Supporting the Guest... errr... Animal Experience

by Jeff Kober, contributing writer

In the last couple of weeks we spoke of the concept of "onstage" and "backstage." In celebration of Disney's Animal Kingdom 10th anniversary, we are going to look at what goes on "behind the scenes" to support not the guest experience, per se, but instead, the animal experience.

Now while I have spent considerable time onstage at Disney's Animal Kingdom, I have spent less time backstage at Disney's Animal Kingdom than at any other park. It was the only park I didn't have a parking permit to. That is partly because in the early days of the experience, I think they were concerned for activists and others who might do something that would endanger the animals or guests. So fairly strict rules of who goes where were put in effect. It isn't that I couldn't go back there, it was that it was such a distance if you didn't have a car. If you think the park itself is huge, then consider the perimeter areas around the park, which really cannot be reached pedestrian style—at least if you are trying to get from, say, the break room in Dinoland to the Cast Services building behind Camp Minnie-Mickey to the Imagineering offices on the other side of the road from Conservation Station.

So when I was invited to a press event that honored the work being done for these magnificent creatures, I was intrigued. Especially so, because as a leadership/guest service consultant, I've been working with other zoological institutions such as the Chicago Brookfield and Seattle Woodland Park Zoos. These are great zoos, but in my opinion the gem of the AZA (American Zoological Association) empire is Disney's Animal Kingdom, and I wanted to see how they approached many of these important matters.

There are many components that make up the overall guest experience at Disney's Animal Kingdom. But let's not focus on the rides, the merchandise, and the restaurants. Let's not focus on even the guest experience itself, per se. Let's just talk about what it takes to support the animals on display throughout the park.  
Doing so requires that we take a look at the numbers:


The park is home to more than 1,500 birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, representing more than 300 species. This includes the largest groupings of Nile hippos and African elephants in North America. Onstage, natural-like environments are provided with plenty of room for movement. Beyond the 18-foot berm surrounding the park, all of these same animals have clean, functional, safe shelters that protect the animals not only from hurricanes but also from each other. While the animals sleep, Disney horticulturalists groom and replant the 100-acre savannah and other habitats. An average of 1,000 plants are introduced into the park each and every day.


Simply providing grass to animals is like simply having us dine on bread alone. The Animal Nutrition Center serves up approximately four-and-a-half tons of food each day—not counting the natural vegetation also eaten by some of the animals. More than 50,000 worms are provided to animals each week. More than 60,000 crickets per month round out the food pyramid for many. More than 4,000 pounds of vegetation and browse is placed strategically on the Kilimanjaro Safaris' savannah and other habitats daily.


Remember the pool where tigers mingle on or the great falls along the Pangani Forest exploration trail? There are 2.6 million gallons of water contained in various water features that come in contact with animals. On average the entire volume of water is treated and filtered five times daily, which means that 15.6 million gallons are treated and filtered every day.


Of all of the places we had to observe, what struck me most is the attention to healthcare. We would be lucky if most people in this country had the healthcare that these animals receive. More than 600 wellness checks are performed on animals each year. Lab technicians have analyzed more than 40,000 samples of animal poop since the park opened. Veterinarians have successfully performed surgery on tarantula spiders, and placed artificial eyes in fish. You can see many of these activities going on when you visit Conservation Station (Hint! It's best to go between 9 a.m. and noon each day. That's when they are usually doing the planned surgical events). State-of-the-art veterinary facilities include an x-ray room, ultrasound equipment, surgical suites and full-service laboratories. A staff of 10 veterinarians is available to handle animal health care.


As many as 150 animal species have reproduced since Disney's Animal Kingdom first opened its doors. There have been 13 hippo births alone. Twenty-two Micronesian Kingfisher chicks were hatched at the park, comprising 25 percent of the world's total population. Disney aviculturists have also hatched more long-tailed broadbills (a type of songbird) and African jacanas (a species of wading bird) than any other institution in the world.

And supporting all of this, the Animal programs team has some 550 Cast Members with 350 at Disney's Animal Kingdom alone. All of this goes to support your experience in seeing animals first hand in an environment second to none.

Little wonder that renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, after visiting Disney's Animal Kingdom and its programs exclaimed: "if I were an animal, I would want to live at Disney's Animal Kingdom. The support of these creatures is really amazing.

I mention all of this because when the gates opened in 1988, many wrote off Disney's Animal Kingdom as a lesser experience. They pointed toward the Beastly Kingdome being sacrificed for Camp Minnie-Mickey. They talk about the cheaper attractions built along Dinoland. Like any, I would welcome a greater attraction experience in these two corners of the park. 

But I don't think we have fully appreciated where Disney has put its investment—into the care of not only these creatures, but in the support of many conservation projects they have taken on. Some say that it's political— trying to avoid the mistakes made when the company sought to build Disney's America up in Virginia. But I say that you don't make the kind of investment that has been made if you don't feel passionately about these animals. You can build a great exhibit. But supporting that exhibit and the animals that inhabit them is a costly investment of time, money, and incredibly talented cast members. 

To that end, I salute Disney's Animal Kingdom on this 10th anniversary—not just for providing a celebration of animals—but also for providing the support behind these animals.

So what's the message for your organization? Celebrate what you do well! Communicate what you are offering for the betterment of others! Let others know your strengths and what you do for the better good.