Not long ago, SamLand was privileged to be a guest on the world famous WDW Today Podcast. I get my WDW news fix three times a week from Matt, Mike, Mike, and Len. The show topic was the design behind the arrival experience at each of the 4 parks. Making a great first impression is one of the hallmarks of the Disney parks. So let’s try and get into the head of the Imagineers and figure out why each entrance is unique but distinctly Disney. For the fully illustrated version of this article go to Samland’s Disney Adventures.
As you know, first impressions matter. For themed environmental design, a proper introduction can create a level of comfort that allows the visitor to let go and enter the story. This idea came from Disney animated films. The reason that the backgrounds have such a high level of detail is to create a sense that the setting is real and anything that happens in the foreground is believable. Walt Disney called this the Plausible Impossible. This formula has been applied to the Disney’s Animal Kingdom arrival experience.
The Imagineers want you to leave the land of theme parks and enter a mythical tropical forest. They want you to slow down and let the environment grow on you. Create a park where the shortest path is neither the straightest line nor the best way to get from here to there.
The Imagineers’ trick is the use of contrast. They take you from a barren plain into a lush tropical forest. You go from a lifeless environment to a place filled with life. The Imagineers are trying to slow you down so you can absorb your surroundings and feel a part of the natural environment. Does it work?
Built into this park are two deep-seated design patterns. The first is the well-known fact that this park is designed to reward the visitor who takes their time. The second pattern is how the Imagineers use contrast at the entrance to hammer home the main theme of conservation.
What do I mean about contrast? As you pull up to the park notice that this parking lot is one hard, giant, treeless, hot place. Not a very inviting first impression. This is by design. You are getting your first lesion in the park’s guiding principles that illustrate the Circle of Life concept. You experience first hand what could easily be described as a lifeless place – the parking stalls. Off in the distance, beyond the edge of the parking lot is a lush forest. The Imagineers will exploit this use contrast to enhance the story and message.
As you disembark from the parking lot tram or walk over from the bus stop you will notice that unlike the other parks, you cannot see any buildings sticking up above the trees. I understand that some may argue that Expedition Everest and the thin tall cell tower that is camouflaged like a tree might be exceptions. Over time the cell tower will be somewhat hidden within the parks tree canopy. In fact, the park’s design guidelines and building code took into account the natural changes to the landscape from the start.
The design objective was to have the tree canopy rise entirely over the roofs of the buildings. The buildings would become secondary to nature. One result is that over time the iconic Tree of Life would be better integrated and apart of the landscape as it remains the same size while everything grows around it. Since the park opened in 1998, the plant material has really matured and the desired effect is taking place.
As you walk toward the front gate take some time to look down at the ground because the materials on the ground add to the story. The parking lot paving materials appear to be washed out and already cracking especially at the edges. It is as if the parking lot wants to return to nature. As you move toward the front gate you notice how the hard asphalt turn to friendlier materials. If you look closely you will see how the colors of the pavement consist of long, wavy red and green patterns. From a bird’s eye view this puzzle would reveal that you are seeing a giant mural of the Tree of Life.
In all things concerning life, there must be a balance. This is a central message throughout Animal Kingdom. And balance is best achieved when the edges are blurred and the environment is a gradient. In the field of ecology, naturalist use transects to describe the characteristics of an ecosystem and describe the changes in ecosystems over a gradient. When the Transect is severely disrupted, significant environmental impacts can be felt. Virtually every attraction deals with a disruption in the natural transect when you really think about it.
The ticket booth and gateway architecture is based on the American Arts and Crafts tradition as a demonstration on how man-made structures can seem compatible with the natural environment. Within this design tradition, the blending of indoor and outdoor space is blurred, natural materials are featured, and the machine age is shunned for hand-made.
This is not the first time Disney has used this architectural style for inspiration. Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa is also based on this style. The difference is the Anaheim resort takes the style and blows up the scale beyond any real building in that style. The gateway and ticket booths in Florida are at an appropriate scale and blend into the environment.
Once upon a time, Animal Kingdom was supposed to have three realms – animals of the past, animals of the present, and animals that only lived within our imaginations. This concept was reinforced throughout the entrance. Along with lions, elephants, and dinosaurs is the image of a dragon. The dragon would represent Beastly Kingdom, a land of unicorns and other mystical beasts. The dragon makes another appearance above the far left ticket booth.
Once past the gateway you enter a land unique to this theme park. It is called the Oasis. Functionally, the Oasis serves the same purpose as Main Street, Hollywood Boulevard or walking under Spaceship Earth; to create a shared experience that sets up the adventures that lie ahead. For this park, the Imagineers were trying to slow you down and they described the Oasis as a “cool, green decompression zone”. As people run toward the safari or Everest, this is a feat that is rarely achieved on the way in but with some success on the way out.
The pathways meander and cross under a land bridge (reminiscent of the tunnels under the train at the Magic Kingdom?) acting like a curtain until the big reveal – your first view of the Tree of Life. The wide walkway is designed to accommodate the large crowds who just stand there. From the parking lot to this point you have walked up a 20-foot hill.
Like the other Disney park entries, the Oasis funnels you through single entrance and a narrow portal to separate the real world from the fantasy world. At the end is a hub with the various lands radiating out like spokes on a wheel.
Animal Kingdom is unique. By using contrast, not only is the environmental design experience different so is the way to tour the park successfully. At every other theme park, it is the destination that matters. At Animal Kingdom the best way is to let the journey become the thing. The arrival experience supports that change and hopes you accept the challenge.