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At Animal Kingdom, in Walt Disney World, a young girl gleefully scoops sand off a mammoth skeleton in the Boneyard at DinoLand USA. Nearby, two children swing from a fossilized dinosaur head, then run to join their families in a paleontologist's jeep for a photo.

Girl unearths a mammoth skeleton at Dinoland USA.
Girl unearths a mammoth skeleton at Dinoland USA.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Together, parents and kids peer at Sue, an exact replica of the largest, most complete T.rex ever excavated. Sue guards the entrance to DINOSAUR, a lurching time-machine ride past life-size dinosaurs. "They were so close, I could feel their hot breath," says one teen.

Disney World vacations

The fourth and largest theme park at Walt Disney World is all about close encounters with animals. Animal Kingdom is a vacation experience for the entire family.

In DinoLand U.S.A., the creatures are prehistoric; in Camp Minnie-Mickey, they're imaginary. Little tykes ask Goofy for autographs. Tots and teens can't resist a hug from a safari suit-clad Mickey. For Mom and Dad, it's a great photo op.

The dazzling Festival of the Lion King performance is also here. Costumed actors, depicting African tribes and exotic animals, encourage youngsters to join them, singing and dancing on stage, for the grand finale.

Goofy hugs two little girls.
Goofy hugs two little girls.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Close encounters of the animal kind

But it's the 1,500 real animals (representing 250 species) that are the big attraction. One of the best views of the grazing giraffes, wildebeest and zebras, is from the balconies of Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, which overlooks the savannah.

In the Africa area of the park, visitors stroll through the thatched-roofed Harambe village. Riding open-sided Kilimanjaro Safaris vehicles, they bounce over rutted roads and forge streams through jungles populated with monkeys and birds. Hippos surface from ponds, crocodiles bask in the sun and vultures fly overhead.

Animals A to Z

As the terrain changes to savannah, studded with baobab and acacia trees, herds of antelope appear. White rhinos, giraffes, ostriches and zebras graze beside the vehicle, sometimes crossing its path. "The animals were so close I felt I could reach out and touch them," says one 10-year-old.

Photos in front of each seat help passengers identify unique creatures like chestnut red bongos, shaggy nyalas and scimitar-horned oryx.

Lions and naked mole rats

For Jay, a 14-year-old Toronto resident, the highlight of the three-kilometer journey was undoubtedly the lion. "It was so exciting!" he says. "He climbed to the top of a rock and roared, just like in The Lion King movie. My Dad got it all on video!"

Lion viewed on Kilamanjaro Safari
Lion viewed on Kilamanjaro Safari
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

After the safari, families can follow the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail through a creature-filled rainforest. They view hippos swimming underwater, a cross-section of burrows inhabited by naked mole rats, and aquariums filled with exotic fish.

Using telescopes, kids squeal as they spot playful meerkats. Grinning, they watch a mother gorilla cuddling her baby.

Animal babies

The Wildlife Express steam train brings visitors to Rafiki's Planet Watch and Conservation Station. Families peer through windows to view what goes on behind the scenes. A vet operates on a raccoon, with kidney failure, and explains the procedure to observers.

In the nursery, a baby kinkajou snoozes in a terry cloth surrogate pouch, while orphan chicks take shelter in a feather duster mother.

Youngsters gather around animal curators who teach them about aardvarks, pygmy hedgehogs and other animals smaller than a loaf of bread. "I learned that geckos lick their eyes to keep them wet," says one enraptured child. Others don earphones to listen to 3-D sounds of the rainforest and push buttons on a map to learn about endangered species around the world.

Stinkbugs and creepy crawlies

Around The Tree of Life, the 14-story centerpiece of Disney Animal Kingdom, there are more animals: ring-tailed lemurs, pink flamingos and red kangaroos. The tree's concrete bark is a swirling tapestry of 325 carved animals and birds.

Under its gnarled roots is a 430-seat theatre showcasing the 3-D movie, It's Tough to be a Bug! From gas-spewing stinkbugs to quill-throwing tarantulas, special effects demonstrate the amazing abilities of insects that outnumber us 200 million to one. "It was scary when the creepy crawlies ran under my seat — but so much fun," says a 16-year-old.

Hidden Mickey Mouse

Like the rest of the Walt Disney Animal Kingdom, the underlying message of the movie is one of conservation, but it's conveyed with humour. In the Bugs theatre lobby, buzzing insect orchestras entertain, while movie posters like Beauty & the Bees offer fascinating trivia. (Did you know that a bumblebee's wings beat 26,000 times a minute?)

Murals of animals cover the walls of Conservation Station. Sharp-eyed visitors will spot 27 hidden Mickeys painted into the eyes of animals, on the wings of butterflies and on the backs of starfish and flies.

Even the washrooms are fun. Eye-level signs on the backs of cubicle doors disclose "The Scoop on Poop" with facts about dung beetles and hippos fertilizing plants on riverbanks.

Roasted dinosaur legs

Pre-shows make you forget that you're in a lineup. As you move towards DINOSAUR, for example, you meet scientists at the Dino Institute, who brief you on their theories about the extinction of dinosaurs. A video on poaching precedes the safari ride.

Storytellers, street performers, colorful macaws and a daily Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade, with soaring animal puppets and stilt walkers, also make waiting time pass quickly. So does a snack, especially if it's fun like the roasted dinosaur (turkey) legs and ice cream bars with paw prints on them.

Audience joins in performance of The Lion King.
Audience joins in performance of The Lion King.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Giant fruit bats and komodo dragons

The Asia area of the park features the landscape, architecture and animals of the Far East. Families can take wild, wet whitewater raft trips along the Kali River Rapids and follow the Maharajah Jungle Trek past tigers, giant fruit bats and Komodo dragons.

Animal Kingdom offers enough diversions to keep a family entertained for a full day. It's The Lion King and Jungle Book movies, an African safari and bazaar, a dinosaur dig site, a botanical garden and a conservation awareness program all rolled into one fun package. And because none of the animal attractions can be scripted, it's a constantly changing show.

Tips for Visitors to Disney Animal Kingdom

  • Wear comfortable shoes. Animal Kingdom is larger than the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios combined. (Much of the terrain is animal habitat, however.)
  • Schedule your day so you don't miss the four live shows: Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends, Tarzan Rocks!, Flights of Wonder (a bird show) and Festival of the Lion King.
  • Because the animals are more active when it's cool, take the Kilimanjaro Safaris ride early or late in the day.
  • Bring binoculars to spot carved animals near the top of the 44-metre-high Tree of Life and view birds and animals close-up on the Pangani Trail and safari ride.
  • Kids under three have free admission to all Walt Disney World theme parks.
  • If lines are long at popular rides, use free Disney FASTPASS tickets to bypass queues at assigned return times.


Walt Disney World: www.disneyworld.com

Visit Florida: www.VisitFlorida.com

More things to see and do at Walt Disney World:

Disney Water Parks

Walt Disney World Florida Honeymoon

Walt Disney World - What to See and Do

The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids

Things to see and do at Disneyland, California:

Disney California Adventure