The Inspiration Behind Disney’s Animal Kingdom

On April 22, 1998, the greatest (okay, my favorite) Disney theme park opened. The concept of Disney’s Animal Kingdom was something that Walt Disney and eventually WED Enterprises/Imagineering was considering in one way or another since construction began on Disneyland in the early 1950s. Walt always had an interest in animals, whether it be from the time he spent on family farms interacting with animals or simply because animals gave him a way to express himself creatively as he dreamed up new characters, animals held a special place in his heart from before any of the theme parks existed.

You may have heard about the Jungle Cruise and how its original intent prior to Disneyland opening was that the ride would feature real animals. Walt and the ride’s designers came to a quick realization that including live animals on the attraction would not work due to the limited space the park had for the ride and the fact that no one had any experience building and maintaining animal habitats, and doing so while the rest of Disneyland was still under construction would have been too big of an ask.

Additionally, Disneyland went way over budget with construction costs totaling out at $17 million (about $131 million adjusted for inflation), so the cost of adding proper care for live animals would have been too much to add at the time.

Disneyland and True-Life Adventure Films

True-Life Adventures, The Vanishing Prairie. Image: Disney

Instead of including animals in Disneyland attractions, Walt shared stories of live animals through his True-Life Adventure films, a series of nature documentaries that debuted throughout the 1950s. The documentaries were a proven success, with letters and notes in the Disney archives today indicating that many public schools used them as educational components to science classes, and eight of the 13 films even won Academy Awards.

While the films were mostly met with widespread success, some critics did not love the style of documentary storytelling Disney was using, and they worried that portions of the films with comedic soundtracks and voiceover puns would take a way from the educational experience. Aside from a couple of stray instances where filmmakers manipulated the animals into acting a certain way (often behind Walt and the studio’s back), the films were still very educational, and Walt argued that the more vibrant soundtracks and storytelling used served the greater purpose of getting the whole family to sit down and watch a nature documentary, and learn something together.

In addition to the True-Life Adventure series, Walt and the studio were known for bringing live animals into the office so animators could draw their own more imaginative versions still based in reality. This attention to detail was creating animated films led so such classics as Bambi (a title character who may have even been an inspiration somewhere along the way for the True-Life Adventure films).

The Jungle Cruise may have opted for punny jokes from its skippers and Audio-Animatronic animals, but some animals have still been a part of Disney parks from the beginning. Horses for instance have been mainstays at both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom since they opened for parades and other events. In 1986, Big Thunder Ranch opened at Disneyland offering a petting zoo experience with sheep, cows, goats, and a few other farm animals. (Big Thunder Ranch closed in 2016 to make way for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.)

EPCOT Center and The Living Seas

The Living Seas. Image: Disney

The same year, the Living Seas opened at EPCOT Center boasting the largest saltwater aquarium tank in the world at the time (5.7 million gallons of water, surpassed by the Georgia Aquarium whose tank is almost double that size in 2005).

The Living Seas was the first major expansion of a Disney theme park that focused on the care and conservation of live animals. In addition to EPCOT Center classic attractions (like rides on the Hydrolators before boarding a Seacab for a ride through the main tank), the Living Seas pavilion was a massive achievement for the company in terms of caring for animals in a theme park environment. At the Living Seas, guests can view a wide variety of fish, sharks, sea turtles, dolphins and other ocean life, while learning more about these animals from Disney Cast Members and participating in backstage experiences. (The Living Seas was rethemed to “The Seas with Nemo and Friends” in 2005, however the animal exhibits remained largely unchanged.)

Moving forward chronologically, I think it’s important that we pause and remember a Disney parks concept that never came to fruition, and how it’s missteps likely had a part in the design of Disney’s Animal Kingdom…Disney’s America.

Disney’s America

Disney’s America was a failed concept that would have brought an American history-themed park to Virginia (or a proposed site by Knott’s Berry Farm after Disney was ousted from Virginia). The plan was to open the park in the early 1990s and have different themed lands portraying various times in American history, all in a strategically located area of VA where Disney would agree to help fund the state’s much needed highway reconstruction while placing the park nearby (and potentially on) land that is historically significant to the Civil War. (See the problems already?)

In addition to the plan to build a theme park on what was essentially Civil War battlegrounds, which left VA residents and a large number of the historian community baffled, many people took issue with the fact that Disney would essentially be putting itself in a place where the park would be teaching history to guests. Some people looked toward Liberty Square in the Magic Kingdom and the American Adventure show in EPCOT, sharing thoughts that ranged from “those attractions are doable for what they are but an entire history-based theme park is not” to “the entire park would either be totally idealized to the point of losing all realism, so Disney shouldn’t be in the position of telling history at all,” to perhaps the most obvious difficult question of “how would a theme park deal with difficult topics like slavery in an accurate way that is not offensive, still educational, and enjoyable to families visiting the park?”

To that last point, Disney reported that there would be no way to make such topics enjoyable as we’ve come to experience Disney parks today, and perhaps not every area of Disney’s America would be totally family-friendly where the history warranted a discussion of some less kid-friendly events. On top of everything else I’ve just mentioned, this response further angered historians who stayed firm in their beliefs that an entertainment company should stay away from this entire concept. Ultimately Disney backed out of VA and attempted to find other locations where the concept might work (at one point Texas, at another point Knott’s Berry Farm) but eventually it was clear that the park was too controversial and never going to work.

Disney’s America could be an entirely separate post, but my point in bringing this up prior to the opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom is to point out the difference in the way Disney handled their interactions with experts in American history while conceptualizing the park vs. how much care was taken into consulting experts and designing Animal Kingdom with the educational and cultural factors actually considered and explored.

While the majority of historians who expressed thoughts on Disney’s America disagreed with the entire concept from the get-go, a couple of historians offered their expertise some arguing that a company like Disney would go forward with it if they wanted to, and if it couldn’t be stopped it could at least be done right. (Make of that what you will, as I’m not sure there would ever be a “right” way to pull off the concept at least without just abandoning any aspect of a theme park and putting Disney’s name, and budget, ahead of a historian-run living history museum.) This argument though almost certainly helped pave the way for the design of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. People who were passionate and knowledgeable about American history reached out to Disney to offer their expertise.

Disney should have reached out to them first, rather than having experts witness the failure of Disney’s America from the outside only to offer assistance when it was too late. For Disney to create any kind of educational theme park experience in the future, they would have to take the initiative to contact experts and make sure the park was being done right first, before experts would have a chance to step in and correct everything that was wrong. The company would not make this mistake when it came to Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Deciding on Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Conservation Station concept art. Image: Disney.

Then CEO of the Walt Disney Company Michael Eisner was sort of known for wanting to one-up the competition. While it was not the primary reasoning for pushing forward with Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the park did come to be following a bit of Eisner’s usual process of taking an idea from another company and making it Disney’s own (think Disney MGM Studios vs. Universal Studios).

Eisner looked to Busch Gardens in Tampa, a park which much like Disney parks had expanded greatly since its 1959 opening when it was essentially a landscaped garden attraction promoting the company’s beer. The park included its Serengeti Plains that nearly doubled in size during its 1965 expansion to take up 70 acres within the park. To Eisner, Disney had put off adding animal-centric attractions because of all the reasons we’ve already discussed, however another Florida theme park had already been working with animals for years just about an hour away (land animals to be specific, Sea World opened in Orlando in 1973.)

Busch Gardens had its own unique value as a park that offered both rides and animal experiences. Conversely, in the late 80s and early 90s, Eisner sent Disney Imagineers (including eventual head of creative design for Animal Kingdom, Joe Rohde) to visit zoos around the US to learn more about how they could create a park with animals. Imagineers came back with the conclusion that nearly every large city had a zoo, and that they tended to be affordable educational experiences that could be seen in a couple of hours or less. They were often funded by grants or partially by the cities themselves, and families could visit multiple times with free days, library passes, and on field trips. The idea of offering a similar experience at Disney prices and at the scale of the other Orlando theme parks seemed outlandish at first to say the least.

Discovery Island (then called Safari Village) concept art. Image: Disney

These brainstorming sessions pushed Imagineers to work toward a concept that would set Animal Kingdom apart from city zoos, because after all- Why would anyone spend Disney prices to experience something they could see for a lower ticket cost right at home? They also looked back to Busch Gardens, which offered its historically beautiful, lush landscapes around the animal habitats along with roller coasters, but at the same time they agreed that just adding rides to a park with animals wouldn’t be enough either.

The original “Disney spin” on a zoo or animal park brought up earlier concepts for EPCOT, where different areas of the park would convey totally different educational experiences for guests. For Animal Kingdom, designers originally thought of the experience as one part animal exhibit, one part rides, and one part educational opportunities. The end product as we can see when we visit the park today is actually the combination of those three areas encompassing every aspect of the park.

Eisner (along with then Vice Chairman, Roy E. Disney) announced the park formally in 1995 with a media event at Disney’s Contemporary Resort that showcased glimpses of what could be expected at the park, including images of dinosaurs, safari vehicles, and a mock up of the Tree of Life. Media fact sheets boasted that the park would be five times the size of the Magic Kingdom and would feature upwards of 1,000 animals, many of them endangered and supported by Disney conservation programs. Eisner’s messaging focused on the importance of conservation and storytelling and how all of this could come together to create a totally unique experience that would be Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Designing the Park

Joe Rohde with concept art for Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain. Image: Disney.

The park’s main icon became the Tree of Life, a massive sculpted tree built around the exterior of an upside down oil rig. The concept was inspired by artwork Joe Rohde saw firsthand during a trip to Bali, where he learned about how Balinese artists hand carved depictions of animals into the trunks of trees after they had died. A similar process was used to create the Tree of Life just on a much more massive scale, resulting in the park’s icon rising 145 ft. tall complete with 325 animal carvings.

In Africa, the village of Harambe was created, inspired by Imagineers’ photos from their travels to African savannas and villages. In an effort to set the park apart from other animal experiences with added theming and authenticity, the roofs of Disney’s Harambe Village were crafted by hand by 13 Zulu thatchers from South Africa. The park is designed with such a focus on nature that the themed lands are intended to look as if they are overtaken by nature. In contrast to a land like Liberty Square in the Magic Kingdom, or a country in World Showcase in EPCOT, the look of the buildings and man-made structures in Animal Kingdom is far less idealized, all for the cause of authenticity and the intent that in this place nature rules over people.

On the animal front, the company was NOT going to take any chances falling into the same issues that took down the Disney’s America concept, in that they knew they needed to consult experts as a park with animals was something that Disney had never done before. Dr. Jane Goodall consulted on the project, ultimately coming to Disney’s defense when the media took on negative portrayals of the park following a small number of animal deaths prior to the park’s opening, claiming that the park had excellent facilities in place to care for animals.

Jane Goodall at a media event celebrating 20 years of the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. Image: Disney.

During design phases, Dr. Bill Conway, Executive Director of the Bronx Zoo, and Rick Barongi then Curator of Mammals at the San Diego Zoo (now a director of the Houston Zoo) worked with Disney to share their experiences of what works and what does not work at zoos. The team along with hundreds of Imagineers and newly hired animal care professionals and zoologists from across the country worked together in the years and months leading up to the park’s opening to produce an immersive, and still safe and comfortable environment for both Guests and animals. Rick Barongi even ended up pursuing a career with Disney in the 90s where he finished up work on Animal Kingdom and became the operations manager for the Living Seas in EPCOT.

The focal point of animal exhibitions in the park is Kilimanjaro Safaris, an attraction that takes Guests on a guided tour through a variety of animal habitat’s in the park’s version of Africa. For many Guests, the ride is the closest experience they’ll ever have to an actual African safari, and to ensure this level of immersion Imagineers worked hard to create natural barriers between different species of animals, hidden feeders and cooling stations, and raised sightlines. By doing this, the animals are often in Guest view, but they also have plenty of space and are comfortable and free roaming as opposed to enclosures you may see at zoos with more limited space.

In the end, Disney’s Animal Kingdom cost $800 million to build, making it one of the most expensive parks anywhere. (It currently still has the most expensive rollercoaster built to date- with Expedition Everest totaling out at $100 million.)

Opening Day

In the days and weeks leading up to the opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, press conferences and media interviews led to coverage toting the park as the largest and most expensive theme park built to date. Reporters were also told in press releases and in statements by Disney that the company expected 7-8 million people to visit the park during its first year (in reality, the park saw just over 6 million guests its first year of operation).

28,000 Guests attended opening day of Animal Kingdom, along with 5,000 journalists. (I was not there for opening day, but rather the end of that first week. I was only six and I wish I remembered that first visit more.) The park filled to capacity only three hours after its (early) 6:00 am opening, and to Imagineers and Eisner, Animal Kingdom’s opening was deemed a success.

Around the opening of Animal Kingdom some experiences were marketed that never came to be, namely Beastly Kingdom which would have been an additional land focusing on mythical creatures, and a rollercoaster in DinoLand at what is now the Boneyard called the Excavator. Providing top-notch animal care comes at a price and cuts needed to be made, so Beastly Kingdom was abandoned and the Excavator became Dinosaur, a ride that uses the same technology (and layout) as the Indiana Jones ride in Disneyland.

Today when you visit Animal Kingdom, you’ll find nods to Beastly Kingdom above one of the ticket booths outside of the parks that has an image of a dragon’s head on it, as well as in the park’s logo which features a dragon walking amid the other animals.


Hippos on Kilimanjaro Safaris. Image: Disney

While there is no question that Disney’s Animal Kingdom has become a huge success (especially with the expansions of Asia and Pandora: World of Avatar), I think it’s important to note that it was not without some struggles, despite all of the work that went into animal care and guidance from experts in the industry.

Animal rights groups have a history of protesting zoos in general. For some, the idea of animal captivity in any capacity, whether it be for educational purposes or even rehabilitation is just a concept that is still not accepted. This combined with the fact that Disney had never operated an animal park before, the limited press exposure focusing on the fact that Disney indeed was working with a number of experts, and the unfortunate truth that about 10 animals died prior to the opening of the park only added fuel to the fire.

There was a short time leading up to the park’s opening where there was some media focus on anything negative related to the park, but animal experts, zoologists and lawyers helped put to rest some of the controversy by pointing out that while incredibly unfortunate some animal deaths are normal in opening a new zoo (for a variety of reasons but not limited to the fact that moving an animal can be stressful and cause health issues, and simply reactions to new and different environments that may not go as planned.) On opening day only a handful of protestors showed up to the park and they had pretty much cleared the scene before the park filled to capacity at 9:00 am.

Five months after the park opened, Animal Kingdom was accredited by the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums). Accreditations include strict guidelines that must be followed for each individual animal in the park and educational and conservation efforts, and reviews are taken every five years for parks that wish to keep their accreditation. Animal Kingdom has been accredited since their initial application in 1998.

White Rhinos at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Image: Disney

The Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund is at the heart of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The fund works with nonprofit animal organizations from around the world to supply them funding in their initiatives for endangered wildlife. You can find some of the animals the fund supports in this post. The DWCF is also easy to donate to while in Animal Kingdom as you can make a contribution to the fund at any quick service or merchandise location, and Disney covers all overhead costs and matches each donation. Since 1995, the fund has provided more than $75 million in grants to conservation programs in 120 countries.

The fund works to support conservation initiatives right at Walt Disney World, in the case of the 10 white rhinos (seven in Animal Kingdom and three in Uganda) that were born as a result of the park’s breeding program (a species that was previously extinct) or the more than 300 endangered sea turtles who have been rehabilitated at the Seas in EPCOT then returned to the wild. About 8,000 acres, or a third, of the total land area of Walt Disney World has even been set aside for conservation land, an initiative that provides homes for about 70 species of butterflies, a group of gopher tortoises, and purple martins, songbirds that travel 6,000 miles to Walt Disney World as part of their annual migration to raise their young.

Animal Kingdom is easily my favorite Disney park. Like the rest of the Walt Disney World Resort, there is always something new to experience and new ways to learn about animals from around the world each time I visit. If you’re looking to get more into Animal Kingdom, definitely check out the documentary series that’s on Disney+ right now and for the most animal updates, I’d recommend following @drmarkatdisney, Vice President of Disney’s Animals, Science & Environment on Instagram, as his posts focus on animals at Disney parks.

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