Recently, I joined Deb Wills and Allears.net editor Deb Koma on a special safari adventure at Disney's Animal Kingdom called Wildlife Discovery Excursion. This adventure is only available to guests staying in a concierge room (Club Level) at any Disney World resort. I was excited to be part of this very limited adventure.
Our excursion was scheduled to begin at 1pm and we were instructed to meet in front of the Mombasa Marketplace shop in Africa at 12:45. We were met by one of the animal trainers (Susan on the left), and our driver (Suzanne on the right). Susan has twenty years experience working with animals at various zoos and has been caring for many of the creatures here at the Animal Kingdom for the past five. Suzanne normally takes guests on the Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction, but occasionally is assigned to host groups on this special tour.
These tours can accommodate between 14 and 16 guests, but today only one other person was joining our adventure. After introductions were made, we headed backstage and boarded a minibus. With the exception of our vehicle, we were asked not to take any pictures in the backstage area, but once we reached the safari, we were free to snap away to our heart’s content. We were also told that we could get up and move around in the minibus, even while the vehicle was in motion.
As we pulled away, Susan told us that this was a very informal tour. She had plenty of information to share with us, but she preferred tours where the guests ask lots of questions. She also said the tour would last around an hour, but could be longer depending on the animals we encounter and how many questions we asked.
Our vehicle skirted the west side of Kilimanjaro Safaris for a few minutes and Susan pointed out a fence that encircles the entire attraction. This fence is used to keep the native Floridian animals from venturing into this area. After driving along several backstage roads, our minibus eventually turned onto a spur road of the Kilimanjaro Safaris and eventually joined the main thoroughfare and we were now traveling along with the other vehicles on this attraction.
I have ridden Kilimanjaro Safaris over one hundred times. I could probably give the tour myself I’m so familiar with the spiel presented during this twenty minute ride. But today I learned so much more. You see on this tour, you’re not given the same information as you receive on the safari. Here, your guide fills your head with all sorts of interesting and new facts. The first thing I learned was that Disney participates in a national breeding program. A governing board keeps track of all the different species around the country and determines an optimal number. Then zoos are requested to encourage or discourage breeding appropriately.
I have noticed that as you enter the hippopotamus enclosure, the first watering hole on the right is always sparsely populated while the second pool on the left seems to have an abundance of these creatures. Well, there’s a reason for this. It’s been determined that currently there are enough hippos in U.S. zoos so Disney is keeping the males and females separated in accordance with this national directive. The two males live in this first enclosure and the many more females live in the second.
Next we drove over the crocodile paddock. We didn’t discuss these creatures in any detail but they always look a little scary to me.
From the crocks we drove over a hill and into the savannah. After a short distance, Suzanne pulled our minibus off onto a side road and we parked for several minutes. However, there were no animals in this immediate area so we talked of other things.
If you’ve ridden Kilimanjaro Safaris more than once, you’ve probably noticed that you saw different animals on different excursions. Or that certain areas might seem void of animals while other spots have an abundance of creatures. That’s because Disney does not force the animals to exhibit themselves. They are completely free to roam at will (within the safety of their particular enclosure). However, Disney does employ tricks to entice the animals within view of the tour. In some places, special treats are placed inconspicuously to encourage nibbling close to the road. And for the lions, the rocks are cooled and heated to persuade them to lie within our view.
While parked in the savannah, Susan mentioned the wire netting encircling the trees. She explained that many of the animals gnaw on the bark and the trees would be stripped clean and die in no time if they didn’t take this precaution. She also told us that every morning, the horticulturists inspect the entire safari and replant and replenish much of the vegetation.
As we continued our tour, we came across a giraffe lying down in the grass. Susan said that this is unusual as they usually spend their days walking and eating. She also brought out a box of giraffe droppings and explained to us that the vets use droppings to gain an abundance of information about the various animals – including if they might be pregnant.
Since it wasn’t a busy day at the Animal Kingdom, the Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction was not running at full capacity. This allowed our minibus to travel slower than usual and even come to a complete stop if we were trying to photograph a particular animal. However, as soon as another safari vehicle caught up with us, we had to move along.
Next we came to the elephants. While passing these mighty beasts, Susan showed us a sample of the hair that grows from their tails. We were allowed to touch it and we agreed it was extraordinarily thick and almost felt like wire.
For those of you who have ridden Kilimanjaro Safaris before, you know that the mandrill is often elusive. But today we were lucky and were able to capture some great pictures. Of course, it helped that Suzanne slowed down our vehicle considerably to afford us some good shots.
As our tour continued, we pulled off the road several more times for additional pictures and informative conversations. Here we’re parked near an ostrich nest. At this stop we learned that all of the ostriches at the Animal Kingdom are female and you can tell males and females apart by their color. Females are gray and males are black. However, one of the females here recently molted and when her feathers grew back, they were black. At the moment, they don’t have an explanation for this odd behavior.
We were also told that an ostrich can weigh between 140 to 290 pounds. Because of this, the eggs are extremely thick in order to withstand the weight of the mother sitting on them. Susan said she often will have children in the group stand on one of the eggs to demonstrate their strength. The shiny texture you see in this next picture is natural. This egg was not coated with varnish.
We were also told that the ostriches here are continually laying eggs, but since they are not fertile, the animal keepers gather most of them up. The yolks and whites are then blown out and the eggs are used by artisans to be either painted or carved.
Since much of this tour could be a little dry for children, Disney makes sure they are not forgotten. Each child on the tour is provided with a drawing board and crayons and is encourage to circle the animals they spot and draw others in the white space. On the back, more coloring options are provided with a conservation message.
As we passed the flamingo enclosure, we’re told that their island is a large hidden Mickey.
We pulled off the road again and drove up to a ridge that separates the west savannah from the east. Here we had a wonderful view of the safari not available to regular guests.
While we were up on this ridge, a curious giraffe ambled over to our minibus and checked us out. It’s practically impossible to get pictures like this on the regular safari ride.
From this vantage point, I could also see some of the hidden “treat” locations and this salt and mineral lick spot.
Susan explained to us that the animals are encouraged to return to their backstage barns in the evening and each species has a distinct call it has been trained to respond to. At night, the animals are given a health inspection and routine medical procedures are performed.
When discussing the oryx, Susan showed us one of their horns. She pointed out how it had split near the base. If this horn belonged to a living creature, the vets would fill it with an epoxy resin to ensure that dirt and humidity didn’t cause this inner tissue to become infected.
Although no rhinos were out while we were touring, Susan showed us a rhino horn and explained how these creatures are being slaughtered for this simple body part.
We pulled off the road again across from the cheetahs. This is another animal that is often difficult to see and photograph while on the regular Kilimanjaro Safaris ride. Susan explained to us that male cheetahs live in groups while females live alone with their litter.
Lions sleep up to twenty hours a day and do most of their hunting during the night. Because of this, it is often difficult to get a good picture of these majestic cats while on the regular tour. But we were somewhat fortunate and our driver Suzanne was able to stop our minibus for a minute and I was able to snap these pictures.
After passing by the poachers camp, we left the regular trail and headed backstage. We spent a few more minutes with our guide and trainer and posed for this picture. We were also given FastPasses that were good immediately for Kilimanjaro Safaris enabling us to experience everything again, albeit at a faster pace.
I took over three hundred pictures while I was on this tour and I did not post all of the species I photographed. My aim today was to give you an idea of what to expect on the Wildlife Discovery Excursion, not to chronicle every animal we encountered. I also only shared a very small portion of the information I was presented with. And if I can remember 25% of this, I’ll be doing good.
Is this tour for everyone? No, it’s not. First, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, you must be staying in a concierge room at one of the Disney resorts to even be eligible for this experience. And if you’ve ridden Kilimanjaro Safaris and have come away satisfied with the information presented, then I wouldn’t spend the extra money for this more in-depth tour.
But if you’ve come away from Kilimanjaro Safaris wanting more, then by all means, sign up for Wildlife Discovery Excursion if you’re eligible – especially if your hobby is photography. The driver and guide do their very best to offer guests numerous opportunities to get the best possible shots and you will learn so much more than the average Animal Kingdom guest.
The tour is offered twice daily at 10am and 1pm. The cost is $50 for both children and adults and you sign up at your resort’s Concierge Desk.
And because I know someone will ask, I used a Nikon D80 camera with a 18-200mm Nikkor lens. Once back home, I used Paint Shop Pro to crop and enhance a number of my photos on the computer.
Visit the AllEars® Rate and Review Area to see what others have said about the tour and add your own reports! http://land.allears.net/reviewpost/showproduct.php?product=350&cat=80
The previous post in this blog was Simple Pleasures at the Magic Kingdom.
The next post in this blog is Signs at Walt Disney World - A Detailed Quiz.