Quarterly Publications

Inspiration from Nature

In Nature, Our Imaginations Soar, Our Hearts Ease

Whether you look around the world or within a single family, you’ll find sharply different tastes and ways of living. We like different foods, wear different clothes, hum different music – yet we all feel the same pull toward nature. We’re drawn to water, long vistas, high places, and lush gardens, and we’re fascinated by other living creatures, eager to get close to them. This hunger lives deep inside us, below all the cultural overlays. Ancient and unchanging, nature wields an immense power.

How can nature inspire us to create great destinations? 

The relationship between nature and destinations is easy to forget when we spend so much of our time inside climate-controlled buildings, staring at screens. Most of the time we’re emailing, texting, surfing, networking, and in various ways, getting pinged. Constantly distracted, we wear ourselves out trying to focus and pay attention. Our breathing gets shallow, and our concentration drifts.

When we turn our attention back to nature, though, we relax into what psychologist Stephen Kaplan named “soft fascination” – a state that requires far less energy. Time in nature soothes the weary frontal cortex, engages our senses, and renews our ability to pay attention – in a relaxing, involuntary way, without trying.

Nature rests our exhausted brain.

Freed from the relentless push to focus, it lets other parts of itself come alive: emotion, imagination, empathy, and more. Harvard University’s Center for Health and the Global Environment predicts that by 2030, 86 percent of developed nations’ population will live in cities, most of them starved for green space. The shift won’t change our craving for nature – that need is instinctive, almost impossible to erase. In Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development, social ecologist Stephen Kellert points out how consistent our response to nature is, across cultures and generations. We’re drawn by its harmony and order, its promise of sustenance and security, its mystery and wonders, and its ability to heal and restore us.

Wise designers make subtle use of that attraction, tapping into forces twined so deeply into our psyche, we’re often not even aware of their power over us. In this issue of Destinology, we explore how nature inspires us and destination design.


Trading asphalt for forests, Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s roller coasters soar through old growth trees, increasing rider’s perception of speed through a beautiful canopy.

photo courtesy of SeaWorld Entertainment Parks

Sacred places exist all over the world – caves and mountains, groves and glens, stones and springs – that have taken on symbolic significance. Some feel almost magical, supercharged with some kind of special, mysterious energy. Others are places that open our awareness, alter our consciousness, or bring us into touch with something tender or profound. As a species, we are sensitive to place.

We are powerfully drawn to certain archetypal landforms. Deserts, mountains, oceans, and plains seize our imagination and, without us realizing it, shape our aesthetic preferences, our way of thinking, our world view. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson believes that like all other animals, we’re drawn to wildlands with certain characteristics – most especially the African savannah where our species took form. Wilson recently commented to the Washington Post that people say, “I go there and in a short while, I feel somehow completely at home.”

PGAV's Vice President Jeff Havlik
“Riding a coaster next to trees is very different from riding one across asphalt,” says Jeff Havlik, PGAV VP. “The trees give you a frame of reference, increase your sense of speed, and send you through an exciting, gorgeous foliage-filled adventure.”

Gordon Orians, an evolutionary biologist, put forth his now-famous savannah hypothesis to explain how our attraction to certain landscapes – even trees of certain shapes, like the gracefully spreading, shade-giving acacia tree – took hold when human beings moved from forest to grassland. To this day, we like open spaces and long vistas. And even preschoolers consistently choose acacia-like trees as the most inviting, offering the greatest sense of security.

Orians writes that “ghosts” of environments past – ghosts of predators, rivals, volcanic eruptions, and habitats – survive in our minds. As a result, when we approach new places, we first scan for safety. Then we canvas, choosing the best path – and we feel distinctly less comfortable in landscapes that block our view or force confusing detours. Only when our path feels safe and navigable – and interesting enough to explore – do we settle into the experience and engage with what we’re seeing and hearing.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg grew out of the Virginia countryside and is nestled in lush forest, its European villages tucked between stands of 80-foot oak trees or set against a backdrop of evergreens. Framed, they make visual sense, and it’s easy to orient yourself and navigate among them. The park’s trees greatly enhance the experience of the rides.


Vantage Points

The tranquil azure of Earth’s Ozone is a unique blue hue that can only be seen from low Earth orbit, and one which Space Shuttle Atlantis astronauts were eager to share.

Whether we climb to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, zip through a tree canopy, or just take an elevator to a spinning glass-walled restaurant atop a hotel, we’re thrilled by any vantage point that lets us see far and wide. “The analogy of scraping the sky, and so getting closer to heaven, resists dismissal,” Mark Kingwell writes of the Empire State Building.

Why do we love high places?

Because we are earthbound, and we move through our lives horizontally. Going vertical means transcending our limits – witness the spires of gothic cathedrals and ambitious secular skyscrapers. We risk our lives to climb mountains that have endured for millennia and hold secrets we cannot fathom.

The reverence for high places cuts across cultures.

PGAV's Exhibit Designer Doug Nickrent
“We created a sunrise, and you can see the light change across the shuttle,” says Doug Nickrent, PGAV Senior Exhibit Designer.

Sherpas, an ethnic group of Buddhists, traveled to Everest from Tibet 500 years ago; they believe Mount Everest is the home of an enlightened deity. Moses climbed Mt. Sinai to receive enlightenment. The Maori believe mountains were once gods and warriors of great strength. Many Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest believe powerful spirits live on top of mountains. James Hilton even situated his utopia, Shangri-La, high in the Himalayas. A climb spells safety – we are removing ourselves from the fray, getting safely above it all, gaining a new perspective. Yet ascending into the sky also means moving away from the constraints of our bodies, breaking free from gravity. Striving for something higher.

When you visit the Kennedy Space Center, your first glimpse of the NASA Space Shuttle Atlantis happens with a flourish, as the screen of a multimedia show opens to reveal the shuttle itself. Its backdrop? An LED screen that shows image after image of the shuttle’s view from space.

“Some of the imagery takes you from day to night in orbit, which happened every 90 minutes for them. There’ll be this glorious sunset, and afterward the lights start popping up on Earth, and you realize the speed at which the shuttle orbited. There are rare views of the ozone layer, the horizon, oceans, and ice caps,” Nickrent exclaims. “Stunning time-lapse images of the Aurora Borealis taken from the space station. Beyond their beauty, it’s good scientific information. You sense that ability to observe things in a way we’ve never been able to photograph or even imagine; then parse out, tease out, the science behind them. We can compare changes over time. It’s a global view like we’ve never had before.”



Heart of Africa provides stunning vistas that place its resident animals in harmony with one another as they would be seen in the Savannah.

It’s called biophilia, this innate bond we feel with other living creatures. Our hearts melt at the sight of a young creature with a rounded face, soft features, and large eyes – whether it’s a toddler, a golden retriever pup, or a baby sea otter. And when they’re grown, animals continue to fascinate us.

We invite them into our families and observe them in their own, recognizing what we hold in common. After all, we share much of the same DNA, and our brains share many of the same neurochemicals.

PGAV's Vice President John Kemper
“The effect of getting this close to wild animals,” Kemper says, “is caring about their situation in the wild. It makes me want to recycle and conserve water and compost and put solar panels on my house – anything to delay the destruction of their habitat.”

“People everywhere have long believed that animals bear secrets,” writes Paul Shepard in The Others: How Animals Made Us Human, “…and that they, being both familiar and extraordinary, are a means for charting our lives.” Spirit animals, a sudden meme on the Internet, are an ancient tradition: we connect ourselves to something in nature by claiming it as our own. Tribes choose totems, teams choose mascots, and Buddhist iconographers hide a little animal face in a person’s hair.

It’s easy to draw lessons from animals – and to read their simple, unambiguous reactions to us. Simpler than ours, their feelings become a vicarious outlet for our own more complicated emotions. We savor their uninhibited joy, their ease with their own bodies and needs. Unless they sense danger, they are relaxed; they walk loosely, communicate freely, play and eat and sleep when they feel like it.

In a 2011 study at Caltech and UCLA, participants only had to see a photograph of an animal, and neurons in the amygdale sparked to life. The brain showed far more activity in response to animal photos than to photos of buildings – or other people. And study after study has shown improvements in mood and decreases in blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones.

In the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium’s Heart of Africa, PGAV Vice President John Kemper and his team set out to create a savannah. They found trees as close to acacias as Ohio’s harsh climate would allow, and giant paddocks created wide open vistas with very few perceivable boundaries.



Discovery Cove is a veritable Garden of Eden, transporting guests to a tropical paradise which meanders through an overgrown jungle and along crystal clear streams.

Eden – the place where we could be happy forever – was a garden lush with fruit and flowers. To this day, brightly colored flowers lure us with a double promise: beauty plus the presence of fruit, berries, squash, or nuts. The fragrance that helps the flowers attract bumblebees also resonates in our psyche. Smell is our freshest sense (its neurons replace themselves every 30 days), and scents cut straight to the emotional part of our brain, forming robust memories. A garden’s birdsong also has both poetic and prosaic associations, signaling a lush, verdant landscape with plenty of water, sunshine, forage, and shelter, and no harsh extremes of climate to endanger us.

PGAV's Landscape Architect Dan O'Neill
“It’s making people feel, the minute they step inside the resort, like they’re not in Orlando anymore,” says Landscape Architect Dan O’Neill.

Cultivating veggies and grains allowed us to build stable, agrarian societies. But flowers are magic we coax from the earth. They drug us to sleep, intoxicate us, speak our love. The green of their leaves is the color of balance, centered on the color spectrum, and striking our eye in a way that requires no optical adjustment and is therefore entirely restful. Nature’s bright green calms us more effectively than any other color, a study in the March 2007 Journal of Physiological Anthropology found.

Red, the color of so many flowers, is green’s complement, directly opposite on the color wheel. Red has the longest wavelength on the spectrum. It excites the eye and advances visually, seeming nearer than it is, grabbing us by the lapels with its urgency.

The interplay between the restful green and the exciting red gives our brain just the right stimulus, so we are soothed but not bored. From the first, gardens have shaped our aesthetic sensibility.

The concept for Discovery Cove was simple: Take people away to a tropical paradise.

The progression starts with a frisson of excited anticipation as you walk into a large, thatched building with wicker furniture and a relaxed resort feel. As soon as you come out the other side, “your view is framed across lagoon pools and sandy beaches. The landscape sets multiple backdrops so you have this sense that it goes on and on.” O’Neill’s team used bent palms that look like they’re leaning close to hear you whisper; giant ficus trees; short bromeliads bursting with red flowers; potted plants that pop with bright color and bring scale to the guest path. “The larger-leafed plants make it feel lush, already overgrown the day the park opened.” The garden is eternally interesting.

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