Caring For Giants: Close Encounters with the Elephants at Disney's Animal Kingdomby Alan S. Dalinka, contributing writer
If you have ever taken a ride aboard one of the Kilimanjaro Safaris trucks through the African savanna and into the red clay pits at Disney's Animal Kingdom, you have probably seen at least a glimpse of the majestic herd of giants that inhabit the park. The family group of African elephants, lead by their matriarch Rafiki, roams the driver's side in nearly-constant search of (Disney-supplied) food. Two bull elephants take turns roaming a separate enclosure on the opposite side of the truck pretty much out of sight of the family group—you may have spotted one of these males beyond the "Road Closed" sign just after Monkey Point when traveling from the savanna.
From a Kilimanjaro Safaris truck, you can spot the elephant observation area beyond a fence on the other side of the elephant habitat. (Look for the fence toward the left side in this photo.) Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.
Now you can get a closer and more prolonged look at the African elephant herd on the Caring For Giants backstage tour, which is offered several times each day. The approximately hour-long experience takes you on a short ride backstage starting near the entrance to Kilimanjaro Safaris to an elevated viewing location on the opposite side of the elephant habitat from the road traveled by the Safari trucks. While the viewing location has been in place for animal specialists and researchers since before the park's opening, it has only recently been opened to park guests visiting on the Caring For Giants tours.
As you walk from Discovery Island just beyond Tusker House and the elephant sign, but before you reach the entrance to Kilimanjaro Safaris, you see the Curiosity Animal Tours Booking Center kiosk. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.
Checking in and Heading Backstage
The Caring For Giants tour begins at the Curiosity Animal Tours Booking Centre kiosk at least fifteen minutes before your scheduled departure time. Early arrival is required to provide you with ample time to review and complete the extensive legal release and indemnity agreement. In particular, the warnings in this agreement are more serious than possibly any other you have encountered in visiting a Disney Park—including potential exposure to bacteria, animal and insect bites, fall hazards, and worse. If you are bringing along minors, parents or guardians are required to execute releases on behalf of the minors in their charge as well.
Beyond the risks and legal niceties, hopefully your visit includes cast members at check-in as eager to offer insights into how to best enjoy a visit to Disney's Animal Kingdom as my tour did. Even as a frequent visitor (as readers of our Weekly Walt Disney World Resort Updates know I am), I learned new ways to enjoy the park and new details about the park just from a brief chat. Among other things, I learned details about some of the other animal encounter tours offered at the park that I have not yet experienced, like the Wild Africa Trek.
Cast Members like Kendal at the Curiosity Animal Tours Booking Centre may provide you with a wealth of information about how to more fully enjoy your visit to Disney's Animal Kingdom. Kendal also was our driver during the backstage van ride and provided a wealth of information about the park, including telling the history of some items no longer on public display inside the park along the way. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.
Adults are required to read and sign an extensive release and indemnity agreement in order to participate in the Caring For Giants tour. Parents or guardians must sign another form on behalf of minors (children under 18) in their charge. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.
As one of the many examples of animal conservation on the tour, guest name tags are on handcrafted paper made from 85% elephant poop fibers. The plastic tag holder and the lanyard are returned to the kiosk at the end of the tour to be used again. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.
At departure time, your tour group is escorted backstage next to the entrance to Kilimanjaro Safaris. Of course, photos and video is not permitted while backstage. We can, however, note that from the air conditioned van you get the opportunity to see some of the backstage animal quarters and care facilities, some park artifacts that have been "retired" from public view, and some of the equipment used to make some of the "Disney Magic" you see on nighttime safaris, for example. Your brief van ride takes the perimeter road outside the west side of the savanna that you may already have seen if you had the opportunity to ride the Express Transportation option buses into or out of Disney's Animal Kingdom when that bus service was available earlier this year, but on the tour someone explains to you what you were seeing. As you may also glimpse on the Wildlife Express Train to Rafiki's Planet Watch, the backstage animal facilities are modern zoo facilities (as fitting the park's accreditation by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums) which are not unlike those depicted in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park.
The Elephant Viewing Experience
After the short backstage van ride, you enter the elephant observation area north of the elephant family habitat that you see when you ride the Kilimanjaro Safaris trucks through the red clay pits. This area was constructed for elephant observation when the habitat was built. Only recently has it become possible for guests to visit by taking the Caring for Giants tour.
In the observation area, tour guests are greeted by an animal specialist and an African cultural representative. The animal specialist provides detailed information about the African elephants that live at Disney's Animal Kingdom, how they serve as ambassadors for their species in the wild, and how they are cared for at the park. We learned, for example, that as a matriarchal hierarchy, the park's "family group" herd includes only adult female elephants and very young males. The two mature bull elephants at the park live in separate enclosures and take turns roaming a separate area on the savanna (as mentioned above, the area you can see beyond the "Road Closed" sign just past Monkey Point).
The African Cultural representative talks about how the elephants and human inhabitants interact in Africa and how conservation efforts increasingly seek new ways of avoiding conflicts between them. Just as is often mentioned on rides on Kilimanjaro Safaris, our cultural representative, Denise, discussed how farmers use bees—which elephants are afraid of—to keep elephants from destroying crops; the farmers then have the added benefit of selling honey the bees produce in hives for supplemental income, in part, to make up for the conservation requirement that they refrain from expanding farms into areas the elephants inhabit.
On the Caring for Giants tour, you get to stay in the same area and observe the elephants roam for a substantial period of time. (On my tour, we were in the observation area for more than one half hour.) Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.
Disney Animal Specialist Jake shares some information about the herd and African Elephants in general. Video by Alan S. Dalinka.
This elephant sculpture is an example of "SNARE Art" on display in the elephant observation area. As Cultural Representative Denise explained, removing snares from the bush helps protect the animals, and proceeds from the sale of art pieces such as this are used to help offset impacts on African populations effected by animal conservation efforts. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.
The inscription on the sign reads: "Authentic SNARE Art. This handmade art piece has been produced from 100% recycled snare wire removed from the African bush. It is a product of the KaiNav Conservation Foundation's SNARE Art Program, which contributes to both the conservation of African wildlife and the development of underprivileged artists." Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.
As of this publication, the tour price is $30/person (applicable to all tour-permitted ages and, of course, park admission is not included but is required). Various discounts are available, so be sure to ask. For example, as a long-time Disney Vacation Member, my cost was $25.50/person. Payment is required in advance, and failure to show up on time or cancel your tour at least two days in advance will result in forfeiture of the full price paid. Disney donates a portion of the proceeds of the tour to the Disney Conservation Fund which means, in a small way, by taking the Caring For Giants tour, you are, in fact, caring for giants out in the wild too.
Reservations for the tour can be made at the Curiosity Animal Tours Booking Centre kiosk just across from the entrance to Kilimanjaro Safaris. Reservations can also be made by calling (407) WDW-PLAY; DVC Members need to call (or ask to be connected to) Member Services at (800) 800-9800 to get the discounted rate when making reservations by phone. All guests must be at least four years old, and while wheelchairs are permitted (though arrangements need to be made for being transported backstage), ECVs are not. As you can guess from the waiver discussed above, there are also many other important details (including allergy alerts) relevant to this closer-up animal viewing experience. You can read more on this page of DisneyWorld.com and be sure to ask Disney Cast Members to address questions in advance of your experience.
The Caring For Giants tour is truly a unique experience. It furthers Disney's Animal Kingdom's overall conservation message in a meaningful way that provides insight into these beautiful animals, and furthers thoughtful discussion of how various animal conservation efforts are being conducted by non-governmental organizations in Africa in conjunction with economic activities that benefit the local populations impacted by conservation activities. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and hope to do it again. While it is not an experience for those folks with conditions mentioned by the warnings, those who are risk-averse or just impatient, or those who just want to eat, shop, see characters and/or shows, or just go on rides, it is a great example of what is often called the "Disney Difference" when considering your vacation, leisure, and/or entertainment options.