–by Sarah Niswender, WDW Radio Team
If you keep your eyes, ears, and heart open, you will find AMAZING people no matter where you are. I just happened to come across one of these people while picking blueberries with my family in Western North Carolina.
I happened to hear from the other side of a blueberry bush, “Ya, I worked at Animal Kingdom”.
Cue my Disney antenna.
I feel like you know me well enough now, to know that I HAD to find and speak to the man behind the voice. Thankfully he was very gracious and agreed to speak to me. I would like you all to meet the newest addition to my Disney fam and the Clubhouse fam, whether he knows it or not, Nick Rubino.
Nick worked as an Animal Handler on the East Savannah Team at Disney’s Animal Kingdom from 2016-2021. He grew up in Upstate New York, seeing the horses at Saratoga. In the mid-90s he and his family moved to Orlando, and his mother worked as a Cast Member during this time, opening resorts.
This was the hayday for the opening of resorts we know and love. After volunteering at Back to Nature in Orlando, Nick spent the next 20 years working at SeaWorld. After meeting his husband Matt McHarness at SeaWorld, both as Animal Educators, they both made their way over to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Matt was an Animal Handler at the animal hospital at Rafiki’s Planet Watch, and Nick joined the East Savannah Team on the Kilimanjaro Safaris.
His team included care for the Grevy Zebra’s, cheetahs, warthogs, lions, ostrich, water buffalo, and several more species. Nick can also be seen on Disney+ The Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Season 1 Episode 8, with Dugan’s Birthday.
Nick’s legacy at the Disney Company is not only seen on Disney+, but with the people that have seen the virtual safari. The virtual safari was created by Nick in connection with the education department at Disney to give special guests an up close look at the animals on the Kilimanjaro Safaris.
Based on my re-watching of The Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and my own curiosity and love of the park, I was locked and loaded with ALL the questions. Early in our conversation, it was clear that Nick has such a love and passion for these animals and all animals. I hope to show an iota of the dedication and care that he and his colleagues have for the animals at DAK.
**Please note, these are not all direct quotes from Nick, but based upon extensive note taking during our conversation**
Me: What was your favorite part of your cast member experience?
NR: Witnessing animal births. Disney is really creating a space for these animals. It is incredible to be a part of new life coming into the world, especially with the endangered animals such as the Grevy Zebras and the White Rhino. (You will see the Grevy Zebra comes up a lot during our conversation, and frankly, I’m here for it!)
Me: Can you tell me a little bit about the enrichment that the animals in your care received?
NR: The animals all receive various enrichment throughout the day. The enrichment is partnered with designs by Imagineering and Joe Rohde to be themed to fit the safari, so for the most part the guests don’t even know it’s happening. The warthogs are the smartest animals on the safari and go through the enrichment activities very quickly. The cheetahs are like most cats and are more interested in playing with the box!
Me: What is the most magical moment you experienced as a Cast Member?
NR: During my audition to be a Traditions Facilitator* I was thinking that I needed to be exactly what Disney wanted me to be — the “perfect cast member.” Before the audition started, the higher ups told me to be my authentic self. Disney wanted me to be myself, they told me that I was enough.
Me: That is so incredibly powerful!
NR: That is my proudest moment as a CM, being the first cast member to be a Traditions Facilitator, it is one of the highest honors in the company. You get to represent the company and you get to represent Walt’s vision for the company as well.
(*Traditions is the onboarding program for the Walt Disney Company. You learn all the essentials of being an employee of the Walt Disney Company.)
Me: So as an Animal Keeper, did you work during the COVID shutdown of the parks?
NR: Yes, the animals needed us. It was kind of eerie in the park with no guests. The crazy thing was that the animals on the safari began to notice that there were no safari trucks coming through. They would walk along the truck path and they changed their patterns a bit. Once guests came back and the trucks started running again, it was like they knew that they were back on stage! They had a pep in their step — the lions particularly noticed the guests were back. Every truck that goes by is enrichment for them.
Me: At WDW Radio, we like to focus on “Choosing the Good.” I heard stories of guests not exactly following that motto once the parks opened back up. How did you all handle that?
NR: We really just came together and supported each other. Those of us that were backstage would try and pop on stage as much as possible to give some relief to some of our on stage friends. We heard the stories as well of some people being really cruel, but we just kept supporting each other in every way we could and we all managed to get through it together. This is a very tight knit community.
Me: What is something about your job that would surprise people? That people wouldn’t think of when they think of an animal keeper at Animal Kingdom ?
NR: It is a total labor of love. This is not a 9-to-5 job. The animals are always on your mind, even when you are not at work. Your schedule can change in a second, and you don’t necessarily have nights or weekends off. It really depends on what the animal needs. There is so much care that goes into making sure that these animals thrive. It is more than a job, more than a profession, it is a way of life. You wouldn’t necessarily think it, but people do get compassion fatigue, much like veterinarians and teachers can.
Me: What advice would you give someone, let’s say a 10-year-old kid, who wants to be an animal keeper at DAK?
NR: Never lose your passion for animals. Don’t get stuck on wanting to work with one species. You will connect with the individual animals. Also, volunteer as soon and as often as you can at your local zoo or animal shelter. Get your degree, a helpful major would be biology and psychology.
Now it’s time for the Flash Round. This is where we really get to know Nick the Disney person, outside of the cast member role.
Me: Favorite attraction at any of the parks?
NR: Big Thunder Mountain, it holds such a nostalgic place.
Me: Favorite Character?
NR: 1. Wall-e was the best meet and greet. My husband and I got to meet him at Matt’s Service Celebration. (15 years at the Disney Company — thanks for your service to the company, Matt!) He is such a rare character and fun meet and greet. (I am soooo Disney jealous right now, I can’t even stand it!!)
2. Dug from Up, because let’s be honest, who doesn’t love Dug?! ( I totally agree with this!)
3. Herbie the Love Bug: I think I relate the most to Herbie. He is always the underdog, and so unassuming. He always rises up.
Me: Best Animal Story from DAK?
NR: On my first day on the safari, I was getting my tour and one of the Grevey Zebra’s Laylee lined up on the training wall for voluntary hoof trimming. On her way to the training wall she tripped over her feet a little bit and then had the farting trots the rest of the way over to the wall. I thought it was so funny and realized that she is in fact my spirit animal. Laylee and I had a very special bond from that day on!