Disney's Animal Kingdom: First Impressions of Avatar Land
by, 09-28-2011 at 07:01 PM
There has certainly been a lot of talk within the Disney online community about Disney’s recent announcement that they have formed a partnership with director James Cameron to bring to life an immersive, multi-attraction environment that recalls the lush forest on the moon Pandora from the film Avatar. The location for this new land will be somewhere in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
So, just like any good columnist, I might as well follow the herd and put in my $.02 worth. However, I am going to lean in a slightly different direction and talk about how I tend to process the underlying guiding design principles of this very unique theme park. It comes down to two ideas: Contrast and Balance.
According to architect Christopher Alexander, one of the primary design building blocks is the use of contrast. In The Nature of Order, he said that one way to create powerful, meaningful places is to use contrast because “the unity is achieved with visible opposites.” As we all know, first impressions matter. When I arrive at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, my first impression is the use of contrast in the surroundings as a storytelling and urban design device. Contrast is used to hammer home the park’s organizing themes of life in balance and the need for conservation.
Those that have visited Animal Kingdom know that in many ways it is a different kind of theme park then the other three on property. I know a lot of people who tend to say some pretty negative things about this park. You’ve heard it; “Not enough to do”, “way too hot”, “half day park”, “what happened to the Yeti? (wait that was me!)” etc. Some of this may be true (especially the Yeti).
There is only one way to truly enjoy Disney’s Animal Kingdom. You just have to recalibrate the way you visit to really enjoy this theme park. You have to turn the dial down to slow. The Imagineers have provided you a challenge and you have to decide if you are up for it. This is a park that is designed to reward the visitor who takes their time. If you rush through it like the other three parks, you will be missing out on the best bits. You cannot skim this environment.
After you have paid your parking toll and make that big right hand turn toward the main parking lot, what unfolds before you is a giant patch of hot, barren, hard asphalt, void of any trees or landscaping. The pavement appears to be washed out and already cracking, especially at the edges. It is as if the parking lot is ready to be returned to nature but it can’t. Not a very inviting first impression. You exit your air-conditioned car and step out into what can only be described as a lifeless place. This is one miserable place and someplace where you do not want to linger. There is one saving grace. Off in the distance, at the far edge of the parking lot is a lush, inviting tropical forest. The contrast between the trees and the dead space of the asphalt parking lot is profound. By this point, you are motivated to get to the tram to the front gate as quickly as possible. By design, you will go from a lifeless environment to a place filled with life. Contrast.
Another use of contrast is embedded directly into the park’s building code. The code does not allow for any structures to be taller then the tree canopy. There are exceptions. They include Expedition Everest, which is supposed to be a mountain, and The Tree of Life, which is supposed to be, well, a tree. The design objective was to have the tree canopy rise entirely over the roofs of the buildings. The buildings would become secondary to nature. The park’s design guidelines and building code took into account the natural changes to the landscape from the start. Over time, the iconic Tree of Life would be better integrated within the landscape, as it remains the same size while everything grows around it.
Contrast is used to demonstrate how to identify when people and nature are in balance. Some say that the conservation theme is delivered in a heavy-handed fashion. Some say that it is commendable that a corporation such as Disney is using a theme park to educate the public as well as entertain them. I am more intrigue by the clever use of contrast and the transect as a way to calibrate the urban design guiding principles of each of the different lands.
In all things concerning life, there must be a balance. The circle of life and the need for conservation is the central message throughout Animal Kingdom. In environmental design, this 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. Architect and planner Andres Duany, said of the transect, “Certain forms belong in certain environments. Ecologists use the transect to describe how each habitat supports symbiotic sets of mineral conditions, microclimate, flora, and fauna.” An example of a transect is the progression through a sequence of natural habitats such as a shore-dune-upland to a wetland-woodland-prairie. The original idea for taking a geographical cross-section of a region and used to reveal a sequence of environments goes back to Von Humboldt in 1790. When the Transect is severely disrupted, significant environmental impacts can be felt. Virtually every attraction in the Animal Kingdom and every land deals with the impacts of a disruption in the natural transect to move the story along.
As you leave the parking lot and head to the front gate, you come across architecture that is based on the American Arts and Crafts tradition. Arts and Crafts is a style that demonstrates how man-made structures can be made compatible with the natural environment. This is not the only time Disney has used American Arts and Crafts for architectural inspiration. Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa is also based on this style. 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. The difference between the coasts 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 you have entered the park you find yourself in the Oasis. Here, balance favors nature. This is a land that could only exist in this theme park. The Oasis serves the same function as Main Street USA (Disneyland and Magic Kingdom), Hollywood Boulevard (Disney’s Hollywood Studios) or walking under Spaceship Earth (Epcot). The job is to create a shared experience that sets up the adventures that lie ahead. For this park, the Imagineers were trying to slow you down. They described the Oasis as a “cool, green decompression zone”. People will always run toward the Safari or Everest, so this is a feat which is rarely achieved on the way into the park. On the way out, it can be a different story. From the very beginning, the Animal Kingdom was a place where the best way to get from here to there may not always be the shortest path or the straightest line. At every other theme park, it is the destination that matters. At Animal Kingdom the best way to enjoy the park is to let the journey become the thing. This park is designed to reward the guest who takes their time.
The pathways in the Oasis meander and cross under a land bridge just like the train tunnels at the Magic Kingdom. This obstruction acts like a curtain that sets up the big reveal; your first view of the iconic Tree of Life. The wide walkway over the main bridge is designed to accommodate the large crowds who just stand there and gawk. Many visitors will not realize that from the parking lot to this point you have walked up a 20-foot hill.Like the other Disney park entrances, the Oasis funnels you through a single entrance and a narrow portal to separate you from the real world and allow you to enter the fantasy world of the park. Although it may not be obvious at first, the layout for Animal Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom are very similar. In both parks, you walk through a narrow corridor that creates a shared experience with other guests and that experience transfers you from the real world and immerses you into a fantasy environment (the Oasis and Main Street USA). The only way to really see the parks iconic structures fully (Tree of Life and Cinderella Castle) is to cross underneath an obstruction (the rock cropping at the end of the Oasis or the tunnels under the train). The best view of the park icon occurs when you cross over a slightly elevated, very wide bridge that stretches over a waterway. Beyond the bridge is a central area that acts like the hub of a wheel and the various lands radiate out like spokes (Discovery Island and the Plaza Hub).
Discovery Island is the hub. Here nature and people are in balance. The decoration embedded in the architecture is a celebration of animals. The trees tower over the structures. The focus is on the Tree of Life at the center.
As we travel clockwise, we come to Camp Minnie-Mickey which I will ignore as it was just kind of slapped into the park at the last minute. The next land is Africa. Here, urban life was beginning to carve its way into the wilderness and people were beginning to upset the balance. However, wisely, the community pulled back and has benefited by careful stewardship of the land and the constant search for balance. The contrast is the way the wilderness frames the very urban plaza at the heart of Harambe Village. Even the main attraction, the Kilimanjaro Safaris, was primarily a battle between passive exploitation of nature versus aggressive exploitation.
Next comes Asia. Throughout Asia we see the constant struggle between man and nature. It seems that nature seems to be winning in this case. The structures are covered in plant material, which seem to be slowly destroying what was built and returning them to the soil. The two main attractions are not-so-subtle hints that people are evil and will destroy what nature has brought merely for the sake of making money. Whether that is clear-cutting a forest like the Kali Rapids River ride or tromping through sacred ground like Expedition Everest.
By the time we get to Dinoland we see exactly where former Disney CEO Michael Eisner was heading when the Animal Kingdom project began. He told his Imagineers, “You’ve got to lead with your clichés! I want a Dinoland, and I want it to be called DinoLand.” This area is the contrast to Harambe Village. There, the community has slowly integrated itself within the surrounding natural habitat. At Dinoland, they just plowed down the trees, poured concrete, and viola! Instant tourist attraction. Whether it was the meteor that destroyed all of the dinosaurs or Chester and Hector destroying the countryside, life is out of balance.
So, you must be asking by now what does this have to do with Avatar. After some thought, I feel the movie is a good fit. It is a simple, heavy-handed story of what happens when life goes out of balance. It has clearly defined good guys and bad guys. It is a beautiful environment that will be hard to duplicate. However, if the Imagineers succeed, it could be spectacular, especially at night. Disney does not need to worry about taking care of more real animals, thereby saving millions of dollars that would otherwise have to go backstage. Plus, stiltwalkers and very tall people throughout America will now find new employment opportunities. We shall see in a few years.
What do you think? Will Avatar fit the Animal Kingdom environment? Why or why not?
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