Disney World 2016: Animal Kingdom

I moved the family as quickly as I had the day before. My biggest need that morning wasn’t to get to Animal Kingdom, it was to return the car before we got dinged another USD$133. I’d gotten over the fact that we’d ended up with an inappropriately large and expensive car, I just didn’t want to be reminded of it again.

We charged through breakfast, Alex and I started to really dislike the constant pattern of food without sufficient variation. Finishing first, I double-backed for the car, and brought it closer to Animation Hall for pickup. However, either due to miscommunication or misunderstanding, my family went left instead of right, and took longer to get out than I’d planned. I ended up literally chasing them around the building, only to find them at the car, wondering where I was.

Getting to the Alamo was a breeze, dropping off the car was a snap, and before I could be reminded too many times that I’d put on my sunscreen too thickly, we were on a shuttle bus to the Animal Kingdom. We arrived shortly after 9:15, which although earlier than planned, was a convenient arrival time — the park had only just opened, so wasn’t too busy.

Almost immediately, I was struck with the lushness of the park. Animal Kingdom is, in effect, a kind of zoo. And it’s built in the Central Florida swamp. But to look at all the plants Disney put in, you’d swear it was utterly natural.

Unlike Epcot, the girl’s MagicBands didn’t get them in. I have no idea why. However, an alert cast member stepped in tapped something, snapped a picture (which, like the fingerprints, went unexplained), and we were in. From then on, there were no issues with the MagicBands that day.

For the first couple hundred metres, you see plants, a few souvenir stands, the Rainforest Cafe, and then you’re into tall trees, thick bushes, and large animal pens carrying all kinds of birds, lizards, and even things like wallabies. At the end of that, you come up a rise, the vegetation clears, and suddenly you’re looking right down the main path into Discovery Island, and the Tree of Life.

Every Disney park has an icon. In Epcot, it’s Spaceship Earth. In the Magic Kingdom, it’s Cinderella’s castle. In Animal Kingdom, it’s the Tree of Life: a greatly oversized baobab tree, its trunk littered with wonderful sculptures of dozens of different animal species. (It’s worth noting, of course, that the tree is fake. Not that you could tell…)

Details from The Tree of Life

Alex was already on the hunt for both pins, and the “mission”. We found it even before we reached the end of the bridge: we would become Wilderness Explorers (ala Russell from Up), and be given a detailed set of things that we had to accomplish to get our badges. It made the passport at Epcot look positively trivial. Alex was immediately excited … though the kids and I had to do the first badge, which was do the Wilderness Explorer pledge, because Alex felt a bit silly doing it.

I mean, come on, we’re at Disney. It’s an excuse to be silly!

We headed through Discovery Island, looking for the first badge, which was just left of the Tree: flamingoes. Lesser Flamingoes, to be specific. They were in there with dozens of white ibises, all vying for food. And the Wilderness Explorer Troop Leader who would test us was quite knowledgeable on both animals, even though the white ibises aren’t actually in the exhibit (they’re actually pests).

Lesser Flamingoes

We would quickly discover that the WE Troop Leaders (and many other cast members) who were around the animals knew a lot about those animals.

We headed around, and wrapped around behind the Tree, looking for other animals. Right away, we saw a saddlebeaked stork … and then Choo Choo dropped her WE handbook (in which we were collecting the badges) into the exhibit. Thankfully, there was a small gap at the bottom, and Alex was able to fish out the book.

But down the past a little way, Monkey did the same thing, except this time into a turtle pen (there were none in there at the time, thankfully), and we had to get cast members to help us get it back out. It was the last time one was lost.

We headed across the bridge into “Africa”, one of the four major areas of the park (Africa, Asia, Dinoland USA, and Discovery Island). As we trooped across the bridge, I looked down the manmade river they’d built, and had to pinch myself: we were entering “Harambe”, and already my brain was telling me that we weren’t in KansasFlorida anymore.

Port of Harambe

The other side could just have easily been the other side of the world, save for the paved pathways.

Our first FastPass was for the Kilimanjaro Safari, which would take us on a tour of Animal Kingdom‘s animals, many of which sit in large, unfenced areas. But we were so early, I steered us towards the steam train.

There’s a train that runs from “Harambe” station around in a loop to a conservation area called “Rafiki’s Planet Watch”, basically a biological station at the north end of the park that doubles as a surgery for small-to-medium sized animals, including things as large as a gorilla.

The station is lined with unclaimed bags, signs warning about pickpockets and poachers, and the train looks old, abused, and the roof is stacked with all kinds of cargo. The locomotive, sadly, wasn’t steam; it was either gasoline or diesel, though it had a decent whistle. The seats, instead of facing forward or back, faced out to one side of the train; the other was closed over with shutters. This is to keep people from seeing the backstage roads and facilities that keep the Animal Kingdom running.

The route is fairly short, but it allows you to see some of the larger animals (we saw a white rhino) in the more formal pens. When we arrived at the other station, we headed down the relatively short path to the Planet Watch building. Along the way, we stopped at two places, where we learned about certain kinds of monkeys (including my favourite, the Geoffroy’s marmoset), and another one where we earned another WE badge.

The Planet Watch building houses some of the veterinary clinics, and they’re all glassed-walled for viewing. Some even encourage conversation (such as with the nutritional specialist). In the middle, there’s a larger space where animal “encounters” take place. One had just started as we arrived: an opossum.

Opossum encounter

For we Canucks, an opossum is a bit of an odd thing to see. There aren’t any in Canada, so it’s pretty neat to witness. For Southern Americans, it about as common as urban raccoons, and about as welcome. Actually, probably a bit less: opossums have a rather intimidating mouth full of sharp teeth that they love to bear when confronted. And given their terrible eyesight, it’s something they do quite often.

I also (finally) learned that the “dead possum” response has a purpose. While I knew that playing dead was to have potential predators leave, I never understood while a perfectly good-smelling (dead) animal would go to waste like that. But the opossum has a gland that lets out a fairly nasty smell that suggest rotten meat. Now I get it.

The surgery ended up being active that day, working on a tiny bird (the name of which now escapes me) that had liver trouble, and the doctors wanted to know why. So at what can only be summed up as great cost, they brought in a single, tiny bird, to run an expensive procedure.

Open surgery

In that moment, I gained a considerable amount of respect for Disney. While I’m not a fan of zoos in general, the dedication to a single bird (one of many of its kind) was a sign to me of the kind of care the animals must receive. And from what I saw of the other animals in their various habitats, it seemed to be far more humane than other zoos I’ve seen.

Just outside the building was a petting zoo, featuring goats and sheep. It was quite telling to see that neither Monkey nor Choo Choo were interested in petting animals they’d seen dozens of times at petting zoos back home, when there were far more exotic animals to find.

We returned on the train. As the train approached Harambe station, we passed by a “market” that we would later see. From the train, I had that abruptly familiar feeling: I’d seen scenes like that before, travelling through Russia and China. This was decidedly African, but the haphazard collection of market-like things were terribly real-feeling.

The Kilimanjaro Safari is a fairly basic concept: put animals in controlled spaces (either by well-hidden walls, large gaps the animals will not cross, grating that hooved animals will not cross, or (presumably) some kind of invisible fencing. Oh, and feed the dangerous ones so they don’t feel a need to hunt.

To get around the rather large space, they outfitted large offroad cargo trucks with bench seating, and run them constantly around a large, entirely artificial rutted “dirt” road, over a “rickety” bridge, and through areas that look far too real to believe. Of course, everything is Imagineered to the inch, to ensure both the safety of the passengers, and the animals.

Giraffes

I saw more animals in the 30 minutes on the ride (hippos, wild dogs, wildebeest, giraffes, zebras, antelope, elephants, crocodiles, flamingos, cheetahs, rhinos, just to name a few) than I get to see the Calgary Zoo during any particular visit. While there are probably a couple of dozen trucks out on the range at any given time, you rarely see more than one or two due to the spacing and the curves. And you don’t see the infrastructure, try as you may. Because that would ruin the magic.

Kilimanjaro Safari

With the return to the station, we offloaded and headed for lunch. We quickly found ourselves in the “market”, on the other side of the fence we had seen from the train. We found ourselves in a line, and started to debate on the meal of the day.

As the kids decided what they would eat, I looked over in a corner between two of the buildings. It was probably hiding an access for the cast members, but there was no way Disney would allow a simple access to be … well, simple. It had to look like it belonged. It had to look real.

There was a tree. A small one, but it looked like it could be from Africa. There was a blue bike, propped against the wall, as if one of the store owners had brought it that morning and left it there. Signs were attached to the wall, and addition words painted on. They did absolutely nothing in reality, but there was no question that their purpose was to sell you reality.

A quiet corner

Around us were “market” items, like water jugs, tubs, pottery, fabrics, and the like. The poles that rose above the market had (non-functional) wiring that exploded from (equally unused) electrical boxes, The tops of buildings looked like they hadn’t been plastered in a decade.

Forget the Matrix. You want to question reality? Spend a week at Walt Disney World. It totally messes with your head.

Tikka masala for Alex and I. The girls ate corn dogs (okay, the least region-appropriate food we’d seen all week, but … c’mon, corn dogs). The track record for our Disney lunches continued to impress.

As we ate, we heard the sound of an instrument being played over (very well hidden) speakers. After some careful looking around, we spotted a man wielding a large, 21-stringed “kora”. He played the same tune in a long loop as he walked around, even swinging by our table, as I tried to understand how on Earth he’d managed to master something that looked so complicated.

Video: Playing for the crowd

After lunch, we resumed the hunt for WE badges. Though we had another FastPass to attend to, far down in Dinoland USA. We took the opportunity to start from Africa, wind our way through Asia, stopping as needed along the way.

When we reached the building that housed Finding Nemo: The Musical, I was moderately dismayed to see so many people already in the FastPass line. I was worried we wouldn’t get in. I, apparently, was an idiot. The theatre was massive. We had seats right down in front.

The show is a condensed form of Finding Nemo (the movie), retold with large puppets, carried about on stage by actors who not only provide the voices, but also bring the puppets to life. The actors are very much part of the show, and you almost watch the actors as much as the puppets. And Disney (wisely) went with people who knew how to act with puppets, rather than merely looking the part. The actor running Marlin, for example, was no Brad Pitt. He even wore glasses. But he sang the part for all it was worth, and did a fairly decent Albert Brooks.

Finding Nemo, the Musical

Amazingly enough, they even included Mr. Ray (a large puppet mounted to an adult-sized tricycle), the sharks (Bruce is still favourite), Crush (a huge puppet; Squirt was another actor who was suspended on wires), and even Nigel, the pelican (well, only his head, which to scale is massive compared to the fish).

It might not have been Broadway, but I nothing to complain about the show. Considering how many times I’ve seen Finding Nemo (even before I had kids!), they did more than a fair job, doing the movie justice. Even if they downplayed the seagulls (MINE!) a little too much for my liking.

Being on the edge of Dinoland USA, there was little reason not to go in. Alex was still on her mission, and I was a bit curious. As we entered, we saw a midway-like area that reminded Alex and I too much of the Stampede midway, which we wanted to avoid. Instead, we found a play area that was built to look like a dinosaur dig site. The girls were gone like a shot. It seemed a good time for a bit of a rest while the girls burned out some energy.

Even something as simple as a play area got loads of attention: signs about dinosaurs, replicated artifacts, decent casts of dinosaur bones, places for the kids to discover, and of course, really big slides. I stayed in the shade while they ran around.

Energy not dispersed, and Alex still itchy for WE badges, we suckered them out for ice cream (there was a stall not far away). Alex then continued on her mission, while the girls and I went for our last FastPass: DINOSAUR.

Now I have to confess: I knew that this was likely going to scare the crap out of them. But I knew that a) they loved dinosaurs, and b) they liked a good ride. Monkey was a bit trepidatious, but Choo Choo was game. So we hit the front, held up our wrists, and went in.

The intro video featured both Phylicia “Mrs. Huxtable” Rashad,  and Wallace “David Hodges from C.S.I.” Langham. We were going on a time travel trip to the ancient past to see dinosaurs. But Langham’s character had a different plan, sending us to mere moments before the asteroid put the final nail in the dinosaur’s coffin, to retrieve an Iguanodon. I giggled quietly, knowing what this meant.

The time travel station looked about as legit as one could expect for a technology that doesn’t exist, and was loud, dark, and filled with things that had no apparent purpose. We climbed into the back row of our over-sized vehicle, buckled in, and off we went.

I knew the kind of ride: it’s a large, tracked machine that has a three-axis platform that gets raised up and down, tilted left and right, and forward and backward, all of which is designed to give the impression that you’re moving much more quickly than you are.

Into the tunnel we went, and after a moment, we were looking at dinosaurs, lit by black light, glowing and moving. Langham’s character was talking to us as we whipped around corners, and zipped this way and that. Of course, after mere moments, things started to go awry, the vehicle started lurching, a large carnivore started chasing us, and then the camera flash went off. (Of course, there’s a picture in the ride. I don’t have the copy, by the looks on the kids’ faces are priceless.)

r still hate me for that ride. And I had to promise never to do that to them again.

We headed back to Discovery Island, heading to Africa again, to meet up with Alex. We stopped briefly at the Tree of Life for pictures, then found Alex just over the bridge.

We headed for a last hurrah at getting our WE badges, heading into the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail. There were at least three more badges (there might have been more). The badge system closed down at 4:45pm, so we needed to hurry.

At the gate heading onto the trail was our first badge: radio. This was paying attention to a repeating radio loop, listening for a certain keyword that we had to fill in on a form. That got the badge, and we were off to find the next thing. And that largely meant following the path signs, weaving through pavilions and aviaries, crossing over bridges, and passing through some pretty darn convincing Indian “ruins” (that’s the country, not the First Nations), all the while trying to find the hints we needed for the next badge.

Along the way, we saw some lovely fish, zebras, meerkats, tigers (okay, a tiger), and some lowland gorillas. It was a decently long path that gave us plenty of room to view. And Disney, being the geniuses they are, had build the enclosure in such a way that there were no fences, no glass, nothing but air between us and our quarry. Except the tigers. There was thick glass for them. Because, tigers.

Exiting the Trail, and our badges nearly complete, it became very clear that a) we weren’t getting the rest (it was too late), b) we were tight on time to meet anymore characters, and c) it was getting close to dinnertime. So having realized a), we figured out b), hoping to complete before our c) reservation at the Rainforest Cafe.

The only character the girls had any interest in was Pocahontas, who conveniently (and somewhat inexplicably) was set up on the edge of Discovery Island. The line was quite short, but the clock was ticking steadily closer to our reservation, and I really didn’t want to lose out on a table. If the Rainforest Cafe at Animal Kingdom was as busy as the one at Disney Springs, there would have been the strong possibility that they’d drop our reservation if we were late.

I left the camera with Alex and the girls, and headed to the Cafe. You can enter the Cafe from the park, but you still technically exit Animal Kingdom to do so. It seemed a little odd, but it made sense once I got there. The Rainforest Cafe there is huge, and locking it inside the park would necessarily lock out potential customers.

But despite its size, I couldn’t get the table until Alex and the girls arrived. Rules are rules, it seems. When we were finally seated, the hostess did indicate that the particular Rainforest Cafe is the largest in the world. Though as I walked through it afterwards, it didn’t seem dramatically so.

It was Monkey and Choo Choo’s first visit to a Rainforest Cafe, so there was the requisite looking around, not to mention the mild shock at the thunder and lightning (I was disappointed to find that the location didn’t have the tropical rain that had been in the ones I’ve been to), though the fascination did wear off fairly quickly. After all, we were at Walt Disney World, and the Rainforest Cafe animatronics just don’t stack up.

At dinner, we dropped the bomb. The week had already been surprise after surprise, but we had one left to lower on the girls. The following morning was going to be early, much earlier than any other day we’d already done, including our flight out! They had to be up early so there was time to eat, get on the bus, and get to the Magic Kingdom in time for their appointment at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. Their excitement was dialled well past “11”.

By the end of a fairly decent dinner, Alex was done, and wanted to head back to the resort. I still wanted to see the Tree of Life at night (I knew there was a light show). The girls were hell-bent to find their elusive stuffies that they were very locked into, so wanted to go with me. Then Choo Choo fortuitously discovered her long-lost (but not forgotten) Bananas stuffie in the Rainforest Cafe shop. This time, I couldn’t say no.

We raced into the park, fighting against the stream of people heading out of the park, arriving fairly quickly at Discovery Island. I immediately was struck by the loveliness of the light show on the Tree of Life. I mean, it’s a tree. Artificial or not, how good could it possibly look?

Animal Kingdom light show

The stores on Discovery Island were missing the stuffie that Monkey was looking for … a monkey. (Because … monkeys?) She recalled that it had been out in Africa when she’d seen it, so we headed off to the left as we had several times that day, and rushed to the stalls that I was almost certain were already closed. Unlike EpcotAnimal Kingdom closes “early” due to the actual animals that need their rest. So it was no surprise to find the the stalls already locked up.

That didn’t stop us from checking every still-open store on the way back to the front gate, and ever stall thereafter. Which, as it turned out, was the right thing. In the very last store before the bus stop, Monkey found her monkey, and all was right with the world again. (And Daddy didn’t look quite as much the jackass for saying “no” earlier.)

We piled onto the bus found for the Art of Animation Resort, and packed into the rear. The girls sat while I stood. A large group was there with us, and even before the bus started away from the gate, they’d started belting out “Jingle Bells”. They knew a few verses of it, too, which was rare to hear (since most people know only the chorus). “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” came next, and had about half of the bus singing.

Before someone else could start the third song, Choo Choo and Monkey both started singing “Feliz Navidad”. I kind of wondered how many people would join in — we’re decidedly slanted to Spanish, after all — but before I knew it, nearly the whole bus was singing along.

Well, except for the “Prospero año y Felicidad” bit. Most people don’t know those words. But pretty much everyone was calling out “from the bottom of my heart” as the bus pulled into the stop at the resort.

We went back to our room, and rested. The following day was going to be a long one. And after an episode of “Great American Bake-Off”, we all hit the sack.

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