Thursday, February 2, 2017

The Tiger in the Room: How Joe Rohde Pitched Animal Kingdom

By Brittany Bell

Animal Kingdom is irrefutably one of the most creative and unique Disney theme parks ever created. It’s immersiveness truly brings guests to a far-away land, one of adventure, mystery, and mystique. And, with Pandora opening this year, Animal Kingdom is about to get a whole new level of inspiring and educational entertainment. Interestingly enough, behind the complex theme park that is Disney’s Animal Kingdom is an equally amusing story about how the Park came to fruition. Joe Rohde, one of Disney’s top Imagineers and the man behind Animal Kingdom, had to put his imagination to the test when he pitched the idea of an “animal park” to the former Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner. Learn the amazing story of how Animal Kingdom got the green light in today's new article…

Joe Rohde, veteran executive at Walt Disney Imagineering

When Joe Rohde was tasked with creating ideas for a new Disney theme park in the early 90s, he was fascinated by the idea of building a “living” theme park. While Walt Disney had originally wanted to incorporate live animals into the Jungle Cruise when it first opened in Disneyland in 1955, the idea (at that time) seemed unachievable and was replaced with the audio-animatronic animals that we know today. However, Rohde was adamant on this idea, believing animals to be “cool”, especially for children, while also providing the “edu-tainment” that Walt always strove for. And, as Walt once wrote, “Some of the most fascinating people I have ever met are animals.”

Walt Disney on a visit to the Jungle Cruise to checkout the wildlife, 1964

When Rohde first went in to pitch his idea to then CEO Michael Eisner and his leadership team including the late, former President Frank Wells, he gave detailed specs of their idea for the Park. These specifications included viewgraphs to show the potential layout of the Park, vast parking for 6000 cars, the concessions, five theaters with 4000 seats, a 100-acre safari habitat, and a high-minded mission to raise environmental awareness. However, the answer Joe received was a definitive “no”, with the general consensus among the team that Disney doesn’t “do” zoos. Though frustrated, Joe Rohde regrouped and decided to work on the idea even more.

Former Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner (R) standing beside former company President Frank Wells (L) outside the Walt Disney Co. headquarters in Burbank

When Rohde returned to pitch the idea a second time, he came prepared with charts, graphs, and data. He wanted to convey just why his idea would create an unbelievable theme park and how it was a perfect fit for Disney. Though his second pitch generated more debate than the first, Eisner believed that live animals do not capture the “Disney magic” that is present in the other parks. Rohde, however, decided not to give up on his idea and, although frustrated, began thinking of a new and even better way to pitch the idea of an animal theme park to Eisner and his team.

Animal Kingdom concept art

Rohde’s newest idea came in the very roots of Disney: he needed to bring his pitch to life for the board. This time, when he went in to pitch, he came well prepared. He began his pitch much like he had with the others, talking about the specs, the “tree of life” that was to serve as the centerpiece, or "weenie" as Walt liked to call it, for the Park, and the foliage that would blanket the winding walkways. However, this time, while Joe was talking, the back door of the conference room slowly opened, and in walked an 800-pound Siberian tiger. Immediately Eisner and his team froze as they stared at the tiger. The animal took a seat next to Michael Eisner, and supposedly licked its chops while locked in a (possibly literal) death stare with Frank Wells.

After a few moments (and much staring from the team), the tiger left the room. Rohde looked to the board and asked one simple thing: “Any questions?” It’s safe to say that at that point, Rohde, and what would be Disney’s Animal Kingdom, got the green light. Now, almost 20 years later, Animal Kingdom is as enchanting and exotic as it was when Joe Rohde decided to bring the tiger in the room.

In 1998, an elaborate grand-opening ceremony was attended by a crowd of 2,000, with primatologist Jane Goodall, playing a special role in the festivities. Then-CEO Michael Eisner introduced the theme park to the world, calling it “a kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama and learn.”


Brittany Bell grew up in Lewiston, Maine, about 45 minutes away from Portland. She is currently studying Public Relations and Journalism at Boston University, and hopes to one day work for the Mouse himself. She grew up in a Disney-loving home, and would watch Sleeping Beauty on repeat as a little girl. Her first trip to Walt Disney World was in the summer of 2000, at four years old. Ever since then, Brittany and her family take annual trips to the World, and have no intention of vacationing anywhere else. Her favorite places in Walt Disney World are the Animal Kingdom Lodge, the Grand Floridian, and the Magic Kingdom. She can’t go without seeing Fantasmic! at least once each vacation, even though she chokes up a little at the final scene. Brittany is fascinated by how one man’s dream became an empire—one that makes dreams come true every day.

Before she became obsessed with Frozen and Queen Elsa, her favorite Disney characters were Princess Aurora and Mulan. She loves everything and anything Disney, from the parks, to the movies, to the Broadway musicals. In the near future she hopes to participate in the Disney College Program and work as a “friend of a princess”.

You can find all of Brittany's articles here.

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