Forging Futures at Disney's Animal Kingdom
April 22 was a special day for Disney’s Animal Kingdom—and not solely due to Earth Day. This monumental date also marked the silver jubilee of the pioneering theme park known for integrating attractions and thrills with enlightening environmental education.
Guests, members of the media, and a cohort of opening-day cast members gathered early Saturday morning to hear Animal Kingdom leaders reflect on how 25 years of sustainability initiatives, top-tier animal care, philanthropy, and global outreach have given Disney's Animal Kingdom the reputation and resources to make a tangible impact on plant, animal, and human health across the globe.
An Animal Care Empire
How did Disney’s Animal Kingdom grow their influence so widely over a quarter-century? Their dedicated Animals, Science and Environment cast focuses on the care of more than 5,000 animals at the park and across Walt Disney World Resort. Park leaders believe in the importance of disseminating the knowledge they’ve collected to guests through compelling stories. “It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come in 25 years, raising the bar regarding the way the world thinks about telling great stories about animals and about nature,” says Dr. Mark Penning, vice president of Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment team.
The commitment to animals in professional care at Disney’s Animal Kingdom extends far beyond the boundaries of the theme park. Disney is involved in numerous international partnerships and initiatives that work to keep animals healthy in their natural habitats. In Africa, Disney established the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE), which rehabilitates orphaned gorillas. They also work with partners in the state of Florida to protect nesting habitats for sea turtles, protect corals, and rescue manatees. Disney’s Animal Kingdom is also a proud member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which allows the park to connect with other institutions and keep endangered animal populations thriving.
Disney’s financial contributions mirror their commitment to the protection of nature—and the animals that call it home. “We do a lot of conservation work, and that includes everything from the Disney Conservation Fund to working with global organizations to help save wildlife in wild places,” says Dr. Zak Gezon, conservation manager with Disney Conservation. “The Disney Conservation Fund has given out over 125 million dollars over the last 25 years, and that’s helped to protect 315 million acres of habitat around the world and focused on over a thousand species.”
Combining Conservation and Fun
Animal Kingdom cast members are mindful of striking a balance between entertainment and education. “The original vision of this park was to have a place where we could celebrate wildlife, wild places, and the emotional connection people have with them,” shares Sarah Riles, vice president of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. To stay true to this vision, animal care teams always consider how management decisions will affect both the animals and the guest experience. “We look at our properties to try and figure out how we can manage things in a way that is amazing and entertaining and inspiring for guests, but actually create real habitat so we can be good stewards for the environment and do things in a way where people and animals thrive,” explains Dr. Gezon.