Disney's Animal Kingdom's Anniversary and The Tree of Life

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

In 2020 Disney's Animal Kingdom celebrated its 22nd anniversary in a park empty of guests. It was planned to be a massive celebration to include honoring the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the 25th anniversary of the Disney Conservation Fund but restrictions because of the pandemic cancelled all the plans.

Each day from April 18-22 would have included festivities according to Disney publicity like "a stellar lineup of expert speakers and entertainment; behind-the-scenes tours; specialty food and beverage; limited-edition merchandise signings; character greetings; photo opportunities; special Wilderness Explorers activities for kids – and MORE!"

This year the park will celebrate limited time opportunities including Disney character appearances (primarily on the Discovery River Character Cruises), learning opportunities, specialty merchandise, themed food and beverages, as well as a new activity for Wilderness Explorers (self-guided, nature-themed challenges to earn a special, limited-time Earth Day Nature badge).

Walt Disney World's fourth theme park opened on Earth Day, April 22, 1998. Some families had been waiting overnight when the gates opened unexpectedly early at 6 a.m., a full hour before the announced opening time.

Roughly 28,000 paying guests attended that first day, as well as 5,000 journalists and many guests with annual passes. The turnstiles were locked to non-resort guests by 9 a.m. The park's first guests were greeted with rose petal confetti, African bands and a keepsake grand-opening lithograph.

Dancers gyrated to the beat of two dozen African drummers. A rhythmic choir of 500 chanted in Zulu along with a backdrop of 1,500 costumed Disney cast members. There was a performance of the award-winning Circle of Life song led by Grammy Award winner Lebo M (The Lion King on Broadway).

During the song, costumed performers carried giant kinetic sculptures of animals including an elephant, a lion, a triceratops and a dragon.

It was estimated that the park had cost approximately $800 million. Some animal rights groups had been vocal about their concerns. The Orange County Sheriff's office sent about 150 deputies but only about two dozen protesters showed up. The protest lasted approximately two hours and there were no arrests.

President of Walt Disney Attractions Judson Green addressed a group of honored guests at the park's Conservation Station. "Twenty-eight years ago, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson introduced the idea of a national celebration of nature and the environment (Earth Day)…It is our fervent hope that Disney's Animal Kingdom will be a living embodiment of that same spirit."

The first guests through the gate were Brenda Herr of St. Petersburg, Florida, her husband, Damon Chepren, and their son, Devon, who slept in their car the night before in their quest to become the first guest family. The family received a lifetime pass to Walt Disney theme parks worldwide.

The Tree of Life is the massive welcome to Disney's Animal Kingdom

Park officials also paid tribute to their "Honorary First Family," rhino crusader Michael Werikhe and his daughters, Acacia, 9, and Kora, 7, in the ceremony at the park's Conservation Station. Werikhe, known throughout the world as "Rhino Man," led a one-man crusade to boost public awareness of the plight of the black rhinoceros and raised millions of dollars for the conservation and survival of the endangered animal.

Roy E. Disney presented Werikhe and his family with a giant "Key of Life," in the shape of The Tree of Life, the park's massive icon. In addition, the Walt Disney Company made a monetary contribution in support of Werikhe's conservation work.

Disney CEO Michael Eisner read from the dedication plaque for the park:

"Welcome to a kingdom of animals … real, ancient and imagined:

"A kingdom ruled by lions, dinosaurs and dragons;

"A kingdom of balance, harmony and survival;

"A kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama … and learn."

Artistic designer of the park, Imagineer Joe Rohde told the opening cast members on June 14, 1998:

"Safari Village (now Discovery Island) is about the adoration of nature. And it is the only clean, pristine, beautiful, wonderful, colorful, rich, saturated area in the park. It is arranged around our tree—the axis of the park, the center of the park, the cathedral of our park rising up into the sky covered with these images like one of those Italian painted baroque church ceilings, right?

'Just a complete, wholehearted, really over-the-top celebration of the beauty, the wonder, the richness, the diversity, the majesty of animal life on Earth and then arrayed around it—just like a zillion little cathedral towns in Europe—is our little Safari Village, which is also just about the love of the form and the idea of animals."

The first real tree planted at Disney's Animal Kingdom in December 1995 was an authentic Acacia xanthophlosa, grown from a seed that Disney acquired in Africa. The park has about 100 species of real trees and shrubs foreign to North American soil.

However the tree that is most memorable at DAK is an impressive artificial one.

The Tree of Life was to capture the essence of the park with its diversity of animals and the majesty of nature.

There are 325 animals around the Tree of Life.

The animals are not supposed to look as if they were carved into the surface of the tree. They are supposed to seem as if they grow out of it organically. It was designed to be reminiscent of looking up into the clouds and seeing the shapes of animals.

No one had ever before built a tree this large. It is 145 feet (14 stories) tall. The branches span 165 feet across with more than 103,000 translucent, five-shades-of-green leaves that were individually placed and actually sway in the wind because each branch unit is encircled by a giant expansion joint.

Disney commissioned a wind tunnel study for the branches that determined they could withstand a blow of nearly 100 miles per hour. The leaves are four different shapes and sizes, each more than a foot long, made out of special plastic called Kynar. The bottom trunk is 50 feet wide. The Tree of Life is made up of 45 secondary branches leading to 756 tertiary branches leading to 7,891 end branches. The branches had to appear random but the cost of sculpting each one individually would have been cost prohibitive. Using a computer, the Imagineers were able to come up with two types of secondary branches that could be hooked to two types of tertiary branches that could be randomly assembled, turned and adjusted to create natural shapes.

The branches were assembled on the ground and then carried over and plugged into their appropriate spots by a huge crane.

The final overall look of the Tree of Life was based on a particular bonsai tree the design team found at the International Flower and Garden Festival at Epcot.

Eventually, it was decided to utilize an oil rig as the base skeleton of the tree's trunk because it would be strong enough to hold the massive weight of the branches as well as have enough room underneath for some type of venue.

Carved into the tree's gnarled roots, mighty trunk and sturdy branches is a rich tapestry of 325 animals, many of which are endangered. With the extension of the roots into the Central Hub area, that number has gone up significantly with a deer, an elephant, Rocky Mountain big horn sheep, and a bison, among others.

The Tree of Life that served as the central icon for the park like a castle was meant to be a work of art that would be a tribute to mankind's respect for nature and life on earth.

Eleven sculptors were engaged to work together to bring the artificial icon to life. That team included a sculptor from France (Fabrice Kennel), another from Ireland (Vinnie Byrne), three Native Americans (Parker Boyiddle, Craig Goseyun, Arthur Rowlodge), five Floridians (Eric Kovach, Steve Hunke, Joe Welborn, Gary Bondurant, Jacob Eaddy) and one from Indianapolis, Indiana (Roger White).

The animal sculpting was supervised by WDI senior show production designer and art director Zsolt Hormay to keep it all consistent.

"It was really important that the look of the tree flows without any interruption," Hormay said. "The sculptors met every morning, studying a pile of wood for reference. They would discuss what each branch should be: a banyan, an emerging oak, a touch of cedar."

That same pile of wood served as inspiration for the textures of the animals like the stripes on the tiger being banyan bark and the octopus' skin modeled on oak.

The intent was to carve more than 350 animals into the base and branches and the art was to feature a mixture of styles and with some animals blending in and others standing out with high detail.

"People might look at the trunk and they might think, 'It's just brown bark' but it's more complicated than that, "said production designer Ron Esposito. "We used 50 to 60 color values to reveal the animals while maintaining naturalism. The tree has a dry side and a wet side, five different moss colors, multiple lichen colors as well as brown tones, overtones, and shadow tones."

"I feel that we achieved it successfully as far as trying to create a look where the animals were grown by the tree and not just stuck on the surface," Hormay said.

To achieve that effect, the artists had to sculpt the animals directly onto the tree, while wearing hard hats, working on scaffolding and immersed in the distracting and loud sounds of a construction site.

"In the beginning, it was a little difficult to get used to creating a sculpture every day and the fact that we just spray the cement on, you form it and by the time the sun goes down, it has to be done," recalled Hormay.

Each artist was able to sculpt an animal or two and dedicate it to family members. Zsolt's daughter wanted him to sculpt a koala for her and so he did. He also did a baboon for his wife and a scorpion for his son.

Hormay and the other artists found the experience emotionally moving and it helped them to better understand the importance of the tree to communicate to guests the wonder of nature and animals on earth.

"You can find a tree of life in various cultures, going back thousands of years," Hormay stated. "To me, it's really uplifting that we can have a Tree of Life here at Disney's Animal Kingdom and have it function as an important messenger to the people."

During the early work on the tree, famous wildlife researcher Jane Goodall walked the site and asked her guide, animal care expert Rick Barongi, where the chimpanzee would be placed.There had been no plans to include one but Zsolt found one of Goodall's photographs of David Graybeard, the first chimpanzee to accept Goodall into his society, opening the door for her groundbreaking research. Zsolt and Kennel sculpted the chimpanzee in three days and it is at the entrance to the attraction.

In December 2017, four guests at the park climbed up part of the way on the Tree of Life and then disappeared back into the park.

At one point, the base of the tree was to have had the Root Restaurant which was to have been the upscale eatery at the park. Imagineer Bryan Jowers did concept artwork for a "Wonders of Nature" show to be performed there instead. Imagineer Dave Minichiello did concept artwork for a "The Lion King" character show that later evolved and moved to a different area of the park.

It was CEO Michael Eisner who suggested, during a particularly disappointing pitch meeting, that bugs live in and under trees and that Pixar Animation was working on a new feature film about bugs called A Bug's Life (1998). Since bugs make up nearly 90 percent of what is referred to as the "animal kingdom" it seemed natural to showcase them in some manner so it was decided to proceed with "a creepy, crawly bug-eyed adventure". Imagineering consulted directly with Pixar and while several characters from the film were used, new ones were created as well.

The decision to go with this concept was approved after construction had already begun on the Tree of Life. However, it still opened April 1998, roughly a full seven months before the release of the film that inspired it, an unusual occurrence for a Disney theme park attraction.

This 3-D experience of film and audio-animatronics tries to educate people that insects actually help people and the environment.

The queue line into the theater was designed to create the illusion that guests were shrinking to bug size as they navigated the increasingly narrow tunnels with everything else including the roots seeming to become enormous.

The 3-D "It's Tough to Be a Bug" experience tries to educate guests that bugs actually help people.

Currently the nine-minute show being performed in the 430 seat auditorium is titled "It's Tough To Be A Bug! Starring Flik and a cast of A Million Billion Bugs" that is similar to a vaudeville revue with individual acts. This performance is the current show produced by the Tree of Life Repertory Theater. The pre-show waiting lobby is decorated with playbill posters from past performances whose titles are parodies of popular Broadway shows. Over the years, the followings posters were displayed:

My Fair Ladybug (My Fair Lady), Barefoot in the Bark (Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park), A Grass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams' A Glass Menagerie), A Cockroach Line (A Chorus Line), Beauty and the Bees ("Bee Our Guest!") (Disney's Beauty and the Beast), Antie (Annie), Web Side Story (West Side Story), Little Shop of Hoppers (Little Shop of Horrors), A Stinkbug Named Desire (A Streetcar Named Desire) and The Dung and I ("featuring the hit song Hello Dung Lovers") (The King and I).

Some of those poster designs were done by Imagineers Nicole Armitage Doolittle (daughter of Frank Armitage, a Disney animation background artist and later Imagineer) and Milton Noji (who worked for almost five years at Disney on both interior and exterior signage). Unlike traditional theater posters, these posters are not decorated with snippets of critics' reviews but interesting facts about the insect world.

The background music consists of a bug orchestra, sounding a lot like buzzing kazoos, playing iconic songs from these shows: One (A Chorus Line), Beauty and the Beast (from Beauty and the Beast), Tomorrow (Annie), I Feel Pretty (West Side Story), Hello Young Lovers (The King and I), and Tonight (West Side Story but also includes the counterpoint Flight of the Bumblebee).

The theme song, It's Tough to be a Bug, was written by George Wilkins with lyrics by Kevin Rafferty who was the Show Writer for the project. The show's score was composed and conducted by Bruce Broughton.

"My job was to impart the facts about 10 quintillion bugs in only eight minutes," stated Rafferty, who met with Ray Mendez, an insect naturalist. "Ray said that, most important, they are responsible for our food, as pollinators, and they handle our waste. If it weren't for bugs, we'd all be dead in six months. That impressed me. All the acts featured in the show are based on what actual bugs do. There really, truly are acid-spraying termites."

The concept was that guests would wander through the roots of the tree into a theater space that had been hollowed-out by the bugs. Guests then don "bug-eye" spectacles in order to see in three-dimensions the world through the eyes (or multiple eyes) of their insect hosts.

Senior principal production designer Zsolt Hormay, who led an international team of sculptors to carve the animals on the exterior trunk, was also in charge of the bugs in the queue line for the attraction. "I get calls all the time," said Hormay, "Any leeches? No leeches! Any cockroaches? No cockroaches!"

The Imagineers used Flik the ant and Hopper the grasshopper from the film as key figures in the attraction, but also added an Acorn Weevil (The Termite-ator); Chili, a quill throwing Chilean tarantula; Rolly, the dung beetle; and stinkbug Claire de Room to accompany a cast of hundreds of butterflies, beetles, ladybugs, hornets, spiders and larvae.

Some of the bugs appear on film. Some appear as elaborate Audio-Animatronics characters. Some only exist as puffs of air and rollers built into the theater seats. The swatter effect is created by 50 high-speed fans hidden thirty feet overhead in the rockwork folds of the theater.

When the acid-spraying termite apparently squirts guests in their face, the harmless water spray comes from the seat in front of the guest. Imagineers chose an industrial smell officially labeled "earthy" for the stinkbug's distinctive effect.

"It was a matter of getting our special effects to match the bugs," said show writer Kevin Rafferty. "All the acts we feature in the show are based on what they do in nature. There really are acid-spraying termites and quill-throwing tarantulas."

At the end of the show, an announcement over the PA system states, "Will all honorary bugs remain seated while all the lice, bed bugs, maggots and cockroaches exit first." To the left, the EXIT sign appears to be lit up by fireflies leaving the theater.

The 3-D animated portion of the show was produced by visual effect studio Rhythm and Hues. The firm that dramatically filed bankruptcy in 2013 began doing work for Disney in 1982 where they provided the computer animation for the original Universe of Energy and later created the "Big Bang" segment for Epcot's Ellen's Energy Adventure.

Walt Disney Imagineering handled the special effects including the Audio-Animatronics characters, wind, water, foul smells and more. At the time, Hopper was the most sophisticated and advanced audio-animatronics character that Imagineering ever created and could perform a wide array of movements that make him as lifelike as possible.

Actor Dave Foley recreates the voice of Flik as he did in the original film. The voice of Hopper is not Kevin Spacey as it was in the film, but Andrew Stanton who was co-director of the original film.

Cheech Marin does the voice of Chili, French Stewart the voice of the "Termite-ator", Tom Kenny the voices of the Dung Beetle Brothers and Jason Alexander as the voice of Weevil Kneevil. Corey Burton is the announcer and the voice of various bugs. P.T. Flea, voiced by John Ratzenberger, Pixar's "good luck charm" who does voices in all their movies, pops in briefly for one line.