We’ve all grown up with Disney’s delightful animated rabbits, mice, puppies, and lions, but sometimes, it’s the real-life animals that capture our imagination. From the horse-drawn streetcars in Disney Theme Parks to the current Disneynature film “Chimpanzee,” Disney has made nature personal for generations of Americans. And the legacy began with Walt Disney himself.
“Bambi” may be one of the most endearing animated classics of all time, and much of its charm could be because Walt insisted on realistic detail. Artists, led by renowned Rico LeBrun, visited the Los Angeles Zoo to study the structure and movement of its animals. To fully capture the bucolic charms of a deer, two fawns named Bambi and Faline lived outside the animation studio and served as the film’s live models before being released into nearby Griffith Park.
And that was just the beginning of Disney’s long history with nature. Between 1948 and 1960, Walt’s groundbreaking documentary series, True-Life Adventures, brought the wonder and majesty of animals and nature into theaters – even comic books. The first film, “Seal Island,” won an Academy Award® in 1949 for Best Short Subject. And who can forget being glued to the TV on Sunday nights to watch cavorting coyotes, mischievous monkeys, or other entertaining wildlife episodes on “The Wonderful World of Disney”?
In 2007, the independent film label Disneynature was launched to once again record the world’s natural beauty and splendor as only Disney’s visionaries can capture it. “Earth,” “Oceans,” “African Cats,” and “Chimpanzee” showcase, in fascinating detail and breathtaking clarity, epic stories of adventure.
But movies and TV aren’t the only places to see Disney’s devotion to creatures great and small. Disney Theme Parks offer an up-close and personal look at our furry friends, too. Back in 1955, you could saddle up a Rainbow Ridge Pack Mule for a scenic ride through Disneyland’s Rainbow Desert. The attraction closed in 1979, but 19 years later Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom debuted the world’s largest – and wildest – menageries. Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park, just one of four Theme Parks at Walt Disney World Resort, is now home to over 1,700 animals from 250 species and stretches across 500 acres.
Giraffes, black rhinos, lions, and tigers are just a few of the exotic animals that you’ll encounter on safaris, nature walks, or tours. The popular live show “Flights of Wonder” is known for its spectacular birds, including a yellow-napped Amazon parrot named Groucho, who astounds Guests with his amazing singing voice.
For a behind-the-scenes look at how the Park manages its astounding array of birds, we spoke with Christy Sky, one of the avian keepers who works at the Avian Research Center. This 12-year-old facility cares for, supports, and houses 300 to 400 birds, and “includes all of the basic tasks of zoo-keeping,” Christy tells us, “such as cleaning!” But the main focus of the ARC is to help the birds breed. “Sometimes, in large on-show aviaries, it may be difficult. This could be due to other birds in the aviary, aggression between pairs of birds, or just simply that it’s not the right environment.” Christy also leads Guests on backstage tours where they can talk to a keeper or watch veterinarians examine the birds. In keeping with Disney’s dedication to animals, a portion of the tour’s proceeds goes to the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund.
Since 1995, the DWCF has awarded nearly $18 million to conservation projects in 111 countries to protect wildlife, ecosystems, and the communities so closely linked to their survival. Did you know that Disney Guests also help contribute? DWCF is supported by Guest contribution opportunities at merchandise and other select locations including Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park, Animal Kingdom Lodge, Fort Wilderness, Wilderness Lodge, Port Orleans Resort, the Seas with Nemo and Friends at Epcot, Disney Vacation Club Resorts (including Aulani Resort and Spa), Old Key West, Hilton Head and Vero Beach, aboard the Disney Cruise Lines (via ship gratuity forms), and on Castaway Cay.
Walt would be very happy and proud knowing that over the last 60 years, his company and those who love nature have worked together to make this world better for future generations. “I have learned from the animal world,” Walt once said,” and what everyone will learn who studies it is a renewed sense of kinship with the Earth and all of its inhabitants.”