Disney World's Animal Kingdom was purposely designed to pull you into its mythical tropical world. The Imagineers, the designers of Animal Kingdom, created an environment of contrasts, of opposites, to enhance the tension between the real and imaginary. This gives you a heightened sense of enjoyment. Understanding how they do that can give you an even better appreciation of what you are experiencing.
Arriving at the Parking Lot
Now this might seem like a mundane place to start. But it is where you start. You park your car and get out. The parking lot is a large, flat, dull place. Probably hot too. Virtually lifeless. Barren. But in the distance you can see the top of a dense, tropical forest. Does not that make you long for the cool, teeming-with-life forest? This is your first experience with the designers' Circle of Life principle.
You ride the tram or the bus and get out near the front gate. You might not think to look down at your feet, but you should. The paving of the parking lot already looks aged. This is on purpose. It's as if nature is already reclaiming the asphalt. Then, as you approach the front gate, the uninviting asphalt turns into something colorful: undulating waves of red and green. If you could fly, you would see that you are walking on an immunity depiction of the Tree of Life, the central image of the Animal Kingdom.
Nature Requires Balance
The ticket booth and gateway were built in the American Arts and Crafts style, an architectural movement which reflected natural materials and things made by hand. Arts and Crafts architecture also opened up building interiors to the outside world. Disney has made great use of Arts and Crafts design. For instance, along the structures here at Animal Kingdom in Florida, Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa in Anaheim, California, is also built in the Arts and Crafts tradition, although the hotel is oversized and then the impact is lost.
You may notice the depiction of lions, elephants, and dinosaurs around the entrance. Look closer and you will also see a dragon. There's another dragon over the ticket booth on the far left. Dragons are there because they are imaginary beasts. The Animal Kingdom was designed not only for animals of the past and present, but also for animals that exist only in our minds, like unicorns and other mythical creatures. What? You thought unicorns really exhausted? Dragons too?
Entering the Story
But now you've walked through the gate and you are in the Oasis. You're excited. But the Imagineers are trying to slow you down and prepare you for the adventures ahead. They want you to let go and enter the story. They want you to be ready to accept what Walt Disney described as the "Plausible Impossible." So they created this cool, green zone to relax you a little, even though you're really, really eager to get to the Safari or Everest.
The Oasis pathways wander, deliberating keeping you at a modest pace, so that you can adjust to the magical environment. Pay attention. Do not grow too complacent. Because something important is about to be disclosed. And suddenly, there it is: the Tree of Life! Here the walkway widens so that people can stop and admire this magnificent icon.
As in all of Disney's theme parks, there is a boundary between the real and the fantasy world. And the Oasis, in pushing you and everyone else through a narrow portal, a single entrance, creates that transition. At the end of the Oasis, you have numerous paths to follow, many choices that lead into the various lands of the Animal Kingdom.
The Animal Kingdom is distinct from Disney's other theme parks. At those other parks, the destination is the point. But in the Animal Kingdom, it's the voyage that is paramount. You may not realize it, but you are being prepared for this from the moment you arrive.