Interview with Ford Riley

Without even ever knowing his name, Ford Riley (TSOA, 1993) was probably a part of your childhood. Whether it was getting up early to catch Timon and Pumba on Saturday morning, watching Recess at your friend’s house or discussing Chalkzone at the lunch table, Ford Riley’s contributions to children’s media have been a part of our lives for nearly two decades. As a writer, producer and show creator, he has been recognized with awards and nominations from the Annecy International Film Festival to the Daytime Emmy Awards. All of us dream of making a mark in popular culture. Ford Riley is a testament to that dream.

As an actor in Tisch Drama’s Playwright’s Horizon’s studio, Riley developed a passion for storytelling. With a growing interest in television, he attempted to double major in Drama and in Film & TV, taking classes such as Sound Image with Lynne McVeigh. After completing an assignment where he adapted a Dr. Seuss book into a radio play, McVeigh asked Riley if he had ever considered going into “children’s media.” With no connections to the film or TV industry, Riley had no idea what children’s media was, let alone how to get a job in that field. After graduation, he headed home to Pittsburgh where he spent time honing his craft as a writer.

In the hopes of getting a job in television, Riley moved out to LA, couch-surfing at a friend’s place. Coincidentally, Riley’s roommate had a friend who worked at Disney Television Animation. Trying desperately to get his foot in the door, Riley used that connection to get a temp job on the show Jungle Cubs as an assistant. At this bottom position on the totem pole, he got a unique perspective on all the departments in the studio as well as establishing contacts at Disney. His bosses on Jungle Cubs were working on a new series reboot, titled Timon and Pumba, a spinoff from the very successful Lion King franchise. Riley pitched three episode ideas for Timon and Pumba which were all bought for the show, securing his position on the team and kick-starting his career in television.

His hard work and collaboration paid off as he moved from production secretary to writer’s assistant to staff writer. He was brought onto many projects at Disney, from Recess to Teachers Pet as well as other studios’ projects, such as Chalk Zone and The Land Before Time.

After his son was diagnosed with autism in 2005, Riley developed Playhouse Disney’s Special Agent Oso as a show dedicated to teaching kids everyday tasks. Whether drinking from a fountain or waiting for the bus, Special Agent Oso helps children at early ages take their first steps towards independence. From his unique perspective as a parent of a child with autism, Riley was able to create a show that allowed kids to learn everyday tasks and make it entertaining.

After he took a break from TV to write a children’s book, Disney approached Riley with a special project. The 3D re-release of The Lion King in theaters and on Blu-ray exceeded expectations on sales. The positive response came from parents who grew up with the movie reintroducing it to their young pre-school age children. Because of Riley’s experience on Timon and Pumba, Disney Television Animation wanted Riley to develop a new series that took place in the world of The Lion King for younger kids.

Riley looked to his son as inspiration. He noticed the kids on the playground invented a game called “super hero team,” where every playmate had a special skill which would help them as they acted out their imaginary quest.  Running with that idea, Riley developed the concept of The Lion Guard. The story revolves around Simba’s second born son, Kion, and a whole cast of new characters who work together to develop their unique abilities and solve problems together. Pitching the idea to his seemingly disinterested son, Riley was a bit disappointed. When Riley went upstairs to get the boy ready for bed, he saw the floor covered with plastic animal figurines. What was he doing? The boy said he was “playing Lion Guard.”  And with that, Riley knew he had a TV show.

Today, the show is broadcast on Disney Junior and has already been renewed for a second season. From toys, to books, to a TV movie, The Lion Guard is more than another series, but a story that has touched thousands across the world.

Riley takes pride in creating universal stories. The content is “something anyone can watch.” He finds the accessibility to be the most rewarding part of his work. His stories can be viewed by people of any age and teach valuable lessons to anyone. Whether that lesson is teamwork or drinking from a water fountain, friendship or dealing with loss, these will be the stories that cross generations and bring families together. When Disney Junior is playing in a waiting room, you’re babysitting at your cousins or you’re still getting up early to watch Timon and Pumba, just know there are folks like Ford Riley that devote their lives to telling stories that helped us become the people we are today.