Disney’s Animal Kingdom goes wild for 25th anniversary

Theme park first opened to guests in 1998

BAY LAKE, Fla. – Disney’s Animal Kingdom welcomed hundreds of guests early Saturday morning as the theme park celebrated its 25th anniversary.

The theme park first opened to guests in 1998, and since that time, the park has evolved and entertained guests through new and immersive magical experiences.

During Saturday’s special ceremony, guests, Disney leaders and cast members who helped open the park 25 years ago were on hand to mark the special occasion.

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“The original vision of this park was to have a place where we could celebrate wildlife, wild places and the emotional connection people can have with them,” said Sarah Riles, Vice President of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. “Our founder, Walt Disney, had a deep love for animals and their enate love to people - so much so, that he brought it to life through storytelling.”

Walt Disney World Resort Celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, (left to right) Dr. Mark Penning, vice president, Animals, Science and Environment, Disney Parks, Sarah Riles - Vice President Disney's Animal Kingdom, Raevon Redding and Ali Manion, Walt Disney World Ambassadors (WKMG)

More than 5,000 cast members at Disney’s Animal Kingdom continue the park’s mission today, from scientists and animal care experts to merchandise and food and beverage cast members.

“That very first day we came in and we were ready to open,” said Tom Cundiff, guest experience manger and opening day cast member at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. “We really focused on creating a sense of community, and as we have evolved, opened new lands, new offerings, and animals – we still have been able to keep that sense of community among the cast, and inviting our guests into that community.

Walt Disney World Resort Celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Tam Tam Drummers of Harambe (WKMG)

Saturday’s ceremony kicked off with an energetic performance from the Tam Tam Drummers of Harambe, a group who has been performing at Disney’s Animal Kingdom for more than 18 years. Following the performance, Disney’s Animal Kingdom performers took to the stage as more than 40 beautiful macaws flew overhead.

Walt Disney World Resort Celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Daisy and Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse (WKMG)

Saturday also happened to be Earth Day, an annual event worldwide, that is set aside for people to demonstrate support for environmental protection.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is Walt Disney World’s largest theme park, spreading over 500 acres.

Disney said everything in the park takes inspiration from nature and the animal world. The park’s iconic Tree of Life, for example, feature 337 sculpted animals around the entire trunk.

Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom (WKMG)

At the heart of Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the more than 2,000 different animals, representing approximately 300 species. Forty-five of those animals have been at the park since opening day. Disney said those animal’s success stories are a true testament of the level of care that keepers and veterinarians are making at the park every day.

Disney’s animal care teams are breaking barriers and revolutionizing animal care not just in its park, but around the world. Gino, a Western lowland gorilla, one the park’s gorillas was among the first to participate voluntarily in cardiac ultrasounds without the need for anesthesia. Trooper, a Hartmann’s mountain zebra, was another animal who participated in his healthcare.

[RELATED: Hide-and-seek: Animals you may not have spotted at Disney’s Animal Kingdom]

Giraffe at Disney's Animal Kingdom (WKMG)

“It’s amazing to think how far we have come in 25 years. We have raised the bar to the way the world tells stories about animals and nature, and that should not come as a surprise because Walt Disney himself was known to be a conservationist,” said Mark Penning, Vice President: Animals, Science and Environment. “Over the past 25 years, we have helped care for thousands of animals. From the tiniest spider to the mightiest elephant.”

Flamingos at Disney's Animal Kingdom (WKMG)

Disney is also helping animals far beyond the gates of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Back in February, Disney announced a $500,000 donation to five conservation organizations in Florida including Conservation Florida, Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Lake Nature Center and Wekiva Wilderness Trust.

Click here if you would like to learn more about Disney’s conservation efforts.

Since Animal Kingdom’s opening day, millions of guests have walked through the gates to experience attractions including the Kilimanjaro Safaris, Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain, Kali River Rapids and the 2017 addition, Avatar Flight of Passage.

On Saturday, the theme park added a Moana character meet-and-greet to an area in Discovery Island, just steps from Flame Tree Barbecue.

Moana at Disney's Animal Kingdom (WKMG)

During the 25th anniversary celebration on Saturday, guests had the chance to see a number of special characters around the park, enjoy new limited-time sweet and savory treats, take part in Disney PhotoPass opportunities and purchase 25th anniversary merchandise.

Disney also rolled out a special popcorn Pumbaa bucket that was sold at select food and beverage stands around the park.

Pumbaa popcorn bucket at Disney's Animal Kingdom (WKMG)

Click here for more information about planning your visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

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About the Author:

Landon joined News 6 in 2017. He grew up in Southern Illinois and graduated from Southern Illinois University with a bachelors degree in TV and digital media. When he is not at work you can catch him at one of Orlando's theme parks or the beach. Before working at News 6 he worked for stations in Miami and Fort Myers.