Disney's Animal Kingdom

An Unofficial History

by Chuck Schmidt | Release Date: January 22, 2018 | Availability: Print, Kindle

Jungle Genesis

Disney's Animal Kingdom "hatched" in 1998, the fourth Walt Disney World theme park, with its DNA an ambitious helix of conservation, animal appreciation, and thrill rides. Journalist Chuck Schmidt explores the genome of this "one-day park" that continues to expand and evolve.

With contributions from Disney Imagineers instrumental in the design and construction of Animal Kingdom, including Kevin Rafferty, Zofia Kostyrko (who wrote the foreword), Joe Rohde, and Marty Sklar, as well as zoologist Rick Barongi and horticulturalist Paul Comstock, among others, Schmidt's book is the definitive guide to Disney's wildest theme park.

Beginning with Walt Disney's original idea to use live animals for Disneyland's Jungle Cruise, and Michael Eisner's determination decades later to build "nahtazu" ("not a zoo"), the story of Animal Kingdom is told on all levels: from the visionaries and concept planners to the scientists, engineers, and cast members who turned dreams into red-blooded reality.

In addition, the book includes separate chapters for each "land" of the Animal Kingdom, including the newest land, Pandora, as well as coverage of the Animal Kingdom Lodge.

Let's run through the jungle!

Table of Contents


Author's Note


Chapter 1: Gestation of a Theme Park

Chapter 2: In Search of Authenticity

Chapter 3: Plants and Animals

Chapter 4: Opening Day

Chapter 5: Safari Village / Discovery Island

Chapter 6: Africa

Chapter 7: Conservation Station

Chapter 8: DinoLand USA

Chapter 9: Asia

Chapter 10: Camp Minnie-Mickey

Chapter 11: Animal Kingdom Attractions Never Built

Chapter 12: Animal Kingdom Lodge

Chapter 13: Animal Kingdom at Night

Chapter 14: Pandora: The World of Avatar

Chapter 15: Extracurricular Activities

Chapter 16: Wild About Animal Kingdom


If you love Disney’s Animal Kingdom (DAK), and hope to delve into its deepest secrets and transformations over the years, the fortune you seek is in these pages.

Chuck Schmidt dug deep into our DAK Imagineering team memories and gathered a treasure trove of personal stories about building this one-of-a-kind park. Starting with its sometimes bumpy conception, Chuck’s narrative will take you through changes in DAK’s offerings over the last 20 years, all the way to its latest addition of Pandora: The World of Avatar, the park’s newest and greatest land, elevating the art and science of theme park experience to a new level of excellence.

Chuck got us to spill some great stories; how could we resist a seasoned journalist-turned-writer-turned-blogger who admits that he is “Goofy about Disney”? His popular blog under that playful name is a landmark among Disney fans.

So why am I the one telling you this? Great adventures start with being in the right place at the right time. In late 1989, I was a rookie Imagineer and one of only three female concept designers at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) in Glendale, California. Marty Sklar, then president of WDI and my mentor, sent a memo to all designers requesting quick blue-sky ideas for a new, top-secret project about animals.

Animals, real or imaginary, were the one thing I was goofy about. Or rather, deeply passionate about: as a young girl in communist Poland, I dreamt of traveling to exotic places to walk with wild animals. By chance and luck, I became the first designer, and one of the dreamers and doers, who Imagineered and built Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Joe Rohde, with the blessings of Marty Sklar, Michael Eisner, and Frank Wells, led our team where no zoo or animal attraction had ever gone before.

Chuck’s book brought back memories of our nearly nine years of hard work and wild adventures to make DAK happen: smoky air of the dung and straw shelters of the Maasai; vibrant colors of the huts of Oaxacan artists; the noise of Nepal’s dusty Kathmandu streets. I recalled the stench of dead elephant we saw in Tanzania’s thicket before the poachers found it, and my lonely morning walk with wild animals on our first trip to Kenya, in Africa (four years later at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro I told my team that I was expecting my second child).

Our journey had soaring highs and deepest lows, but it was worth every risk taken, including a surprise visit to Disney’s CEO and CFO with a live tiger on a small leash. What better way to prove that close encounters with animals change people, including everyone that has ever worked on or visited this marvelous park. DAK continues to spread real-world magic far beyond Disney. It set new standards of captive animal care, and it expanded the frontiers of conservation programs, awareness, and research worldwide. Those ripples of influence may turn out to be the most important long-term legacy of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Chuck Schmidt is the perfect guide for this literary safari. His ease of storytelling, deep knowledge, and lifetime of dedication to the subject, paired with his supreme journalistic fact-finding skills, make this book a uniquely entertaining and engaging journey.

Walt Disney once said, “Our greatest natural resource is the minds of our children,” and “I don’t like formal gardens. I like wild nature. It’s just the wilderness instinct in me, I guess.” Love of animals and wilderness starts with a child’s mind: goofy enthusiasm and unbridled curiosity. Our growing environmental challenges and the threat of animal extinctions will require that unbridled enthusiasm, curiosity, dedication, and hard work to protect our animal friends and wilderness as the greatest natural resource for our children’s children.

Thank you for your E-ticket DAK story, Chuck. All aboard and enjoy the ride!

Whenever the creative minds in the Walt Disney Company embark on a challenging new project, they are faced with a rather daunting task: how does Disney outdo…Disney?

Late in 1989, then Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner tasked the members of Walt Disney Imagineering—the men and women responsible for bringing seemingly pie-in-the-sky ideas to fruition—to come up with a new theme park at Walt Disney World. Eisner wasn’t talking about just another new amusement enterprise, however. He was aiming for something different, something that had never been attempted before. He wanted a new species of theme park, blending theme park entertainment with animal encounters and, perhaps most importantly, a strong message of conservation.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which opened on April 22, 1998, was the fourth theme park built on Walt Disney World’s vast 28,000-plus acre property in central Florida. It was perhaps WDW’s most complex and ambitious undertaking, if only because it would be based on the compelling—and always unpredictable—world of animals. Following the rousing success of the Magic Kingdom (which opened in 1971), Epcot (1982), and Disney’s Hollywood Studios (which opened in 1989 as Disney/MGM Studios), many people wondered whether a park based solely on creatures—the living, the extinct, and the mythical—could have a place in the nation’s No. 1 vacation destination.

According to Joe Rohde, the chief architect of Animal Kingdom and by far its biggest cheerleader, there was never any doubt. Just prior to the park’s opening, he said:

This is a park about our love of animals. We have live animals spread out through wonderful, huge habitats as far as the eye can see…prehistoric animals lurking in the darkness…it’s the whole world of animals brought to you as only Disney can.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which turns 20 on April 22, 2018, stepped squarely into the spotlight in a big way in the spring of 2017 with the opening of Pandora: The World of Avatar, a new land devoted to celebrating the 2009 blockbuster movie Avatar. It was the largest, most ambitious—and easily the most popular—expansion in the park’s history.

Pandora has drawn rave reviews and dramatically raised attendance at Animal Kingdom, which for years had the unenviable reputation of being a “half-day park,” meaning guests felt they could experience most of what they surmised the park had to offer in about a half day before moving on to another park. In fact, during slow seasons, Animal Kingdom would be open only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pandora was the final piece of a years-long effort to reinvent Animal Kingdom and make it more enticing to park-goers, particularly during the evening hours. The addition of the Expedition Everest roller-coaster in 2006 gave Animal Kingdom a signature thrill ride; initiatives such as the Rivers of Light show, a sunset safari, and a projection display on the park’s icon, the Tree of Life, have given guests a valid excuse to stick around well after the sun goes down.

The new Avatar-themed land is located in a section of Animal Kingdom once occupied by Camp Minnie-Mickey, a rustic meet-and-greet area where guests young and old could pose with Disney characters in a summer camp-like setting. Also featured in Camp Minnie-Mickey was Festival of the Lion King and Pocahontas and her Forest Friends, two live stage shows.

To make room for Pandora (which occupies 12 acres and features two new, innovative attractions—Na’vi River Journey and Avatar: Flight of Passage, as well as a bioluminescent landscape and floating mountains, all cornerstones of the movie), Festival of the Lion King was moved to a new venue near Harambe Village in the Africa section of the park. The rest of Camp Minnie-Mickey, having outlived its usefulness, simply faded into Disney parks lore.

Animal Kingdom is located on the southwest portion of the Walt Disney World property, just north of U.S. Route 192. To reach the park by car or bus from other sections of the property, guests drive south along the Osceola Parkway. As they approach the park, the man-made Tree of Life, the snow-covered peaks of Expedition Everest, and now Pandora’s floating mountains are clearly visible above the treetops. About a mile past the park’s entrance sits Animal Kingdom Lodge, a spectacular African-inspired resort which is a visual masterpiece and blends seamlessly with the entire area’s theming. Like the theme park it adjoins, Animal Kingdom Lodge—divided into Kidani Village and Jambo House—brings guests thisclose to a stunning array of exotic animals. It is common for guests staying in rooms with a savannah view to awake in the morning, open their blinds, and see giraffe or zebra or wildebeests grazing right outside their balconies. There also are observation decks located off the two resorts’ lobbies that afford guests the opportunity to get even closer to the animal action. Like the theme park, most of Animal Kingdom Lodge’s animal population was obtained from North American zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

When Animal Kingdom, some of the advertising pitches included “Disney’s imagination gone wild” and “nah-ta-zu,” which was a clever way of saying Animal Kingdom was “not a zoo.” Even though Animal Kingdom has one of the largest collection of birds, reptiles, and animals on the planet, it is very much atypical of a zoo. You’ll never see animals confined in a traditional sense; they roam wild and free in meticulously recreated natural habitats, under the watchful eye of many skilled animal keepers.

In fact, Eisner went to great lengths to make sure Animal Kingdom would never be perceived as just a zoo. “Michael Eisner really pushed us to make sure we were telling stories about animals,” said Marty Sklar, who was the creative leader of Walt Disney Imagineering when the idea of an animal-themed theme park was first proposed. Animal Kingdom “had to be as far removed from a zoo as possible,” he added.

The first inkling to the outside world about this “new species of theme park” came in 1995, when the Disney Channel ran a series of spots announcing plans to build what was briefly known as Wild Animal Kingdom in Walt Disney World. The wheels for the project had begun turning some five years before that, in late 1989. Construction commenced two months after the first public announcements, in August 1995. After the project was unveiled, a scale model of Animal Kingdom was put on display off Town Square in the Magic Kingdom to further whet the appetites of Disney park guests.

In announcing the new park, Eisner said:

Disney recognizes that the need for awareness of endangered animals and their environments never has been greater. We believe that, as storytellers and communicators, we are in a unique position to promote a deeper understanding and love for all animals. We hope that people will come here because they love animals and that, when they leave, they will have a new knowledge and respect for the beauty and complexity of the animal kingdom.

The site chosen for Animal Kingdom was far off the beaten path in relation to Walt Disney World’s three other theme parks, two water parks, most of the resorts, and the shopping/dining/entertainment district now known as Disney Springs. Marty Sklar told a story about just how remote the Animal Kingdom property is:

When we were building Epcot, we needed massive amounts of dirt to fill some areas of the park, so we had to “borrow” dirt from someplace else on the property. I told the crews to find a place that was so far off the beaten path that there was no chance we’d ever build anything on it. That place turned out to be where we built Animal Kingdom!

Other than being used as a dirt borrow pit for Epcot, the Animal Kingdom site also was used as an area where new fireworks shows were tested—it was that out of the way.

Animal Kingdom’s remoteness (it’s about a 20-minute ride from the Magic Kingdom and is not accessible by either boat or monorail, unlike the other three parks) lends itself perfectly to its faraway, exotic nature. When walking around the park, you truly feel as if you’ve been transported to another place, another time. And, with the opening of Pandora, you get the distinct feeling you’ve been transported to another world as well.

Animal Kingdom will always hold a special place in my heart. Unlike Marty, who proudly held the distinction of having been at the grand openings of all 12 Disney theme parks worldwide, Animal Kingdom is the only Disney park I attended on its opening day. With that in mind, this book will explore what those first wide-eyed guests encountered when they entered the park on April 22, 1998, and what guests experience today after the park’s nearly 20-year maturation. In addition, we’ll look at just what it took to bring this unique and remarkable theme park experience to life. Much like all living beings, Animal Kingdom was conceived, was born, and struggled through growing pains before ultimately finding its place in the world…in this case, Walt Disney World.

Chuck Schmidt

Chuck Schmidt was bitten by the Disney bug at an early age. He remembers watching The Mickey Mouse Club after school in the mid-1950s. During his 48-year career in the newspaper business, he channeled that love of Disney as the Sunday News and Travel editor for the Staten Island Advance, writing features and covering a variety of events involving the expansive world created by Walt Disney.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is his fourth book published by Theme Park Press. The others are On the Disney Beat, An American in Disneyland Paris, and Disney’s Dream Weavers. He also collaborated with former Disney cast member Ted Kellogg on his book Passport to Pixie Dust.

Since 2009, Chuck has shared his passion for all things Disney in his Goofy About Disney blog on SILive.com. He also writes a blog for AllEars.net called Still Goofy About Disney.

Chuck resides in Beachwood, New Jersey, with his wife, Janet. They have three adult children and six grandchildren.

Michael Eisner didn't want a zoo. He wanted something more than a zoo, something never done before, something authentic. And it had to have that Disney swing as well.

Joe Rohde said:

In February of 1990, a small group of Imagineers sat in the smallest conference room in the smallest trailer on the Walt Disney Imagineering lot. I was among those few people leading development of a new concept for a park in Florida. It had to be something completely different from any animal park in the world—different from any theme park we or anyone else had ever created.

The very first meeting about the park was conducted in August of 1989. It lasted five minutes. According to Rohde:

Michael Eisner said, “People like animals. People like Disney. If Disney does something with animals, people will come.” I said, “OK, there’s the mission.”

At that point, however, the idea of Animal Kingdom was a “dark-horse kind of project.” Euro Disneyland was well underway, and Eisner’s highly touted Disney Decade, where the company would expand its footprint in the parks, resorts, animated films—even into the unchartered waters of operating its own cruise line—was in full swing as the 1990s unfolded.

Although Rohde was tasked with leading the Animal Kingdom project, it wasn’t as if there were a long line of Imagineers yearning to take up the challenge.

Rohde admitted years later:

The only reason a junior designer like me got the assignment was that nobody else really wanted it. They figured it would be just a zoo and likely not get done, which had a really good chance of being true.

There also was the issue of a 400-page white paper study that had been conducted about zoos in America, which concluded that an animal-themed park might not be such a great idea.

Even though the Animal Kingdom project stumbled out of the starting gate, Rohde’s team came up with a clear theme for this new theme park venture. A “theme,” according to Rohde, is the underlying value system on which a story is built. The new park’s theme would encompass “the intrinsic value of nature.” With that as a reference point, all the myriad decisions involved in designing and developing the park would follow. The first big decision was the most obvious: picking a site.

The land chosen for this new park, off the beaten path when compared to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the Disney/MGM Studios, was “500 acres of unremarkable palmetto and scrub oaks, a former cow pasture without any contour,” Rohde said. “When I first saw the site, I was truly terrified”…not too unlike the way the first Disney executives reacted in the mid-1960s as they flew over central Florida to get a first glance at the entire 28,000-acre Walt Disney World property.

Rohde described the first time he walked the Animal Kingdom site:

[It was] just sand. Miles and miles of sand. The first time I went out there, it looked like Mongolia. Nothing but sand dunes. I felt like Lawrence of Arabia.

Rohde became disoriented during his walk and ended up getting lost. The sand, however, was a perfect place to build this park, because it offered excellent drainage for the foliage that eventually would be planted there.

Rohde wasn’t alone in the quest to turn this “unremarkable” acreage into a living, breathing, functioning environment. Writer Kevin Brown (Rohde’s roommate at Occidental College), designer Zofia Kostyrko, associate producer Patsy Tillisch, Christopher West, and Tony Marando comprised the initial design team. That group would soon expand with the additions of landscaper Paul Comstock, show designer John Shields, concept architect Tom Sze, producer Ann Malmlund, park designer Kelley Ford, and Eric Eberhart of WDW Operations. Their quest was daunting, dangerous, exhilarating, exhausting, rewarding, and ultimately, wildly successful. Team members would spend countless hours planning, thousands and thousands of miles traveling the world, and months away from home nurturing the dream of a theme park based on the world of animals.

The figurative foundation for the park was poured during those first months in that tiny trailer in the WDI lot. There were daily brainstorming sessions, where ideas would be bounced back and forth as if each member was playing verbal ping pong.

Landscape architect Paul Comstock recalled:

We were in the funkiest trailer. It was an old, beat-up thing and you’d walk through it and the floor would squeak, and we’d be sitting around a table—Joe, Zofia, myself, and a few others, just tossing around ideas. You’d say that this idea involves X and everyone would say, “Oh, that’s a pretty good idea.” There could be this…and it could be a boat ride…and if it’s a boat ride, it could have this…If it was a roller-coaster, it would have this and it could go through that.

It was almost like improvisational jazz. I was trained to be a musician, and after you learn all your scales, when you sit with other musicians you can kind of play off an idea…the horn player plays a riff, followed by the bass player…they play off each other. It would go around the room in circles, crossing back and forth.

The Imagineers in those meetings ended up making beautiful music together.

So many elements came in to play during those early design meetings, heretofore unexplored by previous theme park designers but crucial to the success of an animal-themed park. How does one create a flourishing forest—where guests could trudge through an exploration trail and view animals in natural habitats—on that barren, open pasture? How do you craft animal habitats that a wide variety of species would accept as their home? What type of shows and attractions would fit into this mélange of ideas? How does one go about building a vast, realistic African savannah where guests can observe animals walking freely in an open, natural environment? And just how do you construct an entire African village that looks and feels as realistic as if it had been lifted—lock, stock, and baobab tree—from the East African seaside to central Florida? The answer, in every case, was research. Boots-on-the-ground research.

In addition, the team was faced with the hard, cold fact that—unlike a regular theme park, where the gates are closed at the end of the night, the lights are turned off, and everyone goes home—animals need constant care, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. Not only that, but all the animals to be housed in the park would have different nutritional needs; the more exotic the species, the more limited the food choices. And larger animals, such as elephants, tend to be voracious eaters.

Continued in "Disney's Animal Kingdom"!

Love them or hate them, Chester and Hester are in-your-face as soon as you set foot in DinoLand U.S.A. Their hokey roadside carnival was inspired by a road trip taken by a very young and impressionable Joe Rohde.

In 2002, DinoLand U.S.A. received a major upgrade with the introduction of Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama, an area of the park that gave the Imagineers an excuse to display their tongue-in-cheek humor. Clever signs are everywhere, like “Going into extinction. Everything must go.” The area looks as if it had been inspired by a church bazaar or a Midwestern roadside carnival…or both. The remnants of painted parking lot lines can be seen in the pavement and the buildings look as if they were thrown together without much rhyme or reason. There’s even the occasional manhole cover.

Joe Rohde said:

To create a convincing abandoned parking lot for people who see parking lots every day? That’s actually really hard. This surface is so convincing that it is ignored completely. But there is no way this surface could stand up to the traffic it receives on a hot summer day if it were actually asphalt. It is sculpture.

Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama also is a fun and light-hearted place that’s geared to the young…and the young at heart.

Rohde explained the genesis of Dino-Rama:

As a boy, I used to love road trips. Once we moved to California from Hawaii, we would regularly take off on drives across the West, sometimes totally spontaneously. We’d be headed from Van Nuys to Big Bear and my dad would announce, “Let’s go visit my sister in Ely, Nevada!” And off we’d go [check a map for how crazy this is]. He abhorred chains [motels], so we would eat, sleep, and shop with whatever meager funds we had “where the locals go.”

Old roadside America was so weird it was beyond a question of tastefulness or kitsch. It was actual, independent personality, expressed without a fleck of concern for what someone else might think. That’s what this is. [Chester and Hester’s] is for kids who haven’t yet learned what’s tasteful, elegant, cool, or trendy. Joyous excess. Not for everyone, but I sort of grin every time I see it and remember my days poking through trays of arrowheads and fossil shark teeth, and posing with plaster dinos.

When you enter Dino-Rama, you’re greeted by a giant, but whimsical and seemingly inflated dinosaur which stands about 50-feet tall. At the entrance are smaller dino creatures that are decidedly more fun than ferocious. There are two main attractions within Dino-Rama’s confines: Primeval Whirl and TriceraTop Spin, which are family-friendly, carnival-based rides.

TriceraTop Spin follows in the classic spinning ride tradition of Dumbo, the Magic Carpets of Aladdin, and Astro Orbiter in the Magic Kingdom in that you climb into a themed ride vehicle (in this case, a friendly infant dinosaur) and spin round and round while raising and lowering your dino to enhance the experience. Primeval Whirl, on the other hand, takes spinning to new heights. It’s a roller-coaster-type attraction that sees your vehicle go up, down, round and round, with several heart-pounding, whip-like turns thrown in to make the experience quite exhilarating.

Continued in "Disney's Animal Kingdom"!

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