Disney's Animal Kingdom is the largest of all the Disney parks around the world. And since the theme of this park is animals and nature, it also contains the most growth. A staggering amount of growth. On opening day, over four million plants, big and small, had been added to the landscaping here. Africa alone included 70,000 trees and 770,000 bushes.
Since the Imagineers wanted the park to look fully established on opening day (April 22, 1998), the landscapers began planting the land over two years in advance. To help in the process, they imported fully grown trees from around the world and used accelerators in their on-property tree farm to vastly speed up a sapling’s growth.
Just like at Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, a berm was constructed around portions of the park to hide the real world from the one they were creating for guests. And not only would these berms act as a barrier, they would also be a place where additional plants and trees could be grown and “stored” if needed to replace a dying species somewhere in the park at a later date.
This next picture shows the berm as seen from the parking lot. Behind this pile of dirt and dense growth lies Dinoland U.S.A. But you’d never know it from this angle.
When exiting the parking lot tram, guests pass between four planters filled with bushes and palm trees. Not only are these planters attractive, they also serve to direct passengers away from the walkway Disney bus guests are using. This creates a more uniform traffic flow.
When viewed from above, the pavement coloration found in the entrance plaza creates a large tree.
The Rain Forest Café marquee was designed not only to display the restaurant’s name, but at the same time act as a fountain and planter. Although not obvious in this picture, water is flowing from the letters.
I’ve mentioned in past articles that once the Rainforest Café had vast waterfalls cascading from its roof. Unfortunately, the landscaping grew and grew until this view was completely obscured. Today, scaled backed falls have been created on the side of the building.
Near the back entrance to this restaurant is a miniature rainforest complete with playful animal recreations and some giant toadstools.
The Oasis is that area located between the Animal Kingdom turnstiles and the bridge that spans Discovery River on the way to Discovery Island. The Oasis is equivalent to Main Street at the Magic Kingdom. It was the Imagineers intention that this area be used as a decompression spot – an area where guests could transition between the real world and the world of nature and animals.
The Oasis recreates a lush tropical jungle. The only open spaces you’ll find here are the pathways that lead guests deeper into the park. Greenery surrounds you at every turn. Yet, there is nothing here that stands out and grabs your attention with the exception of epiphytes.
And epiphyte is a plant that requires no soil to grow. Instead, it attaches itself to other plants but is non-parasitical. It derives its nutrients from the air, rain, and accumulating debris near its base. If you look up into the trees and rocks of the Oasis, you’ll see a number of these unique plants. (In some cases, Disney has helped the process along.)
Discovery Island at the Animal Kingdom acts like The Hub at the Magic Kingdom. It ties all of the outlying lands together in a harmonious manor. But rather than depict a real geographic location, Discovery Island uses humorous, almost cartoon-like representations of animals to create a whimsical locale that does not conflict with the other areas of the park. One example of this can be seen on the clay pots that act as planters.
Flame Tree Barbeque offers a good example of how the Imagineers don’t always get things right the first time around. In the first picture below, you can see a large area of growth surrounding the restaurants marquee. In the second picture you can see this has been scaled back greatly to offer better pedestrian traffic flow.
One of the most beautiful gardens in all of Walt Disney World can be found in the dining area of Flame Tree Barbeque. Here, water, trees, sculpture, and plants combine to create a peaceful atmosphere that has the capacity to calm the most ruffled guests.
But what I found interesting about this garden is that it uses several potted plants to complete the picture. If I had been designing this park-like setting, I would have made everything look as if it was naturally growing from the earth. Yet these terracotta pots fit right in. In fact, they add a new layer of detail.
On several occasions, I have overheard young children ask their parents if the Tree of Life is real. In each case, the parents held back their amusement and patiently explain to their child that the tree was created by Disney. But the question does speak volumes. It shows that the Imagineers created something that looks real when viewed with emotion and without logic.
Notice in this next picture how the landscapers have framed the Tree of Life with real growth. This helps add to the illusion that this is a real tree.
Around the Tree of Life are the Discovery Island Trails. These take guests on journeys past animals and through dense growth. When walking through some of these overgrown areas, a person’s imagination can run wild.
You might think that the landscaping over at Dinoland U.S.A. would try to recreate the humid tropics in which dinosaurs lived. But for the most part, that’s not the case. The backstory for this land tells us that dinosaur bones were discovered near a hunting lodge that was nestled in a forest. To help with this story, a number of deciduous trees can be found around this building.
Years later when time travel was invented and the Dino Institute was established, the developers of this endeavor supplemented the adjacent forest with tropical plants. They wanted to create a primeval world that would appear suitable for dinosaurs. Then they placed recreations of these prehistoric beasts around the property to help promote the Institute and attract tourists.
Take a look at the Dino Institute’s entrance. Sago Palms have been placed atop the monoliths.
It’s interesting to note, the Sago Palm is not a palm but a cycad. Fossils of this plant have been found around the world and have evolved little since the days of the dinosaurs.
Over at Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama, license plates have been used to create containers for shrubs and spell out the amusement park’s name.
At the old gas station, an abundance of discarded tires have been put to good horticultural use.
And shrubs and trees help us believe we’re actually on Diggs County Road 498.
The Theater in the Wild building is big and ugly. Once again, the landscapers have used plants to help hide this structure. In addition, they added a plant motif to the walls.
Asia represents two distinct areas. The first of these is the wet and tropical village of Anandapur. The backstory tells of the Chakranadi (CHAWK-rah-nah-dee) River that is born from the snowmelts in the Himalayas. Its nurturing waters soon reach warmer regions where it feeds the dense jungle. Unrestrained growth is everywhere in Anandapur. What civilization there is in this area needed to be carved out of this jungle growth. Even now, it is a constant battle for the townsfolk to restrain this constant intrusion.
The first example of the ever-infringing jungle can be seen at this ancient idol. Here, a seed found a crack in the stone and began to set down roots. Then another and another. In no time at all, trees sprang forth and the structure began to crumble.
Over at the Flights of Wonder show we see how the jungle is reclaiming this stone structure.
And in the floodwaters of the Chakranadi River, another tree is wreaking havoc on a temple.
Along the Maharaja Jungle Trek, the thick growth continues. Take a look at this tree trunk located near the Komodo Dragon. It looks centuries old.
From this tree, we walk along a thickly forested walkway. It takes no imagination at all to believe you are deep in the heartland of tropical Asia. Even the rocks are being consumed by encroaching greenery.
As this area was once the private hunting preserve of King Bhima Disampati, it was designed in a fashion befitting of royalty. This even included the landscaping. Take a look at how these once manicured gardens have fallen into disarray. Notice how the stone borders have begun to misalign and shift over the years.
The blackbuck antelope grazes on a grassy knoll. Here, the Imagineers have tried to trick us into believing that this meadowland goes on forever. But in reality, just beyond the crest of this hill are barriers that keep these animals carefully cordoned off from their nearby tiger predators.
Expedition Everest provides tours through the Himalaya Mountains. Guests wishing to explore these mighty peaks charter excursions near the base of this massive chain. In this area, the climate is much dryer than that found at Anandapur. Although trees are present, most of the plants grow low to the ground in an effort to conserve what precious water they receive each year.
Tea is the primary beverage consumed by the people of Asia. So it is no wonder that it can be seen growing in a number of areas around Expedition Everest.
Bamboo is another plant that grows in abundance in Asia. Here at the Animal Kingdom, the landscapers plant this member of the grass family in sturdy containers. If they didn’t, it would take over and grow unchecked. Notice in this next picture how the bamboo is growing in clumps. This would not happen in nature.
The walkway that connects Asia with Africa traverses a lush jungle. Along the way you just might run into Devine, the four-legged walking plant.
Harambe is a port town located somewhere on the east coast of Africa. For the most part, the climate is hot with seasonal rains. Although plant life is abundant here, it isn’t so thick that the town is fighting continual encroachment as the citizens of Anandapur must endure. If fact, the people of Harambe have used shrubs and trees in planters and gardens to help spruce up their town.
In Harambe we find a Kigelia (or sausage) tree. Today, the tree is primarily grown for ornamental purposes, but the fruit does have its uses. Although the fruit’s liquid is poisonous, the flesh can be turned into an alcoholic beverage similar to beer. The gourds are also used by the locals to make herbal medicines that are believed to cure snakebites, syphilis, and rheumatism, among other things.
Kilimanjaro Safaris first travels through a lush jungle. Here, the plant life creates a canopy of growth that shades much of the roadway. After viewing black rhinos, crocodiles, bongos, and hippopotamuses, we burst out into the savanna where vast grasslands sustain wildebeests, antelope, giraffes, and ankole cattle.
When designing Kilimanjaro Safaris, the Imagineers knew that they could never grow enough plants, trees, and bushes to sustain the animals. Yet, they wanted the area to look natural. To that end, they hid many food troughs behind fake rocks so guests couldn’t see these feeding areas. In addition, plants in containers are deposited each night in pre-dug holes. During the day, the animals can munch to their heart’s delight, then at night, these spent plants are simply picked up, container and all, and replaced with a new container. This procedure is invisible to the guests and greatly simplifies the landscaper’s job.
Several baobab trees can be seen in Harambe and out on the Kilimanjaro Safaris. These trees only bear leaves three months out of the year and the trunks contain vast amounts of water to sustain them during dry periods and droughts. A baobab tree can easily live to be over a thousand years old.
The baobab tree has many uses. The fruit contains three times the vitamin C of an orange, fifty percent more calcium than spinach, and is high in antioxidants. The leaves can be used to make a relish and a sauce or powdered to create a spice. And cooking oil can be extracted from the seeds.
Spoiler alert next two paragraphs:
For those of you who visit often, have you ever noticed that you never seem to call during the three months of the year when baobab trees are sprouting leaves? Well, there is a reason for this. None of the baobab trees you see in the Animal Kingdom are real. As I mentioned earlier, this species can easily live to be over a thousand years old. The trees depicted in Harambe are huge and would be hundreds of years old if real. And since the baobab tree is not native to Florida, Disney had to create reproductions out of concrete and wire. If you look closely at the upper branches, you can see they are actually rebar. Note: There a few real sapling baobab trees in Harambe, but the big ones are fake.
By the way, the termite mounds seen on Kilimanjaro Safaris are not real either. However, the ostrich eggs are authentic. They’re just not going to hatch anytime soon as they have been filled with a non-organic material to give them longevity.
At the end of the safari, we are returned to the jungles of Africa where we can survey the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail. Once again, the landscaping in this part of the park is lush and verdant.
When it comes to Rafiki’s Planet Watch, the landscaping is unremarkable. For the most part, it is just a continuation of the growth found at Pangani Forest. However, I bet most of you didn’t realize that you cross over a canal on the way to Conservation Station. The landscaping is so thick along the trail that it almost completely hides the waterway that runs on both sides of the walkway.
At Conservation Station, be sure to visit the Song of the Rainforest attraction. Here, Grandmother Willow discusses the importance rainforests play in the earth’s ecology and how vital it is to preserve them.
This concludes my look at the landscaping found at the four Walt Disney World theme parks. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and have a new appreciation for the hard work and serious thought that goes into every plant that is grown at Walt Disney World. Except for the rare weed, every plant was placed where it was for a purpose.