LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As if there already were not much to do, a trip to Walt Disney World is getting even more complicated.
Disney's Animal Kingdom -- combining features of zoo and amusement park on a scale that might only be termed Disneyesque -- opens to the public April 22 as the fourth major theme park on the resort's sprawling property southwest of Orlando.
The opening is only the latest event in a vast expansion on the 47-square-mile tract (by comparison, the City of Baltimore covers 81 square miles), as Disney has added new hotels and restaurants, water parks, shopping complexes and attractions in recent years.
But the Animal Kingdom represents a landmark at the Florida complex, in a chronology that began with the debut of the Magic Kingdom in 1971 and grew to include Epcot in 1982 and Disney-MGM Studios in 1989.
Those who have seen the earlier theme parks will feel at home in the Animal Kingdom, whose attractions -- aside from the more than 1,000 live animals -- include stage shows and costumed critters (even Mickey Mouse in safari gear), international "village" re-creations and video and electronic wizardry.
Even the layout has a familiar feel -- themed sections branching off from a central plaza, in this case "Safari Village." And, in what has been a Disney hallmark, the attractions mix information and entertainment, and ample opportunity to spend money.
Where Epcot's centerpiece is the 180-foot-high "Spaceship Earth" geo-sphere, housing a ride-through history of communications, Animal Kingdom has an amazing, man-made 15-story "Tree of Life" rising above Safari Village. Images of more than 350 animals are carved into the roots, trunk and branches, and under it will be a special-effects 3-D movie theater with an in-your-face film on bugs.
Safari Village is an island surrounded by Discovery River, which may be crossed by footbridges to Africa, Camp Minnie-Mickey, Dinoland U.S.A., A still-under-construction Asia and an Oasis entrance (and exit) plaza graced with gardens and exotic birds.
The river also may be traversed by boats affording views of some of the exotic animals, a large robotic (in Disneyspeak, audio-animatronic) dinosaur and a cave ostensibly housing a fire-breathing dragon. While the beast remains out of sight, its flames are a warming experience for passengers -- particularly on the left side of the vessel.
When I visited the park in mid-March, during a weeklong preview, shakedown and dress rehearsal with thousands of Disney employees and their guests as a test crowd, a boat operator explained that keepers will display and talk about some of the smaller animals on the brief river ride once the park opens for real.
Out in Africa
"Africa" is home to "Kilimanjaro Safaris," where open-sided, 35-passenger vehicles pick up visitors at the village of Harambe for a bumpy two-mile ride through a savanna landscape showing animals in naturalistic displays -- the kind of exhibits a budget-strapped public zoo director could only dream of.
It's easy to think you're not in Florida anymore.
The lions were asleep (alas, without background voices singing "wi moweh, wi moweh"), so the ride took in only a backside view of a snoozing king, but there were plenty of other animals wide awake in the park collection that Disney says was largely obtained from accredited zoological parks.
A small herd of elephants stood boldly at the edge of a watering hole, an okapi (a short-necked giraffe with zebra-striped legs) stepped through the brush, a cheetah stared from the distance and crocodiles lazed in a simulated riverbed.
An illustration panel placed in front of each row of lorry seats shows pictures identifying the various creatures.
But in Disney fashion, the trip is not complete without a moralistic story line -- in this case, the pursuit of elephant poachers. Riders overhear a "conversation" between the driver and the pilot of an unseen observation plane about suspicious activity before coming across the body of an elephant (in script development, it has gone from dead to merely wounded).
The trip ends happily with the "arrest" of evil poachers by a rifle-toting actor-game warden, and recovery of a baby elephant seen in the back of a truck, animatronically awaiting a reunion with its family.
The bumps and turns make photography tricky, but after the ride there is ample opportunity to aim cameras at the animal life -- including western lowland gorillas roaming in a naturalistic environment on either side of a gently swaying footbridge. Momma, poppa and baby gorillas -- the real thing, and a real thrill.
In all, Disney says more than 200 species are represented in its Animal Kingdom, many appearing to roam freely or flying about in a spacious aviary.
Hidden barriers separate animals from humans in the open displays and, where necessary, from one another. And at night, many are housed indoors. The six elephants, for example, return to a barn with an indoor stall design that allows them to see and touch one another.