Duke University Alumni Magazine


Photo: Sarah M. Brown

He's overseen the building of resort hotels in Disney World; Florida's newest city, Celebration; and a world-class zoo, Animal Kingdom. His current challenge is launching the luxury liner Disney Magic.

crambling among the School of Engineering classrooms, the football field, and his ATO fraternity at Duke in the late Sixties, Bob Shinn thought that managing his time was difficult. Three decades later, at the Walt Disney Company, he is supervising the construction of the world's largest animal park, developing a new international cruise line, and overseeing the planned community of Celebration.

Shinn's title at Disney is senior vice president and general manager of Walt Disney Imagineering--the creative team that designs and builds theme parks, resort hotels, shopping areas, restaurants, and now the cruise line. He supervises more than 600 employees and juggles about $2 billion worth of projects.

Shinn B.S.E. '71, who attended Duke on a full football scholarship, graduated with a degree in civil engineering, earning an M.B.A. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1973. Right out of graduate school, he was hired by the Sea Pines Company of South Carolina, where he spent the next fifteen years developing some of the nation's best-known, environmentally-sensitive resorts, including Hilton Head, South Carolina, and Florida's Amelia Island Plantation. Hired in 1989 to build a string of resorts at Walt Disney World--the Grand Floridian, Coronado Springs, All-Star Resorts, and his personal favorite, Wilderness Lodge--he rose to one of the top engineering posts at the family entertainment giant in 1996.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the forty-nine-year-old Shinn is dressed casually for a Saturday in the suburbs, in khakis and a brown plaid Ralph Lauren shirt. His modest corner office overlooks Celebration, an innovative community that has attracted world-wide attention. Symbols of other current projects decorate his office: a baseball jacket covered with Disney Cruise Line patches hangs on the back of his teak door, along with a matching baseball cap; a model of the sleek new luxury liner Disney Magic dominates a side table; his coffee table holds a large, white book, Africa--Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge --Schematic Design, containing sketches for a hotel his group will build overlooking the new theme park's large game habitat.

Building Animal Kingdom, a 500-acre theme park featuring 1,000 live African animals in natural settings with an emphasis on conservation, has provided Shinn with a wide range of engineering challenges. His role in this billion-dollar undertaking was to construct it from the ground up. "I was responsible for the delivery of the project. California Imagineers designed it, and my job was to build it," he says enthusiastically. "It's a unique theme park with classic Disney-themed attractions and thrill rides. It's very natural, very real."

Perhaps one of the more daunting tasks was the design of the 145-foot Tree of Life, the dominant structure and symbol of the park. The trick was to make it lifelike, and strong enough to withstand Florida's hurricane-force winds and occasional tornadoes, while sheltering a 400-seat auditorium in its base. A Disney structural engineer used computer modeling to design the tree as a free-standing structure made of steel. In order to provide a sturdy framework to support such a tall structure, a Texas oil-field contractor was commissioned to build a six-legged, steel oil rig in Houston and ship it to Orlando in pieces, where it was reassembled by crane. Finally, sculptors from around the world spent twelve months carving 325 animals by hand in thin cement around the surface of the massive tree.

Another challenging project involved building a fifty-foot, audio-animatronic Brachiasaurus in Animal Kingdom's Dinoland area. "It's the largest figure with the widest range of movements and special effects of any that we've done to date," Shinn says. Small details were planned and executed with equal care: Zulu experts were brought from South Africa to thatch roughly 40,000 square feet of roof at the theme park. The authentic covering, although expensive, should last up to sixty years, resist insects, and remain watertight.

Beyond Animal Kingdom, Shinn is president of the Celebration Company, which oversees the planned residential and business community expanding beneath his ninth-floor office window. Radio ads describe Celebration as "a new American town built on traditions from the past. Historic architectural details with front porches and back alleys--where kids walk to school and neighbors stroll downtown for a movie and dinner." The community has been an experimental venture for Disney and has met with some controversy. In a reflective New Yorker essay about the movie The Truman Show, architecture critic Paul Goldberger tagged Celebration as "an effort by a large corporation to market sentimentality."

Located near Walt Disney World, the 4,900-acre development includes plans for 8,000 homes, 450 of which are already occupied, and retail space of up to two million square feet. Celebration's K-12 school, hailed as the school of the future for its curriculum and high-tech facilities, opened in August 1996 and has an enrollment of 900 students. An inn, a hospital, several houses of worship, and an office park will be completed in the next twelve years.

Disney meticulously planned Celebration over a four-year period, based on ideas Walt Disney himself originated in the 1960s. Shinn's role was to coordinate the efforts of the large group of architects, city planners, educators, technologists, and engineers who contributed data. "We did a lot of research and investigation into what makes communities great, with the kinds of lasting and enduring qualities that help maintain value," he says. "We wanted to make sure that it was special, not just a typical real-estate development, and we worked real hard at it."

Disney's suburban vision: the planned community Celebration features polished town squares and bike-friendly streets
Photo: Sarah M. Brown

He also wanted to make it profitable for Disney. With its mix of both neo-traditional and historic-style homes set close together on perfectly manicured lots, Celebration has the feel of a movie set or theme park, not unlike Disney's own "Main Street." Design elements such as closely-spaced lots, small front yards, inviting parks, and public spaces all encourage socializing. Styles vary from Victorian to French Colonial to Charleston side row, and prices range from apartments starting at $640 a month to detached homes from $150,000 to more than $1 million. The quaint, upscale downtown area has small, tidy shops, a bank and post office, a movie theater, restaurants, and a grocery, all linked by the town's own online system to the community's homes and classrooms. A public golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones and miles of biking and walking trails promote outdoor exercise.

The Celebration concept--coupled with the Disney name--struck an immediate chord, both in the Orlando housing market and beyond. There was a waiting list and a lottery for the first homes put up for sale, and last year Celebration was the top-selling development in Osceola County, which borders Orlando to the south. Some residents have disagreed with the progressive nature of the school, which is run by the county, not Disney. And complaining that they have little voice in running their unincorporated community, several parents have either withdrawn their children from the school or moved out of the development over conflicts with Celebration's residential restrictions.

Disney's experience with Celebration has been instructive. After the controversy, the large banner on the water tower that read "Disney's Town of Celebration" was replaced with one that reads simply "Town of Celebration." Shinn says it's unlikely that the company will take its Celebration model elsewhere. "Our core business is family entertainment. Celebration really is a small part of what I do on a daily basis, although it's an important project for us." Will others emulate Celebration? Shinn concedes that "it's possible, but most developers don't have the kind of capital that it takes to do this."

Another of Shinn's major responsibilities has been the construction of Disney's first cruise ship, Disney Magic, whose maiden voyage is scheduled for this summer. A second ship will launch next winter, but construction delays at the shipyards in Marghera, Italy, near Venice, caused embarrassing cancellations of the first four months of cruise bookings. Shinn has had to make more than fifteen trips to Italy to troubleshoot with his staff who are based there. Yet he remains optimistic about the cruise line, which will make three- and four-day jaunts from Port Canaveral, Florida, to Nassau and then on to Disney's own island, Castaway Cay, in the Bahamas. Disney dredged a channel at the 1,000-acre island and built a pier for docking so its giant ships can actually berth there, allowing passengers to come and go at will without tenders. The project cost Disney an estimated $25 million, but it gives them a unique position in the cruise-line business.

A native of Washington, D.C., Shinn grew up in suburban Annandale, Virginia, in what he describes as a close-knit, supportive family. He characterizes himself as quiet and reserved. "I don't have outbursts: I'm pretty unflappable," he says. Does he ever lose it? "Ask Jane," he says with a laugh. Shinn met nursing student Jane Rippe on a blind date to an ATO toga party in 1969. By his account, their first date was "pretty rocky," but he saw a lot of potential for the two of them.

Jane Rippe Shinn B.S.N. '71, now a pediatric nurse practitioner, describes that first evening together: "He was drunk, barefoot, and wearing a toga when they picked me up that night. It was December, and we went to a Duke basketball game dressed like that. Everybody was crazy. I told myself, this evening will end eventually." They were married in 1972 and now live in Winter Park, thirty miles north of Walt Disney World, with their three children. As for flappability, Jane Shinn says it's household clutter that bothers her husband. "He wants things straight when he comes home. When he calls from the car phone on his drive home, I make sure the kids have picked up their backpacks and swim bags from the front hall. Bob does not like disorder."

Wes Chesson '71, a former teammate and roommate, who now does color commentary for Duke football games, calls Shinn "very conscientious, well-disciplined, and hard-working. He managed his time well." Former head coach Tom Harp says Shinn was "an exceptional leader, able to motivate other members of the team. He was prepared in every way to be a success. He had the personality, work ethic, leadership skills, and education--he had all the tools."

Those characteristics and the experience he gained working for Sea Pines Company founder, developer Charles Fraser, have served him well. Shinn describes Fraser, his first employer, as a mentor who was very influential in his career. "He was the first person to understand that you can add value to land by comprehensive land planning and architectural controls, and by putting deed restrictions on land to make sure that those design ideas have teeth. He revolutionized the business."

Fraser, who consulted in the planning of Celebration, has equal praise for Shinn. "When we hired him, we felt we had an enormously alert and balanced executive-in-the-making," he says in a call from the Bahamas. "He could marry his engineering credentials and his M.B.A. credentials into complex projects."

Shinn credits Duke for instilling his habit of carefully researching and planning every project he's been involved in. "That's probably a skill set that I got out of Duke Engineering School, making a very thorough plan to make sure that when we start it's well thought out and it's done properly," he says. He now serves on the school's Dean's Council.

Playing football for Duke was equally educational. "Football teaches you to deal with adversity. If you're not always winning, you have to suck it in and get ready for the next game. Business and life are that way, and we didn't have many winning seasons at Duke in the late Sixties."

Brown is a freelance writer and photographer based in Orlando, Florida.


Natural fascination: Stevens holds an African chameleon from the species chamaeleo hoehneli
Photo: Rick Barongi

On any given day, Elizabeth "Beth" Franke Stevens '81 is likely to encounter Maguari storks, white-crested hornbills, and herds of antelopes, zebras, and hippopotami. While her peers are immersed in routine office jobs, Stevens may find herself immersed in the operation of a vast marine science and conservation center, which houses more than 2,700 fish, sharks, sea turtles, and bottle-nosed dolphins. An afternoon could include collaborating with leading veterinarians and environmentalists on educational outreach programs that appeal to a diverse population of adults and children.

Stevens is the conservation and science director at Walt Disney World Animal Programs. That means she's responsible for research and education activities and for leading the animal management teams for Disney's Animal Kingdom, Discovery Island, The Living Seas, and the Tri-Circle D Ranch. Given the rich biodiversity of Disney's location on 30,000 acres in central Florida, the ambitiousness of the company's environmental mission, and the millions of guests who stream through the resort's gates every year, she has an elephantine assignment.

"There is no such thing as a typical day," says Stevens, who joined the Disney family in 1996. "One of the reasons I was interested in coming here was knowing the potential for reaching millions and millions of people, not just guests who visit the theme parks but through all the other outlets Disney has, from books to television shows to movies."

Stevens' own interest in the natural world began when she was growing up in Summit, New Jersey. "I was crazy about animals from a young age," she says. She played with neighborhood dogs, and rode and later trained horses. By the time she came to Duke as a zoology major, she was fairly certain she wanted to become a veterinarian. But in her junior year, she spotted an ad in The Chronicle for a summer field course in Kenya on animal behavior, led by Georgia Tech professor Terry Maple. The experience proved pivotal for Stevens, who decided to pursue a career in wildlife biology.

After graduating cum laude from Duke, she received a German Academic Exchange Fellowship to study at the Institute for Behavioral Physiology at the University of Tuebingen in West Germany. She earned her Ph.D. in biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writing her dissertation on "Ecological and demographic influences on social behavior, harem stability, and male reproductive success in feral horses." (While earning her degree at UNC, Stevens maintained ties to her undergraduate alma mater, since she was based at Duke's Marine Lab in Beaufort, North Carolina.)

Stevens went on to complete a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., before reuniting with her mentor, Terry Maple, at Zoo Atlanta. (Maple, who developed Zoo Atlanta into one of the country's premier zoos, is internationally known for his work on great-ape behavior and environmental psychology. He now serves on Disney's Animal Kingdom advisory panel, which also includes leading conservationists William Conway and Russ Mittermeier, among others.) Stevens worked her way up from a research biologist to director and then senior vice president of Zoo Atlanta's Conservation Action Resource Center.

Now at Disney, she says she relishes the notion of having a captive audience, so to speak, with which to share the message of environmental awareness. "Disney is different from zoos or science museums because we reach a broader cross-section of people. We focus on getting people excited and interested in a topic through experiences that tug on their heartstrings. That's the first, most important step in getting people to want to learn more. We've created so many different kinds of settings that there's something here for everyone, whether that's sitting through a show, going on a safari ride, interacting with a cast member who's knowledgeable about animals, or talking one-on-one with a vet." For guests who want to learn more, there are specific educational programs tailored for kids ("Team Up for Wildlife") and adults ("Backstage Safari").

Stevens also coordinates an array of conservation research projects that take place at the Walt Disney World Resort and around the world. Disney staff and independent researchers explore such topics as how dolphins communicate, whether a medical procedure used on humans can treat reptile disease in wild, endangered sea turtles, and methods for preserving and improving wetlands vegetation.

"I'm really proud of the quality of our staff and the collaborators we work with," says Stevens. "We are considered a leading resource for individual researchers and institutions across the country. The whole zoo world is looking to us to raise the bar in caring for animals in captivity." The Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund supports wildlife conservation programs in twenty-nine countries throughout the world.

Given Disney's commitment to environmental and conservation initiatives on both the local and international level, Stevens says it was particularly disheartening when the media, in the weeks prior to opening, called attention to several animal deaths that occurred earlier this year. "Unfortunately, the focus [in media accounts] became these few deaths rather than on how many other animals we have here that are thriving," she says. "The fact of the matter is that the number of deaths was very small when you consider the total number of animals we care for. Just as we celebrate every birth that happens here, we mourn each and every death. And death is part of the circle of life. Jane Goodall was here for the opening of Animal Kingdom, and when the media asked about the animal deaths, she just looked at them with her mouth open. She pointed out that the animals here are some of the best cared-for in the world."

Stevens lives in Winter Garden, Florida, with her husband, Ted, who studies the effects of habitat restoration on the threatened scrub jay for the Archbold Biological Station. The couple's two sons, Bradley and Alex, are already following in their parents' footsteps. "We have three German shepherds and there's all kinds of wildlife where we live," says Stevens. But rather than capturing prey and leaving it to languish in a shoebox or jar, Stevens says her sons have learned to be careful stewards of their backyard menagerie. "Whatever they catch--turtles, lizards, frogs --the boys spend some time observing them before letting them go."

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