Before I begin today’s blog, I need to bring you up to speed on an incident that occurred last month. After the Animal Kingdom had closed, a small branch (approximately 5 pounds) fell from the Tree of Life. It landed in an uninhabited area and no persons or animals were harmed. As a safety precaution, Disney closed “It’s Tough to be a Bug” and the Discovery Island Trails while the experts determined why this happened and check the remaining limbs. “It’s Tough to be a Bug” has since reopened and portions of the Discovery Island Trails are once again accessible. However, several of these pathways are being retrofitted with a protective covering.
In order to give myself some cushion, I write my blogs 4 to 6 weeks in advance. I photographed and wrote this blog several days before this incident occurred. Because of this, some of the Tree of Life photographic vantage points I discussed may not be available in the future.
In past blogs, I have commented that it frustrates me when I hear people say that the Animal Kingdom is a half-day park. It is only a half-day park if you skip half of the attractions. Some people seem to think that after they’ve ridden Expedition Everest, Kilimanjaro Safaris, and Dinosaur, and seen Festival of the Lion King, that nothing else is worthy of their attention. This makes me sad. The Animal Kingdom is about more than rides and shows — it’s about nature and animals. And that’s where today’s blog comes in.
I suspect that many of you have never experienced the Discovery Island Trails. Now I admit, part of this is Disney’s fault. They haven’t marked all of these trails with signs. But this was done intentionally. The Imagineers wanted guests to “discover” these hidden areas as if they were out hiking in the real world. They hoped that guests would explore and uncover the magic of the Animal Kingdom.
The first area of exploration can be found at the foot of the bridge that leads from The Oasis to Discovery Island. This area is marked by a sign, which upon first glance, could be mistaken for an old tree stump. But upon further investigation, you’ll discover it complements the Tree of Life as it has a number of animals ingeniously carved into its surface. You are now entering the “Tree of Life Garden.”
The Tree of Life Garden offers some of the best vantage points for photographing the Tree of Life. Kodak agrees and has marked this spot appropriately. Notice the head of the Lady Bug on the Kodak sign is a camera.
Before we go any further, I want to remind everyone, DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS. This includes the native Floridian birds and squirrels that have made the Animal Kingdom their home.
There are a number of animals to discover in this area, the first is the Cotton-Top Tamarin. This cute little primate is native to South America. They are among the smallest of the primates and communicate with chirping sounds, whistles, and high-pitched trilling. Unfortunately, they are highly endangered due to deforestation. It’s estimated that only about 6,000 remain in the wild.
Disney places colorful markers near each animal. These signs identify the creature and provide a few interesting facts about its behavior — in rhyme. That’s right; these informational markers are written in verse. This makes them perfect for a parent to read to a child.
Here is the verse for the Cotton-Top Tamarin:
When we are born,
(We’re usually twins),
It’s truly a family event.
Our mom keeps us fed,
And dad gives us treats,
Sweet fruit just to
Keep us content.
I’m carried by parents and siblings,
Right from the very first day.
It’s part of our family values,
The cotton-top tamarin way.
At the base of the Tree of Life is the home of the West African Crowned Crane. These birds have an unusual method of scavenging for food. As they walk, they pound their feet on the ground. This startles nearby insects, causing them to jump into the air. The crane then catches the bugs before they fall back to earth.
Also in this same area is the White Stork. This migratory bird travels between Europe and Africa, but avoids flying over the Mediterranean Sea. Instead, it opts for a route over the Straits of Gibraltar. When returning to Europe, they seek out the same nest year after year.
As we leave the Tree of Life Garden and travel up the pathway leading to Africa, we come to a nicely shaded area. This is the spot to view the Lesser Flamingo. Found primarily in Southern Africa and parts of Southern Asia, the Lesser Flamingo number in the millions and is the smallest of all the flamingo species. Their pink color comes from the carotene in the shrimp they eat.
A little further up the walkway is one of my favorite animal viewing spots. It is at this location that you can see the Asian Small-Clawed Otter. There are actually two viewing spots to observe these cute animals. One is located outside where you can watch them romp on their island and swim above water. The other viewing area is found within a cave and offers views of the otters swimming underwater.
The Animal Kingdom is home to two Asian Small-Clawed Otters who happen to be brother and sister. These animals hunt by detecting movement in the water with their whiskers. Besides eating fish, they dine on crustaceans, mollusks, and amphibians.
Four times a day, a trainer enters the otter enclosure and encourages them to perform rudimentary tasks. This is the perfect time to get some great pictures. The training times are not posted so if you’re interested in seeing one of these sessions, check with guest relations for the current schedule.
As we venture further up the path toward Africa, we come to the first of two nearly hidden pathway entrances. It is located on the right side of the walkway (closest to the Tree of Life) and is recognizable as this is a wide spot in the road and populated with a few tables and chairs. Occasionally, Flik and Princess Atta from the movie “A Bug’s Life” can be seen in this area posing for pictures.
At the beginning of this trail, a Paroon Shark-Catfish can be spotted on the left side of the walkway. This fish is native to Southeast Asia and are so named because of the dorsal fin on its back. They can grow to six feet in length and weigh as much as 650 pounds.
This path doesn’t offer many animal viewing spots, but it does wind its way around the Tree of Life and through some beautifully landscaped gardens. There are a number of benches along this path where you can stop, relax, and soak in the surroundings.
This path also travels beneath the boughs of the Tree of Life and presents a number of great photo opportunities. I have found that close-up shots of the carvings can be especially interesting.
One of the animals that can be found along this pathway is the Red Kangaroo. Native to Australia, the Red Kangaroo is the largest surviving marsupial and the biggest indigenous Australian mammal. Although controversial, the kangaroo is harvested for their skins and meat. Kangaroo meat is very lean with only about 2% fat.
The far end of this trail deposits you near the entrance to the “It’s Tough to be a Bug” attraction. But before we discuss this show, we’re going to retrace our steps and head back toward Africa.
The second Discovery Island trail is equally difficult to find. It is located just south of the bridge that leads into Africa and once again, can be recognized as a wide spot in the road.
The first animal we encounter along this trail is the Saddle-billed Stork. These birds make their home in sub-Saharan Africa and are the tallest of all the stork species (although not the heaviest). I was intrigued to learn that the males and females can be differentiated by their eye color. Male Saddle-billed Storks have brown eyes while the females have yellow.
Located nearby is the Painted Stork who lives along the swampy shores of Discovery River. This bird gets its name from its pink tail feathers. Found in India and Southeast Asia, the Painted Stork is very social and will often intermingle their nests with those of cormorants, ibises, spoonbills, and herons.
Still in the same vicinity is the African Crested Porcupine. This member of the rodent family uses its quills as its defense. When threatened, the porcupine will charge its attacker, rear-end first, trying to stab him with his quills. These attacks have been known to kill lions, leopards, hyenas, and even humans. The African Crested Porcupine is nocturnal, so if you happen to see him during your journeys through the Discovery Island Trails, consider yourself lucky.
Further along this trail we come to a viewing area for the Nene Goose and the Giant Galapagos Tortoise.
The Nene Goose (pronounced ney-ney) is the state bird of Hawaii and makes its nest within the crevasses of lava rock. The Nene evolved from the Canada Goose which is believed to have migrated to the Hawaiian Islands 500,000 years ago, shortly after the island of HawaiÊ»i was formed.
The Giant Galapagos Tortoise is the largest species of the tortoise family and can weigh up to 800 pounds. In the wild, these predator-free animals can live over 100 years. In captivity, one such tortoise lived 170 years.
As we continue along our trail, we come to a large waterfall. Its mist is especially refreshing during the summer months.
This is another good spot to take some close-up pictures of the animals carved into the Tree of Life.
It’s at this point the trail joins in with the exit route of the “It’s Tough to be a Bug” attraction. If you reach this area as the show is letting out, stand back and wait for the crowd to clear. Although there are no animal lookouts on this remaining portion of the trail, it is beautifully landscaped and if you’re mixed in with the departing throngs, you’ll miss much of this area.
Near the end of the trail is an offshoot pathway. It is marked by a sign that reads “MEET THE REAL STARS OF THE SHOW“ and refers to the bugs seen in the “It’s Tough to be a Bug” attraction. At the end of this secondary path is a secluded area where a cast member will spend some one-on-one time with you discussing various insects.
This area opens at 10am and highlights a number of bugs throughout the day. When I visited, a tarantula and giant cockroach were on display. William was manning this post and he spent several minutes talking with us about these two insects and helped us understand the role they play in nature. He also discussed several of the “no longer active” insects on display.
For those of you squeamish about bugs, don’t worry. They are enclosed in special cages for their safety and yours.
The insects only spend about two hours in the display area before they are taken backstage and replaced with new species. The insects are delicate and extended observation time can be stressful for them. During their time in the public, ice packs are placed under their cages (on hot days) and the temperature of their enclosures is constantly monitored.
Another display in this area is giant insect heads. Kids can place their faces inside these heads and look through the creature’s compound eyes and get a good idea of how a bug sees the world.
To help children get more out of the Animal Kingdom, Disney has created the Kid’s Discovery Club. Within each “land” of the park are Activity Stations where kids are introduced to educational games and fascinating encounters. These locations are marked with a “K” on the park guide maps. The Bug Encounter mentioned above is the Discovery Island location.
After finishing their first activity, children will be given a membership card with that location stamped. As they visit other Activity Stations, they receive additional stamps. Once they collect all 6 stamps, they can receive a special bonus for completing all the activities. This is a great way to get kids involved in the Animal Kingdom and it makes learning fun.
As we continue our clockwise circle around the Tree of Life there are several other inlets and short pathways that offer animal encounters. One of these features the Ring-Tailed Lemur. This little guy is native to Madagascar. His species is highly social with females being the dominate sex. The Ring-Tailed Lemur is extremely intelligent and can understand basic arithmetic operations and tools based on function.
The Lappet-Faced Vulture is native to Africa. Like many other species of vultures, this variety has a bald head. This is because its head would get bloody while eating and it would be difficult to keep clean.
Continuing on, we reach the entrance to the “It’s Tough to be a Bug” attraction. This show recently discontinued FastPass and the ticket distribution machines have been removed. This area is now used as a character meet-and-greet spot. Currently appearing are Russell and Dug from the Disney/Pixar movie “Up.”
I have only mentioned about half of the animals that can be discovered around the Tree of life. Here is a somewhat complete list of all the creatures awaiting your attention in this area:
African Comb Duck
Asian Small-clawed Otter
Blue & Yellow Macaw
East African Crowned Crane
Eyton’s Whistling Duck
White-faced Whistling Duck
I know I can be a harpy on this subject, but the Animal Kingdom is definitely a place to slow down and smell the roses. I spent almost three hours along the Discovery Island Trails researching this blog and taking pictures. Now I realize, no casual visitor would ever spend this much time in this area. But I do think it’s possible to spend the better part of an hour viewing the animals and talking with cast members in this area.
When I was photographing the Giant Galapagos Tortoise, one family approached the area in a straggled manner. Dad was the first to see the tortoise and said to the group, “Hey everyone, come look at the giant turtle.” Everyone ran over, uttered a few “wows” and “cool” then they were on their way in less than 30 seconds. Somehow I imagine that they won’t even remember this encounter once they return home.
Expedition Everest is a fantastic, not-to-be-missed attraction! But so are the animals. Once you discover the animals of the Animal Kingdom, you’ll learn that this is definitely NOT a half-day park.
Next week I’ll be discussing the Tree of Life and the “It’s Tough to be a Bug” attraction.