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DISNEY'S ANIMAL KINGDOM

By
Mark Glass - Click to Enlarge
Mark Glass

Mark Glass is a journalist trapped in a lawyer's body, balancing his practice with
writing and broadcasting on travel, entertainment and professional sports.  

It 's hard to top Disney World as a destination. Even if you've been there, there's always something new, no matter how recently you've been there. And even though the marketing seems geared towards kids, there's plenty for adults to like for our own reasons. A traveler's biggest problem is confusion - how to cram so many options into your budget and endurance level? There's the three major theme parks - Magic Kingdom, Epcot and MGM Studios - and three separate water attractions, golf courses, several gourmet restaurants, the night clubs on Pleasure Island and the diverse learning programs at the Disney Institute. Whew!

Well, adventurous readers, mapping that agenda just got harder, with the opening of Disney's Animal Kingdom - a huge new theme park, with completely novel offerings.

I usually don't consider statistics a significant part of any travel report, but Disney works on such a grand scale, that the numbers are inescapably impressive. In less than three years, they cultivated 500 acres of nondescript flatlands into a cluster of "lands" with islands, jungles and wide-open African plains.

As you'd expect, many of the classic characters abound - wandering the paths of the various themed areas, and at Camp Minnie-Mickey. There are several stages for a variety of live daily shows, naturally including "the Lion King" and "The Jungle Book".

The park's centerpiece icon on Safari Village island is a 14-story, man-made "Tree of Life", with 103,000 leaves on 8,000 branches. The trunk includes carvings of 325 animals. Beneath this imposing structure lies the theater for an hilarious 3-D animated film, It's Tough to be a Bug!, combining the visuals with other surprising sensory effects. It's the most entertaining of the many 3-D movies at the other parks (topping my previous favorite, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience!).

DinoLand U.S.A. includes educational exhibits (complete with man-made, life-size skeletons) and a multi-media thrill ride (Countdown to Extinction) back in time to the era of those loveable lugs from the Jurassic era. Safari Village features shops and restaurants evoking the look and tastes of that continent, as if it were one of the Epcot entries.

The biggest attraction, both in size and quality, is the 100-acre (same as the entire Magic Kingdom) Kilimanjaro Safari. It's also the greatest departure from all other Disney parks. Visitors climb aboard open-sided lorries for an actual wildlife adventure. This isn't the predictable, controlled environment offered on other rides; these animals are genuine. Lions, giraffes, elands, rhinos, hippos, zebras and all the rest are represented in this realistic re-creation of a savannah

Disney imported over 1,000 animals, representing 200 species. Even more impressive is the landscaping. Four million trees, shrubs, vines, flowers and grasses of over 3,000 species were planted. Hordes of horticulturists scoured the globe for authentic vegetation to import or cross-breed for survival in Florida, while providing homes to the birds, mammals and reptiles they would surround and feed.

While on safari, one sees the animals up close and personal, in a habitat far more spacious and natural-appearing than zoos offer. Whatever safety barriers exist to protect visitors are virtually invisible. One might take the same trip several times, and have completely different stories to tell, since the beasts are on their own. The Africa section also includes Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail - a winding footpath through a bamboo jungle, including two troops of gorillas, an underwater viewing area for hippos, and an array of exotic, colorful birds. There's even a colony of meerkats, for those Lion King fans who think Timon was just a cartoon character.

A fleet of boats circles Safari village, affording a couple of surprises, along with a splendid perspective of the park. Or take the African train to Conservation Station for interactive and educational ecology exhibits, including the "Affection Section" for meeting and touching live animals. One can even visit the park's veterinary facilities, to appreciate how complex the process of caring for so many creatures can be.

Disney's intent with this park is not just the usual day of family fun, but to raise environmental awareness in the process. There are certainly other artificial wildlife experiences around the country, but none in such proximity to so many diverse attractions. A family can probably cover Animal Kingdom in one day of a longer visit that would include the other parks on property It's certainly a fine addition to Disney's overwhelming buffet of diversions, with features to delight all ages. Kids are optional.

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Email:  lotekguy@swbell.net (Mark Glass)

Mark Glass is a Mark Glass is a freelance writer and broadcaster, based in St. Louis, covering travel, entertainment and professional sports for his readers and listeners. Mark was travel editor for "St. Louis Connoisseur", and now have that role for "Life in the Midwest", based in Indianapolis. For the last fifteen years, he's written and broadcast features on travel, entertainment and sports, while maintaining his law practice in the St. Louis area. (More about this writer.)

 

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