11 Stories You Don’t Know About the Creation of Disney’s Animal Kingdom — From the Creator Himself

If you’ve ever enjoyed a day in Animal Kingdom, you might want to thank Joe Rohde.

Joe Rohde

Joe Rohde is the Imagineer who served as the guiding force behind the theming and concept for Animal Kingdom. If you ask us, he created a work of art that draws from rich respect for culture. And now we’re taking a tour of the park through Rohde’s own pictures and stories!

Check out these 11 Animal Kingdom stories, straight from Joe Rohde!

1. A Strange Tree

The Tree of Life is the symbol of Animal Kingdom — and that’s with good reason. Imagineers wanted a symbol for the park that showed that nature in the park was exceptional or “in some way magical.” So, they opted for a one-of-a-kind tree to signify this.

 

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Well. It doesn’t look like we are meeting up at Disney’s Animal Kingdom real soon, so how about a tour of my personal photos of the park. If you haven’t been to the park, or ever heard of it (which is definitely a thing on the West Coast) perhaps this will help people understand what it is. Maybe even convince some skeptics to try it out. If you have been there, it might just be more inside knowledge. So. In the middle of the park is the centerpiece and icon. The Tree of Life. Named for the old fashioned 19th century diagram of interconnected spread of life. Because the park is dedicated to the themes of animals and their relationships to humans,(good and bad) we needed a non-architectural icon…something “natural.” Since nature is everywhere anyway, we also need to signify that this place is exceptional..in some way “magical.” Thus..a strange tree. A tree whose body disappears under patient observation to become nothing but animals. A metaphor for the rewards nature can provide to the careful observer. But since we all know it has been made..it is a work of arty…it also signifies the intent to communicate..to tell a story. In fact, the Tree promises two things. 1. This place is a story place about animals. 2.This place is a designed place full of virtuoso accomplishments. (See Aristotle’s essay on Mimesis.)

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2. A Sense of Adventure

Rohde explains that the goal of Animal Kingdom was to show it was not like other parks. Note: show not tell. The Oasis is the epitome of this concept. It’s mostly forest and features two paths, helping to create a sense of adventure (where’s that other path go?) and to allow guests to become part of the park by truly entering it.

 

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Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Black-and-white photograph by landscape designer Paul Comstock right around the time we opened. The originals are beautiful… This was just photographed off the wall of my kitchen. We are going to back up for a second to the entry of the park, which we called the Oasis Gardens. What is going on here? There is, in a certain sense… Nothing there. First, you have to recall that when we opened the park, there was no other theme park like it. That’s creatively interesting and all, but what about guests? How do they know what to expect? So… our first question was “How do we signify to you that this park is not like another parks.” We needed to reset expectations, otherwise the entire day would be one big frustration. That can’t be just signs and labels because A. Show don’t Tell. B. “Nobody reads.” The first thing you notice is not a presence, but an absence. What is not there is a human-based, urban, architectural environment. Instead there is a forest with two paths. Not to put too fine a point on the Robert Frostiness of this, but of course, we want you to take the path less traveled by, because that will make all the difference. Having more than one path is a simple metaphor for adventure… Even if nothing happens on the path you take… There’s always the mystery of that other path. Now that the park is established the value of this opening statement isn’t quite what it used to be… It was quite a shock when it opened. Now it’s just the opening of the park. To be honest, the economic pressures of a day in the park make it very hard for people to slow down and pay attention here, which is a shame… Because it’s a beautiful, beautiful environment full of little secret surprises… And there are cool animals, here and there. You cannot believe the number of versions of a park entry sequence we went through before we landed on this one… Everything from empty zoo cages with their doors standing open, to a kind of 1960s organic hobbitish Village Trail. But this forest does the job. You are in a place about nature, and the priorities of nature… But, you, being human, are also there… So it must be about you too.

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3. Nature as Supreme and Untradeable

Let’s talk about the story behind Animal Kingdom’s Africa. Animal Kingdom has a focus on nature and the ways we can protect it. Each land has a sub-focus under this umbrella. Africa’s story is all geared toward presenting nature as supreme and untradeable — concentrated on the intrinsic value of nature rather than the value of nature commandeered by humans.

 

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I suppose we should start out land tour with Harambe, Port of East Africa. None of our lands are supposed to be geopolitically real like say, Kenya. Harambe looks a lot like Lamu in Kenya, but not in a replicative way, and there are substantial stylistic departures. It’s more like a smash-up of Lamu-Kenya and Arusha-Tanzania. Both are a kind of mercantile border town, as is Harambe. The word Harambe means “let’s work together or pull together.” Implicitly on behalf of wildlife. What can we read in this environment? Clearly multiple levels of history and conquest, as with Lamu. There’s a Portuguese fort, some remnants of Omani reign, a British Colonial era, and Independence in 1961. Must be a valuable place. The building are old and weathered, but not intended to look neglected, and there’s lots of evidence of reutilization and upcycling…from economic stress? So people are striving here. I mean, the municipal logo is a Maasai shield and an industrial gear with the word”enterprise.” We are going on Safari. We are not going into the wilds of Africa (colonialist concept btw) but into Harambe Wildlife Reserve, a presumptive government entity. We are clients of a commercial entity Kilimanjaro Safaris…I mean, the attraction marquee is just a billboard at the edge of town. Now, here’s why that’s all relevant. In such a palpably commercial place, where people are clearly striving to get ahead, what is the value of elephants vs elephant ivory and rhinos vs rhino horn? This is what wildlife conservation is… A value equation. And the value at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is The intrinsic Value of Nature as supreme and untradeable. However subtle and nuanced, that is conflict, which drives narrative.

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4. Honey Badgers

Speaking of Africa, did you know that Imagineers took multiple trips to Africa to help theme the park? On one trip to Southern Tanzania, they saw their first honey badger. So, yes, Imagineers were into honey badgers before they were a meme.

 

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Our very first trip to Africa was a kind of a reconnaissance trip. We didn’t know what we didn’t know and we needed to figure out, in all of Africa which version of Africa would be plausible to build in the context of a Florida theme park? We looked at big savanna, jungle, riverine gallery grasslands, and alkali deserty scrub. In the Selous Reserve, in Southern Tanzania, we stayed at a place called Mbuyu Camp. It was pretty basic but very wild. (The brochure is from a newer sexier version) The bar and check in for the camp was under a thatched roof surrounding an old Baobab tree. That exact spot inspired the queue structure for Kilimanjaro Safaris. Mbuyu was where we saw our first honey badger. We were into honey badgers way before they became a meme. The one we saw was galunohing alongside our moving vehicle dragging a dead aardwolf.

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5. A Working Environment

One of Animal Kingdom’s most popular attractions is Kilimanjaro Safaris — a 20-30 minute ride to see tons of different African animal species. Rohde talks about how this experience is much more active than most real African safaris and calls the animal habitats “a working environment.”

 

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The animals that you see on Safari represent the savanna ecosystem, but it would be extraordinary to see them all in one place or in one day. I’m spent entire days on safari and seen almost nothing. And while there are many famous animals, there are also some rare animals that you might never see if you went on safari in Africa. Eland for example, are very shy and will not let you get within 1000 feet. Grevy’s zebra is quite rare. I have never seen a Sable antelope or Roan antelope in the wild. And nowadays, you would be extraordinarily lucky to see any kind of Rhino in the wild, especially black rhino. We have this idea about the wild, it doesn’t quite match the reality of the modern world. Most populations of animals now live under some kind of human management. It’s just a question of scale. The Serengeti is a managed park. When you get to the edge of the Serengeti, there are ranches and farms and mines and towns, not necessarily lions and giraffes. There are safari reserves in South Africa where every single animal has been re-introduced and the park is surrounded by a fence. Kilimanjaro Safaris is small by comparison, but it is a managed habitat. And it exists within a network of managed habitats stretching all around the world, which relate to each other in order to preserve the genetic pool of these animals, and in some cases, as we have done with White Rhinos, to re-introduce them to the wild. Disney’s Animal Kingdom could not exist without the Disney Conservation Fund and it’s work out in the real world. These are not two things… They are the same thing. I would never discourage someone from taking a real Safari trip to Africa. But I can assure you that the Safari that you might take here has certain advantages, and is not merely a show, it is a working environment engaged with the conservation of wild creatures.

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The animals that you see on Safari represent the savanna ecosystem, but it would be extraordinary to see them all in one place or in one day. I’m spent entire days on safari and seen almost nothing. And while there are many famous animals, there are also some rare animals that you might never see if you went on safari in Africa. Eland for example, are very shy and will not let you get within 1000 feet. Grevy’s zebra is quite rare. I have never seen a Sable antelope or Roan antelope in the wild. And nowadays, you would be extraordinarily lucky to see any kind of Rhino in the wild, especially black rhino. We have this idea about the wild, it doesn’t quite match the reality of the modern world. Most populations of animals now live under some kind of human management. It’s just a question of scale. The Serengeti is a managed park. When you get to the edge of the Serengeti, there are ranches and farms and mines and towns, not necessarily lions and giraffes. There are safari reserves in South Africa where every single animal has been re-introduced and the park is surrounded by a fence. Kilimanjaro Safaris is small by comparison, but it is a managed habitat. And it exists within a network of managed habitats stretching all around the world, which relate to each other in order to preserve the genetic pool of these animals, and in some cases, as we have done with White Rhinos, to re-introduce them to the wild. Disney’s Animal Kingdom could not exist without the Disney Conservation Fund and it’s work out in the real world. These are not two things… They are the same thing. I would never discourage someone from taking a real Safari trip to Africa. But I can assure you that the Safari that you might take here has certain advantages, and is not merely a show, it is a working environment engaged with the conservation of wild creatures.

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6. Species Survival Programs

Did you know that Animal Kingdom participates in several international networks that are committed to maintaining healthy and viable populations? Asia’s tigers, for instance, are part of one such Species Survival Program to help curb their decline in the wild.

 

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Just in the interest of moving on, let us focus for a moment on the Tigers, who are the stars of the Maharajah Jungle Trek. When we opened, we had Bengal tigers who had grown up together… I believe they were all sisters. Being living things, they have now grown old and mostly passed away. The Tigers you see today are Sumatran Tigers, which are an important Conservation challenge. For those who are concerned about where animals like these come from…Rest assured they are not captured in the wild. Ironically, there are almost none left in the wild. At any legitimate accredited Zoological facility, ours included, those animals are part of international networks committed to maintaining healthy and genetically Viable populations. These are called Species Survival Programs or SSPs. The currently popular TV documentary featuring Tigers does not represent one of these programs. The decline of tigers in the wild has been swift and dramatic. When we started conceptual work on Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1990 estimates are there were as many as 100,000 tigers in the wild. Today there are maybe 3500. 3500 maybe still sounds like a lot of Tigers. It’s not. Genetic viability requires pretty big numbers. Think of it like buying power…imagine if it was dollars. With $100,000 you could buy a house. (Not in LA but somewhere.) But with 3500 bucks you’re gonna pick up a used car. Not a house. Thanks to global effort’s some tiger numbers are stabilizing. That doesn’t mean much unless we do a lot more to protect jungle habitat with enough animals in it for Tigers to eat… And protect the Tigers from people who want to eat them… Or at least certain of their body parts.

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7. Ducks are Dinosaurs

Let’s move on to perhaps the most unique area of Animal Kingdom — Dinoland U.S.A.! This part of the park is supposed to be themed like a roadside Florida attraction, and it certainly has the feel. You might have noticed that Donald Duck hangs out with a few pals. Well, birds are dinosaurs, and ducks are birds; so, you do the math.

 

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We could go on forever with Asia, but we’re moving to Dinoland, USA. A lot of our Disney’s Animal Kingdom research took us to far away foreign countries… But it also took us to some of the great paleontological sites in North America. Paleontologists like Phil Currie and Bob Bakker were kind enough to instruct us. We are very liberal about the dinosaurs that you encounter in this land, both in geography and chronology, though they are Cretaceous era creatures. Plus much of North America was ocean. In order to get the dinosaurs we wanted we have to imagine a chain of volcanic islands linking prehistoric North and South America sometime in the Cretaceous period. The Cretaceous era is about 80 million years long. Species often last only a few hundred thousand years…so a million or so. So there’s some leeway. However, if you see something that looks like a fossil of a Prehistoric creature, it is either a real fossil of a prehistoric creature or a replica of a real fossil. (The Carnotaurus in the queue line for the ride is a composite. The real Carnotaurus is smaller.) The interesting thing about dinosaurs is that they are created by our imagination as a result of research and speculation. The soft tissue and bone of dinosaurs is replaced by mineral in the process of fossilization… Making them officially “rocks.” We turn them back into dinosaurs by thinking about them. Because of this, there is always debate about their true nature. That debate is embedded in the land in the context of many of the graphics. Now, we haven’t updated those graphics since 1998, but the spirit is still there. Dinoland has a lot of humor and because of that I think we can relax some of the seriousness of some of the other themes and get away with some hijinx. Including the recent population of famous ducks who inhabit the land. Because after all, birds are dinosaurs, ducks are birds, therefore ducks are dinosaurs.

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8. The Power of Art

The Dinosaur attraction is loved by many and feared by more, partially because of the horrifying Carnotaurus animatronic. Interestingly enough, this animatronic actually influenced the popular culture renderings of what a Carnotaurus looks like in toys and media. Crazy!

 

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“Dinosaur” in Dinoland at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is one of our few IP-based attractions. At the time, the film had groundbreaking CGI effects. Originally there was a Styracosaurus out front for no better reason than it’s my favorite dinosaur…and the attraction was called Countdown to Extinction. We renamed it when the film came out, but the link to the film was already there. It may not be obvious, but such decisions have to be made years in advance. You don’t get a figure that looks like a character in a movie unless you start way before you open. I won’t reiterate the plot here, since we are supposed to be focusing on things that are not obvious. Speaking of which, I don’t know how many people appreciate the droll humor in the name of Dr. Grant Seeker The Carnotaurus in the ride is substantially bigger and wider than a real Carnotaurus would be. This is because we had to fit a whole bunch of machinery inside of it. So we invented a new species, Carnotaurus robustus. A real Carnotaurus is a pretty weird looking animal to start with… With really really stubby short arms. Our Carnotaurus kind of reaches out towards you with his little hands… But I’m not sure a real one could even do that. The film Carnotauruses were very similar to our version. In Also…Many plastic toy Carnotauruses seem to be based on our interpretation which is odd because it’s so specifically distorted for our own attraction reasons. Many toy Carnos are red…why?!? That’s a weird color for a big predator. We chose it for narrative and scenic reasons. They are often thicker and toad-faced like ours. Their arms reach out. Go check. Just do image search on Carnotaurus toy. Then look up Carnotaurus sastrei, the scientific specimen. Sometimes a popular image just takes over. Shows you the power of art.

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9. Moss and Mushroom Covered Machinery

Animal Kingdom’s newest land is Pandora — The World of Avatar. Imagineers wanted to evoke that the war of the film had long passed. Rohde took inspiration from the overgrown WWII machinery that he saw growing up in Hawaii to create the passage of time.

 

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The mossy ruins of a Scorpion Gunship lie in the Forest along the River on your way into the Valley of Mo’ara…our setting on Pandora. The wreck is so overgrown it could be an organic object. We needed a way to signify that the combat and conflict associated with the film were long past. That’s why there’s so much old moss and mushroom-covered machinery in the land including the old gunship. There’s another barely recognizable machine down by the restrooms. I grew up in Hawaii, born only ten years after WWII. There were huge naval guns still mounted on the beach at Waikiki, but they were so crusted over with layers of paint and welded off and plugged that it was clear they were no longer weapons. They had become climbing structures. We need a vibe like that, or like the coral reefs and jungles of the Solomon Islands. Or even Vietnam. War passes and nature returns. It’s a designers tightrope walk trying to depict decay without having it become depressing. The AMP walking suit in front of PongoPongo came to us brand new looking. Some team members wanted to keep it that way but it’s not thematically consistent. We want to signify: 1.Any conflict you know of is long past. 2. Nature and local culture are triumphant. 3. You are a welcome visitor. If the war machinery looked new, it suggests the potential for more war. We want these signals to be clear without having to be explained. You can explain away any inconsistencies you want. What matters is what is seen and how it is perceived.

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10. Oddly Alive

Folks love the shaman animatronic on Na’vi River Journey for how shockingly lifelike she is, but did you know that she also thinks? Imagineers wrote a completely separate script for the animatronic’s inner monologue to help make her facial expression more real!

 

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The Na’vi River Journey features an extraordinary figure…the shaman who concludes the attraction. There are dozens of great illusions on this attraction but the combination of robotics, sculpture, costume, and animation makes this figure seem oddly alive. She sings in Na’vi. The lyrics are a very simple ode to the forest. But the performance is very fluid and convincing. I’m posting a clip that you can find online anyway, so there’s no breaking news there, but this tiny 15 second promo video shows just how lifelike a mechanical performance can be. It’s not computer animation, it’s the robotic figure. When we were first animating the figure, we noticed that some of the unplanned moments… moments that were actually resets between animation cycles… looked weirdly psychologically motivated instead of like a machine resetting. So we restructured the script to add a second inner monologue like an actor might have, and the thoughts were not perfectly aligned with the lyrics, so the facial expressions were interestingly complex. This process also reminded us to give the animated figure time to “think” before taking action. This is a game of microseconds but it makes a huge difference. When you control the figure and have written the script, of course you know what is going to happen next. It’s easy to just make the figure do or say that. But that’s not how living persons work. They dither, hesitate, get distracted, and act contradictorily. So we were going for that. The clip was a pre-opening promotional piece and as I said it’s out there online, so you might have seen it, but I think it’s one of the best moments.

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11. We Do Not Live Apart from the World of Nature. We Live In It. 

To sum up our story tour of Animal Kingdom, we’re talking about the message behind Rafiki’s Planet Watch and by extension all of Animal Kingdom. We do not live apart from the world of nature. We live in it.

 

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Rafiki’s Planet Watch. In the end, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is about our relationships to the world of animals, whether those relationships are good or bad. One of the key impressions we want people take it way is that animals equal land and land equals human choices. Our choice at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is to take action on behalf of wild places and wild creatures. That’s why we have the Disney Conservation Fund, and that is why Disney’s Animal Kingdom itself has researchers and conservation scientists working on problems all around the world. The relationship between the two is permanent and immovable. The park cannot exist without animals, and can’t have the animals unless we behave in a responsible way for their well-being and their future in the wild. The park tells stories that exhort our guests to think about and to take action on behalf of wild places and wild creatures… And we could not legitimately tell people to do that unless we ourselves intended to do the same. And this is not all about obligations, cast members engage with this enthusiastically because they feel that they are part of something impactful and meaningful. And when you visit the park, you are too.The current crisis should remind us all that we do not live apart from the world of nature. We live in it.

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What is your favorite of Joe Rohde’s stories? Tell us in the comments!

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2 Replies to “11 Stories You Don’t Know About the Creation of Disney’s Animal Kingdom — From the Creator Himself”

  1. The entire park With focus on Oasis. We were at AK two weeks after it open. And at that time, I was not that impressed. And I stay that way for the next 3-4 years. Then I did some reading on Mr. Rohde and AK Park. What I discovered, absolutely floored me. The amount of detail, story telling. Taking a cow pasture, and turning it into this wonderful land. It just boggles the mind. Every plant, every tree, bush, waterway and elevation change was placed there. I never found the park to be a 1/2 day, park. Albeit, I did have that opinion of DHS. That’s a story for another day. Then one evening way back when. AK, had the park open in the evening. I forget exactly why. But it was an incredible experience. One which I never forgot. Now that the AK is open in the evenings, it is a must for all to do.