Sculpting the Rainforest Café® sign for Disney's Animal Kingdom

Sculpting the Rainforest Café® sign for Disney's Animal Kingdom

How we made a completely one-of-a-kind sign prop from foam

How we made a completely one-of-a-kind sign prop from foam

Commissioning a Custom Hand-sculpted Sign for Rainforest Cafe.

Beyond its flavorful dishes and lush ambiance, one of the most striking elements of Rainforest Cafe’s identity is its iconic signage. The journey of the Rainforest Cafe sign unveils a narrative of creativity, innovation, and brand recognition that has evolved over the years.

WhiteClouds was commissioned by Humble Sign Co out of Texas to build a new sign for the Disney Animal Kingdom location of Rainforest Cafe.

Disney Animal Kingdom Rainforest Cafe sign made by WhiteClouds with channel letters by Humble Sign Co.
Disney Animal Kingdom Rainforest Cafe sign made by WhiteClouds with channel letters by Humble Sign Co.

The Rainforest Cafe Sign History

The first Rainforest Cafe location, located in the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, introduced the world to its distinctive signage. Towering above the entrance, the sign featured bold, colorful lettering adorned with jungle foliage and wildlife motifs. The sign served as a beacon, drawing guests into the immersive world that awaited them inside.

As Rainforest Cafe expanded its presence to new locations across the United States and eventually internationally, the signage evolved to reflect the brand’s growing identity. Each new iteration of the sign retained the core elements of the original design while incorporating unique features tailored to the specific location.

The history of Rainforest Cafe signs is a testament to the power of creativity, innovation, and branding in the world of dining and entertainment. From humble beginnings to international acclaim, the iconic signage has played a pivotal role in shaping the identity of Rainforest Cafe and captivating the imaginations of diners around the world. As the brand continues to evolve and adapt to new horizons, one thing remains certain: the allure of the jungle beckons, illuminated by the vibrant colors and bold designs of its iconic signs.

Original rainforest cafe sign at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida

Typically, our process begins with designing a statue or prop digitally, ensuring a precise match to the digital model during physical replication. Various machines, such as 3D printers or CNC machines, automate this replication process, maintaining consistency in the final result.

However, for the Rainforest Cafe sign, we took a different approach. We created a rough model outlining key elements such as overall size, proportions, and placements and the hardware needed for installation. The final form of the animals, characterized by ‘cartoon’ features, was left to the sculptor’s interpretation. In the provided screenshot below, you’ll see rough shapes and sizes outlining our intended sculpt for the animals and plants.

Digital rough draft

Rainforest Cafe sign digital draft
This digital mockup is just to get a rough idea of how the overall sign will look and how the pieces come together.
This is the back side of the sign showing the metal frame and how it will fit with the pre-installed structure on site for easy installation.

Why EPS Foam was Chosen for the Sculpture Material

We chose EPS foam for our sign over the current sign’s material of fiberglass for several reasons. EPS foam, or expanded polystyrene, is a versatile material suitable for various creative props and signs.

Its lightweight nature simplifies handling, particularly for large sculptures, compared to heavier materials like stone or metal. This not only aids in transportation but also makes it a cost-effective option. Moreover, EPS foam’s malleability allows for intricate shaping, offering artists greater design flexibility with tools like hot wire foam cutters.

Despite its lightness, EPS foam is remarkably durable, resisting moisture, rot, and outdoor exposure, making it ideal for sculptures needing to withstand the elements. Additionally, a protective ‘hardcoat’ layer can be applied to further enhance durability.

Expanded Plystyrene Foam (EPS)
Expanded Plystyrene Foam (EPS) A.K.A. Styrofoam
Foam Blocks
Large Foam Blocks

How to go from a 3D Digital Model to a Physical Foam Sculpture

To expedite the transition from a digital screen to an 11-foot-wide physical sign with perfect scale and proportion, our team utilized a strategy that blends machine cutting with manual shaping. This approach saves time and labor compared to manual carving from scratch and ensures precision and accuracy in the final product’s shape.

Our production designers first segmented the 3D digital model, comprised of thousands of polygons, into virtual foam sections necessary for the project. Using a CNC hotwire machine, we cut EPS foam by melting it with a heated wire along programmed paths. This process, facilitated by CNC software, swiftly and precisely shapes the foam into the desired forms, allowing for intricate designs with ease.

Although the model primarily required manual sculpting to achieve a completely custom cartoon aesthetic, machines initially formed rough shapes. Over several months, our sculptors then took these rough shapes and meticulously carved each animal section by section. After completing the individual components, we assembled the entire sculpture, refining it further before applying smoothing plaster and carefully sanding it down for a seamless finish.

CNC Foam hotwire Machine
Foam hotwire machine
Gorilla from Rainforest Cafe sign CNC rough pieces
Rouch pieces cut from CNC foam cutter and then glued together

Frog sculpting progression

Gorilla sculpting progression

Bird sculpting progression

Crocodile sculpting progression

Jaguar sculpting progression

Smooth coat applied and sanded

Polyurea ULXT66 Hardcoat

 In order to withstand the harsh treatments of an outside sign, and to make the surface structurally sound, we hard-coated the entire piece in Polyurea ULXT66. We use this hardcoat for most of our foam projects, especially outdoor applications and for most of our metal letters and statues. Polyurea is typically applied by ‘spraying’ the finish onto a structure. Among the many benefits are its highly flexible and water-resistant properties, as well as an incredibly quick setting time. Polyurea can be used to protect outdoor or indoor projects that are prone to chemical or physical damage. 

Rainforest Cafe sign with polyurea hardcoat before painting.
Rainforest Cafe sign with polyurea hardcoat closeup.

Painting the Rainforest Cafe sign

After thorough preparation, the giant sign is now ready for painting. Prior to applying vibrant hues, a uniform white base coat is carefully sprayed onto the surface. Once the primer sets, the foundational colors are delicately layered onto each designated section. While some projects necessitate precise taping and sequential spray painting of various colors, the intricacies of this endeavor demanded a more time-efficient approach—painstakingly hand-painting each detail. The evolution of the process is vividly captured in the accompanying photos below.

Rainforest Cafe sign with basecoat
After the hardcoat is applied, the entire piece is primed with white base color.
Hand-painting the first layers of color for the Rainforest Cafe sign
Hand-painting the first layers of color for the Rainforest Cafe sign
Hand-painting the first layers of color for the Rainforest Cafe sign

As the base colors solidify, further intricacies are incorporated, culminating in the airbrusher’s masterful addition of gradients, highlights, and shadows, elevating the detail to extraordinary levels. 

Airbrushing the alligator head for the Rainforest Cafe sign
Airbrushing the gorilla head for the Rainforest Cafe sign
Rainforest Cafe sign Jaguar's head closeup
Details like eyes, whiskers and spots are hand painted

Prior to shipping, the sculptors at WhiteClouds indulged in a playful photoshoot featuring their creation.

Rainforest Cafe sign with sculptors
Rainforest Cafe sign with sculptors

Shipping a Giant Foam Sculpture

Shipping large custom foam statues can be a challenging process, as these items are often fragile and require careful handling to avoid damage during transport. WhiteClouds boasts an experienced woodworking and shipping team that custom builds each crate to specific shipping requirements. A wooden crate is first built to match the size perfectly. Additional supports are added, and the display is either tied down with straps or supported with additional foam pieces to minimize movement. Just as every custom project is unique, so is each shipping crate and method. For giant pieces like this, a flatbed truck is used.

The sign was delivered to Humble Sign Co., where the illuminated channel letters they crafted were attached. On March 1st, 2024, it was installed at Animal Kingdom Park in Disney World, now accessible for everyone to enjoy for years to come. This moment embodies our favorite part: witnessing the culmination of our hard work being appreciated by thousands.

Final Completed Sign Image Gallery

Get a Free Price Estimate for Custom 3D Fabrication

WhiteClouds is a Next-gen 3D fabrication company. We use 3D technologies to fabricate a wide-range of products for businesses and consumers but our key ingredients are innovation, craftsmanship and creativity. Please contact us to see how we can help with your next project by filling out the form below, emailing us at [email protected] or by calling us at 385-206-8700

Get a Free Quote

Get a Free Quote