Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom is one of the most unique theme parks in the world – and, at its centre, stands the impressive Tree of Life.

The tree represents both the park's dedication to conservation and a celebration of biodiversity in the natural world.

Read on to discover the tree's fascinating history, including the talented team behind the structure and what almost replaced the iconic show at its base.

The History of the Tree of Life

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An archive image of construction work on the Tree of Life. Disney.

Disney legend Joe Rohde worked on the Imagineering team alongside the likes of Dave Minichiello, Dan Goozee, and Zsolt Hormay. Together they dreamt up the early concept art for the tree. 

Originally the team floated the idea of a shipwrecked Noah’s Ark that crash-landed in Animal Kingdom and burst open, spilling the animals into the park. However, the designers eventually decided that a tree would be more suitable as it existed in multiple mythologies and cultures. 

Once the Imagineers decided upon the Tree of Life concept, they then needed to decide what kind of attraction to put at the bottom of the tree. The team discussed adding an immersive restaurant to the base or adding a climbing structure for guests, before eventually opting for the It's Tough to Be a Bug! show.

The Tree of Life was built on a concrete base with an oil rig as its skeleton and it boasts more than 8,000 branches and about 102,000 artificial leaves. Famously during the animal-carving process, the Imagineers added David Graybeard to the tree – this was one of the chimpanzees that primate researcher Jane Goodall worked with.

It took three Imagineers and ten artists around 18 months to construct the Tree of Life inside Animal Kingdom. The park opened at Walt Disney World on the 22nd April 1998, on Earth Day, with the tree as its focal point.

Facts About the Tree of Life

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A close-up of some of the animals carved into the Tree of Life.

How Tall is the Tree of Life?

The Tree of Life might be the smallest of the four park icons at Walt Disney World but, at 145 feet tall, it’s certainly not small. It’s the tallest man-made tree structure in the world and large enough to fit an entire show inside.

What is the Tree of Life Made of?

Despite looking so realistic, the tree is not real. Imagineers created the massive baobab tree around an upside-down, recycled oil rig to reflect the park’s important conservation message.

How Many Carvings Are on the Tree of Life?

You might be there a while if you want to count the carvings on the Tree of Life. There’s no official answer but guesses put the number of carvings on the tree between 300 and 330.

The animal carvings are all over the tree, so make sure you check out the trunk and the branches. There are both current and extinct species (and even a hidden Mickey above the rhino’s eye.) The extinct creatures, such as a T-rex and Triceratops, can be found on the deadwood roots at the bottom of the tree. 

We recommend you take the Discovery Island Trail to get up close and personal with the carvings and spot some of the more hidden animals.