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Bringing the World of AVATAR to Life at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

posted on February 26th, 2015 by Bruce Vaughn, Chief Creative Executive, Walt Disney Imagineering


Since we first broke ground last year at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we’ve been looking forward to welcoming guests into Pandora, the mythical land based on the blockbuster film AVATAR. We’re having a lot of fun dreaming up ways to bring to life the land’s iconic elements from the magnificent floating mountains to the interactive bioluminescent forest, and even to the soaring banshees.

This creative process has been one of the most dynamic and collaborative ones we’ve ever undertaken. It began when our then-Chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts proposed to James Cameron that together we might recreate the world of Pandora at Disney. Since that time, our creative development team, led by Joe Rohde, has been working hand-in-hand with Jim, Jon Landau and their team of artists and designers at Lightstorm on every aspect of this project—from overall design to the smallest—yet crucially important—details. And along each step of this process, Tom, as well as Disney CEO Bob Iger have been actively involved in helping guide the creative vision that is shaping the extraordinary world we’re building.

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We all recently got together at our offices in Glendale, California and walked through the fantastic progress on the whole land—including the awesome experience of seeing Pandora while riding on a banshee.

When he was with us, Jim said, “I think one of the things that people loved about the movie is that they felt as if they had visited Pandora… now, thanks to Disney’s amazing Imagineers, people are going to truly experience Pandora firsthand. From the details in the plants to the production and design, extraordinary thought and care has gone into this entire world. The teams have really created something special, and it’s not going to be like anything else.”

This project is really pushing the boundaries of what is possible. But one of the things that makes Disney Parks so special is that it takes all of our Cast—across the segment—to really bring these experiences to life. We were glad to be able to share our work with the creative teams and thought you might want to see it, too. Here’s a sneak peek of what we showed them:



For previous AVATAR coverage, see these blog posts:

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#DisneyKids: Experience the Ultimate Day for Young Families VIP Tour

posted on February 26th, 2015 by Russ J. Stacey, Writer, Yellow Shoes Creative Group


Carpe diem. Seize the day.

That’s exactly what you can do on an Ultimate VIP Tour. Imagine experiencing cherished attractions at three theme parks with fast-tracked access, private transportation and a Table-Service lunch in one of the parks, all in one day — accompanied by a cast member with detailed knowledge of Disney lore.

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I recently got the opportunity to go on The Ultimate Day for Young Families VIP Tour, one of two new offerings from VIP Tour Services (The Ultimate Day of Thrills being the other), so I of course jumped at the chance.

Tomorrowland Terrace at Magic Kingdom Park is the starting point for the tour. Tracy, our Tour Guide, handed out bottles of water to keep everyone hydrated and took lunch orders. From there, we headed to Magic Carpets of Aladdin to begin our journey. We hit some classics, including Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan’s Flight, and newer highpoints like Under the Sea~Journey of the Little Mermaid. Then it was off to Disney’s Hollywood Studios (yay Toy Story Midway Mania!), via private van, that included a yummy sit-down lunch at a reserved table. The tour ended on a high note at Disney’s Animal Kingdom with front row seats at Festival of the Lion King, about as close as you can get to this beloved Broadway-style show without being in it.

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Entering via the FastPass+ lines made for minimal waiting. Tracy was also in constant contact with Brian, our coordinator, who stayed ahead to ensure everything went smoothly. Patient, personable and well versed in all things Disney, Tracy shared trivia, helpful hints and background information along the way, like giving Toy Story Midway Mania! point-scoring tips and pointing out a hidden Mickey in the flamingo pool on Kilimanjaro Safaris. What a fascinating window into the magic.

In all, we enjoyed 11 attractions in three parks — with plenty of sunshine left at the end to go exploring on our own — accomplishing a lot but never feeling rushed. A steady pace kept us on schedule. It’s a unique, specialized way to splurge on yourself and loved ones, especially if you’re pressed for time.

And though designed with mild thrills for families with children under 10 years old, don’t let the name fool you. The Ultimate Day for Young Families is not just for the little ones. In fact, Tracy said adults frequently enjoy the tour sans kids. In other words, everyone’s the right age. Because fun never goes out of style.

This unforgettable guided adventure (that feels intimate since there is one Tour Guide per every 10 people) through some of your kids’ (and your) favorites while spending less time in line is worth the memories. Heck, maybe you’ll discover something new in the process. I did. Okay, I admit it: Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin was a first for me. What a blast (pun intended)! No wonder it’s so popular.

The tour is offered Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays and lasts six to seven hours. Attractions and entertainment offerings subject to change. The cost is $299 per person, plus tax (theme park admission not included). Call 407-WDW-TOUR (939-8687) for reservations. You can also access the online VIP Tour Services brochure here for more info

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Wildlife Wednesday: Celebrate Animals and Nature throughout the Year at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Epcot

posted on February 25th, 2015 by Allyson Atkins, Education Manager, Disney's Animals, Science and Environment


In addition to celebrating with us as at our Spring Forward event, don’t forget to mark your calendars for more fun wildlife and nature inspired events heading your way!

Earth Day/Party for the Planet: April 22
Back by popular demand – it’s a “Party for the Planet” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and The Seas with Nemo & Friends where we will be hosting an Earth Day celebration. Discover how you can help animals by creating wildlife-friendly spaces in your backyard. Explore ways to protect and care for marine life through engaging activities. Learn more about sustainable living and how to make great choices every day to benefit both your family and our planet! Join us and don’t forget to grab your exclusive Earth Day 2015 merchandise.
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International Migratory Bird Day: May 9
Spring is all about the birds as we celebrate our winged friends on International Migratory Bird Day. Become an “honorary bird” and discover how you measure up in size and color to nearly 350 species of wild birds while also learning about the great care we provide for our birds at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Discover what the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund is doing to ensure our skies stay filled with the many colored feathers of these amazing animals. From what they eat, to where they fly, you’ll learn all you care to know about birds—and that’s nothing to squawk at!

World Turtle Day: May 21
While visiting Rafiki’s Planet Watch at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, you’ll have the chance to immerse yourself in turtle life as you try on a replica turtle shell or get up-close with some of our turtles and tortoises including seeing our veterinarians in action with these unique animals. At The Seas with Nemo & Friends, discover how to help turtles overcome threats they face in the wild while taking part in hands-on activities that let you experience life as a turtle–all while turtles swim gracefully in the background throughout our 5.7-million-gallon aquatic habitat!
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Tour de Turtles: August 1
Hundreds of sea turtles lay their nests on the beaches of Florida every year and on this special day we invite you to join us at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort for the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s annual “Tour de Turtles” event. Two turtles who have made their nests at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort will be equipped with satellite transmitters which allow sea turtle fans to follow the marathon migration of these turtles from their nesting beaches to their foraging grounds. The turtles had been fitted with satellite transmitters to help with conservation efforts as they swim to raise awareness about the threats that sea turtles face. Join us for the race to the ocean where you can participate in beachside activities while learning ways you can help sea turtles!
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Keep an eye out for these events and more! Here are a few more dates to look forward to:

  • World Oceans Day: June 3
  • Pollinator Day: June 11
  • Big Cat Day: July 30
  • Primate Day: August 20
  • Elephant and Rhino Day: September 24
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This Week in Disney Parks Photos: Baby Animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

posted on February 21st, 2015 by Jennifer Fickley-Baker, Social Media Manager


This week we shared the happy news that the Disney’s Animal Kingdom family recently expanded with the addition of several baby animals.

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Sable Antelope Calves at Disney's Animal Kingdom Sable Antelope Calves at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Disney Parks Blog author Steve Castillo shared the first photos of five baby sable antelopes that were recently born at the park.

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Disney’s Animal Kingdom Welcomes White Rhino Calf to the Herd Disney’s Animal Kingdom Welcomes White Rhino Calf to the Herd

Robyn Johnson also gave us a sneak peek at new white rhino that also made his debut at the park. Too cute!

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#DisneyKids: Height Requirements for Attractions at Walt Disney World Resort

posted on February 20th, 2015 by Jamie Langdon, Social Media Manager


There are so many attractions at Walt Disney World Resort, and sometimes as a parent it can be tough to determine which ones are a good fit for younger children. Once I had kids, I was pleasantly surprised at just how many rides and experiences are available for everyone, including the littlest members of the family. There are 25 attractions without any height requirements at Magic Kingdom Park alone! Once your baby grows into a preschooler, there is even more fun to be had on rides for slightly taller kiddos.

We rounded up height requirements from the most popular attractions in all four theme parks and put them into handy charts to help you plan ahead.

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For Disney’s Hollywood Studios, click here. For Epcot, click here. For Disney’s Animal Kingdom, click here.

Once in the parks, be sure to check out the My Disney Experience mobile app for height requirements, thrill levels, wait times and more, all while on the go. If you are dying to check out a thrill ride and your youngest isn’t quite there yet, your family may be able to utilize Rider Switch, which allows adults to take turns riding the attraction without waiting in line all over again. What are your favorite attractions to experience with your little ones?

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Wildlife Friday: Disney’s Animal Kingdom Welcomes White Rhino Calf to the Herd!

posted on February 20th, 2015 by Robyn Johnson, Zoological Manager, Disney’s Animal Kingdom


Our baby boom continues! Join us in saying, “Afya njema!” to wish the newest baby at Disney’s Animal Kingdom “good health” in Swahili. Earlier this month, a white rhino, also a first-time mom born at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 2005, gave birth to a healthy baby boy! The new baby’s grandmother was also born at the park and regularly roams the savannahs of the Harambe Wildlife Reserve, making this new calf the third generation of white rhinos born here.

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The new mom is being appropriately protective of her son, but our animal care team has been keeping up with mother and child to assure that both are thriving!

Disney’s Animal Kingdom Welcomes White Rhino Calf to the Herd Disney’s Animal Kingdom Welcomes White Rhino Calf to the Herd

Despite their name, white rhinos are actually grey in color and sport two horns on their large head. These horns are made of fibrous keratin, just like our fingernails. While rhinos have good hearing and sense of smell, they have poor vision and cannot discern a motionless person at a distance of more than 100 feet.

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Native to central and southern Africa, the white rhino loves grassy areas and will graze several times a day. This mild-mannered animal usually keeps its family group small and tightly-knit. Rhinos are born weighing up to 143 pounds. (Talk about a big baby!) Fully grown females will grow to be anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 pounds while adult males can be up to 5,000 pounds.

This new rhino calf is the ninth white rhino born at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and we are happy to see our herd of rhinos continue to grow. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in the wild. Last year, rhinos faced the worst poaching in history, leaving the northern white rhino extinct in the wild. Its cousin in the south, appropriately named the southern white rhino, is severely endangered and without continued conservation efforts, will meet the same fate.

Several cast members at Disney’s Animal Kingdom are board members for the International Rhino Foundation (IRF) and work closely in efforts to help protect rhinos in the wild. The Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund (DWCF) also contributes to rhino conservation, research and habitat protection projects for rhinos throughout the world. As a guest, there are plenty of ways you may have contributed—adding a dollar to your purchase, picking up a sponsored pin or merchandise item, enjoying the Wild Africa Trek excursion at Disney’s Animal Kingdom or snorkeling at The Seas with Nemo & Friends. Every donation, big or small, adds up and is combined with support from Disney, which in turn has given all of us something amazing to celebrate.

The celebration of our newest baby birth will continue for months to come and be sure to look for both mom and baby to join the rest of the herd on the savannahs of Kilimanjaro Safaris over the next few months.

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Wildlife Thursday: Animals Celebrated Valentine’s Day with Festive and Delicious Treats at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

posted on February 19th, 2015 by Katie Leighty, Ph.D., Science Operations Manager


Love was definitely in the air last weekend at the Walt Disney World Resort! While many of us spent quality time with the ones we love, our animal care teams did the same as they shared Valentine’s Day with the animals that call Disney’s Animal Kingdom home. The teams created unique holiday themed enrichment to highlight the animals’ natural behaviors.

Enrichment is a key part of the animal care program at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It enables animals to make choices about their environment and encourages natural behaviors. Enrichment also allows guests to see the cool adaptations that help the animals survive!

We wanted to share just a few of the many creative enrichment ideas these folks came up with!

At Rafiki’s Planet Watch, our Rabbit Received a Special Strawberry and Oatmeal Valentine Treat. + This Prehensile-Tailed Porcupine Received a Special Delivery Valentine Heart Filled with Edible Treats. At Rafiki’s Planet Watch, our Rabbit Received a Special Strawberry and Oatmeal Valentine Treat. + This Prehensile-Tailed Porcupine Received a Special Delivery Valentine Heart Filled with Edible Treats.

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Did you know…?

  • You can enrich the lives of wildlife and encourage natural behaviors in your own backyard by adding a bird bath, native plants, log piles and bird houses. Then, sit back and enjoy the fun of watching the wildlife up close!
  • To learn more about Disney conservation efforts, visit www.disney.com/conservation!

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Wildlife Thursday: Disney’s Animal Kingdom Welcomes 5 Sable Antelope Calves to the Herd!

posted on February 19th, 2015 by Steve Castillo, Animal Operations Manager, Disney’s Animal Kingdom


Hongera! That’s a Swahili word that means “Congratulations!” We are proud to announce that our sable antelope herd at Disney’s Animal Kingdom has nearly doubled in size as we welcome not one, not two, but five new sable antelope calves! Our team on the Savannah has been very busy caring for the family and closely monitoring the multiple births of three males and two females that all took place between December and January. Some of the sables are first-time mothers, so we now have three growing generations within our herd! (Congratulations to mothers and grandmothers alike!)

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Our animal care team at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is keeping up with the calves’ rapid growth by examining the baby sables’ progress with periodic weight check-ins and observations of nursing, while the adult male keeps a close watch. When the calves aren’t nursing, they love to sunbath and explore!

Sable Antelope Calves at Disney's Animal Kingdom Sable Antelope Calves at Disney's Animal Kingdom

Sables are born with a short, glossy and sandy brown coat that will darken with age. Sable antelopes have white markings on their faces, bellies and bottoms with a black mane and dark tail tuft. Once they start to grow horns, their horns will be long and curvy and can grow up to five feet in length! Sables love to graze for most of their day. In the wild, they are usually found in dry, open woodlands with lots of tall grass in the southern parts of Africa. While the sable antelope does not stand very tall (just over four and a half feet on average), they have strong, sturdy legs, a thick neck and adult males can weigh over 500 pounds!

Sable Antelope Calves at Disney's Animal Kingdom Sable Antelope Calves at Disney's Animal Kingdom Sable Antelope Calves at Disney's Animal Kingdom

In regards to their population and conservation status in the wild, sable antelopes are commonly labeled as “of least concern.” However, they are notably diminishing and are considered conservation dependent. This means the sable antelope population requires our conservation efforts for survival. Since we are responsible for protecting these beautiful animals, all breeding efforts are coordinated through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP). The SSP is meant to strengthen long-term species survival efforts by helping AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums manage species’ genetic diversity through detailed records of individual animals.

Since the sable antelope’s primary threats are loss of habitat and human encroachment conflicts, it’s our responsibility to help keep them safe in the wild. If we discontinue any efforts that affect them, their numbers will dwindle to extinction.

Through guest contributions to the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund (DWCF), we have supported projects like ecosystem monitoring and human-wildlife conflict mitigation that can benefit sable antelope and maintain their numbers in the wild. At home, recycling and bringing awareness to your community that animals like sable antelopes need us to survive can help immensely! Learn more about what you can do at Disney.com/conservation.

Be sure to come welcome the new sables in early April when the whole herd will make their public debut on the spacious Kilimanjaro Safaris savannah!

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A ‘Wildly’ Delicious Meal at Tusker House Restaurant at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

posted on February 17th, 2015 by Rachel Brent, Food & Beverage Marketing Communications Coordinator


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Take a walk on the wild side of dinner at Tusker House Restaurant. If you like the rich, African flavors of Boma – Flavors of Africa and Sanaa, you will love Tusker House Restaurant. This food safari is hosted by Donald and friends, all dressed in their safari-best, who stop at each table for photos and autographs.

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The food stations are set up in a beautiful market. Begin with a selection of breads and accompaniments like hummus and chutney, salads and fruit. I couldn’t get enough of the chickpea and cucumber salad!

A delicious medley of sweet and savory spiced meats, like the Kenyan Coffee BBQ Pork Loin and, my personal favorite, the Cape Malay Curry Chicken perfectly accompany delicious jollaf rice, orzo pasta and pearl couscous with sweet basil. There’s something for the whole family at this ‘wildly’ delicious buffet, including corn dog nuggets, macaroni and cheese and more.

Be sure to save room for dessert! There is an entire island filled with coconut macaroons, chocolate volcano cake, baklava, passion fruit tarts, banana-cinnamon bread pudding with vanilla sauce and even more sweet temptations.

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While Donald and friends enjoy visiting Tusker House Restaurant guests at breakfast and lunch, beginning March 8, they will make an appearance at dinner, too!

Reservations can be made by visiting DisneyWorld.com/dine or by calling 407-WDW-DINE.

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New ‘Cooking Safari With Mickey’ Cookbook Debuts This Spring at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

posted on February 12th, 2015 by Pam Brandon, Disney Parks Food Writer


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It was so much fun to work with the chefs at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge to put together “A Cooking Safari With Mickey,” a collection of recipes showcasing the flavorful cuisine of South Africa and India.

We know that our guests are well traveled and love exploring new tastes, and sharing these recipes is a treat. Here’s a sneak peek of the cookbook, with one of our favorite recipes from Sanaa in Kidani Village at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. We like it a little spicy, so add more jalapeños and chili powder. And cardamom pods can be found in Indian grocery stores – -some stores call them seeds, rather than pods. (Each pod is about the size of a dried cranberry and contains 17 to 20 tiny seeds.)

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Spicy Durban-Style Chicken
Serves 4

Dry Masala

  • 1 whole star anise
  • 1/2 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
  • 2 whole bay leaves
  • 4 green cardamom pods
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons ancho chili powder
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Madras curry powder
  • 2 teaspoons turmeric powder

Chicken and Curry Sauce

  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1 1/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • Course salt, freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup diced yellow onion
  • 2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
  • 3 cups canned crushed tomatoes with juice
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/4 cup minced cilantro
  • Basmati rice, for serving

For dry masala:

  1. Toast star anise, cumin seeds, bay leaves, and cardamom pods in a heavy, dry skillet over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring until spices begin to brown and are fragrant. Remove from heat and cool.
  2. Grind spices in a blender or coffee grinder into a fine powder.
  3. Combine spice mixture with cinnamon, chili powder, ancho chili powder, Madras curry powder, and turmeric powder. Toast in heavy, dry skillet over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring until fragrant. Remove from skillet and set aside to cool.

For chicken and curry sauce:

  1. Heat oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Trim fat from chicken and cut into 1-inch cubes. Season with salt and pepper. Place chicken in skillet and brown for 8 to 10 minutes, turning to evenly cook. Remove from skillet and set aside.
  2. Add onions and jalapeños to skillet and cook 4 to 5 minutes, or until onions are translucent. Add ginger and garlic, stirring to combine. Cook for 1 minute. Mix in dry masala mixture with a rubber spatula and cook for 1 minute.
  3. Stir in tomatoes and increase heat to high for 3 to 4 minutes.
  4. Return chicken to skillet, add water, and stir to combine. Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, or until sauce slightly thickens. Stir in cilantro. Serve immediately over basmati rice.
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