Produced by National Geographic and narrated by Josh Gad, the eight-episode docu-series Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom provides a backstage glimpse into the animals that live at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, as well as those living in The Seas with Nemo & Friends at EPCOT. Throughout the season, viewers get unprecedented access and a peek behind the magical curtain to see how the more than 5,000 animals from more than 300 species co-exist with the animal care experts and Imagineers to create a one-of-a-kind experience for guests.
At a virtual press junket to discuss the new series, Collider got the opportunity to chat 1-on-1 with Disney Imagineering visionary Joe Rohde about all things Animal Kingdom. During the interview, he talked about one of his favorite details in the park, the animal he’s most drawn to, the unique challenges in telling a story that doesn’t have a beginning or an end, coming up with ways to always showcase the animals, the early experimentation with ideas, creating a land based on an intellectual property, how he feels about Animal Kingdom now and into the future, and whether they’ll ever fix that Expedition Everest Yeti.
Collider: I absolutely loved this series and was surprised at how emotional it made me. What is your favorite place or thing, no matter how big or small, in Animal Kingdom?
JOE ROHDE: Animal Kingdom, the park, is really composed of Russian nesting dolls of detail. My favorite details are often very small. I love the queue line for Expedition Everest, for example, which is full of very specific nuggets. There are so many. For example, when you go through the queue, there’s this room called Tashi’s Trek and Tongba Shop, and it is just such a perfect evocation of a little tea shop that you would hike into and sit and have a little snack in, if you were deep in the Himalayas somewhere. Every time I’m there, it’s like I could be in the Himalayas. It’s so perfect. That’s one of my favorite spots.
That’s very cool. Do you have a favorite animal in the park that you find yourself personally most interested or invested in?
ROHDE: I love rhinos. Whenever I’m on the safari, I’m just waiting for the rhino part. Giraffes are great and the lions are great, but I want to see a rhino. We have quite a few white rhino, like a working herd.
What would you say the unique challenges are, in telling a story that doesn’t have a beginning or an end, but just continues to go on?
ROHDE: It’s very interesting, when you have that kind of story that’s unresolved, you have to create the entire design package of everything and it has to prepare you for this unresolved story. That’s why the park has the look and feel that it has. That’s why the park has this more realistic verité look. It’s so that you are prepared for this idea that you’re in a continual story. If it was a fantasy, where the stories have a clear beginning, middle, and end, then you’d do a very different kind of design to prepare people for that kind of story. But here, if you look carefully, everywhere you look — the trees, the walls, the details —everything is caught up in the obvious process of time and history, so that when you come to these stories that don’t really have a conclusion, they seem like they’re already part of a form of storytelling that can include them, as opposed to one that is finished, complete, packaged and made perfect.
Another thing that makes the park so unique is that, beyond just the various animal characters, you also have real live animals. What’s the fun in trying to come up with ways to have the park showcase them?
ROHDE: In order to showcase animals, you have to start with the animals. What do they want? What do they like? Where do they want to be? How do they live? How do they move? How do they think? How do they feel? You start there, and you’re backing out from that to think, “Okay, if all of that is true and all of that has to be that way, where can we be, how can we be there, and how can we see these animals, if that’s the way they need it to be?” There’s a very empathetic interface between what we desire, which is to be with and to see the animals, and what the animals desire, which is to be in a place where they have free will and they can go do stuff and eat stuff and meet their friends and do whatever they need to do. I really love it because it’s a very dynamic design exercise. But what it really requires is that we discipline ourselves, as to what is possible for us because the animals need the freedom to be animals as they are.
How would you compare the process of creating Animal Kingdom essentially from whole cloth to building a land that is wed to an intellectual property like Pandora? What is the difference between those things?
ROHDE: Everything at Animal Kingdom is predicated on a set of thematic ideas and those thematic ideas are consistent throughout. They are this notion of the intrinsic, unchanging and supreme value of nature and how everything we do expresses this, this notion of adventure as a psychological phenomenon, and adventure as a form of change, for yourself to go somewhere, you’ve never been, to see something you’ve never seen, and to do something you’ve never done. And then, there’s this personal call to action that is both our own and one that we put forward to our guests. If you think about this supreme intrinsic value of nature, psychological adventure and change, and personal call to action, those themes underline the Avatar brand, as well. So, what we did with Avatar is simply extract only those things that are harmonious with the rest of what we have to say at Animal Kingdom, and then build an entire land around those ideas. That way, it still thematically resonates with the rest of the land. It’s not predicated on live animals, but it is predicated on the value system that underlies every other land at the park.
Animal Kingdom is a park that went through many changes in its first year. Do you feel like it was a hard park to figure out, and does it feel like you were still trying to fine-tune that?
ROHDE: Yeah. I actually started on this thing almost 30 years ago, and there were eight years of conceptual development. It’s true, we experimented with a lot of ideas. Where exactly will we go with this idea of animals and what they might be, once you combine them with the idea of Disney? And then, there’s this question of, what happens to us and what happens to Disney? When we take on a subject like live animals, what do we become? And so, early on, you do see little experiments, here and there. And then, as time goes on, it settles into an identity and you can sense that identity when you’re in the park now. It’s a little more mature in its sense of identity, now that it’s been quite a few years.
Is there anything from those early days that you wish still remained there?
ROHDE: I’m not really wired that way. I am very forward-wired. I think creative people in general are this way. If you think creatively, then everything is always raw material. Even a finished thing that you just did is raw material because you’re constantly focused forward on, what can I do? What might I do? What do I wanna do? I tend to think forward, like what can we do with that, rather than what might we have done, or what did we do?
Back in June, you posted on Instagram about how you had collaborated with the Sherman brothers for a theme song for something that never got built. What was that land going to be?
ROHDE: There’s a book, Making of the Animal Kingdom, that’s out there in circulation and there was in time when we were going to have these lands that were more focused on make-believe animals and fantasy animals because that is included in the bigger bubble of what you might think the words Disney and animals mean when it comes together. So, that was part of that period of time, when we were experimenting with these different ideas. But as the park matures and clarifies itself, the live animals, more and more, determine the character of the park. The park is an expression of the values of live animals.
You’ve said that you still remember the song and can sing it. Is it sad to know that it will never be out in the world for everyone?
ROHDE: That’s a funny thing. That’s a thing between audience and creator. There is really this difference. It’s a psychological difference. It’s why creative people can sometimes be disruptive. They’re thinking about change. They’re thinking forward, thinking about creation, and thinking into the future about what they might do. There’s not a lot of nostalgia.
How do you feel about Animal Kingdom currently and into the future? How are you feeling about where it lives now?
ROHDE: Of course, when I walk Animal Kingdom, I usually am walking it professionally. I rarely have the opportunity to walk it experientially as a guest. I’m usually walking through it going, “That window is supposed to be painted,” or “When are we going to do the thing with the thing? When is this going to happen?” So, I constantly see it as a work-in-progress. I have in my head, as do other members of the team, these mental files of, well that won’t be there forever because we’re going to someday do this. And that thing was going to be like this, but now it’s like that, so that changes this. It’s a very active way of thinking. In some forms of design, this could be a liability, but because the animals are present, the animals bring with them the very premise of life, change, evolution, and progress, because they themselves are alive and they pull us along with this live living quality that they have. They pull us along into a world that is simply dedicated to the idea that the future will be different than the past because the future will involve living things, and living things grow and change, so the park grows and changes like a living thing.
Does any of that thinking about the park also involve you still having the goal of fixing the Yeti?
ROHDE: When you have a problem like that complicated problem, it’s like this Chinese box puzzle. It’s a technical challenge, timing challenge, fiscal challenge, and opportunity challenge. Think of it like this vast constellation of wheels, all turning. The whole thing has to line up, and that’s very, very hard to do. Someday this will happen, but it’s very hard to figure when.
Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom is streaming now on Disney+.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.