VIAGGI – FAMILY TRAVEL
The Animal Kingdom Lodge is the coolest concept for a resort, perhaps, in the history of family travel. In the middle of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., you’ll find giraffes, zebras, and ostriches in your hotel’s backyard. Maybe I’m exaggerating because some kids would argue in favor of Legoland’s life-size brick creations in the bedrooms. And there are those hotels with rooms underwater, overwater, on ice, and in trees that offer some pretty stiff competition, I’ll admit.
Still, I was moved every day of my stay at AKL, every time I saw a majestic zebra walk toward me as I sipped my morning tea or caught a glimpse of a giant giraffe nibbling on leaves as I inched toward the elevator to my room. Friends, who were traveling with me, paid the extra fee to have a room with a balcony with the animals in full view. They would roll over in bed and look out the window to see Mother Nature in all its glory. Now, that’s a vacation if you ask me.
And oh how the children delighted! They could not turn away from the lovely animals, the ones they’d seen in books, behind cages in traditional zoos, and in all those Disney movies that gave animals a voice and personality. This was their chance to observe them from a safe, yet short, distance. They looked at what they ate and listened to the experts walking the grounds educating visitors about their natural habitats, diets, and tendencies.
Beauty is everywhere. It does not only come from the sight of the animals but also the look of the environment, their habitat, which is made to be as close to what they’d find in nature as possible. There are about 200 animals in four savannas. The buildings are built to form circles to kind of fence in the animals as they do in Africa. The resort itself is divided into two parts – Jambo House and Kidani Village, which is newer and encompasses the Disney Vacation Club villas. Although I’ve spent significant time in both, I actually stayed at Kidani Village.
Pros and cons of the resort are easy to surmise. Obviously, the ambiance and theming are over the top. In fact, this might be the best themed of all the hotels, and many a blogger has made such an argument. Those who have lived in Africa often say that every detail is authentic. In fact, the works of African artists are on display throughout the resort, as are popular African sayings. In addition, African construction workers were brought in to make the thatched roofs in the tradition they do back home. The famous imagineer Joe Rohde led the design of this resort, and has told guests about the smallest of details including the animal trim that runs atop the wall in the lounge and how they are all facing in the same direction to make it look as though they are running toward the window looking out on the savanna. That’s dedication, folks.
I try not to get too hung up on rooms when I visit Disney because I hardly find time to chill in the hotel anyway. But the deluxe resorts, which include AKL, have pretty nice rooms. In the outside world, they would hardly qualify as luxurious, but they definitely are at Disney World. In the outside world, they wouldn’t cost as much either. However, we rented DVC points, which brings down the price significantly. In fact, it’s often the equivalent of the price of one of Disney’s moderate resorts. Otherwise, you have to pay full price for a deluxe resort stay, which can run up to around $500 per night or more.
One of the greatest pros to staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge is the food. There are some exceptional restaurants on the grounds, including the signature dining experience at Jiko – The Cooking Place. Offering guests some genuine African flavors in a sophisticated atmosphere Jiko also has some of that Disney magic. Twin wood-burning ovens that look like African cooking pots are the centerpiece of the show kitchen. The lighting changes from warm shades of red, orange, and gold t o mimic the African sunset. Then, there’s the food. I traveled with my parents, who are not adventurous when it comes to eating. It’s Italian or bust. My father is more open than my mom. Anyway, I had my doubts. While this was not their favorite place, they found items to eat. And I am still dreaming about the steak with a red wine sauce and topped with macaroni and cheese. I’ll admit some of the spicier food wasn’t my favorite, but I enjoyed sampling it and just being in such a warm place made the advanced dining reservation (ADR) worth it. This one meal was the equivalent of 2 on the Deluxe Dining plan. If you pay out of pocket, it’s significantly more expensive. Wine lovers rejoice; Jiko offers the most South African wines in one place than anywhere outside of Africa.
For a less costly meal, AKL also offers the sit-in restaurant Sanaa, which serves “African food with an Indian flair,” according to the Disney Website. I never ate here, but this place also has a great vibe. The windows that run from top to bottom allow diners to watch the animals on the savanna as they eat. The Indian-style bread service gets rave reviews from foodie bloggers.
Boma – Flavors of Africa, which offers a casual buffet at breakfast and dinner, is a fan favorite. Again, the African theming will blow you away down to the elephant statues, dark wood tones, and look of the buffet. I’ve heard great things about the dinner, but I have never eaten it. I’ve been to the breakfast buffet three times. Two out of the three times I had one of the best meals ever. The first time was in December 2009, and it was packed with people, service was poor, and the buffet was completely picked over when we got there. The last two times have been divine. The M&M pancakes are a big hit. The waffles feature the Lion King instead of being Mickey shaped, which was a novelty my son appreciated. African dishes, including 0ak-grilled asparagus and tomatoes, are mild enough to attract even picky eaters. The French toast bread pudding is the stuff of legend. Finally, there’s always The Mara, the on-site quick-service restaurant, too keep you refreshed and satisfied. It’s famous for its zebra dome and other themed cupcakes.
If the animals and the food are not enough, there are lots of activities at the hotel. As to be expected with Disney, there are outdoor movies, campfires, and some chances for the kids to do arts and crafts. But you can also meet people from Africa, who will share their own story and regale you with the continent’s history. There are experts on hand to help you better understand the animals, who live there. Sometimes, they have free cookie decorating for kids. Guests can get closer to the animals by paying for the Wanyama Safari (in a truck) and Dinner at Jiko. It is listed on the Website as being more than $60 per adult. There is another Night Safari at the hotel for an additional fee, but I’ve heard mixed reviews about that one. There are people who have taken it and say you can’t see the animals, so it’s not worth it. With Animal Kingdom itself offering night safaris now, I’m not sure if this is still an option anyway.
In the end, I loved Animal Kingdom Lodge, and I’d be happy to go there again. Of course, I’d only go if I could pay the fee for renting DVC points because it’s far too expensive – animals or not – any other way. For the right price, I’d highly recommend this beautiful place because it’s more than a hotel. It’s an unforgettable experience for adults and kids alike.