I officially joined the Animal Kingdom team on my 25th birthday in 1992, in the heat of July. The park had just been given the "green light" to move forward, so a handful of us were brought on to augment the tiny crew that originally sold the idea to Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. It was still a skeleton team of less than twenty artists, architects, managers and assistants, led by Joe Rohde.
I was honored to be included on the team. I was the youngest designer, and even though I'd had some experience designing the Gag Factory and Five & Dime in Disneyland's Toontown, I was still very green. The Animal Kingdom team was the envy of the company. They were already known for their fantastic research trips. It was a groundbreaking concept for Disney to build a live animal park, and the possibilities were very exciting. The group also included some of the most interesting and dynamic Imagineers.
But none was more unique than our fearless leader, Joe Rohde. Joe was not the typical Disney employee. At the time, he had long hair, wore tribal earrings, and spent his vacations touring Tibet. He was one of the first Westerners who ever visited the medieval kingdom of Mustang. He could talk about almost any subject, and infused everything with passion and enthusiasm. His vision was to build a self-sustaining, immersive park that would educate the public and contribute to the welfare of animals. He was a visionary in the truest sense of the word.
Our team's first order of business was to embark on a national tour of zoos and safari attractions. We absorbed the sights and got to know each other. Most importantly, we developed ideas about what how we would design something that had never been done before.
When we returned to Glendale, I was given the role of lead designer for Beastlie Kingdomme, based on fantasy and mythical animals. It was perfect for me: I've drawn dragons and fantastic creatures ever since I could hold a pen. The core team had already picked out the attractions: a dragon-themed roller coaster ride, a unicorn-themed hedge maze, a Fantasia water ride, and a Mother Goose store. I worked with the architect Tom Sze to come up with rough footprints for the land, and Zofia Kostyrko, one of the original designers, helped us tremendously. The writer Kevin Brown guided our narratives. Paul Comstock, landscape designer extraordinaire, had a hand in every corner of the park.
After tons of rough sketches, several models, and numerous meetings, Tom and I added our Beastlie Kingdomme art to the larger Animal Kingdom presentation for Michael Eisner. This was the make-or-break presentation that would decide the future of the park. The team leaders installed a temporary jungle that extended from the door of the building all the way into the conference room, where Joe Rohde gave an impassioned presentation. Needless to say, Eisner was duly impressed, and the park was officially funded.
At that point, the rest of the team was brought on to make the park a reality. Each attraction was given a specific designer, and each land a design manager. In Beastlie Kingdomme, Paul Torrigino was brought on to design the Dragon Tower, Kent Elofsen was put in charge of the Fantasia ride, and I got to do the Quest for the Unicorn hedge maze. Ann Malmlund was the overall lead, as well as the designer for the Mother Goose store. It was a very talented team, and I was proud to be a part of it. Paul's storyboards for the Dragon Tower were some of the most elegant pencil drawings I've ever seen. Steve Tatum and Kevin Brown worked on writing the background stories for the land and the attractions.
The rest of Animal Kingdom went on research safaris in either Africa or Asia. But I couldn't complain; Paul Torrigino, Paul Comstock, Ann and I went to Europe to study castles and gardens! In France, we visited chateaus and sprawling gardens. We attended London's Chelsea Royal Flower Show, and rubbed elbows with a princess. I walked through the same hedge maze in Kent where King Henry the VIII courted Anne Boleyn. We were all thoroughly inspired by the trip.
Upon our return, we each went to work on our respective attractions. I hammered out all the details of the Quest for the Unicorn. The three-part hedge maze was long and complex, with surprises at every turn. Along the way, a sphinx, phoenix, griffin, and several mischievous gargoyles delivered clues or guarded dead ends. The maze culminated in a gothic topiary castle where guests could either look out over the land, or descend into a leafy chamber where they finally met the mysterious unicorn (an audio-animatronic figure). It was an ambitious and unusual attraction. If Disney had ever built it, I'm sure they would have cut it down quite a bit!
But it wasn't built. In early 1994, funding realities forced the team to make a decision to cut Beastlie Kingdomme. The remaining team members were re-located to other areas of the park. I didn't continue with them; I had recently decided to leave Imagineering to start my own freelance business and focus on my painting, and the team needed long-term members who were willing to relocate to Florida.
We all know what happened with Animal Kingdom: it was built, it turned out great, and it's a successful balance of ecological awareness and Disney-level entertainment. It's one of my two favorite parks in the world (along with Tokyo DisneySea).
I've heard various rumors that Disney might build Beastlie Kingdomme someday, but who knows? It's a great concept, and I think it would be a natural addition to the park. Even if Beastlie Kingdomme never comes to fruition, I'm glad I was there to witness its brief but glorious life. I've always appreciated the things I learned and the people I met on the Animal Kingdom team. It epitomized the golden creative age of Imagineering.
I'll be writing a more detailed follow-up article about the Quest for the Unicorn attraction, so look for that in the next couple of months.