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Kilimanjaro Safaris at Animal Kingdom - Part One

Kilimanjaro Safaris

Kilimanjaro Safaris<br />

When Walt began planning Disneyland, he envisioned a Jungle Cruise populated with real animals. But experts convinced him that this was a bad idea as the animals would not “perform” on cue nor did he have the available land to support such an ambitious attraction. In the end, Walt opted for robotic wildlife to entertain his guests. These early, mechanical creatures would be the beginning of what would eventually be known as AudioAnimatronics. It would be another 43 years before Walt’s dream would be realized in an attraction that is physically larger (110 acres) than the entire Disneyland park on opening day (85 acres).

Disneyland Jungle Cruise

In late 1989, after researching a number of options for a fourth theme park at Walt Disney World, Michael Eisner decided to go forward with a vast project that would feature animals. Although traditional zoos are expensive to run, difficult to maintain, and often lose money, Eisner believed that Disney could overcome these obstacles and create an entertainment complex that went far beyond anything the public had seen before. He also felt that an animal park was a good match for Disney as the company had a rich history in this area. Since the company’s beginning, Walt and other animators had been drawing memorable animals. Walt believed that animals offered outstanding character studies and provided storylines outside the human experience. In addition, Walt’s award winning True-Life Adventures (1948 to 1960) had brought footage of real animals into TV viewers’ living rooms on a regular basis.


True Life Adventures

Kilimanjaro Safaris was an opening day attraction at Disney's Animal Kingdom (Earth Day - April 22, 1998). From the very beginning, it was intended to be an “E ticket” ride and one of the park’s major draws. This is evident each morning at opening. Half of the waiting crowd races toward Expedition Everest while the other half hightails it to Kilimanjaro Safaris. The park’s other attractions sit virtually empty for the first hour of the day.

Imagineer Joe Rohde was selected to head up the project. In the nine years prior to this endeavor he had worked on the Mexico and Norway Pavilions at Epcot, the refurbishment of Disneyland’s Fantasyland, and the creation of the Adventures Club at Pleasure Island. All of these undertakings proved that he had a strong understanding of the Disney storytelling tradition. Below is a picture of Joe and me at the opening of the Yak & Yeti Restaurant.

Jack Spence and Joe Rohde

As with all Disney projects, details and authenticity are paramount. So in July 1990, Joe and his team set off to Kenya and Tanzania for two weeks of intensive research. Thousands of photographs were taken and hours of videos shot in an effort to capture the feel of East Africa. They participated in a number of family owned safaris to try to understand what it would be like for a tourist visiting this region for the first time. When they returned home, they realized that besides exhibiting animals, the need for a story was absolutely necessary. In all, the team took a total of six trips to Africa during the planning and construction of Disney's Animal Kingdom.

From the very beginning, Eisner was adamant that this new park should promote the protection of animals and the environment. With this in mind, Joe and his team knew that stories told in the Animal Kingdom needed to stress conservation, but do it in a way that educated rather than alienate. And if the message was somewhat heavy-handed, it needed to have a happy ending.

Joe and his team also knew that they didn’t have the expertise to pull off such a project on their own. They needed outside help. Besides the obvious logistics of care and feeding, such considerations as to which animals should be housed adjacent to one another and what was the best way to exhibit them in a natural setting had to be determined. These were questions that only trained “animal” professionals could answer. One individual in particular would play an important part in the development of the Animal Kingdom. Zoologist Rick Barongi, then with the famed San Diego Zoo, would act as a consultant and make numerous trips to Glendale and Orlando during the project.

An early consideration for Kilimanjaro Safaris was the setting – a logical reason for the attraction to exist. In the real Africa, it is common for communities to sit on the edge of vast frontiers. It is in places like these that tourists can secure transportation into the preserves. To duplicate this in the Animal Kingdom, the Imagineers created Harambe (Swahili for “working together”). This would be a fictitious village with no connection to a real town or country. This allowed the story to be free of any political or social baggage, thus allowing the guests to focus their attention on the culture and especially the animals. Found in the village are food marts, craftsmen, and the occasional advertisement for a trip into the wilderness.






Kilimanjaro Safaris Poster

The backstory for Harambe reveals that the reserve was once used for hunting. But sometime in the 1970’s, attitudes began to change and guns were prohibited to be replaced by cameras. To help enforce this directive, guests may only visit the preserve via a guided tour. Yet poachers are still a constant threat and the townspeople are vigilant in their pursuit of those who would hunt and kill animals.

Anyone who has visited a Disney theme park or hotel during the first months of operation will be struck by the landscaping. Although it is beautiful, it is anything but established. Plants and trees during the first few years of operation are but mere specimens of what they will someday become. It takes time for vegetation to mature and planting full grown trees is for the most part, too expensive to consider. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, take a look at these pictures of the Jungle Cruise, Swiss Family Treehouse, and the Haunted Mansion taken just three months after the Magic Kingdom opened. They look naked.

Jungle Cruise

Swiss Family Treehouse

Haunted Mansion

With this in mind, the horticultural planners asked for a two year growing season before the animals were scheduled to arrive at the Animal Kingdom in the autumn of 1997. They knew that in order to tell the story correctly, the animal’s habitats needed to look authentic from day one. This meant that before they could begin planting in the spring of 1996, sixty miles of utilities needed to be installed, four million cubic yards of earth needed to be moved, and a million square feet of rockwork needed to be sculpted.

Besides utilizing numerous nurseries around the country and the Disney tree farm, horticulturalists secured plants from sites slated for development or demolition and even from homeowners’ private property. They also transformed existing native Florida Live Oak trees by cutting their lower branches and flattening the tops to make them resemble acacia trees.

Live Oak Trees

Another problem faced by the horticulturalists is that the animals eat the plants. In the real world, this isn’t a problem as the animals can simply roam to a new food source when needed. But in the confined area of the Kilimanjaro Safaris, this presents a problem. The solution – new plants are added every day. Each morning, gardeners replace dozens of plants. But to keep things easy, holes have been dug in many areas and plants remain in their pots so they can be swapped out quickly.

Early plans called for guests to travel the safari in small “family-sized” vehicles. But it quickly became apparent that this would never handle the anticipated crowds. Eventually, custom-built, 10-ton, 32-passenger GMC trucks were developed and given a camouflage paint job. In 2007 and additional row of seats was added to the back of the vehicles to increase capacity. The trucks are fueled by liquid propane. The vehicles are not on tracks and are driven by the cast members.

Safari Vehicle

The dirt roadways are actually concrete dyed to look natural. If you look closely, you can see tire tracks in the “mud.” It’s interesting to note, the safari route was designed to keep any water in the roadway separate from the water used by the animals. In other words, what looks like a natural pothole filled with liquid is actually a carefully designed pool with its own pumping and drainage system.

When the attraction first opened, animal spotting guides could be found on the backs of each seat, facing the row behind. But because of the bumpy nature of the ride, it was decided that this hard surface needed to be cushioned and the guides were moved overhead. Although I understand the need for the change, the new location makes these guides impossible to use.

Animal Spotting Guide

What animals to include on the safari was another consideration. Some of the criteria used in the selection process was how active would they be during the day? How easy would it be to corral them each evening? Would they get along with the other animals. Could they be contained? What do they eat? How would they react to the constant traffic of the safari vehicles? These questions and many more were tackled by zoologist Rick Barongi who provided input to the Imagineers.

After an animal made the list, planning would begin on how much space the creatures needed and what sort of enclosure would be used. Berms, moats, water features, ha-has, and electric fences, all cleverly hidden from the guests, are used throughout the safari to separate one group of animals from another. Careful studies were conducted for each species to determine how far they could jump, swim, or fly to ensure that the protective measures would be sufficient.

Another, more obvious method was also employed to keep animals from roaming into areas that they don’t belong. Along the safari route are a number of tight “drive-throughs.” On the ground in these areas are wires and chains, stretched from one side to the other, that the animals will avoid walking on.

Roadway Barriers

Roadway Barriers

Disney needed to obtain a number of permits from various governmental agencies in order to keep and exhibit wild animals. Before many of these could be secured, the animals’ backstage homes needed to be completed so that regulators could inspect the facilities and make sure all the requirements were met. Items as small as “primate-proof latches” had to be considered. When budgets were cut, species (like hyenas) were eliminated from the lineup rather than make across-the-board reductions to the habitats. A number of these dwellings can be seen while traveling to Conservation Station aboard the Wildlife Express Train. Other facilities are located on the west side of the park, out of view from the public. Below are pictures of the backstage rhinoceros and elephant homes.

Rhinoceros House

Elephant House

These backstage animal homes are state-of-the art. They are climate controlled, have windows and skylights, and fresh air is continually circulated through the buildings. Some of the concrete floors have heated coils buried within them to keep the area warm. Expectant mothers are even provided private quarters to give birth and care for their young.

All exotic animals entering Florida are subject to a state-mandated 30-day quarantine. Animals arriving before the park’s completion needed to be housed at offsite locations. These included other zoos, private institutions, and even Disney’s original Discovery Island located in the middle of Bay Lake.

When a new animal arrives at the park today, it is housed in a special quarantined area. Eventually, it is moved to its permanent backstage home. Here, a number of steps are taken to carefully and slowly introduce the animal to its new environment and to its fellow inhabitants. Not until the animal is fully acclimated is it allowed onstage.

There is a fence that encircles the entire Kilimanjaro Safaris. Not only does this fence prevent the African animals from escaping, it also keeps the native Floridian animals from venturing into this area.

A decision was made early on to obtain all of the park’s animals from other zoos or reputable breeders. Disney did not want to capture animals living in natural environments and become part of the “problem” of depleting wildlife populations. During the transport and resettlement of animals to the Animal Kingdom, several died. Since Disney is held to a higher standard than many other companies, this made headlines in a number of papers. Mandatory investigations were conducted and in the end, Disney was cleared of any negligence or wrongdoing. Officials concluded their investigation by saying that a certain number of deaths are to be expected whenever a zoo of this size opens, no matter how many precautions are taken.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is fully accredited with AZA, The Association of Zoos & Aquariums. To receive this standing they underwent a thorough review that included a detailed accreditation application as well as a multiple day on-site inspection by a team of experts from around the country. To maintain this standing Disney’s Animal Kingdom must remain current with the constantly evolving standards and undergo additional accreditation reviews every five years. For more information about AZA, click here.

The Imagineers tried to design the attraction so that animals would be seen equally from both sides of the vehicles. But since the animals are free to roam within their respective enclosures, this is not always the case. Although the animals are never forced to exhibit themselves, the Imagineers used tricks to encourage them into site. Air conditioned rocks, cool breezes, cooling or warming waters, and food will often persuade them to linger near the roadway. This next picture shows a salt lick hidden within a crater.

Salt Lick

Studies have shown that some animals, like gorillas and the large cats, like to be superior to humans. By elevating much of the safari, many of the animals are kept at eye level for better viewing by the guest and accommodate the lions and cheetahs self-importance.

Operations managers requested that the safari be operational during the night to extend the park’s hours during the shorter daylight hours encountered during the busy Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. Imagineers gave this request serious thought, but ultimately decided that illuminating 110 acres for only three or four weeks out of the year was cost prohibitive. However, during the holiday season of 1998, Kilimanjaro Night Safaris was trialed. A new script was written and special effects were added to the attraction. But in the end, the animals were either asleep or obscured by darkness and the experiment was deemed unsuccessful. When you enter the park today, a sign is posted in the Oasis stating the closing time of the attraction. A similar sign is posted near the entrance of the ride.

Early Closing Sign

That’s it for Part One of Kilimanjaro Safaris. Check back tomorrow for Part Two.

The previous post in this blog was Waking Sleeping Beauty.

The next post in this blog is Kilimanjaro Safaris at Animal Kingdom - Part Two.

Comments (20)

Deb Ragno:

Animal Kingdom is our favorite park (even though so many people don't like it). The safari is one of our favorite things to do. Every trip is different (except for those ostrich eggs ;-) ).

Thank you for the background information, I'm looking forward to your next post. Hopefully some people who don't consider AK to be much of park will realize the depth of the park and not just look at the surface.

Quick funny story -- We were there in November and sat with an obviously well-to-do man who had never been to AK before. He commented to us that he was amazed at how run down the park was for being so new. I tried to explain to him that this was the way AK was intended to look and all he could say was, "They paid to make it look this bad?" I love the charm of the park -- the leaf and paw imprints in the walkways, the aged signs, the paths that most people ignore or don't know about, and of course, those "ruts" in the safari road.

Vic Williams:

Hey Jack,

Wonderful post about the safari. You have such an entertaining way with words and photo's to tell a great story. Make's one feel like they are actually on the safari while reading. Can't wait to read tomorrow's installment......VIC


hey jack
my family and i always go this attraction as soon as we get to the park. it is one of our favorites here and being able to see all the animals is a real treat. can't wai for part 2 and as always keep up the great work.


Jack, I always love to read your blog. This one I thought was especially interesting. Animal Kingdom is probably my favorite park and to learn so much about the backstage aspect is really interesting to me! I have seen the chains on the Kilimanjaro Safari ride but I never knew what they were for. Thanks for sharing all your knowledge with us! Can't wait for part 2!


Hi Jack

As someone working in an aquarium in the uk I know how much work goes into any animal attraction. I love hearing how much detail goes into the rides at Disney, I try andencourage that attitude here as best I can. Thanks for the blog.

Di Berry:

Fascinating as always. Thank you Jack. Looking forward to part two - your reports are always so well researched and I love your easy-to-read writing style.

Alpha Gollihugh:

Wonderful blog and so informative. Looking forward to part 2.

cathy m.:

Hi Jack,
What an interesting blog and like others have already said your writing is so easy to read.
I think the AK would have been Walt's favorite park. Being an animal lover it's one I love to visit and this last trip I did go over to Rafiki's Planet and it was so educational and I met Jinmminy Cricket there!
Looking forward to part two.


I don't believe I've ever heard about the nighttime version of the Kilimanjaro Safari. What was its script like? What were some of the "special effects" and lighting like?

Jack's Answer:

I could find very little about this nighttime version of the safari as it was presented for such a short time. However, two effects I did read about mentioned "animal eyes" (electric lights) hidden in the bushes to make us believe creatures were looking at us as we drove by. Also, cast members dressed as Harambe inhabitants were seen dancing around a fire in the elephant enclosure.

Rob Dickinson:

Hey Jack,
Great blog! Looking forward to part 2. You always tell us about all the little hidden details and History that we all love to hear! Thanks! Love the pic of you and Joe Rohde and thanks for a bit more info on him. Big fan. Those interested in seeing a few clips of a very young Joe Rohde should check out Capt. EO! He is shown as part of the creative team during the Pre-show footage. Did not know he was responsible for the Adventurer's Club. Very cool! I Greatly miss the Adventurer's Club and for one wish they would bring it back. I understand Disney's focus is more on Dining and shopping experiences now-a-days but I could easily see how the Adventure's Club could be tweaked into a fabulous interactive Dinner show experience. Sorry to go off topic for a second but Adventurer's is very dear to my heart.
Back on topic, unfortunately I am sorry to say and admit that I was one of those who was not very fond of Animal Kingdom early on. I even refereed to it as "Animal Boredom". I know shame on me. I know. But in my defense that only lasted my first or second visit to the park early on when WDW was new to me and I was still in "Commando mode". Since then I have truly grown to appreciate Animal Kingdom and now know the beauty of the park is taking the time to smell the roses. Kilimanjaro Safaris is one of my all time favorite attractions at WDW and one not to be missed! Thanks again!!


P.S. I find it curious and ironic that in 1989 Animal Kingdom was decided upon and in 1991 Jurassic Park the book was released by Michael Crichton. Knowing that his West World was largely influenced by WDW I have a curious suspicion that the proposed Animal Kingdom was his inspiration for Jurassic part. Just a thought. Art, imitating life, imitating art:)

Rob Dickinson:

Reading your answer above about the Night time version of the Safari gave me a thought. Sounds like this would make for an excellent opportunity for a "Haunted" Safari during the Halloween season!! I am sure there are more than a few Spirits in the local African lore willing to get in the act!


Heather Hynes:

Thanks Jack for such a great blog! My family LOVES the Animal Kingdom park...2nd only to the Magic Kingdom! We love animals and Disney always creates interersting ways to observe them. This past October one of our giraffe's born in Norfolk, Va was acutally transferred to Animal Kingdoma as part as the conservation/breeding progam. When we visited in November, we were hoping to see her... We we did the Giraffes but not sure if it was her from a distance but nonetheless I was happy for her!

Hi Jack -

Wow! I haven't seen Rock Barongi's name in a while! I had the honer and pleasure of having Rick as my friend and "Residence Counselor" at Rutgers in 1977-78, when I was his "Dorm Club" President. Back then, working at the San Diego Zoo was his dream! I haven't seen Rick's name since Animal Kingdom's opening when there was a TV special about the park. I was in another room for a moment and heard Rick's voice on TV and knew it was him right away - I went running to the TV and caught the last bit of his interview. When I Honeymooned @ WDW in Sept 1998, I asked for Rick at Conservation Station and was given a pager number to reach him - Rick, if you're reading this, that was me trying to get hold of you for 2 weeks in Sept '98!
Anyway, it was a nice surprise seeing his name again - it brought back some wonderful memories!

- Jeff



I maybe jumping ahead, but I was wondering, when I was at AK in December there was something being worked on in the Safari area. Do you know what Disney is doing?

Jack's Answer:

I don't have all the details, but it's my understanding that Disney is building a new safari experience where guests will be able to view the animal from various "blinds" scattered around the park. This will be a separate experience from Kilamanjaro Safaris.


Thanks so much for the post! This is my husbands favorite thing to do at DAK, in one day I believe we were on the Safari 6 times. You gave a lot of "backstage" interesting info! Thanks again :).

Kilimanjaro safaris is one of the best safaris in the world, with a wide variety of things to do you have so much to choose from, from night safaris to day safaris, excellent hotels and good food.


I loved your article! :) I did the Disney College program years ago at Kilimanjaro Safaris. I have driven many a safari, it was the best job EVER!

MIke Venere:

I am glad you explained the chains that are stretched between the tight areas. I would venture to guess (just by how it looks) that many thought what I did that these had some electrical purpose. Sort of like a dog fence.


I love learning behind the scenes information. Great blog! Thanks, Jack! Can't wait for more!


Great post Jack. We love the safari. Fun long attraction that's a must when we go to AK.

8 days and counting for us before we'll be there. Trying not to get too excited yet :)

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 2, 2011 5:00 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Waking Sleeping Beauty.

The next post in this blog is Kilimanjaro Safaris at Animal Kingdom - Part Two.

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