I look out on the savanna that spreads out below my balcony and admire the morning sun shimmering in the small pools created by an overnight rain.
A variety of African wildlife is gathered at the water’s edge - I see zebras sucking up the refreshing moisture from one pool, while in another flamingos prune their pink cloaks while balancing like ballerinas on one leg. Nearby, a giraffe uses its long neck to pluck a leafy breakfast from the highest branches of a native African tree.
Above: Zebras, pelicans and giraffes are just a few of the animals that hand out at Disney's Lodge.
Longhorn beasts - addax, waterbuck, roan antelope, eland, a graceful gazelle and an impala - lurk nearby, patiently waiting their turn at the watery trough.
It’s a scene straight out of The Lion King and could be anywhere in Africa - Bostwana, Kenya or even South Africa. But it’s actually taking place in Orlando, the Florida home of Walt Disney World and its fabulous Animal Kingdom Lodge, which affords guests a front row seat into the wonders of Africa without ever leaving their hotel room.
This is one place at Walt Disney World where Disney’s famous animatronics are replaced by real “animal-tronics.”
“Look mommy, it’s a baby giraffe,” shouts a youngster from one of the bedroom balconies, his eyes the size of saucers as the mother giraffe summons her offspring to the tree.
Above: Cast members from African countries come to Walt Disney World and act as guides.
“Can I ride on the giraffe’s back?” I hear another child asking a parent.
All the while, smartphones, cameras and iPads are recording the safari scene playing out below.
The 972-room Animal Kingdom Lodge, which opened in 2001, is split into two five-storey properties; Jambo House - the main lodge - and neighbouring Kidani Village.
It’s become more of a cultural centre than a hotel, though. Here, people get to learn about rare African species, most of whom guests know only from Disney movies like Tarzan, The African Lion and African Cats. Guests also get to interact with people from places like Zimbabwe and Botswana, who are employed as “Savanna Guide Cast Members” by Walt Disney World - usually on exchange programs - to care for the animals and educate visitors with casual seminars.
The animals roam freely in four vast compounds - the Sunset, Pempe, Uzima and Arusha savannas - and guests can also view the animals from overlooks scattered throughout the 43-acre wildlife preserve, which is home to over 200 animals and 130 birds. Rock outcrops and lots of African vegetation make the experience all that more Africa-like.
Above: Over 150 species of birds are part of Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge experience.
The Savanna Guide Cast Members educate guests on the feeding habits of the animals and birds and promote understanding of their rich African cultures and heritage.
Poloko, a young Savanna Guide Cast Member from Botswana asks if I’ve ever visited his homeland?
When I tell him no, but it’s on my Bucket List, he informs me Botswana has the largest elephant population in Africa - “about 100,000” - and that most live in Chobe National Park, a sprawling place which covers 11,700km in northern Botswana near the Okavango Delta.
Walt Disney World has even established a conservation fund to help protect endangered animals in Botswana and other African nations.
The African experience begins as soon as you enter the Animal Kingdom Lodge’s cathedral ceiling lobby, which is wrapped in rich African woods and decorated with colourful African art.
I’m mesmerized by the talents of an elderly African wood carver at the lobby entrance - he quickly turns a simple chunk of soft wood into a delicate elephant carving using only a small axe-like tool. Amazing!
Some other “cast members” keep guests spellbound with their tales about Africa, but are interrupted from time-to-time by a woman, wearing a traditional dress, who’s banging on a drum while marching through the lobby with an army of young hotel guests in tow. All good fun!
The rooms and public areas at Animal Kingdom Lodge are naturally decorated in African motif and each week guests are treated to recreational activities where they learn more about African culture, animals and cuisine.
Speaking of cuisine, the African experience extends into the dining rooms at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge - Boma – Flavors of Africa, Jiko – The Cooking Place, and Sanaa restaurants, for example, all offer great African fare with some interesting twists, while The Mara is a quick service option that seems to suit families rushing off to the main theme parks.
You’ll feel like you’ve been to Africa after visiting Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge at The Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.
It’s an especially good time for Canadians to visit Walt Disney World or its California cousin Disneyland because of some exclusive discount offers - Canadians get 20 per cent off tickets at Walt Disney World and 25 per cent off at Disneyland. For more on the Disney discounts, go to http://www.disneyworld.ca/Tickets or http://www.disneyland.ca/Tickets.