Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park is one of the most special places at the Walt Disney World Resort as it’s got a combination of animals that bring the park to life and animal care experts who make it all happen; mostly behind-the-scenes.
As a matter of fact, in honor of World Rhino Day (9/22), Dr. Mark Penning, Vice President, Animals, Science and Environment, Disney Parks, announced that three of their white rhinoceros are expecting!
Sometimes, guests don’t realize the amount of care and dedication that it takes to bring all of the aspects of each different species into the theme park, but beginning this Friday on Disney+, the Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom will give viewers a backstage pass to explore the magic of nature within Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, and The Seas with Nemo & Friends at EPCOT.
This presentation is the first time viewers at home will get this much of an in-depth look into how involved taking care of animals truly is including how ultrasounds are performed on expectant mothers and even arranged date nights for some of the animals.
The eight-episode series was produced by National Geographic and narrated by the award-winning, fan-favorite Josh Gad, the voice actor of Olaf from Disney’s Frozen films.
Each episode in this brand-new series takes an in-depth look into the details, unveiling the multifaceted aspects of animal care, conservation, and Disney Imagineering and showcases the parks’ magnificent array of more than 300 species and 5,000-plus animals and the herculean tasks their animal care experts undertake to keep things running day and night. Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom invites fans of Disney, nature, and animals to get to know the parks’ residents, including some of the newest additions like baby Grace, the newest member of the gorilla troop
Viewers can virtually stroll over to the Harambe Wildlife Reserve where they’ll come face to knee with supermom Masai giraffe, Kenya, and up close and personal with Gus the hippo. They’ll travel to the savanna to witness Dakari, the alpha male African lion, lord over his land, and meet Kinsey, the alpha lioness, who’s the real ruler of the pride.
The series incorporates cutting-edge technology, including custom-built GoPro housings, 18-foot cranes, and underwater camera systems, to reveal the world-famous dedication, pioneering conservation, and visionary genius that IS Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in an interview which included Dr. Mark Penning, Joe Rohde, Dr. Dan Fredholm, and Rachel Daneault.
Pull up a chair and a fresh cup of coffee (or whatever your preferred beverage might be) then read on for some of the questions that were asked and the fascinating answers we heard during the session!
Question 1: With so many thousands of animals and hundreds of species at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, what was the process in selecting which stories were told in this show?
Answer 1 (Dr. Mark): “We’ve got a very broad selection of animal species and individuals that have stories to tell. We layered on top of that, our desire to show the incredible relationships of trust between the animals and the people that take care of them and how passionate we all are about saving these animals in the wild. It all comes down to how do you tell those stories and that’s where Joe and his incredible team come in.”
Answer 2 (Joe Rohde): “I think the underlying core of the show is to demonstrate the part that you don’t see – the care – and when we say ‘care,’ it manifests itself in a couple [of] ways. There are the activities themselves – the things that people do – but more importantly, just in the same sense that we as designers care about the story that we tell, there is real emotional care here. The show is actually a show about emotions – the emotional investment of the people in the lives of these animals that come together at this moment where design meets care.”
Question 2: What makes Animal Kingdom different from any other animal sanctuary or zoo around the world?
Answer 1 (Joe Rohde): “I think first, there is a level of theatrical storytelling. We frame all of the animal experiences within a thematic and narrative experience. So, it isn’t just presenting animals for your consideration, it is the experience of being in a place suffused with story in which when you do finally see these animals, the moment is filled with additional meaning.”
Answer 2 (Dr. Mark): “I’m a veterinarian, I understand animal care. What Disney’s Animal Kingdom shows me is the incredible relationships between [the] people and the animals. The passion that the people have for telling the stories about those animals, for how we work with the Disney Conservation Fund to protect those animals in the wild and the habitats that they came from, and the way we tell the story where we immerse you completely into that experience – that makes it completely unique for me.”
Question 3: What types of things did you have to keep in mind when designing a theme park meant to also function as an animal sanctuary that you wouldn’t have to think about when designing other parks?
Answer (Joe Rohde): “Well, the presence of live animals is utterly pervasive; it doesn’t even stop where you see animals. [The] presence of animals defines the entirety of the experience of Animal Kingdom. It is so that it informs the styles in which we treat the buildings. It informs the way in which we lay out the pavement. It informs everything.”
“But when you start with the animal areas themselves, you basically are starting with the animals. What does it want? What does it need? How does it move? How does it live? All of those things are sort of fixed before we begin our part of the design. We must create a place where an animal feels at home.”
“The the next question we have to ask ourselves is if all of that is true, what is the way in which we can interact with and see and experience this place that doesn’t interfere with that? And then the next thing is; how can we fold that into a story that brings greater understanding, greater emotional meaning, greater impact then simply seeing the animal?”
“So, we’re backing out from the animal itself, but that actually informs everything in the entire park whether you ever see the animal or not. Because ultimately everything you experience leads to a moment where you encounter an animal.”
Question 4: I’m sure you love all of the animals, but are there any you’ve developed a particularly special relationship with and which surprised you the most?
Answer 1 (Rachel): “I think for me, it’s gorillas and you’ll actually see in the Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom [that] there is an episode where you see me with one gorilla in particular; he’s our silverback for our family group. What surprised me is I didn’t ever want to work gorillas [and] to now have them be such a definition of my career. I work with gorillas here but I also get to talk to our guests about gorillas who are at an orphanage in the Democratic Republic of Congo that Disney actually helped build and actually supports. So, it’s just this very full circle that starts with this one animal but then I’ve gone 360 degrees and I’ve gotten to do everything out in the wild and through conservation as well. I think the gorillas in particular have been life-changing for me.”
Answer 2 (Dr. Dan): “For me, it’s hard to pick any one animal; we have so many that are amazing. I really have a soft spot in my heart for Casanova, the hornbill that lives over at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. He’s extremely charismatic, he’s a character and every time I’m over there, I just find myself staring at him watching how he behaves and runs around the savannas. But, in reality, we have so many amazing animals.”
“I think the thing that surprises me and never ceases to surprise me is how great these animals can be in participating in their own medical care. I’m able to basically be her with Tito (an opossum) – I can palpate him, examine him, I can look in his ears, his eyes, all the while he’s having a little snack and really not noticing what’s going on. That just allows us to have an excellent level of animal health care from animals as small as naked mole rats to as large as our African elephants.”
Question 5: You oversaw the creation of Disney’s Animal Kingdom so you should know everything about it. Was there anything that surprised you or that you learned about for the first time during the making of this series?
Answer (Joe Rohde): “My expertise is really in the design of the front of the house and I learn as much as I can about the animals as they relate behind. What is always surprising to see is the degree of precision with which these animals can participate and connect and behave – such that they can be cared for – such that they can remain as wild as they can be.”
“It is really amazing to just watch this like – is that going to happen? And then there it is, some moment where an animal is brought to this point of interaction that is incredibly precise and that’s really astonishing to see.”
Question 6: What’s been the most memorable part of working at Animal Kingdom?
Answer 1 (Dr. Mark): “I’m South African born. I spent a lot of time growing up in [the] wilderness and working with lions and elephants in the wild. Coming to Disney has just taking everything for me up to another level that I have never seen before anywhere else. It is absolutely exceptional, the degree of animal care, the quality of animal care professionals, the design element that our WDI (Walt Disney Imagineering) partners bring to us is just like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Answer 2 (Dr. Dan): “For me, one thing that stands out is the great level of teamwork that goes on every single day here. It’s no secret that we have a very large team. We have over 5,000 animals and I’m constantly amazed and my heart is warmed when I see how much everyone comes together literally on a daily basis to continually raise the bar on that level of care. [They] pour their heart and soul into it while they’re doing it.”
Answer 3 (Rachel): “For me, it is being able to have great influence much further outside of the sphere. We are working for the greater good. We have the Disney Conservation Fund – we’ve funded 100 million dollars since 1995 and that is huge to be able to be part of that and support that is really important to me. In general, I’m working with these animals but I am looking out for the greater good of all animals.”
Answer 4 (Joe Rohde): “I would tag onto that the strange property of realness. Physically, when you walk around in the park, there are so many places – too many to name – where you can be and think, ‘oh my gosh, I could be there; I could be in that place.’ It is so weirdly real and that could be just an illusion but it’s not because of the conservation program – because of the action that happens behind the scenes – there is a way in which this park is weirdly real. It does reach out and touch the world and right behind that membrane of make believe is all this stuff that’s super, super real that’s happening. So, this odd sensation that it’s real just leaks out of every corner in this park.”
Question 7: Do you have any funny stories about working with the animals?
Answer 1 (Rachel): “I think there’s always funny stories when you’re working with these animals. They are always doing something. One of the things that really surprised me and caught me off guard with Gino is that we were training one day and – he’s very intelligent – and I just asked him to give me a behavior. He started making up his own behaviors which is actually a sign of higher intelligence so I was blown away. I actually was approached by some authors because they heard about Gino through the grapevine. So, I think it’s something that happens here every day and it’s hard to just pick one thing. Hopefully you’ll see some of those little snippets in the show.”
Answer 2 (Dr. Dan): “It is hard to pick one. Every day, there is something funny or something that surprises you that an animal will do. Probably what stands out to me the most – which I hope you’ll be able to see when you tune into the show – was my interaction with Kenya the giraffe. Kenya is one of our giraffes that we try to make sure has a really robust program for her health. We spent a lot of time getting her to participate in her foot care. I learned very quickly that giraffes do things at their own pace. You can try but you can’t really make a giraffe do anything. We spent weeks upon weeks working with her and getting her to be able to participate [with] me being able to trim her hooves – sometimes with a lot of sitting around and not much happening was just a reinforcer to me of what we’re all willing to do in order to make the lives of these animals fantastic.”
Question 8: What are you hoping viewers will take away from watching the series?
Answer 1 (Dr. Mark): “I would love viewers to recognize the amazing care that takes place here at Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park and come and take a look for themselves. Also, to understand why we do this and that’s because we’re so passionate about protecting wildlife and wild spaces. If we can just inspire people to think about nature and to take care of the nature in their backyard, I will consider this a big success!”
Answer 2 (Joe Rohde): “Animal Kingdom is not really just about animals, it is about humans and our relationship to animals. Some of these relationships are good and some of them are not and we want to reflect on all of those stories; that’s what pulls us into the world of care. I think this is a place where the more you know, the richer your experience of the place. So, simply by seeing the show, the next time you come to this place, your experience will be fuller, will be richer, will be more rewarding.”
Answer 3 (Dr. Dan): “One of the most important things I hope people take away from watching the show is the human/animal bond. I think anybody who has a beloved pet at home understands how strong that bond can be. There are many people that equalize them to their children and it’s similar here. We love these animals and there is a real palpable bond that I hope will come across when you watch the show.”
Answer 4 (Rachel): “I hope people really realize that what we’re doing here is fairly cutting edge. We’re considered leaders in this industry and I hope that comes through in the show. We’re doing some really amazing things and I’m very hopeful that people will feel that with the show. I’m very proud of it!”
Question 9: With modern animal behavior training focused on the animals making the choices, which animals have been the most challenging to persuade to make those good decisions?
Answer 1 (Dr. Dan): “That fits right in with Kenya the giraffe. She’s a beautiful creature that knows exactly what she wants to do at every moment of the day. It highlights a real big success for us as she was the first giraffe we were ever able to actually trim the hooves of without requiring any level of sedation or anesthesia – and she gets to eat snacks the whole time!”
“It was reinforcing for me to understand that I’m just a person, I’m just there to help her and do things according to her schedule so that, for me, is probably the perfect example.”
Answer 2 (Rachel): “We work with what we call protective contact – so, I never ever go in with them. It’s another layer on top of things because it is 100% that animal’s choice and they absolutely do not have to even look at me, but the fact that we have been able to do all of these innovative things [such as] awake cardiac ultrasounds on gorillas. Those gorillas come up to us and allow us to put gel on their chest and to put a probe on their chest and that, I think, also really speaks to that relationship piece. Without that, you don’t really get that volunteering to come up to the mesh to do training.”
“So, I think for me in particular, it’s really having a bond with these animals and making sure they want to come up there every single time because it is absolutely their choice.”