by Deb Wills, February 2002
following article appeared in the February 19, 2002, Issue #126 of
ALL EARS® - All About WDW Newsletter ISSN:1533-0753
(with contributions from Mary Brennan, Copy Editor
and Debra Martin Koma, Senior Editor)
A few months ago, I got wind of a new tour due to debut soon at Disney's Animal Kingdom. I'd had such a positive experience last year when I took the Backstage Safari Tour at AK, I excitedly called 1-407-WDW-TOUR to find out if the new tour would be offered during my next trip to Walt Disney World. Sure enough, the new tour, called Wild by Design, was available, so on Friday, February 8, a few members of the ALL EARS™ staff and I learned what it was all about.
Unlike many of the special tours Disney offers, Wild by Design does NOT go behind the scenes, technically. But, by focusing on just how the Animal Kingdom's "look" was achieved through careful Imagineering, and by offering opportunities to talk with some of the animal keepers, Wild by Design gives a very special insight into Disney's newest Florida theme park.
The morning of our tour was a cold one, but the cheery welcome we received from our tour guide, Linda Hightower, designer of Wild by Design, warmed us considerably. We were delighted to learn we were Linda's only tour guests scheduled that day! In addition, ALL EARS™ Copy Editor Mary Brennan, Senior Editor Debra Martin Koma, and I were treated to the exclusive attention of not one, but two Cast Members! Paul Streeter (who conducts the AK's other tour, the Backstage Safari) was shadowing Linda that day to learn the tour himself.
The tour got off to an unusual start when Linda handed us all headsets. As we looked at her quizzically, she explained that each guest was to wear a set of earphones and battery pack, similar to those you'd wear when listening to a personal CD player, while she would wear a microphone headset. This proved to be a brilliant addition to the tour! As we walked around the park, we didn't have to worry about "missing something" or getting ahead of or behind the group. Linda was not only able to give her presentation, but could keep an eye on us as we wandered about. Occasionally you would hear her say, "Deb, on your left is...." or "Mary, what you are looking at is..." This really enhanced our ability to enjoy the tour -- not only could we hear our guide over the intrusive noises of animals and chattering guests, but we had the freedom to explore a bit on our own.
We entered the park about 30 minutes before its official opening and went directly to the dedication plaque in Discovery Island. We learned that the absence of an oversized focal point at the park entrance was intentional, as was the use of stark concrete and angles in the entrance plaza, to contrast with the lush greenery found inside the turnstiles. This set the tone for the whole tour, during which we were to focus on the "whys" and "hows" behind the theming of Animal Kingdom.
Our tour formally began in Asia, with an introduction to the fictional kingdom of Anandapur, which means "Place of All Delight" in Sanskrit. Debbie Koma commented how her husband, who had toured Animal Kingdom after having visited India, was very impressed with the authenticity of the area, from the Tiger Trees with prayer flags to the many hand-painted murals. In fact, the beautiful murals along the Maharajah Jungle Trek are the most elaborate in all of Disney. Among the many interesting facts we heard about the creation of this modern-day yet imaginary place, we learned that it took 120 people more than five months to create the four murals that honor the past rulers of Anandapur.
The queue area of Kali River Rapids could be an attraction unto itself and we spent a long while observing its intricacies. Most folks tend to hurry through, especially if there is no wait for the ride -- that's a shame, because they are missing some of the park's most exquisite details. The themed areas include the temple, an outdoor market, and Mr. Panika's Shop. Spend some time exploring this area and the story line will reveal itself to you! And while you are there, see if you can find the two resident live geckos!
Another component of this tour is the opportunity to speak to animal keepers. We were lucky enough to meet up with two, both also named Linda! We encountered the first keeper Linda as she waded through the water surrounding the decrepit temple that houses the siamangs and white-cheeked gibbons. She told us all about the training, feeding, and care of Kenny and Bagoose, the two resident siamangs -- as well as several funny anecdotes. She also talked at some length about animal enrichment programs and the Species Survival Plan, emphasizing Disney's commitment to conservation efforts throughout Animal Kingdom.
The Africa segment of the tour included a lengthy visit to the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail (originally called Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail when the park opened in 1998). At this spot, we were treated to another keeper interaction. Cast Member Linda spoke to us extensively and enthusiastically about her charges, the gorillas, and had brought along a plaster cast of a gorilla foot for us to examine. It was as if the gorillas were really audio-animatronics and their show started as we entered their area. None of us had ever seen so many gorillas out and about in all our previous visits to Disney's Africa, and even Linda seemed quite impressed with the performance we observed. Gino, the silverback leader of the family group, not only frolicked about with one of his youngsters, but climbed high into a tree to break off a branch. Across the way, two younger male gorillas beat their chests and put on quite the show for the guests nearby. In another area of the trail, two young gorillas acted like typical siblings, playing and taunting each other. You'd swear you could hear the little one laughing.
Midway through the tour, we returned to Harambe and were invited to a special room inside the Tusker House restaurant, where we enjoyed a wonderful continental breakfast. This brief break provided an opportunity to talk with Linda and Paul extensively about the background of Disney's Animal Kingdom. We also were awarded a special Wild by Design dangle pin that features Gino (the gorilla) to commemorate our tour.
Our guide Linda did an outstanding job and you can be sure we all gave her high marks when we were asked to fill out an evaluation form at the tour's conclusion. It's clear Linda loves her subject matter and has researched it extensively. We don't want to give away too many of her secrets or the tour's details -- you'll have to take the tour yourself... and we encourage you to do so! But, we will conclude by teasing you with a few morsels. For example, did you know:
-- that there's always a bottle of Coke to be found in Harambe, just not where you'd expect?
-- that there's a mural telling a story of the Tree of Life, you just have to know where to look?
-- that there are photos of the "Royal Couple" of Anandapur scattered throughout Asia?
-- that there's a good reason the ground in Harambe is in such disrepair?
-- that there are a number of Hidden Mickeys, some obvious, others very hard to spot?
Yes, Wild by Design proved to us that many of the sights and sounds in Animal Kingdom that look to be so natural and random were actually planned and are there for a specific purpose. In fact, so much thought and planning went into the "stories behind the story," you could probably spend days roaming the Animal Kingdom and still not see it all!
If you like spotting those "little things", the little things that make Walt Disney World so magical, then this tour is for you. In fact, I enjoyed myself so much, I plan to take the tour again next year!
Wild by Design is offered Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and lasts approximately 3 hours. You must be 14 years of age or older. There are no behind the scenes visits or animal interactions as part of the tour and our ability to photograph the park prior to opening time was limited to the immediate area around the Tree of Life.
The cost is $58 per person, plus Animal Kingdom admission. Discounts were available as of February 2002 to Annual Passholders, and members of Disney Club, Disney Vacation Club, and AAA. Be sure to ask about discounts when you call 1-407-WDW-TOUR to make your reservation!
And while you are there, be sure to say hello to Linda and Paul from the staff at ALL EARS™!!
If you wish to learn more about Disney's Animal Kingdom check out: http://allears.net/tp/ak/ak.htm
Other Tour Reviews:
Disney's Hollywood Studios
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.