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Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge
This article appeared in the December 26, 2000, Issue #67 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge
Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, opening April 16, 2001, is perhaps the most anticipated resort ever to be built at Walt Disney World.
Designed by Disney's Wilderness Lodge architect Peter Dominick, the new resort attempts to recreate the ambiance of a South African wildlife reserve lodge. Such lodges are generally small, with only about 50 rooms, so Dominick was challenged to somehow create a feeling of intimacy for this 1,293-room resort.
From the front of the resort, which is just a short drive from Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park, only a small gathering of huts will be visible. The clever disguise of a small safari village hides the remainder of the sprawling resort, which will have three dining locations to serve guests.
Mara, a quick-service restaurant, will be open to guests throughout the day, while Boma, a family restaurant that will feature an exhibit kitchen, wood-burning grill, rotisserie and children's buffet, will serve only breakfast and a dinner buffet.
Jiko - The Cooking Place, however, will be the Lodge's premier dining experience, a casual, full-service restaurant serving dinner only.
ALL EARS recently talked to Suzanne Bonham, Restaurant Manager of Jiko - The Cooking Place.
Energetic and enthusiastic best describe this 33-year-old Fredericksburg, Virginia, native, who began her career at Walt Disney World in 1993 as a part-time server at the Old Key West resort. In just a few years, she has risen to what is arguably one of the most sought-after positions in Disney's Food and Beverage Department. In addition to her post at the 235-seat Jiko, Bonham is in charge of the beverage program for the entire resort, which includes overseeing the ordering of wines at all the resort's food service locations.
When asked to preview for ALL EARS® readers what dining at Jiko would be like, Bonham began by describing how guests would be immersed in the ambiance of modern Africa by the restaurant's decor, "an abstract African motif, with vibrant colors."
"The restaurant's center stage will be two wood-burning ovens with ceramic tile," she notes, "and will incorporate royal blues and pearl mosaics. There will be a shadowed glass wall and wrought iron -- it will be very stylish."
Like most restaurants at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, Jiko will have views of the 11,000 square foot Uzima Springs pool. Guests will also have the option of being seated at a table of eight facing the flatbread cooking area, so that they can watch the chefs at work (similar to seating available at the Contemporary Resort's California Grill). There will also be a private room for 10 to 40 people, available for dining or wine-tasting parties.
Along with a spectacular view, guests at Jiko will be treated to incomparable culinary delights, Bonham claims.
"Jiko will feature new African cuisine, with the spices and herbs of Africa, as well as some Indian influences," she explains. "It will be creative and fresh -- comfort food with a twist." She adds that although the menu will boast breads fresh from the wood-burning ovens, steaks, chicken, duck and fresh seafood, as well as "exciting" vegetarian offerings, Jiko will not serve any game.
Even though it's too early for Jiko's actual menu to be finalized and revealed, a hint of what might be to come was available at the Epcot Food and Wine Festival's Wine Maker Dinner in November. Serge Burckel and Jay T. Smith, members of the Animal Kingdom Lodge Chef Team, presented a number of savory entrees that may one day be featured at Jiko: Piri Piri prawns served with citrus couscous and young field greens; spice-seared ostrich with apple and turnip conserve; marinated leeks and caramel jus; and light smoked squab with lentil pastille and chestnuts.
Just how does Walt Disney World find exotic chefs such as these? They do their homework, Bonham explains. Serge Burckel, for example, a native of Alsace, was invited to join WDW after working in five Michelin-rated restaurants throughout Europe, and running his own restaurant, One, in Los Angeles.
According to Bonham, Jiko's cuisine will only be one part of its guests' unique culinary experience. Her eyes light up at what she calls an exciting opportunity to educate guests about South African wines.
South Africa has been making wines for more than 350 years, since the French Huguenots and Dutch settlers brought vines from their homelands. In addition to classic varietals, such as sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon, South Africa has created its own varietal, pinotage, a cross of pinot noir and cinsault grapes. After having tasted pinotage at Epcot's Wine Maker Dinner, I can vouch that its slightly smoky and exotic flavor blended perfectly with the African foods sampled.
"My biggest challenge has been obtaining the wines from South Africa, especially since they have so many 'boutique' wineries," Bonham says, adding that she's enjoyed working with various winemakers and also Cape Classics, the original importer of premium-quality South African wines into the U.S. To further extend Jiko's wine cellar, she is planning a trip to Cape Town in February with the ambitious schedule of visiting three wineries a day.
"The Animal Kingdom Lodge will have the largest selection of South African wines in the world -- outside of South Africa," she states proudly. "All wines will be available by glass or bottle and guests will be able to sample selections as well. In fact, we plan to pair wines with the wide variety of culinary offerings. And because many of the wines will only be available at Walt Disney World, the Zawadi Marketplace at the Lodge will also sell South African wines by the bottle.
"Jiko is going to have incredible atmosphere, an incredible wine list and African cuisine," Bonham concludes.
ALL EARS will be at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge when it opens in April. If the pre-opening publicity is any indication, this should be one of the premier Disney resorts, and Jiko - The Cooking Place, one of the *World's* premier restaurants.
Special thanks to Suzanne Bonham and Karen Haynes for their cooperation!
Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.