As our safari vehicle rounded a bend, we encountered a herd of giraffes grazing on the leaves of the trees on both sides of the road. The driver slowed and drove cautiously right through the midst of them, one so near I could almost reach out and touch it. I’d never seen so many giraffes, nor had I ever been so close to one that wasn’t behind bars. And unlike most of the wildlife seen around these parts, these critters weren’t animatronic.
The Kilimanjaro Safaris are one of the prime attractions in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which joins the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney-MGM Studios as Walt Disney World’s fourth and newest theme park. Animal Kingdom combines elements reminiscent of Disney’s other theme parks with a genuine state-of-the-art zoo. Impeccably designed animal enclosures (no barred cages here) reside within various “lands” alongside—and in some cases combined with—theme park–style attractions and rides. Imagine the Magic Kingdom’s Jungle Cruise with real hippos and elephants; the Enchanted Tiki Room with live parrots; Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs? Well, not all the animals here are of the living, breathing variety.
Sue and I visited Animal Kingdom in early December, less than a year after the park opened its gates for the first time. Beside the entrance plaza is a broad waterfall, behind which is the Rainforest Cafe, the park’s premier restaurant. Once you pass through the turnstiles, paths lead you through lush greenery to The Oasis, an enchantingly landscaped garden where tropical birds, anteaters, kangaroos, and other creatures reside. So well do the animal enclosures blend into the landscape that you may walk past some without realizing they are there. Animal Kingdom rewards careful observers. If you rush down the paths from one attraction to another, you’re likely to miss most of the animals, not to mention the clever props and imaginative details that are the hallmark of Disney theme parks.
Disney’s time-tested approach to theme park design soon becomes apparent. Beyond the Oasis, you cross a bridge into Safari Village, a centrally located island upon which rises The Tree of Life, the focal point of the park. The Tree of Life is a sculptural wonder, Animal Kingdom’s counterpart to Epcot’s Spaceship Earth and the Magic Kingdom’s Cinderella Castle. Fourteen stories high, with a trunk 50 feet across at its base, this fanciful creation celebrates the interconnected nature of life. Its roots, trunk, and branches are carved into the shapes of more than 325 animals, and nestled among the gardens at its base are enclosures for birds and small mammals. A theater within the base of the tree shows the 3-D movie “It’s Tough to Be a Bug,” which is worth a visit even if only to stroll down the serpentine path to the theater, which winds around the trunk and threads among the roots, providing close-up views of the intricately carved tree.
By the time you reach The Tree of Life, you’ve probably begun to get a sense of just how big this place is—a whole lot bigger, in fact, than it looks on the map in the park brochure. Animal Kingdom is several times the size of Epcot, which is no small park itself. While not all of Animal Kingdom is finished or accessible, there’s lots to explore.
Paths branching away from The Tree of Life lead to the park’s various lands: Africa, Asia, Dinoland U.S.A, and Camp Minnie-Mickey. The animals are most active early and late in day. We arrived early in the morning, so we headed straight for the Kilimanjaro Safaris and a ride into the wilds of Africa.
Here the animals roam freely through a hundred-acre compound, and guests (as Disney refers to us) are driven around the grounds in open-air safari vehicles among the animals. The Disney people did not pioneer this concept, but they have put their own unique spin on it. The guide not only points out animals, but also runs through a scripted spiel about fictitious poachers threatening the wildlife. In the final moments of the ride, the vehicle careens down the winding, rutted road in pursuit of the criminals. The staged “adventure” detracted from the real thrill of spotting and observing the animals, and the lurching of the vehicle toward the end of the ride hurt my back, which had lately been giving me serious trouble. We did see plenty of animals—giraffes, elephants, antelopes, gazelles, rhinos, and zebras—many at close range, during the all-too-short ride. Since each safari ride provides a different experience, it’s worth going more than once, though each time you have to put up with that same poacher pursuit.
After the jarring safari ride, a self-paced leisurely walk along the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail was a nice break. The beautifully designed trail takes you past hippos, mole rats, alligators and crocodiles, and through a cleverly disguised aviary. The highlight was watching the gorillas group, which included an adorable toddler.
Afterward, we boarded a train for the short ride to the Conservation Station, an educationally oriented, “backstage” area, where you can view research, veterinary, and food preparation areas, explore various interactive exhibits, and walk around among domesticated animals in The Affection Section, where children alternately pet and terrorize the residents.
On the way back toward The Tree of Life, we sat in on the “Flights of Wonder” bird show at the outdoor Caravan Stage, which despite the usual scripted corniness was quite entertaining. At the time Sue and I visited, the Caravan Stage was the only part of Asia accessible to guests. Other parts, scheduled to open in early 1999, include a white water raft ride and a walking trail similar to Africa’s Pangani Forest Exploration Trail.
Dinoland U.S.A. is designed to resemble a dinosaur dig. Since this land is devoted to animal kingdoms past, it is more theme park than zoo, though the short Cretaceous Trail does display plant and animal species that have survived from dinosaur days. The biggest attraction here is “Countdown to Extinction,” a thrill ride featuring the latest in animatronic dinosaurs. No doubt it’s a blast, but I decided to heed the warnings that people with back problems should forego the ride. I also had to pass on The Boneyard, a sort of dig site playground that looked like fun.
We also skipped Camp Minnie-Mickey, which is designed to evoke an Adirondack mountain resort, albeit one at which Disney characters can be found vacationing. If you’re looking for costumed Disney characters, this is the place to find them, along with stage shows based on Disney’s The Lion King and Pocahontas animated films.
But hunger was beginning to gnaw at us, and my back needed a rest, so Sue and I headed back to the Rainforest Cafe, an aptly themed, immensely popular chain restaurant. It offers pricey but huge portions of food in a dark, forest setting that contains aquarium tanks filled with colorful tropical fish, along with animatronic birds, apes, and elephants that periodically “come alive.” We split a single pizza entrée, which was large enough to satisfy us both.
Animal Kingdom delivers what you’d expect of a Disney theme park: a blend of fantasy and reality expertly crafted with Disney’s trademark creativity and imagination; attractions ranging from thrilling to sedate, and amusing to corny, but always entertaining; educational information and environmental messages woven throughout in an accessible, inviting way; and beautifully designed and meticulously tended landscaping. Of course you can also expect big crowds, unseemly high prices for admission and food, the inevitable promotional tie-ins to Disney film productions, and ubiquitous shops and stands overflowing with Disney merchandise. But one thing is certain: Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a zoo like no other.
David Romanowski, 1999