Disney’s Backstage Safari Tour Review – 2012

We recently took the Backstage Safari tour at Animal Kingdom. We were joined by Asta and Mrs Asta, they’d never been to Animal Kingdom and this was their very first backstage tour. Disney World’s description of the tour…

The Backstage Safari tour at Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park provides a 3-hour insider’s look at the innovative ways that Disney Cast Members care for its animal inhabitants.

Do you love animals? Are you curious how Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park looks after more than 1,700 animals representing 250 different species?

Find out how on this behind-the-scenes walking tour that offers a revealing look at the new and creative ways Disney’s wildlife specialists meet the unique challenges of animal care and behavior – all while running a lushly landscaped Disney Theme Park and promoting wildlife conservation.

Get up close to a variety of spectacular and majestic animals in their backstage habitats. Talk with animal keepers as you visit the Animal Nutrition Center, explore the state-of-the-art veterinary hospital and discover other backstage facilities. Learn the story of how every day 3 tons of food is prepared, distributed, and fed to the animal residents of Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park admission is required and is not included in the price of the tour. Guests must be at least 16 years of age or older.

Links to other reviews of the tour, some not so recent (allears.net here, disney tour reviews dot com here, and vacation field guides dot com here).

WARNING

SPOILERS BELOW

IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW DETAILS OF THE TOUR, STOP READING…

Marie was our tour guide and she started out full of energy and fun… and she kept it up for the entire tour! The majority of our time was to be backstage and so there aren’t any photographs.

We began by walking a loop through the Oasis, getting some background information on Animal Kingdom. Disney’s Animal Kingdom (DAK) opened on April 22, 1998 (Earth Day), but before it opened enough soil to fill Spaceship Earth twice was needed to build up the ground and create the elevation changes seen at DAK. There are over 4,000,000 plants at DAK, making it possible to say that it’s a large botanical garden. The first animals brought to DAK were a pair of giraffes (one male and one female), these giraffes now live at Animal Kingdom Lodge. There are now over 2000 animals at DAK.

One of the things Marie talked about was the 30 foot rule (we’d heard about this on another tour and we’ve read about it too)… There are trash cans every 30 feet at Disney Theme Parks. Why? Because Walt handed out wrapped candies and then watched and measured to see how far people would walk before they threw down the wrappers if they couldn’t find a trashcan. She also told us that all Disney Cast Members have a secondary job, as custodians… they’re supposed to pick up trash whenever they find it, there’s even a special way to “scoop” up paper trash. It’s clear that she really likes being a CM and she likes teaching (we found out later that she used to be a 3rd grade teacher)… we find it hard to believe that all CM are that dedicated to picking up trash because we’ve seen quite a few of them walk right past trash as if they don’t have anything to do with it.

Stopped at a few habitats in the Oasis, getting information about some of the general practices of taking care of the animals at DAK…

  • The Barbiroosa exhibit (Barbiroosa means “pig deer”)… Marie said we’d likely smell them before we saw them – it’s the DAK cologne “Eau Stink.” There is a single female and a single male in this habitat. The “tree stump” to the left of the Barbiroosa’s palm tree is a feeding station, this is where normal “meals” are placed.
  • The Military Macaw exhibit… the “trees” are rearrangeable so that the birds’ brains and behavior is stimulated.
  • The Rhinoceros Iguana exhibit… iguanas are cold-blooded animals (they’re reptiles after all), the rocks are heated so that the iguanas will be as active as possible. Now, that doesn’t mean the rocks are heated so that the iguanas dance around trying to keep from burning their feet, it means that they would be even MORE lethargic and boring if the rocks weren’t heated.
  • We learned how the imagineers create areas so that the animals feel at home and so that there is backstage access.
  • Each morning, before DAK opens, the animal keepers will clean the area, put out browse, and put out enrichment (to encourage natural behavior).
  • The animals are trained using sound cues to know when it’s time for them to return backstage (at the end of every day and also in case there’s severe weather and the animals need protection). Sound cues don’t work very well with reptiles, they’re trained with chicken on a stick, wave that chicken around and they’ll follow it anywhere.
  • nora found it interesting that Marie even discussed the local wildlife (there were some white ibis in one of the habitats) – the local birds have figured out that there’s free food at DAK, so that’s where they hang out; the nutritionists plan on extra mouths to feed when they create the “meals” for the bird habitats… not only do these local birds get free food, they also get free health care at the veterinary clinic if they need it :O
Next, we left the Oasis and went backstage to get in our lovely conveyance (a big white van). Along the way Marie doled out some more details about DAK…
  • The Festival of the Lion King is the number one show in both Disney Land and Walt Disney World.
hmmm, interesting that there was a rumor recently that FOTLK was closing permanently… the most recent rumors are that it’s closing early 2013 because Camp Mickey-Minnie is where Avatarland is going AND that building permits have been filed to build a new theater closer to Africa, seems like it would be logical to put FOTLK in Africa anyway
  • The DAK cell phone tower is “camouflaged” to look like a tree because it can be seen from nearly everywhere in the park.
  • Safari trucks run on propane. There are pucks in the ground that turn on a governor that controls the speed of the safari trucks… they can go 20 mph backstage and 10 mph onstage.
  • Female hippos are kept separate from the male hippos because they breed so successfully.
  • We saw where they grow the browse on 70 acres backstage. The browse foods are used at Animal Kingdom, Animal Kingdom Lodge, Kidani Village, and The Living Seas. There are many kinds of grasses, sugar cane, some edible flowers, and some small grains grown as browse.
  • And good news, the poacher scene in the safari is soon to be gone for good (early November); the zebras are coming back to the safari. They were removed for a while because zebras don’t play nice with anyone other than zebras.
    • This struck us as odd. There are zebras on the savannah at Animal Kingdom Lodge/Kidani Village with ostriches, ankole cattle, and giraffes. And there are ZOG (zebra ostrich giraffe) exhibits at other zoos. Maybe Marie meant that zebras don’t play well with gazelles or some of the other animals on the Safari.

Our first stop backstage was the rhino house.  DAK has White Rhinos and Black Rhinos. As nearly everyone who’s ridden the safari knows, the White Rhinos aren’t named that because they’re white, it’s because the Afrikaans word for “wide” is “vite” which sounds like “white”. Marie told us that Rhinos are her favorite animal, the white rhinos are more like horses and aren’t as aggressive as the black rhinos. As we were walking toward the rhino house, Asta asked about poop (Asta & Mrs Asta have horses so they’re well acquainted with how much poop herbivores make)… the poop from herbivores is recycled into compost and used at the parks and given to Cast members, and the poop from carnivores and primates is processed as waste.

Rhinoceros Barn

  • Dawn, a rhino keeper, was there to help us learn more about the white rhinos at DAK
  • There are 8 white rhinos: two adult males, one juvenile male, and five females
  • The white rhinos are the largest of five species of rhinos: white rhinos, black rhinos, and three asian species
  • We met Ungavo, one of the male white rhinos (we had to stand in a line in the center of the aisle, rhinos have pretty poor eyesight and we didn’t want to startle him or give him reason to spray us with urine <yuck>). Ungavo was caught in the wild and has fathered two calves at DAK. He weighs between 4200 and 4300 pounds
  • White rhinos eat grass for 8 to 10 hours per day. Black rhinos also eat fruits and vegetables
  • The largest rhino at DAK is a female, Dawn says “we say she’s big boned”
  • Rhinos are poached only for their horns. The pitiful thing is that the majority of their horn could be cut off (and it would grow back). The number one use is for dagger handles and the number two use is for asian aphrodisiacs
  • Even though most of the aggression or unwanted behavior in rhinos is caused by hormone responses when a female is in estrus, they don’t geld male rhinos in captivity. For one thing, there aren’t that many of them around and the sperm from each is important to maintain genetic variety
  • Rhinoceros can move their ears independently and have very good hearing
  • Rhinos live up to 50 years in captivity and only 40 to 45 in the wild
  • In 2007, DAK returned two of their rhinos to “the wild” – actually, the two rhinos went to a preserve in Uganda (a male and a female); they’ve already had two calves
  • They don’t do a lot of food enrichment with the rhinos, they just don’t get into it
  • One of the females is pregnant and due in February 2013
  • We were able to pet Ungavo, briefly… while Dawn fed him alfalfa hay… he felt like dusty leather

Elephant Barn

  • First off, we didn’t get as close and personal with the elephants as we did with Ungavo!
  • Bethany, an elephant keeper, has been with the elephants for four years
  • In zoo terms, DAK has 4.8 elephants… this means that there are 4 males and 8 females; if a zoo needs a female, they send out a request for .1 (this is for all animals, not just elephants)
  • We went up to the third floor where there was an observation area – the micro herd was in the elephant barn – a mother and her two calves (one younger and one older = Tufani, the first calf born at DAK), and auntie (Tandie, she’s the matriarch and is bossy)
  • Tandie was getting her daily bath (all of the elephants get a bath each day, it’s also an opportunity for the keepers to look over the animals), she responds to verbal commands to kneel, put her ear at the bars, etc… this is secondarily reinforced with a clicker and with a food reward (payment)
  • The elephant barn was pretty fascinating – the “bars” were huge columns, everything was just simply BIG (of course, elephants are the biggest land creature) – it was like something out of Jurassic Park in both the elephant barn and the rhinoceros barn
  • They keep this micro herd and the big family group (usually on stage) separate – they’ve been doing so for five years, just makes things more peaceful
  • Tufani is the most “versatile” elephant at DAK – he’s accepted by the adult bull (male), he’s accepted by this micro herd, and he’s accepted by the family group
  • Elephants live into their 50s and 60s in captivity
  • There are 12 elephants and they consume 30 bales of hay per day
  • The breeding program relies primarily on artificial insemination – Tufani is approaching breeding age and there are hopes that he’ll be able to breed naturally; the first two calves born at DAK were conceived by natural insemination, at that time, they had a bull on loan from another zoo; the present bull elephant (McLean) is good for AI but not for natural breeding
  • The female elephants have weekly hormone blood tests to determine when they’re ready for insemination, there’s only a three day window… sometimes they use semen from bull elephants at other facilities, the goal is to preserve genetic variability and to avoid inbreeding
  • Elephants have a 22 month gestation period (wow, that’s a long time to be pregnant)
  • nora & nick asked Bethany if the story that they’d heard about the matriarch using her tusk to get oranges (on stage) was true, Bethany said yes, that would be Rafiki and she’s pretty sneaky about getting food, she said it wasn’t too likely that the second part of the story (that the elephant shared the oranges with the other elephants) was true though because Rafiki really likes her food!
  • There are researchers at DAK that are working with villages in Africa to come up with ways to stop elephants from eating the crops, the best method so far is to plant flowers at the edges of the fields and install bee hives – the elephants won’t go past the bees to get to the crops
  • Elephants are poached for their tusks, ivory… we were shown some vegetable ivory, in the whole nut form and there were examples of carvings made of vegetable ivory

Animal Nutrition Center

  • Marie works here sometimes helping with receiving
  • This used to be called the “hay barn” but these days, it’s more efficient to have trailers of hay delivered weekly where they’re needed; they only keep enrichment hay and straw in here now – the rest of the space is devoted to dry pelleted foods
  • All of the foods that come into DAK are tested for nutritional quality by a research fellow, Marie told a story of getting a delivery of crickets and the research fellow sent them back because they were poor quality and didn’t contain the nutrients and calories they should have
  • There were some barrels devoted to silage which DAK is beginning to use to supplement the dried grasses – silage is made by combining browse and molasses and allowing it to ferment
  • We then went to where the animals’ meals are prepared
    • The fruits, vegetables, and meats used in the animal diets is the same as what WDW guests eat – it is sourced from the same companies
    • Each animal has it’s own specific meal plan based on their caloric and nutrient needs
    • Carnivore meals go into different containers than herbivore meals
    • They’re very particular about cleanliness and so they use a lot of hot water, there are solar panels on top of the building that are used to heat all of the “dish” water
    • nora noticed ensure in the meal preparation area – it’s used primarily with the primates just like it would be used with humans to boost their calories and nutrition when needed

Veterinary Clinic

  • Some parts of the vet clinic are visible from inside Rafiki’s Planet Watch, we also got to see parts that aren’t visible to guests
  • The vet clinic provides health services for all the animals at WDW, including the Living Seas (although their specialist tends to just stay at Epcot) – they have a mobile vet clinic that they can take to where the animals are… “house calls”
  • Additionally, the vet clinic provides services to indigenous animals (local wildlife) and to animals from other facilities and groups in Florida
    • As an example, there were x-rays of a number of gopher tortoises up in one of the operating rooms, these are native to Florida and their burrows provide homes for a large number of non-tortoise species… Anyway, when they get hit by a car, their shells are often damaged pretty severely, the vet clinic at Animal Kingdom fixes them up with plates and screws (just like humans might get for broken bones) and honey (it helps with healing and has some antibacterial properties)
  • We were also allowed to hold a complete horn from an Ankole Cow (what’s singular of cattle when you don’t know if the creature is male or female? anyone?) and a cutaway horn. These things are huge and extremely light weight. We already knew that the horns worked as radiators for temperature control (blood can be moved through them for cooling effects), we didn’t know that the horns can also function as nasal cavities
  • When an animal dies at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, samples of their tissues and fluids are kept long term… it may prove useful if an offspring of that animal becomes ill in the future
  • There are 11 veterinarians and 7 vet techs at DAK Vet Clinic
  • It’s actually a teaching hospital – that means that there are internships and residencies (zoo medicine and zoo pathology) right on Disney property
  • We met Julie (a vet tech, been at DAK Vet Clinic for 8.5 years) – she was running a pregnancy test on one of the primates (negative), she said that one of the weirdest things she’s done since coming to DAK was to go to Castaway Key and do exams on the sting rays in the interaction pool, their anatomy is just weird and their behavior is very different from the animals she usually comes in contact with

Break – we had a quick break for the bathrooms and snacks/water; we each received a Backstage Safari insulated mug

We finished up with a Safari… Just the nine of us (guide and 8 guests) and our safari driver. It isn’t clear from other reviews if this is always a given with the Backstage Safari and if you call WDW-TOUR to set up this experience, chances are that they’ll tell you that you don’t go on a Safari ride at the end. So, we’re just glad that we got to. And of course, Marie made it more fun with her enthusiasm for all of the animals and for DAK in general.

Thank you Marie!

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