'The Lion King' cast takes break from stage to visit the real big cats of Tampa

From left, Aaron Nelson (Simba), Wade (Sarabi), and Ramsey (Mufasa) listen to tour guide Jeff Kremer. Cast members have enjoyed many of the area’s attractions during their stay here.
From left, Aaron Nelson (Simba), Wade (Sarabi), and Ramsey (Mufasa) listen to tour guide Jeff Kremer. Cast members have enjoyed many of the area’s attractions during their stay here.
Published Feb. 15, 2016

TAMPA — Amanda the tiger stretched her body, lunged into the walls of her metal enclosure and roared at the group passing by her cage at Big Cat Rescue.

Outside, the man who plays the king of the jungle on stage flinched.

"That gate is secured right?" said Aaron Nelson, who plays Simba, the lion prince-turned-lion king star of Disney's The Lion King. "It sounds like the roar we use in the show."

Nelson and his fellow cast members — Gerald Ramsey (Mufasa), Mukelisiwe Goba (Rafiki) and Tryphena Wade (Sarabi) — on Thursday visited Big Cat Rescue to meet the real-life counterparts of the characters they play. Their show wraps up its Tampa run on Sunday at the David J. Straz Center for the Performing Arts.

Amanda is one of about 85 exotic cats who were rescued and now call Big Cat Rescue home. The cast was a rare sight for Amanda, whose caretakers try to keep her away from people because of her natural aggression and protectiveness.

The actors were led around the 70-acre sanctuary by tour guide Jeff Kremer, who explained how each cat came to live at Big Cat Rescue.

They met a pair of bobcats who are were introduced two years ago on Valentine's Day and a lion and tiger duo who have since become inseparable. There were also a couple of lounging leopards who playfully rolled over to show off their furry bellies in the sun.

The actors were in awe when introduced to real-life lions Joseph and Nikita.

"That lion is named Joe, he must be your spirit animal," Wade told Ramsey, who goes by "Joe."

The cast members — except for Goba, who plays the baboon shaman Rafiki — said they prepared for their roles by watching videos of lions in the wild.

"There's always something to learn," Nelson said. "These 500-pound cats are so graceful."

The play's 25-day run here brought stage manager Michael Morales, a Tampa native, back to his hometown. It also gave him a chance to show the cast some of his city's highlights, such as restaurants and even last month's annual Gasparilla parade.

When asked what was scarier, the big cats or Tampa's annual invasion of fake pirates, Nelson answered: "Definitely Gasparilla."

Because Tampa's winter is warmer than some of the other tour stops, Wade took a trip to Crystal River to swim with the manatees. She and a few other cast members also traveled to Walt Disney World.

The cast has spent most of its time in downtown Tampa, near the Straz Center. They like to dine at Anise Global Gastrobar but their favorite is the brunch joint First Watch.

They also took a trip aboard the Yacht Starship Dining Cruise to celebrate Wade's last tour stop. Sunday's show will be her last with the cast of The Lion King. She plans to return home to New York City and concentrate her career on Broadway.

"What do regular people even do between 6:30 p.m. and 11 p.m.?" Wade said.