Roads to Adventure Magazine: “A Semblance of the Serengeti” Reviewed: Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Sample: Feature Article:  A Semblance of the Serengeti (A Press Review of the Opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park)
Featured In: Roads to Adventure Magazine
Target Audience: Busters – Boomers and their children who like to experience the Great Outdoors as a family

Download published article at the end of this article or read text-only (more readable) version below.

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Note:  Click below for more feature stories as well as special sections written for Roads magazine.
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A Semblance of the Serengeti

Disney’s new Animal Kingdom walks on the tame side, but still offers families some of the magic—and the mystique—of Africa.

Under the shade of a reed-thatched hoof, a beautiful Ugandan woman, clothed in native garb, leans down to talk to a distraught child.  The little girl’s face is streaked with tears. But as the soothing sound of the African woman’s lyrical voice blends with the joyous sounds of the nearby Peruvian flute music, lifting over the top of the pinkish-tan adobe storefronts, and drifting down to the throng of tourists below, the child is instantly calmed.  She is clearly mesmerized by the sights and sounds of Harambe, a faux-African port city set in the center of Disney’s new 500-acre Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Florida.

I had an opportunity to visit the Animal Kingdom during its opening week this past spring. During my two-day visit, I saw lively and colorful parades, an amusing show starring  feisty bugs and a top-notch musical attraction, but alas, very few animals. On the other hand, the bo­tanical  population (more than 4 million trees,plants, shrubs,vines, etc., represent­ing  more than 3,000   nonindigenous species) was prolific, creating a lush, and sometimes believable, jungle environment.

The  park is laid out  in  classic “hub-and-spoke” Disney style and features six lands: Africa, Dinoland U.S.A., Safari Village and the Tree of  Life, The Oasis, and Camp Minnie-Mickey. (Despite being more than 500 acres,  the Animal Kingdom can be toured in one day.) Slated to open in early 1999, a new section called Asia will offer the sights and sounds of a southeast Asian  rain forest, complete with tigers, giant fruit bats and other exot­ic jungle animals.

“Welcome  to the world  of  the  naked  mole  rats—rats so ugly that you wish they wore clothes”.

Of  all the “faraway” lands,  Africa and Safari Village were my hands-down favorites. One afternoon, as I waited under the shade of a giant baobab tree for the Land-Roverish type vehicle  that would take me on my Kilimanjaro Safari, a cool afternoon breeze offering me a respite from the Florida heat, I let my imagination run wild with Discovery Channel-type visions of my impending journey. Once on board the lorry, I was surprised and delighted by the authentic feel of  the “African” bush that surrounded us during our  bumpy ride. Towering southern live oaks (cropped to look like African acacia trees) lined the path, with grass-thatched huts appearing as we bounced around the bend, just passing a flock of flamingos. We sped—and I mean sped— through the open grassland  and strained to find some of the more than 1,000 animals, represent­ing 200 species, that live in the Animal Kingdom, but our timing was bad and we got just glimpses of a few. Still, there was the feeling that animals were present, roaming around a couple hundred acres, enjoying the best life they could find west of the Nile.

After disembarking from our too-brief safari ride,  I strolled down an authentically puddled path, complete with lush vegetation,  a bubbling brook and a screeching South American macaw. The end of my walk found me at Gorilla Falls. It was here, I was told, that I would be able to see, up  close and personal, the endangered lowland gorilla family. Before reaching the primates,  however, I had to pass through an anteroom where the main attraction was harbored  in a  multitude  of underground burrows.  Welcome to the world of the naked mole  rats—rats so ugly that you wish they wore clothes.

The endangered lowland goril­las, on the other hand, were riveting; the family included mom, dad and baby. Mom and Dad were having a domestic dispute at the time, which was being observed by hundreds of Homo sapiens, laughing at the gorillas that looked almost like them except for their (the gorillas’) lack of social propriety.

While still milling around Africa (where I could have stayed all day), I boarded the Wildlife Express Train that would take me to Conservation Station, a squeaky-clean and institutional-like facility that houses animals-on-the-mend, studies the near-extinct and what have you. (Despite the early press reports of a few deaths, creatures at the Animal  Kingdom are treated extremely well.)

The train was, again, pleasantly authentic. Like Harambe, where Disney brought in Zulu tribesmen from Natal to thatch the roofs, the train station was Holodeck-real­istic enough to lull me into believing that I really was in another time and place. Vintage suitcases and old clunky bicycles, which were housed in the luggage bays and loaded on top of the trains, were  reminiscent of traveling in Africa in the 1940s. I half-expected to see Humphrey Bogart come leaping off the train on his way to board the African Queen.

Affection Section (next to Con­servation Station), the name of the chil­dren’s petting zoo, featured little more than goats and pigs for children to interact with, but considering that this was open­ing day, I’m certain that this portion of the Animal Kingdom was a work-in-progress.

Situated in the heart of the 500-acre park is the impressive (more than 14 stories high) Tree of Life.  Hundreds of wild animals are carved into its 50-foot wide trunk and branches. Designing the tree required a team of 20 international artists and construction took more than 18 months and a crew of thousands. Ac­cording to Joe Rhode, Disney’s Imagin­eering executive designer, the intent of the structure was to give viewers “a feeling of awe and wonder [about animals and their habitat] and to transfer those feel­ings to the real animal world.”

At  the end of the Tree of Life maze, you’ll find a 430-seat theater, which features a fun, creepy-crawly 3-D comput­er-animated show titled, It’s Tough to Be A Bug.  Like its 3-D  counterpart,  Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, you can expect the unexpected to happen. The animal theme continues as Disney’s string of highly successful animated  films are transformed into scaled-down Broadway musicals, dis­played on several stages throughout the park.  Parents and kids alike will love the highly acrobatic and entertaining Festival of the Lion King (in Camp Minnie­ Mickey}, which features Simba, Pumba, Timon and the  whole  Lion King movie gang.

Parents will want to let their kids dig for dinosaur bones in Dino­ Land U.S.A.’s Boneyard,  a giant sandbox­ type structure that’s actually filled with a substance made of reclaimed rubber­ crushed  tires, to be exact.  It was  pretty cool,  literally.  It never got hot, was very clean, and let’s hope the  lion cubs don’t roam about at night,  thinking  it’s their sandbox. Also in DinoLand are bones big enough  to move into and giant reptilian footprints that make the ground shake when you step in them (kind of like living in Southern California).

No Disney theme park would be complete without rides, though it’s clear from the outset that  rides are not what you’re paying for at the Animal Kingdom. If you’re limited for time and can’t stand in line for an hour, my recommendation is that you pass on the Animal Kingdom’s one and only bona-fide ride: Countdown to Extinction.  It’s the typical sciatic-wrench­ing experience—but without the scare. If you want to feel like a Viking, grab one of those huge “dinosaur” (turkey) legs and tear into it in true carnivore style as you swagger, Tarzan-like, through the jungle.

Food at Disney includes the usual fast-food fare as well as some pretty good sit-down food at places such as the Rainforest Cafe and a yummy pit stop in Safari Village called Flame Tree Barbecue. And, if you want to feel like a Viking, grab one of those huge “dinosaur” (turkey) legs and  tear into it in true carnivore style as you swagger, Tarzan-like, through the jungle. (Don’t  feel guilty  that you’re eating them in front of animals; as long as it’s not endangered turkey that you’re chewing on, the P.E.T.A people probably won’t shoot you.) Parents will appreciate Disney’s outdoor mar­kets, which feature fresh  fruit and other healthy  stuff for families tired or scraping their kids off the ceiling, suffering the expected effects of a sugar overload.

“The king of fantasy has waved his want over the Animal Kingdom, but in a more subdued manner. Rather than glitz and faked reality, you’ll get a kinder and gentler experience where nature, and our innate desire to connect with it, provides us with a magic that is as old as Eden.”

If  you’re a Disney aficionado, you’re probably already planning your visit to the company’s latest venture.  But you should be properly prepared, as the Animal Kingdom is distinctly different from other Disney theme parks. Yes, the king of fantasy has waved his want over the Animal Kingdom, but in a more subdued manner. Rather than glitz and faked reality, you’ll get a kinder and gentler experience where nature, and our innate desire to connect with it, provides us with a magic that is as old as Eden.

Here you will discover intrigue, winding trails, a sense of adventure and a close-up look at exotic flora and fauna.  You will be magically transported to another place and time where a stationmaster from Nigeria will summon you to embark upon a dusty train ride, or the lilting voice’ of a Ugandan woman will serenade and soothe you. And, finally, if your timing’s just right, you may get a once-in-a lifetime glimpse of an endangered okapi or a white rhinoceros. Taking a safari to the Animal Kingdom will offer your family the chance to experience some of the sights and sounds of a faraway continent you will, in all likelihood, never see firsthand. –jenni keast

Jennie Keast is an editor and writer who is always looking for the next road to adven­ture. More often than not, she finds it at home with her  two children, Amanda, age 15, Han­nah, age 10, and their  new pound-puppy, Joie.

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