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Wild Africa Trek

You’ve possibly heard about this recently online – however, I paid my way for this visit, which was about a week after the media trip. Long story short: I have positive things to say about Wild Africa Trek. No one was more surprised than me. I had expected to find this $129 adventure (rising to $189 in March) to be vastly overpriced, but it was fairly priced. Perhaps it was even a bargain at this introductory rate.

It’s a three-hour tour (no Gilligan jokes, please) that starts and stops near Tusker House. That’s a bit odd, since the tour really gets going in the bush deep in the Pangani Falls Forest Exploration Trail, and ends in a jeep where the safaris end, meaning there’s a walk through the public areas on both ends of the tour. Presumably, there wasn’t enough space near Pangani to put the lockers and other gear needed to start the tour.

Our 1:00 tour started with a waiver – the word “death” was mentioned a lot – and then a trip backstage by the African beach near Tusker House. This was already super cool. I was bouncing with excitement to be backstage (well, onstage-backstage) like this.

The view from on the Africa beach.

We navigated some bamboo clumps to a shack with lockers, where we were to deposit every last thing in our pockets. The lockers were free, at least. Then, we were weighed (you must be between 60-310 pounds), and fortunately they don’t show your weight publicly. After that, we were handed a vest harness, with several carabineers and devices already attached. There was a lot of pulling and tugging to get straps tightened just the right way. We were handed free steel water bottles (ours to keep) and croakies for sunglasses, as needed. They took us across a test bridge to make sure we could handle ropes, bridges, and missing planks—thumbs up here! Then, it was time for some free Jungle Juice (orange, passion fruit, mango) while we waited for others.

Once our group was assembled, we did introductions all around (we had eight folks— apparently we didn’t hit the maximum 12 on this trip) and turned on the high-tech tour guide equipment: an earpiece on our end relayed everything the tour guide said through her microphone. We were led through Harambe to Pangani Forest, heading up the exit .

While that sounds like a quick trip, in reality we had lots of pauses, some of them in “regular” on-stage locations like the gorilla viewing areas. It was true that the bachelors were out on the one side, and the baby on the other, but I was a bit impatient at this extravagance onstage. I wanted to get backstage, where I can’t usually go. We must have spent ten minutes here. Finally we made it upstream to the meerkat exhibit, where we veered through a gate and into the bush.

Forget the backside of water – how about the backside of the hippo enclosure?

Up a barely-beaten trail we went, tripping over vines (there are a LOT of them) and up a new staircase. You saw the backside of the hippo exhibit, and stopped here and there to look at croc skulls in the trail. Our destination was the hippo pool. By the time we got there, it was almost 2:00.

Lock in your carabineer!

My heart sank when I saw what awaited us: a “student” researcher with a bucket full of watermelon pieces, and no hippo. The hippo in our enclosure, it seems, was sleeping. I couldn’t fault Disney for this—these are wild animals, after all, but it was frustrating all the same. My mind went to the scene in Jurassic Park when the Jeff Goldblum character asked “you do have dinosaurs on this dinosaur tour, right?” and I was also reminded of why the Jungle Cruise has fake animals: because Walt Disney was told by experts that real animals would be asleep all day, and would disappoint the visitors. And the Jungle Cruise was not an “upsell” tour like the Wild Africa Trek was! (true, it would have cost a bit of money, but nothing like the dollars we were spending here).

Nope, no hippos here. Move along! Move along!

It was a hard pill to swallow that our first animal encounter would be a no-show. It occurred to me that our 1:00 appointment time was ill-advised. Next time, I would do an early morning one, when the hippo (and other animals) would be wide awake. Besides, the afternoons seems to be rainy in summer almost every day. In fact, I might counsel Disney to discontinue the afternoon ones, if the rain and no-show hippos are always a problem. Or offer a discount?

Around the corner, though, we were led to the next feature of the trek: the rope bridge. I’d seen this from the safari jeep weeks before, so I knew it was here, but even with that foreknowledge, this was a true highlight.

Don’t look down! Or rather, do. It’s safe!

You’re way up high (fifty feet?) and traversing a bridge with lots of missing rungs. They serve to “distract” you from the dizzying heights, and the overall effect is one of danger narrowly avoided—the very BEST kind of Disney illusion, and one that for a change was “not so forced.”

Who could see this and not get excited?

That goes double for the second rope bridge—a friend calls these the “terror bridges” since they are so high—when we go over the crocodiles. I've posted a video clip on YouTube so you can see for yourself.

Yes, there are crocodiles down below.

There’s nothing quite like standing over a 15-foot croc with little more than rope holding you up. It excites the senses and wakes you up. Instead of “Jurassic Park,” my mind went to a different story. The time when Joe Rohde had to convince then-CEO Michael Eisner that an animal park would be great for a fourth addition to WDW. Joe brought in live tigers to a meeting, which added an electricity to the air. Well, that electricity is back (or maybe present for the very first time in DAK) in this tour.

There’s a view of the crocs you can’t usually get.

In a way, the croc bridge is the very essence of the Disney’s Animal Kingdom experience: exposure to wild animals, a sense of danger, but a palpable buffer zone and safety net all the same. You’re never in any REAL danger, but you are tricked “just enough” to think you might be. That’s Disney magic, DAK-style, at its finest.

The back side of the croc enclosure!

All too soon, the kinetic (and exciting) part of the tour was done. It was perhaps 2:30 at latest by now; we’d have another 90 minutes of animal watching to do. We trekked by foot to a new loading zone just before the safari on the regular Kilimanjaro route, and we shed our vests to load into a special truck.

Up to 12 can fit in here.

I have mixed emotions about the next 80 minutes. On the one hand, we weren’t doing much that couldn’t be done in the regular, pay-no-extra safari tour. We didn’t really go offroad or backstage much – we just traveled the same road as they did. But on the other hand, things were a bit different in the pacing. We had the luxury of pulling over and stopping: in the savannah near the sable antelope and giraffes, opposite the elephants, up a hill from the cheetahs, and behind a rock to see ostrich.

At each stop, we had time to just watch. The animals do move around, so you see more this way than you would have on the constantly-moving safari truck. My wife was particularly taken by this part of the tour. As for myself, I wasn’t overly impressed, and in the two of us, you can see both sides of the spectrum of likely responses. My thought was that you could always see such animal interactions on the regular safari without extra expense, but hers was that we saw much MORE than a typical truck. Both observations are undoubtedly true.

The flamingoes may get boring to watch, but the elephants are more interesting.

One thing I definitely liked was the suspension of the usual rules. When the truck stopped, you could stand up and move around to take photos. There were binoculars available below the seats. There might have been no spotting guide in the truck, but the two human guides more than compensated. And I really relished not having Warden Wilson Mutua spouting his usual spiel in my ear. I don’t think the truck even had speakers.

We stopped then at the ‘boma’ (it means fort/enclosure) in the middle of the savannah. It sits on a hill, and you can see it from the gazelle area (savannah) and the elephant area.

Our own little oasis, for a while.

I expected to be underwhelmed here, but the promised snack was way more than I expected. We had 3-6 bites each of:

  • Curry chicken salad
  • Salmon with cream cheese, zucchini, and jicama
  • Hummus
  • Mellon balls
  • Prosciutto
  • Tandoori shrimp

Frankly, the flavor was above and beyond my expectations. There was nothing bland about this food (especially the salmon), and I would not have been upset about spending $10 (maybe even $20) for my portion.

There’s a vegetarian option as well.

The entire episode in the rest area, in fact, was sublime. You could watch animals (there were still more binoculars around), or you could just lounge about. It felt a little forbidden to be here, both onstage and backstage at the same time, as if we were doing something naughty. And it felt privileged, as if we got to do something most mortals don’t.

While the structure itself reminded me of some things we’d seen in Tahiti on our honeymoon, the “feeling” reminded me of Disney Cruise Line. You were excited to arrive and experience a new Disney atmosphere, and sad when it was time to depart and leave this area for another Disney guest right in line behind you.

There are fans overhead for the hot summer months.

The feeling of privilege came back—too strongly, in fact—whenever we were passed by another safari truck. Often, the tourists gawked at us instead of the animals, and I felt on the spot. One of the trucks discussed us (“that’s the Wild Africa Trek…”). This was one side effect I was particularly worried about, and remained concerned. I haven’t been on safari since the Trek began, and it concerns me if the Trek becomes so visible that the regular safari “show” becomes compromised. I’m in favor of an upsell Trek if it delivers quality, but not if it happens at the expense of the regular visitors.

We blocked their view of the giraffes from our stopping point.

In fact, so much of the Trek overlaps with the safari that I wondered at one point if maybe the Trek is best done by out of towners who might otherwise wait 70 minutes in line for the safari. With the Trek they pay more, but they get a 3 hour safari (not ten minutes). And they won’t be irritated about spending money to go on the ‘regular’ safari if they have never even been on the regular safari!

Earlier I mentioned that the Trek evokes danger without actually being dangerous, but at times it does veer away from purely sanitized unreality. That’s apparent in the climb through trees. This is not a sanitized path—you could get hurt if you’re not careful. A palm frond actually drew blood on me at one point. But I wasn’t angry. On the contrary, I was thrilled. This was a part of the trip that was “real” and not fake—bully for Disney for not cutting down the palms!

This rhino looked dead-set on charging our truck.

Alas, we can’t say the same for the spiel, which errs on the side of “fake”. The tour guides chatter amongst themselves to create phony drama—the worst offender was the duiker corpse in a tree above us, but the bit about the “new” bridge being broken and we’d have to use the old rope bridges instead was pretty awful too. Why couldn’t it have been enough to just traverse through the jungle? We didn’t need the “frame” story about Dr. Kevin somethingorother either.

The special track offered views you can’t normally get, like this forward-look from the truck.

The Trek is built for adults. You have to be 9 years old and 48 inches tall to participate, and between 60-310 pounds. Contrary to early reports, you CAN bring a camera or video camera, but it must be secured to you by neck strap (or, if a handheld, it can be attached to a footlong strap already on your vest).

You may not need a camera, though. One of the tour guides is always taking pictures of you, your group mates, and the animals. At the end of the tour, you’ll be handed a PhotoPass card. That’s right. You get a free PhotoPass CD, which is a $99 value. If you have more vacation to take, you can use the card to take other PhotoPass pictures around WDW, so really the best strategy would be to take the Trek at the start of your vacation. If you live locally like me, you can use the PhotoPass card for another month or so before cashing in the voucher to get a free CD. Now that’s a bargain!

We paid $129 per person, or about $270 for two adults after tax. There are no discounts whatsoever right now. Was it worth our $270? I think so, but just barely. The PhotoPass benefit makes it like paying $170 total, or $85 each. If you are generous and assume $20 for the meal, $5 for the water bottle, and $5 for the croakies, you’re down to just $55 per person (including tax) for three hours of backstage climbing, loitering to watch animals, and slightly scary experiences like a real rope bridge that really sways in the wind.

You could do much worse than that for value, but once the price goes up, it will be an extra $60 for a total of about $200 per person including tax. At that point, it might make sense for truly infrequent visitors (or conversely, truly experienced visitors who have seen everything else and still have money to burn), but it might be priced too high for the folks in the middle range. Your mileage, of course, will vary.

Kevin Yee may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally. FTC-Mandated Disclosure: As of December 2009, bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose payments and freebies. Kevin Yee pays for his own admission to theme parks and their associated events, unless otherwise explicitly noted.

2011 Kevin Yee

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Kevin's Disney Books

Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including his latest:

Walt Disney World Hidden History: Remnants of Former Attractions and Other Tributes:

As the title implies, this is all about those little things in the parks that have significance to insiders and long-timers, but are never explained or highlighted. When a ride closes, sometimes pieces or props from that ride are folded into the replacement attraction (think of the World of Motion car seen in the queue of Test Track). Other times, designers intentionally craft a tribute to the previous ride—an example of that might be the carving of a submarine in the cement tree created for Pooh’s Playful Spot where the 20,000 Leagues subs used to be.

The other kind of homage in the parks concerns not rides, but individuals. The designers, artists, engineers, executives, and people important to Disney’s history often provide the inspiration for names and titles used at the attractions. Sadly, these are almost always unheralded. All of these remnants and tributes are normally left for the truly obsessed to spot piecemeal. They are usually not even discussed in the official Disney books and tours. This book sets out to change that, and catalog all such remnants and tributes in one spot.

The final result is 225 pages of hyper-detailed historical factoids. Broadly speaking this is a “trivia” book, but remember that it’s a particular kind of trivia. You’ve known before that the Walt Disney World theme parks wove a thick tapestry of details and backstory into a seamless (and peerless) experience. But armed with the specifics of homages and tributes, you’ll become aware that the parks are even more alive, and layered with meaning, that you could have ever imagined.

Might this be an ideal Christmas present or stocking stuffer for the Disney fan on your shopping list? If so, please have a look.

Also written by Kevin...

  • Your Day at the Magic Kingdom is a full-color, hardcover interactive children's book, where readers decide which attraction to ride next (and thus which page to turn to) - but watch out for some unexpected surprises!
  • Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member provides the first authentic glimpse of what it's like to work at Disneyland.
  • The Walt Disney World Menu Book lists restaurants, their menus, and prices for entrees, all in one handy pocket-sized guide.
  • Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free for non-speakers of Japanese.
  • Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller story on this place rich with details.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book, namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides and attractions.
  • 101 Things You Never Knew About Walt Disney World follows the example of the Disneyland book, detailing tributes and homages in the four Disney World parks.

More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link.