Tag Archives: Disney’s Animal Kingdom

A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part V

mickey float

Disney World has made the news a few times over the last few weeks, and not really in a good way.  First up was the brief notoriety afforded to Escape From Tomorrow, an unlicensed movie shot guerrilla-style surreptitiously throughout the Disney parks, with a storyline suggesting malevolence lurking behind the facade (the movie’s regrettable tag line:  “Bad things happen everywhere”).  Then there was this item from the New York Post revealing that one-percenters have been gleefully paying intellectually or physically challenged people to escort their families through the parks so they can skip lines.  It’s nearing two months since I last left the place that for me remains a reservoir of goodwill and good feeling in a world growing increasingly greedy and misanthropic.  And while I am ever aware of the essential contradiction at the heart of Disney World’s existence – a theme park celebrating the innocence of childhood that is lorded over by a corporation – I push back hard against the tide of cynicism lapping at its shores.  Reviews of Escape From Tomorrow are tainted by the writer’s opinion of the place; those who dream of kicking Mickey in “his pious balls,” as one sort put it, find their smugness vindicated by the movie’s skewering of the Disney tropes, where others who thrive on their positive memories struggle with the creep of darkness along the edges of the frame.  (For the record, I haven’t seen the movie.  With Escape From Tomorrow‘s official release looming in a few days, Disney has apparently chosen to simply ignore it, sidestepping the Streisand Effect.  The chatter and the publicity have likewise diminished, so good call there, Mouse House.)

Disney's Boardwalk at sunset.
Disney’s Boardwalk at sunset.

We remarked upon returning from our voyage how much we in point of fact didn’t get to see; a great deal of Animal Kingdom, including the delightful Festival of the Lion King show and the serene Flights of Wonder bird exhibit, was left unexplored as it was the only park we weren’t able to repeat visit during our eight days.  A healthy portion of Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom was either down for refurbishment, still under construction or hidden behind impenetrable wait times.  I’ve long held the dream of dining at least once in each of the eleven different full service restaurants throughout Epcot’s World Showcase; a glimpse of the seating area in Mexico would be all we’d get on this occasion.  Speaking of food, one can’t conduct a proper review of Disney World without mentioning the dining fare – while one might cringe at the sight of folks strolling through the parks gnawing maniacally on oversized turkey legs that clearly aren’t from any turkey that wouldn’t fail an Olympic drug test, Disney does in fact boast plenty of culinary experiences that manage to enchant both taste bud and heart.  Our selections ran the gamut, from the ripped-from-Leave-It-To-Beaver meatloaf and pot pies of the Prime Time Diner in Hollywood Studios (where the waitresses yell at you if you put your elbows on the table or – horrors – use your walkie talkie – i.e. cell phone), to the finger-lickin’, artery-bustin’ ribs, cornbread and fried chicken of Mickey’s Backyard Barbeque (where the characters join you for an after-supper country dance party to burn all that stuff off), to even a messy yet tasty pizza delivered to our hotel room.

May I join you for dinner?
May I join you for dinner?

Of the more upscale options, we have two favorites in particular.  First is Sanaa, the African restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge’s Kidani Village.  The food at Sanaa is exotic and flavorful, replete with a wide array of tongue-tickling spices and compelling textures, but what truly sells it is the incomparable view.  Animal Kingdom Lodge wraps around an open area that is accessible to the animals of the Harambe Wildlife Reserve, so it’s typical to have giraffes and zebras wander by the windows of Sanaa as you’re sitting there enjoying your appetizer.  The first time we went, my wife uploaded a photo of the view to her Facebook page and one of her friends thought we were in Africa.  After dinner you can wander out to the central firepit and use night vision goggles to see if you can spot a wildebeest sneaking in for a bedtime snack.  There’s a guide on hand to assist with the goggles and answer questions (and presumably ensure that no one jumps the fence), and in one of the most serendipitous examples of small world I’ve ever encountered, I and the Namibian gentleman on duty that evening turned out to have mutual friends – these folks.

kouzzina

Our other favorite is Cat Cora’s Kouzzina, on Disney’s BoardWalk.  This Greek-themed restaurant, nestled comfortably amidst the old-timey seaside architecture and only minutes by foot from Epcot’s rear World Showcase entrance, is not somewhere I’d recommend if you’re looking to count your calories, not when the signature appetizer is the Saganaki, or flamed and decadently rich Greek cheese.  Another standout is the Pastitsio, a Greek take on lasagna with cinnamon-infused meat sauce and bechamel, which no one in our family has ever been able to finish in one sitting.  I opted for the braised short ribs this time, but even they come with potatoes mashed with smoked feta so alas, no room for dessert.

ohana
Flame On at Ohana.

One surprise last-minute addition was Ohana, the immensely popular Hawaiian family service restaurant at Disney’s Polynesian Resort.  We’ve wanted to try it for years but have repeatedly been thwarted by its tendency to book up months in advance.  It was a fellow countryman, one of the cast members at Epcot’s Canada pavilion, who alerted us to a new app that tracked up-to-the-minute dining availability.  Spotting a convenient cancellation, we leaped at it.  The equivalent of an indoor luau, Ohana is probably the friendliest restaurant we sampled this time, with staff calling you “cousin” and a ukulele-strumming entertainer leading the junior diners in hula lessons, Hawaiian karaoke and coconut races between courses, while you wait to be served beef, pork and chicken that’s been marinating for three days straight.  I can’t say it ranked quite as highly as Kouzzina or Sanaa with me, but I’m still glad random fortune allowed us to fit it in.  One more item scratched off the Disney Bucket List, as it were, a document that seems to get longer with each trip rather than shorter, and will probably never be satisfied.  There’s just too much, and Disney World is too far from home, and finances aren’t infinite.

It’s doubly ironic, because as I draw to the close of this series, I find myself reflecting on all the things I didn’t find space to include:  the Wishes fireworks show over Cinderella Castle, the five-floor DisneyQuest arcade and the rest of Downtown Disney, the quirks and quibbles about FastPasses, character encounters and LeFou’s brew.  But there’s an incident that occurred a few weeks after we got back that I think helps to put things into context and provide a sense of unity and completion to this quintet of ramblings.

My wife was in line to renew her driver’s license.  She was wearing the black Minnie hoodie she’d acquired on our trip, which sports ears and a bow on the head.  It’s really cute.  Thinking she couldn’t hear them, the couple behind her in line openly sneered at her, and the dude boasted to his charmless companion that he was proud that she would never wear something like that.  Apart from wishing I’d been there to deck this smarmy douchebag, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him and his undoubtedly equally hipster-esque friends.  They do themselves no favors by pretending they’re above embracing Disney.  Sure, you can climb onto a soapbox and lecture the world about capitalism-run-amok under a layer of artificial pixie dust, but isn’t that the obvious argument?  Doesn’t it require more sophistication and a greater capacity to seek truth to look beyond these tedious trappings and find something of value that you can carry with you?  I am reminded so much of the late George Harrison, who while dedicated to the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment and musical achievement could still laugh at Monty Python’s jokes about cannibalism.  And I would not even suggest that Disney is somehow lowbrow, or lowest common denominator.  Yes, sometimes their attempts are clumsy, some of the movies aren’t great, we all wait with bated breath to see what they do with Star Wars and they’ve been accused of complacency as Universal Studios Florida nips at their aging heels.  But there is so much that should be celebrated rather than scorned.

Like the character in the U2 song “The Wanderer,” sung by Johnny Cash, I went this time in search of experience that would challenge me as a writer and enrich me as a person.  In each park, I discovered a fundamental lesson.  Belief.  Being.  Connection.  Communication.  Four simple concepts that should be obvious but often get buried under layers of irrelevant complication, and form the very heart of the art of placing one word after another.  And isn’t it wonderful that these lessons didn’t have to be learned at the bottom of a whiskey bottle or in the depths of personal crisis.  They were plain to see and framed with Mickey ear ice cream – the literal spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.  I departed after eight days, feeling my sense of storytelling renewed and a certitude about continuing to share my words with the world.  The writer journeying through Disney World is a wandering bard stopping for a drink at a wellspring from which imagination flows, and eventually he moves on, his thirst quenched, carrying that inspiration onward to wonderful parts unknown.  With a stuffed Winnie the Pooh under his arm.

So long, Disney World.  And see ya real soon.

farewell

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A Writer’s Journey Through Disney World: Part III

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The Tree of Life.

A week at Disney challenges even the hardiest of physiques; you spend an inordinate amount of time standing, walking on hard concrete, jammed into close quarters with folks who’ve perhaps not devoted as much of their energy to the maintenance of personal hygiene as you would prefer, and going from soul-sapping swamp heat to bone-chilling meat locker-grade air conditioning in as little as a single step.  There comes a moment, usually on day three, when you accept that the pain in your lower back and in your arches is inevitable.  Oddly, where at other vacation destinations you might resolve to spend the next day or two lounging in the pool to recuperate, at Disney World there is simply too much to do, too much to see, to let a mere trifle like physical discomfort discourage you from getting out to explore some more.  It was odd, reflecting on the trip from a few weeks’ distance, realizing that although we had about seven and a half days’ worth of park time, the list of what we didn’t get to do remains astonishingly long.  (Better to stoke the desire to return sooner rather than later, naturally).  A quick rewind back to Day Three, however, and our third park.

hungryturtle
Where hungry baby turtles awaited to devour us all.

Opened in 1998, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the newest of the four major parks at WDW, and unless the Imagineers are hard at work on a secret project none of us know about, it is likely to be the last at the Orlando location, at least for some time.  Animal Kingdom is light on rides; apart from the rollercoaster Expedition Everest and the simulator Dinosaur, the park is dedicated to shows, educational exhibits and animal encounters.  The latter, then, is where it needed to shine, to give guests an experience they weren’t going to get at any of DAK’s elder siblings.  The Magic Kingdom had long featured the Jungle Cruise ride, but the biggest drawback to it was that the animals weren’t real (Walt wanted real animals, but wasn’t able to figure out the logistics of housing them safely).  Considering the preponderance of zoos in more easily accessible locations around the world, Disney had to do something extra special to compete in this realm.  What else, then, but to recreate a slice of Africa in central Florida?  And so we have Harambe Wildlife Reserve, and Kilimanjaro Safaris.  This enormous nature preserve (over 4 million square feet) is a Noah’s Ark of living African treasures, some critically endangered in their natural home across the ocean.  So typically scrupulous is the realism of the terrain, it’s said that when Disney finished building it, they invited a group of their African-born cast members for a glimpse of the attraction before it opened to the public.  Upon beholding the recreated savanna for the first time, one man burst into tears and declared, “I’m home.”  But you don’t have to have been born in Africa to feel a connection to this place.  My wife and I had visited countless times before; we would usually ride at least three times in any given day as the sights will always be different.  Normally, you board a diesel-powered truck with a dozen other guests for a 20-minute drive past the different habitats.  (There used to be a story along with it as you were supposedly on an expedition to chase down poachers, but this has been wisely pared back and ultimately removed to let the natural vistas take center stage.)  This time, with our son in tow, we decided to pay the extra cost to do the “Wild Africa Trek” – an intimate guided journey into the Reserve, to stuff the regular guests don’t get to see.  There were supposed to be eight of us, but for whatever reason the other five folks never showed – so we got a private, three hour tour.

hansthehippo
There is an untapped market, I feel, for hippopotamus dental floss.  “Hippoflossamus,” maybe?

Conservation was a passion of the late Walt Disney himself, and Harambe Wildlife Reserve is as much a research center as it is a chance for tourists to take pictures of elephants.  Our first stop along our hike was the hippopotamus pool and a meeting with Hans, the hungry hungry hippo.  Hans shares a habitat with his father Henry, and is segregated from the extensive female hippopotamus population in Harambe as “Disney isn’t in the business of breeding hippos.”  Said group of hippos is called a bloat, however, the collected group of females there is referred to as a pod as it isn’t considered Emily Post to make the indirect implication about a lady’s weight.  The researcher who was conducting Hans’ feeding clued us in to another amazing piece of trivia about these endearingly bulbous creatures:  in lieu of perspiration, the hippopotamus secretes something called “blood sweat,” a reddish fluid that contains natural sunscreen and antibiotic properties and is being studied extensively with the aim of recreating a similar substance for human use.  Not that any of that would matter to Hans as he gulped down one head of Romaine lettuce after another, leaving scarcely a leaf to dear old Dad.  I tell you, these young hippos with their sense of entitlement and their loud music…

overthegorge
“Drop them, Dr. Jones! They will be found… you won’t!”

Further on was a chance for us to channel our inner Indiana Jones and venture across a rope bridge hoisted high above a float of crocodiles, two of whom got into a scrap as we hovered over them.  One of the smallest crocodiles, nicknamed “Lethargic” for every reason you might expect, has had his hind leg spray-painted blue so the staff can ensure he’s getting an adequate supply of food, as he tends to be muscled out of the good stuff by his larger, snappier, more ill-tempered cousins.  Mindful of that scene in Live and Let Die when Bond is marooned on a small island surrounded by crocs and escapes by using their backs as stepping stones, I was deeply grateful for the cable and harness holding us securely a few feet out of range of their jaws.  I’m sure even Lethargic wouldn’t pass up a meal of fresh tourist.  However, ’twas not to be, and instead it was on to the second part of our tour, the drive across the savanna, where the animals are all (mercifully) herbivorous.

And occasionally amorous.
And occasionally amorous.

I’ve been trying to think of a good term to describe the savanna portion of Harambe since we’ve been back and the best I can come up with is that it’s an oasis of living miracles.  Existence for the Harambe animals in their native Africa is fraught with peril and predators (some, sadly, human-shaped) but here they are free to be themselves and live quiet lives, as nature might have intended in her most idealistic mood, indeed, had she been crafting a Disney version of herself.  And it always looks picture perfect; park staff go out every single night to replant literally thousands of bushes and shrubs that have been eaten and otherwise worn and torn throughout the previous day.  The giraffes are particularly placid and accustomed to seeing those rolling metal boxes full of the squat little hairless creatures pointing lenses at them all day long, and they are content to wander about and do their own thing, secure in their safety.  Stephanie, the affectionate reticulated giraffe on the left in the photo above, who can be distinguished by her Mickey-shaped mark just below her right ear, seems to be a born showgirl.  Midway through the savanna is an observation post called “Boma,” or “safe place,” where guests on the Wild Africa Trek can stop for lunch and a chance to commune with these wonderful creatures.  While we watched, Stephanie entertained us with a comedy of giraffe errors; trying to access the leaves on a high tree branch, she would pull it down with her tongue only to realize she had no arm to grab hold of it with, and watch sadly as it snapped back into place, pulling the tasty morsels far out of reach of even her statuesque neck.

As I stood beneath the hot sun, inhaling pure air, listening to nought but the steps of hooves on grasslands and smiling at Stephanie’s resolve, I felt an unfamiliar sense of ease, and of serenity, the aching feet and back retreating into distant memory.  I felt the sense of belonging to the earth that is absent in the confines of the cubicle, the glass and steel of the city street, the world of the schedule and deadline and insatiable hunger for material things.  Stephanie wasn’t stressing about her job, her kids, rent, politics or some lousy losing sports team (or hits and likes on her blog, for that matter).  She just wanted the leaves on the tree.  There was a purity to her intentions that was enviable, a clarity of purpose to be admired and replicated.  I thought about some of the other animals we saw that day, like the white rhinoceros who is expected to be extinct within the next five to ten years, because of poachers killing them for their supposedly-aphrodisiac horns (you’d boost your sex drive more by eating your own fingernails, not that this fact convinces anyone).  A deep sadness came over me at that moment, a fundamental recognition that we are Doing Life Wrong here on this planet.  We like to think we are the masters of everything, you know, that old Genesis verse about having dominion over all life, but has acting this way made us happy?  Human arrogance has only cluttered our minds with trivialities, and the more we obsess over them the more miserable we become.  It’s no revelation that a walk in the woods heals the soul.  We come from nature, and whenever we go back to it we are renewed.  And sometimes it takes a giraffe staring at you like you’re smoking something to realize this again.

"Lighten up, dude.  And could you help me with this branch?"
“Lighten up, dude. And could you help me with this branch?”

The lesson the writer takes from the Harambe Wildlife Reserve is to be a sculptor with your words – carve away the unneeded bits, the bullshit (or wildebeest shit if you prefer), and hone in on the plain emotional truth of the experience.  Within the phenomenon of basic connection lies a million untold stories, and all the flash and fancy vocabulary in the universe can’t substitute for the simplicity and universality of raw feeling, like the unbridled joy in watching giraffes at play.  You must be able to feel, fully and completely, before you can hope to transmit that feeling to someone else.  Until then, you’re just a tourist with a camera, recording the superficiality but not the substance, and your pictures will be no more enduring than the ones of drunken Uncle Ralph with the lampshade on his head at last year’s Christmas party.

In Part IV, we visit Epcot, and go Soarin’.