LAKE BUENA VISTA
Acclaimed anthropologist Jane Goodall was a consultant as Walt Disney World Resort was building its fourth and largest theme park, Animal Kingdom. When the media previewed the park before its April 1998 opening, I asked Dr. Goodall what she thought when she was first contacted by the entertainment conglomerate. She answered:
"I wondered, what took them so long?"
I was thinking the same thing when I went on the park's new three-hour experience, the Wild Africa Trek: What took them so long to provide the customers a more up-close view of the critters?
The Trek is pricey — $129 until Feb. 26, then $189 — but it is fun, educational and, at times, thrilling. On the two hours of walkabout, you will be leaning over the banks of a river to get within 15 feet of hippos as well as crocodiles so large they look like leathery minivans with pointy teeth. A lot of teeth.
Saving you from becoming someone else's very special memory of the trek is a snug-fitting vest. It has harnesses around your upper thighs and a sort of industrial-strength bungee cord attached to its back. Two Trek guides help you hook a carabiner clamp at the end of this cord to brackets that slide along metal railings. This allows you to lean over the river banks, as well as to cross two swaying suspension bridges.
The bridges, too, cross the river, and while you grasp the cables that hold up the netted sides of the bridges, you'll be looking down for the irregularly spaced wooden planks on which to step. Looking down is good, because you'll again be eyeing crocs and hippos, more than 20 feet below.
The guides alternate leading/narrating the walk and photographing the participants, limited to 12 people. At the end of the trek, each person is given a card with password information that allows them to view all the images taken and order a photo CD, which is included in the fee.
Also included is a charming picnic lunch at an observation post that provides great views of elephants, giraffes and various types of antelopes. The lunch, served in an ingenious metal container, includes appetizer-sized items such as prosciutto, shrimp, salmon and hummus.
This lunch stop occurs in the last third of the trek, which is made by open-sided truck. It follows the same roads used by the often-crowded Kilimanjaro Safari trucks. But your truck benches have plenty of space, and binoculars are provided for the frequent stops to better view animals.
My truck paused within 15 feet of a young giraffe and an adult, within 30 feet of a rhino and her youngster. We also watched three cheetahs on a nearby hillside, a lion and lioness looking relaxed in the sun, plenty of hooved stock, and several adult elephants and a predictably cute young one.
All of these were pointed out and described to us by the knowledgeable guides. We heard them over earpieces that attached to portable radios receiving their commentary.
The Wild Africa Trek offers especially closeup views of creatures we otherwise might never get. On the Kilimanjaro Safari trucks, you could be in the middle of a row, with other passengers blocking your camera. Not the case on the Trek, and we never left a stopping point until everyone was satisfied with their view through the provided binoculars or their cameras.
Freelance travel writer Robert N. Jenkins is the former travel editor of the St. Petersburg Times.