoo, looking at artificial landscapes and enclosures.
This plays out most prominently at Animal Kingdom’s centerpiece attraction, Kilimanjaro Safaris. As Wright notes,
Clearly the intent for Kilimanjaro Safaris is for us to be traveling through a natural environment with animals living in their own world, not on display in exhibits for our benefit. This means that our animals are contained via a variety of means that are, for the most part, invisible to the Guest. By applying theatrical sight-line studies to these natural forms—much as we would for any set design in any of our parks—we have created unseen moats, underwater bollards, fences screened by foliage, landscape barriers, and rockwork for containment.
However, the Imagineers couldn’t stop there. They also needed to design Kilimanjaro Safaris to meet the needs of live animals, and that means getting every detail right and using natural building materials. After all, Wright jokes, “Most scenic designers don’t have to deal with the difficulty of a cast eating their set every day.”
He goes on to explain the role of landscape artists in creating the setting for both Guests and animals:
Our landscape designers are used to working with plant material in the service of scenic design, as they have on countless WDI projects dating back to the earliest days of Disneyland, but here the landscape is the entire set rather than a complementary element. It creates every bit of the setting in which we tell this story. . . .
The primary function of the landscape design is placemaking. Our Guests and fellow explorers need to feel as though they are halfway around the world and miles away from civilization in order to absorb the story of this show. The landscape team has created multiple spaces, from the relatively cozy confines of the Ituri forest at the outset to the vast vistas of the savannah as the attraction reaches its crescendo.
The next priority for the landscape is the screening of views in order to control the elements of the safari that the Guests are allowed to see. Here the various pieces of the landscapers’ palette are put to use as purely theatrical devices, with berms, screen walls, landscape barriers, and real and artificial trees blocking our vision and focusing us on the animals we are there to see.
Lastly, our landscapers worked with our expert animal facility design consultants to verify that each habitat conformed to the highest standards in the industry in terms of animal care and safety. They studied each species’ jump profile, widths of moats, wall textures, and all the other aspects of a facility that ensure the safe viewing of animals.
From the perspective of the animals, then, Animal Kingdom is deliberately designed to provide an immersive, illusion-fueled experience just as much as it is for the Guests. This goes to show you just how far the Imagineers will grow to create that Disney magic for everyone (and every animal!) on Disney property.