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Poaching at Animal Kingdom…but not the animals

Image: Disney

The belief is that more than 1,700 species of animals reside at Animal Kingdom, although the suspicion is that this is a conservative estimate. Once Disney authorized the capital outlay for a new park, the quest became simple. They had to find enough people to work as overseers for countless species, many of which had never lived in North America before. And the job was made that much more difficult by the mercurial climate of central Florida.

Disney proceeded in a way that only the most powerful corporations can. They threw money at the problem. They could do this for a simple reason. As Rohde has mentioned over the years, his small team of Animal Kingdom designers was slender in its early days. While the project was primarily theoretical, he could keep the budget lean. That meant communicating with lots of consultants, none of whom worked for Disney. Prior to its confirmation, Animal Kingdom cost little to the massive bottom line of The Walt Disney Company. Once announced, it was noteworthy for having too few employees.

Rohde and Barongi leveraged all the contacts they’d made during the exploratory phase. They poached a jaw-dropping number of the finest zookeepers on the planet. This is not an exaggeration. Disney briefly caused a panic in the zoo community. Longstanding facilities suddenly found themselves without their best and most experienced staff members. Everyone who was anyone in the industry headed to Walt Disney World to take up permanent residence. Meanwhile, 69 different North American zoos had to put up Now Hiring signs. Disney’s gain was a bloodbath to the zoo community as a whole.

As for how they accomplished the smooth interactions between complicated animal ecosystems, that’s a topic worthy of an entire article on its own. What’s undeniable is that Animal Kingdom was a project Walt Disney’s people once considered so impossible that they chose artificial animals instead. Forty years later, a team of many of the world’s finest conservationists pulled off the task so deftly that the achievement seemed effortless. It wasn’t, of course, but that’s how fine a job they did.

The best opening you could hope for

Image: Disney

One of the most legendary days at Disneyland was also arguably its worst one. It was also the first one. The lingering memory of that debacle drove Imagineers and park planner operators to consider everything prior to the opening of a new location. In the case of Animal Kingdom, Disney could only control so much. The media grew obsessed with the ambition of the project.

Disney announced the opening date of April 22, 1998, which was fitting. It was Earth Day. Reporters requested a historic number of press credentials. Few of them believed that the company could pull off such a difficult task. Everyone wanted to see how well the animals, many of which were natural enemies, could co-exist. The same was true of normal theme park tourists. They too were curious about the new endeavor that was supposedly half-amusement park and half-zoo. On paper, it appeared to be the most novel Earth Day ever. Plus, Disney was pulling out all the stops for its latest offering. Opening day visitors would be met by performing African bands, given a grand opening lithograph, and taken along a path comprised of rose petal confetti.

Animal Kingdom

The gates for the park were due to open at 6 a.m., an hour earlier than the standard operating hours Disney had previously announced. They did this in anticipation of massive crowds, but even longstanding cast members expressed surprise at what happened next. The park capacity at the time was somewhere between 15,000 and 22,000, depending on which media report was reliable.

Within 75 minutes of Disney’s opening the gates to Animal Kingdom, the park had already exceeded maximum capacity…and by A LOT! A Disney spokesperson confirmed to the news services that they counted paid attendance in excess of 28,000 during this brief window when the gates were open.

The scary thought is that this total doesn’t reflect two other types of guests. Approximately 5,000 reporters utilized their credentials during this period. Disney employees had sagely tipped them to get in line as soon as possible. Otherwise, they would have missed the story entirely due to the quick closing of the gates.

 

The 33,000 guests mentioned above also didn’t include one other group. Annual passholders to Walt Disney World didn’t count as part of the paid tickets the company reported. It’s fair to say that Disney's Animal Kingdom exceeded capacity by as much as double on its opening day. Even using the most favorable numbers, at least 10,000 too many visitors took part in the opening day festivities. And all of this happened by 7:15 a.m. It was a bad day to sleep in.

What’s memorable about the day beyond the shocking lack of crowd control was the fact that the opening of Animal Kingdom occurred without incident. The park was full of broadcasters, with many of the media credentials going to television and radio services broadcasting live from the newest theme park at Walt Disney World. Cast members cleverly roped off sections of the park to give all these media outlets free reign during their broadcasts. They rarely interfered with standard guests.

The animals themselves were on best behavior. To the credit of all the conservationists Disney had poached from popular zoos, the habitats they built for the fledgling animal communities all held up under the stress of continuous interactions with other animals as well as humans. This was surprising to all involved. In the build-up to the grand opening, the media had savaged Disney over reports of animal fatalities. Whether those issues were overstated or the company’s newest cast members learned from the incidents is up for debate. What’s inarguable is that everyone got along on day one.

The only true problem was one that was avoidable for reasons you’ll see in a moment. The members of the press seeking to accentuate potential controversies at Animal Kingdom felt annoyed by the lack of animal issues on day one. Disappointed that their planned headline wasn’t available, they found another source of discontent.

Some of the opening day guests simply didn’t GET Animal Kingdom as designed. They thought of it in simplistic terms as a theme park with animals. These visitors rushed to the rides in parts of the park such as DinoLand U.S.A. and Asia’s Kali River Rapids. Once they’d ridden the few true rides at Disney's Animal Kingdom, they expressed confusion that the park had so little to do. Meanwhile, the guests who interacted with the animals felt a sense of awe at the achievement of Animal Kingdom. Those people wound up in articles written by optimists. The people who left the park by noon, annoyed by the crowds and lack of E-ticket rides, wound up starring in articles written by negative media outlets.

The truth was somewhere in the middle. On opening day, Disney's Animal Kingdom went as well as Disney could have hoped. It was clearly a source of intrigue for both the local Florida community and the rest of the country. The park was lacking in some key regards, though. This would become true in the coming years. After starting with solid park attendance of 8.6 million during its first full year in 1999, Animal Kingdom fell in popularity each of the next three years.

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Comments

It would have been impossible for opening day guests to rush to Kali River Rapids, as referenced here. The ride opened nearly a year after the park.

Avatar, meh. So Un-Disney. That aside, AK is my second favorite park after MK.

Im wondering why these Imagineers didnt bother to drive an hour down I-4 to look at Busch Gardens? They had this figured out decades earlier...besides the fact that these parks were in competition, Im confused why Disney decided the best place for inspiration was the Bronx Zoo? Perhaps there is more to this story.

You should edit this story. Kali River Rapids was not an opening day attraction. It came later. Good article!

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