The new Wild Africa Trek at Disney’s Animal Kingdom offers guests a chance to step onto the “other side” of the usual theme park safari, with closer-than-ever views of amazing wild creatures. But the Wild Africa Trek is much more than an enhanced safari, offering education from knowledgable guides, adventure while walking through previously “off-limits” areas of the park, and even a bit of relaxation while snacking on fresh treats in the middle of the savannah.
To begin the Wild Africa Trek, up to 12 pre-booked guests (or “trekkers,” in this case) check in at a tucked-away podium inside the Harambe area of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The adventure has reservations available several times daily, leaving on the hour up to 3 hours before the park closes. The cost is currently at an introductory rate of $129 per person (plus theme park admission) between now and Feb. 26, 2011.
Update (1/16/11): Here’s a video overview of the Wild Africa Trek, condensing the 3-hour experience down to a minute or so:
Upon checking in, guests must stow all loose items (keys, wallets, cell phones) in a complementary locker before being equipped with safety vests. Cameras are allowed, as long as they can be tethered to the vest or securely fastened to the person. Cameras, however, are not a necessity as Trek guides will snap photos of people, animals, and experiences along the way, with all pictures available to guests via Disney’s PhotoPass service as part of the package, with no additional cost.
While parting ways with nearly all electrical equipment may seem like a hassle, it’s a blessing in disguise. During the roughly 3-hour journey, being cell phone-free offers your group to (gasp) spend quality time with each other. It’s a bit of a vacation from reality, which is Disney’s specialty.
To make it through the Wild Africa Trek, there are some requirements. Trekkers will walk across rough terrain, up and down small hills, under, over, and around foliage, and across some high and wobbly rope bridges. But with a minimum age of 8, almost anyone can easily make it through this adventure. It’s never strenuous or even rushed, but even so it’s important to note that this is no theme park ride. It is an outdoor activity that requires (gasp) walking.
Before stepping out into the full-scale experience, guests have a chance to cross a low-to-the-ground rope bridge as a test to ensure all can make it through. It’s an easy test to pass, but it’s necessary to ensure no one chickens out halfway through, as the only escape plan is to walk all the way back to the start.
Reality checks aside, the Wild Africa Trek is surrounded by Disney storytelling. Guests are not walking through a theme park but instead traversing trails outside the usual safari paths of the Harambe Reserve in Africa. The story begins in the Harambe village, where guides lead trekkers up the exit of the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, pointing out a few sights along the way.
Throughout the Trek, it’s always easy to hear the guide’s stories and information, as guests are connected to provided wireless receivers and earpieces.
Frequent visitors to Disney’s Animal Kingdom will find the beginning of the Wild Africa Trek all too familiar. But it’s not long before guides steer guests off the usual path and unexpectedly into the nearby brush.
And so the adventure begins. From this point, paved pathways are a thing of the past, replaced by sand, rocks, dirt, twigs, all forming a rather uneven terrain. The Wild Africa Trek paths generally wind near existing Kilimanjaro Safaris roads, but stay hidden from view. But not for long. After a few minutes, guests find themselves on the “other” side of the Nile hippo pool. To ensure no one joins the hippos in the water, harnesses are used for the first time as guests, assisted by guides, clip onto a sliding mechanism erected specifically for this Trek.
Once safely tethered, guests are free to roam out and to the edge of a ledge above the hippo pond to peer down as food is thrown in, attracting the creatures’ attention.
The panoramic view of the pond and proximity to the ledge combine to provide excitement and a thrill. Guests stand 10+ feet above the pond with no barrier, offering a feeling of complete freedom, while remaining completely safe from falling. Those who convince themselves to “let go” and trust their harnesses will get the most enjoyment from the experience.
Further down, a second viewing area provides another safely harnessed view. This time, a sunbathing hippo relaxed directly below.
Glimpses of the passing Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction vehicles are frequent, especially in this area and later on the savannah. Trekkers become somewhat of a spectacle, walking around on the side of the safari that has previously been reserved only for wildlife. I asked vice president of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Michael Colglazier, who was accompanying us on our preview, about whether Disney had given thought to the trekkers’ presence taking away from the regular guest experience. He told me that as a result of the Wild Africa Trek, non-trekking guests may actually see more animal activity due to the increased interaction, such as the ongoing feeding of the hippos. Kilimanjaro Safaris drivers are also able to provide Wild Africa Trek information to inquiring guests. And with it all surrounded in Disney storytelling, trekking guests are now part of the show.
The next highlight of the adventure brings guests across two rope bridges. They’re newly added to the Kilimanjaro Safaris area, though Disney’s story tells guests they’re quite old – and rickety, naturally. It only takes a short stair climb to reach the beginning of the first rope bridge.
It may seem intimidating at first, especially for those who are afraid of heights, but as far as rope bridges go, this one is a fairly easy stroll. Guests are once again attached to a harness, this time in the form of an overhead guide wire. The bridges bounce and shake a bit, but not uncomfortably. Crossing the rope bridge requires guests to pay attention, as steps are not all evenly spaced.
While crossing the rope bridge is fun, the real enjoyment comes from looking out from the middle of the bridge at the surrounding landscape. It’s a view previously only seen from the ground, aboard the Kilimanjaro Safaris vehicles (which pass underneath the bridges). From high up in the air, the view is stunning.
The second bridge also offers the additional thrill of crossing directly over a group of crocodiles.
This is where the Wild Africa Trek really separates itself from other “safari” type theme park attractions. Crossing these rope bridges is a completely different experience from nearly hanging over a ledge above the hippo pool, which is a completely different experience from everything else that’s yet to come. It’s the variety of experiences that makes the 3-hour journey through the Wild Africa Trek seem like 30 minutes.
A few more experiences are still in development for the Wild Africa Trek. Some will be open this weekend, others will take a little longer. I won’t ruin the surprises for you. Instead, we’ll continue our preview trek.
After surviving the rope bridges, vests and harnesses are removed as guests board the new open-air Wild Africa Trek trucks.
The journey then takes guests around the Harambe Reserve, mostly along the same route as the Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction, but with plenty of added stops along the way. Binoculars are available for wildlife watching and guests are encouraged to get up and take pictures during these stops. Anyone who has ridden Kilimanjaro Safaris (especially photographers) will appreciate the time spent stopped on the savannah, allowing for much longer looks at the nearby creatures.
After a few stops around the reserve, the final Wild Africa Trek treat comes in the form of a stop at the newly-constructed structure in the middle of the savannah. It’s referred to as the “boma,” which in Swahili means a gathering place. Guests step out of the vehicle to find ample seating, more binoculars, and a captivating overview of the surroundings.
Food is also served here, giving guests a chance to eat and relax. Breakfast is offered in the morning Treks and lunch in the afternoon. The breakfast offerings, which I ate during this preview, were absolutely delicious.
The breakfast food includes yogurt, dried oranges, soft cheese, salmon, nut and dried fruit bread, fresh fruit, and (my favorite) slices of prosciutto and a capicola-like African cured meat. The cold cuts were the best I’ve had outside of a New York deli. It’s all washed down with a glass of the famous Jungle Juice from Animal Kingdom’s Tusker House. Lunch options, which we were not served, include curry chicken salad and shrimp.
The “boma” not only serves as a place to eat, relax, and converse, but also offers trekkers their first and only bathroom break of the entire journey, with facilities that are far more attractive than one might expect in the middle of an African savannah.
After around 30 minutes (which feels more like 3), guests hop back aboard the truck to head out of the reserve and complete the Wild Africa Trek. The remaining path takes guests past a few more animals and ultimately through the Kilimanjaro Safaris hot springs.
The adventure concludes back at the lockers, with each guest selecting a conservation/rescue effort that they would prefer a portion of their Trek cost go toward aiding.
Update 1/17/11: It takes a couple of days for Disney’s PhotoPass photos from the Wild Africa Trek to show up online. My preview Trek was on Friday and today (Monday), 57 pictures arrived in my PhotoPass account. Below are a few examples of candids and posed pictures, with the rest viewable as the last 18 photos in this gallery or in the slideshow at the bottom of this article. I chose to mostly include photos of myself below, but the 57 photos featured everyone in our 12-person group.
The addition of the Wild Africa Trek turns Disney’s Animal Kingdom from what many refer to as a “half-day park” into a full experience. Beyond the rides, shows, and distance-viewing of animals, guests who embark on the Wild Africa Trek will find themselves thrust into a series of new and unique adventures comparable to no other theme park safari. Guests willing and able to pay for this premium experience will walk away from this Trek with a sense of accomplishment and an important time spent away from text messages, e-mail, and Twitter, instead replaced by a shared, memorable experience.
For more information and to book a reservation for the Wild Africa Trek, visit disneyworld.com/disneyafricatrek.
More pictures from the new Wild Africa Trek at Disney’s Animal Kingdom:
And a video released by Disney showcasing a few highlights from the Wild Africa Trek:
I’ll have my own video of the Wild Africa Trek online within a day or two, so keep checking back!