Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge Preview

Feature Article

This article appeared in the April 3, 2001 Issue #80 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge (DAKL) opened for a public preview March 31 - April 2, 2001. I was lucky enough to get the chance to take several tours through the Lodge and wanted to share my initial thoughts with you all:

As I set out on my first visit, I eagerly anticipated the first glimpse of the new Lodge. When the bus turned the corner, though, all I could see was the top of what appeared to be a large "hut," until we approached the actual entrance drive of the Lodge itself. Even from the Guard Shack, the Lodge is well hidden, and with good reason.

As with most Disney themed resorts, DAKL has a "backstory": Here, you are supposedly visiting an African kraal which has been built atop an extinct volcano. The kraal, a horseshoe-shaped building found in villages throughout Africa, is designed to protect the villagers' livestock and homes. In keeping with this theme, a natural spring runs throughout the Lodge and travels outside along the side of the pool.

Thirty-three of the resort's 74 acres are savannah, home to a variety of animals. (Over the course of my four visits I saw zebra, giraffe, bongo, water buffalo, wildebeest, bongo, and flamingos wandering about.) There are actually three separate savannahs in which to view the animals.

Those familiar with the design of Disney's Wilderness Lodge will feel at home in the DAKL lobby -- there are similar design touches and elements. But DAKL is distinct -- a celebration of African culture, art, and food.

Walking into the Lodge itself, I immediately came upon the first of several floor medallions. These medallions are located throughout the lobby, each representing a different part of African culture and history.

The first large medallion is a map of Africa. This medallion might be easy to overlook, since the wide expanse of the lobby itself commands attention. Off to the left is a very large front desk area, which will also serve as Guest Services, as there is no separate area. There are several Hidden Mickeys in the Lobby, but you really have to look for them!

There are many small sitting areas with large comfortable chairs throughout the lobby. Interspersed among them are displays of African artifacts. One such display contained stone hand axes, circa 8500 BC from the Sahara Desert. Another featured a beaded crown from the Yoruba people in Nigeria, another a cowrie shell hat and necklace from the Bafut people in Cameroon.

Off to the left of the lobby is the Sunset Savannah room, which is decorated with lots of comfortable places to sit and view the sun setting over the Savannah. On the right side of the lobby is the very ornate Ogun's Firepit, with inlaid tile around the base. It is unclear whether this will be decorative only or if an activity will be centered here.

After walking down stairs to the ground floor and out the glass doors I found myself standing in front of Arusha Rock, named after the Arusha National Park in Tanzania, Africa. Arusha Rock juts out into the middle of the largest savannah. Most all of this area was closed off to us, but it looks to have a wonderful animal viewing area. The firepit located there will have nightly storytellers.

Back up on the third floor, the Zebra Trail led a series of 30 rooms open for viewing. The rooms included both pool and savannah views, as well as rooms with two queen beds, one queen and double bunk beds, and handicapped-accessible rooms with a king bed and single pull-out.

There are also two types of handicapped rooms -- one has a roll-in shower and the other a low bathtub. Handicapped rooms had a double glass door to the balcony, instead of the sliding glass doors and the threshold is much lower and easier to navigate into.

Hidden Mickey fans will want to check out the bedspread and also the hallway carpet. (Photos of all rooms can be found at: http://allears.net/acc/g_akl.htm)

I learned that when fully open the DAKL will offer 1,293 hotel rooms, 980 of them standard and 294 deluxe, one Presidential Suite, one Vice-Presidental Suite and 17 one- and two-bedroom parlor suites. All rooms have at least a four-foot balcony! The rooms are situated in the main six-story building and two five-story half circles.

The children's activity center, called Simba's Clubhouse, was not open for viewing but the staff had displayed arts and crafts examples of what visiting children can make. (I hear that the tentative schedule for the Clubhouse is: 4:30 - 6:00 p.m. Check-in and free play; 6-8 p.m. Dinner; 8:30 p.m. Snack Time; 9 p.m. Creative Play; 10 p.m. Vote on a Disney Movie; 10:15 Movie time and quiet time. The Clubhouse will be available for children 4-12 years old, will cost $8 an hour, and will close at midnight.)

The pool is 11,000 square feet, chlorine-based with a zero entry level There's a water slide, but no other special features (like bubbling springs, or sandy bottom) -- there are two hot tubs and one kids' wading pool.

I spoke with several of the recreation staff to find out what other offerings would be at DAKL, but they didn't have anything to share. Recreation activities will be limited to animal viewing, swimming pool, hot tubs and the Zahanati Massage and Fitness Center. There will be no bike or boat rentals. (A while back I heard there would be tours and lots of activities for both kids and adults. I don't know if those have been cut or the Cast Members I spoke to just didn't know about them.)

We had the chance to see some of the restaurants:

Jiko - The Cooking Place, is a 235-seat casual restaurant that will be open for dinner only. This will be the premier restaurant at DAKL. Jiko, with its twin wood burning stoves, will feature African cuisine and perhaps the largest available selection of South African wines in the US. Guests will have the option of being seated at a table of eight facing the flatbread cooking area, so that they can watch the chefs at work (similar to seating available at the Contemporary Resort's California Grill). There is also a private room for 10 to 40 people, available for dining or wine-tasting parties.

I asked one of the Jiko Cast Members to describe a sampling of the menu. An appetizer might be Fatima Fingers, beef, cinnamon sugar and scrambled eggs in phyllo dough. An entree might be salmon with horse radish, Asian purple rice and orange vodka sauce. Dessert might be as simple as the Strawberry Sundowner with pina colada cubes in strawberry water.

Boma is the 270-seat family restaurant that will serve breakfast and dinner. Behind the buffet line is an open kitchen. Boma also has a wood-burning grill and rotisserie. The Cast Member here recently arrived from South Africa and was most enthusiastic about the authentic cuisine that will be offered at Boma. He explained that the foods will be continually prepared so that they are fresh and right off the chef's table. One of the breakfast items will be Vors, a South African sausage made of pork, lamb, beef, onions and herbs.

The pastry chef has come up with some interesting items. Zebra bread will be white and brown bread with a chocolate strip in the middle. A featured pastry will be the orange muffin: a whole orange will be inside the muffin! The pastries of North and South Africa are different shapes, textures and colors -- both will be featured at Boma. The dessert buffet will include items such as paw paw, guava, leche and bananas.

The quick service area, Mara, was not available for viewing. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and pool-side dining will be available here. There is seating for 186.

My tour continued back upstairs to Victoria Falls, the lounge, which will serve specialty coffees, teas and beverages. One such beverage may be an African liquoer called Amarula cream.

The last stop on the tour was the Zawadi Marketplace, a gift shop with a blend of Disney merchandise, DAKL logo merchandise and lots of African arts and crafts. There is a beautiful Lion 3D mural behind one of the cash registers that you must see.

Random Observations:

I walked through DAKL four times, and each time the place grew on me a little more. I was expecting a jaw-dropping, "WOW" feeling, similar to when I saw Animal Kingdom for the first time, but I didn't get that. Perhaps because several folks who had already seen the Lodge had raved and raved about it to me.

Don't get me wrong -- DAKL is very beautiful and Disney's attention to detail is very prevalent throughout the resort. In the lobby, in particular, you really need to spend time looking at everything to fully appreciate all that's there. Folks who like to breeze through the theme parks and breeze through the lobby will miss a lot of the cultural experience.

The savannah areas look awesome and the viewing areas put you much closer to the animals than I expected. I discovered, though, that not all savannahs will have animals all the time -- at least one area at a time will be closed for cleaning, maintenance, etc. The area is also set up with "moon glow" lighting so that in the evenings moonlight brightens the savannahs and you can see the more nocturnal animals, keeping the area around the lodge itself, dimmer. There appeared to be torch lighting on the pathways.

If I had to name one major disappointment I had with DAKL, it is with the rooms. While intricately appointed in dark carved woods, ethnic decor, and kente-inspired fabrics, the rooms are very small. I had the same feeling I did when first entering the Wilderness Lodge Villas bedroom: "These are Queen Beds?" There is little room to move around in and anyone in a wheelchair in a regular room is going to have a tough time.

In addition, there is a serious lack of drawer space for your personal belongings. Some rooms have a full-size dresser, but not all. The closet is also small, although it does contain the in-room safe, iron and ironing board, and crib. The bunkbed rooms appeared even smaller, although they are the same size -- 344 square feet. The bunks are not right up against the wall and there is barely room for one person to walk on the other side. To pass the bunkbeds on your way to the door, you had to turn sideways to pass another adult.

The deluxe rooms are a bit larger, 381 square feet, although I did not see any of those. By the way, room rates begin at $199 for a standard view room in value season. That same room will cost you $305 during Christmas week. Pool view, savannah views, deluxe (larger) rooms and concierge costs are higher.

Jiko and Boma sound intriguing and, as a wine lover, I am especially interested in learning more about South African wines. I am wondering, though, exactly what guests will be doing for lunch, since neither sit-down restaurant will be serving mid-day. There are no other restaurants nearby to walk to, and you can't walk to the Animal Kingdom.

There also seems to be a lack of recreational activities at the lodge. Other than swimming and animal viewing there is not much to occupy one. Hopefully there are plans and I just didn't ask the right Cast Members.

All that being said, I can see myself spending lots of time here. Good thing I have reservations when it opens! I am very excited and hope to have a much better feel for all that Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge offers guests. Look for a more in-depth review of DAKL including the restaurants, later this month in ALL EARS.


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.