- Conserving, Consuming, and Improving on Nature at Disney’s Animal Kingdom
The front of the Guidemap handed to park visitors upon entering Disney's Animal Kingdom (DAK) in Orlando, Florida, shows a person costumed as Timon, the meerkat from The Lion King, hugging a laughing child; the back of the map displays a photograph of Mickey Mouse attired in safari gear also hugging a little girl who wears a grin from ear to ear. It is significant that visitors are introduced to the theme park via images of fictional animal characters rather than the real animals that are, ostensibly, the main attraction of the "kingdom." The approach parallels another image used to represent the park that stands quite literally at its center: the Tree of Life. The Guidemap exhorts visitors to "behold the grand symbol of Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park! This awe-inspiring, hand-carved masterpiece stands 14 stories tall and includes a swirling tapestry of over 325 animal images!" Ironically, this park that has imported thousands of plants, grasses, and trees to create a spectacular natural landscape relies on an artificial tree with fake leaves to symbolize "life." In both instances, the use of the fictional and artificial to represent the real complicates the experience promised to park visitors.
The Disney Corporation purports that this theme park serves more functions than its others in Orlando's Disney World Resort. The Magic Kingdom entertains; Epcot Center entertains and teaches; and the Animal Kingdom entertains, teaches, and conserves. This essay offers a perspective on what is really being taught to park visitors when the animals that are allegedly being conserved are used for entertainment. I suggest that visitors learn little about animals and how to protect them. Instead, the park's use of animals indicates that its underlying lesson is to reinforce a commonly held Judeo-Christian interpretation of humans' relationship with animals: they function to serve us.
This interpretation is explored in depth by avowed conservative Matthew Scully in his book, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. The ethic has its roots in biblical teaching: "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth" (Gen. 1:26 KJV). I identify this perspective throughout the park performances, finding an attitude reflecting the one Scully observes when he writes that the story of the Ark marked a change in the outlook toward animals, as they became "players, however lowly, in the story of our own moral development" (92). Disney uses those players to great, and subversive, effect—subversive because the animals play themselves in an eco-drama that undermines its purported message. During the 1970s, Michael Real asserted that Disneyland was a morality play, and today's DAK also fits that description as tourists become protagonists who encounter anthropomorphized animals prompting them to conserve by consuming. Therein lies the paradox. Ultimately, more of the natural world gets destroyed than conserved through the performances of DAK.
Relatedly, through an analysis of the attractions the park offers to both children and adults, I explore the appeal of the real, the fictitious, and the hyperreal. Contemplating the juxtaposition of cartoon characters with the live characters of real animals offers a chance to explore these terms, as the animals in hyperreal displays represent a fiction commensurate with those that are animated. [End Page 111] I examine how reality, fiction, and hyperreality work together in performances of nature staged for consumption by tourists. The combination is Disney's way of going beyond merely representing flora and fauna: it is an attempt to improve nature, which results in lessons subsumed by production values. There exists an inherent risk in constructing nature as spectacle, and performance overwhelms ecology at DAK.
Defining the Terms
It will be helpful first to explain how I use the terms "dominion" and "hyperreality" before I demonstrate through an analysis of the park's shows and attractions how the latter...