Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 10, 2017
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Close encounters

Get up close and personal with some of the wild residents at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge

Hands down, an African safari tops my vacation wish list. The idea of enjoying safaris in Serengeti National Park or touring the game reserves of Botswana, Tanzania or Kenya is nothing short of magical.

But let’s face it: some road blocks stand in the way of my African adventure. For starters, the trip’s hefty price tag is an obvious deterrent. Secondly, before globetrotting to Africa for a family vacation, our nine and 10-year-old sons need to celebrate a few more birthdays.

While the dream trip waits patiently on the back burner, we recently decided to check out a more economical and family-friendly option. Turns out, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge (tel: 407-938-3000; disneyworld.disney.go.com) in Orlando, Florida offers an impressive safari fix, especially when combined with a visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park.

Keys to the Kingdom

Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge is an African lodge-style resort situated on a 17-hectare wildlife preserve. It features African-inspired architecture with expansive views of the surrounding savanna and its many animal inhabitants.

With two young kids, we’ve stayed in countless Disney resorts and this was by far our best Disney experience. The idea of stepping out onto your guest room balcony and watching zebras and giraffes, along with 30 other species of wildlife roaming around the tropical savannah is an amazing experience.

As a family, we’d spend hours on the balcony just gazing at the animal residents. Guest rooms with views of the savanna are a little pricier, but well worth the extra cost. A week-long stay in March for our family of four in a one-bedroom villa with a savanna-view ran about $6500 (all prices in US dollars), excluding flights. The resort is divided into two lodges — Jambo House and Kidani Village.

Aside from balcony viewing, the resort offers plenty of opportunities to check out the wildlife that roam amidst the resort’s four savannas. Special alcoves with glass windows for viewing are located all over the resort. Also, just outside the main lobby, an elevated rock platform — Arusha Rock — offers close-up glimpses of the animals and a panoramic view of the sprawling grounds. In addition to the wildlife, thousands of indigenous African shrubs and grasses—including the most recognized canopy tree of Africa, the baobab — paint a picture reminiscent of the unspoiled African grasslands.

Among the animals you may see are Ankole cattle, bonteboks, elands, zebras, greater kudus, impalas, okapis red river hogs, nyalas, giraffes, antelopes, Thompson's gazelles, waterbucks, wildebeests, Abyssinian ground hornbills, blue cranes, East African crowned cranes, greater flamingos, Marabou storks, ostrich and Ruppel's griffon vultures — and that’s only to name a few!

The resort provides a wildlife field guide with identification pointers and behavior tips to educate guests about its animal residents. The kids loved checking off the animals on the list, but my husband Brad and I had just as much fun learning about each critter. During our stay, we got to know two elands quite well because they slept every night just below our balcony at a watering hole. If you were very quiet, you could actually hear the castanet-like clicking of the adult male eland’s knee tendons.

Beyond wildlife, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge celebrates Africa’s art, food and culture. The buildings are inspired by African architecture and design, from thatched ceilings to hand-carved wooden furniture to real African artifacts. There is even a vast adobe fireplace in the main lobby.

With various daily activities focussing on cultural immersion, animal programs and wildlife encounters, there are plenty of educational opportunities on offer. Wanyama Safari, a private three-hour safari followed by dinner with wine pairings is one option. During the exclusive tour, guests (ages eight and up) can spend time with staff learning about the natural history and care of the resort’s animals. We tossed around the idea of booking this, but decided against it as the cost of $190 per person seemed a bit pricey, especially since there wasn’t a reduced rate for our non-wine drinking kids.

As for recreation around the resort, amenities are pretty much what you’d expect from a Disney hotel. Sports courts, kids’ club (for ages 3 to 12), playground and a fitness centre, are all available, along with a few pools. We spent hours enjoying the Florida sunshine around the pool, which features a 20-metre water slide.

Flavours of Africa

Diners can also savour Africa at the resort’s restaurants. Over the course of the week, we dined at all three eateries, and discovered that the menus offered a welcome change to the standard Disney resort fare, which often becomes tiresome after a weeklong stay. Reservations are recommended.

After checking in, we had our first meal at Boma: Flavours of Africa, which captures the essence of a vibrant African marketplace. It offers a massive buffet with an extensive selection of items influenced by the cuisine of over 50 African countries. Along with African fare, there is something to please every palate, even kid-friendly macaroni and cheese, and spaghetti and meatballs are available.

Try the fufu, which is a mixture of sweet potatoes, potatoes, butter and cinnamon; or the Durban-spiced roasted chicken. You can wash the meal down with a variety of African beers, or a South African wine. While the food was good, come hungry as the buffet runs about $36 per person, kids nine and under cost $15 each. With wine and tip our meal totalled about $155.00 (two adults, two kids). Boma also serves a buffet breakfast.

Lunch at Sanaa was also a treat. Filled with handcrafted artisan elements in the decor and inspired by an East African spice market, this dining experience was a definite highlight of the trip. Sure the Indian-infused flavours were good, but the incredible view of the savanna was an unexpected treat. While munching on samosas followed by tandoori shrimp, we watched grazing zebras, giraffes, wildebeests and ostriches through the many floor to ceiling windows. Lunch with tip ran about $87 (two adults, two kids). Sanaa is also open for dinner.

On our last night, we splurged on dinner at Jiko, which features modern African cuisine and an exclusive South African wine list. Menu favourites included the wood-fired flatbreads; the roasted-butternut-squash soup with spiced cottage cheese, toasted almonds and coconut; the maize-crusted wild striped sea bass; and the Cape Malva pudding. Dinner with dessert, wine and tip ran about $200 (two adults, two kids).

Safari time

To complete the safari experience, we headed off to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which is a free 10-minute bus ride from the resort. Home to more than 1700 animals from 250 species and sprawling across 200 hectares of lush landscape, Disney's Animal Kingdom is the largest animal-themed park in the world. Admission runs about $90 (per adult), and about $85 for kids (ages three to nine).

After entering the gates, we headed straight to Kilimanjaro Safaris, which takes you on a bumpy jeep ride through a wildlife preserve. Arriving early is key, as the animals tend to be more visible and active in the morning because it’s cooler. Although the open-sided jeep moves pretty swiftly (some refer to it as the Kilimanjaro 500) you’re rewarded with spectacular views of the animals roaming freely on the 40-hectare savanna. You may even catch a glimpse of one of the many baby animals that were recently born at the theme park. Along with lions, elephants, giraffes, hippos, cheetahs, rhinos and crocodiles, you might also spot zebras, wildebeests, antelopes, baboons, flamingos, gazelles, warthogs, okapis and ostriches.

If you are planning on taking pictures, try to get a seat at the end of the row. That way, you won't have peoples' heads in your pictures. Consider riding it twice to get the animals on each side of the jeep.

Beyond Kilimanjaro Safaris, the theme park is full of attractions, adventures and entertainment that reflect Walt Disney's dedication to nature and conservation. Be sure to check out the Maharaja Jungle Trek, an ancient ruins-of-India walking tour that features tigers, Komodo dragons, deer, exotic birds, and giant fruit bats. Seriously, with a wing span of two metres, these bats are huge! Photographers will particularly enjoy this attraction because you can spend as much time as you want snapping wildlife pictures.

On the camera front, guides did mention that the best opportunities for tiger photos happen just after 4PM. Since the tigers know they’ll be heading “backstage” soon, they all start congregating around the fountain, which is considered the first tiger viewing area. From what I understand, it's a great opportunity to see them playing or even taking a dip in the water. An early morning visit may also result in some tiger activity, but seeing them sleeping is most likely.

Bed, beast and beyond

Additional notable attractions include the park's perennial icon, the Tree of Life, a 14-storey artificial tree which has the images of more than 300 animals hand-carved into its trunk; the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, an exotic wildlife tour that showcases gorillas, hippos and naked mole rats; the Kali River Rapids, a water ride; and the high-speed roller coaster Expedition Everest —to name just a few.

While at the park, remember to take advantage of FastPass, Disney’s reservation system, which reduces the wait times at popular attractions.

For an additional fee, the park also offers several unique animal-related special experiences, including the Backstage Safari Tour, the Wild By Design Tour and the new Wild Africa Trek. All of these private tours promise an even closer look at the park’s animals. (Age restrictions apply.)

As for dining? We lunched at the Yak and Yeti, which serves up Asian cuisine that combines the flavours of China, India and Nepal. The chicken lettuce cups were particularly tasty, and Brad seemed to really enjoy the crispy mahi mahi. Our boys were also quite pleased with the kids‘ menu, which featured kid-friendly Chinese fare. Lunch with tip cost about $88 (two adults, two kids).

Beyond animal sightings we rounded out the trip by visiting other Disney theme parks, the Kennedy Space Centre (tel: 888-838-8915; kennedyspacecentre.com) and a spring training baseball match up between the Toronto Blue Jays (www.bluejays.com) and the Phillies in Dunedin.

Visiting Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, combined with a trip to Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park serves up a pretty good slice of Africa. Sure it’s a Disney-style safari fix, but hey — we still have two little kids at home, and a real African adventure would cost a fortune. So for now, the real Serengeti will just have to wait.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

Comments

Showing 1 comments

  1. On November 15, 2011, jean said:
    Loved your "close encounter" story. Keep on publishing on facebook.

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