Africa without Africans: The Mecca of the Mouse

Seth Stevenson – Slate

Copyright Slate
The Imagineering Field Guide to Disney’s Animal Kingdom reveals that theimagineers deliberately left the parking lots out in front of this Disney-style zoo as bleak and barren as they could. A wasteland, with no strips of grass to interrupt the endless asphalt slab. They wanted to heighten the contrast we feel when entering into the lush, wooded Animal Kingdom park. The scheme “ensures that the immersion into nature … will be very impactful.”
My first thought upon reading this was: Screw you, imagineers! Parking lots suck enough as it is. You’re saying you made yours even more depressing than necessary, just so you could showcase some cutesy landscaping idea? Go imaginuck yourselves!
Once I’d gotten this indignation out of my system, my second thought was: Gosh, they sure do put a lot of thought into this stuff. Leafing through these behind-the-scenes books (I also have The Imagineering Field Guide to Epcot) brings to light, yet again, the insane attention to detail you find at every Disney property.
For instance, once you’ve made that transition from the parking lot, through the gates into the Animal Kingdom entrance area, the imagineers’ next goal is to carefully orchestrate your first glimpse of the massive Tree of Life. (It’s one of this park’s two wienies—the other being a replica Mount Everest.) Various inclines, berms, and hollows have been arranged so that you’re forced to ascend a small rise before suddenly stumbling onto a gorgeous, unimpeded view of the tree. (The tree itself is an impressive feat of engineering. And is, of course, totally fake.)
I’ve been curious to see how this obsessive nano-focus would be reconciled with the challenges of a zoo. Live animals seem decidedly un-Disney, as they can’t be compelled to perform a repeated, synchronized sequence. (Unlike an animatronic robot. Or a low-wage employee.) With the animals’ free will involved, it’s impossible to ensure that every guest will receive the same, focus-group-approved experience. This sort of thing makes the imagineers extremely uncomfortable.
Their response was to make the animals into a sideshow. In many cases, you don’t even get to watch the animals from a static viewing point, as you would at a regular zoo. Instead, there’s a “ride” with a silly narrative structure (about, for instance, chasing poachers), during which you get quick, oblique glimpses of the animals as you speed by. The true stars of Animal Kingdom aren’t the lions, apes, and elephants. The stars are the precision-crafted environments you walk through.
Here, come with me as we visit the delightful little village of Harambe. Harambe is the perfect East African port town of your mind’s eye. When you first come upon it, it’s hard not to feel you’ve been teleported to Kenya.
All the signs are in the right typeface. The buildings are lovingly dilapidated. The paint-color choices are perfect. (The imagineers say they took paint chip samples on research trips and did surface rubbings to get the building textures right.)
Having traveled to Africa myself, I can tell you that Harambe gets only two minor details wrong. The first is that Africa has many more flies than this. And the second is that Africa has black people.
Given the otherwise remarkable accuracy of Harambe’s set design, I’m sort of surprised that Disney didn’t manufacture 15,000 animatronic Africans. OK, so they did import a few actual, nonrobot Africans to work the snack stands. Jambo! But perhaps the bigger issue is: Where are the black tourists visiting the park? I’ve seen maybe two black families all day. As in the rest of Disney World, there are literally more French people here than African-Americans.
Another population dynamic I’ve noticed: the dearth of children at this supposed family destination. I’ve seen lots of adult couples with no kids in tow. Even when there’s a token toddler present, there are often six or seven grown-ups attached to it. I’m beginning to suspect it’s the adults who really want to be here, while the kids are just serving as fig leaves.
This theory is bolstered by a scene I witness while waiting in line for food. An elderly, gray-bearded gent is in front of me, trying to buy a soda, when all of a sudden he’s interrupted by his twentysomething daughter, who is scurrying toward us. “Daaaaaad! She’s not tall enough to go on the ride!” whines the woman, gesturing with a pout at the tiny girl clinging to her thigh. “So now I can’t go! And you wandered off!” The man says nothing. “Take her hand,” the woman demands. The poor old fellow is mortified by this behavior (and is in the middle of his beverage transaction, to boot). But he silently takes his granddaughter’s hand so his horrid daughter can go enjoy her fricking roller coaster.
Admittedly, Disney has some pretty great roller coasters. Toward the end of the day, I walk over to Anandapur (a fake Himalayan village, complete with Tibetan-style prayer flags) and board the Expedition Everest ride. I’m seated in a rickety rail car, which creaks up to the top of the 200-foot mountain before swooping, banking, and dropping at insane speeds. Everyone screams together. It’s a group outpouring of white-knuckle terror. When the ride’s over and I disembark, I find I’ve broken out in a light sweat. My dazed fellow riders look at each other in total awe: Can you believe what we just went through?
The same thing happens on the nearby Kali River Rapids ride. There are seven other people on my raft, and as we float down the rushing river, I can feel us starting to gel into a team. We shout warnings to each other when the white water rages ahead. (“Look out, here it comes!”) We catch each others’ eyes and can’t help but smile. The little girl sitting next to me cackles every time we get hit with a splash. She’s shouting, “I’m soaked!” with a big, adorable grin.
If I’ve found one redeeming feature of the Disney World experience, it’s the community spirit that’s fostered when strangers all join together for a primal shriek of fear—or joy.
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