Connecting children to animals is one of the Walt Disney Company's priorities — and that doesn't just mean bonding with Mickey. The company's dozens of theme parks, resorts and cruise ships located all over the world connect guests with approximately 7,000 live animals, representing 400 species, including the tropical fish in the snorkel program at the Aulani Disney Resort in Oahu and horses at the Tri-Circle D Ranch at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla.
Psychologist Jackie Ogden, PhD, presides over that kingdom as the vice president for Animals, Science and Environment of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Her job is to make sure every creature is well cared for, every child's experience with nature is memorable and all visitors leave more inspired to protect animals and their habitats.
"Walt Disney cared very much about animals and the environment," says Ogden, who earned her doctorate in experimental psychology with a specialty in animal behavior from the Georgia Institute of Technology. She worked at Zoo Atlanta and the San Diego Zoo designing research projects and educational experiences before coming to Disney in 1997. "We are really trying to understand how to better leverage what we know about [human] behavior to change how people think about the environment and take care of the planet."
Creatures great and small
From her office at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Ogden oversees a staff of 650 around the world, including experts in exotic animal nutrition, animal behavior and endocrinology, as well as veterinarians who specialize in every type of creature, from elephants to invertebrates.
Her team also includes curators in charge of the welfare of the company's animal collection, conservation experts, and writers and designers who create educational materials and develop educational experiences.
"We are also blessed with a great entertainment team that is responsible for putting on the shows," says Ogden. Those include performances featuring live animals, such as the Animal Kingdom's "Flights of Wonder" bird show, as well as puppet performances such as "Finding Nemo — the Musical" that aim to both educate and entertain. "In each case, we make sure they have the right animal content and conservation messaging, and they work with us to develop fun ways to engage our guests with animals."
One such experience Ogden and her staff developed at Conservation Station in the Animal Kingdom at the Walt Disney World resort teaches children how bats are "special, not spooky" because they help farmers by eating insects that damage crops.
This experience, shared during special events like "Bat Day" in October, suggests ways people can help preserve the bat population, such as by building a bat house for the backyard.
Ogden draws on her psychology background to support her team as they study whether their exhibits and shows are effectively teaching people about wildlife and conservation. So far, she has found that experiences with action-based messaging, such as "Conservation Station," deepen people's concerns about wildlife and that interactive experiences with animals, such as those at the park's Kids' Discovery Clubs, correlate with a stronger interest among children in taking part in activities that can help wildlife.
On a larger scale, she and her team also worked with the Walt Disney design team on an overhaul of the African savanna-inspired Kilimanjaro Safari experience in Disney's Animal Kingdom, rewriting the story travelers hear to further promote conservation and adding a free-roaming zebra experience as the new finale.
A greener Disney
Ogden's often on safari herself: She travels to Disney's four other main sites — Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disney Resort and Hong Kong Disneyland — and its smaller resorts to assist with projects. She also oversees Walt Disney Parks and Resorts' environmental efforts, which include expanding the use of LED lighting and reclaimed water, reusing construction materials and relying more on digital media to promote parks and products, among dozens of other efforts to reduce the company's environmental impact. While the company is working hard to be green, Ogden says it can — and will — do better.
"It's part of the Disney culture to never get complacent," she says.
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