This past Thursday, 24 Feb 2011, we went on the Wild Africa Trek tour at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. We’ve never done any of the Disney tours, but we had heard really good things about the Wild Africa Trek on AllEars.net and on our podcasts. As soon as I heard about this tour, I was desperate to go. As much as I love zoos and getting “up close” to the wildlife, this was a no-brainer. DH, Moo, and I went, and we got to go at the introductory price of $129 per person. The price is now $189 per person, and it may go even higher during peak season. Included in the price, in addition to the 3-hour tour, is a water canteen (stainless steel, very nice) and a code for a free Photopass CD ($150 value) of all of the pictures from your trip, NOT just the ones from the tour. You also get a light meal during the tour. To go on the tour, you must be at least age 9, able to walk on groomed trails and climb 1-2 flights of stairs, and between 50 and 310 pounds. Park admission is required and is not included in the tour price.
This tour embodies what you expect from Disney, a real example of “the Disney difference”. They take care of everything that you can think of during the trip. It is an amazing experience, not to be missed,. Our tour was at 1pm, and, as instructed, we arrived at 12:45pm. The check-in host was also our tour guide, Jeff. Jeff signed us, had us sign the waiver for the tour, and explained that this was our last chance to use the restroom for the next two hours. Then, we waited for a few minutes for the rest of the tour group to arrive. The tour maxes at 12 people; we had 11 on our tour. Jeff led us “backstage” through a gate and down a short path to an open air hut that is hidden behind a copse of trees from the park. (I should note, too, that Jeff is a stone cold hottie, at least in part because of his wicked sense of humor.) At the hut, our other tour guide, whose name I unfortunately don’t recall (I never saw her nametag, but she did introduce herself at the beginning), was waiting for us. Here, they reminded us that we couldn’t bring any loose items with us on the tour. Any bags we were carrying and anything in our pockets needed to be put into a locker. We were allowed to bring a hat, glasses/sunglasses (they provided a neckstrap), and a camera so long as it could be attached to our gear via a carabiner and/or neckstrap. The back half of the hut had a bank of lockers for our use, and the lockers were amply sized and individually coded. (On a similar tour at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, guests used a shared locker.)
Next, we were each weighed. The scale’s display was located hidden behind the counter, so only the tour guide was able to see. Based on our weight (presumably), we were assigned gear vests. The first gear vest they gave me was going to be a tight fit, so I asked for a larger one. The next size up, whatever it was, was comparatively huge on me, and they had 2 sizes larger than that available. So, the vest they put you in doubles as a safety harness. There are leg straps that go around your legs, kind of similar to a zipline harness. You also have a giant and heavy cable that goes from the middle of the back around you and clips to a spot in the upper left of your vest. The tour guides were very helpful in getting us all into our gear. One piece of advice: wear shorts that are at least knee length! Otherwise, it’s easy for the shorts to get caught in the legstraps and start wedgie-ing up on you. While you’re never hanging from the straps (as you would in a zipline), you really want a layer of fabric between the straps and your skin for walking. The guides showed us how to carabiner our cameras to the vest. I was able to bring my dSLR on its neckstrap. I tethered it to the vest just as an extra safety, but that wasn’t required. I could not bring any extra lenses, so I used my 40-150mm (80-300mm equiv.) as it’s a good all-around zoom lens. Moo didn’t have a strap on her digital camera, but they had little rings and straps for anyone who needed one in order to attach their gear.
Along with the gear, we were issued an earpiece and radio unit (tethered to the vest). Using the earpieces (which made us look like Secret Service!), we could hear our guide talking in our ear, even when we were separated. This also allowed our guide to talk in a lower speaking voice to avoid disturbing other guests when we were walking through the public areas. (I’m told that these earpieces are standard for Disney tours, and I think they’re terrific!) We were also issued a water canteen that we could keep after the tour. The canteen was plain and unlabelled, aside from our names written in marker on the lid. I do wish it had some kind of logo of Animal Kingdom or the Wild Africa Trek logo on it.
Our next step was a practice bridge. Since this tour requires crossing rope bridges with widely spaced planks, we were sent across a mini-bridge to start. The mini-bridge was about 7 feet off of the ground and maybe 10-15 feet long. It simulated the distance you have to step between planks as well as the “swinginess” of the longer bridges on the tour. Once you’ve crossed the mini-bridge successfully, the tour guide removes a blue tag from your vest, indicating that you’re cleared for the tour.
There was a water and juice station set up to enjoy while you were waiting on the other guests to get through the mini-bridge. The juice that they provide for the tour is really delicious. The only thing that could make it better is rum. 🙂 Jeff told us it was a pineapple-orange-guava juice blend. Then, we were off! Jeff did most of the talking, while the other tour guide took pictures that would be included in our PhotoPass. We were initially guided out of the backstage area and into the public space. Jeff did some “in character” talk about the part of Africa we were in, the fort and its purpose, and the wildlife preserve. (One common complaint about this tour is that the guides generally stay in character, meaning they act like you’re a tourist visiting an African wildlife preserve. But, our guides also answered questions that were somewhat out of character, like how often the animals are fed. If you’re wanting to hear about how the park was created, though, like Keys to the Kingdom, this is not the tour for you. They “preserve the magic”, to use Disney lingo.) Our first stop was at a tree along the way, where we learned about its potato-like fruit and its uses. Then, we were taken down the Pangani trail through the Gorilla area. The gorillas weren’t out when we went by. We also went over to the platform near the okapi and meerkats, but it was very crowded. As a result, our walk through Pangani was quick…which was fine by me since I can see the Pangani trail anytime.
Just before we went backstage again, our guide took a quick photo of our entire group, noting (in character) that he could compare it at the end to make sure we all made it back. Then, we started along a groomed (but unpaved) trail through the back area. We crossed one suspension bridge (not the rope bridges, just a regular bridge) overlooking the hippo pond that is visible from the Pangani trail. Then, after a brief walk through the woods, we got to hook up to a metal track and go out on an outcropping over the hippo pond that is visible when you’re on the Kilimanjaro Safari ride. A cast member was there feeding the hippos lettuce so that they’d be nearby for us.
The metal track attached to our vest’s cable, and it basically kept us from being able to accidentally or intentionally jump into the hippo pond. I had heard some early reviews about being able to lean out horizontally over the hippos, but that was not the case. Our tour guides told us to stay behind the wooden edge of the outcropping.
After we were untethered, there was another brief walk to our first bridge. Along the way, we were able to look over the savanna to see some okapi and other hoofed animals. Then, we got into line to go up to the bridge. The order you get into line at this point will be the order that you go across the first bridge, as you’re all tethered to the safety bar in order. They send three people over the bridge at a time (one toward the end, one toward the middle, and one starting out).
The bridges are around 170-180 feet long, and they are roughly 70 feet above the ground. There are slats missing such that you have to do a long step or mini-jump in a few sections. Also, the bridges are definitely wobbly! The first bridge just goes across the Kilimanjaro safari tour’s road. The second bridge goes over a pit of crocodiles!
In retrospect, I really wish I’d taken more time in the middle of the bridges to take photos. I tried to take video, but it was way too shaky to post or use.
After crossing the crocodile bridge, we got harnessed to another metal track to get a closer look at the crocs.
Then, we got to go out onto another overlook to see the crocs up close. They were surprisingly active, slipping in and out of the water and sunning with their mouths gaping.
After the track and another short walk, we got to take off our vests and board a truck to go on the Kilimanjaro Safari. But, unlike the regular safari, we got to stop frequently to take photos and get questions answered about what we were seeing. Finally, we visited a “boma” house that overlooked the entire savanna for our meal and a bathroom break. We got more of the delicious juice as well as two tins of delicious food. We spent around thirty minutes at the boma before heading back out for the rest of the safari and the walk back to our original hut.
All in all, it was an absolute blast. I highly recommend the tour for anyone that enjoys seeing wild animals up close or anyone looking for a little something extra at the Animal Kingdom. It’s not really a thrill-seeker thing…thrill-seekers will find it tame, I think. Between the safety gear and the safety nets, you never feel like you’re going to fall during the bridges.Once I get the photopass photos, I’ll post those and add a link to them from here. I’ve seen the photos, and they’re awesome…around 170 of them in total, including lots of super-zoomed shots of the wildlife that we saw on the trek and the safari. I think the tour is well worth the money, especially with the free photopass. We paid nearly as much for a similar tour in San Diego and didn’t get any photos of ourselves (though they provided a pre-printed photobook with stock photos of what we theoretically saw) nor any refreshments, and there wasn’t the thrill of crossing the rope bridges.
Edited to add – Disney photopass photos: [zenphotopress album=42 sort=random number=5]
(You can also access all the photos from our trip at The Gallery of the Org* > Disney-2011-02)