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Wildlife Wednesday: Reports from the Field: GRACE

posted on May 27th, 2015 by Rachel Daneault, Primate-Carnivore Zoological Manager


Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment team takes outstanding care of the animals at Walt Disney World Resort. You may have seen some of them in action at the Vet Hospital at Rafiki’s Planet Watch at Disney’s Animal Kingdom or explaining some of the studies they are conducting at The Seas with Nemo & Friends at Epcot. But did you know that these same cast members often travel the world to help animals and support conservation projects in the wild?

Dr. Natalie Mylniczenko and vet tech Matt Runnells recently traveled to Africa to complete health exams on some of the gorillas at the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center, located in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa.

At GRACE, Grauer’s gorillas who are orphaned (typically because poachers killed their parents for the exotic animal trade or bushmeat) receive the care they need and learn the skills needed for reintroduction back into the wild. Our cast members have played many roles with GRACE including designing the facility, engaging in hands-on construction, helping move gorillas and training Congolese staff to care for gorillas. In addition to gorilla care, Disney staff also help promote conservation education among the local residents.

During the most recent trip, Dr. Natalie and Matt worked with the GRACE staff to immobilize two gorillas by hand-injecting the gorillas to anesthetize them. This is a huge accomplishment for the staff, as it is a very complex behavior to train and shows their dedication to the work they do.

Both gorillas were given complete physicals, and both needed tooth extractions. The exams went very well, and GRACE staff members learned a great deal from Dr. Natalie and Matt. Sharing resources, knowledge and expertise is one way our team supports animals in the wild. Click through the gallery below for images from their latest trip.

Wildlife Wednesday: Reports from the Field: GRACE

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Disney Days of Past: Celebrating DINOSAUR at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

posted on May 21st, 2015 by Nate Rasmussen, Archivist, Marketing Resource Center


This week in 2000 the film “Dinosaur” was released. “Dinosaur” stars an iguanodon, Aladar, who should be familiar to fans of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the attraction DINOSAUR in DinoLand, U.S.A.

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When Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, this attraction went by the name Countdown to Extinction. In fact, on the Time Rovers you can still see CTX written on the vehicles.

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Another attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened before the movie debuted. Know what attraction I’m referring to? Share your expertise knowledge in the comments section below!

How well do you know DINOSAUR at Disney’s Animal Kingdom? Take our quiz now!

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Behind the Scenes: Building Harambe Market at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

posted on May 20th, 2015 by Jennifer Fickley-Baker, Social Media Manager


Harambe Market, a new area that will serve-up African-inspired street food, is set to open May 23 at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Today, we’re excited to share with you an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at just how the team is currently working together to bring this new area to life.

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Check out the video below to hear how members of the project team traveled to Lamu, Kenya to study architecture, learn how African foods and spices inspired parts of the area’s storyline, and much more.

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Wildlife Wednesday: Celebrate and Learn More About Turtles at Rafiki’s Planet Watch and The Seas with Nemo & Friends at Walt Disney World Resort

posted on May 20th, 2015 by Blair Witherington, Senior Sea Turtle Biologist


Tomorrow is World Turtle Day®! To celebrate, we’ll have activities to satisfy your curiosity and inspire conservation of these magnificent animals.

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At Rafiki’s Planet Watch at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, you can try on a turtle shell, see how biologists find gopher tortoises in their underground burrows, learn how to best keep turtles as pets, attempt to untangle a plush sea turtle from fishing line using only your “flippers” and much more! At the Seas with Nemo & Friends at Epcot, you’ll be able to step through a turtle-excluder device. TEDs are special devices fishermen use in a trawl net to allow turtles an escape route if they are accidentally caught. You can also play interactive games to learn about the threats turtles face, while our sea turtles swim behind you in our 5.7 million-gallon tank. At both locations, you will have opportunities to ask specialists about our turtles and what they need to survive.

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In honor of the holiday, we have an exclusive Disney Parks Blog update from our Conservation Team. Many of you may remember last year’s Tour de Turtles at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort during which we attached satellite transmitters to two female loggerhead sea turtles that came ashore at the resort to lay their eggs. Affectionately named Anna and Elsa after our favorite “Frozen” Arendelle royals, the two ladies have been travelling hundreds of miles since we watched them return to the sea last summer.

Anna, the smaller of the two, had healed scars on her shell from an old boat-propeller injury. Ever resilient, Anna was able to swim in the Tour de Turtles. Because each turtle in Tour de Turtles is connected to an issue that threatens sea turtles, Anna swam to raise awareness about the threat of light pollution. Bright beachfront lighting from buildings and streetlights can deter nesting females and draw hatchling turtles away from the ocean, which is very dangerous for them.

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With a crowd of well-wishers cheering her on, Anna crawled down the beach at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort and back into the Atlantic Ocean. For about a week, Anna swam and drifted within Florida’s coastal waters and then headed south along the coast of eastern Florida. This means that the nest she made in late July was her last of the season. If Anna was like most loggerheads, this would have been her fifth nest!

Anna’s travels south took her to Key West, where she looped around the island and settled into a beautiful shallow seagrass pasture just north of the popular tourist destination. (Perhaps it reminded her of Arendelle?) Anna’s journey has totaled 661 miles!

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Elsa, the larger of the two female loggerheads, has a 40-inch long shell—that’s the height of an average 4-year old human! Elsa is swimming to raise awareness about the troubling amount of plastic debris in our oceans that many turtles mistake for food.

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After Elsa left Disney’s Vero Beach Resort, she drifted for a few weeks within Florida’s offshore waters and eventually headed south. Like Anna, Elsa also swam toward Key West, but soon found her own path. She turned south to cross the Florida current toward Cuba. The strong, Gulf Stream current must have diverted her to the east, which put her on course for the Cay Sal Bank, a rich area of shallow seagrass between the United States and Cuba. This is where Elsa stayed for several months, until just recently when she looped closer to Cuba and back toward Cay Sal. Elsa’s journey has totaled 1,929 miles! That’s the distance from Orlando to Nova Scotia!

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Want to learn more about turtles and our work to help conserve them? If you’re staying at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort this summer during nesting season, you can participate in a turtle night walk, during which you may see a female sea turtle lay her eggs on the beach! You can also check out our next Tour de Turtles event August 1 at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort, and don’t forget to celebrate turtles for World Turtle Day and every day at Rafiki’s Planet Watch and The Seas with Nemo & Friends!

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Favorite Recipe from New Harambe Market at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

posted on May 19th, 2015 by Pam Brandon, Disney Parks Food Writer


Harambe Market opens May 23 at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and if you can’t be here for the debut, we’re sharing one of our favorite recipes from the new location.

This chickpea salad, which will be served with the Karubi Ribs from Harambe Market, features distinctive African flavors like tamarind paste and chaat masala. Give the dish plenty of time to marinate before serving.

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Chickpea Salad
Serves 8 as a side dish or appetizer

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1/2 small jalapeno pepper, seeds removed, minced
1 teaspoon tamarind paste, dissolved in 3 tablespoons of water
1/4 teaspoon chaat masala, optional
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
2 (14.5-ounce) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, divided
Coarse salt, freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 large tomato, seeds removed, diced
1/2 cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
1/2 bunch cilantro, stems removed, minced

  1. Heat oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add garlic, ginger and jalapeno; cook until garlic is lightly golden. Set aside until mixture is room temperature. Whisk in tamarind paste and chaat masala. Stir in onion. Refrigerate until cold.
  2. Add chilled spice mixture to chickpeas, tossing to coat. Add 2 tablespoons lime juice and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
  3. Just before serving, add cucumber, tomato and cilantro. Add remaining 1 tablespoon lime juice, if desired. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Cook’s notes: Tamarind paste has a distinctive, tart flavor. It can be purchased in Asian and Latin-American grocery stores or online. Chaat masala is a spice blend available in specialty food stores and some grocery stores or online.

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Wildlife Wednesday: Scientists Provide Great Care for Animal Moms and Babies at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

posted on May 13th, 2015 by Katie Leighty, Ph.D., Science Operations Manager


Giraffes, white rhinos, sable antelopes, gorillas and a red river hog were among the animals that celebrated their first Mother’s Day this past Sunday at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge.

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The Science Operations team at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is hard at work helping provide great care for our animal moms and babies. Our team performs pregnancy tests almost every day for animals in the park and at the Lodge. We can predict the mother’s due date to help animal keepers prepare for the delivery, and in some species we can even determine whether the baby will be a girl or a boy!

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How do these tests work? By doing tests to measure an animal’s hormone levels. We share our findings with other scientists by publishing them in scholarly journals, and our endocrinologists mentor scientists here at Disney and advise others at zoos around the world on our techniques.

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You can see our scientists in action at the Science Center at Rafiki’s Planet Watch.

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Did you know?

  • Endocrinologists at Disney’s Animal Kingdom perform 20,000 hormone tests each year!
  • Giraffe are 6 feet tall at birth.
  • White rhinos are pregnant for 17 months.
  • Newborn sable antelope are born with a light, sandy brown coat that will gradually darken as they mature.
  • A newborn gorilla is able to cling to its mother’s front with a very powerful grip from both its hands and feet.
  • Red river piglets “play possum” when they get scared. This means they pretend to be unconscious when approached by a potential predator.

Congratulations to our mothers here at Disney and all over the world!

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A Bright Future for Whooping Cranes at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

posted on May 9th, 2015 by Scott Tidmus, Zoological Manager, Walt Disney World Resort


Today is International Migratory Bird Day, and we are celebrating at Disney’s Animal Kingdom by honoring the hundreds of species of migratory birds that need our help. One of the greatest conservation efforts of our time made a significant impact at the event—the whooping crane. This majestic, larger-than-life crane has been successfully brought back from the brink of extinction.

As Erin Gallagher wrote earlier this week, whooping cranes migrate all the way from Canada to the southernmost parts of the United States and back every year.

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In 1860, there were about 1,400 cranes—an already troubling number. In 1941, however, numbers had dwindled to merely 15 birds. Hunting, the popularity of the feather trade and negative human impacts on their habitat hit the bird population hard.

In an effort to save this bird species, the Whooping Crane Recovery Team was established. However, with all the birds concentrated in one flock and inhabiting the same areas, the population was more susceptible to being wiped out entirely by disease, bad weather or negative human impacts. The future of the whooping crane depended on establishing additional, separated populations and thus the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership was developed to raise another population of whooping cranes, centralized in the eastern United States.

Raising whooping cranes isn’t as simple as it may sound. The chicks rescued from the wild need to be taught to eat, forage, fly and even migrate. Scientists raise the birds from hatchlings and don white suits that cover their faces so the birds do not recognize them as humans and learn to rely on them for food once they are in the wild. The suits have a whooping crane puppet head on one arm that scientists peck at the ground to show young birds how to eat.

In 1994, Bill Lishman and Joe Duff pioneered the migratory initiative, “Operation Migration” in which they lead a group of Canada geese from Ontario to Virginia to prove that it was possible to train birds to follow a small plane called an ultra-light. This story may seem familiar because just one year later, both Lishman and Duff helped with production of the Columbia Pictures film, “Fly Away Home” that followed a similar plot line.

With the precedent set, in 1999, Operation Migration led the first group of whooping cranes on their migration route. The route of the secondary flock established in the eastern United States spans the country from Wisconsin to here in Florida. Once they fly their migration route first led by an ultra-light, they will remember the way for life. The Disney Conservation Fund was one of the first to support the organization and has continued to support this organization ever since.

Since 2006, Disney’s animal care team has performed health exams on all the young migratory birds to ensure they are in good condition following their migration. Our Animal, Science and Environment team has also assisted in monitoring and training of the new chicks in efforts to prepare them for their release into the wild.

While progress has been made with these cranes, they are still the most endangered crane in the world; fewer than 500 cranes exist today.

Every spring, for International Migratory Bird Day, Disney welcomes the crew from Operation Migration to share their experiences with our guests. Just three years ago, Disney was pleased to welcome a new addition to the exhibit at Conservation Station. Operation Migration donated one of their original ultra-lights and it has remained on display at Rafiki’s Planet Watch, allowing us to share this inspiring story year round! For more information on whooping cranes and how you can help, check out the International Crane Foundation.

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Walk on the Wild Side of Disney’s Animal Kingdom with Backstage Tales

posted on May 7th, 2015 by Russ J. Stacey, Writer, Yellow Shoes Creative Group


Ever wanted to see what happens backstage at Disney’s Animal Kingdom?

Backstage Tales is an immersive experience that lets you do just that! Led by enthusiastic guides who pepper their presentations with lots of personality, history and anecdotes, this new tour gives you unprecedented access to the ways Disney studies, cares for and helps educate others about the fascinating residents of the park. Global conservation is also a big part of their message.

Literally a walk (and drive—transportation provided, of course—to certain experiences) in the park, this nearly-four-hour tour encourages questions and participation, and it seems like there’s a discovery to be made around every corner.

Our first stop (after Timmy, our lead guide, filled us in on the park’s history) was the aviary on Pangani Forest Exploration Trail. Tim, the keeper there, was a virtual encyclopedia on all 240 birds of 20-plus species—like the snowy-headed robin-chat and African pygmy goose (which is actually a duck!). We even got to help during feeding time.

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From there, it was off to the black rhino and elephant barns, where we learned not only how they tend to these magnificent beasts’ needs, but also their behavioral traits (wallowing in clay to keep cool, protect against insects and help heal abrasions? Yup, that’s a favorite rhino pastime), breeding methods and what’s being done globally to protect them.

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Then we got to peek behind the proverbial curtain of the Animal Nutrition Center and kitchen, Animal Programs Administration building and state-of-the-art veterinary hospital. It gets you up close with the leading-edge methods the keepers, veterinarians, nutritionists and technicians use to care for the wild and woolly denizens of the park.

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“They participate in their own care” was a phrase we heard more than once. The animals “volunteer” for routine procedures like x-rays and blood collection through positive-reinforcement training to reduce their stress levels. And if, for example, a kangaroo is in no mood to participate? It’s free to walk away.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is such an amazing collection of over 1,500 animals representing 250 species in as close to their natural habitat as possible. And on this tour, you get to see the extraordinary attention paid to each creature’s well-being.

A portion of this not-to-be-missed tour proceeds supports the Disney Conservation Fund, so you can not only make an impact on global conservation, it’s also a great reminder of the world of wonders all around us.

Backstage Tales replaces the Backstage Safari tour, while upping the “wow” factor. It’s offered from 7:30–11:15 a.m. daily, available to guests ages 12 years and older. Theme Park admission is not included. For reservations, call 407-WDW-TOUR (939-8687). Experiences, content and animal encounters are subject to change.

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Wildlife Wednesday: Celebrate International Migratory Bird Day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

posted on May 6th, 2015 by Erin Gallagher, Education Manager, Walt Disney World Resort


Celebrate International Migratory Bird Day with some feathered friends this Saturday at Disney’s Animal Kingdom! Become an “honorary bird” and “migrate” around Rafiki’s Planet Watch as you discover how your wing span and feather color (that’s bird talk for arm length and clothes) matches up among nearly 350 species of wild birds. Learn about the great lengths we go to at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, with help from the Disney Conservation Fund, to care for not only the birds we have here, but for birds all over the world!

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Purple Martin Come to Walt Disney World Resort Every Year to Raise Their Young Whooping Cranes Migrate to Florida Every Year

For example, as you walk through the park, keep your eyes to the skies because you might just spot a purple martin. These tiny birds (weighing in at approximately two ounces) with purple, glossy feathers come to Walt Disney World Resort every year to enjoy some vacation time and raise their young. They enjoy world-class “resorts” (the birdhouses we provide) and indulge in the best food around. Purple martins are aerial insectivores, which means they eat flying insects they catch right out of the air!

In the eastern United States, purple martins rely exclusively on humans to build their birdhouses and prepare their sheltered nests, tucked away in what’s referred to as a “cavity.” Without birdhouses like those at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Epcot and other locations around Walt Disney World Resort, the purple martins would simply have nowhere to nest. This is a unique phenomenon among all bird species and represents an incredible opportunity for people to engage in a direct conservation experience with these charismatic little songbirds!

When all their chicks have fledged, or grown the feathers necessary for flight, purple martins embark on an incredible migration down to the Brazilian Amazon. What’s truly amazing about this journey is that one purple martin can make the nearly 3,000-mile trek in fewer than three weeks! We want to understand where these birds spend their time, how they are affected by climate change and the factors that influence their choices along their migratory routes so we can better protect all the wild places they call home We also have many questions about purple martin nesting behavior, including how these birds raise their young and if pairs stay together both while they are here at Walt Disney World and also once they depart for Brazil.

How do we begin to answer these questions? The first step lies in a lightweight accessory called a geolocator. While the adult purple martins are here, we outfit each of them with a little backpack that they will wear for the next year. The geolocator backpack will gather location data for the bird during its migration to Brazil and during its return to Disney the following spring. The geolocators aren’t cumbersome for the birds, and the tracking data give us important information about their migration, including all the important migratory stop-overs (i.e. rest stops) the martins utilize during their journey.

Check out this quick video to see how our cast attaches the geolocators to the birds and release them into the wild!

We cannot wait to download the data from the birds that have returned to Disney’s Animal Kingdom this year!

Whooping cranes, a majestic, large bird have been through quite the roller coaster in their population numbers and are another species we will honor as part of our celebration of migratory birds.

Whooping cranes can grow up to 5 feet tall with a wing span of nearly 7 feet, making it the tallest bird in North America. They get their name from the resounding “whooping” sound they make that can be heard over several miles. In 1860, there were about 1,400 cranes—a pretty troubling number. In 1941 however, numbers dwindled to merely 15 birds! Hunting, feather trade and negative human impacts on their habitat hit the birds hard. The whooping crane was listed as an endangered species in 1967 and has held that status ever since.

Since then, several organizations, including the Disney Conservation Fund and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, have banded together to help increase the population size. One such program used is to raise these birds and teach them to migrate with the help of a special plane called an ultra-light. Operation Migration is the organization who coordinates this program and they work with the chicks from the day they hatch to their release into the wild. The birds travel from Wisconsin to Florida every year following this plane, which you can see for yourself at International Migratory Bird Day. You may even catch a glimpse or carry on a conversation with one of the original and current crane pilot Joe Duff, who first led the whooping cranes along their migratory path and have helped boost whooping crane numbers to just over 400 cranes!

Join us this Saturday, May 9, to learn more about purple martins, whooping cranes and more migratory birds that you may recognize from your own backyard! We hope to see you there! And stay tuned for more information about our conservation efforts with migratory birds!

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This Week in Disney Parks Photos: Experience Harambe Market at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

posted on May 2nd, 2015 by Jennifer Fickley-Baker, Social Media Manager


This week on the Disney Parks Blog we shared the first photos of the new Harambe Market, which will debut to guests at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in late May.

New Harambe Market at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

This area, which was themed around a Colonial-era train depot design recreates a bustling marketplace where guests visit from around the world. Here, guests can choose to taste food from a variety of different “vendors,” including Kitamu Grill for skewered chicken and a kabob flatbread sandwiches, Famous Sausages for corn dogs inspired by a South African sausage, and Chef Mwanga’s, which serves a spice-rubbed karubi rib with green papaya-carrot slaw. Check out Pam’s post for more information on the other menu items you’ll be able to find at Harambe Market.

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