tree of life
Disney's Animal Kingdom's Tree of Life

In April of 1998, I had long since moved on from my time as a cast member on Main Street, USA and so had my mother and husband, who had been cast members too. I was working as a travel agent and had actually taken on the role of leisure and cruise manager while the company I worked for was expanding that department. My mother had left All-Star Sports and Mickey’s Star Traders to become a cruise agent at that same company. My husband had moved on from working hourly jobs too and had just started in the IT field. We’d been married for less than two years and were enjoying our newly built home in Ocoee, Florida. Of course we were still passholders as our love of Disney parks had not gone anywhere, even if we had hung up our name tags.

It had been exciting following along the development of Disney’s Animal Kingdom while we were cast members. I still have the little cast member booklet with facts about the park, which labeled it “Disney’s WILD Animal Kingdom” before the name change cause by copyright issues removed the ‘wild’ from the equation. My mom in particular had been fascinated with the process and had taken an interest in Imagineer Joe Rohde and his dedication to every detail within the park. So of course we planned to be there for Opening Day, auspiciously taking place on Earth Day in 1998.

It was exciting to see and hear the then-CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner speaking as he dedicated 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.
—Michael Eisner April 22, 1998

If I recall correctly (forgive what 12 years and 3 kids have done to my memory cells), Circle of Life played after he spoke. What I do remember vividly was instead of the usual Disney celebratory confetti canons to mark the park being opened – we were showered with beautiful fresh rose petals. The combination of the beauty, excitement and magic brought a tear to our eyes for sure.

tree of life close up
just a few of the over 300 creatures carved into the Tree of Life's trunk

When we entered the park, we had no expectations for certain rides or attractions to fill our time. Having grown up being a child of the EPCOT Center 80’s, I had crafted a great respect for the details beyond the rides. I didn’t need or want to be entertained and thrilled at every turn, I wanted to explore and enjoy. Animal Kingdom is a park of discovery, where each visit is slightly different and each turn might bring a new treasure to light. I think it’s a perfect metaphor for the need to stop and smell the roses in life. You can look at the Tree of Life from afar and walk right by it thinking it’s just another tree – but upon closer inspection it is teeming with details and amazement covering every inch. You could visit the park dozens of times and never discover the rooms within Pizzafari (I once used an entire roll of film there-before digital cameras of course), which are by themselves a work of art.

As reactions to the park got around, I found myself defending the park to all I met. “There’s nothing to DO there!” I’d hear. I’d share my opinions of the details and discoveries that awaited them, but it is sometimes hard to convince people who only keep their head down and race to the safari. Disney has attempted to assuage naysayers who demand more thrills and excitement with the addition of Expedition Everest but the fact remains that more than any other park, Animal Kingdom seems to have the reputation as the boring little brother of the family.  I urge everyone to look beyond what Animal Kingdom has to offer in terms of a traditional theme park, and see it for what it is, an ever-changing adventure for the senses.

Happy Birthday, Animal Kingdom! My heart will always hold that same excitement it found on Opening Day. Thank you for 12 years of wonderful memories, with many more in store I’m sure.