“Until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
— Anatole France
Thursday November 14, 2013
The shuttle bus rattled down the resort road, filled to standing capacity with happy children and cheerful parents, and pointed toward the most visited zoological park in the world. The sides of the bus were wet with morning dew, as the morning air held faint traces of the previous evening’s relative cool.
Tucked into a section of contoured plastic seats, our touring group – me and Amy, brother and sister Rich and Hydee, and their mom JaNae – was more subdued. We had left our rooms that morning just ahead of 9:00, which was not bad for a collection of inveterate night owls on vacation. But, in trade, we seemed to be operating on essential systems only, and our usual discoursing had been replaced with bleary silence.
From my seat I could watch our distant gazes and vacant expressions. We looked like commuters on our way to another eight-hour stretch at the office. I always say that I could live in Disneyland, but if we were already starting our mornings with thousand-yard stares, then maybe my reservoir of Disney devotion was not bottomless, as I had always thought.
We rolled into the Animal Kingdom complex, and with squeaking brakes and hissing hydraulics, the bus stopped to regurgitate us into the park. I was still deep in contemplation. But then, a miracle appeared in the heavens. It was a juxtaposition of images so unexpected that I grabbed everyone and pointed it out, and it made us laugh out loud, and turned our mornings around:
In the skies above Disney’s multi-million dollar animal conservation park were a dozen vultures, turning lazy circles.
The front gates of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Oasis area were shoulder-to-shoulder with people that morning. We knew that Disney’s unusual zoo/theme park hybrid was an animal (ha!) all to itself, with narrow, bottlenecked walkways, but it was still the most crowded section we had seen in any park that trip. The unexpected crowds may have been partially due to a planned visit from First Lady Michelle Obama to Disney’s Hollywood Studios that evening, although the connection between the two was not immediately clear. All the same, as several members of our group were not fans of the 44th President’s politics – and although the two things were, at most, tangentially related – it did nothing to improve opinions.
We sliced into the crowd to start the quarter-mile walk back to the Africa area, where we had morning FastPass+ reservations for Kilimanjaro Safaris. Animal Kingdom is a vast park, and more than 20% of that space is taken up by this single attraction. At over 110 acres, the footprint of Kilimanjaro Safaris is larger than the entire park of Magic Kingdom (107 acres). By the time we arrived, there was already a 65 minutes wait, with people still streaming into the standby queue.
The story of Kilimanjaro Safaris is of a photo safari through the Harambe Wildlife Reserve. The vehicles cross from a Congolese rainforest to a Zambian river valley, and then to the Tanzanian savanna, without a single fence in sight. The word “harambe” is a Swahili term used in that part of the world, and roughly translates to “provider of worldly wealth.”* It is a bit over 20 minutes in length, and guests can count on seeing elephants, rhinoceroses, giraffes, crocodiles, ostriches, and zebras, among many others. By any sane measure, it is also a top five attraction at the Walt Disney World resort.
(*“Harambe” is actually a rallying cry that means: “pull together.” But unless you speak Swahili, I’ll bet you didn’t even blink while reading that.)
An occasional subject of conversation in our group of Disney-obsessed family and friends is which Cast Member jobs we would most enjoy. As a lifelong animal lover and practiced wildlife spotter, mine is: Tour Guide at Kilimanjaro Safaris. I think I would love driving around and pointing out the various animals in their enclosures, then providing the interpretive nuggets of information that really gilds the experience. I would also like to be able to correct a guest who points at and eland and calls it a kudu, without being thought of as a pedantic know-it-all.
Our guide, for example, was a young woman named Claire, and she introduced herself by exclaiming “jambo, everybody!” in a bright, saccharine voice. I had no complaints about Claire, who did a fine job. She drove us out onto an open strip where three giraffes were standing near the path, causing her to bring the vehicle to a stop. They then walked around us, close enough that it felt like we could have stretched our arms out and touched them.
Even Claire seemed impressed, and was running her patter about the gangly animals, and how to tell the difference between Masai giraffes and reticulated giraffes, which were two subspecies found at Animal Kingdom. In the middle of all this, the guy right in front of me points at a different giraffe, in the distance, and tells his young son: “Look, there’s another one. That looks like a restricolated giraffe.”
Claire overheard and caught his eyes in the rear-view mirror, and said in the same bright voice: “Actually, that is a Masai giraffe, not a reticulated giraffe. You can tell by the irregular borders on the dark patches.”
The guy smiled back and said thanks, and nodded down to his son, to let him know that the authority had spoken. I thought: sure, a twenty-year old girl tells you and you are happy about it, but if I point it out, you would probably punch me in the nose.
In the final section of the attraction, where they used to have a sub-story about chasing poachers, the park management had brought in a small herd of addax, which is a critically endangered Sahara antelope. It was a good change, as the poaching angle had been met with modest eye rolling from certain members of our party in the past. These were some of our non-fans of Obama, whether by coincidence or not.
Still in the Africa area, we walked through the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, which was an animal discovery path. Although there were engaging exhibits like okapis, meerkats, and hippos to be found along the way (not to mention an aviary full of colorful birds), the real draw of the area was the western lowland gorillas, another critically endangered species.
We found another sizable crowd at the gorilla enclosure, and joined as a nearby Cast Member/Gorilla Expert was talking about the two male gorillas on the sloping hillside ahead of us. We watched as they postured, grunted, and play fought in an attempt to get the attention of a female in a separate enclosure. As it turns out, adolescent (or older) male gorillas have some things in common with adolescent (or older) male humans.
It is impossible to watch gorillas for any length of time without being impressed by two things. The first is a strong pull of familiarity and recognition as we encounter another species of hominid, and marvel at how it reminds us of ourselves. The second is a sense of overwhelming, latent strength, and that follows the first impression, and perhaps also serves as a reminder of their wildness.
We lingered in the observation area for half an hour, which was not long in the sense of people who dedicate their lives to the study of these compelling creatures. But, it was longer than we spent with any other animal at the park.
I had a few minutes to catch up on notes at the gorilla enclosure, and while doing so, recorded the following exchange:
“Hey Jerry, there’s one. There’s a gorilla, Jerry, there’s one.”
Jerry walked over. “Oh, yeah. He’s a big one. That one, he’s huge.”
A woman joined them: “Yeah, he’s huge. You don’t wanna mess with him.”
“He’s huge, Jerry, huge. Coming out right there. Two o’clock.”
Jerry whistled in appreciation. “He’s a big boy, that one.”
I heard their appreciation for the gorilla’s size and just thought: you know, we say some of the stupidest things when we see animals. It isn’t just people like Jerry and his friends, either: we all do it. Everyone who is not an actual, accredited expert is a moron who cannot help but share their thoughts when it comes to animals.
I think it stems from our childhood familiarity with large, charismatic mammals. We have seen gorillas on the television for so long that we feel like we should know about them, and so we have to say something. To put it another way: I don’t have a problem admitting that I don’t know anything about nyalas or gerenuks, because nobody else does, either. But show me a picture of a grizzly bear, and I am likely to start spouting Latin nomenclature and talking about whitebark pine deforestation. It can be a problem.
We walked east out of Africa and on to Asia. These two lands comprise the entire back half of Animal Kingdom, and is the most picturesque and well-themed subdivision of any Disney park in the United States. The sheer volume of designed elements alone would be an impressive number, but they are deployed in the Africa and Asia areas with maximum cleverness. There are layers upon layers of detail – facsimile signs pasted on genuine walls in realistic courtyards with reproduced fountains next to authentic buildings – and the more you look, the more amazing it becomes.
We ate lunch at the Yak & Yeti Local Food Cafes, which was a takeout window for the nearby, namesake table restaurant. Amy and I both ordered Sweet and Sour Chicken, which was tempura-fried with a mild, typical sauce. It came mixed with with pineapple and vegetables atop a hefty scoop of white rice. Rich, Hydee, and JaNae ordered the Honey Chicken, which was the consensus favorite in the fan community, and with good reason. The Honey Chicken had a great spicy/sweet sauce and was by far the better of the two choices, even though the Sweet and Sour Chicken was excellent. We sat in a masterfully themed dining area and coordinated the rest of our day to the minute.
We walked around to DinoLand U.S.A., with its bizarre dinosaurs-crossed-with-’50s-vintage-Americana theme. We were holding a FastPass+ reservation for DINOSAUR (officially spelled in all capital letters). Amy skipped the ride to take photos of the insane theming rather than risk motion sickness with the jarring ride vehicles.
There are several attractions in Walt Disney World where a big group of guests are brought into a room, shown an instructional video, and then released into another section of queue. It is probably best known from the Haunted Mansion, although DINOSAUR is one of these attractions, as is Tower of Terror in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Along with being an efficient way to herd guests, they are also opportunities to reward shameless people who don’t mind shoving their way to the front of a room.
This is noteworthy here because Rich and I watched a young man commit just such a brazen line jump while in the DINOSAUR video room. This would typically drive us to irritated sniping, but instead all we wanted to talk about was his unusual clothing. He was dressed in a fraternity bro-style polo shirt of unidentifiable brand and black Capri pants. Rich and I both speculated that he was European: I suggested Belgian, and Rich thought Armenian. I am sure we were both wrong – he was probably from somewhere like Topeka, Kansas – but we were absolutely correct about mocking his pants.
I was aware that the pre-ride story video put institute technician David Hodges at odds with director Claire Huxtable, but it was still fun to see in person. The ride section of the attraction was darker than I remembered, although the park management dims the lighting on malfunctioning effects in attraction. If a ride is starting to show it’s wear, and it isn’t on the refurbishment schedule for a while, then the easiest solution is to make sure the guests can’t see the greasy bolts and worn spots.
The carnotaurus still raged over the ride vehicle as the meteor was about to strike – that had not gone dark, at least. The guests were still told that we had brought back an unseen iguanodon (named Aladar, because dinosaurs had first names, I guess) for Hodges to do something unspecific with, as well.
I was a big fan of dinosaurs as a little kid, and it goes without saying that visiting DINOSAUR would have been monumental for me in those days. Dinosaurs, the creatures, still have a sentimental spot in my heart. Enough so that as we were exiting, and I overheard a father and son talking excitedly about the “t-rex” at the end of the ride, I had to force myself to keep walking. No need to get all pedantic about it.
We rendezvoused with Amy before heading back to Asia for the Flights of Wonder bird show. This is one of those choreographed presentations that have birds stashed behind a façade, or pre-loaded into boxes and hoisted fifty feet in the air. They are a staple of zoos around the world, and also largely similar from one to another. The first bird was an African hornbill, which caught grapes out of the air.
However, before the show built any momentum, there was a poorly conceived comedic interlude involving a “guest” who was afraid of birds, and she turned out to be a Cast Member/Animal Handler. It then became a point of reference in the show, which doused much of my interest. The rest of the show was enjoyable enough, but I remain convinced that the birds didn’t need a song-and-dance to improve their appeal and wonder.
Amy often uses the word “cute” as a descriptor. I am not sure if this is a cultural artifact – like proto-traditional female programming language – or if she just likes the word,* but it gets frequent play as we tour the Disney parks.
(*I can state categorically that I have picked it up from her, because I don’t think I ever used the word “cute” prior to our marriage, and I am a grown man who says it all the time now. And it is often about cats.)
She also has three different ways of saying “cute,” depending on how much she likes something. I hear them quite often, because I find myself looking around the shops, locating objects, and tracking them back for her consideration. How she trained me to do this is one of the great mysteries of my adult life. However, I enjoy it, and I find her expressions charming and wonderful.
The three “cutes” are as follows:
The first “cute” is a nod and a short punctuation. “Cute.” It is straightforward, a simple uttering of the word. It means she likes the look of the object in question, but does not feel the need to learn more about it. It is the lowest level, the bottom of the cuteness rankings.
The second “cute” is a breath, sometimes sharp, and a low, throaty expression. “Key-yooot!” This level involves her moving in for a closer look, sometimes handling the object in question, and sometimes considering a purchase/photo/whatever. This is the medium level, and covers a lot of cute ground.
The third “cute” is a genuine exclamation mark, with a singsong, lifting tone, not unlike a steam whistle or a hoot owl. “Ohhh, CUUUUUTE!” I have never heard anyone else make that precise sound. It means she is honestly delighted, and is typically accompanied by the sound of a cash register.
We wanted to catch Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade,* as it had been a particular favorite of Amy’s during our previous trips (its “cute” ratings were off the charts), and she was eager to introduce it to Hydee. We knew the parade had also been festooned with a holiday season overlay and renamed Mickey’s Jingle Jungle Parade.
(*Not long after our visit, the Jammin’ Jungle Parade was retired to the Great Main Street In The Sky.)
Amy, Hydee, and JaNae found a convenient parade-side location near the Flights of Wonder amphitheater. From that vantage they were witnesses to a squabble between a Cast Member and a guest who was refusing to remain behind the taped lines. In contrast, Rich and I watched from an empty dining area, which had an obstructed view but made up for it with squishy-cushioned chairs.
In many respects, Disney theme parks are great places for those who believe that “fortune favors the bold,” and further interpret “boldness” as “whatever you can get away with if you are inconsiderate.” The squeaky wheels get grease around Disney parks. If you create a big enough spectacle, you will get something you want, and chuckle about getting over on the suckers again.
Of course, that means you forfeit the good will of your fellow guests, but a good squeaky wheel does not care what others think. Which sounds like a virtuous, self-confident philosophy, but in reality is practically a textbook definition of a sociopath. Consider our friend from the DINOSAUR line in the Capri pants. It takes a certain amount of disregard to shove your way to the front of a crowd, simply because no mechanism is in place to stop you. Plus, those pants. I hope they caught on fire.
So far, our carefully coordinated plan had gone without a hitch. But, we had some tight windows with the end of the parade, the start of Finding Nemo – The Musical, and a subsequent dash to make our FastPass+ for Expedition Everest.
We tracked back once again to DinoLand U.S.A., and the “Theater In the Wild,” where Finding Nemo – The Musical had run since 2007, when it replaced Tarzan Rocks! This 40 minute stage show is an award-winning adaptation of the movie, and combines puppets, dancers, and animated backdrops. The music was written by husband- and- wife team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who would later go on to win an Academy Award for the music in Frozen.*
(*We ran into a lot of Frozen merchandise during our visit, but the movie had not premiered yet. We had no idea what to make of Elsa, Anna, Sven, and Kristoff.)
Amy and I had enjoyed the show when we saw it with my brother and sister-in-law during our last visit, in 2009. I did so somewhat reluctantly, because I am a malcontent when it comes to show-style events in Disney parks. But Amy had been delighted, and was eager to go back. We also thought Rich, Hydee, and JaNae would enjoy the show, as a family that had grown up with musicals.
Alas, it was a miss. The word “hate” might be too strong, but Rich, Hydee, and JaNae were not as charmed as we had been in 2009. It could be that their appreciation for the form gives them a higher plateau of discerning taste, and so to appeal to them, a show has to be actually good, and not just novelty good. The movie had not been one of their favorites, with Rich adding that he found the character Crush particularly irritating. We moved on.
Our last FastPass+ reservation of the day was for Expedition Everest, which was nearby, but we only had a few minutes from the end of the show to make it there. We dashed out of the theater, getting ahead of the main body of the crowd. Animal Kingdom closed earliest of all parks at Walt Disney World to reduce the stress on the animals, and so we had less than fifteen minutes before the 6:00 PM closing.
But, our careful planning paid off, and we arrived at Expedition Everest within the FastPass+ window. There was virtually no line, and so we rushed through what might be the most detailed and interesting queue in all of Disneydom. We boarded the train within just a few minutes of sitting in the theater, as dusk was settling in.
After the ride we trailed into the exit store to find Amy, who had skipped to avoid motion sickness. Our day in Animal Kingdom was finished, and there was nothing left to do but stroll out with what was left of the crowds. We never did find out what had brought the vultures in that morning, but Disney being Disney, we had not expected to, either.
Instead of returning to our rooms at the Art of Animation Resort, we took the bus to Disney’s BoardWalk. We poked around the airy, relaxing lobby of the Inn, which had an early 20th Century New England/Mid-Atlantic theme, and was light on the “Disneyfied” touches. Evening had arrived in full, and so all of the lights were on for our first visit. We moved down to the BoardWalk Promenade proper, where we put our names on the list for the Big River Grille & Brewing Works, where we were told to expect 45 minutes before a table was open. They handed us a restaurant pager with the long, unnecessary plastic wing, and told us how far we could wander to remain in range. We visited nearby shops while we waited.
On balance, the meal was disappointing. It took closer to an hour before we were seated, and then the host wedged the five of us around a four-top table. The food was fair; I had meatloaf and enjoyed it. But we also wondered several times if the restaurant was understaffed, because the service was unreasonably, nonsensically slow. We left three hours after first checking in, which was late enough that we rerouted our evening plans. We had hoped to walk around to the Beach Club Resort and dare each other into the Kitchen Sink dessert at the Beaches and Cream restaurant.
Instead, we parted ways, with Amy, Hydee, and JaNae starting the multi-bus journey back to the Art of Animation, while Rich and I lingered to stroll around Crescent Lake and through the Yacht Club and Beach Club. We walked past the International Entrance to Epcot (which neither of us had seen before) and into the Beach Club lobby, where we poked around the stores and looked in the windows of Beaches and Cream. Next was the Yacht Club, for the further exploration, and to catch a bus.
My second-to-last adventure came at the Yacht Club, where I was finally compelled by rumbling innards to deal with a digestive issue. Anyone spending longer than a day or two in a Disney Park will certainly have to navigate a level-two transaction at some point during their visit, and so I trotted off to the public toilets near the lobby.
Restrooms in a Disney park are always bright, well stocked, and graffiti-free. They are usually clean, as well, although those in areas of heavy traffic can become untidy. It goes without saying that the restrooms in the Deluxe Resorts are as spotless as the dining room at our Value Resort. Because of all this, there is a certain amount of schadenfreude that comes from hearing the rich guys with the $300 shirts and Italian leather loafers with no socks walk into the toilets, take a sharp, regrettable breath, and say: “whoa.”
Our last adventure of the day, for Rich and I, was a series of bus lines back to our hotel rooms. We found the rest of our group had safely arrived, ready for the next day.