Backstage Safari
at Animal Kingdom
Tour Review

by Michael England, October 2001

OCTOBER 22, 2001 -- We were up bright and early for our day at the Animal Kingdom, which was posted to open at 8:00 AM. I had booked us for the three-hour Backstage Safari, a special tour of the animal care and feeding facilities which the general public doesn't see. (Like everything Disney, the fee for the tour wasn't cheap, but a good portion of it went to Disney's animal conservation fund which sponsors a number of worldwide programs.)

We arrived at the Animal Kingdom parking gate, only to discover for the second day in a row that we were in along line of cars because the park hours had changed and it would open an hour later. (I had asked an Epcot Guest Services representative about other park hours the previous day, and had been told only Epcot's hours were changed. Oh, well.) Cars weren't admitted until 8:00 and the park would open at 9:00.

I was concerned, because to meet the tour, we were to cross the park and take the 8:30 train to Conservation Station. Since the park didn't open until 9:00, there was no way to do that. I began to search for a cast member to ask, and soon saw a sign at one side of the waiting area announcing our tour. The tour would still begin at 8:30, and we would be taken in a van to the backstage area. Paul, our guide checked our names off his list and gave us name tags to stick on our shirts.

Paul was a pleasant man; a retired schoolteacher from Michigan. He told us that when he and his retired wife settled in Orlando, both found part time jobs at Disney. Paul said he leads the Backstage Safari three days a week. He clearly enjoys his work, because he's good at it. He led the group of thirteen through the entry gate (where purses and bags were checked by Security) and then through a side gate which led into the backstage area beyond the Rainforest Cafe. We crammed ourselves into the van and were driven around the huge perimeter of the park to the back side.

The tour began with the white rhino barn, where the keeper ushered us in (first stepping carefully on a rubber mat filled with disinfectant, as we did in all the animal areas, to protect them from contamination being tracked in). We were introduced to two rhinos, Gloria and her young child Hasani. They were being kept inside because Hasani was being observed for possible illness. Though the keeper warned us that Gloria was extremely protective of Hasani and might not allow us to approach him, he grew curious and put his head through the vertical posts which formed the enclosure. Each of us was invited to approach him quietly and pet his head. Gloria made no threat, but kept a very close eye on the proceedings. His hide felt a bit like very short-napped rawhide over the rocky bone of his head.

The elephant barn was our next stop. In the absence of the keepers that day, Paul explained a great deal about the way the Disney professionals care for the elephants, as well as about worldwide efforts some very creative to stop poaching and save the elephant. There are three bulls at the Animal Kingdom, in addition to the herd of cows. Each bull is given a day off in rotation, and kept in an outdoor enclosure at the barn with toys to interest him and plenty of fine food. That day's bull was the youngest, Willie, whom we watched for a time while Paul told us about him and his history.

There was no more petting (with one exception), because the policy of Disney keepers is to care for the animals without entering their space, for the most part. This is to respect their natural wildness and not to introduce any more domesticating influence than absolutely essential to their care.

Next we visited a young giraffe (about two years old) named Asanti. Though all of the Animal Kingdom's giraffes are reticulated giraffes, Asanti was of a different subspecies whose spots are not a solid color as are those of reticulated giraffes. He was being housed temporarily at the Animal Kingdom until his permanent home at another zoo was ready. As his keeper told us about him, she climbed a ladder and fed him treats as he put his head over the top of the enclosure. We had a great view of his extremely long, almost prehensile tongue when he reached out to grab his treats from her hand.

The group walked back to a classroom maintained by the education department which operated the tour. A keeper was waiting there for us, and had brought an agouti. He held him on a leash while he told us about the animal and then offered us our second opportunity for an up-close, petting experience. Agoutis have the ability to raise their extremely coarse, bristly hair in order to increase their apparent size and discourage enemies, so petting his coat was an interesting sensation.

Paul showed us and narrated a video he had made, explaining procedures used to enrich the lives of the various animals to prevent boredom, and procedures of training them to cooperate in their care. The animals are not trained to do tricks, but are rewarded and reinforced in natural behaviors which are useful, such as training elephants to put an ear out from the enclosure in order to monitor their condition and draw blood for testing. Each type of animal is also taught to respond to a different sound (for instance, a clicker for the elephants) by returning to its barn for the evening.

Paul then led the group to the food storage and preparation buildings. We were introduced to the remarkable variety of food and ways it can be prepared in order to keep it interesting and tasty. We learned, for instance, that the Animal Kingdom buys 80 distinct varieties of animal chow (from a subsidiary of Purina). Carnivores are never fed live animals, and Paul took a tray from the subzero freezer on which was displayed a variety of frozen animals used as food.

Finally, we toured the thoroughly equipped and up-to-date veterinary facility, which we were told is the envy of other zoos. Paul explained about various medical/surgical procedures and how they are performed. He also showed us a specially built veterinary vehicle, complete with every conceivable instrument or tool (even a mobile x-ray unit). This is used to go to animals too large to be taken into the hospital facility.

We returned briefly to the classroom for a wrap-up. Paul gave each of us a special Backstage Safari pin, which he warned us might make us targets of enthusiastic pin traders, because of its rarity. Then he led us through a gate out of the backstage area and into the onstage part of the park at Conservation Station. What a great choice that tour was ”fascinating from beginning to end.

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