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Animal Kingdom

11 Jun

Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park is probably the least visited of the four major parks in the Walt Disney World Resort.  With the shortest park day, typically opening between 7 and 9am and closing between 5 and 7 pm depending on the season, many people don’t see the value in using one of their ticketed days to visit.  The other objection is “It’s just a zoo, and I can go to the zoo at home.  I beg to differ.



The best tip I can give you for Animal Kingdom (or AK, as I’ll refer to it from here out) is to arrive at park opening.  If you do, you’ll be able to make the most of your day AND you’ll see the animals when they’re at their most active.  Contrary to what you might think, cool days are great for animal activity!  The day we visited on this trip, the temperature was around 47 degrees and there was a stiff breeze blowing.  Not the most comfortable of mornings, but when we bundled up (jeans and a sweatshirt – we are from Chicago – and in March, that’s just plain balmy)we were fairly comfortable.  There were NO lines – the parking lot was almost empty and we arrived at the park an hour after opening, which I normally wouldn’t recommend.  Arriving right at “rope drop” gives you the best opportunity to experience the park at its best most days.  However, the cool temperatures, slightly off-peak timing of our visit, and the fact that we were there on a Thursday all worked in our favor.

As I normally recommend, we headed straight for the Kilimanjaro Safari.  KS is a faux safari through the grasslands and savannahs of Africa and it allows you to see a wide variety of animals.   The vehicle you ride in is a “modified” Jeep type vehicle that has about 10 rows of seats (bench-style) that seat four people each (more if you have small children).  To get your best views, you obviously want to be on an end – those in the middle can see just fine, but you’ll have a much more difficult time if you wish to photograph any of the animals.  Your “guide” will explain what animals you’re seeing as you travel along the road.  You will likely be able to see the vehicle ahead of and behind you, but don’t worry; it really doesn’t detract from the experience.


Welcome to Africa

Welcome to Africa

The view from inside the Jeep

The view from inside the Jeep

Off we go ...

Off we go …

Right out of the gate, we saw giraffes very close to the vehicle, and some large hooved animals (sorry, I didn’t take great notes on what animals we saw).  They were much closer to the “Jeep” than I’d ever seen them before, and we’ve visited AK many times as Britt aspires to be an animal scientist of some sort.   A few of them even decided to cross the road right in front of us, so we got a very up-close and personal view of them.

I think this may be a Bongo

I think this may be a Bongo



The picture below shows some people trekking across a rope bridge along the safari route.  These people signed up for one of Disney’s many specialty tours – one I’d love to take sometime.  This particular tour runs just over $200 per person and takes you “backstage” throughout AK, including some animal care areas.  You get a very good idea of how the park is operated from an animal care perspective.  It sells out pretty quickly, so if it is something you’re interested in, when you call or email me to book your trip, let me know, and I can help you make arrangements for it, or for that matter, any of the “backstage” tours Disney offers – and there are many of them!

Wild Africa Trek Participants

Wild Africa Trek Participants

As we continued, we saw more hooved animals (Ibis, I think), and more Giraffes.  Disney has two kinds of giraffes, the reticulated giraffe, pictured here, and Masai giraffes.  We were fortunate enough to see both on this trek, but the first one was on the wrong side of the vehicle and I couldn’t get a good photo.  The easiest way to tell them apart is that the reticulated giraffe has spots that look kind of jagged, like jigsaw puzzle pieces, while the Masai giraffe has much smoother spots outlined in white – they just look more orderly, I suppose, but other than that, it’s difficult to identify any real difference between the two.

Reticulated Giraffes

Reticulated Giraffes



As with all Disney experiences, the details are very well done, even if the “story line” is kitschy.  For instance, inside the jeep you’ll see a mesh bag with “equipment” dangling above the driver and our “jeep” had rust spots and stickers inside – they’re all slightly different, so it’s fun to notice the little things that set them apart from each other. 



For those of you who have been on KS before, the “Little Red” storyline has been dropped, so no more explaining to teary eyed littles that an elephant didn’t really die at Disney World.  Speaking of elephants …

Of course YOU already know these are AFRICAN elephants - we ARE in Africa!  (yes, someone asked the "guide")

Of course YOU already know these are AFRICAN elephants – we ARE in Africa! (yes, someone asked the “guide”)

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Just past the elephants were this flock of flamingos, and then as we rounded the corner, we met some new friends…

White Rhino

White Rhino


I’m not sure if they just happened to be crossing the road or if they were looking for something to eat, but these two rhinos trotted right up to the vehicles in front of us, then to ours, and then moseyed along the road right in front of us.  They had NO fear of the vehicles, and I guess if you’re a rhino, why would you?  You know how badly hitting a deer can damage your car – just think what one of these babies would do to your average Prius or Honda Civic!

Hey, Jack!  Got any snacks???

Hey, Jack! Got any snacks???

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A little further up, we arrived in big cat territory.  The cheetah was on the wrong side again, but these two lions were sunning themselves right next to the road.  This is the closest I’ve ever seen them to the road – usually they tend to be far enough away that I need my “big lens”, not just my point and shoot to get a good photo.



On around the bend, we meet up with some more of the hooved animals, a lazy ostrich, and a few more very friendly rhinos.  Just after that, the ride ended and it was back to the park.  Here’s where most people start to make mistakes and miss the charm and the magic of Animal Kingdom.  If you’ve arrived early, take your time and enjoy the walking trails.  We took the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, which you’ll find on your way back to Harambe Village.  There are trails in Africa and Asia.  Each is about ¾ of a mile long, so they’re good for exercise (as if you weren’t walking enough, right?), but will also allow you to view some of the lesser seen animals in the park.  We met this friendly little fellow just a short way in.

The birds aren't particularly shy here, either.

The birds aren’t particularly shy here, either.

The “wild” American rabbit – I got a kick out of this guy.  The prairie dogs were buried deep underground since it was so cold, but this guy decided if they weren’t going to eat, he’d be happy to help them out.



Also on this path are the gorillas.  We got some great views while we were there and really enjoyed watching them as they foraged for food.  Disney uses food to keep the animals entertained and in motion, and spreads the food around to keep the animals on the move.  Different locations have food at different times of the day … this is true of all the areas of AK park.  One point of note, the Gorilla area of the trail is a QUIET zone.  This is because the gorillas can view excessive noise and motion as a threat and become agitated.  You’re in their home … try to be respectful.  Think of them as furry grandparents who can’t handle a lot of wild activity.

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AK Park is laid out in the same “hub and spoke” pattern that Magic Kingdom uses.  The main difference is that, unlike MK, at AK the “lands” do not all connect.  You have to cross back over to “Discovery Island” to move between some of them or to the park exit.  How do you find Discovery Island?  Just look for the Tree of Life, pictured here.  It is one of two very recognizable structures in this park – and its different from every angle.  Inside the tree is the 4D movie, “It’s Tough to Be a Bug”.  Be prepared to get stung, sprayed, etc. as you enjoy the characters from “A Bug’s Life” teaching you about the insect world.


Take some time to check out all the detail - it's kind of amazing.

Take some time to check out all the detail – it’s kind of amazing.


After KS, I highly recommend heading over to your choice of either Expedition Everest or Dinosaur! to grab a fast pass.  Because we were on a short schedule and knew that Britt couldn’t handle the jerkiness of Dinosaur!, we headed for Asia and Expedition Everest.  When we got there, the stand-by line was 25 minutes long, and the fast pass return time was 30 minutes away.  We decided to grab the fast pass and head for the walking trail through Asia.  Here are some of the friends we met along that trail.

Check out the wingspan on this fruit bat!

Check out the wingspan on this fruit bat!

Shere Kahn

Shere Kahn


Elds Deer

Elds Deer

These Eld’s Deer were right up close to the trail as well, and the young ones were quite frisky.  I didn’t grab a picture of the young ones because they were busily sprinting and leaping, back and forth, while the elder ones grazed and watched.  (They moved too fast for the point and shoot – they were a literal blur)  The male of this species drop their horns between May and June every year – note how long they are in this picture.  You’re seeing them at almost the longest they ever will be, and the people that come in June will have a difficult time distinguishing between males and females until the horns begin to grow back again.


I’m assuming this is some kind of a peacock, but he was just chilling out right next to the walking path.

The tigers are along this path as well, and they are quite popular, although today they were pretty tight up against the wall, soaking in the heat from the warm stone along with the heat of the sun, so it was difficult to get a great photo.

We rode EE, which is one of my favorite coasters in WDW, with Hollywood Studio’s Rock-n-Roller Coaster being my absolute favorite.  This one is themed well as you wait in line, if you have to wait at all.  The fast pass had us on board within 5 minutes of entering the queue.  While it does not go upside down and is just generally a “fun” coaster – not too scary with the drops or turns for little ones – it does go backwards for part of the ride, and there are some very dark moments – dark as in no lights – so if you’re children are prone to be afraid of the dark, I’d take a pass on this ride, or do a “baby/kid-swap”.  For those not afraid of the dark, this is a perfect “big kid” coaster!  All the fun without any of the “fear”.

The big drop at Expedition Everest

The big drop at Expedition Everest

Speaking of kids, if you want something fun for them to do while you’re exploring the park, you could play a trivia game and give them stickers for each of the animals they find … relate it back to a Disney film like Lion King or Jungle Book depending on what area of the park you’re in.  Here’s a link to some Jungle Book Trivia:


After Expedition Everest, we took a quick stroll through Dinoland, just because we really enjoy its bright colors, carnival like atmosphere, and people watching there, but as our tummies started to growl, we decided to make our way to Epcot for lunch.  As we exited AK, right around noon, this is what we saw:

Crazy people who slept in and will now suffer the consequences

Crazy people who slept in and will now suffer the consequences

Remember when I said that arriving early was your best bet?  This is why.  All these people were waiting in line to get IN to the park – and while we were there, there were barely any lines at all.  Later that day, we checked the “World of Disney Lines” app on our phone, and it said the park to avoid was Animal Kingdom – after seeing the lines on our way out, I can imagine that would be true!

Other “don’t miss” things to do at AK include the Festival of the Lion King and Finding Nemo, The Musical – and the Wonder of Flight show.  They are highly entertaining, well performed, and well attended.  If we had not been so short on time, having only one day to get to multiple parks, we would definitely have taken the time to see those three shows.  The other nice thing about AK is the ease in meeting characters.  In Camp Minnie Mickey, on the greeting trails, there are multiple character greeting spots and harder to find characters, like Pocahontas, can also be found in AK.  It’s a great way to spend a first day at Disney, allowing yourself time to adjust to the rhythm of the parks.  As for food, there are some great dining options inside and a Rainforest Café available at the park entrance – there was no waiting the day we were there, but advanced dining reservations are usually highly recommended.  Yak and Yeti and Pizzafari are two other very popular choices – and this time, I noted something new – a little booth selling wings – here’s a menu … with Britt’s limited ability to eat, we passed on these, but will definitely look for them again next time we go to AK (they were in Asia) as they smelled fabulous.

Yummy Wings in Asia

Yummy Wings in Asia

Next up, Epcot and the Flower and Garden Festival.


Spring Break 2013 – Central Florida, Bahamas, Key West

13 Mar

We’re on the road again!  Things got a bit crazy the last half of 2012, but they’ve settled down now and Brittany and I are out on the road – or, I should say, in the air.

Britt had a pretty serious surgery at the end of January, and we’re exactly six weeks out today!  What better way to get a teenaged girl to want to recover than to plan an awesome vacation?  I can’t think of one, so that’s what we did.

This morning, at 3am, my alarm went off.  While the rest of the house was still sleeping, I got dressed and went to wake Britt.  The two of us crept out the door, trying not to wake the rest of the family (other than for a fast goodbye they probably won’t remember) or the “puppy” and loaded our 2 carry-on sized bags into the minivan.  Along with those bags, I have my laptop case and she has a tote bag.

This trip, we’re doing something a little different than my normal routine – we’re flying on Southwest.  I think its been close to ten years, and maybe longer, since I’ve been on this airline.  They used to be considered a “low cost” carrier – and maybe they still are, but I have found that their ticket prices tend to be pretty closely aligned with most of the other major carriers (AA, United, Delta … you get the jist).  Sometimes their fares are even higher, which means that using them didn’t make sense at all.  For one, Southwest flys out of Midway airport – Midway isn’t a bad airport at all, and I’ll discuss that in a bit, but it is not even a little bit convenient to get to from where I live.  If you take a limo or car service, they charge close to fifty percent more to take you there, if you’re flying during peak times, the traffic is horrible, and the neighborhood – let’s just say its seen its better days.

This time, however, Southwest it is.  A couple things that have changed since we last flew are the option for “early check in”.  I’ve seen this widely panned in reviews, with flyers stating that it doesn’t buy you any better seat than you’d get if you were checking in normally – but at $10, I think the risk would be worth it.  You’re guaranteed a slot in the “A” boarding group – which is helpful since Southwest does not have assigned seating.  In the old days, you’d get to the airport as early as you could stand, and then do just that – stand in line at the gate – first come, first served.  It was miserable and you’d have folks “saving places” for others – which if it is your husband, wife, or child is ok.  When its your entire softball team, not so much.  Now, Southwest has boarding groups and inside of each group are assigned numbers.  When they call your flight for boarding, you line up according to your number and passengers are boarded five at a time, in order.  Much nic)er than the old days.

The plane, too, has had a bit of an upgrade/facelift.  Last time I flew SW, the color scheme was royal blue and orange.  The seats were cloth and there were “facing” seats in the front of the plane.  Today, our 737 has wifi (for a fee), leather seats, and is configured like a “normal” aircraft – that said, those front seats that faced each other were really  nice when we travelled with all three kids – their legs weren’t as long as ours, so we got more leg room, our family could all sit together and converse, and it was really comfortable.  I can see, however, that if you had six adults in those seats, the leg room might not be ideal.

The “bags fly free” feature was also very nice and the skycap at the airport was awesome in helping us get our 2 bags checked why lug them around if you don’t have to …

Overall, Midway is an easy airport to navigate.  Its small, which means you’re never too far from your gate. There are skycaps to help you avoid the annoying check in lines caused by groups traveling together and people who have never learned how to check in via the kiosk or online.   I was pleasantly surprised to see that more food and merchandise venues are open at Midway in the early morning (think 4:30am) hours than at O’Hare.  We easily found something to eat and drink on the way to the gate and had several options to choose from, unlike the McDonalds only model that seems to be par for the course at O’Hare prior to 5am.

Boarding went quickly and we were in the air in a jiffy.  The other  thing that’s interesting about Southwest – although not my favorite thing – is that they kind of act like a bus.  We booked a flight to Orlando, but made stops in Baltimore MD and Greenville SC “on the way”.  The good – we didn’t have to exit the plane.  The bad – 3 takeoffs and landings and an additional 3 hours in travel time over a direct flight.  Ick.

Something else that has changed – the flight attendants aren’t quite as much “fun” as they used to be back in days gone by.  Air travel has changed so much that perhaps it isn’t entirely practical, but remembering fondly the whole aircraft sing-alongs , jokes over the intercom, and general goofiness had set my expectations up a little differently than what actually occurred.  Maybe we just had a “down to business” flight crew, but all those fun things are gone.  The peanuts, pretzels, and free beverages (even liquor on certain days of the year – St Patty’s day is next), still exist, though, and overall it’s been a great flight.

So, over the next week, Brittany and I are planning to have a few different experiences which we’ll share with you along the way as we have wi-fi and in updates after we get back.  This afternoon, we’re checking in at our timeshare condo and then probably hitting Downtown Disney (and maybe Universal’s Citywalk later this evening – just for comparison’s sake).  We’ll visit some of the Disney resorts, a couple of their theme parks and restaurants (pictures, detailed reviews and info to follow), and the Boardwalk entertainment center.  We’ll explore Cocoa Beach, board the Carnival Ecstasy for a run to Nassau, Freeport, and Key West, and will end back in Orlando before boarding our Southwest flight back home – that will be an evening flight, so we’ll see if the fun returns.  If not, I’ll chalk it up to another casualty caused by an abundance of caution in our crazy world.

As we approached Orlando, my imagination ran wild and I snapped a photo of this “not very Mickey-shaped” water feature:

We exited the plane, hit the ladies room, and grabbed the “train” as my girls used to call it, from the terminal to the main airport building.


This is Britty on the train – I have pictures of her sitting in the same spot from the time she was 2.  We haven’t flown in to MCO in quite awhile, and as we boarded, I indicated the shelf at the back of the train and said, “when you were little you used to love to sit there”.  She gave me a really sheepish look and told me that was what she was planning to do now, too.  I guess some things never change – and that’s a good thing.

If you’ve never been in MCO, to get to your gate from the ticket counter, you go through security and then catch the train to your terminal.  You do the same thing in reverse when you fly in to Orlando – the key is, you MUST pay attention to which baggage claim area you are heading to.  It matches the terminal you flew into (unless its a wierd coincidence that every time I’ve flown in I’ve collected my baggage at the claim center with the same letter as my terminal).  Off to baggage claim “A”, grabbed the luggage, and then a quick shuttle to my new favorite rental car company, Sixt.  No line and no hassle later, we were in a sleek Mazda 6 buzzing down the tollway towards our timeshare on International Drive.

So, sit back, relax, and keep your eyes open as you take a “virtual vacation”.  If you have questions about anything along the way, please feel free to post them in the comments section.  I’ll do my best to answer them quickly for you, or to find the answers for you if I don’t have them handy.