When I was staying at Animal Kingdom Lodge back in May, I found out about two programs at the resort that were news to me. Jiko, the table service restaurant at the Lodge's Jambo House, was offering a weekly South African wine tasting (more on that in an upcoming blog), and Sanaa, the hidden gem of a restaurant at the Lodge's Disney Vacation Club extension, Kidani Village, was hosting what it called the "Untamed" lunch, also weekly, with a Disney Animal Specialist.
When Deb Wills and I returned to Animal Kingdom Lodge just a few weeks ago, we decided to stay out of the beastly heat of the theme parks for a while to take advantage of these special experiences.
We arrived at Kidani Village well before the 11:30 a.m. program start time, after taking the short shuttle ride over from Jambo House. (If it hadn't been 90 degrees already, we would have walked, but ugh, the humidity was killer!) Since we had time before the restaurant even opened, we walked out the downstairs back exit of the resort and watched some of the animals on the savanna. They were surprisingly active given the heat of the day. Zebras, giraffes and a few other hoofed animals were browsing, giving us up-close and personal views. That's one of the nice things about Kidani Village -- the savanna there was definitely designed so that you feel a little closer to the animals than you do over at Jambo House.
After a few minutes of melting in the increasingly hot outdoors, we headed back inside to await our lunch appointment.
Cast members at Sanaa set the stage for the experience by performing a brief ceremony at the restaurant's entrance to announce its opening at 11:30.
To keep the experience intimate, the Untamed lunch is limited to 12 participants. Luckily for us, there was only one other couple in attendance that day, so we were treated to a VERY personal experience. (By the way, I'd love to give a shout out to our tablemates, whose names I thought I had written down -- but apparently I didn't. So sorry! But it was great to meet you and share the lunch with you both!)
We were ushered to a table set apart a bit from the main dining area, close by a window, so we could view the animals as we dined. The table was beautifully set, with an array of condiments already displayed to get us in the mood.
Before we got started, Chef Bob came out from the kitchen to greet us and speak a little bit about the food we were about to enjoy.
If you've never dined at Sanaa you're in for a real treat, especially if you happen to like trying more exotic cuisines. As Chef Bob explained, Sanaa employs many East African traditions and serves food that is clearly influenced by Indian flavors. But if you think Indian food means spicy, and that perhaps you won't like it, think again. Yes, the food relies on spice, but spice doesn't necessarily mean hot -- in this case it means flavorful. In fact, when you see the word curry, what that's really saying is that the food is well seasoned, and bursting with flavor. Sanaa serves several curries as part of the Untamed lunch, and you really ought to give them a try. But if you don't want to, or have other dietary concerns, don't worry -- they are able to accommodate you, as long as you give them enough notice.
After explaining about the kitchen's cooking methods, Chef Bob introduced our first course -- the bread service, which was to be eaten with many of the condiments already on the table. There was red pepper hummus, garlic pickle and cooling cucumber raita as well as several different chutneys: mango, mint and tamarind. The breads included (from the top down in the photo) crispy pappadum (made of lentil flour), paneer paratha (a doughy flatbread filled with cheese), onion kulcha and naan (a puffy plain bread brushed with clarified butter called "ghee").
As we dove in to the starters, our Animal Specialist, Steve Metzler, introduced himself and the program began in earnest. Steve, whose title is assistant animal operations manager, has been with Disney for more than 10 years, starting way back when Disney's Animal Kingdom was new, as a Kilimanjaro Safari driver. He eventually went on to help open Animal Kingdom Lodge, and then worked for several years on the development and opening of Kidani Village. Today, Steve's position is basically that of assistant curator for all the 220 animals at the Lodge (110 mammals, 110 birds). He not only supervises the animal keepers and works with veterinarians, he also is involved in taking care of everything from the tiniest detail to major problems. Last year, he even had the chance to travel to South Africa as part of an exchange program.
"I am, amazingly, doing what I wanted to do," he said. "I always wanted to work with animals since I was little -- it's a dream job."
Steve went on to illustrate to us just how perfectly suited to this job he was, regaling us with tales of aggressive zebras and successful breeding programs, and explaining the difference between reticulated and Masai giraffes. He also shared tips on how to see more animals at the Lodge -- vary your schedule from day to day, walk around and look from different spots, and don't forget to look from the stairwells at Jambo House.
Steve talked, too, about how they attempt to mix animals that guests expect to see (the main attractions like zebras and ostriches) with less common species that might give a little extra special "magical moment" like the red river hogs, and of the unique challenge of maintaining what amounts to a 24-hour-a-day operation.
"Animal Kingdom Lodge never closes," he pointed out. "Guests want to see the animals when they are in their rooms, so we have to work around that when we want to restore the habitats, or care for the animals."
As lunch progressed (first with a sampling of three Sanaa salads, then with our entrees of shrimp in green curry sauce and chicken in red curry sauce), we learned more about the different habitats at the Lodge, and how certain animals don't get along with others -- even within the same species. Steve also talked about how the animals are trained to come in from the savannas voluntarily. They learn if they come inside when they hear the percussion block, they will get the "jackpot" -- their main meal for the day. This allows the keepers to examine the animals in a controlled setting, and perform any vet-type procedures that may be necessary, without having to chase the animal around the savanna. Steve also explained how the philosophy at the Lodge differs somewhat from that of Animal Kingdom.
"We don't want to replace Animal Kingdom," he noted. "We're the place you STAY when you go to Animal Kingdom, not instead of. Here at the Lodge we talk more about how we manage the animals -- we don't mind if you see the equipment or the pens, for example."
One of the things that struck me during our lunch is the emphasis Disney seems to place on making sure that the Lodge experience is as good for the animals as it is for the guests who stay there. Steve spoke at great length of the challenges of striking that balance between what's responsible regarding the animals with what the guest wants to see.
"We can't just keep these animals to show," he explained. "We need to be actively breeding them, and doing what is best for them. And it has to be sustainable -- we have to make it happen."
After a wonderful trio of desserts from the Sanaa menu (Chocolate Cake, Orange-Sesame Cake with Passion Fruit Kulfi, and the absolutely to-die-for Chai Cream, center in the photo), Steve took us outside to conclude the program and introduced us to one of Kidani Village's residents -- a critically endangered radiated tortoise from Madagascar, named "Chappy" after one of Sanaa's chefs.
Currently, Steve said that the Untamed lunch, which is only about two months old, is hosted mostly by managers who work with the animals, but that eventually animal keepers and possibly veterinarians will be joining in. That will only enhance what is already a stellar program.
Yes, I said stellar. The thing I always ask myself after I attend a special program like this is, "was it worth my time and/or money?" In this case, I have to answer myself (and is it wrong that I answer myself?) with a resounding YES. The food at Sanaa is outstanding -- I've always thought so, and truly believe this restaurant is one of the best-kept secrets at Walt Disney World. But more than just enjoying a wonderful meal in an amazing setting -- I mean, where else in Florida can you watch zebras and giraffes out the window while you dine? -- the Untamed lunch gives you the opportunity to discuss in-depth what it's like to work with the animals at Disney World. The hour and 45 minutes we spent with Steve fairly flew -- I could easily have stayed longer.
Whether you're an animal lover, or a Disney lover, or just looking for something off the beaten path while you're on your Disney vacation, the Untamed lunch has something to offer. Plus you not only learn about Disney's conservation efforts, but you have the satisfaction of knowing you are also contributing in some small way -- a portion of the cost of the lunch goes to the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. And while the format of each lunch will be similar, the opportunity to talk to a different animal specialist each time lends this experience a high "repeatability factor" -- that means I would do it again, without hesitation.
The Who, What, Where, Whens:
As I said earlier, these luncheons are held Wednesdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. at the Kidani Village restaurant Sanaa. A four-course menu is served. (Special diets can be accommodated; request at time of booking.) Cost is $49 for ages 10 and up, $29 ages 3-9 (with a special kids' menu). Price includes tax, gratuity and a $5 contribution to the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. Only 12 participants per lunch. To make reservations call 407-938-6922; select Option 3 and leave a message.
The previous post in this blog was Passport to a World of Flavors: The 2011 Epcot International Food and Wine Festival Preview.
The next post in this blog is Billy Dee Williams Debuts Artwork at D23 Expo.