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Stars of this trek: Animals, experiences

Orlando Sentinel

Original Article »

January 20, 2011

Dangling above a hippopotamus was not on my bucket list. But then, several unlikely things happened during my preview of WildAfrica Trek, a tour that debuted this week at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

The new experience takes theme-park guests off the beaten path, through lush forests and over rope bridges. If you go, wear proper walking shoes. Flip-flops are not an option through these areas previously off-limits to Disney World guests.

So when we look over the edge of a bluff and down upon a sunning Nile hippopotamus — close enough we could see the hair on his back — I feel the envy of guests on Kilimanjaro Safaris on the far side of the pond. Why else would someone yell "Jump!"?

Not that we could make a running leap. All trek guests at this point are tethered to a metal rail that gives a sense of security beyond the fact that hippos aren't good climbers.

Safety is emphasized from the beginning of the tour, which starts at a check-in point behind Dawa Bar. In a backstage area, trekkers are outfitted with a mesh vest that doubles as a harness. Loose items, including all backpacks, must be stowed in lockers. The idea is to keep litter out of nature and your valuables from going over the side of the bridge. Straps to secure hats and glasses are provided.

Cameras are allowed if they have a neck strap or a strap that can be attached to the vest. It was a relief not to worry about losing my camera.

Winding through the theme park to the tour entrance in our vests and headphones, we look like eco-Special Ops. Shoot, we ought to feel special. Each outing is limited to 12 guests, and the introductory cost of the Wild Africa Trek is $129 per person. That's on top of Animal Kingdom admission. (The price includes a photo package captured by one of the guides.)

The trails are unpaved and somewhat overgrown. Some of the terrain is uneven and steep. Basically, you must watch your step and sometimes travel single file. The guide referred to us as his herd.

Our two guides are knowledgeable about the animals — we couldn't really stump them — and the plant life. They toss about several Swahili words, as that is the Animal Kingdom way. It's Disney, so there's bound to be storytelling, and a little of that goes a long way. Dude, we know we're not in Africa and that there was no "new bridge" that was washed out in the recent rains. Still, it was presented earnestly, and I appreciated moments such as when one guide encouraged us to be quiet.

"Africa will play a symphony all around you," he said.

Ah, but that "old bridge" is for real and provides another special moment. Step by step, we carefully crossed above the course of the safari vehicles. The second leg passes over Nile crocodiles. This could be too intense for some people. As a kid, I would have never made it across, despite the safety nets. (Disney trekkers must be at least 8 years old.)

Time to feel special again: We board vehicles better than the standard safari trucks, and we make a few stops to study and photograph giraffes, gazelles, cheetahs and the like. It leads to a big payoff, the Boma Landing.

The new structure is set up for a panorama of the savanna and its inhabitants. At Boma Landing, a nice light meal is served, but the view provides satisfaction. For about 30 minutes, trekkers can gaze out into the field and see nature do its thing. This oasis already is being expanded to include a lookout onto the rock where lions are spotted.

Boma helps the trek end on a top-of-the-world feeling note. But what about the bottom line? It boils down to this: Would you rather have $129 or an unusual three-hour adventure?


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