It’s no coincidence that Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened on Earth Day in 1998—it’s the only Disney park dedicated to animal conservation. The 500 acres it takes up also makes it Disney’s largest theme park, and, as you might expect, there’s a lot that happens behind the scenes in order to keep the operation running smoothly. In honor of Earth Day, here are 15 things you probably didn’t know about Disney’s wild side.
1. Artists went out on a limb.
There are more than 300 carvings on the Tree of Life. It took 10 artists and three Imagineers working full-time for 18 months to create all of them.
The Tree itself is 145 feet tall and 160 feet wide. And no, it’s not real. The base is actually an oil rig, made to withstand Floridian hurricane winds. It’s topped with more than 102,583 transparent leaves in five shades of green.
2. Park scientists document love in the "wild."
Disney Animal Kingdom scientists have been conducting in-depth studies on the vocalizations of elephants since the park opened in 1998. They’ve uncovered some interesting flirting interactions between male herds and female herds, and even discovered two new vocalizations never before reported in elephants.
3. The entire area is a zebra-free zone …
Zebras were introduced to the Kilimanjaro Safari ride in 2012—and removed just four months later. Though Disney never released an official statement, rumor has it that the zebras were too aggressive—constantly biting each other, blocking paths, and even attacking ride vehicles.
4. ... But it contains eight members of one of the world’s most endangered species.
5. Birds are egged on.
Some of the park's birds are given fake eggs to sit on, which makes older birds think they don’t need to continue repopulating. It also shows the younger birds where they should lay their eggs, so it’s a win-win situation.
6. Some of the park's plants were chosen by an elephant.
Certain plants that grow in the park were selected by Durgha Kali, a female elephant living in Nepal. One of Disney’s landscape architects rode the elephant to collect seeds; when Durgha Kali came across plants she liked, she would pick them with her trunk and hand them to her rider.
7. Disney decided to scale back on the dragons.
Part of the park was originally supposed to be “Beastly Kingdom,” an area featuring creatures such as dragons and unicorns. Evidence of the incomplete land can still be found around the park—for instance, there’s a dragon in some of the logos. The Beastly Kingdom area is now being made into Avatar Land.
The Imagineers who were scheduled to work on Beastly Kingdom were let go when plans were scrapped, and immediately snapped up by Universal Studios, who had them focus on the Dragon Challenge roller coaster, now part of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Beastly Kingdom attractions would have included a dark roller coaster called “Dragon Tower,” a ride based on the Fantasia movie, and a hedge maze called “Quest for the Unicorn.”
8. The park's mountain costs hundreds … of millions.
With a cost of more than $100,000,000, Expedition Everest is the most expensive roller coaster ever made, and at 199.5 feet tall, it’s just shy of the Federal Aviation Guidelines that would have required the faux mountain to have a red light beacon on top.
9. Pre-Frozen, its scribes just kept swimming.
Before they penned the ice queen hits you’ve heard 4-year-olds everywhere sing for the past two years, Frozen writers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez wrote the songs for Finding Nemo: The Musical at Animal Kingdom.
10. The Magic Kingdom is tiny by comparison.
The Kilimanjaro Safari savannah is more than 110 acres, making this one ride bigger than the entire Magic Kingdom (107 acres).
11. You can meet Sue. (Sort of.)
If you haven’t made it to the Field Museum in Chicago to check out Sue, the world’s most complete T. Rex skeleton, be sure to visit Dino-Sue in DinoLand. At 13 feet tall and 40 feet long, the statue is an exact replica (except the real Sue is actually 2 feet longer).
12. A robot dinosaur used to roam park grounds.
The park once featured an animatronic dinosaur named Lucky that could walk, interact with guests, and even give autographs all by itself. (This further affirms my belief that Disney is the first place to steer clear of when machines become self-aware.) Lucky no longer maintains a permanent residence at the park, and instead travels to festivals all over the world.
13. Imagineers invented their own prehistoric creature.
The Carnotaurus baddie in the Dinosaur! ride isn’t an exact representation of the real carnotaur—this one has bigger thighs, knobbier skin, and more height—so Imagineers decided it was a new sub-species. They named it “Carnotaurus robustus Floridana,” meaning “Stout meat bull from Florida.”
14. The animals come first.
You won’t find plastic straws, cup lids, or balloons at Animal Kingdom. These all pose health risks to the animals.
15. Designers decided not to rock the boat.
Imagineer Joe Rohde has mentioned that the design team considered a Noah’s Ark concept as a unique way to enter the park, but decided that it was too controversial to include.