See the species soar in Flights of Wonder

It’s such a joy when we cross off some rare attraction on the to-do list for the first time. In the case of a recent fall trip to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we finally made it to the Flights of Wonder show! The show had never been a priority, though I had read nothing but positive reviews.

Flights of Wonder begins with introductions to tour guide “Guano Joe” — you couldn’t miss his name because the bird trainer was obsessively addressing him by it. Apparently Guano Joe has an avian aversion and the trainer has made it her business to ease his fears by introducing him to a bevy of exotic species. Macaws, an African gray parrot, a crowned crane, a great horned owl and others came out to visit, perform tricks and in some cases even came swooping out over the audience to the back half of the theater. It is the trainer’s hope that by teaching Guano Joe (and us, the audience) about bird habits and behaviors, we will come to see them in a friendly and fascinating light. There is an underlying theme of conservation of the birds’ habitat throughout the show.

The ample theater is outdoors, but covered, which makes for a welcome break from the midday sun. And it’s scenic — the Caravan Stage is set against the backdrop of temple ruins that, according to Animal Kingdom’s backstory, were once part of the rule of a great Maharajah. The ruins have become the playground of these majestic birds.

Our kids loved the birds. They wanted to get down closer to the stage after the show to meet the various species. If you can spare the time, linger to take photos and ask questions of the trainers to gain a better understanding of the birds.


Location: Find the Flights of Wonder show performed multiple times daily in the Asia section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, Walt Disney World Resort.


Make a catch of “Finding Nemo: The Musical”

“Finding Nemo: The Musical” does a pretty slick job of condensing the darling, full-length animated film into a 30-minute stage show. It has to move at brisk pace to accomplish this, but the show’s not tough to follow – especially for those familiar with the movie. Nemo’s story is carried out in a spectacle of vibrantly-colored puppets, live performers, a digital backdrop and – in the one divergence from the movie – perky musical numbers.

Our kids, the first time they saw the show (then all 4 & under) stayed entertained throughout the show with the help of some favorite characters: Nemo and his father, Marlin, sing a duet about the “Big Blue World”. Dory reminds us to “Just Keep Swimming”. Bruce tries to convince himself that “Fish Are Friends Not Food”. And Crush, the surfer sea turtle dude advises us to just “Go With the Flow”.


MH finding nemo the musical Location: Catch “Finding Nemo: The Musical” in the DinoLand U.S.A. section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, Walt Disney World Resort.

Touring Tip: Arrive at the Theater In the Wild about 25 minutes before morning showtimes and about 30 minutes before afternoon showtimes. The line may appear long but the theater’s got a large capacity.


Four places to bang the drums in Walt Disney World

Kids don’t want to work – they just want to bang on the drum all day! So where can you do that at Walt Disney World? Here are four spots we’ve found:

MH walt disney world drumsThe Little Drummer Girls are performing at the following locations clockwise from top left: the interactive play queue of The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh at Magic Kingdom Park, the Outpost area of World Showcase at Epcot, while waiting to be seated at Boma – Flavors of Africa at Animal Kingdom Lodge, and in the Harambe Village area in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Let me assure you – you don’t have to be a kid to join in!


Spot: Siamangs in the Asian temple ruins at Animal Kingdom

MH animal kingdom siamangsPause for a few minutes to watch these playful siamangs – members of the gibbon family – deftly navigate the beautiful temple ruins that make up their habitat at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

As with all things Disney, the siamang exhibit tells a story. It’s the tale of the people of Anandapur (the fictional kingdom that comprises the Asia portion of Animal Kingdom) and their desire to preserve these ancient temples. The scaffolding and ropes surrounding the ruins supposedly serve a dual purpose: to allow repairs to be made on the temples, and to amuse the siamangs that have taken up residence in them.

MH animal kingdom siamangsWork on the temples, however, has been delayed by the region’s flood season. The waters of the (also fictional) Chakranadi and Kali rivers have risen to the doors of the temples, leaving the siamangs and white-cheeked gibbons to frolic indefinitely to the joy of those who pause to look.


Location: The siamang and gibbon exhibits are located in the Asia section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, Walt Disney World Resort, near the Kali River Rapids attraction.


Jeep into the wilds on Kilimanjaro Safaris

MH kilimanjaro safaris“But where’s the lion? Have we seen it yet? Is there a lion on this ride? Can he get us? When do we see the lion?” My son, then not quite five, was obsessed the first time he rode Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. To the kid, it was totally possible we really had jeeped through some portal at Walt Disney World and ended up on the African savanna. I’ve never been to Africa myself, but from what I’ve heard, Disney does an excellent job re-creating the ambiance of a sub-Saharan savanna, complete with dozens of exotic animals.

The majestic lion is one of these animals – and if you’re lucky (or looking to be made into a meal, then-according to my son), you’ll catch one of them perched on its rocky habitat. But fear not, there are cleverly imagineered barriers between you and the animals (and barriers between the species themselves). These enclosures blend so beautifully into the landscape that unless you’re aware of them, you might never know the 110-acre reserve is entirely manmade.

MH kilimanjaro safaris

Some of the other animals you might see include giraffes, hippos, cheetahs, elephants, white rhinos and a swarm of Nile crocodiles lurking under a wobbly road bridge.

What doesn’t change is the “story” of the attraction. Like every heavily-detailed Walt Disney World attraction, Kilimanjaro Safaris has an extensive backstory and a plot that carries through the ride. Though modifications have been made since the ride opened in 1998, the idea is that you (the guest) are on a 2-week photo safari that is cut abruptly short when you inadvertently help Warden Wilson foil a band of poachers.


Location: Kilimanjaro Safaris is located in the Africa section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, Walt Disney World Resort.

Touring tip: To see the animals at their most active, try riding Kilimanjaro Safaris as soon as the park opens, or around 3pm when the animals are preparing to return to their backstage areas for feeding.


Celebrate Easter at the Walt Disney World Resort

magic kingdom easterGiven that our Mouse Holiday Family wilts at the thought of such crowds, we have never ventured even in the general direction of the Walt Disney World Resort too close to Easter. As we don’t have the luxury of visiting as often as we’d like (a major understatement), we tend to schedule our trips when attendance is low. This totally wouldn’t be the case if we were locals. We’d take the crowds in stride if we could experience these special Easter activities:

Magic Kingdom

  • Easter Bunny meet-and-greet near Town Square Theatre
  • Special Easter pre-parade featuring Fantasia characters, a few famous Disney hares, and the Azalea Trail Maids.

Epcot

  • Egg-stravaganza: 10 days of hunting for special Disney character eggs hidden around World Showcase. Purchase a special map and stickers ($4.95) to mark your finds; collect a prize when the map’s complete.
  • Easter Sunday egg hunts and relay races for kids in the United Kingdom Pavilion, World Showcase.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Easter Bunny meet-and-greet at the UK Pavilion, Easter Sunday.

Animal Kingdom

  • Mr. and Mrs. Easter Bunny meet-and-greet on Discovery Island, Easter Sunday.

Resort Hotels

  • Many Disney resort hotels offer pre-made Easter baskets or supplies to stock your own.
  • Many resort restaurants will serve special Easter menus or brunches.
  • Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa and Disney’s Contemporary Resort get decked out with incredible – and fully edible! – Easter eggs on display.
  • All resorts will have special Easter activities scheduled throughout the holiday. From character meet-and-greets and candy scrambles to crafts, games and egg hunts, there might be enough going on at the hotels to warrant a break from the theme park crowds!

Take a mini-safari at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge

It was a stretch for me to fully envision the concept of a hotel built within a re-created African savanna – until we stepped foot into the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Though I had read about guests taking morning coffee on their balconies while watching the animals amble, I still expected the savannas to be less accessible to the curious public. Gladly, this is not the case. The animals are on display for all to admire from beautiful vantage points around this majestic resort.

Enveloping the deluxe units of Jambo House and the DVC Kidani Village are four painstakingly maintained savannas totaling over 40 acres. These are the habitat of more than 200 exotic birds and animals. In order to see the greatest variety of creatures, you’ll want to visit the specially designated savanna overlooks sprinkled throughout the property. We took our own mini-safari with the kids this past March.

MH AKL savannasTo assist with an authentic experience, guides — mostly from Africa themselves — are stationed at the overlooks to answer questions about the animals or provide interesting facts. Our 7-year-old daughter, for example, wanted to know where the original homes for the giraffes and gazelles had been. It comforted her to know that many had been born right in the Walt Disney World Resort (within the nearby Animal Kingdom Theme Park). Our 2-year-old found it fascinating to find a flock of flamingos only steps away from the swimming pool.

Feel free to explore at your own pace, keeping with the unhurried, natural ambience of the resort. The animals and architecture alone make the Animal Kingdom Lodge a worthwhile stop on your tour plan.


Location: Find the Uzima, Arusha, Sunset and Pembe Savannas on the grounds of the Animal Kingdom Lodge, Walt Disney World Resort.

Touring Tip: If you’re visiting the Animal Kingdom Lodge as a day guest to see the savannas, grab a map from the front desk.


Wishful Thinking: Camp Minnie-Mickey

“Taps” has sounded for Camp Minnie-Mickey at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The summer fishing camp-themed piece of the park hosted its last guests on January 5, 2014. The space had been on Animal Kingdom’s map since the park opened in 1998. Plans call for replacement of the camp with a new “land” based on the 2009 film Avatar. Regardless of opinion on these new-ish developments, several elements of Camp Minnie-Mickey are passing into the history books including:

  • The current theater for Festival of the Lion King. And possibly parts of the original show as well? It’s slated to move to a brand new venue in, fittingly, the Africa section of the park.
  • The four unique character greeting trails that led to encounters with personalities such as Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pocahontas, and King Louie & Baloo from The Jungle Book among others. Mickey and Minnie have already moved to new digs at Adventurers Outpost on Discovery Island. The other characters will be relocated as well.
  • Grandmother Willow’s Grove – last used as a stroller park, this amphitheater and forest backdrop were once the setting for the Pocahontas and her Forest Friends show. The performance included singing, live animals, an Animatronic Grandmother Willow, and a message about conservation.
  • A bubbling stream meandering along the walkway to Camp Minnie-Mickey. Even if the stream is incorporated into the new land, gone will be the cute characters hiking and fishing along its banks.
  • Two camp cabins dishing out snacks and sweets – Campfire Treats served hot dogs and ice cream, and a second kiosk sold funnel cakes.

We’re usually slow to accept change in the Disney theme parks, even on a minor scale, but we’re hoping something truly amazing replaces Camp Minnie-Mickey at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.


Location: Camp Minnie-Mickey was located in Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, Walt Disney World Resort.


Spot: Amazing creatures on Animal Kingdom’s Tree of Life

PicMonkey Collage - tree of life - CopyIf you can spare the extra time, it’s really rewarding to spend it studying the incredible work of art that is the Tree of Life at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Our family discovered this on a recent trip, that the Tree is a wonderful attraction in its own right. We purposely slowed our pace and meandered the Discovery Island Trails, paths that meander close to the base of the tree and afford views of the animals intricately carved into the trunk and roots.

The kids spent a good chunk of time pointing and calling out the creatures — 325 in total, we learned — not that we were able to identify them all. Some other facts about the icon of Animal Kingdom: the skeleton base of the tree is actually an oil rig, a structure strong enough to hold a sit-down theater inside and support more than 100,000 synthetic yet highly realistic green leaves.


Location: The Tree of Life can be found on Discovery Island near the center of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, Walt Disney World Resort.


Dig It: The Boneyard Fossil Fun Site

Though we have scores of indoor and outdoor playground options in our hometown, I rarely mind spending chunks of touring time visiting Disney’s play areas. Spaces like The Boneyard Fossil Fun Site at Disney’s Animal Kingdom are a welcome relief to our kids – who need more than a little wiggle room after basically being tethered to parents at a theme park all day. At first sight of that caution-yellow, three-story corkscrew slide, they’re off and running.  Just about the only thing that will draw them back to us is a needed gulp of water after exploring this open-air dinosaur dig-site playground!

It’s important to know that at The Boneyard, you should be comfortable letting your kids (at least ages 4 and up, possibly younger if the kids are sturdy and adventurous) out of your sight for a period of time. It’s very difficult to keep tabs on them as they clamber up and over cargo nets and bridges, through caves and tunnels, and disappear down slides. This is where you’ve got a shot at letting go and relaxing for a bit – unless, of course, you’ve got curious toddlers who will insist on exploring the spaces of the playground closer to the ground. There are pint-sized slides, a wall of musical bones and dino footprints that deliver a surprise when you stomp on them!

MH the boneyard animal kingdom

During the warmest months, The Boneyard can be stifling. Try cooling off at the covered, connected sandpit (where the “sand” is actually pebbles that brush off easily). Kids can unearth some pretty convincing dino specimens. Parents can chill out with their young ones in full view. Theoretically, all should emerge refreshed and ready to hit the second half of the park!

Location: Find The Boneyard in the DinoLand U.S.A. section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, Walt Disney World Resort.

Touring Tip: If it might put your mind at ease, know that there’s only one entrance into The Boneyard, the gate is quite small, and is manned by a Cast Member.