“More of the Story” — An Insider’s Disney Tale

This time of the summer means I’m between Disney events.  Our local Dayton Disneyana show was June 10-12, and our national DisneyanaMania Convention is coming up July 13-15 in Anaheim, CA (actually Garden Grove).  If that piques your interest, all the information is on the club’s website, http://www.disneyanafanclub.org/home, under the Events tab.  For a quick preview, there’s a Special Convention Edition of our newsletter (which I edited) under the third banner ad (the link is http://disneyanafanclub.org/sites/default/files/2016%20Special%20Convention%20Edition_0.pdf).

Moving on from the commercial, I’ve been going to these conventions every year since 1988.  I look forward to them because you meet so many talented people.  A good example is Imagineer Joe Rohde, who was honored as a Disney Legend and interviewed during our 2008 convention.  He told one of my favorite stories, which I retold for LaughingPlace.com (it appeared on that website on July 29, 2008), and reprinted in the 2014 Special Convention Edition newsletter.  Even if you’re not a Disney collector, I’m hoping you’ll enjoy his behind-the-scenes tale.


More of the Story

Have you every read a story and thought: Is that really what happened? Could there be more to this? Maybe there’s another side?

For example, in the book The Making of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park by Melody Malmberg (New York: Hyperion, 1998), there is an interesting sidebar story on page 25 entitled “Tiger, Tiger.” It reads as follows:

As plans for the park progressed, [Disney CEO Michael] Eisner challenged the Imagineering team. They were adamant about giving the guests a sense of “shared space” with wild animals, but Eisner wondered, “Are guests going to feel that animals are exciting enough?” As the design team caucused in their spartan warehouse, their rallying cry was, “Proximity equals excitement!” The plan that emerged was so audacious that the team dared not confide it even to Marty Sklar, Imagineering’s creative leader.

Joe Rohde began the next meeting with corporate executives by squarely addressing the issue of animal encounters: “We know that there are concerns about whether animals are, in and of themselves, dramatic. The heart of the Animal Kingdom park is animals, and our guests’ encounters with them. We have gone to great lengths to make sure that the animals will be displayed in a way that will bring them and people together as never before…”

The door to the room opened. A 400-pound female Bengal tiger, restrained by only a slender chain, stalked in. Rohde ignored the huge cat and kept talking as she prowled the room, coming within inches of Disney’s key executives.

The effect on everyone present was palpable as the tiger, all rippling muscle and powerful claws, walked restlessly around the edges of the room. Disney President Frank Wells edged his chair closer to the table. Eisner stared. Sklar, kept in the dark by the team, gasped and looked at Rohde. It was, remembers one Imagineer, “a definite role reversal. Eisner and Wells confronted something so much more powerful than they were. They immediately saw the point of what we were trying to do in the park.”

Twitching its whiskers, the tiger sat in the corner of the room, yawning, as Rohde continued, “Yes, there is an element of danger, but that’s necessary for drama. Physical danger is an essential fact that animals deal with every day, and we want to drive that idea home…”

The tiger sauntered behind Rohde and was led out of the room as he concluded: “So you can see our position: proximity to animals – the illusion that they are right next to you – is essential.”

The tiger gambit had helped the team make its point: live animals were an integral condition of the concept. Eisner and Wells capitulated. In the end, the presence of live animals was too powerful a dramatic tool to ignore.

A dramatic story, so much so that it was seared into my memory ever since I first read it about ten years ago.

Fast forward to July 19, 2008 and the Convention, which was held July 15-20 at the Crowne Plaza Resort in Garden Grove, CA. Joe Rohde was being honored by the NFFC [now the Disneyana Fan Club] as a Disney Legend, and – you guessed it – Joe was asked about this very story.

First, about the honoree: at the time of this award Joe Rohde was an executive designer and senior vice president with Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI). His responsibility was being in charge of design and development for Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Having begun his career at WDI in 1980 as a model designer and scenic painter, he had led conceptualization, design, and production for Animal Kingdom since its inception in 1990. An avid adventurer, Joe’s travel destinations have included Indonesia, Nepal, India, Bhutan, Kenya, Tanzania, both on his own and for The Walt Disney Company.

Now about that story. Club member (and Disney Imagineer himself) Dennis Tanida was interviewing Joe onstage during the program, and he requested the official version of this “Disney Executives Meet a Tiger” tale. This is Joe’s answer in his own words.

(Joe is an engaging speaker who is passionate about his work, and it is unfortunate this passion will not come through in a transcript. Please use your imagination for his gestures and the crowd reactions.)

There’s so many versions of this story, I’ll just tell you the exact, true story. Cause I’ve heard stories; they’d really be so great if they were true.

So first of all, none of us really knew much about animals to begin with. So we didn’t start on the animal thing. We started doing Animal Kingdom by designing all the things that our colleagues and our executives would be more familiar with, like the fantasy ride environment proposals, and a sort of Epcot-like pavilion proposals, everything except live animals. That was like a couple years of work on those things.

Meanwhile, we’re building a network of connections in the zoo community, and learning everything we can about conservation, and going to all of these conventions and meetings where these people meet, so we have some backup and try to learn what this business really means.

Meanwhile, there’s a counter effort to prevent the company from spending this disastrous money on a project that is going to fail. Being mounted by people who want to just protect the company from spending money on a project that’s gonna fail. And their argument is “Animals are not exciting.” Animals are just not that exciting. And so we get wind of this. Okay, we’re gonna go into the very first meeting where we’re going to present all our ideas for safari concepts. Like six different possible safari concepts. And we’re walking into a meeting where the counter argument will be “Yeah, but animals aren’t that exciting to begin with.”

So we think aw, this is gonna get into one of these “I say no,” “Well I say they are,” “Well I say they’re not,” “Well I say they are,” “Well I say they’re not.” And how do you prove this? It’s not the kind of thing you can prove with paperwork. How do you prove this?

And we thought we have to bring a live animal in to the room. So we started by thinking, okay, we’re gonna bring in one of those great big chameleons, the big ones from Africa, that are like the size of a squirrel. And we’ll just put a branch on the table, we’ll put a chameleon on the table and then we’ll do the presentation.

And anyone who’s ever been onstage, I used to be onstage a lot, you never want to be onstage with a live animal cause you just can’t compete. I mean, you don’t want to be onstage with a moth flying around a light! Cause you cannot compete and that would have been the point of the meeting, right? See, here I am trying to talk and I can’t compete with the chameleon.

But then we thought chameleon, that’s kinda small. Let’s get a baby elephant. So we’re thinking baby elephant, we’ll bring a baby elephant into the room while we’re talking.

Nah, baby elephant, it’s a baby. That’s not an animal yet, it’s like a baby.

So then we decided we needed something with some presence, and we decided on a leopard. A leopard. Cause somehow in our minds, we thought that would be more manageable.

Now I want to stress for all you young people out there, do not do this. We did not tell anyone, anyone, that we were going to do this. We did not ask permission to do this. We did not tell Security that we were going to do this. We told absolutely no one that we intended to do this. Because they would’ve said no. Which was probably the right thing to say.

So, we called one of those animal actor places, you know, that have those animals. And we said we want to have a leopard come into this conference room while I’m doing this presentation on how exciting it is to see animals.

And so we set it all up and we put all these potted plants outside to make it all jungley and put up all the boards with all the concepts with the various proposed safari concepts. And the guy shows up with his big truck, and I’m already in the room, and there it is, the entire leadership of The Walt Disney Company in this room. Cause this is supposed to be the Big Meeting, right? So you can imagine the people. There’s certainly Frank Wells, there’s Michael Eisner, there’s Larry Murphy, there’s like four other guys. And they’re all, you know, these are the guys who are gonna debate out this decision.

And I stand up in front, and meanwhile out front, the guy is talking to my assistant. And he says “Look, I brought the leopard, but he’s really jumpy. And I don’t think it’s gonna be a good idea to let him out.” If you know anything about leopards, it’s like, they’re a deadly cat that really does go around killing things for fun. I’ve been in Africa and seen an area the size of this room littered with dead antelope that this leopard just “Ah, oh, there’s another one!”

So the guy says “But I have a tiger. And the tiger’s like really mellow.” So okay, we’ll take the tiger.

So I’m in there talking. I’m talking and I stand up and I’m very serious, and much younger, and presumably therefore more charming, and I’m talking about this idea and animals, and you know the whole thing about seeing animals is seeing animals under their own circumstances when you aren’t aware of a boundary between you and the animals. You don’t know where the animal is going to be and you’re in the animals’ environment, and we’re designing these environments so that people will never really exactly know where there are and where there aren’t animals, and they’ll see these animals and be able to feel the presence of a live animal. And there is something very special about being in the presence of a live animal and feeling that power and freedom of a live animal, blah blah blah. I’m talking like this.

Meanwhile this tiger walks into the room behind me. It’s got a little chain, like a swing-set chain? I’ve since come to know lots about tigers, but even then I didn’t think the chain would do much. But all the tiger does is walk into the room. I never get to see the tiger. I barely see the tiger out of the corner of my eye. Walks into the room, sits down, scratches under its chin like this, gets up, and walks out of the room. That’s all it does. But all these guys, they’re eyes are like this big [holds hand out with fingers spread into a ball shape]. And I know they’re thinking like six things, including “I can’t believe this kid just did this, and I’m going to die.” Among the other things. But they did.

So the tiger was gone, and we proceeded through the presentation, and no one brought up the argument that animals were not exciting. Ever! And that was the beauty of this thing. It wasn’t just that you couldn’t bring it up in the meeting, but that every single empowered individual, to whom you would bring it up in a business context, was sitting in that room. And if you were to say, “You know, I don’t know if animals are really all that exciting,” all they’re going to do is launch into this story. “Oh, but I was sitting in this room, and a tiger walks into the room. Michael Eisner almost wet his pants.” So it was like a chess thing. It was like a chess move where you move the tiger over here, and none of these guys can move. Because you can’t beat the story.

I don’t believe I could do this today. I don’t believe I could ever have done it again. Marty [Sklar] called me into his office. You know, it was like one of those things. My dad used to always crack up when he would spank me, cause he just couldn’t seriously spank me. It was like that. It was like “You know, (chuckle), you really, you really should, I can’t exactly tell you you should have asked permission to do that, because I would’ve said no, but you really can’t do something like that again. But it was great.”

And we never tried anything like that again. But it was working. Sometimes you cannot make a verbal argument. It’s a physical thing. What we ultimately do are physical things, things that are real, they’re made out of stuff, they’re real events, they’re real actions, real objects, real relationships. You can’t write them down and put them that way. This was one of those, that, you know; hopefully, I’ll never have to do an attraction about explosions, but it really needed that.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.


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