How Disney prepared for nighttime at Animal Kingdom

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Turning Disney’s Animal Kingdom into a full-day theme park isn’t as simple as flipping on a few light switches when the sun goes down.

Walt Disney World had to prepare its star performers, the animals populating the zoolike theme park.

Starting Friday night, Animal Kingdom will feature nocturnal entertainment, including projections on the signature Tree of Life and nighttime tours of the savannah where lions, giraffes and monkeys roam. The park will stay open until 11 p.m.

“We’ve had three years to get ready for this. So we were able to start really intensely thinking about the animals three years ago,”

said Scott Terrell, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts’ director of animal and science operations. “How we were going to bolster the population, how we were going to care for them, how we were going to be able to be sure they have a great experience just like our guests.”

For example, he said, Disney carefully designed lighting and soundtracks to ensure they wouldn’t disturb the animals.

This was not completely new ground. Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge has had an after-dark tour on the hotel grounds, for crowds much smaller than park capacity, with night-vision goggles for participants. The theme-park project is on a much bigger scale.

To prepare for extended hours, Disney almost doubled its animal population on the savanna through acquisitions and breeding.

Kilimanjaro Safaris After Sunset

Experts said Disney needed to ensure there would be enough animals on display, since some species such as elephants need to be bathed and cared for backstage for relatively long periods of time.

Two new species have also joined the savanna recently. There are now six painted dogs, animals that have splotches and swirls of brown, black and white. Two hyenas have also moved in. The painted dogs came here from the Cincinnati zoo. The hyenas were previously in a research program at University of California at Berkeley that shut down because of lack of funding.

Their new habitat “includes a nice little pond, a den for them,” Terrell said. “It includes areas where if they choose to, they can actually be in the dark or the light.”

In general, animals have varying nighttime habits. The setting sun does not necessarily signal it’s bedtime for everyone.

Lions will often be seen lounging around in the daylight, Terrell said, but at night they become more active.

Antelope tend to rest in what Terrell called “very short fits,” because “if you think back to the African savanna in the wild, you can’t really sleep if you’re potentially a dinner item.”

Other animals have more humanlike habits. “When you think about gorillas, you think about monkeys, they go to bed at sunset,” Terrell said.

Individual species’ habits had to be taken into account. So too did their proximity to new attractions.

For example, Disney installed soundproofing into the siamangs’ temple so noise from the nearby nighttime shows wouldn’t bother them.

Soundtracks for new shows were repeatedly played at different levels. That helped animals get used to the sounds but also gave their caretakers a sense of what they would and wouldn’t tolerate.

Fireworks are typical nighttime entertainment at theme parks. Disney’s three other theme parks have them, as do Universal and SeaWorld. But they were considered too stressful for the Animal Kingdom’s inhabitants, said Mark Stetter, dean of Colorado State University’s veterinary college. A former Animal Kingdom director, Stetter was part of early discussions about the later closing times before he left in 2012.

Rivers of Light Disney Animal Kingdom-min

Instead, the park will feature a “Rivers of Light” show with water screens, floating lanterns, lighting effects, live performers and music.

Safari lighting was another important consideration. The nighttime lights includes a feature that makes it look as though the savanna is bathed in the light of a setting sun while visitors ride by.

Positioning of the lights and wattages had to be carefully taken into consideration, to balance visitors’ ability to see with the animals’ quality of life.

“You see a very natural lighting pattern. You see areas of light and dark,” Terrell said. “They’re not in a football stadium. They’re in a very naturally, softly lit environment where they have the choice if they want to move into the darkness or out in the light.”

Rob Hilsenroth, executive director of the American Association of Zoological Veterinarians, said Disney’s efforts reflect an increased emphasis in zoos on animal comfort.

“Any zoo maybe 25 years ago wouldn’t analyze it from the animals’ perspective as they do today,” he said.

And more zoos could follow suit with more nighttime events.

“I have a feeling this will be very successful and that people within the industry will be taking notice,” Stetter said.

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