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We Met the Real-World Character Inspirations for Disney’s The Lion King, and They’re Incredible

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We Met the Real-World Character Inspirations for Disney’s The Lion King, and They’re Incredible

October 31, 2019 | 04:13 pm


We Met the Real-World Character Inspirations for Disney’s The Lion King, and They’re Incredible

Filmmakers went to Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge to get the look, feel and sounds of all our favorite characters just right. And we got to follow in their footsteps!

Simba, Nala and Mufasa
© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

We took a trip to the Most Magical Place on Earth to meet with some of the animals (and people) who helped bring Disney’s The Lion King to life in honor of the film’s Digital and Blu-ray release. It quickly became clear how influential Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge were on filmmakers as they brought Disney’s The Lion King’s iconic characters to life in an all-new way.

If you’ve been to Walt Disney World Resort (or it’s on your bucket list), you know the level of immersive storytelling that goes into every attraction, from the biggest set piece to the smallest detail. Disney’s Animal Kingdom takes it one step further, because it’s the true-to-life habitat to over 250 species of animals. In fact, a whopping 75% of all the animals that appear in Disneys’ The Lion King can be found in the Park, if you’re prepared to search for them all. Which is why when filmmakers started out the process of adapting a classic… essentially from scratch… they went to Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge to get the look, feel and sounds of all our favorite characters just right. And we got to follow in their footsteps.

Step 1: Kilimanjaro Safaris


Riding the Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is like taking a tour through the world of Disney’s The Lion King. At one particular thrilling moment, we had to wait for a herd of wildebeest to cross in front of our truck (at least they weren’t stampeding). And that wasn’t all–the hyenas hid together in their den waiting for darkness to fall, hippos splashed in the water near pink-backed pelicans, elephants ate together, and the lions sunned themselves on the Disney’s Animal Kingdom version of Pride Rock like they truly owned everything the light touches. Disney’s Animal Kingdom has natural barriers, so the animals are aware of their neighbors by sounds and smells, even if they can’t all attend a Circle of Life-type celebration like they do in the film. (Sorry to whichever animals are next to Pumbaa’s inspiration.)

While there, we were able to meet Jon Ross, cast member with Disney’s Animals in Film & TV, who collaborates with Disney productions to ensure safe and humane access to the animals. We talked to him about how the animals helped filmmakers create the characters. (Jon’s favorite Disney film is appropriately Zootopia.)

“The filmmakers spent about 6 weeks [at Disney’s Animal Kingdom], basically getting unprecedented access to the animals. We worked really closely with our animal care teams to make sure the filmmaking process wasn’t getting in the way of the animals’ day-to-day lives. This allowed the filmmakers to focus on [the animals’] natural habitat and really hone in on those natural behaviors, which I think you can see really well in the final product.”

Step 2: The Lions

Nala and Simba
© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

This past Summer, we got to meet Donald Glover at the premiere of Disney’s The Lion King but now we can say we got to meet “Simba,” too. That roar you can hear on the Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction could be the same roar you hear in the film.

Jon Ross elaborated, “We had a sound crew from Skywalker Sound come to the Park for about a week and [they] spent a lot of time collecting animal vocalizations. We worked with the animal care team to find out when the animals were the chattiest. We went into those areas as they were roaring…. And a lot of that wound up in the film.” (Clearly, our own personal chattiest time is right now, after we’ve just gone on this amazing tour.)

“We got to spend a lot of time around the lions. They are super active early in the morning… And when they come up to the front of their exhibit and start roaring, you can feel it in your chest. It’s awesome,” said Jon.

Claire Martin, who leads Disney’s conservation team dedicated to delivering conservation inspiration and impact on Disney property and around the world, chimed in, “Best sound in the world.” We have to agree, actually. In fact, Disney launched a global campaign called Protect the Pride, to help ensure lions continue roaring across Africa with a goal of providing $3 million to the Wildlife Conservation Network’s Lion Recovery Fund.

Step 3: The Hyenas


We spent some time with the hyenas only a few feet away from us (don’t worry, we were safe) and they are BEAUTIFUL animals. Their fur is gorgeous. Watching them play for a half-hour or so changed our perception of them. The animal care team was pleased to see the accuracy of the hyenas’ posture, movement and even their female-dominated social hierarchy accurately represented in Disney’s The Lion King. They told us the real-life versions of Shenzi, Kamari, and Azizi would probably be much nicer overall.

Claire has a soft spot for hyenas. “Hyenas, I think are one of the coolest animals on the planet. Of course, in The Lion King you have to have a villain… but in the animal world, they are heroes.” If they are, they’re definitely unsung heroes. We have a lot more empathy for them now!

Step 4: The Pridelands

Simba and Mufasa survey pridelands

We would be remiss not to talk about the character of Africa itself created by the filmmakers. We got to sit down with three-time Oscar®-winning VFX Supervisor Rob Legato to talk about the world that he helped to create. It blew our minds to learn that only one shot in the whole movie was real – shot on location in Africa. Seriously, just one?? If you want to watch the film frame-by-frame to find it, stop reading because SPOILER ALERT, it’s the opening shot of the sunrise illuminating the Pridelands. Don’t worry, we wouldn’t have known that either without Rob pointing that out to us. With the state-of-the-art technology having gotten so good at immersing the audience in perceived reality, he told us even he wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference without his unique insider knowledge. And he has three more Oscars than we do in visual effects, so that makes us feel a little better.

Also, because the Pridelands are NEARLY entirely virtual, we had to know if there were Disney Easter eggs hidden in plain sight. Rob confirmed that while he didn’t personally add them, he knows they are there. “[There are] always Mickey Mouse ears in every [Disney] movie. I haven’t seen the one — where they put this one in — [but] they’re there, for sure.” Well we know what we’re doing now that the film is out on Blu-Ray. There goes our productivity.

Bring home Disney’s The Lion King on Digital & Blu-ray TODAY:

Learn more about Walt Disney World Resort and Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Walt Disney World Resort

Learn more about the animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom:

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