The Walt Disney World Ambassadors page posted a commemoration on Instagram today for the 123 cast members at Disney’s Animal Kingdom who’ve been around to make magic moments and watch the park grow and transform over all 25 years.
All were invited to a celebration recognizing their service, with various gifts and personalized plaques awarded.
The post itself reads:
Here’s a fun fact that we’re WILD about: Disney’s Animal Kingdom has 123 cast members who helped open the park and still work there today! So, we joined the group at a celebration recognizing them for 25 wild years. Seeing their connection to the park, nature and one another – it’s no surprise that so many of them are still here and great friends 25 years later.
Please join us in thanking all cast members for their hard work and dedication to service, quality, and creativity. Nothing would be possible without them, and we are all enormously grateful for the positive impact they make on a daily basis.
The History of Animal Kingdom
Disney’s Animal Kingdom owes its creative direction and existence to the eight years and $800 million of meticulous planning and construction led by Imagineer Joe Rohde. An eccentric Disney personality known for his commitment to authenticity, nature, and immersive detail, Rohde took creative lead as a younger and more outspoken individual than the company was accustomed to. While most corporate leaders wrote off the idea of a “Disney zoo” as tacky or redundant, he envisioned a living, breathing zoological experience that incorporated a realistic depiction of global cultures as much as it incorporated a realistic habitat for its animals. In a 1998 feature from Fortune Magazine, Rohde’s divergent style clashing with skeptical executives was surmised in one incident:
When Eisner wondered whether the mere sight of animals would excite visitors, Rohde brought a 400-pound Bengal tiger into a meeting where the big cat brushed up against the CEO. That objection evaporated.
An early preview of the Maharajah Jungle Trek, one could argue?
This sheer determination to convince all doubters with dramatic finesse helped push construction of the ambitious park despite high costs and unprecedented ideas. The emphasis on detail was an early sign this Kingdom would be slightly different than the one made of Magic:
While theme parks are mostly illusion, occasionally things that seem authentic really are. Thatched roofs on buildings in a faux African village were hand-woven by 13 Zulu thatchers brought over from South Africa, using bundles of grass harvested back home by their wives, sisters, and mothers. Some 1,500 hand-painted wooden animals were crafted in Bali, under Disney supervision.
Much of the park’s atmosphere and design was painstakingly handcrafted with authenticity in mind, and Imagineers took several informational trips around the world to inspire their art.
Upon opening Earth Day 1998, Disney’s Animal Kingdom had 40,000 mature trees, 60 miles of underground utilities serving its over 500-acre span, seeds from 37 countries, and a 140-foot Tree of Life centerpiece adorned with intricate animal artwork. It was, and remains, the largest Disney park on Earth. Succeed or fail, this gargantuan investment wasn’t going anywhere.
Luckily, the park has endured, and while The Walt Disney Company has certainly seen a share of difficult moments in the last quarter-century, its Animal Kingdom stands tall as the most visited zoo globally. Here’s a map from the park’s opening year for some added visual understanding of this park’s modifications over time:
Since its grand opening, three major expansions have occurred:
- The opening of Asia in 1999, which introduced guests to Anandapur and Kali River Rapids for the first time.
- Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain in 2006. The most expensive roller coaster ever created until Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure Debuted at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.
- Pandora — The World of Avatar, which introduced Flight of Passage and the Na’vi River Journey in 2017.
It’s been a momentous journey, dotted with major changes and additions; and while this occasion celebrates the past, a continually-evolving future may be on the horizon, as Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro teased the replacement of Dinoland U.S.A. with a new area based on “Zootopia” and “Moana.”
What is your favorite memory of Disney’s Animal Kingdom? Let us know in the comments.