How Disney's Animal Kingdom Began

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Disney MGM Studios opened in 1989 and was an overwhelming success that required an immediate expansion of the new park to meet the demand.

CEO Michael Eisner was preparing to make an announcement that the 1990s would be the "Disney Decade" that would include new themed entertainment venues and attractions including a new theme park.

Eisner was keenly aware of things that might compete for tourist revenue so Disney MGM Studios was meant to undercut Universal's announced plan to build a movie oriented theme park in Central Florida and Pleasure Island that also opened in 1989 would undermine the popular Church Street Station with its themed nightclubs and shopping opportunities.

Eisner also saw Busch Gardens Tampa as offering something that Walt Disney World did not so he felt it was stealing potential guests and revenue. Opened in March 1959 as a beautifully landscaped facility to promote its beer, Busch Gardens Tampa slowly kept expanding.

Thanks to August A. Busch Jr. who was an advocate for wildlife the park added a 29-acre Serengeti Plains in 1965 that would later expand to seventy acres.

Guests loved encountering exotic animals in the large tropical habitat as well as the many incredible thrill rides that also helped define the location.

So Eisner was enthusiastic about a WDW theme park that would emphasize live animals like Busch Gardens Tampa, and also include roller coasters. By January 1990, a small team of roughly seven to eight Imagineers were hard at work in a tiny, cluttered trailer with three-by-five cards and artist sketch pads to try to formulate something that would meet that criteria, but was Disney-oriented.

One of the advantages to such a proposal was that Walt Disney himself was a lover of animals and a strong advocate for conservation throughout his entire life. Originally, Walt had wanted live animals on the Jungle Cruise attraction, but was dissuaded because it would not provide a consistent experience for the guests and that the additional costs for the care of the animals could not be accommodated as Disneyland soared over budget.

The proposal to Michael Eisner included an image of a dinosaur themed attraction that was never built.

In addition, Walt had produced a series of award-winning True-Life Adventures theatrical documentaries to acquaint audiences with the wonderful world of nature and animals.

I attended a two-hour cast member presentation with Imagineer Joe Rohde at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park on June 14, 1998, where he shared:

"When I became involved in Disney's Animal Kingdom it was late 1989. 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?

"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."

The original proposal was for the park to be a three-part experience: traditional theme park attractions, a zoo-like component and a large "Epcot-style pavilion" that would provide information and education about animals.

The Imagineers knew little about what it would take to obtain, care, exhibit and manage animals so Joe Rohde brought in Dr. Bill Conway, the respected executive director of the Bronx Zoo to educate them.

It was an eye-opening education but after several visits, Conway needed to spend more time at his zoo so recommended the Imagineers contact Rick Barongi at the San Diego Zoo who had recently been promoted to curator of mammals and was a trained zoologist.

Barongi had spent time in New Jersey with Warner Brothers Jungle Habitat and with the Lion King Safari in Southern California, so it was felt he would be valuable to assist with the proposed jeep safari trek.

Initially just a consultant, Barongi became more and more involved with Disney's "secret project" and pushed hard for Disney to bring on more experts. Zoologists, curators and veterinarians from around the United States, including Dr. Conway, became an advisory board that helped launch the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund. The advisory board would become Disney's best defense when groups expressed concerns.

Their input significantly influenced the design of the park so that by late 1992, the design on paper looked very similar to the way it would on opening day. In 1993 Barongi was brought on full time at Disney after Michael and Jane Eisner were impressed when they visited the San Diego Zoo and Barongi gave them a personal tour. His role was not just to oversee the animal component of the developing theme park but to oversee animal operations at The Living Seas and Discovery Island.

By now the project had grown to roughly 500 Imagineers who worked and argued with WDW park operators and a group of animal care professionals who thanks to Barongi's outstanding reputation were recruited from 69 zoos across the country, with many of those zoos involving multiple hires.

Earth moving equipment was set up on the property in August 1994 for the official announcement. However that announcement would be delayed by a year. The death of Frank Wells (a huge champion of the project); Eisner's heart attack; the resignation of Jeffrey Katzenberg, who left to form his own company; and financial challenges with the newly opened EuroDisney theme park in France and the collapse of the proposed Disney's America theme park in Virginia all worked to raise doubts about proceeding with the project as the company began to struggle.

Eisner was still convinced it was a great idea and had been intimately involved with the plans from the beginning. He was the one who came up with the names Animal Kingdom and DinoLand. He said, "We have a Magic Kingdom so why not an Animal Kingdom?"

Briefly it was called Wild Animal Kingdom, until it was determined there might be confusion or legal issues with Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, an American television documentary series that ran from 1963 to 1988 and was still popular in reruns.

On June 20, 1995, Michael Eisner and vice-chairman Roy E. Disney formally announced Disney's Animal Kingdom to the media and that it would be "based on mankind's enduring love for animals and celebrating all animals that ever were or never existed."

The announcement was made in a ballroom at WDW's Contemporary Resort accompanied by a parade of African dancers and drummers. On the stage was a huge, painted model of the Tree of Life, inspired in part by a bonsai tree that the Imagineers had seen at the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival that would serve as the central icon for the new park.

The presentation included colorful concept paintings, a preview video and a promotional poster that featured dinosaurs, a dragon and a safari vehicle hanging off a rickety bridge.

Eisner said, "This is to the traditional zoo as the motion picture was to the stage play. It is a whole leap forward that keeps the concept of combining education and entertainment alive and well.

"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."

In June and July of 1996, two young giraffes arrived. They were the first of over a thousand animals who would be showcased on opening day.

WDW's fourth theme park opened on Earth Day, April 22, 1998. Some families had been waiting overnight for the gates to open and they did unexpectedly early at 6 a.m., a full hour before the announced opening time.

Roughly 28,000 paying guests attended that first day, as well as 5,000 journalists and many guests with annual passes. The turnstiles were locked to non-resort guests by 9 a.m. The park's first guests were greeted with rose petal confetti, African bands and a keepsake grand-opening lithograph.

Dancers gyrated to the beat of two dozen African drummers. A rhythmic choir of 500 chanted in Zulu along with a backdrop of 1,500 costumed Disney cast members. There was a performance of the award-winning Circle of Life song led by Grammy Award winner Lebo M (The Lion King on Broadway).

During the song, costumed performers carried giant kinetic sculptures of animals including an elephant, a lion, a triceratops and a dragon.

It was estimated that the park had cost approximately $800 million. Some animal rights groups had been vocal about their concerns. The Orange County Sheriff's office sent about 150 deputies but only about two dozen protesters showed up. The protest lasted approximately two hours and there were no arrests.

President of Walt Disney Attractions Judson Green addressed a group of honored guests at the park's Conservation Station. "Twenty-eight years ago, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson introduced the idea of a national celebration of nature and the environment (Earth Day)…It is our fervent hope that Disney's Animal Kingdom will be a living embodiment of that same spirit."

The first guests through the gate were Brenda Herr of St. Petersburg, Florida, her husband, Damon Chepren and their son, Devon, who slept in their car the night before in their quest to become the first guest family. The family received a lifetime pass to Walt Disney theme parks worldwide.

Park officials also paid tribute to their "Honorary First Family,'' rhino crusader Michael Werikhe and his daughters, Acacia, 9, and Kora, 7, in the ceremony at the park's Conservation Station. Werikhe, known throughout the world as "Rhino Man," led a one-man crusade to boost public awareness of the plight of the black rhinoceros and raised millions of dollars for the conservation and survival of the endangered animal.

Roy E. Disney presented Werikhe and his family with a giant "Key of Life," in the shape of The Tree of Life, the park's massive icon. In addition, the Walt Disney Company made a monetary contribution in support of Werikhe's conservation work.

Roy said, "Just as this theme park has its roots in our films, it also represents a major departure. Once a movie is completed, it's done forever. On the other hand, Disney's Animal Kingdom — like the animal world itself — will evolve and grow. It's truly a living thing… something we are consciously and proudly calling 'Disney's'."

Eisner read from the dedication plaque for the park:

"Welcome to a kingdom of animals … real, ancient and imagined:

"A kingdom ruled by lions, dinosaurs and dragons;

"A kingdom of balance, harmony and survival;

"A kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama … and learn."

Nearly a year later, Eisner told the media:

"Whatever doubts we may once have had about the Animal Kingdom's viability were answered on April 22, 1998, the day the park opened. The crowds were so large that we were forced to close our gates to further guests by 9:00 a.m.

"Over the next few months, attendance has exceeded every expectation, and the ratings from guests are the highest we've received for any park in our history. In a way, the Animal Kingdom takes us full circle.

"Thirty years ago, all you could find on our Orlando property were vast herds of grazing animals and some rather intimidating reptiles. Today, after billions of dollars in investment, we have unveiled our most original theme park concept yet: vast herds of grazing animals and some rather intimidating reptiles."

Remember that Eisner wanted Disney's Animal Kingdom to crush Busch Gardens Tampa that besides its animal attractions had thrill rides. When DAK opened there were no thrill rides because the project had soared wildly over budget to accommodate the care of the live animals so cuts had to be made.

Originally on opening day there would have been two major thrill rides. In DinoLand U.S.A. would have been The Excavator. Imagineers proposed a roller coaster similar to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It would be in an area that was supposedly a former sand and gravel pit with an enormous piece of leftover machinery called the Excavator. The area had been abandoned when the Dino Institute bought the property after dinosaur bones were discovered and transformed the field offices of the former business into a dormitory and cafeteria for students.

The Excavator was meant to look like a series of ore cars used to haul up the sand and gravel from the bottom of the pit to dump trucks. The paleontology students who were working in the area had reconfigured the unsafe device that had fallen into disrepair to transport the dinosaur fossils they were finding. The marketing publicity described it as "a rollicking coaster ride through a section of the dig supposedly too dangerous to enter". At one point, the ride would have zoomed through the inside of a dinosaur skeleton.

It appeared clearly on the original concept painting of the area. It was felt that the Countdown to Extinction (now Dinosaur) attraction (since it re-used existing technology created for a Disneyland attraction) would be easier and less expensive to build, yet still attract guests wanting a thrill ride.

The other thrill ride would have been Dragon's Tower in the section called Beastly Kingdom. That entire section was "postponed" and in its place was put the inexpensive and quickly built Camp Minnie-Mickey. Dragon's Tower was to be the land's looming major icon just like the castles in other Disney theme parks. This thrill ride roller coaster was to be housed in a tall, charred and ruined castle.

The story was that after a fearsome battle that devastated the original inhabitants, the castle had been taken over by a massive dragon as its new home. The jewel-encrusted dragon was very much inspired by the villainous Smaug in Tolkien's The Hobbit. Both greedy dragons guarded a vast hoard of untold treasures. The dragon figure was to be the largest and most sophisticated audio-animatronics creature ever built up to that time. Inhabiting the nearby caves was to be a colony of bats who were also clever thieves. Hanging overhead as the guests enter, the bats' whispers would convince the guests to help them in their plans to rob some of the dragon's riches.

Guests would have been strapped into a suspended inverted roller coaster to create the sensation of flying along with the bats on this ill-advised caper in a wild chase through the dark caverns, collapsing ancient castle corridors and even the fabled gold lair. The climax would have been a confrontation with the fiery-breathing dragon, who was not pleased at the attempt to rob him.

The winged dragon would have been the major character icon of the park. DAK's logo even featured front and center the silhouette of a winged dragon marching along with the other animals. McDonald's, a corporate sponsor at the time, released a Happy Meal toy of a purple winged dragon when the park opened. Even a ticket kiosk at the entrance of the park has the head of a dragon.

The park's logo featured a winged dragon.

As work progressed on the park, the cost of caring for and maintaining the real animals caused the budget to soar past all expectations. Cuts had to be made in order to finish the park and get it open on time. Nearly 75 acres were eliminated from the Africa section.

It was decided that either Dinoland or Beastly Kingdom could be built, but not both. Since Disney was already investing heavily in its first computer animated feature Dinosaur (2000), Eisner made what he felt was the best decision.

By the way, Rick Barongi went on to work on Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, but left Disney and is now a director at the Houston Zoo.

Judson Green, Disney Attractions president at the time, said, "Disney's Animal Kingdom is entertainment, but it would feel empty if we didn't have the passion and the breadth of knowledge. The park may go beyond even Epcot in terms of its educational value. Besides delivering a theme park experience, we'll be impacting others' lives."