18 July 2011

Into the wilds

Go back to the opening of the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center, or even Disney-MGM Studios and think about your favorite attractions from those early years. Likely it is the attraction experience itself that your memories are drawn to. Now, turn your thoughts to attractions that have opened in the past fifteen years. I imagine somewhere in there you are picturing a queue from something like the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Expedition Everest, or Toy Story Midway Mania. Queues have moved away from corrals and rows of switchback and are becoming the new preface to the stories of Walt Disney World.

These queues are now the pinnacle and tidemark of great attraction storytelling, but storytelling as a whole has been a longstanding cornerstone of Disney. So, what about storytelling as a whole park? What park keeps itself on point while conveying story elements of the land or attractions they reside in? While there is room for argument, as there always is, the leaps and bounds made in theme narration truly shine throughout Disney’s Animal Kingdom.The story starts in the parking lot, a desolate, scorching hot slab of pavement, where the inherent value of nature is nowhere to be seen. This is, by design, in sharp contrast to the lush, green, cooling environment presented to guests as they reach the Oasis, the land which divides Disney’s Animal Kingdom from the outside world. From there, the hub of the park, Discovery Island, celebrates the beauty and bounty of nature through bright, colorful designs before sending guests out into specific points across the globe.

Africa, or more specifically Harambe, has grown roots in its eastern Africa home. While not tied to a single nation, Swahili is the chosen language of the town and can be found throughout the land and attractions. Traditional and more modern styles of architecture can be found throughout the main thoroughfare. There are even signs of Harambe’s history, from remnants of long destroyed fort walls to benches and signposts demarking the year Harambe gained its independence. From postings and other details it is clear Harambe’s economy is tied to two things: art and tourism.Meanwhile, the principalities found in Asia appear to be thriving. Tea has long been the export of Anandapur and Serka Zong, and there are glimpses of this agriculture past from the shops to the tea trains of Expedition Everest. With travelers flocking through this area, family homes have been converted into hotels and eateries. Yet, the spirituality of Asia’s people has never been stronger, with shrines present throughout the land, some in a state of repair and others continually in use.

While not much is there to go on, Camp Minnie-Mickey has the distinct feel of a summer camp in the Adirondack region. Like the other regions of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the most obvious sign of location isn’t the structures, but the type of foliage found within its borders. Sure the well, benches, and cabin-like structures deepen the tale, but it is the trees, shrubs, and flowering plants that really put the camp in its place.
Lastly, but certainly not least, is the balance of sideshow versus science known as Dinoland U.S.A. Carnival games and rides have cropped up along a stretch of route 498 in Florida. The gas station has become an attraction, filled with more dinosaur figures than is prudent to count and catalog. Yet, just down the road a paleontological dig is taking place, postings from resident grad students fill bulletin boards and their raucous dormitory, Restaurantosaurus, and the museum is filled with exhibits and boasting a new technology that will bring the past to life.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom has been mindful of the minutest detail, yet tells a grand story of humankind’s relationship to the other creatures that inhabit, or did inhabit, planet earth. There are lives being lived in every corner of this park, and the facets of these daily lives are there to be seen, touched, and learned from. While the overall narrative of the intrinsic value of nature is present throughout the park, each land has its own story to tell, just as the plethora of vignettes within each area have their own tales. It is the layering of these stories that tells the complete and stirring chronicle that is Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

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