AKA: Zoo or Nahtazu?

Mr. Estelle… oops, I mean James returns with another piece, celebrating Animal Kingdom and its true identity.

As Disney fans, we’ve all heard it before. Some of you may have even said it yourselves at one point or another.

“Animal Kingdom?  Oh yeah, it’s just a zoo with rides.”

As if it weren’t bad enough that some people consider Disney’s Animal Kingdom a “half-day park,” it is often saddled with the highly erroneous title of “zoo.” It never felt like a zoo to me. Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, I’ve always had access to the Central Park Zoo, the Bronx Zoo, and some excellent local zoos. When I first heard about Disney’s Animal Kingdom, my mind just didn’t associate it with the zoos I had been to. I knew Disney would do it differently.

Yet when you walk through Animal Kingdom, you can’t help but notice that it is kinda zoo-y.  Kinda. There’s a very fine line between Animal Kingdom and a traditional zoo…but what is the difference?  nd why does it matter? Let’s start with some definitions for the sake of clarity.

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, a zoo is a “garden or park where wild animals are kept for exhibition.” A theme park, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an amusement park in which the structures and setting are based on a central theme.”

Disney describes Animal Kingdom on their website as a “theme park … full of attractions, adventures and entertainment that reflect Walt Disney’s dedication to nature and conservation” which “leads the way in animal care, education and research.” They also note that the park is home to more than 1,700 animals from 250 species and covers more than 500 acres of “lush landscape,” which they claim make it the “largest animal-themed park in the world.”

Hmmm…so Animal Kingdom is a park….where wild animals are kept for exhibition. That sounds an awful lot like the definition of “zoo,” according to the old, reliable Merriam-Webster.  But at the same time, Animal Kingdom is clearly an amusement park with rides that has structures and settings based on a central theme. If the Merriam-Webster people are reading this, they’re probably scratching their heads right now.

DAK and zoos both clearly keep animals enclosed for exhibition, and are based on generally central themes. Since they are both so similar in definition, then, the best way to separate the two is to show how they are different. Remember how I said I knew Disney would do things differently? Well, if there’s one thing Disney fans know about the Company and the Imagineers, it’s that there is always a rather large emphasis on presentation and The Show.

And to me, that is most evident in the way that the wild animals are exhibited in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. In my mind, that is the single biggest differentiating factor between a normal zoo and “the Disney zoo.”

Theming is a huge factor, as you would expect from a Disney park. Walking through the Harambe village in the Africa section to reach the Kilimanjaro Safaris, or through a Nepalese mountain town to reach the Expedition: Everest attraction, you can clearly see the superb attention to detail the Imagineers put into designing each area of the park. Most traditional zoos have only threadbare theming and detail, whereas Disney basically plussed the entire park. (Check out my prior post about the Asian theming here.)

Aside from theming, another important distinction is the way the animals are actually exhibited. I don’t have to look any further than my own Central Park Zoo.  stelle and I went there a few years ago on a hot, steamy, muggy Saturday afternoon.  he one thing you can’t help but notice is that the animals all look caged. That’s not to say they’re locked up in a bare iron-barred cage, but they are clearly enclosed.

Compare that to the Kilimanjaro Safaris in DAK.  o you recall seeing any bars? How about fences? Disney seems pretty proud of all the nearly invisible barriers they created to protect the guests (and the animals) while still keeping the look and feel of the park as natural as possible. Whether it’s their use of moats, elevated enclosures, hidden gulfs and valleys, or nearly invisible fences disguised as natural foliage, your two-week safari through the African savannah seems as natural as a real safari.

Look ma, no fences!

The walking trails of the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail and the Maharajah Jungle Trek have only the most minimalistic barriers between guests and animals. The gorilla exhibit, for example, makes you feel like you just discovered an ancient rope bridge in the middle of a canyon full of silverback gorillas.  ome of the most intelligent and human-like animals in the world, the gorillas are both peaceful and frightening to observe with so little visible fencing between you and them. Aside from the wide, deep chasm between the bridge and the cliffs, there is no other obvious sign that those gorillas can’t come hang out with you if they felt so inclined.

Have you ever been this close to a gorilla in any other zoo?

Even the Bengal tiger enclosure in the Maharajah Jungle Trek feels so natural, like you stumbled upon an Indian ruin that had been hidden for centuries and overrun by the most beautiful and dangerous big cats in the world. It seems like the only things separating the tigers from a free meal are thick panes of glass. While this is an obvious enclosure, the natural feel is heightened not only by the clear glass and lack of fences but also by the extremely large amount of space the tigers have to roam around in.

Here, kitty kitty kitty.

Which leads me to another important distinction between DAK and a normal zoo: acreage.  The major advantage Walt Disney World has over pretty much every other theme park or amusement center is “the blessing of size,” which Walt pointed out in his Florida Project announcement.

The animals in DAK have huge tracts of land to play and relax in because Disney bought up what seems like the whole middle section of Central Florida. Animal Kingdom itself covers over 500 acres of land. Compare that to the tiny Central Park Zoo at 6.5 acres; the San Diego Zoo at 100 acres; the Phoenix Zoo at 125 acres; the Bronx Zoo at 265 acres; or the Columbus Zoo at 290 acres. Animal Kingdom seems to comprise larger acreage than pretty much every zoo in the world except for the Toronto Zoo, which boats an impressive 710 acres of land.

Yet for all the ways DAK tries to distinguish itself from a traditional zoo, it still operates very much like a zoo.  For example, the park is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which gives Disney access to grants, professional recognition from zoos, and participation in an Animal Exchange program which allows them to trade animals with other AZA-accredited institutions.  And this accreditation is not just a rubber-stamp, either; the AZA website notes that fewer than 10% of the approximately 2,400 animal exhibitors licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture are AZA accredited.

More importantly, the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund donated more than $2 million to various conservation programs in 2011, and has donated nearly $18 million to programs in 111 countries since 1995 .  Disney is pretty quiet about their philanthropy but their contributions are important and generous.  In fact, guests who complete the Wild Africa Trek are invited to select a particular animal they would like to have donations made to by Disney.  It’s a sweet little touch that takes some of the sting out of the cost of the Trek.

In some ways, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is “nahtazu” at all, relying more on theming and natural barriers to immerse the guest in the world of the animals; yet on the other hand, the park is accredited by a zoological society and raises money for wildlife projects around the world.

So which is it?  Zoo or theme park?  I don’t think there is a “right” or “wrong” answer.  In many ways, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a celebration of life and nature, a love letter to animals in the spirit of Walt Disney’s appreciation for the natural world and his True-Life Adventure series films.  It’s not meant to be strictly an educational place to watch animals behind enclosures, but it is also not strictly a theme park with thrill rides.

In the end, if you put aside all the arguments, definitions, and labels, and just enter the park with an open mind and an appreciation for the natural world, I guarantee you will thoroughly enjoy yourself and have a truly “wild time.”

4 thoughts on “AKA: Zoo or Nahtazu?

  1. I head-desked so hard the first time I heard the “Nahtazu” ad campaign, since it was so baffling. And then after a while I realized who they were aiming for with it:

    Older adults who had not visited an AZA accredited zoo in the past twenty years.

    These are the people who hear the word “zoo” and think “depressed large animals endlessly pacing on suspiciously dirty and wet concrete behind iron bars”. Now we had a local wildlife rehabilitation center that used to be exactly that when it was just starting out. Now it’s gotten more funding and accreditation, and it’s spectacular. The animals each have a huge amount of space to roam, each enclosure has lots of logs and branches and trees and such to play on, and all the pens are built right into the natural landscape (ie, soft natural ground instead of hard concrete floors). It’s been amazing seeing the movement from “let’s put a bunch of animals on display to amuse humans” to “let’s consider the animals’ comfort first”. Additionally, the facility has no interest whatsoever in permanently keeping animals who could easily survive on their own in the wild.

    Honestly, the only thing that should depress people about modern zoos is the fact that they have to exist in the first place, since where else are these animals going to go?

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