The Tree of Life might be the best reveal in any of the Disney parks.
When you first set foot in Animal Kingdom, you’ll be reminded of zoos you’ve walked in before. In fact, I was instantly reminded of the Oklahoma City Zoo back home. I’d walk the same way every time, past the duck pond(Animal Kingdom has ducks at the start too… is this a requirement I’m not aware of?) and down between the back of the Island Life exhibit and the Children’s Zoo, on a winding path to Zoo Lake Road. The greenery was taller, of course, but the similarities were still pretty strong. At least until we reached the end of the path.
At first you’re just struck by the sheer size of it, as the whole corridor is designed to let it dominate the landscape. The beauty of the tree sets in next, with its massive branches stretching outward. It’s not until you get close that you can make our the details. What appear from a distance to be knots and twists in the branches are gorgeously carved images of animals. Of the three major park icons in Walt Disney World, this one might be the most detailed.
As my wife and I walked down the path, we noticed something to the left of the tree as we drew near. From out of nowhere, a flock of macaws soared through the air, then circled above us before landing in front of their handlers just a few feet away. Other zoos have these magnificent birds, but I’d never in my life seen them take to the sky en masse, and our entry to Animal Kingdom had been perfectly timed, like the birds had shown up to personally welcome us.
It was a perfect example of a magical moment that only Disney can create, only slightly marred minutes later when I literally had to duck to avoid getting a little too close with one of these animal stars as they flew away.
Entry to Animal Kingdom
We slept well again that first night, and another breakfast in the Float Works later we timed our arrival at the bus stop almost perfectly, and made our way to Animal Kingdom, one of the two new parks since my last visit in 1984. We planned a shorter day than our marathon in the Magic Kingdom from a day before, due in part to our reservations at The Wave… of American Flavors(yes, that’s really the full name. I’m just going to call it The Wave from now on, like most everyone else does). We planned to stop for lunch in the relatively new Harambe Market, and had secured FastPasses for the Kilimanjaro Safari, Festival of the Lion King and Kali River Rapids. I was really looking forward to the latter, as a huge fan of white water rapids rides at various parks.
I’d also told Christie that we would be attending a live podcast recording at the Contemporary after dinner, which would of course be happening by the marina. I’m not sure she bought that excuse, but I don’t think she knew just what I had planned, either. She’s since told me that I lucked out, as Disney kept offering up distractions that kept her from thinking about it for too long.
While I mentioned the entrance earlier, it bears mentioning that we got an early treat in the form of cast members introducing us to various members of the animal kingdom, in the form of several fascinating large insects. As we got up close and personal looks at them, the cast members told us a little about their importance. It’s a little thing, but as a die hard zoo nerd I like that guests were given the chance to learn more about insects and see that they’re not just creepy.
I should probably take a step back and say before I go much further, in some ways I was looking forward to Animal Kingdom more than any of the other Disney parks because it was so heavily in my wheelhouse. I’d been a member of the Oklahoma City Zoo Friends for years, and (brag alert upcoming!) just weeks before we arrived in Disney, I’d won first place in the Carnivores category of the OKC Zoo’s Capture the Wild contest1. I’d also been to the San Diego Zoo a number of times, and there are few things I enjoy as much as a few hours in a zoo or wild animal park with a camera, trying to snap off pictures. Couple that with the only rapids ride on Disney property, and you’ve got a formula for a highly anticipated trip.
After we stopped and watched the macaw demonstration and I exhibited uncharacteristic quick reflexes to avoid a collision, we lingered after the crowds dispersed and snapped off a few shops of the ring tailed lemurs on display. Unfortunately, our limited time would work against my usual zoo strategy of spending lots of time with each animal to try and get the best possible shots, though as you’ll soon see we did make a few exceptions. From there, we ventured away from the Tree of Life, and toward the Africa area of the park, the village of Harambe.
It took me about ten seconds to fall in love.
As you step through the entrance to Africa, you cross over a bridge that stretches across a portion of Discovery River(or Uvumbuzi River to the locals). To your right, you can see deeper into the park, with Animal Kingdom’s version of Everest visible in the distance. To your left is the Port of Harambe, and the building that houses the Festival of the Lion King. It’s one of several amazing views that a trip through Harambe offers, and you can’t help but take a few minutes to savor it.
Built in 1420, Harambe was originally conceived as a fort by the colonists who settled there, and you can still see a few lingering reminders of that heritage scattered throughout Harambe. Today, the village has grown up around the nearby Harambe Wildlife Preserve, and so many of the stores and signage reflects this. As we walked further, our attention was captured by the incredible sounds of African music, provided by the Tam Tam drummers.
Live music certainly isn’t unique to Animal Kingdom, but I don’t think we saw a more energetic, lively performance our entire time in Disney World. With the beautiful music and their invitation to the guests to get involved with the performance, it was impossible to not feel energized, and we walked away with smiles on our faces. Afterward, one of the drummers made it a point to come over to us and congratulate us on our honeymoon2.
We still had a little time to kill before we would embark on our safari, and we quickly learned the one downside of Animal Kingdom… it’s hot. While that could easily describe all of Florida at this point, something about the design of Animal Kingdom makes it swelter just a little bit more than the other parks in Disney World. We avoided the heat by stepping into the nearby Mombasa Marketplace. Once the colonial governor’s home, it’s not been converted into one of my favorite shopping spots on Disney property. In addition to stunning artwork and jewelry, there are small displays lining the walls that include necessities for your safari. I was surprised to see, for example, a large stack of old tripods on one shelf, just as part of the décor.
From there, we made our way to Kilimanjaro Safari. It’s a unique experience, and not just because of the longer than average running time for a Disney attraction. We’d been tipped off by a friend to try and secure an early trip, in the hopes the animals would be more active3. Sure enough, we saw a wide range of animals, from cheetahs to zebras, elephants to hippos. But Disney’s desire to simulate the feel of a real African safari led to a few minor problems. Specifically, the bumpy ride and constant motion of the safari vehicles means that taking decent photos can be a challenge. While I snapped off a few shots throughout, we were mostly content to just enjoy the ride and watch the animals.
The perfect compliment to the Kilimanjaro Safari is a walk down the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, which is a walk through tour of more of the Harambe Wildlife Preserve, It’s not just a change to view the animals, however, as there are areas that highlight the conservation work that’s happening with the area as well. Like so many areas in Disney World, you can take a look at the details of these research areas to learn more of the story behind the Pangani Forest, and the researchers who are working there.
One of the first animals you meet on the trail is the okapi, one of the most unique and beautiful creatures in the animal kingdom. A close relative of the giraffe, okapi are notable for their black and white, zebra-like striped legs, in contrast to the reddish brown fur on the rest of their bodies. Like the giraffe okapi have exceptionally long tongues, and from time to time you can see them swatting away pests from their eyes… which looks to all the world like they’re licking their own eyes.
A short distance away you walk into one of the most stunning aviaries we’ve ever set foot in. Like many zoological parks, Animal Kingdom houses many of the birds in its care in these massive structures. Unlike most, the Imagineers have taken pains to conceal the enclosing mesh as best they can, which results in an amazing closeness with the birds. So close, in fact, one guest had the same near close encounter with a weaver bird that I had with a macaw a little while earlier.
More well designed encounters followed, including a hippo enclosure with underwater viewing windows and a viewing area with both zebras and meerkats. If you’ve never seen meerkats in person before, you’ll likely not find a group of animals more likely to give you some fantastic photos if you give them a little time. They’re naturally inquisitive and very attentive, which means they’ll probably look right at you when you snap off a photo. But even with that, the Pangani had not yet revealed its most stunning surprise.
A short distance away is the Gorilla Research Camp. With beds, chalk boards and supplies scattered throughout the area, there’s a definite feeling that you’ve walked into a real research area. But the stars of the show are, of course, the gorillas. As we approached, the silverback leaned against the wall, while the rest of the troop lingered at the back of the enclosure. I once again applied by “linger just a bit” philosophy, and it paid unbelievable dividends.
We must’ve been there about five minutes before one of the females started moving up closer to the glass, and we noticed something clinging to her leg as she drew near. About halfway in, that something let go of her leg, and we were treated to the sight of a baby gorilla walking right past the glass in front of us! He then moved to the side near another one of the adults, allowing for a really close viewing. The only problem is one that anyone who’s ever been to a zoo is well aware of… the second something amazing happens at an enclosure and there are a decent number of people around, they get pushy. We got a few pictures, watched from a distance, then decided to move on. The exit takes you by another enclosure, this one home to a group of bachelor males, and is a truly stunning setting.
From there, we took the Island Express train to visit Rafiki’s Planet Watch. Geared more toward young children, it’s still a fascinating area, with unique animal exhibits The Conservation Station contains the veterinary hospital and a few interactive exhibits, and was also the only sighting in Animal Kingdom of my beloved red pandas4, in some of the artwork inside the Station.
As we stepped outside, we were surprised to see Chip and Dale making an appearance. We’d not planned to meet anyone besides Anna and Elsa, but after a quick discussion we decided to step into the short line and meet two of our favorite characters. Our two favorite chipmunks also quickly noticed our Happily Ever After buttons, and demanded to see our wedding rings. While Disney owns Marvel, I have a suspicion that Chip is a bit of a DC fan, as he really loved the rings. A few pictures later, and we jumped back aboard the train to Harambe, and the Harambe Market.
The Market is a newer dining area in Animal Kingdom, having opened that May. It’s what Disney calls counter service, designed for more casual, fast dining. There are several smaller kitchens/kiosks in the area, based on actual African street food, from spice rubbed Karubi ribs at Chef Mwanga’s, to chicken skewers and gyro flatbreads at Kitamu. Based on reviews I’d read earlier, we opted for stopping by Famous Sausages, to sample their beef and pork sausages, fried in a curried corn batter, and served with a roasted broccoli and tomato salad. I also decided to try their recommended pairing with the Orlando Brewing Company I-4 IPA, and was flattered when the cast member working the window asked for my ID.
The Market itself is inspired by open air markets in east Africa, and part of the experience is sitting in the wonderfully themed seating area. Unfortunately, a bit of that charm can be lost when you’re trying to navigate the crowds when it’s busy, as it can get a little cramped. As a result, I got to try my sausage with a little bit of beer soaked into the batter. They still tasted good, and the I-4 IPA tasted especially good on a warm day. We ultimately preferred the sausages we got at Trader Sam’s, but it was still a good lunch, definitely a cut above what we usually have back home when we go out for casual dining.
From there, it was time for our second FastPass of the day, this time to the Festival of the Lion King. Of all the various shows we saw during our time at Disney World, this was one of our favorites, and one of our favorite things we did the entire time. From top to bottom the performers in this are sensational, from the team helping Simba, Pumbaa and the other animals to the Tumble Monkeys and the fire dancing hyena. But the real highlight are Kiume, Nakawa, Kibibi and Zawadi, who serve as hosts. Between the chemistry between the four and their incredible singing voices, they made for one of our most memorable experiences.
Next we moved on to Asia, and went down the Maharajah Jungle Trek. It’s yet another stunningly design area, set within the ruins of the maharajah’s palace. Here you can find tapirs, tigers and the always impressive komodo dragons, the largest lizards in the world, as well as another fantastic aviary. For us, though, the highlight were the bats. Representing both the Rodrigues Fruit bat and the Malayan flying fox, these are massive creatures, with wingspans around six feet! While they were idle when we came by, we were able to get very close. They’re truly amazing animals, and not at all scary. But you can just as easily enjoy the beautiful setting, and you can also really linger and take your time here. The one advantage this trail has over Pangani is that it doesn’t have a popular attraction like Kilimanjaro Safaris letting out nearby, so the Jungle Trek doesn’t get quite as congested, or at least it didn’t during our time there.
We wandered more of the surroundings of Asia while we waited to get on Kali River Rapids, and even walked up closer to Everest, though I had no intention of jumping on that attraction. It’s still an impressively designed area. The shops and live music and dance in Asia are wonderful as well, and it’s easy to lose track of time as you wander around them. In no time at all, we were ready for our final FastPass, the Kali River Rapids.
I’d fallen in love with rapids rides, a familiar staple of amusement parks One of the first was Roaring Rapids in Six Flags Over Texas, and I still vividly remember my father, brother and I riding it not long after it opened. The next morning at breakfast, the bills in my dads’ wallet were still wet, and the waitress knew exactly what ride we’d been on. I would later have annual passes to SeaWorld San Diego, and the Shipwreck Rapids ride there remains an all time favorite. It’s one of few I’ve even gotten to ride two times in a row, largely because I was crazy enough to do so in what passes for cool weather in San Diego.
Needless to say, I was interested to see what the Imagineers could do with it. The queue is set up as the entrance to an actual river expedition, and there’s a strong environmental theme throughout. The second we reached the boat, however, the problems began. It’s probably the least comfortable of any rapids attraction I’ve ever been on, and it only got worse once the boats started moving. The ride has one really neat highlight, a thirty foot drop where the belts that normally carry the boats back up to the dock helps speed up the descent. We left the boat a little wet but, more importantly, incredibly sore from being jostled around in it5. After lingering around Asia a little while longer, and with our dinner reservations later that evening, we decided to call it a day at the park and head back to the resort to get some rest.
We would take the ferry up the Sassagoula to catch a boat to the Contemporary and The Wave. Little did I know I was about to get another visit from the past.
Another Blast from the Past
We got dressed up for dinner, as we’d both had the presence of mind to bring a nicer change of clothes, then made our way to the boat dock. The light of day and added benefit of sleep made us appreciate the gorgeous scenery along the Sassagoula even more. I can’t stress just how beautiful French Quarter and the surrounding area is, and the seeing it from the water only underscores the point. It was also at this point that I started an almost obsessive habit of looking at my watch, starting to feel a little stress than the time crunch I’d placed us under might ruin the fireworks cruise.
“It’s just a podcast,” I remember Christie saying at one point. “We can be late, right?”
Downtown Disney(or Disney Springs as it’s now known) is an impressive sight from the water as well, with the balloon from Characters in Flight and the steamship setting of Fulton’s Crab Shack only adding to the charm. Sadly, there were also still plenty of construction walls up while we were there, but I suspect when construction is complete it’s only going to look even more impressive. However, as we neared the entrance to Lake Buena Vista, I barely noticed.
The Sassagoula runs across several different resorts, including Port Orleans Riverside and the Old Key West Resort. And, very close to Downtown Disney was Saratoga Springs, a resort I’d read about and briefly considered, before we settled on French Quarter. But as I looked at the buildings that lined the riverfront, I realized I’d been there before. They’d not changed much since our family’s stay in 1984, at least not on the outside, and it was another moment when happy memories flooded back to me. We’d picked a resort that saw us go by the Treehouse Villas.
It’s funny the details you remember after such a long time. There are patios that overlook the ground, and I can still vividly remember dropping leaves shed from one of the trees down and watching them spin around as they fell. Given Scotty’s health at the time, we wouldn’t venture out in the rain, so we spent quite a while there, and there are quite a few photos of us having fun and spending time in those rooms. As we approached Downtown Disney and then headed toward the bus that would take us to the Contemporary, I was able to share many of those memories with my wife.
As our shuttle bus neared the Contemporary, I got another reminder of the strange games our memories can play with us. For some reason, I’d crossed up the Polynesian and the Contemporary in my mind, and was absolutely certain the monorail passed directly through the Grand Ceremonial House once upon a time. Though I remembered the interior of the Polynesian right, I’d clearly confused it with the iconic exterior of the Contemporary6. We rushed from the bus stop and to the front desk. As fate would have it, The Wave was just a short walk away.
Spoiler warning: The Wave was our favorite place to eat in Walt Disney World. I’ll just get that out of the way right off the bat.
You walk through a circular tunnel into the gorgeous dining room. Once you’ve checked in, you’re directed to a semi-circular waiting area bathed in blue light that looks like something out of a movie. There’s a wave shaped décor on the ceiling once you’re led to the table. Even when fairly busy it’s quiet and relaxed, at least in our experience. The Wave’s signature is organic, sustainable cuisine, with a focus on locally and regionally sourced ingredients. To that end, The Wave also had an impressive wine and beer list.
We decided to skip appetizers since the “podcast” was drawing close, but every meal comes with bread service, and the bread was a nice precursor of what was to come. Rather than just a simple Italian loaf, they offered a multigrain bread, presented with sea salt sprinkled butter. Christie opted for the grilled hangar steak with a ginger soy marinade, udon noodles, baby bok choy, carrots and snow peas, while I decided on the sustainable grilled swordfish, with tomato panzanella, shaved fennel, and preserved lemon beurre blanc7.
“Hey look,” Christie said as she looked at the cocktail menu, “They’ve got another glowing drink.”
Sure enough, there was another drink that came with a glowing ice cube like the Krakatoa punch at Trader Sam’s, so I naturally picked the Blue “Glow-tini”, while Christie opted for the Bahama Mama.
Swordfish is one of my favorite things to have, but it’s rare to find it done well in Oklahoma. The version we got at The Wave was fantastic, flavorful and not at all dry, which tends to happen with it from time to time. But I loved the tomato panzanella, which the fish was served atop. In particular, the croutons, which I believe were made with the same multigrain bread, were sensational. Christie’s steak was likewise delicious, cooked perfectly, and the udon it was served with was amazing.
As for the drinks, they were just as good as what we had at Trader Sam’s. Both used juice in the recipe, which gave them a fantastic taste. But what really makes The Wave stand out is the service. The food came out quickly, anything we needed at the table was taken care of promptly and, yet again, our server noticed our Happily Ever After buttons and gave us a free dessert, this time one of the citrus cakes that came as part of the dessert flights. All in all, we absolutely fell in love with The Wave, and walked out in agreement that a trip there would be mandatory for all future stops in Walt Disney World.
The Wave’s location was convenient as well in that a short walk from the entrance was the marina. We made our way out quickly, and of course there was nothing there that remotely looked like a live podcast recording.
“Let me talk to these folks over here,” I said to Christie, and made my way to the window. The cast member there immediately introduced me to Abby, our captain for the evening. I explained the surprise, and she left to go get our food order, specialty truffles from the Contempo Cafe, while I was finally going to tell my wife what my plans were. I pulled out my video camera to record the special moment.
“Christie, there is no podcast recording. We’re actually here to board a private fireworks cruise.”
My wife looked me in the eye, smiled, and said, “You liar.”
To call this simply a fireworks cruise would be a disservice to the overall experience, as it’s actually a complete tour around the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake, two of the major bodies of water on Disney property. As we backed out to a stunning view of the Contemporary and Bay Lake Tower, Abby asked if we wanted to just sit back and enjoy the cruise, or if we’d like to learn more about Disney history and some interesting facts about the area as we set sail. Of course we opted for the history, and we got quite the tour.
Two legendary “hidden” areas at Walt Disney World are former areas of the resort that have been abandoned, Discovery Island and the River Country water park, and both are located on Bay Lake. Discovery Island had once served as a nature preserve, with many of its animals being relocated to Animal Kingdom. While the sun was going down and we didn’t get a great view, Abby did shine a light on the old dock areas and portions of the water park, letting us see a small glimpse at this piece of Disney history.
From there, we were able to see the Fort Wilderness lodge, a resort we’d only briefly seen as our Magical Express tour bus stopped by, and we were shown how the lodge’s features form a bear face. Not far away was the Shoe Tree, where a number of white shoes hung from the branches. According to Abby, captains will sail out to this tree on their last day of work and throw their shoes into the tree. From there, with a massive thunderstorm billowing in the distance, we proceeded to the Seven Seas Lagoon.
The view of the fireworks from the boats is amazing, with both Cinderella’s Castle and the railroad station easily visible. You can see not only the fireworks but also the Celebrate the Magic projection show, and the boats pipe in the audio from Wishes so you can follow along. Christie and I sat next to one another and watched the show, with me firing off a few pictures8, but just enjoying an amazing moment. To see the fireworks and lights of the Magic Kingdom reflected in the water of the lagoon, with the boat gently rocking is an amazing experience. In addition to the truffles, the boat was equipped with enough snacks and drinks for the full compliment of eight passengers each boat could hold.
This would cause a problem down the line.
Wishes ended entirely too soon, but our trip had one more surprise for us. Instead of heading back to the docks at the Contemporary, we moved further back into the Seven Seas Lagoon, and were able to see the Electrical Water Pageant. Created for the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971, it’s an amazing sight to behold, with music playing while scenes come to life on the barges. The boats even pulled ahead of us to cross back into Bay Lake, which meant we were able to linger just a little longer on the water, talking with Abby about the history of the park and enjoying one of the most amazing Disney experiences anyone can have.
As we pulled back to shore and went to leave the boat, Abby stopped us and asked if we wanted the remaining snacks, since they were paid for as part of the trip. We’d intentionally only brought a camera bag, but she managed to rustle up a large garbage bag, which was then almost completely filled with sodas, chips and cookies. As we carried this heavy beast back to the steps of the Contemporary and back toward the bus stop, I knew it was going to be a long trip. It got even longer, however, when I saw just how many people were waiting for the bus back to Downtown Disney.
The bag was already starting to strain from the weight of sugar and carbs it contained.
Naturally we were among the last people to get onto the bus, and naturally we were unable to find a seat. Thankfully one of the other guests scooted to one side so we could set the bag down, while the bus rumbled back to Downtown Disney. From there, we’d just have to make it to the ferry back to French Quarter, then to our room. It wasn’t that far.
Sadly, the bag only made it as far as the path leading to the docks, when it tore open and spilled its contents across the walkway. We scrambled to try and repack it all, doing our best to keep it all together. I ended up holding a few bottles of water and stuffed some of the chips into various pockets and empty compartments on my camera bag, and then we proceeded to the ferry line.
Which was backed up almost to the walkway.
Looking back, I can’t help but wonder what anyone else thought when they saw us wander over. I’m not exactly a small person(I believe the polite term Disney fans use is “Pooh sized), and even if the bag we carried hadn’t been clear, it was pretty obvious it contained a stunning amount of food. Thankfully, the other guests were either too polite or too weirded out to say anything, save one person ahead of us in line who helpfully pointed out, “Your bag is ripping.”
Thankfully it held together long enough for us to reach our room at French Quarter, which had never looked quite so inviting. The bag didn’t survive being set onto the bed, and finally burst open. As we caught our breath, Christie and I started to laugh, then began to pack it all away in what was soon a rather stuffed mini fridge. The food would last us through our entire trip with a few bags even making it back to Oklahoma. The memories will last far longer.
This is one of those posts where I just didn’t have enough room for all the photos I wanted to share, so head over to esdeemphoto.com to see more from Animal Kingdom! Well, if I haven’t already worn you out with this post.
Not So Hidden Mickeys(AKA Footnotes)
2 – I really can’t stress enough how much of a benefit it is to pick up celebration buttons at your resort. While the extra goodies at some of the dining locations are nice, it’s the number of people who congratulate you that makes for some really special memories. And they’re not just for honeymoons! Anniversaries, birthdays, or other special celebrations will be acknowledged. It’s a really fun thing to get.
3 – This is actually one of my Four Rules for Zoo Photography. First, get there early. Second, make sure you spend a little time by each enclosure. Third, always take a few shots, because few things in photography are worse than a good photo being marred by some weird quirk like the auto focus picking up a butterfly in the foreground. Fourth, if you’re by a busy enclosure, take your pictures and move back and let other people get a chance to take photos. This is my biggest pet peeve, when something truly amazing happens with an animal, and someone just won’t let anyone else get close, especially if there are kids nearby. Those are memories that may stick with them forever, so give them a chance to get them. Okay, rant over.
5 – See, I actually can be critical of Disney. They just don’t often give me reason to. I have heard that the rapids ride at California Adventure, Grizzly River Run, is fantastic, and I’m sure I’ll give Kali a second chance during our next trip.
6 – I had similar confusion with The Land at Epcot, as I was certain the Kitchen Kabaret show was part of the Listen to the Land boat ride, even though my mind still refuses to believe this as I distinctly recall sitting on a boat and watching that show. Memories are weird things, folks.
7 – It’s worth mentioning that due to the sustainability concept, the menu at The Wave changes frequently, and the hangar steak is no longer available and the seasonal fish has different sides now. I feel confident in saying the quality of the food is probably just as good with the current menu items, though.
8 – This did lead to me not getting any photos of the Electric Water Pageant, however. Trying to get pictures of the thunderstorm I switched off autofocus, and was so completely overwhelmed with the fireworks show I forgot to turn it back on. This wasn’t a problem with the fireworks for the most part, but made getting decent shots of the water pageant almost impossible. Oh well, guess that means we’ll have to take another fireworks cruise the next time we’re in Disney World.