It's Not Just Fun and Games at Florida's Many Theme Parks; Scientific Research Going on Behind SeaWorld and Disney Attractions

By Pedicini, Sandra | The Florida Times Union, September 13, 2015 | Go to article overview

It's Not Just Fun and Games at Florida's Many Theme Parks; Scientific Research Going on Behind SeaWorld and Disney Attractions


Pedicini, Sandra, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Sandra Pedicini

ORLANDO | In Rafiki's Planet Watch at Disney's Animal Kingdom, curious tourists can peer into a lab where researchers' work includes studying hormones extracted from monkey droppings.

A few miles away at SeaWorld, a Pennsylvania researcher recently scrutinized dolphins' and whales' swimming patterns for a study that could lead to advances in underwater robotic systems for tasks such as mine detection.

Sure, people visit theme parks to escape reality. But attractions that focus on real stuff - primarily animals - also conduct scientific research. Disney staffers, for example, have published about 2,500 papers on their findings.

"The research we do here is critical to how it is that we care for animals here as well as in the wild," said Jackie Ogden, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts' vice president of animals, science and environment.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums requires "a demonstrated commitment to scientific research" for the accreditation it gives Disney's Animal Kingdom and SeaWorld. The work also makes for good public relations - particularly important right now for SeaWorld, where attendance has suffered amid controversy over whales in captivity.

"It allows them to go out and say, 'Look at all the wonderful things we do for these animals. This is the good side of being a zoo and having animals in captivity,'" said Scott Smith, an assistant hospitality professor at the University of South Carolina.

Epcot's Future World has had a scientific focus since its 1982 opening. At The Land, which features agriculture grown with a variety of methods, visitors taking the Behind the Seeds tour can see wasps bred to keep pests in check. Two U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists are also there studying more efficient ways to grow pears, Disney said.

But research "really became sort of a larger effort" when Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, Ogden said.

Much of the analysis at the attraction revolves around monitoring the health of its own mammals, reptiles and birds. Still, Disney says its staffers - many of whom hold advanced science degrees - also contribute to outside conservation efforts.

Animal Kingdom scientist Shana Lavin is working with the Jane Goodall Institute to examine the health of colorful African monkeys called mandrills that are being released back into the wild. The Jane Goodall Institute's Republic of Congo sanctuary collected almost 3,000 samples of mandrill dung, dried them out and shipped them to Disney. Lavin developed a system to detect hormones from them to determine stress levels throughout the relocation process.

Miles Woodruff, the institute's mandrill project manager, said involving Disney was crucial because "they have a world-class lab, and we're not experts in endocrinology."

Disney World Conservation Director Anne Savage is considered a leader in the field of preserving another type of monkey: the critically endangered cotton-top tamarin. The small Colombian natives are known for being difficult to track. At Disney, Savage worked on a method to count them in the wild. She designed special transmitters that can be worn on their backs. She also used hair dye as an identifier, testing that method on the Disney cotton-tops first to ensure seeing colored fur on their companions wouldn't upset them. She also recorded the Disney cotton-tops' vocalizations, which were played in the Colombian forests to lure their wild counterparts out of hiding for a census. …

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