By Dr. Mark Penning, Vice President, Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment
Each time I visit the lush alien rainforest of Pandora – The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I try to experience the remarkable new land through the eyes of our guests. From the bioluminescent plants that illuminate the paths at night, to the iconic floating mountains that fill the sky, to the cacophony of Pandoran wildlife, the Valley of Mo’ara is simply otherworldly. But it’s also familiar. Because like all the lands at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Pandora is a story rooted in real themes and messages: habitat restoration, the importance of nature and our role in protecting it. It’s familiar even on this fantastically alien world, because it’s also our story here on Earth.
Pandora – The World of Avatar is an all-new land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom near Orlando, Florida, that celebrates the magic of nature. Photo Credit: Walt Disney Parks and Resorts
Amidst floating mountains, glowing fauna and flora, a native drum circle and many other wonders, the Valley of Mo’ara featured the perfect setting for the interactive Connect to Protect experience. Photo Credit: Walt Disney Parks and Resorts
Since the land opened in May, the sight that has made me happiest is seeing families engage with Pandora in a way that benefits Planet Earth: through an experience called Connect to Protect. This program intertwined the adventure-filled storylines of a new world – Pandora – with quests that guests could embark upon that connected back to real-world activation benefitting wildlife on Earth.
Nature and technology have long been treated as mutually exclusive. We often hear parents tell their children to “enjoy the outdoors; put away your electronic devices.” But in this case, we made the devices part of the story, not an alternative to it. Technology facilitated the exploration experience and its philanthropic twist, rather than distracting from it.
Immersive and entertaining conservation education is the lifeblood of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and a cornerstone of The Walt Disney Company. It can be traced back to our founder, Walt Disney, who was inspired by nature and embraced innovation in his films. We have continued that legacy by exploring new ways to connect our guests with the magic of nature using storytelling and technology.
Walt Disney was inspired by nature and embraced innovation in his films. Today, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts uses storytelling and technology to explore new ways to connect guests with the magic of nature. Photo Credit: Walt Disney Parks and Resorts
Walt understood the importance of people having fun together, and how these meaningful moments could stimulate personal growth that was both entertaining and educational.
Walt Disney’s passion for the natural world continues at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, where guests engage with nature in ways that inspire, transform and drive them to take action during their visit and when they return home. Photo Collage Credit: Walt Disney Parks and Resorts
That spirit was the foundation for the creation of Disney’s Animal Kingdom nearly 20 years ago at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. But here, the “stories” contained within our fantastic locations and lands are special because the park is in fact a real, functioning zoological destination. Disney’s Animal Kingdom even helped launch our resident conservation program, The Disney Conservation Fund, to help channel that inspiration into action. The contributions from our guests and Disney have helped us direct more than $70 million to organizations working to connect millions of people with nature and protect more than 400 species in 115 countries around the world.
Here at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we’re always seeking new and innovative ways to connect our guests with nature and conservation. This is where Connect to Protect came into the picture.
After completing one or more missions, guests at Disney’s Animal Kingdom unlocked a $10 contribution from Disney Parks, through the Disney Conservation Fund, or a $5 contribution just for discussing conservation. Photo Credit: Walt Disney Parks and Resorts
Upon entering Pandora, thousands of guests using the My Disney Experience app participated in Connect to Protect, and their actions are helping protect at-risk animals around the world. As guests explored Pandora, they were invited to exchange instant messages with one of Pandora’s digital ecological specialists. As they connected, they learned about some of the more exotic elements of the environment and received important messages about conservation.
Connect to Protect’s mobile adventure invited guests to participate in conservation “missions” with a digital scientist while exploring the incredible Valley of Mo’ara and helping protect the habitats of at-risk animals here on Earth. Photo Credit: Walt Disney Parks and Resorts
After completing one or more missions, guests unlocked a contribution, up to $10, from Disney Parks through the Disney Conservation Fund. They could then choose how that contribution would help protect or restore habitats important to one of 10 threatened categories of animals: apes, elephants, butterflies, coral reefs, cranes, monkeys, rhinos, sea turtles, sharks & rays and tigers.
Best of all, we watched this merger of technology, play and conservation happening among families as they embarked upon the adventures together. “What animal did you help support?” was a question overheard frequently in Pandora.
In November, we reached our $1 million commitment which unlocked grants of $100,000 to each of 10 projects committed to protect habitats for at-risk wildlife. This was all thanks to the support of more than 300,000 guests who participated. Their actions helped support conservation organizations working to protect sea turtles off the coast of Florida, tigers and rhinos in Indonesia, elephants in Kenya and so much more. It also connected kids and families to the animals that need our help and encouraged them to have fun together while experiencing the majesty and the magic of nature.
Disney’s Reverse the Decline initiative seeks to stabilize and increase dwindling numbers of 10 threatened species around the world by providing grants and applying the expertise of Disney Cast Members, Crew Members, Imagineers and employees to address the threats these animals face. Photo Credit: Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, International Crane Foundation, International Rhino Foundation, Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center, Proyecto Titi, Save the Golden Lion Tamarin, Shawn Heinrichs, University of Florida, Wildlife Conservation Society
Connect to Protect is an excellent example of how technology can complement and coexist with nature and drive further action. By reaching guests through their mobile devices, we hope to inspire them to learn more about nature and experience the outdoors, whether it’s here on Earth or on the moon of Pandora.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of Disney’s Animal Kingdom on Earth Day, April 22, the pillars upon which the park was founded couldn’t be more relevant and timely. Its purpose, which harkens back to Walt Disney himself and his passion for the natural world, is to create experiences that inspire, transform and drive our guests to take action during their visit and even more importantly, when they return home.
About Dr. Mark Penning
Dr. Mark Penning oversees animal care and environmental initiatives for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts sites around the globe. Mark also leads the teams responsible for Disney field conservation efforts and those who review how animals are portrayed in the company’s film and television productions.
Mark is a veterinarian by training, with a special interest in wildlife. He has worked as a private veterinarian and has owned and operated a wildlife immobilization and relocation business. He previously served as CEO of the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR) based in Durban, South Africa, a nonprofit organization dedicated to marine research and conservation. He has served as president of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), an organization based in Switzerland and representing the interests of some 1,300 zoos and aquariums around the world.