Animal-watching Disney-style requires a sharp eye and a bit of effort.
Though the functional purpose of The Oasis is the same as that of Main Street in the Magic Kingdom (i.e., to funnel guests to the center of the park), it also serves as what Disney calls a "transitional experience." In plain English, this means that it sets the stage and gets you into the right mood to enjoy the Animal Kingdom. You will know the minute you pass through the turnstiles that this is not just another Main Street. Where Main Street, Hollywood Boulevard, and the Epcot entrance plaza direct you like an arrow straight into the heart of the respective parks, The Oasis immediately envelops you in an environment that is replete with choices. There is no one broad thoroughfare, but rather multiple paths. Each will deliver you to Discovery Island at the center of the park, but which path you choose and what you see along the way is up to you. There is nothing obvious about where you are going, no Cinderella Castle or giant golf ball to beckon you. There is instead a lush, green, canopied landscape with streams, grottos, and waterfalls, an environment that promises adventure without revealing its nature.
The natural-habitat zoological exhibits in The Oasis are representative of those throughout the park. Although extraordinarily lush and beautiful, the exhibits are primarily designed for the comfort and well-being of the animals.
A sign will identify the animal(s) in each exhibit, but there's no guarantee the animals will be immediately visible. Because most habitats are large and provide ample terrain for the occupants to hide, you must linger and concentrate, looking for small movements in the vegetation. When you do spot the animal, you may only make out a shadowy figure, or perhaps only a leg or a tail will be visible.
The Oasis is a place to linger and appreciate, and although this is exactly what the designers intended, it will be largely lost on Disney-conditioned guests who blitz through at warp speed to queue up for the big attractions. If you are a blitzer in the morning, plan to spend some time in The Oasis on your way out of the park. The Oasis usually closes 30 - 60 minutes after the rest of the park.
From the time you arrive, Disney Imagineers use contrast to signal that Animal Kingdom is going to be different than any other theme park. What do I mean? The parking lot is a barren, treeless, lifeless field. Not a very inviting first impression. Off in the distance, beyond the edge of the parking lot is a lush forest - the Oasis.
Before the Oasis is the park entrance. Here, the ticket booth and gateway architecture is based on the American Arts and Crafts tradition. This style demonstrates how man-made structures are compatible with the natural environment. Within this design tradition, the blending of indoor and outdoor space is blurred, natural materials are featured, and the machine age is shunned for handmade.
Functionally, the Oasis serves the same purpose as Main Street USA, Hollywood Boulevard or walking under Spaceship Earth; to create a shared experience that sets up the adventures that lie ahead. The pathways meander and cross under a land bridge just like the train tunnels at the Magic Kingdom. These obstructions act like a curtain to set up the big reveal - your first view of the Tree of Life. The wide walkway is designed to accommodate the large crowds who just stand there. From the parking lot to this point you have walked up a 20-foot hill.
Here's something to watch for throughout the park: In the field of ecology, naturalist use the concept of transects - a series of zones that transition from one type of land to another - to describe the characteristics of an ecosystem and how it changes. When the transition is sudden or is severely disrupted, significant environmental impacts can be felt. Virtually every attraction in the Animal Kingdom and every land deals with a disruption in the natural transect to move the story along.