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Disney: A Roaring Good Time at Animal Kingdom

It was only after I’d passed under the entrance archway and into the tropical Oasis, walked through the Safari Village and beyond to the cracked ochre walls of the Harambe river port, that I realized that Disney’s Animal Kingdom was not a gimmick. This newest theme park really did have the sounds, the smells and even the look of Africa. Sure, there were stores along the way selling Goofy watches. Some of the “trees” on the African savanna were actually made of concrete and topped with “lazy susan” dinner trays of acacia shoots and bamboo. And the dinosaur bones that the kids were digging out of the Texas gritty sand in DinoLand U.S.A. were not authentic four thousand-year-old quadra peds.

But the fact that the 500-acre-site was littered with 200 species of creatures, more than 1000 breathing animals just waiting to be fed, was proof enough that the name Animal Kingdom was indeed authentic. And the setting—the dusty streets, the cracked walls of the buildings, the open grasslands savanna—was reminiscent enough of parts of Africa that some of the friendly cast members were reminded of home. There were drummers dressed in African cloth and a “Cooking Forbidden” sign on the the old steam train loaded with crates. Rather than be turned off by peeling paint, graffiti written on walls and the animal smells (where do they put all of that animal poop?), I was delighted that the park had not been gussied up to the point of

Of course, the kids probably won’t notice any of this. Rather, they’ll have a ball traveling from the energetic sampling of the Lion King show to the 3-D “It’s Tough to be a Bug” film and the highlight of a safari journey in an open-sided lorrie. And if they’re the type of kid who knows his brontasauruses from his trachiopods and whose idea of an excellent day is to watch a veterinarian treat a 500-lb Galapagos sea turtle with a stomach virus, they’ll be in heaven.

If you arrive early just after the gates open at 7 a.m. (and on some days they open earlier), head for the Kilimanjaro Safaris, before the heat lays low the animals who roam the 100 acres of savanna, rivers and rocky hills. “Fasten your seat belts. This could be a rough ride,” instructed our energetic driver as we lurched off down a road filled with ruts and rocks. The kids will love the adventure of trying to stop the “elephant poachers” as the vehicle races over bridges and swoops through a flooded ditch before it comes to a stop. Even some of the adults looked aghast when the guide realistically eclaimed, “Oh no, I knew I should have had this truck serviced last week.” During one 20-minute safari, we came so close to a white rhino that passengers could reach out and touch its very un-Oil of Olay treated skin. One word of caution—because the sides of the trucks are open and the ride very jerky, younger children should not ride on the outside.

Another sure hit with kids is the “It’s Tough to be a Bug” film in the impressive Tree of Life. The audience shrieks with delight as the Stinkbug lets loose. And if you’ve got teens along, don’t miss the terrifying Countdown to Extinction ride. Some very cool dudes come away slightly shaken.

After hours of excitement, it’s time to travel on the Wildlife Express train, with a steam whistle right out of a British mystery movie, to the very heart of Animal Kingdom—the Conservation Station. Here, the keepers, dieticians and hospital veterinarians both entertain and educate. Through large glass windows, kids can watch a wounded bird being fed with an eyedropper, a chincilla rolling herself in volcanic ash dust to clean herself, or someone’s misplaced key chain being surgically removed from the stomach of an unfortunate parrot. A nursery for baby animals is decorated with what else? Just like many childrens’ rooms—murals of Bambi and Simba. As for the food preparation, it’s massive. Imagine three tons of food being chopped and diced each day.

Last year, the park added two new attractions. Next year, visitors will also be able to see animals from their hotel window.

In a way, this theme park—the fourth at Walt Disney World in Orlando and the largest ever constructed—harkens back to the professional roots of Walt himself. As the creator of the Steamboat Willie cartoon, with its mouse squeaks and parrot squawks, he was the first to give animated creatures a voice. Before that, the cartoon cats had never opened their mouths. People thought he was crazy when he decided to make a film on the life cycle of Alaskan seals, with no human at all involved with the story. The resulting True-Life Adventure series, that he. For his animated features, he would hunt for the perfect specimen and would often bring in live animals, to pose on a large flat of hay, for the animators to sketch. He loved to travel and he loved zoos, to the point where when his wife, Lilly, heard of a proposed trip to Europe, she warned him, “Walt, if you’re going to look at more zoos, Im not going with you!”

Disappointed that his Magic Kingdom’s Jungle Cruise ride couldn’t feature live animals, he was furious nevertheless when a ride operator whizzed a boatload of passengers past the plastic hippos and parrots. Well, Mr. Disney, with your domain you have more than made up for this shortcoming at Animal Kingdom. Enough lions and tigers and bears. Oh yes! And a taste of far-away continents thrown in to boot.





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