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Disney/Theme Parks: On Safari in Florida and Ontario

My husband's dream is to take our kids on safari. So we were all ears when we heard that two school friends of Natalie's had just returned from the Kenya savannah. Was it great? "It was fabulous," said their mom. From their private jeep, they photographed and sketched huge herds in movement across the grasslands. They tented by night listening to the sounds of Africa. "Was it expensive?" was the next question. "It was about $500 per day," said the ecstatic parent. "Each," she added, plus airfare to Nairobi through London, England. I totted it up. To give our three a similar week of animal encounters in Africa would cost around $22,500! Unless we win the lottery, my husband's fantasy trip will remain just that-a dream.

Happily, parents can give their kids a taste of African wildlife without selling the furniture. Just one hour west of Toronto near Cambridge is African Lion Safari, the first wildlife park of its kind in Canada. Last weekend, we traveled to their grasslands to drive through the herds of African and North American animals, cruise on the "African Queen" and ooh at one of the newest members of their menagerie of 1000 birds and animals-a baby elephant born two months ago weighing 212 pounds. Ouch!

The highlight of the slow drive through the animal paddocks, however, are the lions, the tigers and bears. At one point, we counted nine male and female lions sprawled within a few yards of our van- so close we could count teeth during a yawn. The rare White Tigers were exquisite, looking as though a preschooler had been let loose on a white canvas with a black marker.

As in an African game preserve, park attendants ride around in zebra-striped trucks and are ready to shake their crooks at the monkeys who are clamboring around your windshield and sitting relaxed on your rear-view mirror. One caution: the families of baboons running rampant can alter your vehicle. We've seen them dismantling wipers, stealing light bulbs out of license plate covers and bending car aerials, much to the delight of the kids riding passenger. A safari bus takes those squeamish about such things.

For $16.95 per adults, $14 you can ride through the safari park as many times as possible, see the bird and animal shows, and the elephant swim. Don't miss the new elephant in the Petting Zoo area. Seeing the female pachyderms crowding around to play with the baby as she hid underneath her very large momma reminded me of a scene in Dumbo. After the birth, a crowd of female elephants circle around the new arrival not to play but to whisper rudely about the new baby's uncommonly large ears.

At Walt Disney World's new Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Kilimanjaro Safaris is the main attraction. Passengers board an open-air lorry straight out of the dark continent emblazoned with a Red Cross symbol and equipped with a scratchy radio. "Fasten your seat belts," instructs the khaki-clad South African guide. We all look around and laugh nervously. There aren't any. "It could be a rough ride," he adds as we set off down a road filled with ruts and rocks. Our task we learn is to rescue baby elephant Little Red from the ivory poachers. We pass by herds of giraffe, wildebeests and okapi, pick out crocodiles in the river and black-and-white colobus monkeys in the trees and accompanying "adventure ensues." As we cross a log bridge, it tilts, the vehicle lurches and it seems as if the whole structure will collapse to the ground below. As we careen through a road submerged with water, we do come full stop. When the guide bemoans, "Oh no, I knew I should have this truck serviced last week," some of our group really do gasp. They convinced we're stuck, wild animals all round. There are barriers between the potentially dangerous species and us but you can't see them. The escarpments, valleys or moats separating them from us and each other are cleverly hidden.

The scrubby landcape with funny-looking sausage trees and monkey puzzle trees, does look realistic. Although some of the park is orchestrated-the giraffes, for example, seem to be nibbling leaves from a tall boabab tree but are actually feasting from a stainless steel "lazy Susan" regularly supplied with acacia shoots, bamboo and willow- Disney's major problem so far is that it is all too real. Here, on the 110-acre savannah the hippos do not dance in pink tutus but instead stare up from their muddy sinkholes; the warthogs do not sing songs but burrow around the edge of a geothermal field filled with bubbling geysers and mupots. Some of the animals have perished as they do in the wild. And how to keep the elephants and other African animals from completely eating up their landscape? For a brief 15 minutes, though, you really did feel as if you were adventuring on the savannah.

A caution to parents of very young children: the trucks are open-sided. Small children could fall out, so make sure they sit between adults. Also, on two of the safari rides, young explorers did burst into tears. Some were afraid of the large horned white rhinoceroses covered in mud who bolted toward the truck; others didn't like the rough and fast speed. Advice to everyone: go at the beginning and end of the day when the animals are moving about more than during the heat of the day.





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