Joe Rohde: The Philosophy Behind DAK 1998

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

One of the advantages of working at Walt Disney World was that you sometimes got invited to hear special speakers. I got to attend a two-hour presentation by Imagineer Joe Rohde on June 14, 1998 for the DAK cast member team roughly a week before Disney's Animal Kingdom Park opened to the public.

Rohde is executive designer and senior vice president, Creative for Walt Disney Imagineering. He was the lead designer for DAK. He wanted to share with the cast members the philosophy behind some of the choices that were made and why DAK was "not a zoo."

Fortunately, I was able to record the lecture and Wayne Campbell (who knows how much I hate transcribing things) was gracious enough to volunteer to transcribe it for me so that all of you can enjoy this short edited excerpt (the entire transcription will appear in a future edition of Walt's People).

It always makes me sad that these interesting insights are often restricted to a small group of people and never widely shared with others. In particular, I felt it was important to share Rohde's very articulate view of the development of DAK.

"When I became involved in Disney's Animal Kingdom it was late 1989. [CEO] Michael Eisner had expressed some interest in doing something to do with animals. It had come up some months earlier at a retreat in Santa Barbara. I happened to be at that retreat for design executives and this issue of "can we do something with animals?" had come up.

"We sent a group of MBAs out across the country visiting and researching zoos around the nation and they came back with a terrifically negative report that basically said, "Look. There's a zoo in every city, in every town in this country. They're all subsidized by the city, by the state, by the federal government. People pay a third of what they pay to get into our parks to come in…they stay for two hours…they buy a drink…they can go whenever they want…why would we ever do a zoo?" End of question, right?

Safari Village, now known as Discovery Island, was created as a centerpoint for the park.

"It's actually a wonderful tribute to the psychology of Michael Eisner that when he gets a report like this from his business-analysis people he goes, "OK, you guys hate this. This has gotta be a good idea." [laughter from audience] I mean clearly there are limits. We the Disney Company simply cannot do what is out there to be done if for no other reason than we're gonna charge you $50 to do it. So it has to be different, it has to be new, it has to be unlike anything else you can do or we simply cannot pursue it as a line of business because we can't make our per cap. We cannot do that.

"And so this was the great conundrum: What could it possibly be that isn't something that already is? And unless you can show us that it can be something that isn't, we're just not interested.

"I have always had a natural inclination toward natural history. Not simply zoology, but ethnology and anthropology, as well. I'm an avid learner of that sort of thing. So I sort of made it known that I was interested in this project, and then I went away to Nepal for six weeks.

"And when I came back, it was November 1989 and Marty Sklar, who's the president of Imagineering, sat me down and said, "OK, after the Christmas season is over, you're going to start work on this animal thing that Michael Eisner wants to work on." I think we had $250,000 advance budget to begin work on this which, if you know Disney, is practically nothing at all.

"I had a friend—fairly highly placed in the company—who like took me aside and said, "Joe, listen to me. While you were out, we had a big, big meeting of the whole company and we announced 'The Disney Decade.' And The Disney Decade is all the projects the Walt Disney Company is going to do in the next 10 years and you know what? You're not one of them."

"So, of course, this single person is more responsible for Animal Kingdom getting built than anything else, 'cause now I'm thinking, "Oh, yeah? OK, now we're really gonna do this."

"I went away, thought about it for a while, reconvened the group, we started thinking about Animal Kingdom and just a little bit of insight into what it means to do that. We started in a very, very small room with four people: Myself, Kevin Brown, Zofia Kostyrko…actually two people who have left the company since…at the time my support person was Patsy Tillis, who has since become the associate producer on the park.

"And we took two words: We took the idea &quo;tAnimal" and we took the idea "Kingdom" and we did brainstorming…guided imagery brainstorming on these two ideas for weeks. Imagine sitting in a room…for like two-and-a-half, three weeks…every day. I run a really tight ship on this; you come in at 8 a.m., you stay 'til lunch, you have an hour for lunch, come back in the room, you stay 'til 5 p.m. and work our way through the symbols, the meanings, the associations, the deviations, the permutations of what this word means.

"Then we take the other word and we're gonna do the same thing until we have exhausted the kind of radiating tree of meaning and possibility generated by these two words! Then we're gonna fuse them together, we're gonna edit out everything that looks like we've seen it before, and we're gonna have a great big blob shaped like stuff we haven't seen before and that—somewhere in there—is the core of what this idea is going to be.

"It sounds esoteric; it probably is esoteric unless you do it all the time. We do it all the time. It is what authors do. It is what painters do. It is what film directors do with ideas to get past the surface of an idea into the bones of an idea, into the things that really animate an idea and give it a life over and above its surface appearance.

"We are more in a category of authors, if you will. We develop ideas from zero. Our skills…my skills, my particular portfolio…is more verbally based than it is visually based—although all of us can draw and paint—our bias is much further over into literary, uh, verbal bias and that has assisted us very much in being able to develop a place that has this rich undercurrent to it.

"I want to talk a little bit about theme parks and what a "theme" park is, again before we start looking at images and talking through that thing. What it really means to be a "theme" park not an "amusement" park.

"Theme parks are a new thing, relatively, in the world, if you think of Disneyland as being the first theme park. There are things that pre-existed Disneyland that are in a category that might be called a theme park. They are utterly different from what we think of when we think of an amusement park.

"A theme park's job is transportation. It is to mentally transport you, to remove you, to sweep you away from here…from everything that you think about in an everyday situation, from your worries, from your concerns, from your very perception that you are in the world that you are in.

"An amusement park is a form of indulgence. It really is a form of hyper-immediacy. You get on a vehicle that goes very fast. It seems dangerous. And by traveling quickly and seemingly dangerous, it reminds you in a very, very profound way that you are here right now. "I am here, right now, upside-down, traveling a 120 miles an hour on a piece of steel. This is my life; it is happening to me at this instant."

"That's the opposite of, "I am in the Middle Ages, surrounded by castles and knights…this cannot be possible and yet it seems to be real." We do that second thing.

"That is why people pay so much money to go to theme parks is to be swept away. That is why the ergonomics, the human factors of theme parks, are so important. Because everything inconvenient, everything mundane that could remind you that you're still back in the world, needs to be erased.

"Lines can't be too long; 'cause if the line gets too long, now you're thinking about the line and the line is full of people, and the people are just like you, and now you're back again, right? I mean everything needs to flow and flow smoothly, just like butter, so that your mind stays in the artificially created narrative conceit that sweeps you away into another story like a great movie, like a great book, like a great piece of music takes you out of your life for some period of time and puts you someplace else. So that is the goal.

"All sorts of choices that are available to the mundane world that surrounds us every day that we deal with every day are not available to us; because by their very existence they call attention to the fact that we're not where we want to be. We're back in the real world. And this boils down to stanchions. It boils down to the napkin that you pick up. It boil down to the most minuscule of details.

"There's a movie called Somewhere In Time (1980) where the guy finds a modern penny in his pocket…[snaps fingers] and game's over, right? He's back. He thinks he's back at the turn of the century Mackinac Island, falls in love with this woman, maybe he is really back in time…but he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a penny from 1980 and the game's over. He's back.

"That's what a theme park is like. And so…as you start to design one, you're facing this daunting challenge. One that, frankly, kills most projects. Most things that we work on…our hit rate, our success rate for things that we work on that actually get done…is less than 10 percent because the number of factors that can shoot down a park are astounding.

"Our job is to create something new and different. Something innovative. Something that is not like what is out there. There's another whole branch of the company whose job is to analyze the potential profitability of that thing. And the way you do that analysis is by comparison. Is anything wrong with this picture to you? This is almost impossible to do.

"And so from the beginning of working on Disney's Animal Kingdom…one of the reasons Disney's Animal Kingdom has been a seven-year long project…is the arduous process of going through analysis to show that, "Yes, it can be analyzed by comparison to certain other factors but is not sufficiently like them to be considered not unique enough to generate its own appeal and be worthy of the per caps that we're going to charge people to experience it."

"And this debate goes around and around and around and there's still people in the company who will refer to this as a 'zoo' and I mean, by no means, any disrespect or disdain to what a zoo is. It is a thing that exists in the world and is loved and valued, obviously, by their presence around the country and the world, by gazillions of people.

"It serves a purpose, it occupies a niche and it does it really rather well. That's the point. That job's done. The world doesn't need another big, expensive zoo with a bunch of immersion exhibits in it. That is not a real pressing need on the planet.

"A zoo sits in a category of places within a community that is sort of comparable to the museum, to the library, in that it's regarded with a kind of respectful awe. It represents a scientific stance. It is a place you go for a kind of edification. There's always a secondary use of a zoo as a garden, as a place to just go stroll with kids in the sunlight when the weather is good. There's clearly a recognition that this is a place of edification.

"Think about…I mean we've all been to a zoo, right? You walk up to a graphic and there on the graphic is information about an animal. It might say, you know, "A black rhino, is a relatively solitary, large, you know, rhinoceros from these areas of Africa with a prehensile upper lip, blah, blah, blah, blah."

"Who is saying that? Why they are saying that? Why are they saying that here? Why they are saying it to you? It hangs in the air as a piece of objective information and is almost sort of staunchly defended and maintained as objective information like an encyclopedia.

"Now, on the other hand, what we are trying to do is profoundly subjective, even in ways that I think many education professionals would consider to be almost dangerous. A theme park is all about you in a very specific context. Nothing happens to you…nothing is said to you…nothing is seen by you…that isn't governed by the overarching narrative umbrella that holds you in that place.

"So if there is an image that you see, you see it only in the context of this greater narrative arc that you are inside of. What you hear…what you touch…where you move. When you move through a space, the space is crafted to specific narrative impact on you.

"I'll just give you one example. You've all walked through this park, right? We deliberately created an entry sequence to this park that is very, very deliberately manipulative of a certain kind of narrative perception. The first experience you have of Disney's Animal Kingdom is our forecourt before you enter the park; a profoundly geometric and humanly ordered space. It is a circle—which is a quite artificial, really, form—surrounded by identical height palm trees, laid out in a triple arcade.

"It's got a linear access to a flat bunch of buildings and there is nothing else out there. That is a summation, a reminder, a statement about where we are, where we live, what our lives are like. We live surrounded by concrete, we control the forces of nature, we order everything, we have impact on that environment and that is that statement.

"And you walk through the gateway. And if you happen to look down as you do this, you will watch as you step off brushed concrete—which is just what any sidewalk looks like—and onto what appears to be dirt in a space of 10 inches. And look in front of you and you will see nothing but jungle. You won't see a road. You won't see a path. You see nothing but jungle.

"Completely natural forms…animals are in there…you might not see 'em. You'll sure see a lot of plants and water. So that's the first transition…is "that's the world we're from, this is the world we're taking you to." You've made a profound transition at that point.

"Now the second thing, if you are familiar at all with theme parks, the first thing you look at when you go into a theme park is this long, orienting, axial view dominated either by a huge corporate symbol, or a double-loaded retail corridor about as long as you could ever hope to walk. And that is your second experience of a theme park. It tells you two things: It says, "You are here, that is there, and this is the space in-between."

"That is not an adventurous proposal. It's a very reassuring proposal and most of our theme parks play in this game of reassurance…of letting you know and letting you understand very profoundly where you are. We don't do that. We want you to have an adventure. You are supposed to be in a world of nature. Nature challenges you. We want you to have an adventure, so you walk into the park and look at the park and you don't know where the hell you are or where you're supposed to go.

"There happen to be two very, very broad avenues going off this way, and you cannot help but go on them because everybody goes left or right if they can't go forward and, both of them, by coincidence, do end up getting you into the park. But the act of doing it is not an orienting act, it is a constant curve, so it's a constant reveal…it is a miniature adventure.

"You're surrounded by experiences. None of these experiences are presented to you as if you need to stop and look at them. It's really not even an animal exhibit, in one sense of the word. It's a physical adventure of space that is preparing you for the mentality we want you to have when you get to the middle.

"You walk under these big heavy arches and these stones lean out at you and this plant life—which as the years go by will continue to grow, continue to compress that space—you come out the other side and this is the first moment of orientation you get and it is to the tree, which is the axis of this park.

"And then, finally, you see where you are, we offer you a moment of orientation, and you go down into Safari Village [now renamed Discovery Island]. Frankly, it's a little miniature essay about what you are going to do a whole bunch of times, over and over again, in this park. 'Cause we really just take that format and restate it…and restate it…and restate it in different ways in each land in the park, which I will tell you about when I get to tell you about the places in the park.

"Walk through the Magic Kingdom toward the castle, then hop in your vehicle, drive back to Animal Kingdom, and take the same journey. I think you'll find that it is a profoundly different emotional experience."