Previewers Roam Disney's Animal Kingdom

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Disney's Animal Kingdom was far from deserted recently even though it was not yet open to the public.

Following standard operating procedures, Disney has been staggering invitations to its 52,000 employees and their families to "prescreen," or take part in a "cast preview," in its corporate parlance. The purpose: get the kinks out during a dress rehearsal, while providing employees with a sense of participation.

As a member of an invited trade press group, it was my impression that this park seems to offer more room to roam with fewer rides than at other Disney parks, such as Disney's Magic Kingdom, which opened here more than 26 years ago, Epcot and Disney-MGM Studios. But when Animal Kingdom opens April 22, it will be, at 500 acres, Disney's largest park.

We arrived at the Dinosaur parking section shortly after 8 a.m., which is the time when the park will open in the spring. It will close at 5 p.m. daily until summer, when it may remain open until 6 or 7 p.m. From the parking lot tram we observed workers installing ticket booths and adding other finishing touches.

Our adventure began in Animal Kingdom's Safari Village , where we encountered the park's signature attraction, the 14-story Tree of Life, which contains a 435-seat theater. The tree, visible from all over the park, can sway in the wind because each branch unit is encircled by a giant expansion joint. Our group briefly debated whether to see more of Safari Village or proceed to other sectors of the park, including DinoLand U.S.A., the Oasis and Camp Minnie-Mickey.

We took the safari to the land of Africa, an area portraying a dusty African village comprised of thatched-roof huts and baobob trees -- man-made, of course. Walking the wide and deliberately cracked pathways, we saw long-armed gorillas grooming each other on the Exploration Trail and then boarded the back seat of an open-sided lorry for the Kilimanjaro Safari ride.

We soon spotted hippos, elephants, zebras, various birds and other animals separated from us by natural barriers such as deep moats. Lion sightings were limited this day. We glimpsed a lion's paw upraised as he slept on his back behind a rock. "Too few animals" complained some Disney employees. But they probably were unaware that not all of the park's 1,000 animals had arrived yet. Also, because Animal Kingdom conforms to natural habitats, animals might not always be visible. Visitors disappointed at not seeing specific animals should return at another hour, officials said.

The Countdown to Extinction ride resembles an inside roller coaster that tends to jerk and leap through a meteor-streaked sky during a frenetic journey into a dinosaur-populated prehistoric forest. But it does not make any huge ascents or descents. The car is called a 12-passenger, all-terrain time rover. "I screamed all the way through it," said one member of our party, laughing. Another guest kept her eyes shut through the entire ride. "Were there menacing dinosaurs?" she asked. There were.

Afterward, someone in our group wanted a picture with the Disney characters for her children, so we went to Camp Minnie-Mickey to find them. The characters were as silently affable as always. From the reaction of my group, the nearby Affection Section, where visitors can pet goats and other animals, is definitely not for children only. Unlike zoos, however, no feeding is allowed. Likewise, visitors in my group restrained themselves from joining the children hand-digging the dirt covering the immense, artificial bones of a Mammoth Woolly buried daily four-feet deep in the Boneyard, an obviously popular children's playground.

We also viewed two live stage performances. One was the "Journey into Jungle Book," where a trampoline-jumping Baloo, raised by animals, reluctantly leaves his nonhuman companions. Of more appeal to adults is the rollicking, rousing "Festival of the Lion King," which features head-bobbing animal characters on parade-like floats, highly energetic drum and dance routines, and breezy, aerial acrobatics. After the final 4:30 p.m. show of the day, we peeked into a few stores before boarding a crowded parking lot tram as the orange sun disappeared.

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Longer Stays, Higher Commissions

Animal Kingdom added one day to Disney's previously suggested visit of at least five days, according to Randy Garfield, senior vice president of sales and travel operations for Walt Disney Attractions. This extra day translates into a higher commission, he said. Although one can see most of Animal Kingdom in a day, a minimum day-and-a-half might be set aside to see it all -- provided the park is not crowded.

Multiday tickets are included in wholesaler packages, or they can be purchased separately after arrival; all include admission to Animal Kingdom. Choices are:

  • The six-day All-in-One Hopper pass, $263.96 for visitors age 10 and older and $210.95 for those ages 3 to 9 (all prices include tax). The six-day pass offers unlimited admission to all theme parks, the three water parks, Pleasure Island and Disney's Wide World of Sports complex for six days; freedom to visit multiple parks on the same day, and use of the Disney transportation system. Unused days never expire.
  • The five-day pass provides unlimited admission to all Disney theme parks; freedom to visit all parks on the same day, and Disney transportation. The five-day Park Hopper pass is $200.34 for adults and $160.06 for children, with tax.
  • One-day, one-park passes cost $44.52 as of April 22, $36.04 for children 3 to 9.
  • Animal Kingdom access: The Magic Kingdom and Epcot are linked by monorail and bus to other Disney points; Disney-MGM Studios and the Animal Kingdom have no monorail stations. They can be reached by Disney bus from anywhere in the Disney destination resort, including buses serving the monorail transportation center.
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