Lions and tigers are p.c., oh my!

At Disney's new Animal Kingdom, you can save the rain forest and protest logging without leaving your open-air car.

By Sally Eckhoff
Published July 28, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"Good morning," Matt Lauer blurted at the top of the April 21 edition of the "Today" show. "There are no survivors." Lauer was referring to a Boeing 727 that had crashed in Bogota the day before, but viewers could be excused for thinking he was about to read the casualty list from Disney's new mega-zoo, Animal Kingdom, which was slated to open the following day. After all, Michael Eisner himself was billed as "Today's" top guest, ready to rebut the early bad press that Animal Kingdom had piled up. Twenty animals had already died at the park, according to some sources. (Eisner acknowledged a dozen.) A few weeks later, the New York Times put the death toll at 29, though it noted that Department of Agriculture officials had found no wrongdoing on Disney's part.

Two of the dead creatures were rare rhinos: one black, one white. A hippo died in transit. A number of rare cranes, a pair of otters and four cheetah cubs -- done in by a chemical found in solvents and antifreeze -- also perished. (Doesn't every cat owner know by now that animals are nuts for the sweet taste of antifreeze?) Cynics might ask: What were a bunch of expensive cheetah cubs doing in a garage, anyway?

Cynics might also wonder what exactly Disney is up to with its ultra-PC new theme park. (Admission: $44.52.) Orlando is already brimming with organized fun; why enter the complicated world of animal husbandry? I hoped some answers would emerge during my five-day ramble through Eisner's new Eden.

It took Disney nearly three years to carve up these 500 acres, formerly either cow pasture or "a flat landscape of palmetto and scrub vegetation," depending on whose reports you read. In any case, it's now an "oasis" with parrots and waterfalls, a souvenir mall, a landscaped-to-death enclave referred to as "Africa" and another faux continent, "Asia," still under construction. The planners saw fit to throw a few bones, literally, to the kiddies: Dinoland nicely presents fossils as well as the Countdown to Extinction ride. Camp Minnie-Mickey, at a decent remove from the rest of the action, offers a Lion King floor show and the traditional costumed characters you're probably trying to avoid.

Approaching the place is daunting at first -- the parking lot alone holds 6,000 cars. Upon reaching the gate, however, your irritated mood melts. The silvery-leafed scrubland trees and the trash cans painted to match the accumulated effect of the foliage as it shows its underside to the breeze all put you barely on the suspicious side of amazed. Everywhere are palm fronds and fried grass, with light Afro-pop noodling out of speakers hidden in the rocks. The lamps are flat-out fabulous Mission-style fixtures, dangling from curved light poles and featuring tasteful profiles of veld creatures cut from what looks like verdigris copper. Even the signage is conspicuously restrained. And as soon as you step through the turnstiles, a delicious odor of roasted meat sidles up.

The park is shaped more or less like a wheel, with the Tree of Life, a brooding monster of an artificial baobab with 325 different animals molded into its concrete trunk, serving as the hub. From 100 feet away, the Tree doesn't look especially lifelike, even when you consider its handmade quality: each of its 100,000 leaves was glued on by hand. As you walk toward it, it's almost impossible to see the network of paths that snake around its trunk, or the theater where the roots would normally be.

"It's Tough to Be a Bug," the show that plays continuously at the theater throughout the day, represents everything Disney is good at. Chilean tarantulas fire poison darts at you, soldier bugs spritz acid on you and a swarm of wasps mounts a surprise attack when the lights are out.

There's just one way to continue the intensity of that performance: Go out and find the lions. The first thing that strikes you as you flee the shadow of the tree and redirect yourself toward Africa is how easy travel is in this boiled-down, adorably low-rent version of the global village. The artificially pitted and cracked pathways are lush with orchids and lyre-like nicotiana. Colorful parrots stare out from leafy branches. (Their wings are clipped. They're stuck there until somebody comes and rescues them.) The sound of falling water lures you forward, and the intimacy of the space gives you a feeling of privacy.

You may have to truncate your walk to let a dazzling parade of floats roll by and endure a soukous version of "Abba Dabba Honeymoon" and a steel-band "Three Little Fishies." Should you duck into the shelter that leads to the riverboat ride and actually climb onto one of those funky barges, however, you will wind up back in Safari Village, the souvenir mall that resembles a collision between a Smith and Hawken outlet and Pier 1 Imports. Now you have to start the trip all over again. But even that has its rewards: Waiting in line for the boats offers a look at Disney's new mastery of idle crowds. Everywhere, even over your head, there's something worth contemplating: polychromed beams, hand-carved lizards, gamelan music that sounds oddly clean and sped-up.

Ten minutes of orienteering (keep the map handy) away from the Tree will get you to the African Village, a pleasant settlement that's all rakish optimism and artificially peeling posters. This is Africa without dictators, refugee camps, technology, river blindness, clitoridectomies; Africa without Africans, unless you count the friendly, uniformed employees who were actually hired out of schools in Kenya. This is when your third eye narrows to a squint. The artfully bashed-up drink carts and the huge blocks of ice look authentic without being fatally microbial. Of course, the ice is Lucite, and the funky village fruit vendor is selling the ubiquitous and usually South American Granny Smiths and oranges that feel like pitted Styrofoam.

Fake decrepitude, fake insouciance -- all very charming, but there's a problem: no beer. They advertise it, but they don't have it. Here you get ice cream floats in plastic cups that are as biodegradable as the Heisman Trophy. And inside the Tusker House cafeteria are cream-colored walls decorated with baskets, musical instruments, spears and maps: more incongruities. No animal heads, no overt indicators of colonialism here. Nevertheless, the anticipatory mood is adventurous, dangerous. This Safari ride has got to be really something.

Being able to sit down after all this walking is refreshing, but the actual journey is more or less standard zoo-going on wheels. The view is spectacular as you bump along in open-air cars, free to point, free to stare. Around every bend is a new group of animals. First there's the coffee-colored okapi, looking quite satisfied. Then there are hippos, startlingly close, and crocs. "It's all part of the wild Africa we're working hard to save," the driver says, as we slosh through artificial tire ruts and man-made mud.

Behind a tangle of rough branches are Thompson gazelles, sable antelopes and a bumper crop of reclining wildebeests. Giraffes nibble the acacias. And here are marvelous elephants, elands, zebras, marabou storks, oryx, rhinos idling on a hill and pretty waterbuck. But no lions. Somebody forgot to wake them up.

Look, lions sleep 20 hours a day. If you get to the park at 7 a.m. when it opens, you might see one. But you can't get to the park that early unless you've got a car. Other sites allow the nice, cheap city buses to drop off tourists. Not Disney -- they've got a shuttle, and it's not only expensive but it doesn't leave you a lot of choice about when you come and go. This is great from their perspective. If you're stuck by the gate, exhausted, you can always shop.

Nevertheless, the safari gives you something to chew on. You can expand the flavor after you debark if you step around to the hippo pool: A big window offers a view of the lovely blubberbeast cavorting underwater. The next best thing to this, and the necessary next step, is Gorilla Falls, another variation on the new Disney formula of a socko view at the end of a fairly linear, relaxing stroll. Right now, behind the huge safety window, is a mother with a babe in arms who looks like a dismally hairy little human. If you keep walking, you'll pass another corner of the exhibit where the uniformed snack lady may appear on a rocky perch. She signals to the bachelor group by buzzing something between her lips. The four hairy buddies pick themselves up from their de-fleaing ritual and knuckle on over, placing their enormous, tender feet with disarming care as they cross the stream. Why is she feeding them? "We're doing visibility studies," she replies.

Disney employees are called Cast Members for a good reason, if field biology jargon is the new language of entertainment. What was that she used, a whistle? "It's an audio cue," she said. Actually, it was a woodpecker call, but we didn't want her to fall off her rock. She could have said the apricots were a bribe, but the new fashion in animal display doesn't allow for such efficiency.

There's but one animal-o-centric avenue left to explore as the mood begins to congeal. (Camp Minnie-Mickey and Dinoland still await, but these are only must-sees if you brought children.) It's time to see the "Conservation Station."

This outpost, actually an elaborate video pavilion, has but one thing to recommend it: the old-fashioned, sideways-seating open-air train that gets you there. On the way out, the conveyance snakes by the wood and concrete compound where the biggest animals spend the night. (No, they don't get to snooze out on the savanna.) This is undoubtedly Disney's idea of being truthful about its operations. Just like a well-kept zoo, the compound has chain-link fences and huge, heavy steel barriers. There's no close-up view, of course, but the evidence is that it's clean. Animals are notoriously uninterested in amenities when other requirements are in place. Are they really? Oh, absolutely. Michael Eisner says so.

At the end of the line, it's just a few steps to the air-conditioned comfort of what Disney would have you believe is the last word in eco-education.
The message spieled out of the Conservation Station's swarm of TV monitors
would sound right at home on the head honcho's lips. "You can save the rain forest," tapes drone. Although they don't say how.

They lament the disappearance of several species, none of which are Floridian. They don't tell anyone to boycott bloated corporations that retool nature and call it natural selection. They don't say anything about not buying plywood. On the train ride back to the hub of Animal Kingdom, when you're facing a different direction from before, you rumble by thousands of board feet of Disney's speciousness. Asia is yet unfinished, but you can see over the vast plywood construction barrier to the partially completed roller-coaster ride that's supposed to be the spitting image of -- are you ready? -- the temples of Angkor Wat.

Fake anti-logging graffiti is sprayed along the wall as you roll past,
encrypting a bundle of conflicting messages about what part of the earth is
being destroyed, and by whom. Bulldozed dirt and sliced-up trees are
clearly visible from the train. The equipment is Disney but the
land is supposed to be IndoChina. The object of all this chaos is to get
rid of the obstructing native vegetation and make room for more of Asia.
Stupefying, isn't it, that Disney would come right out and say it? If this
were Indochina, or someplace like it, they'd be cutting it down. People
would be protesting. You, perhaps? Never mind the phoniness of the
savanna or culture vulture opportunities waiting at the gift shops.It's behind this plywood wall that the looped-back layers of market-driven ingenuity begin to fester into hypocrisy. You can save the rain forest. We saved it for you. We don't need the rain forest. You don't need Asia. You must have Asia. Animals die. Animals have to die in order to live. Big corporations do bad things to beautiful places. The air suddenly seems thick and still. A boy of 7 peers over the train railing, aiming his toy rifle, trying to nail everything in sight. His father stares liquidly off toward Cambodia.

In the gift shop, shelves sag under the weight of the generous spirit so blindingly absent in the managed landscape outside. How about a colorful straw hat that makes you look like Lynton Kwesi Johnson? How about a rubber animal? The elephant, with his odd, rough, fuzzy texture, is a good buy at $50. Over in the corner is a shelf full of fake African pottery, each urn bearing an incised image of Mickey in a pith helmet. I turn it over. "Made in Kenya," it says.

Sally Eckhoff

Sally Eckhoff lives in upstate New York. She is a regular contributor to Salon.

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