This is rainforest in the year 2040, when all that remains are plastic leaves and silk flowers, the trees draped with toys that wink and growl on demand

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The Independent Culture
As theme parks downsize to move into inner cities and reinvent themselves as "eatery experiences", they become more preposterous. The Rainforest Cafe which opened this week in the old Thunderbird disco on Shaftesbury Avenue in London shows an apocalyptic vision of the future. This is the rainforest in the year 2040, when the last Brazilian trees have been stripped. All that remains are acres of plastic leaves and silk flowers, the plastic talking trees draped with dried lichen garlands from China and soft toys from Hamleys that wink, twitch, growl on demand. Even the alligators are animatronics. Weather is controlled with rainfall showers as predictable as the sensors on sprinklers, night falls at the flick of a switch and even the stars are fibre optics.

Sitting on the bar stool with giraffe legs, fanned by an electronic butterfly at the Magic Mushroom bar, curator Steve Schussler is over from the States to launch his first transatlantic venture with The Foundation Group of Companies, whose separate companies operate pubs and hotels. He expounds on the five Es that make just seven Rainforest Cafes in the US, including one at Disneyworld in Orlando, serve over 100,000 meals a week. They are Environment, Entertainment, Earning, Education and Employees and er, I think I must be hallucinating. Giraffes are savannah creatures, aren't they? How about elephants? And since when did salmon impale themselves upon the Coral Reef Kebab featured on the menu? With an eye for detail like this, Steve is unabashed about never having visited a rainforest. But his Mom served three years in one as a Peace Corps volunteer.

"Where else could you take a three-year-old or your 103-year-old grandma?" Steve asks, and in truth, I am stumped.

But it's clear that running a rainforest from a former disco isn't easy. The fish have gone belly up within their lava-lamp-like aquariums. Maybe it was the fake corals that unsettled them. Steve is throwing a wobbly about the white cord on a clamp-light - "It's gotta go, you'd never find that in a Rainforest Cafe". Worse, the kitchen have had to get used to a weird system where your adventure in a tropical wonderworld begins with a passport which gives you a seating time. Till your "safari" name is called, you wander about and hopefully, shop till you drop in the retail outlet where you can buy Crocodile Dundee outfits or bean frogs. Getting a thousand free-loaders seated in 340 rustic chairs imported from America in a trial run last Saturday stretched the kitchen to breaking point. "So it didn't work out. Know what? We did it on purpose. It busted. This is training, pushing the limits. It's purposeful."

Just before the official launch on Wednesday to the sound of whirring insects, birdcalls and thunder - all on the official rainforest CD, "buy one on your way out" - there's an air of suppressed panic. All the waiters are X-ing out with black rollerballs the Smoking word on the passport since it will now be a smoke-free zone. And the shop floor walkers with their "Have a nice day" and "How can I help you?" are rattling their rain sticks nervously. These rainsticks are like bamboos from Chile with seeds that slither agreeably as you tip them up (pounds 10.95 for the medium-sized stick). Not that anyone needs rain. There is enough dry ice steaming off the ponds to sauna in, and the waterfalls are backed up with regular showers deluging down from the ceilings in selected areas. Tracey the Talking Tree at the entrance with her Betty Boo face and lidded blue eyes that blink is an animatronic like a Spitting Image character designed to deliver an educational message to the children. Know what children? Look around at the disposable things in your house and think of aluminium foil as a precious metal from the earth. And paper towels as trees, plastic bags as oil. Then you will value them more. This educational out-reach, as they call it, is backed by school trips with Cassie the curator of the live parrots, third-generation birds bred in captivity. They perch near the Wishing Pond where visitors are encouraged to chuck in coins that will be distributed to three charities, The Rainforest Foundation, Tusk and the World Parrot Trust. So you support the charities, unlike the Rainforest Cafe or the Foundation Group PLC.

When I asked where the parrots would be giving their first talk, I was reminded that it was school holidays and that school trips would start in September. Michael Cockman, group manager of marketing from the Foundation Group confided that "those birds get more time off than the staff, and 25 changes of air in an hour just like in their natural habitat."

Steve's inspiration for Rainforest Cafes was his collection of macaws. He wanted to make them a nice habitat at home in his three-bedroomed house in Minneapolis so he painted his ceilings black and developed a system to make mist rise from under the floors. But now he has moved out all that rainforest memorabilia to furnish the place with aluminium furniture made with aircraft technology that he found in Chicago. "Post rainforest experience, you could say." And beware. He keeps a Newfoundland, "the kind of dog that rescues drowning sailors" and a St Bernard, notorious for their rum-carrying expeditions in avalanches. Perhaps for his next chain of eateries we can anticipate Arctic conditions and tidal waves. So the Rainforest turns into Waterworldn

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