"Welcome to a kingdom of animals... real, ancient and imagined: a kingdom ruled by lions, dinosaurs and dragons; a kingdom of balance, harmony and survival; a kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama, and learn." ~ Michael Eisner, April 22, 1998
In January 1990, Imagineering Concept Designer Joe Rohde (same name as my childhood friend, heh heh!) pitched a proposal for a new park with a simple concept: a traditional theme park, an Epcot style pavilion, and a nontraditional zoo. Eight years later, at a cost of nearly $1 Billion to complete, Disney World opened its fourth theme park now called Animal Kingdom - the largest single Disney theme park in the world, covering more than 500 acres, home to some 1700 animals representing 250 different species; most of the barriers of which (between you and the animals) are natural looking or invisible.
The park consists of seven themed areas, with all but one connected to Discovery Island, which contains The Tree of Life, a sculpted 14-story (145-foot-tall [44 m]), 50-foot-wide (15 m) artificial tree that serves as the park's icon and centerpiece, with the other lands stretching out from it like bicycle spokes - the problem with this layout from a tourist perspective is the need to backtrack, doubling the time it takes to get through everything. A new area based on the 2009 film Avatar and its planned sequels is set to begin construction by 2013. In 2010, the park hosted approximately 9.7 million guests, ranking it the fourth-most visited amusement park in the United States and seventh-most visited in the world!
"Disney's Animal Kingdom won't be for everyone. The difference will largely be in one's expectations. Come expecting "rides" and you're bound to be disappointed. That's why Disney is advertising it as "a different kind of theme park". If you come expecting to learn a bit about animals, to view them in as natural a situation as any zoo in the world, to experience a themed environment as convincing as Main Street or Hollywood Boulevard, and to be awed by the many fantastic details from the walkway design to the Tree of Life, you'll love it!" ~ ZaZu
Personally, I'm not a fan of animals being held in captivity merely for the sake of entertainment value or earning a dollar, and especially in a non-native environment, (which in this case initially resulted in a number of animal deaths from disease, toxic exposure, maternal killings and park vehicles), but they deserve a little credit for practicing some ethics in regard to the animals' well-being, like not having a fireworks show, which surprisingly disregards the well-established norm for Disney theme parks, and closing the park early "to keep the animals on a strict schedule to avoid stress" (well, except for their initial holiday season's "night safaris," but hey, that doesn't count, right? I'm sure it doesn't have anything to do with additional costs and numerous complaints of poor animal visibility). The park's also engaged in animal research and conservation efforts, notably their rhino breeding program, which in 2006 transferred two of the park's white rhinoceros - an endangered species - to Uganda's Ziwa animal sanctuary, in the first attempt to re-introduce white rhinos to an area where they had become extinct. A few years later, one of those rhinos gave birth to a male calf, the first such birth in Uganda in over 25 years!
Since Animal Kingdom closes earlier then the other Disney theme parks, in today's case 6pm, I arrived first thing in the morning (after getting some more memory cards for my camera), especially to get on the ever-popular Kilimanjaro Safari and Expedition Everest attractions, which form long lines very quickly. I paid the exorbitant parking fee of $14, grabbed a park map, and at 8:45am, 15 minutes before the scheduled opening time, and was allowed through the ticket turnstiles to the Tree of Life area, where along with Minnie, Pluto, Goofy and a crowd of other tourists, I waited 'til 9am when Mickey appeared and got on a truck to lead us into Harambe for the adventure to begin.
As I emerged from the entrance, the iconic Tree of Life stood tall in the distance as I made my way through the land of Oasis - the park's gateway providing various guest services, Rainforest Cafe, and a number of lush, tropical animal habitats with viewing stations allowing you to see a giant anteater, boar, a two-toed sloth, wallabies, tree kangaroos and exotic birds. Cast members are nearby to assist guests with questions about the wildlife here. Take a close look at your surroundings, while the animals and plants are real, the rocks are synthetic, as are the termite mounds that will often hide water feeders for birds. These are more examples of Disney's goal to appear authentic, and yet remain functional.
I hustled through the land of Discovery Island, located roughly at the center of the park, surrounded by the Discovery River waterway. This is the "central hub" of Disney's Animal Kingdom, connecting almost all of the other sections of the park. The spectacular Tree of Life is seen towering here, encircled by trails to animal enclosures showcasing such species as the Galápagos tortoise, collared brown lemur, cotton-top tamarin, red kangaroo and South American capybaras - the largest rodents in the world. Within the "tree's" base is the “It’s Tough to be a Bug” 3-D show'; other features of the land include the park's largest gift shops (themed as colorful bazaars reminiscent of the architecture that you'd find in Bali) and two of its major restaurants, each with a different design theme, such as décor based on nocturnal animals - dine with [faux] hanging bats!
I walked across the bridge into the friendly, welcoming village of Harambe (Swahili for “come together”) in the land of Africa, inspired by a number of favorite African places found by Disney Imagineers whilst on a scouting trip for the park. Some of these snippets include a fortress found in Zanzibar and a faux water-stained, crumbling old building and private home that were originally seen in Lamu, Kenya. The thatched huts found throughout were constructed by thirteen Zulu craftspeople from South Africa, who had the difficult task of making something brand new look very old - with crumbling walls and roots sticking up into the walkways. The quaint village area was designed to resemble an East African port that caters to tourists prior to their safari excursions (i.e. Kilimanjaro Safari), and includes a “hotel,” restaurants, an outdoor bar complete with live entertainment and a marketplace. Buildings are a maximum of 30 feet tall, while many of the trees are over 40 feet tall. Cast Members/villagers are dressed in colorful, authentic African costumes to add to the atmosphere. According to Disney legend, Harambe was once part of a Dutch colony, but a peaceful revolution made Harambe self-governing in 1963.
Walking through the long canopied queue area of "the Harambe Wildlife Reserve," with overhead TVs explaining the serious problem of poaching, I entered the loading area for Kilimanjaro Safaris, where I boarded a rugged covered truck "to begin a two-week safari" aboard Simba 1 through 100 square miles (2,100 km2) of "natural" terrain, including Ituri forest, wetlands of the Safi River valley and the open bush country of the Serengeti Savanna, during which our tour guide directed our attention to some of the 34 different species of birds and animals found throughout, including the sable antelope, blue wildebeest, waterbuck, cheetah, warthog, reticulated giraffe, Grant's zebra, greater flamingo, African elephant (the largest living land animal on the planet), Nile crocodile, Nile hippopotamus, okapi, baboon, African lion, critically endangered dama gazelle, white rhinoceros and critically endangered black rhinoceros.
During the 20-minute journey, the driver is in radio contact with the reserve warden who is flying over the reserve on his daily routine. It all takes a turn when poachers have reportedly taken a baby elephant from its mother, and it's up to Simba 1 to stop them. Beginning in March 2012 the poaching storyline will be removed from this attraction "to make way for a watering hole for zebras." Interesting... The ride can be a bit bumpy as it crosses rickety bridges, rocky hills and rivers, and you should bring binoculars for animals in the distance. Don't count on the tour guide stopping for photo opps. The ride was nothing short of AMAZING.
Crossing over the bridge, I moved from Africa into Asia's mythical Kingdom of Anandapur (place of many delights). The landscape, culture, history, creatures and architecture of some of Asia’s most exotic and intriguing countries are found in here. Lush vegetation, crumbling ruins, mysterious temples, and even a maharajah's palace were borrowed from Nepal, Mongolia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand and India, to form this cultural melting pot. According to the “Disney history” of Anandapur, it was established in 1544 as a royal hunting reserve. A village evolved from this base and thrived, while the reserve has found itself in a state of ruin and decay. The “current” royal family converted the crumbling reserve into its current state as a conservation area.
The kingdom includes a second village called Serka Zong, located in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. Portraits of Anandapur's royal family, the Maharajah and his wife, can be found in most of the businesses within the two villages, and a map of the kingdom, featuring both villages and their location relative to the mountains and river can be found on the wall of the Disney Vacation Club kiosk located there. At the Caravan Stage, these two "worlds" meet in Flights of Wonder, a live bird show where one of Anandapur's bird researchers educates a tour guide with a fear of birds about natural bird behaviors and the effects of habitat loss and conservation efforts.
As you explore this enchanting land, you can hear the clack of the bamboo as the wind rattles through the forest. See the Tiger Tree, decorated with scarves, garlands and bells as a tribute to the spirits for wishes and prayers that have been granted. The cement walkways are imprinted with leaves and palm fronds and are flanked by bicycles, rickshaws and other interesting transportation options. With the two 50-foot monument pillars in the background, bamboo scaffolding surrounds two structures as part of a restoration project, and has become home to 2 families of gibbon. The siamangs have strong family bonds and perform their playful gymnastics to the delight of the entertained audience. The white-cheeked gibbons, whose hoots can be heard throughout the land, inhabit the second pillar.
Ever-popular Expedition Everest was temporarily closed (grrr), so I had to get a fastpass and hope for the best upon my return. I hopped into the queue for Kali River Rapids, a wet water ride themed as a rafting expedition along the [fictional] Chakranadi River, courtesy of "Kali Rapids Expeditions," through a rainforest jeopardized by illegal logging. The impressively-detailed queue winds through several themed buildings, passing by ancient, decaying statues, shrines, overgrown ruins and lush landscapes. Outside the temple, where chainsaws are heard, there are many pairs of sandals lined up, reflecting the Asian custom of removing shoes before entering places of worship. Inside the boathouse is a television screen expressing the rafting company's mission of showing visitors the natural beauty of the area and warning of the dire ecological impact of illegal loggers.
Moving into the brightly colored wooden pagoda decorated with Tibetan prayer flags, riders are loaded from a rotating platform into the individually named 12-passenger circular rafts. The 4 ½-minute adventure begins with a steep 90-foot climb through jasmine and ginger-scented mists, continues on through the river’s main channel and bumps and careens past a waterfall. You’ll float through a thick, lush jungle and hear the calls of the wildlife within. As you bounce along the churning waters past the bamboo thicket, you’ll hear the chainsaws and smell the smoke as the lush, vivid greenery of the rainforest is reduced to blackened stumps as you dart past a logging truck perched precariously over the bank, before dropping down a 30 foot waterfall. Some riders walked off the ride almost completely dry, while other, including myself, were sopping wet - just the luck of the draw! =D
After another ride on Kilimanjaro Safaris (I LOVE IT!), I boarded the rustic, African-themed Wildlife Express Train, complete with bicycles strapped to the top and bongo music. It's unique in that all the seats face outward ensuring a view of part of the Animal Kingdom backlot, which includes animal holding buildings for rhinos and elephants. The 7-minute, .6-mile trip (10 mph, lol) is the only way to get to and from Rafiki's Planet Watch, the one section of the park not connected to Discovery Island.
Rafiki's Planet Watch is a quasi-backstage peek at how the park's animals are kept happy and healthy, as well as areas focused on the environment and conservation, with three distinct sections. In the first, come face to face with 600 larger than life animals in a most colorful mural as you enter the front doors of the Conservation Station, where you can meet knowledgeable animal handlers, see animals up close and learn about the veterinary care, research and food preparation that are part of the park's daily activities, as you develop awareness for animal conservation. The veterinary examination room is complete with a two-way communications system so the veterinary staff can answer your questions. Medical procedures are most likely to be seen first thing in the morning, usually taking place at 9 and/or 10am.
There's a computer that can tell you where the nearest conservation organization to your hometown is. There are many interactive displays with environmental information and tips for preserving our natural resources, touch screens allowing you to check out the Animal Cams throughout the park, and "Song of the Rainforest" sound booths, which allows you to step in and throw on a pair of noise cancellation headphones before the room goes completely dark, and listen to a variety of (sometimes scary) sound effects, all drawing from their origins in the Rainforest, narrated by Grandmother Willow from "Pocahontas." That was cool, but I had the most fun browsing the small mammal and insect display tanks, containing Ball Pythons, Boa Constrictors, Butterflies, Central Bearded Dragons, Costa Rica Zebra Tarantula, Death's Head Cockroach, Emperor Scorpions, Giant African Millipedes, Green Tree Pythons, Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, Tree Boas, Nile Monitors and many more.
Outside, children can pet, feed and brush the gentle animals of the Affection Section, such as sheep, goats, llamas and chickens. Lastly, amble along an informative "adventure trail" to enjoy the antics of one of the most endangered primates in the world: the tiny South American, apptly-named cotton-top tamarins of Habitat Habit!
After returning on the train, I used my fastpass for Expedition Everest, a roller coaster ride through the Himalayas where the passengers will have an encounter with a Yeti. The story begins when guests are transported to a distant world of exploration and the mythical village of Serka Zong. A canopy of prayer flags, an ornamental monastery, intricately carved totems, and a garden of stone carvings of the yeti clutching the mounatin, immerse guests in a far-off realm. The yeti's role as protector of the sacred mountain is reinforced in this detailed environment rich in culture and tradition.
Guests board the aging 34-passenger industrial railway of Anandapur Rail Service, and journey through bamboo forests and waterfalls, across a teetering bridge into the Forbidden Mountain, diving into shimmering glacier valleys, and climbing up through the snow-capped peaks. Skulking silhouettes and shadows of the lurking yeti, coupled with special effects and climate variations, enhance the atmosphere as the steam train darts in and out of the picturesque mountain range, before it screeches to a halt near a gnarled mass of twisted metal, where the yeti has torn apart the track in a fit of rage. The runaway train careens back and forth through darkened mountain caverns and icy canyons, before it accelerates into a fog of spiral curves, and down an 80-foot plummet to escape the wrath of the legendary yeti, guardian of the Himalayas. HOORAY!
Technically outside the park boundaries is a large building with a waterfall cascading over the side, where you'll find the jungle-themed Rainforest Café. Here, you encounter a feast of sights and sounds, including being part of a tropical thunderstorm and observing Audio-Animatronic wildlife. You can watch the giant butterflies flap their wings, the mother and baby elephant wave their ears and trumpet and the watchful cheetah perched on a branch swinging his tail. As a curious gorilla looks side to side, a monkey hangs on a vine and a crocodile opens his massive jaws to show his impressive dental work. A 3500-gallon aquarium displays brightly colored tropical fish. I cozied up to the bar and relaxed over a Panama Punch, Mongoose Mai Tai, Cheese Sticks, Mahi Mahi Expedition and Double Espresso - PHEW! The overpriced food was awful; I'd visit again for the delicious drinks and fun atmosphere.
Back on Discovery Island, I admired the amazing swirling tapestry of 325 animals carved into the root system and trunk of the Tree of Life, before crossing the wood-hewn bridge into Camp Minnie-Mickey, designed to resemble a rustic summer camp that includes a babbling brook and evergreen forest, with benches handcrafted by artisans from the Adirondacks, and life-like images of Mickey, Goofy and Donald Duck at their favorite "fishing hole." I followed the crowds inside Campside Circle, a hexagonal building made of timber, and took a seat for Festival of the Lion King, the park's most popular live show and longest-running attraction.
The 30-minute, action-packed, theater-in-the-round-style, big-as-Broadway original musical stage show combines the pageantry of a parade with an African tribal celebration, featuring acrobatics and musical performances based on The Lion King movie. You’ll experience spectacular singing, zany trampoline acrobatics, larger than life puppetry, high-energy dances and fire juggling, all in a blaze of color, feathers, beads, fringe and beautiful head-dresses found in the costumes of the performers. Talented stilt walkers dance to the pounding beat with apparent ease. Audio-animatronic and live costumed characters are introduced on enormous moving stages as you sing along with Timon, Simba, Pumbaa, Rafiki, Zazu, Mufasa and more.
Crossing the “OldenGate Bridge” into Dinoland U.S.A (Disney's attempt to capitalize on the dinosaur craze inspired by the Jurassic Park films, and a complete departure from what you find in the rest of the park), I swimmingly took my seat in the "Theater in the Wild," a 1,500-seat indoor theater updated with innovative lighting, sound, and special effects for its original live stage show Finding Nemo: the Musical!, a 30-minute musical-theater adaptation of Disney·Pixar's movie, combining puppets, dancers, acrobats and animated backdrops, with 14 original songs composed by Robert Lopez (Tony Award winner for "Avenue Q") and directed by Tony Award winner Peter Brosius, marking the first time Disney has taken a non-musical movie and transformed it into a musical show for the parks. It was quite entertaining; the 30 minutes went by fast!
On my way to the "Dino Institute" I passed an impressive bronze cast replica of Sue: the largest, most complete and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus Rex specimen ever found, at 40 by 13 feet, with 90 % of her bones being accounted for (I saw it at the Field Museum in Chicago). Once inside the rotunda, I saw a fierce, meat-eating Carnotaurus skeleton as I my way through a queue area containing dinosaur exhibits and a voice over introduction by Bill Nye the Science Guy, before entering the "briefing room" to watch the "live video conference" providing a storyline, then boarded a 12-seat, all-terrain, experimental "CTX Time Rover" for DINOSAUR (no wait!), a 3-½ minute simulated dark ride that bounces, bumps and careens its way through the Late Cretaceous Period, where you encounter the largest audio-animatronic figures (in this case dinosaurs) created to date, and some terrific special effects in a race against time - and a hungry Carnotaurus! It was as jerky as a mechanical bull, but a ton of fun and I even jumped the second time I rode!
I entered Chester and Hester's Dino-Rama, a brightly-colored, dinosaur-themed midway with carnival-style rides and games, where I hopped onto one of the 13 colorful, free-spinning "time machine" cars of Primeval Whirl, an old-fashioned carnival coaster (complete with flashing lights and ringing bells!), that twirls you through a wacky time warp past flying asteroids and corny dinosaur cut-outs that spin and pop up along a twisting track of sudden dips, tight curves and hairpin turns...with a final descent into the gaping jaws of a giant dino fossil!
I moseyed back to Asia, where the Indian custom of turning palaces and temples back over to nature for the good of Earth’s creatures is symbolized in the Maharajah Jungle Trek, which allows you to grab a sightseeing chart and follow the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle through a tropical paradise of plants, trees, rushing waterfalls, and colorful murals within the crumbling ruins of an "ancient palace" inhabited by numerous exotic animals and 50 species of "wild" birds.
My self-guided walking tour began around a bend with a waterfall, where amidst a rocky pit I marveled at the sight of the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo Dragon - mostly solitary, indigenous to Indonesia, 60 frequently replaced serrated teeth up to 1 inch long, largest verified wild specimen was 10 ft 3 in long and weighed 370 lbs!
After seeing an endangered black and white-colored female Malayan Tapir (which can grow up to 600 pounds!), I entered a brightly painted hut resembling an Indonesian community hall, which serves as the viewing area and educational resource for a community of 32 bats of the Rodrigues Fruit and Malaysian Flying Fox ( 6 foot wingspan!) species, which are among the largest bats in the world! I was delightfully surprised to find that the viewing area made up of with 14-inch window frames did not have glass panes or wire coverings - you could just stick your hand in, lol!
Next I came to "Tiger Forest" in the heart of India, where there are three viewing platforms for looking at 6 beautiful female Bengal Tigers. Looking left while on the upcoming wire-covered bridge adorned with several rows of Tibetan prayer flags, I saw a field with female Blackbuck Antelope, one of the fastest antelopes in the world, which travel up to 50 miles per hour! Co-existing with the Blackbuck are several species of birds, including the Sarus Crane - the world's tallest flying bird, with males growing up to six feet tall with a ten feet wing span!
Sauntering further down the path you’ll pass through a domed Mughal-style mausoleum known as the “Red Pavilion,” which indicates exotic birds are nearby. On the other side among the ruins of the great hall is a peaceful bird sanctuary with marble benches, a pond and fountains, and 50 bird species of Asian descent - tree, ground and mud dwellers. There was a guide available with binoculars, to answer questions and point them out. I just had to get a picture of the beautiful male Fruit Dove and magnificent Victoria Crowned Pigeon!
As I exited around the corner I watched 2 families of Gibbon playing on the bamboo scaffolding of a "restoration project" then returned to Africa for a perfect viewpoint of the wondrous Tree of Life to snap a few pictures, before heading to the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, a self-guided trek through a lush, tropical "place of enchantment," containing 5 acres of habitat for some of Africa's most magnificent creatures.
As you enter the trail, on the right you see Black and White Colobus Monkeys, a leaf-eating tree-dweller with no thumbs, found in the coastal forests and inland high-country areas of Kenya; uses branches like trampolines as it lifts off for leaps up tot 50 feet! As the overhead vegetation gives way to the sky, you enter the first observation post providing the opportunity to observe Stanley Cranes, the national bird of South Africa; the shy, very rare Okapi, the only known living relative of the giraffe, ranging from 440 to 660 lbs, native to the tropical forests of northeastern Zaire; and Yellow-backed Duikers, a generally nocturnal member of the antelope family, native to the forests of west central Africa, growing to 100-175 pounds.
As you leave the first observation post, your path takes you into a research building with small exhibits of frogs, lizards, tarantulas and such, the highlight being a glass observation area displaying an intriguing colony of curious Naked Mole Rats, burrowing about their sophisticated underground network of interconnected tunnels, resembling that of insect colonies. Each colony has a queen, a breeding male, soldiers, and workers. They are the only hairless rodents, having faces only a mother with the exact same face could love!
As you exit the hut, you find yourself in an aviary of many rare species of African birds; some flying freely about, others roaming the floor (so watch it!). Guides are available to point them all out, such as the Carmine Bee-Eater, Bearded Barbet, Brimstone Canary, Pygmy Goose and Great Blue Turaco. Leaving the aviary through a screen door, you pass into another open air shelter with a dam on the far wall with a large panel of inch-thick glass, holding a pond containing a trio of giant hippopotamus! There is a great underwater viewing area to watch these river dwelling, pig-related mammals from tropical Africa relax on the boulders - I've never seen one so up close before! Males are approximately 5 feet tall and can weigh five TONS!
Back on the trail you will come to a thatched roof structure overlooking the knee-high savannah, containing tiny Gunther's Dik-dik antelopes, weighing only about 12 pounds and standing 12 inches tall at the shoulder, found in the dry brush country of Tanzania and Kenya; giraffe-necked Gerenuk antelopes, which look just like llamas without the fur lol, found in dry bushy scrub and steppe in East Africa, puncture-proof lips; burrowing Meerkats (Timon!), guarding their space at a whopping 1 foot tall lol, found in Southern Africa and the Kalahari Desert; and Thomson’s Gazelles, the most common type of gazelle in East Africa, which can run at speeds of up to 50 mph!
Following the leafy trail is the Gorilla Research Camp. As you enter, you'll find everyone pressed up against the glass, viewing the family of endangered Western Lowland Gorillas: a massive male silverback (adult), two young mamas, and a baby or two, who may choose to entertain and enthrall visitors with their antics, or retreat to the privacy of their forest. Stand on the swaying suspension bridge for a wonderful view of a separate home of 4 young bachelors, who roughhouse and cavort as they determine which dominant male will be the new family leader. Male silverbacks eat up to 20 pounds a day, stand erect at 5–6 feet tall and weigh 300–600 pounds! Did you know the Lowland gorillas are vegetarians, non-violent and that 98% of their DNA is identical to that of humans? YUP!
Just before the park's closing, I hopped onto Kilimanjaro Safari tour's last trip of the day, and man I'm glad I did, because all the animals were out out in the open, pacing back and forth, hungry for dinner. The large, impatient lion made a little nervous, but that was nothing compared to finding a huge white rhino chasing us down! It wasn't long before he gave up and went after the gazelles, PHEW! What an AWESOME way to end an AMAZING day, WOO-HOO!