Trekking through Africa – in Florida

Story and photos by Christine Loomis

Only a non-descript gate separates the crowded, theatrical “village” of Harambe from the narrow trail dissecting a light-and-shadow forest off limits to most visitors in Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. Outfitted in safari-style vests secured with leg straps and carabiners, our group of 12 trekkers experiences the breadth and depth of Disney’s legendary attention to detail, traipsing through a landscape so well crafted we can almost believe that we have been magically transported 7,000 miles from Orlando, Fla., to the Dark Continent.

Ready for lunch.Behind the gate, the world of tourists, rides, and giant turkey legs slips away, and if we aren’t in the real Africa, we are in a masterful simulation of it, complete with wild animals and a palpable sense of adventure. Opened in January 2011, this is Disney’s Wild Africa Trek.

With Swahili calls of jambo (hello) and twende (let’s go) echoing in the air, we follow our intrepid guides up the trail through the Little Ituri Forest, spurred on by promises that we will have a very different experience with the park’s wild animals than that of the average Disney World guest. True to the promise, in moments we’re standing above a river pool where two massive hippos lie semi-submerged in the sunlit water.

The younger of the two behemoth males is surprising quick to move just below us, positioned perfectly for the food he knows is coming. Sure enough, we’re joined by one of the park’s keepers, who tosses out factoids about hippos along with heads of lettuce that land with enviable precision in the waiting wide-angle jaws. Hippos, it is soon clear, are bottomless pits of appetite for salad greens.  The encounter produces fabulous photo ops, and it’s with some reluctance that we continue up the trail.

The trek isn’t for acrophobics – or anyone else who has a problem sauntering across two 165-foot-long suspension bridges slung 50 feet above the Disney-created Safi River. Sure, we’re tethered to safety cables as we creep across, but the bridges sway and bounce and have been meticulously crafted to appear well worn. There’s netting beneath the spaces where slats appear to have dropped away, but there’s still an edgy little thrill to each crossing.

Fortunately, more photo ops trump the potential fear (bring a long lens if you can). From the first bridge we see another view of hippos -- the females of the herd – and on the second we find ourselves swaying above the sun-baked backs of Nile crocodiles. Lounging in yawning indifference to the humans suspended above them, the crocs crowd the riverbanks and mini-island shores, soaking up the hot Floridian, um, African, sun.

After we step down from the bridge, we humans line up like the crocs, crowding the bank so we can lean out with the support of our ever-present tethers to digitally capture those faux crocodile smiles just a few feet below.

While the first part of the three-hour tour is by foot along forest trails, the second is a safari ride through the “Harambe Wildlife Reserve,” the savanna of Disney’s Imagineering team and a slew of biologists and other experts who together recreated a corner of Africa in Central Florida. It’s the same route as that of the park’s regular Kilimanjaro Safari, but the Wild Africa Trek is far more intimate.

Our vehicle has only 12 guests, and we can pull over in certain places to get better photos and more in-depth information on the animals and habitat.  Trekkers also make a 30-minute stop at a “safari camp,” a raised pavilion in the center of the reserve, where a sophisticated African-inspired snack/lunch is offered and, with luck, so are close-up views of animals that happen by.

On the afternoon of our visit, two white rhinos amble down through the trees, a few ostriches strut by, and for those trekkers with mega lenses, the elephants across the road obligingly pose in all their enormity. Warthogs, cheetahs, lions, giraffes, and other savanna residents also appear in the trees and grasslands along our driving route, some closer to the road than others. Fortunately, binoculars are provided in the safari vehicle and at the camp, so everyone has a chance to look into the eyes of a wild critter.

In addition to the infinitely more personal experience, the Wild Africa Trek is also a compelling educational opportunity. At least one of our guides is a degreed biologist and both are highly knowledgeable about what we are seeing. While they’re more or less required to stick to the storyline that the trek really does take place in deepest Africa, they will answer occasional questions about the animals, how they got here, how the Disney conservation program works, and other behind-the-scenes questions related to Animal Kingdom, the largest of all of Disney’s parks at 500 acres.

The Wild Africa Trek is pricey to be sure, but it delivers an experience that exceeds the typical fun-and-fast-food theme park experience of most guests, and raises the bar for what such parks can offer. I posted photos of my trek on Facebook, and more than one friend believed I was off in wild Africa on safari.  No, it doesn’t replace a trip to authentic Africa, but for a couple or family, it’s a nice substitute until you can do the real thing.

And there’s an added benefit: A portion of the trek cost goes to the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. At the end of the trek, you can choose to have your portion go to either a specific endangered animal or the general fund, a nice touch that lends a greater sense of purpose to what is ultimately a fine way to spend a few hours in Orlando.

 

DETAILS

What: Wild Africa Trek, Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Who:Guests must be at least 48 inches tall, age eight or older, and weigh 45-310 pounds.

When:The trek goes out multiple times each day, with a maximum of 12 participants.

Cost:$189.99 per person regardless of age; tour is not included in Animal Kingdom admission.

Animal Kingdom LodgeWhere to stay: Add to the safari ambiance by bunking at the exotic Disney Animal Kingdom Villas, spacious timeshare suites with evocative African-themed decor and African animals steps away from guest room balconies.

Book:  Call 407-WDW-TOUR (407-838-8687) 90 days out; best to book prior to arriving in Orlando, but if there’s room, last-minute bookings can be made.

Need to know:First two hours are away from any rest room facilities; closed-toe shoes required; no purses or backpacks allowed, but locked storage is provided.

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