Looking Back on Disney's Animal Kingdom with Rick Barongi

by J. Jeff Kober

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Of all the Disney parks in North America, probably less is known about this park than any other. I spent time with Rick Barongi, who is now Zoo Director for the Houston Zoo, one of the top zoos in the country. He shares his story of Disney’s Animal Kingdom coming to life. Let’s rewind the clock.

Rick Barongi and Mickey Mouse at the base of the Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom
Rick Barongi and Mickey Mouse at the base of the Tree of Life at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

1989. In May of that year, the Disney-MGM Studios opened as the third park in Walt Disney World. Following in the shadows of the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, this was the first park opened up under the Michael Eisner/Frank Wells era. The park had such huge crowds that in trying to open earlier to accommodate the number of people coming, that the park was sometimes filled and had to turn away people before the stated opening time.

In short order, Michael was convinced that another fourth gate was needed. There were many ideas that Michael saw, but none held his interest more than in doing something with animals. He felt that Disney could do to the zoo world what Walt had done to the amusement park world. Joe Rohde came into the picture early on as the lead Imagineer.  Joe established a team of 7-8 Imagineers.

Recognizing that Imagineering knew little about the care and keeping of animals, Joe sought out the well-respected Bill Conway, who was the executive director of the Bronx Zoo. Bill flew out a couple of times and visited with Joe, but ultimately had to go back to his zoo and focus on his work there. He suggested they contact Rick Barongi out at the San Diego Zoo.

1990. Rick received a call from Joe’s assistant asking for help. An early idea was that the experience would include a safari trek, and they wanted Rick’s ideas around how to make that happen. Rick had been not only with the San Diego Zoo, but had spent time in New Jersey with Warner Brothers Jungle Habitat and with the Lion King Safari in Southern California. He held some good insight about how to make a trek succeed.

Initially, for the first couple of years, it was simply a couple of trips back and forth to Imagineering in Glendale. When it seemed they were more interested in his providing long-term consulting, Rick asked Doug Myers, head of the San Diego Zoo whether it was okay. Doug was fine with it, as long as the project wasn’t being built in California in competition with the San Diego Zoo.

1991. At this point, the park project is still very secretive. But Rick argues that more animal experts are needed to make the kinds of decisions being bantered about. Rick gets to bring a few more animal experts onboard. Joe Rohde is now party to ongoing discussions about whether this animal can be in the same space as this animal, or how many you can fit into a hippo pond. Rick reflects, “If anything, I think Joe really liked me because I was open to the possibilities. Others would say it couldn’t be done. But I kept asking ‘why not?’”

Disney's Animal Kingdom under construction. Photography by Steven Smith.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom under construction. Photography by Steven Smith.

1992. Rick is still working as a consultant part time on the project. Joe is convinced this park is going to get the green light. A highlight at this time is when Michael and Jane Eisner come down to the San Diego Zoo to visit. Rick gives them a personal tour, and gets to know Michael and his passion for doing this project.

1993. After working several years as a part-time consultant, Rick is finally offered a permanent position with the Walt Disney Company. Rick’s role will not only be to oversee the development of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but to also oversee all of Disney’s animal operations, to include The Living Seas and Discovery Island. Plans are further developed for the park, with the intent of making an announcement in 1994.

1994. This was supposed to be the big year that the park would be announced, along with an opening date for 1997. But it came to be known as the year that everything fell apart.

First, came the untimely accident and death of Frank Wells. A champion of the park, Frank’s absence left a hole that was difficult to fill. Michael Eisner’s heart attack and the subsequent resignation of Jeffrey Katzenberg muddied the water further, making it difficult to get the go ahead at the top levels of the organization. And if it wasn’t hard enough, the economy softened, lessening attendance at the current parks.

Rick Barongi in front of a chimpanzee sculpture especially dedicated to the work of Jane Goodall.
Rick Barongi in front of a chimpanzee sculpture especially dedicated to the work of Jane Goodall.

In that wake, it was difficult to get the energy to go ahead. Richard Nanula told Eisner: “I just don’t believe that adding another park is going to prompt our guests to extend their visits another day…At a time when we’re already struggling, the much greater possibility is that it will cannibalize attendance from our other parks.” Eisner stated he understood the view, but that he disagreed emotionally. “Standing still was not an option. Either you take calculated risks to grow, or you slowly wither and die.”

1995. It was hard on the team to wait another year. Rick took solace from Joe, who never believed the project would die. But one important thing waiting did was that it allowed the team to learn some important lessons from another project that took a dagger in 1994. Disney’s America was a theme park project idea Michael loved perhaps more than any. Judson Green, the head of Disney Parks, along with his team, spent a lot of time trying to get the community out in Virginia behind the project, but learned most of those lessons a little too late in the timeline. That park idea would be abandoned, but those lessons could be applied to Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Rick suggested an animal/conservation advisory board to Judson and Joe. This was unusual, because Disney normally does not include outsiders in the development of a new park. Still, this was a good idea, given their lessons with Disney’s America. This was one of the best parts of Rick’s jobs. People he had seen as mentors—whom he long respected—were invited to be part of this group. They in turn became Disney’s best defense against critics who would argue against that project. Judson would give of his personal time to work 1:1 with this advisory group.

1996. Up until this time, Rick has been living in San Diego, getting in a car early on Monday mornings, and driving up for the week to work off Flower Street in Glendale, California. Now the operation moves east. Rick moves from California to Orlando, Florida. He’s neighbors with Judson Green and he spends a great deal of time working with him.

Among his peers in the zoo world, there are two opinions: Rick is crazy for getting involved with this project in the first place—or Rick is the luckiest guy on Earth to do a project with Disney. In time, it would definitely be the latter. But at this point, everything is simply dirt and trenches in the ground as the park is still two years away from completion.

1997. It’s during these same years that Rick hired many of the key managers, as well as some of the keepers. The great thing with the Disney name is that Rick is able to obtain some of the best professionals in the zoo industry—much to the chagrin of all of those zoo directors losing their people. In the end, Rick hires people from some 69 zoos across the country—and many of those zoos involved multiple hires. There is now a new Cast of animal experts within the ranks of Disney.

1998. Disney’s Animal Kingdom opens and the rest is history. Eisner summed it all up as well:

“Whatever doubts we may once have had about the Animal Kingdom’s viability were answered on April 22, 1998, the day the park opened. The crowds were so large that we were forced to close our gates to further guests by 9:00 a.m. Over the next few months, attendance has exceeded every expectation, and the ratings from guests are the highest we’ve received for any park in our history. In a way, the Animal Kingdom takes us full circle. Thirty years ago, all you could find on our Orlando property were vast herds of grazing animals and some rather intimidating reptiles. Today, after billions of dollars in investment, we have unveiled our most original theme park concept yet: vast herds of grazing animals and some rather intimidating reptiles.”

Indeed, it’s a Circle of Life kind of thing. And it was for Rick as well. By the time the park opened, Rick had moved on with the Imagineering team to develop Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. Originally, Rick thought he would handle animal operations when the park opens—a role that Beth Stevens would be offered by Bob Lamb. Beth came from Zoo Atlanta and was originally recruited by Rick. It was difficult not moving forward with the role of running the operation from day to day. Rick counseled with Judson as to what he should do. But in the words of his friend Dieter Hannig, who oversaw all of Disney’s food & beverage operations during this time, “the team that creates the restaurant is not the one who should run it.”

Today, Rick is with the Houston Zoo. Many of the people originally hired to make Disney’s Animal Kingdom a reality now fill leadership roles in zoos across the country. It’s a pattern that has repeated itself many times over. As Rick predicted back in 1998, “A big company is our biggest hope of helping. Disney can affect a culture, can create the kind of caring and passion no zoo can. In the end, Disney will help zoos market the good things they do.”

For that, you can thank Rick Barongi, and the scores of zoo professionals who not only brought Disney’s Animal Kingdom to life—but continue to do so in zoos everywhere.


A note about the author: J. Jeff Kober has worked with Rick at Houston Zoo, as well as other great zoos across the country in providing improved customer service and leadership excellence. A former consultant of The Disney Institute, he continues to provide best-practices, training, and development in the non-profit, public, and private sectors.