Looking Beyond the Dead Beasts at Disney's New Zoo
In his plans for Disneyland and the original Jungle Cruise, Walt Disney envisioned placing real animals along the river's banks. Zoo people told him that wild animals are, for the most part, nocturnal and that guests would see them just laying about, if at all. Walt responded with robot lions and tigers that would perform the way he wanted, and on cue. That way he could guarantee no uncooperative critters to screw up his beloved storytelling.If only that were true now.Still a week from its April 22 "official" opening, Disney's fourth and largest Orlando theme park, Animal Kingdom, has been stung by a publicity backlash not felt by the company since it was suggested that Walt was a snitch for the FBI. Rising from vast bulldozed acreage that was radically altered to create a showplace for conservation of the natural environment, Disney's Animal Kingdom proves that real animals are far less reliable -- not to mention durable -- than Disney's fabled fakes. The tally of dead beasts so far includes four cheetah cubs, two rhinoceroses, two hippopotamuses, three herd animals and two West African cranes, the latter of which were run over by tour buses in a park preserve.Animal-rights activists have glowered their I-told-you-so's even as Disney's response -- after all, the company imported some 1,000 creatures -- has been almost nonchalant: Hey, it happens.It's easy to see how."Whoa! Whoa! WHOA!" shouted the passenger on the open-air Kilimanjaro Safari bus as it entered the park's Harambe Wildlife Reserve during a preview day preceding the public opening.Ashley, the driver, hit the brakes. Every other passenger immediately slid to the right and looked down to see a small waterfowl step out from in front of the high vehicle."Is she right in front of the tire or on the side?" asked Ashley, her view of the bird completely blocked."She's right at the side where your back tire might hit her," said the first passenger, now standing and straining to see. "Don't they move?""They usually do," said Ashley, easing off the brake and inching forward -- another road kill narrowly averted.One could argue that it's all part of working out the bugs, although even the phrase "working out the bugs" at an animal park carries a suddenly sinister meaning.But that's exactly what they've been doing. For weeks Disney has had the Animal Kingdom up and running -- testing rides, tweaking shows, sharpening scripts, making sure the food arrives hot, the desserts are pushed hard and the souvenirs are restocked as fast as possible. At the same time the animals -- those that survive -- also have been adjusting to new quarters, which include wide-open spaces on the effectively recreated African savannah during the daytime and surveillance camera-monitored, concrete-floor pens at night.There has been no attempt at illusion during this phase. Disney's mandate to maintain the magic is quickly shattered when staff members in work costumes wander up to the understated main entrance looking just as lost as the guests. Inside the park, preview visitors have bumped into packs of new employees dressed in streetclothes on their orientation tours. Even those hired, costumed and put in place don't always know what they're doing -- or more importantly, where they are."I was totally lost until 15 minutes ago," confesses Barb, a Disney worker stationed near the path that leads from the centerpiece Tree of Life to Camp Minnie-Mickey. (The visitor could have sworn he was bounding toward Dinoland U.S.A., a themed land on the other side of the park.)Barb is not alone.Confusing or just plain nonexistent directional signs are but one of the treats that guests will find at the Animal Kingdom. In unauthorized visits (meaning Disney didn't want us there yet, and we had to sneak in), Orlando Weekly also was able to document more than a few examples where the smoothing-out process wrought big changes. And we don't just mean the park's name, which originally was Wild Animal Kingdom until the Mutual of Omaha people got protective of their "Wild Kingdom" identity and caused Disney to back off.For instance, even as real animals in the new park drop dead, the make-believe elephant that Disney initially killed off at the hands of poachers on the safari tour now gets to live. The reason: Children (and Disney CEO Michael Eisner) found its man-made carcass too, well, disturbing.Campaigning to save the planet is one thing. But you just can't spook the kids. Not when you're Disney.Unlike other theme parks here, this one opens with no lush promenade or parade plaza; even the first gift shops are a good walk past the entrance. Instead you are eased in through narrow, interlocking trails that are surrounded with lush, green landscaping and lined with virtually hidden animal enclosures. A tone is quickly set; look or you'll miss something.That emphasis on personal discoveries marks the Animal Kingdom as Disney's most passive park. It's also why, despite being the biggest, it can accommodate the fewest people.Yet it's still the broccoli on Disney's plate; you know it's supposed to be good for you, but it's nowhere near as fun as downing a whipped-cream cake. Kids -- and parents -- expecting to be plopped into the world of "The Jungle Book" will be let down; here there are real lions, not a meet-and-greet with Simba from "The Lion King." Even the small-scale, twice-daily March of the Animals proceeds without a single familiar face from Disney's pantheon. Rather, the parade's costumed characters are colorfully dressed as anonymous elephants and insects, queen bees and bugs; the big finish is -- you'll never guess -- a praying mantis.Yes, there are rides (and in Dinoland U.S.A., one really good one). But if the Magic Kingdom is a playground, and Epcot an international bazaar, and Disney-MGM a peek behind movie and TV screens, then Animal Kingdom wants you to think -- about endangered species, about shrinking rainforests, about man's selfish and alarming imprint on a planet with limited resources.And if you aren't made to think about those things hard enough, Animal Kingdom employs a fresh tool: guilt."Would you like to donate $1 to the Disney Conservation Fund?" asks Staci, pausing at the register before ringing up the final sale on a roll of film. "Yes" gets you a sticker; donate $3 and you get a plastic shopping bag that is just a wee bit nicer than the usual plastic shopping bag. "Most people give a dollar," Staci helpfully explains. "A lot of people say, 'Keep the change.'" One person gave her 20 bucks.It's a pitch you'll hear with every retail purchase. Disney's Wildlife Conservation Fund, according to a brochure, "promotes global wildlife conservation by working with scientists, educators and organizations committed to preserving the earth's biodiversity." Grants so far have gone to support such nonprofit groups as Save the Manatee Club, the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.Fund raising has not come easily to all Disney workers. "It took me a while to get used to asking people for it," allows Emily, a sales clerk in the Mombasa Marketplace, part of the park's Africa section. "I didn't want them to think that this is just a big money trap. But," she adds, singing the song of the converted, "100 percent of it goes to help the animals."Those animals -- at least the captive ones here -- turn up in remarkably well-designed and convincing settings. It ain't Africa, or anywhere near it. But it sure doesn't look like Florida, either.Animal Kingdom reasserts the focus on Walt's storytelling genius. In both Disneyland and Disney World's Magic Kingdom, he created themed lands so deliberately vague -- Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Adventureland -- they could embrace any tale told. Ditto this latest expansion. It's all right there in the Animal Kingdom logo, which depicts five hoofed creatures in silhouette, from the majestic (lion) to the massive (elephant) to the mythical (dragon) to the missing (dinosaur) to the mundane (we're not positive, but let's call it a goat). Almost any animal you can imagine fits in there somewhere. And who doesn't like animals?Likewise, the new park's conceptual "lands" are all-encompassing. When Epcot opened there were designs for an African pavilion; it finally was ruled out because it's not a country but a continent. Yet here, where Africa is depicted as a dusty, sun-bleached outpost, it's a perfect fit. You can't actually place the setting anywhere specific. But neither can you argue that it doesn't match its description as an East African port, a hazy depiction that becomes the jumping-off point for the most solemn, heavy-handed preaching of the park's message, in attractions from Conservation Station, a beautifully done interpretive exhibit and petting zoo, to Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail, on which you really feel that you are wandering a jungle path (albeit paved with asphalt).When it opens next year, Asia presumably will have the same loose geographical characterization. (Will it represent the China part? The India part? Does it really matter?)A third area, Camp Minnie-Mickey, seems like a real throw-together, tacked on and likely to be rethought later. An early plan assumed this to be a showplace for make-believe animals; that idea was dropped as the opening drew closer and they needed to focus on the real ones. Camp Minnie-Mickey hosts the Festival of the Lion King show, but the draw is the huts where costumed characters are trotted out to meet the tykes -- and which make Camp Minnie-Mickey resemble nothing more than a really, really nice interstate rest area.Surrounding the Tree of Life, Safari Village combines shops and snack stands in bright, colorful buildings that are indistinguishable from one another. That tree -- with no obvious front or back (and, during preview days, no clearly marked entrance to the 3-D movie on bugs being shown inside) is the root cause of the disorientation at the park's center. No matter: The detailed carvings of animal shapes that cover its huge trunk and root extensions send you searching la "Where's Waldo?" to find and name that critter.Overheard:He: "That's an armadillo."She: "That's not an armadillo. That's a praying mantis." And about that tree: As the icon of the park, it presumably should make a statement as strong as Cinderella's Castle or Epcot's big ball. Amazing though it is, it's a mild disappointment. The problem is scale. It stands 15 stories tall, but those 15 stories do not shoot straight up like the side of a building. Instead, the effect is like standing at the bottom of a hill and looking up; the view from the top may be fantastic, yet from the wide base there's just not a lot to get excited about. But again, look close: More than a few species are caged in by the elaborate root system.The same might be said of employees who find themselves acting as apologists for animals that tend to be most active in the evening and early morning, when the park crowds will be thinnest. Guests who strain in the shadow of the tree during midday to spy the Asian small-clawed otter are met by Linda, a worker who tells them, "They're on the other side of the island sleeping. They're very lazy." Like it's the otters' fault.Refusing to let facts get in the way of a good time, however, the park truly peaks in the fantastical Dinoland U.S.A. Unlike the rest of Animal Kingdom, the aim here is pure whimsy. The result is quirky personality that is both engaging and entertaining, from the themed-to-death Restaurant-osaurus (representing the marriage of Mickey and McDonald's, which underwrote Dinoland U.S.A. and here hawks McDonald's fries, Happy Meals and Chicken McNuggets) to The Boneyard, the requisite slides-and-soft-surfaces playground for kids that is modeled after an archaeological dig site. And in Chester and Hester's Dinosaur Treasures, Dinoland U.S.A. has the most inviting and over-the-top gift shop in the park -- if you can find it.What isn't revealed, of course, is always most interesting, and here Disney vastly undersells the skeletal cast of a brachiosaurus that serves as the "Oldengate Bridge" under which guests walk to enter the area. It's a copy of the most complete fossil of its type ever found, the original having been auctioned off last year for a staggering $8.36 million to Chicago's Field Museum, whose bid was funded in large part by Disney and McDonald's to accomplish this display. That bid sent up a red flag about the encroaching influence of commerce in a world formerly left to scientists. (A buyer who said he wanted the fossil so he could return it to its finders at the Black Hill Institute for Geological Research in South Dakota dropped out of the bidding at $1.2 million.) For its part, McDonald's planned to cart its own two life-size casts of the fossil -- dubbed Sue for Susan Hendrickson, the field paleontologist who discovered it in 1990 -- around the world to show off.An easy-to-miss plaque next to the "bridge" does list the Field Museum as the home of the original bones, and describes the brachiosaurus -- at 52 feet tall and more than 80 feet long -- as "one of the largest creatures that ever walked the earth." But that selective presentation is another red flag.Animal Kingdom has a message to sell, but Disney only volunteers what they want you to hear. And indeed, Disney is selectively pruning the local animal population so as not to interfere with its imported animal population.Case in point: Visitors on one preview day caught the train in Africa for a short glimpse behind the scenes of the 100-acre Harambe Preserve, then strode from the drop-off point down an overly long path to Conservation Station. There, they looked through glass as a surgeon prepared to work on an anesthetized raccoon. An interpretative guide said the raccoon had been found on Disney property with an apparent injury, which explained its bandaged legs. (Not said was whether Disney ran over those, too.)So why the ultrasound treatment that followed? Apparently they wanted to know if the animal was pregnant; in truth, revealed a behind-the-scenes worker much later, Disney regularly catches raccoons to sterilize them so they can't reproduce once they're let loose in the parks' environs again.Somehow, that fact didn't make it into the spiel.Such population control underscores the Animal Kingdom's greatest irony: the resurrection of Big Red, the make-believe momma elephant, on the same safari tour where real animals have died real deaths.Big Red, and her offspring Little Red, provide the thread that weaves together the story behind Kilimanjaro Safaris, one of only two genuine "rides" in the new park. (Like the train to Conservation Station, the Discovery River Boats that circle the park's core are used more for transit than thrills; the latter encounter a fire-breathing beast and an exploding geyser, but really it's just a critter cruise that lets animal keepers show guests small reptiles and invertebrates up close. "But in a box," says Cathy, a keeper carting a bearded dragon lizard. "Some people have phobias, and we don't want to see them jump in the water.")The Kilimanjaro Safari tours cut across Florida terrain masterfully redesigned to evoke "part of the wild Africa that we're all working to save," says Ashley, who spits out her script as she drives. And the sturdy, man-made landscape of berms, gullies and rock outcroppings is designed so that each tour bus stays just beyond the sight lines of the preceding and following vehicles, which are separated by what seems like less than 90 seconds.Here are the hippos, giraffes, wildebeests, cheetahs, white rhinos, lions, baboons, storks, crocodiles and other resettled animals, inviting snapshots and excited finger-pointing as the bus rumbles along. "We are moving into elephant country now. Hopefully we'll see our two most famous residents," says Ashley.Alas, the taped audio says that poachers have shot Big Red first, and Little Red is missing. That sets the safari off on a scramble to catch them. The bus passes their camp -- ivory tusks are stockpiled -- and briefly races alongside them before spotting rangers who have wrangled the evildoers and saved Little Red. Big Red? Although she's never seen, guests are now assured, "She'll be fine."Guests may not be, however. The seatbelt-less ride on hard seats is as bumpy and jarring as being dragged through a rock garden.It's like an air cushion, however, compared to the violent hurtling through nearly constant darkness that is Countdown to Extinction.Here is Dinoland U.S.A.'s signature ride -- Animal Kingdom's equivalent to Space Mountain or Tower of Terror. There's a storyline -- told with uncharacteristic fumbling -- about a Time Rover sent back to retrieve a dinosaur just moments before an asteroid shower wipes them out, and the predictable sendoff, "What could go wrong?" We know the basic routine from the "Jurassic Park" movies and even Universal's "Back to the Future" ride, a simulator in which a stationary vehicle jerks about to match the images on a huge screen. But imagine that the image doesn't move, and it's the vehicle that tumbles forward at an ever-accelerating pace. Add in rapid flashes of dinosaur jaws, a screeching soundtrack and a howl at the end that not only makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up but grabs it and yanks, and you've got a one-way race through a high-tech funhouse that demands you hang on with both hands.It also is not kid-friendly. "Children come out of there crying all the time," says Tara, a Disney employee at the exit of the ride that increased the number of posted warnings as the test period wore on. (Gone is a concluding high-pressure burst of air -- perhaps meant as a dinosaur's hot breath? -- that had sent both riders and workers out of the attraction complaining of popped ears.)Countdown to Extinction is the one piece of Animal Kingdom that rewards visitors who will go expecting a theme-park experience. In all other areas, Animal Kingdom is a calculated risk that looms as something of a hard sell.Not so long ago, Disney decided that its visitors of the '90s were ready for more stimulating challenges and created the Disney Institute as a learning vacation. It tanked; today that campus is given over almost entirely to business and management seminars.Have they overestimated people's desire to learn again? Animal Kingdom confronts the challenge. The audience would seem to be the post-yuppie, post- hippie generation among whom the environment is a cause that reverberates. But the enlightened will see the corporate muscle behind the message and charge the other way. Grandparents will turn out -- it reflects their pace -- but kids can find more fun and stimulation in a science museum, and for a lot less than the $44.52 adult admission charged for anyone over age 9.Disney knows this. That's why they've filled the shelves with a crowd-pleasing compromise: the stuffed Safari Mickeys (and Safari Poohs, Safari Donalds, Safari Plutos, et. al.) that try to sell Animal Kingdom as a place to take the family. It might even work.But if, come Christmas, they start stringing the Tree of Life with lights, you'll know they're questioning their purpose, too.