Kaleidoscopic Kingdoms

by Joshua Olive, ALL EARS® Guest Columnist

Feature Article

This article appeared in the May 24, 2005, Issue #296 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

I first visited Disney's Animal Kingdom in October 2003, and although I have been to Walt Disney World many, many times, this was my first trip since August 1994. I missed out on the opening of Animal Kingdom and the first several years that the park was open. In anticipation of this trip, I did my research on the web, I read all the books, and I came to the conclusion that many people weren't too crazy about this park. Based on what everyone said, I was prepared to face a half-day park. Then I got there -- wow!

I know that not everyone agrees with my opinions -- otherwise I'd have a heck of a lot more money -- but I fell in love with Disney's Animal Kingdom. What a magnificent place! So the question now is this: why do so many people feel let down when they visit this park? Why doesn't everyone love it as much as I do? Having visited there several times now, I think I've figured out at least a little bit of the answer.

When most people go to Disney World, they're thinking of the Magic Kingdom. They're thinking rides, songs, castles, shows, and atmosphere, with characters everywhere, balloons in the air, and temperate, sunshiny Florida days. Perhaps they're thinking of Epcot, with its futuristic ambience and cosmopolitan flair happily commingled with an array of rides, shows, and fine dining. Or perhaps they're thinking about Disney-MGM Studios, a real panoply of thrills and spectacle, with rides and shows galore. Each of these parks is vastly different from the others, but you can generally approach them all the same way; you can bounce through, skipping from ride to ride, grabbing a bite to eat here and there, soaking in the atmosphere passively as you zip from one side of the park to the other -- and, to be honest, I enjoy that just as much as anybody else.

But Disney's Animal Kingdom just doesn't stand up to that kind of approach. Ironically, at the Animal Kingdom, the slower you go, the more you are likely to see. Sure, you can rush through the Animal Kingdom, jump on the Kilimanjaro Safaris, splash down Kali River Rapids, catch It's Tough to Be a Bug or Festival of the Lion King, and go crazy in Dinoland, but you're just going to skim the surface of the park that way, never really discovering the depth of entertainment it has to offer.

As the name suggests, this park is primarily about the animals. As they stress in their ads, Animal Kingdom is, however, not a zoo. It's a park where, as much as possible, the animals are free to roam in natural environments and we have the opportunity to see them much as they would be "at home."

As you first enter Animal Kingdom at The Oasis, there are animals of all shapes and sizes. Don't rush through this! There are animals on display here that you are not likely to see anywhere else: the babirusa (pig-deer) with his big tusks, the giant anteater, the rhinoceros iguana, etc. And if you have the kids with you, and are worried that they won't enjoy this park, be assured that all but the most jaded will be open-mouthed at the sights of some of the creatures you'll encounter here.

As you exit The Oasis, you cross a bridge directly to Discovery Island, the centerpiece of which is the magnificent Tree of Life. Believe me, this tree is truly a masterpiece of modern art. With more than 300 animals carved into its surface, it is worth examining in greater detail. And surrounding the tree are yet more animals, all still in stunningly natural environmental settings. The cotton-top tamarinds are continually on the move, and the river otters are endlessly entertaining. If you look closely, you can spot kangaroos and wallabies there, too. As you head toward Harambe, don't forget to take some of the trails back toward the tree; you can stop off to say hi to Flik from A Bug's Life, and then you can get up close and personal with a giant Galapagos Tortoise or the 5-foot-tall, brilliantly colored Saddle Bill Storks.

In Harambe, not only are you treated to several good shows each day by traditional African drummers, you and the kids can take part in them! They always welcome an extra hand in the rhythm section. King Louie or Baloo can often be found there, too, and the lines for photos are practically nonexistent!

Then there are the Kilimanjaro Safaris and the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, one a ride and the other a walk-through tour. These are obviously some of the highlights of the park. When you embark on your "two-week safari," it is easy to believe that you're in Africa, traveling through both forest and the savanna, with elephants, antelope, rhinos, zebra, giraffes, and all other manner of creatures, many of which you may not have heard of, almost literally running wild. You might see more wildlife on this one trip than you would if you actually spent two weeks in Africa! Just make sure you have your camera handy, because you will almost surely be presented with priceless photo opportunities.

When you exit the safari, you are turned directly into the Pangani Forest, where you can see even more animals and from an even closer perspective. The gorillas alone are worth the price of admission. But this is one of those times when a little patience goes a long way. If you just rush through, you're not likely to see much, and you're more likely to come away frustrated. Spend a few minutes being still and you might catch a stunning view of hippos fighting it out, letting you watch the action both above and below the water. You might catch a baby gorilla showing off in the branches of a short tree, meerkats (like Timon) scampering or digging their holes, or perhaps you'll see one of the huge silverback gorillas in the bachelor troop pound his chest and charge toward you. It's not often that anyone other than wildlife researchers gets the opportunity to see animals like these, comfortable enough in their environments that they're breeding, happy, and behaving as they would in the wild.

When you leave Harambe and Africa, making your circuit around Discovery Island, your next stop is Anandapur in Asia. Here you can experience Kali River Rapids (hope you brought a towel!), the Flights of Wonder (a truly fun and inspiring show), the Maharajah Jungle Trek, and, soon, Expedition Everest! Yeah, I can't wait for that one either!

While many people flock to Kali River Rapids (a great idea on a hot day!), don't forget to take your time when you stroll through the Jungle Trek. Among other things, here you'll find the giant Komodo Dragon, the tapir (the only common relative of the rhino and the horse, believe it or not), big fruit bats, and six incredibly beautiful tigers. If you take a few minutes to watch, you're much more likely to catch the animals doing what they do best: playing. The tigers are especially fun to watch. If you have cats at home, picture them at about 300 pounds, but still tearing up the scratching post or chasing phantoms at top speed! It's quite a sight!

Just outside the entrance/exit to the Jungle Trek lives a family of Gibbons, with a 3-year-old adolescent and a brand new baby, and they provide all kinds of fun; just pause for a moment to watch. The 3-year-old is a real daddy's girl, and they chase each other around all over the ropes, poles, and trees in their habitat. Every kid is fascinated by their antics -- just make sure they don't try any of them at home.

And I haven't even gotten to It's Tough To Be A Bug, Dinosaur, Chester and Hester's Dinorama, or Camp Minnie-Mickey yet! I haven't explained the incredible Meal Plus Certificates, which let you stuff yourself silly at surprisingly good prices. Nor have I explored Rafiki's Planet Watch, the Tarzan Rocks show, Primeval Whirl, Triceratop Spin, The Boneyard... not to mention shows like Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends, and the true Broadway-style show Festival of the Lion King. And what about Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade? There's so much more to tell -- like about Expedition Everest, which opens in 2006. But, alas, you'll have to wait for another installment to hear the rest.

For me, all this points to much more than a half-day park. There is just so much to see and so much to do. If you give Animal Kingdom a try and you come at it from the right angle, I'm sure you'll see things here that you'll remember for the rest of your life. No, Mickey Mouse isn't as visible at Animal Kingdom as he is at the other parks, but there is just as much Disney magic to be found here. In the kaleidoscope that is Disney World, you just have to turn it a little further to see the Animal Kingdom for how brilliant it is.

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Guest Columnist Joshua Olive is a 29-year-old, multi-trip Walt Disney World veteran who remembers seeing Epcot when it was under construction and staying at the old Disney Institute Tree House Villas. A technical writer for a robotics integrator by day, he also is a comic book store owner, a musician, and an actor and director in community theater.

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Related Links:

For more Animal Kingdom information visit: http://allears.net/tp/ak/ak.htm

Also by Joshua Olive on Allears.net:

The Big Picture: http://allears.net/tp/rid_josh.htm
Epcot Then and Now: http://allears.net/ae/issue281.htm


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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.