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Another kingdom to explore

Published Sep. 13, 2005

With a cast of thousands - about 2,500 of them human, 1,000 others animal _ Animal Kingdom opened Wednesday at Walt Disney World. Its theme is that animal life is finite and that humankind is the animals' biggest threat and biggest hope.

Walt Disney World executives spent about nine years designing the park and arranging accreditation so that its veterinary staff can care for and breed about 25 endangered species. Workers resculpted about 500 acres of cattle pasture to represent African savanna and tropical rain forest, planting an estimated 4-million trees, bushes and flowers. To let guests better see the animals when they are active, Animal Kingdom is open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. The park is west of Epcot and Disney-MGM Studios, off U.S. 192.

The symbol of Animal Kingdom is the 145-foot-tall Tree of Life. The product of engineers and artists, the tree appears to be real, until visitors get close enough to see its "bark," which features 325 animals and insects, carved in a special concrete. Live animals are displayed around the base of the tree, which is actually a reinforced version of an offshore oil rig.

Singers and dancers from the rousing musical revue Festival of the Lion King entertain in a theater that seats 1,000. Acrobats and stilt walkers join in during the 35-minute romp through the score of The Lion King film.

About 100 acres of a former cow pasture have been turned into the African savanna, where the gazelle and the antelope play. Trucks carry guests through the unfenced area, often passing within a few feet of giraffes, zebras and even rhinos. Cheetahs and lions are kept a distance, behind barriers invisible to the truck passengers.

Jeff Gautheur, with the performing group Cirikli, peers out from a headdress that mimics his face paint. Animal Kingdom is notable for specially carved details, brilliant colors introduced into the architecture and costumes worn by every employee, from merchandise clerks to performers.