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A Heart for the Wild—in Fantasy and in Fact

Emory alumnus, Djuan Rivers 87C, works to ensure unique—and sometimes out-of-this-world—experiences for guests at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park located at the Walt Disney World® Resort.

By Michelle Valigursky

Disney's Animal Kingdom

Guests tour the African savanna, home to real-live exotic animals, on Kilimanjaro Safaris.

Sumatran tigers, cotton-top tamarins, and rarely seen rainforest okapis roam the forests and plains beyond his office, but for Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park Vice President Djuan Rivers 87C, the sounds of the wild include something new these days—the sounds of the fauna of Pandora, a moon-world 4.37 light years from earth.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom, one of four theme parks at Walt Disney World® Resort in Central Florida, features a world of adventures with exotic animals, prehistoric giants and beloved Disney characters.

Pandora Tree of Life

Animal spirits awaken within the Tree of Life after dark.

“Disney built this amazing theme park on three major principles: the intrinsic value of nature, transformation through adventure, and a personal call to action,” Rivers says. “We provide a breathtaking experience in which the animals and wildlife can be observed in natural habitats. Plus, our newest land, Pandora—The World of Avatar, takes guests to a place that previously existed only in imagination and digital storytelling.”

Pandora

Pandora - The World of Avatar represents the largest expansion in the history of the park since it opened in 1998.

In Pandora—the first complete land added to Walt Disney World since 1998—Disney Imagineers worked closely with artists and storytellers from James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment to re-create the moon-world of the Avatar film franchise. At night, the land transforms into a representation of a bioluminescent forest, with “foliage” that glows and, in some cases, reacts to a visitor’s touch.

“Like everything here,” Rivers says, “the level of detail is beyond belief.”

From flying on hurtling mountain banshees through the skies of Pandora, to riding a safari vehicle through the African savanna, hiking along the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail, or seeking yetis on Mount Everest, visitors engage every sense. Delivering authenticity is the mission for each of the Animal Kingdom’s approximately 5,000 employees known as ‘cast members.’

The park also contains more than 3,000 species of trees, plants, shrubs, vines, grasses, ferns, and other foliage, with more than 2,000 animals, representing better than 300 species.

“We want to create a magical, amazing, immersive experience, down to even the smallest details,” Rivers explains. “We want you to leave here feeling like you’ve been transported to another place entirely.”

Preserving Animals and their Habitats

Rhinos

Newborn animals make their debut at Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park.

With a professional background in Disney resort and international development in Hawaii and Paris, France, Rivers accepted the challenge to guide the growth of one of the most extraordinary theme parks in the world. “The Disney artistry at Animal Kingdom stems from a passionate commitment by environmentalists and researchers to ensure natural habitats,” he explains. “It’s so much more than just a fun place to visit.”

Newborn animals are a natural part of the park’s evolution. White rhinos, elephants, giraffes and more have been born to resident animals, and Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment team often travel the world to lead conservation field work and research in animals’ natural habitats. Even Pandora, which depicts a world of sheer fantasy, delivers strong messages of the importance of conservation and environmental stewardship.

Disney Conservation Fund

Ever the Adventure Seeker

Djuan Rivers 87C

Disney's Animal Kingdom Theme Park Vice President Djuan Rivers inside Walt Disney World® Resort's newest land, Pandora - The World of Avatar.

At work and at play, Rivers enjoys an adventure. Two years ago, he competed in a marathon in Antarctica. “It took us four days to land because of inclement weather,” he recalls. From the Antarctic ice desert, he trekked to Chile’s Atacama Desert, the highest and driest desert in the world. “The heat makes it so much worse to run.”

Rivers has also climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa at 19,341 feet above sea level. This climbing experience propelled him to even greater heights. After a flight over the glacier paths surrounded the world’s most formidable mountain, Rivers and a unique team of individuals did the unthinkable. “We were the first people to do a High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) skydive over Mt. Everest,” he says of the oxygen-required parachute jump from 31,000 feet at the edge of outer space. “It was an incredible moment.”

In hindsight, Rivers reflects on the 28-year career with Disney that he has cultivated since leaving Emory. “You can do it all and find balance in your life. Have a great career and explore your own interests around whatever that might be,” he says. “The one thing Emory taught me was that a strong liberal arts background will help you flourish in a variety of fields.”

Editor’s Note: Disney reports, “To celebrate the grand opening of Pandora – The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and the Disney Conservation Fund recently announced Connect to Protect, a new in-park interactive mobile adventure for guests and a commitment of up to $1 million to protect and restore habitats critical to 10 at-risk animals.

“Visitors to Pandora – The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom are invited to take part in numerous conservation-themed ‘missions’, facilitated over Facebook Messenger.

By completing one or more missions, guests unlock a $10 contribution from Disney Parks, through the Disney Conservation Fund, or a $5 contribution just for discussing conservation on Messenger. Guests then get to choose how that donation will help protect or restore habitats important to one of 10 threatened categories of animals (up to $100,000 per animal): apes, butterflies, elephants, coral reefs, cranes, monkeys, rhinos, sea turtles, sharks & rays and tigers.”

Learn more about Disney’s environmental stewardship.

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