“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” – in a presentation to the United Nations by Baba Dioum, internationally renowned environmentalist from Senegal
The jeep pitched and swayed along the bumpy road, passed lush landscapes, immense boulders, watering holes, and open green fields. Elephants took slow labored steps, giraffes nudged each other, flamingos posed in low lying water; crocodiles, cheetahs, and lionesses lazed in the sun. It was a picture perfect day for a safari, and this 22 minute jeep ride didn’t disappoint. In less than a half hour, the 16 of us lucky riders viewed the most majestic animals that walk the planet. This time, though, they were the ones roaming free, and we – the humans – were contained, and spoke in hushed awestruck tones, in deference to them. This is Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and it is awesome.
Animals have always figured in Disney projects — why even its first venture featured a mouse! — so it’s no surprise that this park celebrates founder Walt Disney’s love and respect for all creatures. Advertised as “a world beyond belief,” and “celebrating all living things,” Animal Kingdom opened its doors on Earth Day, twenty years ago. The design behind the park began seven years prior as the creative Disney team searched for a theme to entertain and provide adventure, all with a conservation message. And rather than a traditional zoo, they wanted to provide a sanctuary for their inhabitants. The African and Asia landscape and the endangered species from those lands gave them the ideal combination. Of course, the success and crazy popularity of Disney’s The Lion King, both the Broadway show and classic movie, provided that extra boost of encouragement. At a live performance during our park visit, Pumba and Timone appeared along with some very large African animal puppets singing and dancing and carrying on for an immense and enthusiastic audience.
The Animal Kingdom Lodge, adjacent to the park, joins Disney’s roster of hotel accommodations that come with their own unique experiences. Continuing its African theme, visitors can choose the Jambo House (jambo is swahili for “hello”) with its opulent royal decor, or the more low-key Kidani Village.The day’s schedule includes African-inspired meals, drum ceremonies, and kids’ activities; there’s a watering hole by the pool, and the Hakuna Matata playground. You get the picture. Set in a horseshoe curve, the buildings overlook four savannahs — immense tropical fields – giving the animals plenty of room to graze and do what they do with protective fencing preventing guests from entering the area.
There’s a Wildlife Spotting Guide pamphlet describing the animals along with their particular characteristics. Representatives of 30 species roam the savannahs, and can be safely viewed from guest rooms and overlooks. Zebras, giraffes, hogs, vultures, wildebeest, pelican, impalas, flamingo, storks name just a few, and if you want to know more, Disney staffers are on hand to help. In a personal tour by a Disney Concierge staffer, we learned that the park is a licensed zoo, and has the zoo keeper accreditation which means that staffers go above and beyond to maintain the animals’ health and welfare, and educate the public. In a recent blog entry by the park’s Director of Animal Science Operations, Scott Terrell, we read the following: “Back in August, we were thrilled to share the news about the birth of two endangered Sumatran tiger cubs – the first tigers to be born at Disney’s Animal Kingdom… Disney is supporting the efforts of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and their partners to reverse the decline of Sumatran tigers by conducting a tiger population survey in Indonesia and taking steps to increase the wild population of Sumatran tigers by 25 percent in the next decade.”
As our day at Animal Kingdom and the Kidani Village was drawing to close, we jumped on one last ride: the Legend of the Forbidden Mountain, a zooming roller coaster that flies inside Mount Everest, and drops 80 feet, in our chase to view another creature: the evasive, Yeti, based more on myth than on fact. But maybe it is real….when Disney is involved, one never knows.
Tours to Africa are “booming,” according to a recent Forbes online story, with travelers looking for the real Africa experience: safaris (but with luxurious amenities), getting close to rare animals, its culture and history, and for a real “getaway.” Disney has embraced this concept like only Disney can, providing an exotic vacation for those unable to take extended time off, or who don’t have the budget that the real McCoy requires.
Other cultural activities include:
The Na’vi River Journey, family boat ride through the rainforest.
The Maharajah Jungle, self-guided walking tour of Southeast Asia.
Nocturnal Encounters, explore the wilds of the Harambe Wildlife Preserve after sundown.
Like all Disney parks, one needs more than one day to enjoy the gazillion other activities, rides, shows, and exhibits, so consider their discounted multi-day ticket packages. For more information go to the website for Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
For tips on gaining access to park activities faster, without the long wait – a MUST to get the most out of your Disney day – go to the website for Disney fast pass.
Photo credits: MJ Hanley-Goff.