Let’s start with a little history. When the Animal Kingdom opened (April 22, 1998 – Earth Day), there was no Rafiki’s Planet Watch. Well, there was, but it was called Conservation Station back then and was an outcropping of Africa. Conservation Station failed to spark the guest’s imagination so sometime in 2001, this area became its own “land” and was renamed Rafiki’s Planet Watch. In reality, not much changed except for the addition of a number of sights to the boring walk from the Conservation Station train to the actual facility. With these new exhibits came a new designation for this walkway, Habitat Habit. In addition, Rafiki, the all knowing mandrill from the Lion King movie, was added to the trail.
These changes helped increase interest, but this area is still under appreciated. I’m going to guess that many of you have experienced Conservation Station/Rafiki’s Planet Watch at one time or another. I’ll also venture to guess that you came away from the experience saying to yourself, “This was nice, but now let’s go do something exciting.” If I’m correct, I’m hoping that my blog will convince you to give this “forgotten” land another chance. If you’ll just slow down and appreciate that this is not Expedition: Everest, there are many rewards to be found here.
Rafiki’s Planet Watch is placed strategically near the exit of Kilimanjaro Safaris and Pangani Forest Exploration Trail. The Imagineers’ expectation was that you would be so inspired after viewing the animals in the “wild,” that you’d want to see how they were cared for backstage and would hop aboard the Wildlife Express to Conservation Station.
The Harambe Train Station is reminiscent of the European colonial-style structures built in many parts of Africa during the late 19th to early 20th century. Once again, details abound if you take the time to look for them.
When you enter the structure, you’ll see a lot of unused queue. It’s obvious the Imagineers thought this attraction was going to be more popular than it is. To the far right side of the building are the ticket windows. Posted between them is a sign of interest.
Since the picture’s size precludes you reading it, I’ll post its contents here.
The Harambe Town Council and Eastern Star Railways are very regretful to announce the cessation of continuous railway service to:
And points beyond.
Service to the above area has been interrupted due to:
AN EROSION OF THE TRACKS
Future service to the affected regions will be announced and implemented by the Harambe Town Council and Railway if and when it is deemed to be of public service and of a safely sufficient to appropriate standards.
ALL MEASURES ARE TAKEN TO REMEDY THE CURRENT SITUATION
HARAMBE TOWN COUNCIL
This sign, and several others in the queue, were intended to be read while waiting in line. It’s a shame that these details are passed over as we race to board the train.
Overhead are signs that list the north and southbound stops along the Eastern Star Railway.
To each side of the station platform are enclosures containing luggage. These are holding areas used for the loading and unloading of baggage. Also notice the top of the train. This is where possessions are stowed during a trip. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the baggage is old and the belongings eclectic. This train caters to a developing area and its passengers are of meager means. All of their worldly goods may be traveling with them. Everything from bicycles, chairs, trunks, crates and safari equipment might be found up here.
The train’s engine is modeled after English steam-powered locomotives that traversed Africa in the early 20th century. Close inspection will find that these locomotives have seen better days and have been patched together over the years.
The seating on the coaches is side-facing. This allows everyone to have a good view during the five and a half minute ride to Conservation Station. The train can carry 250 passengers. Along the way, the conductor gives a brief overview of what awaits you at Conservation Station and points out some of the sights.
Harambe Station is located at the edge of civilization. As soon as the train pulls out, you are surrounded by lush vegetation as you skirt the east side of Kilimanjaro Safaris.
As your journey continues, the backstage homes of many of the animals come into view. Each night, all of the creatures of the Kilimanjaro Safari are brought to these (and other) enclosures for feeding and care. It’s not uncommon to see animals as you pass by this area as they are given occasional “days off” to rest up from their hectic safari duties.
Eventually, the train pulls into Conservation Station where you disembark. There are a few points of interest here, but the real sights lay ahead down the lush trail.
A short distance down the path we encounter Rafiki, pointing the way to Habitat Habit. This is a good photo op for the kids.
In the early years, there was nothing along this considerable walk to Conservation Station except a thriving jungle. As pleasant as this was, most people found it boring. So when Rafiki’s Planet Watch came into existence, this trail was populated with a number of exhibits that promote the environment.
At the first stop along the path we encounter the Cotton Top Tamarin monkey. Here we learn that researchers at the Animal Kingdom are studying these creatures and their habitat. It’s hoped that the knowledge gained here can someday help save these endangered animals and their dwindling forest.
The next encounter along the trail is definitely for the little ones. A simulated backyard has been created and children are taught that the creatures that live near our homes, even the icky ones, are beneficial to our environment.
Any child who wishes to participate is loaned a grease pen and board. On the leaf shaped pallet are pictures of all the creatures “hidden” within the backyard. As the children discover a bug or animal, they check it off on their leaf. When they find them all (or most), they return to a cast member who congratulates them on a job well done.
The cast member then presents them with a “Kids’ Discovery Club Membership Card.
On the reverse side, the six lands of the Animal Kingdom are listed. The cast member then helps the child stamp the Rafiki’s Planet Watch space, indicating that they have completed this challenge. Check your guide map for a “K”, indicating the other “Kid Discovery Club” locations around the park
In the last section of Habitat Habit you’ll find a number of signs and simple displays. These encourage us to create “animal friendly” environments in our own backyard.
Next stop, Conservation Station. This building’s entrance is marked by a large collage of animals. But while taking in this impressive work of art, don’t forget to look at the rockwork in the pavement.
Once inside, the collage continues. Instead of just walking through this area, take a moment to appreciate this room. It is amazing.
For the most part, the public area of Conservation Station is contained in one large room with different areas dedicated to various topics. There are several “cut outs” of animals scattered around this room. On the back side you’ll find “Fact… And Fable.” The information presented here replaces myths with truths about the creature.
To the left of the entrance we find “Song of the Rainforest.” Step inside one of these booths for a 3-D sound adventure. Grandmother Willow from Pocahontas narrates this short audio tour. The sound effects are so realistic you’ll want to swat the mosquito as it flies in your ear and your skin will crawl when the bird-of-prey snatches its next meal just inches from your head. Also heard is the destructive sound of a chainsaw as it cuts into a tree. The message here is strong – we must save our rainforests.
To the right of the entrance is a small, stand-up theater. Currently, a short movie about Siberian tigers is shown here.
For me, the highlight of Conservation Station can be found in the research and care facilities located along the outer wall. A wealth of information is available here for the taking.
The first stop is the Wildlife Tracking Center. One of the many duties performed in this lab is the testing of feces. Samples are continually being gathered from all of the animals throughout the park. Just like with humans, the information garnered from these tests provides invaluable information as to the health of the animal. For instance, by checking the hormone levels in the feces, the technicians can determine if certain animals are pregnant.
And I’m sure the kids will love the poop exhibit. On a table in this room are various stuffed animals. Behind each animal is a sample of its poop.
And if this hasn’t satisfied your excrement curiosity, you can actually handle some elephant poop at the next exhibit. Don’t worry, it’s been incased in some sort of resin so it neither feels yucky or smells. Kids love this.
Also in this area are two knowledgeable cast members. They love nothing better than to answer all of your questions. Here is Suzanne showing me how the researchers at the Animal Kingdom are studying elephant vocalizations. While playing a recording, she showed me a printout of the sounds that they make.
Perhaps the biggest draw at Conservation Station is the Veterinarian Treatment room. This is an actual operating room where animals are examined and operated on when necessary. Of course, some of the larger animals are too big to be cared for here, but the general rule is this. If the animal weighs less than 500 pounds and can fit through the door, it is treated here.
All of the animals are given yearly health check-ups. These are usually scheduled between 10am and 11:30am. The afternoon hours are left open so that the vets can make their rounds out in the field. On the day I visited, an Imperial pigeon from the Maharajah Jungle Trek was being given its yearly exam. If you look closely you can see the anesthesia face mask covering the bird’s beak.
I was told that three days earlier a tiger received a root canal in this room. You never know what to expect from day to day. The Animal Kingdom also has its own version of a paramedic vehicle so that the vets can attend to emergencies out in the field.
Continuing along this outer wall we see a number of animal enclosures. These include reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates. I know that these slithery creatures might give some of you the heebie-jeebies, but rest assured, they’re all safely contained behind glass.
At the final station, we learn about the animal’s diet. Actual samples are on display with descriptions of what goes into their daily meals. This is a working facility and cast members can frequently be seen here preparing the food for a given animal group.
In the center of Conservation Station, a cast member can often be found with an animal in hand. These animal encounters are scheduled every hour on the hour and will last for about thirty minutes. Here we see Heidi with a Scarlet Snake. After providing us with some background information, she takes questions from the small group gathered around her. She then encourages us to touch the snake.
Another cast member is on hand with a disinfectant hand gel. If you touch one of these creatures, it is mandatory that you clean your hands afterwards.
Each hour brings a new animal and more learning opportunities. Here we see a tarantula and an owl. Sorry, I didn’t find out the species of either.
Conservation Station also offers good opportunities to meet some Disney characters without huge crowds. Pocahontas, Jiminy Cricket, and Rafiki all make appearances here.
Before heading outdoors to Affection Section, I needed to use the restroom. When I approached the urinal, I burst out laughing as I read the sign at eye level.
By the way, I know the answers to the questions because I DID wash my hands. If you want to know for yourself, you’ll have to make a visit to Rafiki’s Planet Watch and either visit the men’s room or have a male member of your party do so.
Through the doors at the far end of Conservation Station we find Affection Section. This is a petting farm intended for children.
Just inside the enclosure is a basket full of brushes. Feel free to pick one up and give a goat a good combing.
Besides goats, sheep, a donkey, llama, cow, and a pot-bellied pig are on hand.
When you’re finished with the animals, a sink is available near the exit for a vigorous hand washing.
Next to the petting farm is a small stage. Several times a day, a thirty minute show is presented here. Usually, two animals not normally seen in other parts of the Animal Kingdom are displayed and discussed. But before the show started, I found Nikki sitting on stage with an opossum. It seems that this little fellow was attacked by a dog and lost its front left leg. After being treated by a vet, it was moved to an animal shelter and eventually adopted by Disney. Nikki was feeding this little cutie, trying to get him used to being on stage, as he’ll eventually be one of the animals to star is this casual presentation.
In the show I saw, one of the sheep from Affection Section was brought onstage. The cast member discussed how this animal, and others, are trained – not to perform, but to assist the vets when it comes time for their check-ups. By using certain commands, an animal can be trained to step onto a scale or present itself for an injection. A child from the audience was selected to help in the demonstration.
The second animal displayed was a Ball Constrictor. With this animal, the cast member explained the importance of snakes in general and the characteristics of this animal in particular. At the end of the show, children and adults were given the opportunity to touch the animals and ask more questions.
Each day’s show offers two different animals. In addition, the animals presented are constantly changing as new creatures are added to the lineup – like the opossum.
Next to Affection Section is the “Out of the Wild” shop. The usual Animal Kingdom souvenirs are sold here. However, if you’re looking for something to eat, you’re pretty much out of luck. With the exception of some very light snacks and bottled water, there is nothing here to satisfy those hunger pangs.
The train ride back to Harambe Station skirts the edge of Asia. Along the way, a small, authentic village can be seen.
The goal of Rafiki’s Planet Watch is to educate people about the importance of our environment and about the animals who inhabit our planet. This is one of a handful of spots in the Animal Kingdom where you can engage knowledgeable cast members in conversations about the creatures that live here.
I spent two and a half hours at Rafiki’s Planet Watch and I wasn’t bored. But to be honest, I spent a lot of this time taking pictures and asking questions so I could blog about this area. It would not take most of you anywhere near this long to experience the sights and sounds found here. But Rafiki’s Planet Watch deserves more than just a cursory glance. This is not a passive place. Like so many things in life, the more effort you put into this area, the more you’ll get out of it.