Joe Rohde was faced with a massive dilemma. He and his team of Imagineers had been working relentlessly on a new park for Walt Disney World that would come to be known as Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but found themselves up against a nearly project-ending hurdle.
“Are guests going to feel that animals are exciting enough?” asked Michael Eisner, head of the Disney Corporation at the time. He was not at all convinced.
When building the original Disneyland, Walt Disney had wanted live animals for his Jungle Cruise ride, understanding how dramatic close proximity to elephants, hippos and other animals could be. He quickly realized, however, that the complexity involved in producing and maintaining such a show was beyond their ability and opted instead for animatronic animals.* In a frustrating twist, despite the ability to finally use live animals for a park experience, Eisner decided animatronic animals were the way to go, feeling that real animals simply lacked emotional impact.
For a creative person, this kind of development is heartbreaking. How could that possibly be the company’s decision? Having live animals in the park wasn’t just one thing, it was THE thing. Without it, the entire project might as well not exist. Something had to be done to drive the point home, so the team sent their leader to speak with the Disney executives, armed with something a little extra special.
Joe Rohde is an intense man, and when he speaks his passion for his work comes through. He began:
We know that there are concerns about whether animals are, in and of themselves, dramatic. The heart of the Animal Kingdom park is animals, and our guests’ encounters with them. We have gone to great lengths to make sure that the animals will be displayed in a way that will bring them and people together as never before…
As he spoke, the executives in the board room were suddenly joined by a massive Bengal tiger, which proceeded to walk slowly around the table. Joe Rhode, for all his intensity, could not match the presence of 400 pounds of fur, teeth and claws that could have, quite literally, severed the head of the mighty Disney empire as it moved to within sniffing distance of the small captive audience.
Rohde continued, stressing the importance of live animals and the dramatic effect they can have, paying no attention to the tiger that had completely disoriented the powerful individuals seated at the table. As the tiger was lead out the way it came in, the Disney executives met the gaze of the passionate lead designer of the Animal Kingdom project.
“…Proximity to animals—the illusion that they are right next to you—is essential.” Joe Rohde closed his argument.
Michael Eisner was left with no option. He had to agree.
Find this story, along with the entire history of how Disney’s Animal Kingdom park came to be, in Melody Malmberg’s The Making of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park.
*”Yes, if…” note: animatronic animals behave much more predictably than live ones, so Walt reasoned the attraction would actually benefit from the fact that every guest would get the same quality show every time. A great example of using the problem as the solution.