My Disney Top 5 - Things to Love About Kilimanjaro Safarisby Chris Barry, contributing writer
Welcome back to another Disney Top 5. As always, I hope you are all healthy and safe.
Spring is just about here in New York. While I'm still itching to get a few ski runs in, and I probably will, most people around here are breaking out the shorts and getting outside. It's supposed to hit 70 this week and I imagine I'll be one of those people in shorts and outside. This might be the first "normal" spring in 2 years and I'm pretty confident that everyone is looking forward to it in a huge, huge way. It wasn't a real brutal winter. We've certainly had much worse, but it's good to feel the warmth returning.
And since we're speaking of warmth, let's talk about Florida! For quite some time now, I've been taking a deep dive into each and every Walt Disney World attraction. For the last month or so, we've been at Disney's Animal Kingdom, one of my favorite places to spend a day on Disney property. So far, we've covered Discovery Island, Dinoland and Asia. It's time to keep moving counterclockwise around the park and head into Africa and its signature attraction Kilimanjaro Safaris. Last time, I counted down the things I loved most about the Maharajah Jungle Trek over in Asia. One of the things I focused on the most was the notion that old Uncle Walt had when he was designing the Jungle Cruise attraction at Disneyland back in the 1950s. Walt was fascinated with animals and loved telling their stories. He wanted his guests to see and experience the beauty and wonder of the world's animals up close and in person in his attractions. Legend has it that he wanted the Jungle Cruise animals to be real and not the classic animatronics that we all know and love today. That never came to fruition, for all sorts of practical reasons.
Circle wipe to the late 1990s: Walt is, of course, long gone, but his dream of showcasing live animals in an attraction is alive and well in the super creative mind of Imagineer Joe Rohde. While zoo-like exhibits and walk through attractions featuring tigers and gorillas are planned for Walt Disney World's fourth gate, Animal Kingdom, the super headliner being developed for the park is scheduled to be a massive drive through safari featuring a plethora of exotic African wildlife. Guests will board open sided safari-like buses and be driven by actual drivers, as opposed to rides like the aforementioned Jungle Cruise and the Liberty Square Riverboat, which run on hidden underwater tracks. (I'm sure you've noticed your Jungle Cruise skipper spinning and spinning that steering wheel and your boat not responding, right?) And it's going to be huge. How huge? The entire Magic Kingdom itself could literally fit inside this soon to be tremendous attraction.
Most importantly, the Imagineers and their hired animal experts were intent on solving the big problem that Walt ran into when he wanted live animals in the Jungle Cruise. Animals don't always do what you want them to do. They tend to hide in natural habitats and sleep a lot. So, how did the Imagineers create this remarkable attraction and what is there to truly love about it? Let's get to the countdown with my Top 5 things to love about Kilimanjaro Safaris.
5 - Ride Vehicles
I'm a big ride vehicle guy. I love finding out what has gone into the Imagineers' design for the dozens of different ride vehicles that you climb into and onto during your days and nights in the Walt Disney World parks. One of my true favorites is the Kilimanjaro Safaris ride vehicle. First things first, and this is a rarity at Disney, these are actually real functioning trucks, converted GMC trucks to be specific. As I mentioned above, these trucks are actually driven. They're not on any kind of track.
The driver is responsible for getting you through the safari from start to finish and that ride, especially if you're in the last row, can be pretty hairy. The bumps in the road aren't simulated like in Dinosaur. You actually hit bumps that were intentionally put there. As always, the Imagineers tricked out the vehicles with all sorts of props and details and professionally weathered them so they would look like well-used safari vehicles on day one. I think if I could drive a Disney ride vehicle around town, it would be a Kilimanjaro Safari truck, as is. Drive it right off the grounds and turn it towards New York!
4 - Air Conditioned Rocks
How do you get a lion to come out into the hot Florida sun and be on display when they typically sleep 16-20 hours a day? Why, you air-condition the rocks and make them want to come out there and sit on display for you, that's how. To me, that's just the perfect summary of what has sort of become a Disney credo, "If you dream it, you can do it." (Just to clarify, this quote has long been attributed to Walt Disney, but he, in fact, did not say it. But that's a whole other discussion.) Imagine that meeting if you will; "The lions won't come out during the heat of the day and the guests are expecting to see them. What do we do?" I don't know for a fact, but I'd like to think that the next comment from some gutsy Imagineer was something to the extent of, "Why don't we get them some air conditioning?" Next thing you know, there are air-conditioned rocks on the savannah.
It's pure genius when you think about it. People always say to me, "How come you always go to Disney in August, isn't it swelteringly hot?" My answer has always been, "Nobody does AC like Disney." I guess that's truer than I thought.
3 - Browse
Following up on number 4 is something the animal trainers and Imagineers refer to as "browse." Indulge me in a non-Disney reference for a moment please. In the original Jurassic Park film, Dr. Ian Malcolm is seated in the ride vehicle in front of an empty Tyrannosaur paddock when he stares into the vehicle's security camera and says, "Now, eventually, you do plan to have dinosaurs on your dinosaur tour right?" Sarcastic as he might have been, when Walt Disney was contemplating live animals on the Jungle Cruise, he feared that exact moment. What happens when the animals do what they want to do and sleep under a bush out of sight all day? That conundrum caused Walt to opt for his famous animatronics instead. One of the solutions that make Kilimanjaro Safaris so successful is the use of the aforementioned browse.
What's the reason that the animals are in plain sight most of the day? How about a faux rock full of plants that they like to eat? Or a faux log full of plants to eat? How about a clump of browse high in a tree for the giraffes to stretch up and eat? The guests don't know they're there because the Imagineers are second to none when it comes to replicating nature. The animals stay out in the open, "on stage," more often and everyone is happy.
2- The Giraffes
This is going to sound like an oversimplification to some, but if I put a lion, rhino, cheetah and a dog all in front of you, you would be able to see certain similarities in their overall form. They all have four legs, a tail, a head and they're all essentially a very similar shape. If you have kids, go look at their stuffed animals and you'll see what I mean. If you took the lions' mane off and put a dog's head on it, it's not too far of a stretch is it? They're all on all fours, head in front, tail in back. Sure they have different skin or colorings but, all things considered, they are pretty comparable. Then take a look at a giraffe. Simply stated, there's just nothing else like it.
The tallest mammals in the world are completely unique and I've always been kind of fascinated with them. They have a slow, deliberate, almost regal gait. I could watch them all day. One of my favorite moments on Kilimanjaro Safaris is when you make that turn into the savannah and you start to spy some giraffes nearby. It would be a pretty fair statement that I've seen more giraffes up close on my many safaris at Animal Kingdom than any other animal. They always seem to be hanging around right near the safari vehicles munching in the pockets of trees alongside the road.
1 - It's the Most Ambitious Disney Attraction Ever
Now, that might just be my opinion, but I'm pretty sure that I can validate it. You have to remember when you are driving through Kilimanjaro Safaris, that you are indeed driving through a massive Disney attraction. Every single plant, shrub, road, puddle, bridge, gate and rock formation was put where it was by design. The entire safari subscribes to the age old perfected art of elaborate Disney storytelling. Turns in the road were constructed to be reveals, a page taken from the history of the Walt Disney stable of filmmakers that ended up becoming Imagineers.
The landscape along the route of the Kilimanjaro Safari makes you almost believe you've left central Florida and entered the savanna in southern Africa. With the grasslands, the Baobab tree, which isn't real, and the acacia trees, which are actually oaks trimmed to look like acacias, the animals probably feel at home too. Photo by Donald Fink.
It's a totally created environment the size of the entire Magic Kingdom and it's just one attraction. Think about that for a moment. Kilimanjaro Safaris is the size of most amusement parks, if not larger than most. Pile on top of that the fact that it's populated with over 30 different species of live animals that are all part of the show and you can begin to see why this is such a crowning achievement in Disney attraction design. Nobody is better than Disney at creating worlds and environments in their attractions and one of the most impressive things they've ever done has to be Kilimanjaro Safaris.
A Kilimanjaro Safaris cast member gave me one of my all time favorite Walt Disney World tips. We were back in Africa during one of our summer trips when the ubiquitous afternoon rainstorm was brewing. People began to scatter and head to the front of the park to seek shelter and, more than likely, leave the park for the day. Now, we never do that anyway. We typically dig into my backpack for the Mickey ponchos and enjoy a much less crowded park. As we were standing near the entrance of Kilimanjaro Safaris putting on our ponchos, the cast member said that the rain was the very best time to head into the safari. In the heat of the summer, the rain means cooling off time for the animals and most, if not all, of them come out of any hiding spots to enjoy a nice shower. She was absolutely correct, as we were in total awe at the sheer number of animals out in the open cooling off while we were in the relative dry safety of our safari truck. A priceless tip that pays off every time.
As you can probably tell, I'm a pretty big fan of Kilimanjaro Safaris. I think it totally encapsulates one of Walt Disney's biggest dreams; exposing his guests to the true wonders of nature, live in person. It's a must see for me and my family on each and every Disney trip. Our favorite time to go is first thing in the morning when the animals are let out onto the grounds of the attraction from their nighttime quarters. They seem to be the most active at that point of the day, and enjoying their natural habitats, so save Everest and Flight of Passage for later if you can. Head back to Africa and visit with the lions, hippos, rhinos and giraffes and experience the true magic of Animal Kingdom on Kilimanjaro Safaris.
That's all for this time. As always, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below. Share your thoughts on Kilimanjaro Safaris. Stay safe and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.