Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida, has a gigantic zoo covering 580 acres called Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a new series on Disney+, gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the adventures of caring for the over 5000 animals at the park. With over 300 species, the park hosts a small army of staff to care for the animals. Den of Geek had the opportunity to talk to a couple of those caregivers to get an idea of what viewers will see on the show and what Disney Magic brings to the zoo experience.
“The visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom is being immersed into a beautiful story and to feel, really feel, what it’s like to be in a town in East Africa, on the edges of a nature or wildlife habitat and then going to Asia and experiencing what it’s like to be out in the East and see what kind of animals occur there,” says Veterinarian Dr. Mark Penning, Vice President of Animals, Science, and Environment for the park. “And of course, the story is a uniquely Disney story told only the way Disney can with the wonderful vision of our team of Imagineers.”
“You need to provide those animals with optimal habitat so that the guests can see what these animals look like out in the wild. That is absolutely the goal that we’re trying to achieve,” Penning continues. “The best way to describe it is that when you come to visit Disney’s Animal Kingdom, you have an experience that is not just about animals, but it’s about the habitat.”
Although the park may look like a Disney theme park, it is not the human experience that serves as the basis for creating an immersive environment. “Everything in Disney’s Animal Kingdom starts with the animal and then moves out,” says Animal Manager Rachel Daneault.
Although the animals’ needs are first and foremost when developing the park, Penning says humans also play a role.
“It’s about different people’s cultures, the way that they have learned to live together with these animals, side-by-side. Because that’s really what conservation is about,” explains Penning. “Unfortunately, so many people see conservation as ‘Well, as long as we’ve got a big park over there like Yellowstone, we’re okay. We’ve done our best.’ But really what it’s about is allowing nature to coexist with people in the suburbs, to allow wildlife, to share the space that we live in.”
The beautiful, elaborate habitats set the stage, but the animals provide the entertainment in The Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Some of the best scenes are when the animal handlers create toys or challenges for the animals.
“So what you’re seeing, specifically, is what we call enrichment,” says Daneault. “And so that is anything that we do or give the animals that help elicit natural behaviors. And that has definitely been shown to be a huge factor in an animal’s wellbeing.”
The animals aren’t the only ones who enjoy the enrichment program.
“You see it more and more now because it’s fun for us. It’s just as fun for us to create something that the animals really want to interact with,” says Daneault.
The enrichment programs also provide a lot of fun for viewers. Especially the elaborate birthday parties the animal caretakers hold for the animals featured on the show.
I asked Daneault who’s birthday parties are more elaborate, the humans or the animals.
“The animals by far. I mean, it is so funny,” Daneault replied.
One of the stars of The Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a baby Gorilla named Grace. Although it was not featured on the show, she recently had a birthday. Daneault was excited to tell us about it.
“Grace’s first birthday fell when our parks were closed, but that did not stop us. She had a princess themed party complete with little carriages and all kinds of stuff,” Daneault explains. “It was the perfect one-year-old princess party. So by far, we’ll plan for weeks for these things.”
The animals certainly are the stars of the show, and they never disappoint when it comes to being entertaining. When asked what it is like seeing their animals on TV, the humans didn’t appear to be jealous of the animals hogging the attention.
“We love them. We find them both fascinating and enjoyable to watch,” Penning says. “They really are incredible creatures. And so we’re delighted to be able to share that now with a broad audience.”
“I get super excited because it’s like, I know them,” Daneault exclaims. “I’ve worked with Gino [a gorilla] for over 20 years. I wouldn’t even say he’s just a coworker because he is more than that, but there’s this very strong relationship, and to see him getting that recognition and people really getting to understand who he is, is really cool for me.”
“I think you’ll find that the keepers and the veterinarians and the vet techs and the scientists that are part of the show, you can tell they all have a passion for those animals that they take care of,” adds Penning. “And they are so excited to share that with a huge audience, We’re thrilled with this opportunity, and we’re sure that The Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom is going to be really popular because it’s got such rich, beautiful stories about amazing animals and the incredible people who take care of them.”
The Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom is produced by National Geographic and is currently streaming on Disney+.