26 April 2008

Okay, so this is Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Today we’re stepping outside of my usual sandbox a little, not that my sandbox isn’t large enough for all of my ideas already. Yet, as I meandered through Animal Kingdom on Tuesday, and as I drove home on Wednesday, I began to feel that the 10th Anniversary of Disney’s Animal Kingdom should be accessible to everyone. After all, the parks themselves are accessible to guests who are visually, hearing, and physically impaired. While I am certain that the audio from Joe Rohde’s talk on Tuesday in honor of Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s 10th anniversary is already beginning to make its way throughout the online community, I am less inclined to believe that a transcript is available for hearing impaired guests and members of the community.

There may be some bumps and glitches in it, as some nights I have been working very late on this project, and I should warn you now that the text is over 8,300 hundred words, but I think it is a treasure for all to benefit from. So, without further ado, here is the entire transcript from the Joe Rohde session. Enjoy!

Well thanks Val. So, I know since we’re all kind of insiders. You know we’re all cast members, and we kind of, you know, know the ropes of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Rather than doing a very very formal presentation, I was gonna try and just talk about some of the ideas that went into making the park. I know some of you were probably here when the park opened, but I imagine there’s quite a few of you that have come to Animal Kingdom since it opened. So some of this might be old information to some of you, some of it will be new information to others of you, and I’ll just try and talk about some of how we went about the process of conceptualizing the park, and what we tried to have it mean.

I mean Imagineering has been around for a long time, some of you may have had direct involvement with Imagineers through one aspect of your job or another. It’s quite a diverse group of people that we are, and not simply diverse in the fact that we come from different professional backgrounds. Indeed we have architects, and engineers, and business managers, and illustrators, and sculptors, and acoustical engineers, and industrial engineers, all kinds of people working in Imagineering. But also, there’s not really kind of like a formal job qualification to be an Imagineer, so we end up with extremely diverse people from very very diverse points of view. It’s really an odd mix of people that we bring together to do this job. And when we set out, this was a million years ago, it was actually, I’ll tell you the very first meeting that I ever ever had to talk about doing something that was gonna have to do with animals was probably in August of 1989. And Eisner had this idea ‘we want to do something about animals,’ and I went into this meeting with him, a meeting which lasted about five minutes. In which he was like, “people like animals, people like Disney, if Disney did something with animals, people would like that.” You know, and that was it. There was one other statement which was, “You know, we’ve got the Magic Kingdom, we should have the Animal Kingdom.” Like that’s a sentence that somehow makes sense. So, and that was it. It was sort of like, you know, mystic words from the pharaoh, okay. That’s the mission. And away we’re gonna go with it.

And I have to say, in the early years of thinking about Animal Kingdom, all of this seems rather old news to many of us now, but it was a real dark horse kind of project. I mean everybody was, they were still building the European Disneyland, the one in Paris, there were all kinds of other ideas out there that drew tremendous focus from Imagineering and from the company, and here was this tiny little team of people, nobody had really ever heard of any of us, it’s not like we were famous, and, you know, my earring was much smaller, so, you know, nobody noticed me running around, doing this thing, with this odd group of people. And I would have to say, in general, most people figured, ‘okay, this is just some odd exploration of some idea, may or may not happen, but probably won’t happen.’
If you’ve read the book, the Making of Animal Kingdom, I think this is mentioned in the book, because Eisner had had such a, he really wanted to do this thing with animals, they had gone off and done this big study, a huge 400 page white paper study, from the Business Division, what used to be called Strategic Planning, study of zoos all over the country, and you know, how much did people pay to go into them, how much did they cost to run, and blah, blah, blah, all these things. And this big document basically was presented to the company saying, ‘you don’t want to do this. There’s zoos all over the country, you know, people pay fifteen bucks to go in, they’re all subsidized by governments, they’re subsidized by volunteer labor,’ a million reasons why this isn’t a good idea. So all of this was already in place the first morning any of us sat down to think about Animal Kingdom. But they did us the great favor of presenting us with this giant 400 page document. Which basically described, okay, you know, if you don’t do this, then you might be able to do something. So we set about really from the very beginning to make sure that what we were describing, what we were talking about doing, would sort of veer off sideways from everything that was described in this giant document they so obligingly gave us to read.

Pardon me if my voice is a little shaky, I was talking all day long, ‘til like midnight yesterday, and of course all morning this morning.

So, I have slides that I am gonna sort of talk through a little bit of that history of how things went down in those years. But one of the things I think would interesting for all of you to understand is that to the degree to it, as much as Animal Kingdom is a place, it’s obvious that it’s a place it is built out of concrete, it’s built out of steel, it’s got doors, it’s got air conditioning, people come and go, it was really conceptualized as a story. We really do think about it the way that we think about a movie, the way you think about a play, the way you think about a novel. It just happens to be built out of physical objects, but, in fact, it is meant to function like a story, a story that when people come they are wrapped up inside of this story. And to the degree that they choose to use their own imaginations and to indulge in the reality of that story, to that degree, we wanted to provide them a place to be that real for them. Not everybody wants to do that, obviously there’s some people who want to ping off, you know, every E-Ticket they can here and then buzz off to another theme park. Okay, that’s great. I don’t actually think that’s the way to reap the value of what has gone into Animal Kingdom. I really think the best way to get the value out of Animal Kingdom is to really really slow down and pay attention and sort of read it the way you would read a really really complicated and rich kind of novel.

So , like I said, I’m not, this isn’t like a, I don’t have like a structured presentation, I’m gonna sort of show slides and I’m gonna talk about what the slides represent talk about some ideas, I have one little riff I’m gonna take you through, might help you understand how we think, and we’ll just see where that leads us.

Now, I wonder if, is that screen good enough for you guys? Cause some of these slides, let’s just see when we go to this slide if its, cause otherwise I can take the lights down a little bit.

Okay, so this is Disney’s Animal Kingdom. If you travel the property at all you can almost see where everything is. There’s the big canal that runs through the Northern Savannah, as a matter of fact, that little crossover is still there, right in the middle of the elephant area of the Savannah. See where the little road goes over the canal. And then that great big thing that looks a little bit like a racetrack, big chunks of that are still there, pretty much where Asia is today, where the unbuilt part of Asia, beyond Kali River Rapids, that’s kind of where that is. And then as you look down that road that continues on down, you can kind of figure out where Africa goes, almost half way down, really to where those, you see the sort of three big sandy patches, that’s about where Africa is. And the Tree of Life is almost where that sandy patch starts to touch, sort of beyond that sandy patch, just the beginning of that dark foliage. It was just this gigantic piece of land, that we were going to imagine, we were going to do something interesting on. Which is, in its way, if you think about it, it’s incredibly arrogant, that a bunch of us just sat down like ‘Would you please give us this giant giant piece of land, and give us millions and millions of dollars, and just trust us that we’re gonna do a really cool thing with all of it, later, that you can see when its open.’ And for some reason, that escapes me to this day, they decided that was a good idea, and we got to do it. But it did take many many years before the company was ready to make that decision and to fund the project. And those years were spent in a tremendous amount of study and preparation to begin to be serious about getting Animal Kingdom built.

This is us, I think we are measuring off the spot where the Tree of Life ended up being. And we sort of drove out, this was our first chance to go out on the site, we were all so excited, we put on our boots,
‘cause we are all afraid of snakes, and we go tromping off into the middle of this site, most of which was cow pasture and the old fireworks testing area. But there were these little areas with trees in there, mostly the kind of scrub pine kind of stuff, and then the oaks, which, of course, in the end we saved the saved the areas where we found the oaks.

For those of you who weren’t part of getting it built, or that weren’t here on opening day, or that weren’t privy to all of the stuff that went into describing the project when it first opened, it is kind of hard to imagine that, once upon a time, it was just sand. I mean, miles of sand. This is looking from the Tree of Life towards Asia, those of you who can kind of recognize the scene a little bit will see that the foundations of the Asia bridge, you can see the little peninsula doesn’t even have the little temple on it yet, down here is the shop. There’s like nothing. When I came down here for my first, I relocated down here to build Animal Kingdom, I walk out on the site, and this is probably 1995, and it just looked like Mongolia. As far as you could see was nothing, nothing but nothing, giant dunes of sand and imported soil stretching to the horizon, with sandstorms on them. I mean it was like Lawrence of Arabia. And you’d walk off onto this giant site, you really could not even see across the site, and far away you’d see a little truck disappear behind some sand dune that’s like a mile away.

I actually got lost one day. I really did. I was walking, cause you’ve got to picture, there’s no navigational stuff, right, there’s just mounds of dirt and trails of dirt that some of them just dead end. I’m walking along, and I realize that I don’t know where I am. I, I don’t know where I am. And I don’t know which way I’m going, and I’m surrounded by sand and sand dunes, and I go to the top of the sand dune and I just see more sand dunes. I just have to walk until I get to the edge, you know, and then that will tell me, I’ll walk along the edge until I find something.

So, it’s amazing really how much of this is a creation. What we see today is a creation, a thing that was made, and in that sense, it’s a fiction, it’s a fictional thing. We made it up, we put it in, it grows, but because it’s a story, rather than really really truly real place, you really have to always keep in mind, and we always try to keep in mind, the fact that it is meant to be structured like a story. And I don’t know how many of you have ever read a book on storycraft, or how to write your award winning screen play, or how to write a play, but they generally all open with the same kind of information. And it talks a lot, as a matter of fact, about theme, and about the fact that if you expect your story to hang together across the long run, you’ve got to do a lot of work right up front on what is the theme. That word theme, this some of you may know this, it drives me completely out of my mind crazy when I hear this word misuse. Theme is a noun, it is not a verb, you cannot theme a thing. A theme is the underlying value system upon which a story is built. It is not the fake wood detailing on the outside of a box. So when you start by thinking about theme, you really have to ask yourself hard questions. Well, why am I interested in this story? What would move me emotionally about this story? Why would other people be interested in this story? What’s the universal human value at the bottom of this story? That’s gonna be the theme. And if you can find those themes, and there can be very many of them, because they start cross past each other and getting way too complicated, you find those themes, you dedicate yourself to those themes, and you try to drive every single piece of design to follow these themes.

Now, not the only one, but one of the major themes of Disney’s Animal Kingdom is this intrinsic value of nature, this idea that nature itself has a value, which is a greater value than anything else you can put on the other side of the ballast. Nature’s value is greater than money, nature’s value is greater than convenience, nature has intrinsic value, a value in and of itself. I don’t have to save the environment because it’s good for the watershed, I can just save the environment because it’s got value. So, if this is one of the fundamental values of Animal Kingdom, and we decided very early on if you were going to have animals, by default, it’s gonna be, you’re gonna have this theme of nature, and the animals can’t be strangers in this environment. This has to be a place where animals make sense, and animals don’t behave like theme park audio-animatronics, they have life, they have will, they do what they please, they live, they have babies, they eventually die. So, if you are going to have a place that is about animals, it has to be about the very idea at the very bottom of animals, which is the intrinsic value of nature.

So, if you set that at the base of an idea, and then you start to roll out a bunch of choices, the choices become very clear, it’s really interesting. For example, if there was no Animal Kingdom, and you were faced with a choice of, okay, I want to do a park about the intrinsic value of nature, is that park going to be fundamentally about architecture or fundamentally about landscape? Landscape. Landscape, it’s just so obvious, right? So, you go, okay, it’s gonna be about landscape. Well, this is a landscape element. This landscape element does not say very much about the intrinsic value of nature, as a matter of fact, is say a whole lot about the overwhelming power of mankind. It’s a little plant, surrounded by circle, in a bunch of pavement. But, it’s a landscape object, so clearly the job is not yet done, there’s more story work to be done, before you even begin your design. There’s all kinds of landscape, you need to sort it all, gather it into bundles, and present yourself with another branching choice.

If my park is about the intrinsic value of nature, and I have to choose between kind of formal, linear, organized, grid-like landscape elements or curvilinear, natural, irregular landscape elements, which am I gonna choose? Irregular. Because formal, straight, linear: not nature. So you choose. And what that leads us to, what it led us to, was a kind of a statement that we could say, ‘Look, when we begin designing, our design is going to be like this. The intrinsic value of nature means that, you know, nature is gonna dominate the whole design, it’s gonna be about natural forms, we’re gonna let natural things take place, we’re going to deliberately make the architecture subordinate to the natural forms, the architecture has to appear to either be celebrating nature itself or it has to appear to be succumbing to nature itself. That way it will be obvious in the very design of the park, when we begin to design, that this is a park about the intrinsic value of nature.’

And so we did this several times, we took different design elements, we did, in fact, revisit the architecture itself, and figure, ‘Okay, we know we have to have architecture, we just know we don’t want to have the architecture be dominant. So, how does this theme express itself in architecture?’ We did this with several themes, the intrinsic value of nature, this sort of transforming power of physical adventure, that if you go out and dare yourself to do things, you will come back changed, this sort of theme of the universal love of animals, that one way or another, whether it’s a live animal, an imaginary animal, a prehistoric animal, a storybook animal, one way or another there is a form of the animal world that brings people emotionally alive and that we can use to bring them into contact with this idea. And that all happens before we start thinking, ‘Okay, maybe we could have a ride that did this, a maybe we could do that, and there could be a big tree, maybe there’s a river, maybe there’s an island, maybe there’s a giant broccoli, whatever.’ And that goes down on cards.

Now this is kind of cool. I don’t know why we did this, but as we were developing Animal Kingdom, we never threw these cards away. We stuck them in boxes. So these are the real cards, we really did pin to the board, almost twenty years ago, when we were beginning to talk about the design of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. These words that are written on these cards, most of that is my handwriting, which I’m not necessarily proud of, and the other handwriting I recognize as from Kevin Brown, who has moved on to other things, he was one of our chief writers. And we just started riffing on this idea and branching it out, sort of diagramming it. So, again, there’s no design going on, we’re sort of diagramming out the story of, ‘Okay, if those are the values, and these are the opportunities, how does this diagram itself out into a story that people can interact with?’ And these, again, are from 3x5 cards and 5x7 cards that are almost twenty years old, that we drew these little diagrams on, as we tried to, you know take our brains through, ‘How are we going to organize this,” and when we get to the sub pieces, how are we going to organize them.

Now, you may notice that these don’t necessarily look like the way the park actually turned out. It’s because there are many many of these cards. Anything we worked on, it doesn’t go in a straight line, it can’t go in a straight line, ‘cause you really don’t know the conclusion, you only know the goal. So, every day, every day presents you these branching choices in design, and you’re constantly steering and branching, and steering and branching, as you find your way towards which of the potential goals will actually be the goal we can reach when we get to the outer end of this process. In a way, it resembles a tree, where you start out at the root, you start out where the tree touches the ground, and you know you’re gonna end up on one leaf of this tree by the time you’re done, but you do not know which leaf. So you just start travelling up this tree of ideas, and constantly you are meeting opportunities, challenges, changes, and you find your way out. So, these diagrams sometimes don’t look like what ended up getting built, but they represent the way we thought about how to build it, so that by the time it was done, we would be confident that there would be strong, anchored ideas beneath what otherwise are kind of weirdly disparate elements. I mean, there’s nothing that necessarily pulls these things together emotionally, so that they make sense as a story, not just as a place.

Like logically, sure, I can logically go to Africa, but, which Africa? There’s so many versions of Africa, we want an Africa that is going to tell us a story about a very particular thing. In fact, we want it to be a story about a challenge to the beauty, and the wonder, and the intrinsic value of the natural land of Africa. So that tells us if Africa, the Africa we are going out into, is supposed to be this beautiful, natural place, to make that place appear more beautiful and natural, the village that you depart from should not be that. So, where in Africa can we go to find inspiration from a style of architecture that is authentic, that is Africa, but does not mimic the feeling of nature that we want to have when we go out into nature? And so that led us to the Swahili architecture of the East Coast of Africa that, indeed, became the inspiration for Harambe. It is true that this is a real form of architecture that really exists along the East Coast of Africa, but that’s not why we chose it. We chose it because the geometry, and the hardness, and the whiteness, and the cubic quality of that architecture sets it apart from this world of nature that we’re gonna go into, and will make that world appear more natural when we go out into it, because, after all, it’s not natural, it’s a giant machine that we are building for keeping animals alive and moving thousands and thousands of people an hour in vehicles through, so it’s got to feel like nature. Not just look like nature, feel like nature. And part of the way we are gonna do that is by managing the emotional sequence at the beginning. So, if you feel the naturalness of that, then you are gonna feel the threat all the more. Which is, of course, a threat to harvest out the value of that nature, turn it from intrinsic value into monetary value, and therein lies the conflict that is at the source of almost every story at Animal Kingdom. The conflict between monetary, material value and the intrinsic value of nature. Even Expedition Everest plays out this story through its plotline.

So that makes it sound like, ‘Oh we thought this up, and we followed the diagram, and we came up with this idea, and it all worked out very neatly.’ But, of course, as I said before, that is never how it really happens. It’s sort of like being blindfolded with a stick, and sent off into the woods, and you sort of beat and whack your way through the woods until you get to the other side. So what follows, remember we already know we’ve got this park about love of animals, intrinsic value of nature, we know that we want to bring people into this park in some way that is different than the way they’ve gotten into the other parks, which are about human stories, and which are very architectural environments, and what follows is a series of renderings of various explorations of how we might do that.

There was the Ark version. Where we thought, ‘Well, you know, we’re trying to save the planet, like Noah, what if it was like an Ark?’ And we thought, ‘You know what, we will never make it two steps down the racetrack with this idea before we are up to our hips in controversy.’ So, no Ark.

So, then we thought of this idea, okay, it’s like a garden architectural environment, and it’s got sculptures of all these animals and they’re marching their way into the park, like they’ve come to the park as if it was like an Ark, and they’re all marching in from everywhere, and we march in with these animals, and they’re all around us and they’re all headed into the park. And then we thought, ‘Okay, so that means when I come to the park, and I look, at my first view, and I take the photograph of my view, I am looking at hundreds of animals’ butts.’ Okay, so it’s not that, it’s not that, that’s not the idea.

So, we go to another idea. Okay, no, it’s gonna be like this kind of Woodstocky, woodsy little village, with stained glass and, you know, art nouveauy little cottagey things in the woods. And then we thought, ‘Okay, that’s great if you’re like a hippie, but that’s not about animals, that’s going all the way back to being about macramé and stained glass and granola, and that’s not Animal Kingdom.’ So, we didn’t go there.

So, then we had this, okay, it’s going to be this gigantic cavernous grotto, and it’s full of ferns, and it’s like the beginning of the world and you’re gonna go into this huge grotto and you pop out on the other side, and you end up in the park. And, in fact, the grotto concept is the final one that sort of everybody looks at and goes, ‘Alright.’ In my head, this is my sad job, I have to do this all the time, I have this little calculator in my head, and you go to somebody, ‘Okay, so, the grotto concept, which is very appealing, very interesting idea. If you measure your grotto, you’ll realize that the grotto alone, just the grotto, represents about 400,000 square feet of rockwork, which is twice the size of Expedition Everest.’ So, that’s probably not actually the idea, because that’s like all the cement in Florida, going into one thing, and we have a whole park the build. But there’s something in this idea, we can use this idea, and find our way to the spirit of a place that we can build, that still is this rich, green, caverny kind of place that we go into on our way into the park, that calms us down, that changes the mood, that instantly establishes that this experience, this park, is about a different story, a different kind of experience than any experience you’ve done before. And that’s kind of how you finally get to one of these ideas.

Same thing with the Tree of Life. This is one of the very first renderings of the Tree of Life. And if you look at the people wandering around the Tree of Life, you’ll see that it’s much smaller than even the Tarzan Treehouse. It’s like a little tiny Tree of Life. This is another thing I do all the time, if I take my fingers and I measure people in other people’s drawings, so like, ‘Okay that person is six feet tall, right? That’s a grown up, ‘cause there’s a little kid next to them, so they’re six feet tall. So if they’re six feet tall, and they’re standing next to that tree, that tree is forty feet tall. Well, there’s twenty-five thousand dollars for that one tree. So, and that tree’s forty five feet tall, that means that tree back there is forty five feet tall, and if that tree is forty five feet tall, then that means that that tower that you how behind that tree is three-hundred and seventy-five feet tall. And if it’s really three-hundred and seventy-five feet tall, it’s gonna have a big red light on top. Is that what you meant?’

So, it is worth looking at these renderings, because you really can see, Look, the people are big, really big, that means the tree is really small. And it wasn’t even in the middle of the park, but we moved it to the middle of the park when we realized this one the kind of symbol we wanted in the middle of the park. And then when we made the tree really big, we completely chickened out, and decided, ‘Okay, well the tree is now so big, that the only way we’ll ever be able to hold it up is to build a giant geodesic dome, and then we’ll like stick fake leaves on the outside of the geodesic dome. And it will look very geometric, but kind of like a tree.’ And we spent a long time on this version of the tree, which had a restaurant on the bottom floor, and kind of a play environment all through the body of the tree, and this geodesic dome. And finally one day, very late, very late, one of the engineers came and said, ‘You know, now that we have designed the steel and the branches to hold up that geodesic dome, those branches would hold up anything. So, we don’t need the geodesic dome, because the tree is so strong now that we can just hold up the branches themselves.’ So, of course this sounds really cool, but it’s like a disaster, because it’s really late in the sequence. And we’re like, ‘Okay, alright, if that’s what you want to do, we gotta do it, we gotta do it quick, we gotta make these changes, gotta come up with a new vision for the tree.” So we rapidly reconceptualized the tree to become the tree you see today, and went through our design process, and that, indeed, became the Tree of Life that we built.

And, you know, you guys have all seen the pictures with the giant steel thing that’s inside of it, and getting the sculpting done on the surface of the tree. Which was, another whole thing that, you know, you have this great idea, and then you realize, ‘Okay, okay, the whole tree is a work of art. It’s all about what the tree looks like. It’s covered with animal forms, and tigers and wildebeests and birds, and blah, blah, blah, blah, all this great stuff, and we’re gonna sculpt that all over the tree. Well, anyone out there with an art background knows that when you’re creating a work of art, you need to be able to see it. But, to build it, you have to build scaffolding, to get up and work on it and, of course, the scaffolding to build the tree is so thick you can’t see the tree. So, we’re constantly trying to imagine, I mean we are right up on top of this tree for a year and a half trying to imagine, ‘Oh my god, I wonder what this thing is going to look like when we drop all this scaffolding down, because, you know, we’re not going to get much of a chance to learn,’ and we, just frankly, you know, worked very very hard, they’re very skillful artists, a lot of the work on the Tree of Life was done by real professional sculptors who did a fantastic job of bringing it to life.

I’ll talk about one other thing, I’m trying to go through some of these ideas very carefully. Remember that we did a lot of research, we travelled all over the world, doing the research to make Animal Kingdom for a lot of reasons. One of the reasons is just that we knew that this park needed to feel like reality, really feel like reality, and when you build a three dimensional place, it’s not the same as a picture, it can be very deceptive. If you go to a coffee table book, and you think about, well, let’s just picture Venice, Italy, beautiful place, lovely place, people go there on vacation. If I had the job of doing a coffee table book on Venice, Italy, there’s all these layers that happen by the time that coffee table book shows up. Some photographer goes to Venice, Italy, he makes personal choices about what’s gonna make a good photograph, not what Venice, Italy feels like, but what’s gonna make a good photograph that he can put in a book to sell in his book about Venice, Italy. So, he’s taken all of these photographs and looking, not for the essence of Venice, Italy, but for those photographs which you can take, which might evoke some qualities which are editorial about Venice, Italy. Then he goes to a publisher, who says, “Well, you got seventy-five thousand photographs here, I’m gonna use three hundred of them. I like these, these will make a good book.’ We put that into a book, there’s only so many of them, their sold in so many book stores, you know, you’re way down at the bottom of this upside down pyramid of information by the time you get a book in your hand about a subject. When you go to a real place, and have real experiences, with real people, in that place you come away with a very immediate holistic sensation of what is it like to be there, and the experiences that we have then become the foundation for the feelings that we try to incorporate into this thing. Even with Everest we came away with this, all the prayer flags, that was added rather late because when we went to the area of the Himalayas that it was based on, I’d been there before, but even I had not really thought through how much you feel the wind in these areas. And the reason you feel it is because there are these prayer flags everywhere, and they respond to the movement of air, and they give it a whole atmosphere. So, this idea of travelling, to go to these places, to have experiences, and to personally collect those details, which you need to tell your version of a story is part of what, I think, makes Animal Kingdom have that funny unique quality of feeling so weirdly kind of real.

It also helps you realize there are things you cannot do. These are photographs we took in the Serengeti, on our very first trip to Africa, which, immediately made it clear, ‘Look, we can’t do this. You would need hundreds of square miles. You know, you can’t do this. If you lived in Kansas you could do this, you know. We’re not in Kansas. We’re not doing this.’ We went and looked for other photographs, photographs that we also took in Africa, where I said, ‘Okay, we could do that. That looks like something we could do. So let’s focus on that.’ So, we started looking through the photographs, you know, culling through these photographs trying to figure out what kind of environment can we create, that would be based on something real, that fits our narrative needs. We’d make notes, we’d add things up, and, as you guys know, eventually we’d come up with these techniques to mimic the qualities of the environment that we saw in the real places we went to.

But it is a very very designed environment. Africa, for example, I was just out there yesterday with this safari guide guy and we were driving around, and you know, we all know there are like thirty-five trucks out there driving around, right? And you never really see more than maybe three or four at a time, and part of that is because of the very very deliberate design that we put into Africa from the very beginning. We did some of the very first digital modeling for large landscape firms that was ever done at this scale. It took us days to print out one job like this, from these rooms of computers that were sending all the data into. Now you do this in Sketch-Up it’ll take you an hour and a half. But if you look closely at the design plan for Africa, you’ll notice all these little humps, the little shadow and highlight humps, like on a relief map, and those humps are set in place just like the walls in scene between scenes, just like in Pirates of the Caribbean. You know, as you ride through Pirates of the Caribbean, you don’t realize that you are kind of looping back and forth through an architectural environment from room to room, because the walls in the scenes of the rooms prevent you from being aware of all the other boats, and all the other rooms, and all the other scenes, and the African safari was designed the same way. So that, when it was finally executed, and when it was done, you wouldn’t really understand how it laid out, and you wouldn’t be aware of the reality of what it is. We’re not trying to present you with the reality of what it is, you’re supposed to be inside a story, inside a story about being in a safari camp in Africa. So, you know, we would do the renderings, expressing kind of where we wanted the story to go. Another problem that we came up against, which is kind of interesting, and a lot of these pictures I don’t know have been seen before, they’re just kind of stuff I pulled from the file. But, so we knew, unlike a scene in a ride, where you can direct people to look over here, we knew two things. One, you can look where ever you please, and number two, we will never know where the focal object is going to be, which is an animal. The animal could be anywhere and you could look anywhere. So, when we did our storyboards we every thirty seconds, we drew a line on the ride track, estimated the average speed of the vehicle, made a dot every thirty seconds, and we drew these hundred and eighty degree storyboards that we would hold up in front of our faces, like this, and go, ‘Okay, that’s at, you know, second number seven-hundred, we’re here seeing something like this, wildebeests might all be over here, they might all be over here, but they’re gonna be here in this scene. Okay, pick up the next one,’ you know. And we’d bend it around our head and go, ‘Alright, this is the next scene, ‘ so we could get some sense of what is this going to be like to progress through this environment, because back then there wasn’t like, you couldn’t do a digital ride-through or something, no such thing existed.

And then of course, how successful are we going to be at everything we know, keeping the guests from knowing those things, so that what they see, and what they feel is completely natural in its feeling. This is a photograph I took during production of the flamingo pool. And this is virtually the same view, from the guest point of view as they drive by on the ride track. So, this feels like nature and, of course, those flamingos have to be able to stay there, they have to not have to worry that, you know, animals are going to come get them, they have to have a safe life on a little island where they can raise their babies, and yet, we don’t want you to feel that. We want you to feel that, ‘Wow! I’m in Africa, and there happen to be some flamingos over there.’ So we trying to sort of bury the work that we did.

This is just another example of starting from a real experience. In this case, we have the gibbons who are on the islands, you know, in Asia. And we know that they need something to swing on and climb on, that’s what they want to do, they live in trees. So, we’re trying to figure, ‘Well, what in the world could we possibly build that doesn’t look like a jungle gym, that makes sense out of an environment where these gibbons would be climbing and playing, and blah, blah blah.’ And we just happened on one of our research trips to see this temple under restoration. The one in the upper left hand corner, that’s a real temple, in Nepal, under restoration, and that became the inspiration for what we ultimately built as the gibbon temples, because it solved a problem that, frankly, we didn’t know how to solve until we came across this example.

It’s another interesting thing about the work we did is just working with all of these different people from around world. Working with Balinese carvers, working with bronze casters in Nepal, working with all these different individuals from different cultures, it’s a real privilege with Animal Kingdom to be able to do that, and to see the work of all these people turned into something that not only is it a beautiful theme park environment, but it has a kind of reality of its own. More than just, ‘Oh, beautiful design,’ you know, a bunch of, you know, designers in California thought it up, drew it, got built in a factory somewhere, there really is real art in Animal Kingdom.

And Everest, which, of course, is the most recent, is one of the best examples of that, I think, in the park. And Everest has these ancient roots, this actually, let’s see if I have this image here, this is painting from, I did this, 1991. And it is a view from, pretty much, where Flame Tree is now, looking out across the water to what Everest is now, only that’s Bhutan, instead of Nepal, and the safari village, that was Asia, moved on to the side of Asia, instead of on the side of the island. The safari village originally were kind of on the island, and you crossed over for just the safari. So this just went in a box, and just went in a box, of like, ‘Okay, you know, we’re moving on, we’ve branched off, we’re heading out towards the outer end of our tree, way way way way way way down the road.’ And when the challenge came back to do Expedition Everest, I had remembered that we had this rendering and that we did have the idea that a mountain might be able to fit on the other side of the river over there, and so we revisited this idea, and then we, of course, had to go through all of that exercise again of bringing meaning to this story. How is this challenge of putting a roller coaster ride in Animal Kingdom ever going to fit into the story of the intrinsic value of nature?

And some of you have heard, or read, about the work we put into exploring the legend of the yeti. The oral traditions, the Tibetan oral traditions of the yeti, definitely involve this aspect of the yeti as a protector of pristine forest environments. Where you find active legends of the yeti, where people really believe that the yeti is real, they will point out where they believe he lives, and it is always untouched, virgin, ancient forests, and there’s very definite ways that they know. ‘This forest is untouched, this forest is ancient, that’s where the yeti would be, the yeti is the protector of the forest,’ all that kind of stuff. So, once we knew that we had a story about the yeti as a protector, the yeti as a defender of the mountain, a defender of the forest, a defender of a place that humans are supposed to respect, and leave alone, we had a story that we could run with, and we could begin to create these little poems. You know, like there’s this little equation between the shrine on the little peninsula and the mountain, and there you see the yeti sitting on the shrine, and the shrine looks like the mountain, so the mountain must be like a shrine, and there’s a yeti in the mountain, like that. We chose the area of the Himalayas. There’s all kinds of Tibetan architecture, there’s all kinds of Himalayan architecture. Once again we wanted to go and pick the style of architecture that would push forward the story that we wanted to tell, and that meant we needed to pick a style of architecture that was all about symbols, symbolism, and storytelling itself, and that indeed is what we did. So while it is, indeed, authentic, it does look like real, it’s also been editorially chosen for its ability to push a very particular story forward. You know, we were able again to involve these people in creating the idea because we could explain to them what’s the underlying message underneath this, and then set these Tibetan, this guy this was designed by a Tibetan guy, and we just sort of told him the story, and what’s the underlying idea of the story, and let him go with the imagery. And that’s how we come up with, you know, satisfying a very simple mission to put a coaster into a park, but to do it in a way that contributes to the overall feeling of the park.

And, you know, I think when we all started a long long time ago that I’m sure none of us realized how complicated it would be, we sort of learned as we went, but it is something that does work very well, and it is something that does include all of you. It’s the same process in the actions that you take every day in your interactions with the guests, which, after all, are the most living things they are going to interact with are the things you do. Your actions at Animal Kingdom are the last layer that these guests will interact with, and to have those actions embody the spirit of these ideas, the intrinsic value of nature, the value of adventure, the love of animals, the spirit of this place, it really helps push that story forward and have the guests walk away with the sense that they’ve experienced something special. They rush really fast, you know, they come with a lot of anxiety, they spent a bunch of money, they’re trying to get their value back, and there’s this anxiety of like, ‘How do I get my value back from the money I spent to get here?’ And in their mind, I think, is this idea that, ‘I’m gonna get my value back by doing all these things, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, one after another.’ I don’t think that’s true, I don’t think that that’s where the value is, I think the value is in slowing down and enjoying these relationships, relationships with you, as you speak to them, as you interact with them, relationships with the animals, if they take time to observe them. It takes so little time to just, you know, if you wait forty-five seconds, instead of ten, that animal is gonna walk around that bush and walk over here and it’s gonna walk away, and then forty-five seconds later he’s gonna walk over here, but if you come for three seconds, you miss all of that. It’s like channel-surfing at too fast of a speed. So, as you present yourself, and present the park, to the guests, and in knowing that they come with this, you know, urge to rush, it would be, it’d be wonderful if you could get them to slow down, to both enjoy the park, but also to enjoy the conversations, the relationships that they have with all of you. It is a unique park that offers us all the ability to deal directly with people, to have real conversations, to actually talk about something, to not simply, you know, perform a function. And so, I think it’s great that we have that opportunity, I really don’t think that people come to Animal Kingdom just to look passively at beautifully designed environments, there are beautifully designed environments all over the world, there are individual environments that have been designed in zoos in America that are better than some of the stuff we have done, they come for something else. They come for something richer, something more meaningful, something more personal, something more emotional, and I think that that is the aspect of the park that you all bring to it, and that’s really important.

So, you know, we’ve obviously nowhere near finished with Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and much much more to come in the future, and I hope that, as we go forward, you take this to heart, you know, when you go out and have a day in the park, remember, really, you guys kind of are the show, and all that you do is really what the guests really experience, and I hope that you treasure that, and value that, and I certainly thank you for it. And thank you for your patience and sitting through my rambling explanations, so, thank you very much.


Princess Fee said...

Thank you for this, Ryan! I haven't had a chance to watch or listen to the speech yet - but now, I can read this while I'm at work (we're not allowed to use headphones during work) and really appreciate it. Thank you so much - I know how much hard work would've gone into this...

Craig Wheeler said...

Was the Joe Rohde thing open to the public? Or was it specific to the WDW Celebrations event?

Ryan P. Wilson said...

The event was actually for Cast Members, but through the connections of WDW Celebrations a good portion of the Wild Decade participants were also able to enjoy the lecture.