It is a tree like no other, rising 14 graceful
stories into the sky, its leafy canopy spreading 160 feet across the
landscape. Its upraised branches beckon: Come take a closer look.
It is impossible to resist a closer look at The Tree of Life, which stands
145 feet tall at the heart of Discovery Island in Disney's Animal Kingdom,
the newest theme park at Walt Disney World Resort. True, the lofty icon is
made by humans. But its story is the awe-inspiring tale of all of Earth's
animals and the interconnected nature of every living thing.
Carved into the tree's gnarled roots, mighty trunk and sturdy branches is a
rich tapestry of more than 300 animals -- from the regal lion to the playful
dolphin. Its leaves -- of many colors and four shapes and sizes, all
attached by hand to more than 8,000 of the tree's end branches -- number
more than 103,000. Its trunk is 50 feet wide and spreads to 170 feet in
diameter at its sprawling root base. Building the tree's support structure
required an engineering plan similar to those used in building offshore oil
And because it wouldn't be a tree without being able to sway in the wind, a
giant expansion joint encircles the tree at each branch unit.
"The Tree of Life is a technological marvel, but it's also a symbol of the
beauty and diversity and the grandeur of our animal life on Earth," says Joe
Rohde, Walt Disney Imagineering vice president and executive designer for
the park. "It's a celebration of our emotions about animals and their
Disney's Animal Kingdom guests first encounter The Tree of Life after they
stroll through The Oasis, a lush garden setting alive with streams,
flowering glades, waterfalls and animals that include iguanas, sloths,
macaws and other fascinating creatures. As they continue past the animals
and walk through a series of grottoes, guests are treated to their first
incredible view of The Tree of Life.
"We want you to look up at it, to regard it with awe and wonder and to
translate those feelings to the real animal world," Rohde says.
Where The Tree of Life's giant roots twist over and into the earth, they
meld with a quiet landscape of pools, meadows and trees that becomes the
natural habitat for flamingoes, otters, lemurs, axis deer, cranes, storks,
tortoises and even red kangaroo. Guests can watch from several viewing
locations without disturbing the animals as they go about their lives.
Invisible barriers exist between animals and guests which appear to be part
of the natural terrain.
After guests meander along a pathway through the extensive maze of roots,
they discover entry inside the massive trunk to a 430-seat theater. A
humorous special-effects experience introduces them to the world of some of
our planet's lesser-known wild creatures -- insects -- from the bug's point
of view. "It's Tough to be a Bug!" spins an amusing yarn using 3-D film,
Audio-Animatronics® figures and other in-theater special effects.
While following the pathway that leads to the show, guests can view The Tree
of Life from every angle. They see a waterfall rushing from the tree into
one of the feeding pools. They spot a dinosaur sculpting formed by the
"dead" wood around the tree's base. They continue to discover sculptings
that include an armadillo, an elephant, a camel, a baboon and hundreds of
"We want our visitors to wander up to the tree, to recognize animals and
seek out others," says Zsolt Hormay, Tree of Life chief sculptor and senior
production designer. "Some are more recognizable, some are less so. It's a
constant discovery and rediscovery."
The artistry of the tree, from the carvings to every detail of its
composition, required 20 artists led by Hormay, all faced with the challenge
of creating a work of art that was at once both natural and fantastic.
"That was probably the most difficult part of sculpting the tree, to create
the 325 animal figures that appear to be formed of bark and wood -- finding
the balance between the animal forms and the wood textures was a great
challenge," says Hormay, who hails from Budapest and whose team included
three Native American artists, plus artists from France, Ireland,
Indianapolis and Central Florida.
In all, it took more than 18 months and a crew of thousands to complete
exterior construction of The Tree of Life.
"This is the most impressive artistic and engineering feat that we have
achieved since the original Sleeping Beauty castle at Disneyland," Rohde
To maintain fluidity of the tree's carvings, the trunk portion was assembled
outside the park with 52 rockwork cages from which the animal sculptures
were carved. The trunk then was cut into a dozen giant segments and flown to
a construction site near the park. There, the segments were joined in pairs.
Finally, the completed six trunk segments were transported by crane to the
tree's location, where the final pieces of the trunk puzzle were reunited.
The Tree of Life is located in the heart of Discovery Island, the island hub
from which Disney's Animal Kingdom guests can explore further adventures
including Kilimanjaro Safaris in Africa, Camp Minnie-Mickey, DinoLand
U.S.A., Asia and a tour of Rafiki's Planet Watch.