Walt Disney World Chronicles: The Horticulture of Disney’s Animal Kingdom

by Jim Korkis
Disney Historian

Feature Article

This article appeared in the April 5, 2016 Issue #863 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

Animal Kingdom Tree of LifeAt this time of year, we usually focus on the annual Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival that is a living showcase of the creative talents of Walt Disney World's landscape architects and horticulturists.

However, we sometimes forget that all year long Disney's Animal Kingdom stands as an impressive example of how Disney uses horticulture to tell stories. It doesn't occur to most of us that the landscaping at DAK has to be functional, not just an enhancement to a set like at the other Disney parks. Animals live in the environment.

When DAK opened in 1998 it required more than 4 million plants including everything from huge trees to the smallest shoots of grass. There were 46,202 Vetiver grass shoots planted by Opening Day.

The number of species of grass exceeded 300. Just in the Africa area, more than 771,687 shrubs and nearly 70,000 trees were planted.

Suppliers were contacted all over the United States and arrangements were made for plants to be propagated in temperate zones in California, Florida, Arizona and Maryland before being shipped to the site.

In addition, a special technique developed by Disney Legend and Landscape Architect Bill Evans was used at the Disney tree farm to coax saplings into good-sized trees in just over a year's time. A little tree is less expensive than a bigger tree, so the team purchased little trees and put them in Evans' "accelerators," perforated, corrugated, aluminum rings filled with soil.

"Our tiny plants will be big trees in only a few years. The savanna will be like a naturalized forest. First, the small, low plants — the understory — will be dominant. Then the large trees — the overstory — will grow up and the plants underneath will be thinned out by lack of sun and rain. The park will continue to grow and change. Year Five will be dramatically different than Year One. We have to project what the park will look like in 10 or even 20 years and plan accordingly," said landscape manager Cal Walsten.

A "heritage area" was created so that trees and plants there could replace plants in the park when they died. A "browse farm" of acacia, hibiscus, and bamboo was also set up to provide food for the leaf-eating animals. While the different species of hoofstock may choose different plant species on which to feed, their diet is not solely dependent on African plant species. All of the animals receive supplemental nutritionally balanced diets to help maintain good health.

This "browse farm" and outside vendors produce thousands of pounds of cut browse weekly. This browse is positioned throughout the animal habitats, such as the savannas, for the animals to feed on. This in turn reduces the impact on the planted landscape.

One of the landscape designers, Michelle Sullivan, recalled, "Okapi, a rare and beautiful cousin of the giraffe, eat everything so I have to spend hours scouring plant lists to see if any are toxic or there is any vegetation classified as 'noxious weeds,' which means a species that might grow out of control in Florida's lush landscape.

"Florida also has a 'killing frost' that pops up once every 20 years or so. A few hours at 20 degrees will kill some plants in Florida. The temperature change is gradual in colder climates and plants adapt, shutting down their systems to deal with the coming winter. In Florida, there's no warning. The plants are flowering, growing, pumping that good sap up and down, and then — boom — a frost happens. Even plants that can survive a frost in a temperate climate may not make it in Florida."

All of this preparation and research was vital for Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Unlike the previous Disney theme parks, it was plants, not buildings and facades, that dominated the storytelling. A staff of eight landscape architects all taught by Evans, who was responsible for landscaping Disneyland, Magic Kingdom and Epcot, accomplished the never-before-done challenge.

Principal landscape architect for the project, Paul Comstock, worked closely with Evans, who retired in 1975 after 20 years with Walt Disney Imagineering, but returned as a consultant.

Disney's Animal Kingdom"In Animal Kingdom, the design challenge facing us is to help tell the story, the natural story," Comstock stated in August 1996. "Landscape becomes the show in many areas. It is awesome. It is the set. It is the show."

Over a five-year period, Comstock visited Madagascar, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Tasmania, Namibia, China, Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore collecting seeds and shoots and establishing relationships with nurseries and botanical gardens.

In Nepal, Comstock recalled, "I had botanized the Royal Chitwan preserve in 1992, and had ridden on an elephant named Durgha Kali. I returned five years later, and this elephant kept sniffing me. The mahout (elephant handler) said the animal recognized me. I rode her every day and told the mahout what I was doing, collecting seeds in order to grow plants for an elephant habitat. He 'explained' this to Durgha Kali and she actually harvested her favorite delicacies for me, using her trunk and passing the seeds over her back and into my hands."

Material was gathered from every continent on Earth except for Antarctica.

Ancient cycads, survivors of the Cretaceous Era and more than 67 million years old, which were needed for the DinoLand area, were actually found in Florida and from a collector in Eagle Rock, California.

"The emphasis for Animal Kingdom is on the natural landscape. Our endeavor is to design a landscape that looks like it hasn't been designed at all, that we just found it this way," added Evans. "That translates into an experience for guests where they feel as if they're really in the jungle, or in the wild."

Landscape architecture manager Carl Walsten said that one of the important things that Evans taught the team was that "there's not one perfect answer. A red flowering tree might be one of several available, but we also need to understand whether that plant works in our micro-climate. That's where Bill's [Evans] knowledge is so valuable. You don't learn this in school, but from experience.

"We even joke about our 'new species of acacia', the characteristic flat-topped trees that dot the real African savanna. The mature Animal Kingdom 'acacias' are in reality conserved 30-foot-tall oak trees with 'crew cuts' that mimic the African trees."

An example of a look-alike would be the use of Enterolobium cyclocarpa to represent large "fever trees." Disney planted the actual fever tree, Acacia xanthophloea, on the savannas, but they rarely reached maximum size in the central Florida climate and so were not "good show."

As with many details at Disney theme parks, it is the illusion of reality more than authenticity that guarantees that visitors will become immersed in the overall experience.

One lead landscape architect named John Shields arrived at Walt Disney Imagineering in 1990 as a conceptual land planner. His responsibilities included designing the huge views as well as smaller details like paving, railings, gates and walls. He laid out the initial shape of the park and the early layouts for the plants.

"I wanted some views in the African safari to be expansive but controlled. We created false horizons by tilting the berm [around the perimeter of the park] up gradually," said Shields."Some parts along the berm will be sparsely planted to create 'windows' to the wilderness beyond. The berm will hide the buildings and service roads, but the vista over it will extend beyond the limits of the park."

Landscape architect Phil Schenkel faced the challenge of Discovery River, which holds more than 27 million gallons of water. "The river encircling the park's centerpiece, the Tree of Life, is just ground water, so the river level could vary as much as 18 inches each day. I designed fallen logs, cutbanks, geological details and interesting erosions 18 inches below the water's edge. We spent a lot of time trying to make concrete look like dirt."

Schenkel, along with senior project engineer Dave Dahlke, had to devise a recipe for concrete for the safari's two miles of rutted, potholed and washed out "dirt" road. They spent long hours matching the concrete color with the surrounding soil and then rolled tires through it as well as tossed stones, dirt and twigs to try to capture a seamless sense of reality not immediately recognized by onlookers.

They set up a test track in the parking lot at WDI in Glendale with potholes and ruts. When they took Disney Legend Marty Sklar for a spin, he spilled most of his coffee, so they had to go back to the drawing board to modify the design.

The landscaping team for DAK created a massive computer database holding all the information about DAK's horticulture, so among other things, years down the line they could check on which plants thrived and which didn't.

However, what is under the landscaping is equally impressive.

"The challenge in building this park was getting 60 miles of underground utilities and approximately 4 million cubic yards of earth moved and graded in time to support two full growing seasons for the plants prior to Opening Day," said Scott Williams, DAK's principal construction manager.

"We had to think in terms of multiple crews, multiple shifts and massive quantities per day in order to pull it off. In doing so, WDI set records for the most pipe in a day (25,000 feet), in a week and in a month. We set company records for the most earth hauled as well, over four million, four hundred thousand cubic feet"

In October 24, 1996, Evans told "Eyes and Ears," the internal cast newspaper, "These are dedicated people and this project presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Everything we do is so different from what you see in the outside world. We put our own brand of pixie dust on everything. This is the greatest landscape design project in the world. In the future, this will be the standard by which other large land development projects are judged."

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Other features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives.

Jim also writes occasionally for the AllEars® Guest Blog, contributing entries under the heading of "Jim's Attic."



Disney Historian and regular AllEars® Columnist Jim Korkis has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, Korkis has used his skills and historical knowledge with Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of several books, available in both paperback and Kindle versions. You can purchase them via our AllEars.Net Amazon.com store HERE.


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.