Backstage Pass: Wild Africa Trek

Backstage Pass: Wild Africa Trek

I hope you are ready to explore today!  This is a first in a NEW series that will be spread throughout the year.  We are calling this series our Backstage Pass, as this and future episodes will be exploring backstage tours available at Walt Disney World.  You may not be familiar with all the tours they offer, but you may have seen some of the guests wandering around and wanted to know what they were doing.  Well, starting today we are going to find out together!

They say it isn’t wise to start out a series with your best material, but I enjoyed this first backstage tour so much I couldn’t wait to share it with you!  If you tuned in last week, you know we spent some time in Disney’s Animal Kingdom exploring Festival of the Lion King.  That spectacular show is located very close to where our adventure begins today.  Before we dive in, I want to recommend you listen to our podcast on Kilimanjaro Safaris.  It’s the perfect precursor to today’s adventure, so go check it out!

Kilimanjaro Safaris is a short 20 minute truck ride that takes you through the African Savannah at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  Today’s adventure is a 3-hour trek that takes you through the same landscape in much more exciting detail!  Now, there are a lot of things to know before you embark on this journey so bear with me a minute while we…

Get started with our know before you go essential facts:

  • The trek is located in Africa in Disney’s Animal Kingdom
  • Participants must be 8 years of age or older and at least 48 inches tall.
  • Guests under 18 years of age must be accompanied by a participating adult (18 years of age or older).
  • Participants must be between 45 and 300 lbs with the harness gear on. The safety harnesses used for this experience may prohibit guests of certain body shapes or sizes from participating.
  • You must have physical stamina, comfort with heights, and the surefootedness to negotiate small hills, foliage and unsteady rope bridges on this tour.
  • WARNING: For your safety, you should be in good health and free from high blood pressure; heart, back or neck problems; motion sickness or other conditions that could be aggravated by this adventure. Expectant mothers should not participate.
  • The fright factor is 1 out of 5
  • The trek is 3 hours long
  • Wild Africa Trek is $139 to $249 per person, plus tax. Prices vary based on season.
  • This experience opened on May 5, 2005

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Jambo and welcome to Wild Africa Trek!  This is your chance to take a privately guided VIP tour through the Harambe Reserve, home of Kilimanjaro Safaris.  Along the way you will trek through the jungle, navigate a rope bridge dangling high above crocodiles, enjoy close encounters with exotic wildlife, ride across the Savannah in a private vehicle used just for Wild Africa Trek, learn about the conservation efforts at the park, and enjoy a peaceful meal overlooking the Savannah.  To take you through this once in a lifetime experience, you will have a few extremely knowledgeable and fun guides.  Sounds exciting, right?  Well, trust me, it is!  Let’s start at the beginning of the trek, wind our way through what you can expect, learn how you can sign up, and wrap it up with some insider tips.

The trek entrance is located right next to the entrance of Kilimanjaro Safaris at the very back of Africa.  If your trek is scheduled during the normal operating hours of the Animal Kingdom, you will need to allow yourself enough time to get all the way back to this section of the park, about a 10 minute walk from the park’s entrance, and plan to arrive about 15 minutes before your trek is scheduled to begin.  When we went, we had the pleasure of having the first trek of the day which was scheduled before the park opens.  I’ll come back to this a little later and walk you through the process for an early arrival.

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When you arrive at the check-in station, you will be greeted warmly by the team of guides.  First things firsts, time to empty those pockets!  I mean really empty them, no phones, no gum, no keys, etc.  You are provided lockers at no additional cost, so you will have a place to safely and securely store all of your belongings while you are on the trek.  If you are like me you are thinking, “What about my camera?”  Well, cameras are allowed on the trek as long as they can clip onto your provided vest.  I went out and bought a camera strap just for the Wild Africa Trek, only to find that a simple carabiner was all we needed, so don’t be like me.  I also took my Go Pro Hero4 Session with me, which means I will be posting some cool video from the trek on our website.  I used a chest harness for my Go Pro which worked perfectly, and went right over my vest.

Speaking of vests, you will be geared up with a specially designed vest, and a harness that you will wear the first half of the trek.  In researching Wild Africa Trek, I had heard the harness was quite uncomfortable.  However, I was pleasantly surprised to find I didn’t really notice it once it was on and the trek started.  Just be sure to wear comfortable pants or shorts and you should be fine.  Some might want to be aware that you will be weighed when you arrive in order to get you fitted with the appropriate safety gear.  The only person that will see the number on the scale is the cast member doing the weighing, so don’t worry too much about this part.

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The other piece of equipment you will be given is an ear piece and receiver.  This will allow you to hear your guides no matter how far away they are.  The small wallet-sized receiver fits nicely into your vest and has an ear piece that rests over your ear.  You can control the volume of your set and your guides will help you get it adjusted before the adventure begins.

Now, let’s talk about the guides!  We had two really fun girls named Hilary and Kaylee to guide us on our Wild Africa Trek.  From the moment they started testing our audio equipment it was clear that they love their jobs. They were ready to crack jokes and have a grand time.  And lucky for me, they were quite quick on their feet, and kept up with my wit and sarcasm while dishing out some of their own.  Our small group of 4 visitors clicked with our 2 guides very easily.  I was a little surprised that we had 2 guides, rather than just 1.  There are a few reasons for this I’m sure, but one of the main reasons is that one guide is busy taking high quality photos of you and the group while the other is dishing out knowledge about your surroundings.  They take turns acting as guide or photographer.  The really cool thing is that you get all the pictures they take as part of the ticket price!  In fact, not only do you have access to unlimited downloads of the photos for up to 60 days after the expedition, you can also download 50 of the top photos of all time taken on Wild Africa Trek.  If that wasn’t cool enough, you can also use any of these pictures for your own purpose as long as you don’t profit from them.  Professional quality pictures straight from Disney and no licensing fees attached?  Sounds too good to be true, but it is!

Enough with the small talk, let’s get this trek moving!  Hilary started our trek by walking us over to the Pangani Forest Trail.  Since the park wasn’t officially open yet we were able to walk down the trail unhindered.  Right away you realize the pace here is not demanding, but peaceful and pleasant.  The trail is carved out of the lush forest and in the quiet of the morning you can forget you are in a theme park.  While in the Pangani Forest, Hilary went on and on and on about the different birds.  I’m just kidding, I wanted to give her a hard time in case she is listening.  She did have a passion for birds though and we learned a lot, but eventually Kaylee reminded her the 3 hour trek was designed for much more than just the birds.  In fact there is so much to talk about I will have to be careful I don’t get too bogged down in telling you about every detail.

I do want to pass on a few tips for how to mess with your guides.  If you want to really get under an animal caretaker’s skin, just call an ape a monkey or a monkey an ape.  This is what we learned while stopped to look at the Colobus Monkeys.  Well, this and that you don’t want to stand downwind after they have had a healthy breakfast of lettuce.  Once the winds of digestion were blowing we quickly moved on and came to a small research building.  There are several small animals or insects to observe in this room.  Our guides were quite smitten with a large frog, but I’m not sure why.  He was a big brown blob, and being from Texas, I was reminded of cow pies.  Not exactly something I consider cute and cuddly.  Instead, I found the naked mole rats to be the most fascinating thing in the room.  These hairless rodents are blind and feel their way around their subterranean tunnels by climbing over each other.  Very strange, but fascinating to watch.  You can’t stare at them too long though as the trek moves along.

Before long we came to the zebras and this marks the beginning of the wild portion of the trek.  Up until this point we were on the same path that is accessible to every visitor to Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  However, from this point on we went backstage!  The small transition off the concrete path and onto the wild ground was so exciting to me.  We were now in an area that we couldn’t normally go and were about to see things from a whole new perspective!

While on the forest trail, our guides went over the mechanics of the large carabiner attached to the vest.  It was our lifeline as it connects your harness to the tracks found in the upcoming animal encounters.  The first spot your guides will clip you in is the Hippopotamus exhibit.  After a short walk through the forest we came to the back side of the hippo enclosure and saw vehicles from Kilimanjaro Safaris driving by on the opposite side.  While they only get a quick drive-by look at the 5 ton animals, we were able to spend the next 10-15 minutes here observing them up close and asking questions.  On this day, there was another guide waiting for our group at this exhibit.  We learned all about hippos in general, but more specifically about the hippos that call the Animal Kingdom home.  I won’t spoil their story here, but it is really neat to hear the guides talk about the history and personality of each animal.

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After our time at the hippo pool we unclipped from the support and headed back to the forest trail.  The trail can be a little narrow in spots and I found myself ducking a few times to avoid low lying branches.  Overall though this is not a strenuous hike.  As long as you mind your step and don’t get too caught up in the surroundings, you should be able to navigate this part of the trek without any issue.  The Wild Africa Trek comes with some pretty stern warnings and physical conditions requirements, but if you can walk up a flight of stairs and are comfortable with heights, chances are you will be fine.

Now about those heights… the time has come to test your limits! We climbed up a couple flights of stairs and clipped the safety harness in for our walk amongst the trees!  This is definitely one of the highlights of the whole trek and probably the one aspect you’ll have the most questions about.  Let’s see, where to begin?   Let’s start with the elephant in the room, or in this case crocodile!  Yes, you will be walking on a rope bridge dangled high above the Nile Crocodiles home, but it’s all perfectly safe.  The rope bridge is cleverly imagineered to look like something from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  However, there are ropes on each side that you can grab for balance the entire way.  Also, there are some missing boards along the bridge but there is a net that runs the entire length of the bridge as a back up.  I have to admit that I missed a step or two on my second bridge because I was too busy admiring the view below and wasn’t paying enough attention to my next step.  I tried to play this off in the same way you would if you tripped while walking.  Fortunately, I was the only one on the bridge at the time and I don’t think anyone saw me.  My super cool, adventurous image was still intact, at least in my own mind!  Had I actually stepped all the way through the hole and hit the net I would have been stopped long before my harness came into play.  That reminds me, Hilary and Kaylee both triple checked our harnesses at multiple points, so there was never any real danger.  If you are an adrenaline junky looking for a life threatening situation, I hate to break it to you, but this is not it.

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With that said, crossing the two bridges over safari vehicles and snapping crocodiles is really cool!  I can’t overstate the unique opportunity this view provides.  Just hiking across a shaky rope bridge in the trees was a dream come true for the 11-year old kid in me.  On top of that, I felt like I was in the heart of the wild with hippos and crocodiles a couple of stories below.  Disney is good at recognizing what they have here and the guides let us take our time soaking everything in.  Due to our small group size we were able to cross one at a time.  This allowed Rachel and I to take some video and pics of each other as we watched the other come across.  There is a small landing between the first bridge and the second bridge and Hilary was kind enough to take our picture together at this point.

After we completed our high wire act, we came back down to ground level.  Well, almost.  We got to take in the crocodiles from an even closer vantage point while clipped into another track and allowed close to the edge of a rock overlooking their habitat.  At this point they are only about 8-10 feet below you and you can appreciate the size and power of these animals in a way you probably never have before.  Again, another guide lead the discussion at this stop and we learned all about crocodiles.  The guides love when you ask questions and they are eager to educate.  No question is too dumb, trust me I tested them.

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A short walk away from the crocodiles was an opening in the forest, and there a rugged looking truck similar to the safari vehicles awaited us.  We shed our harnesses and vests and walked right onto the truck.  This vehicle has bench seating that runs around the perimeter of the bed and faces in.  This allows all the passengers to face their guides while talking, but turn to look out over the Savannah once the truck starts moving.  The next portion of the trek is more akin to what you experience on Kilimanjaro Safaris, just at a much slower pace.  Both of our guides joined us in the back of the truck while a third drove the vehicle.

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Most of the time we followed the same road as the normal safari, but occasionally we were able to duck down a side path and park for a few minutes to discuss the nearby giraffes, painted dogs, elephants, or lions in more detail.  The lion stop was one of my favorites as we saw the male lion up and strutting his stuff on top of the rock.  We sat here for several minutes and even lucked out as we got to hear him belt out a few low roars.  Kayle and Hilary said this was very unusual for the time of day and it was neat to see them both as fascinated with the animals as we were.  Just a reminder that you never know what to expect when you venture into the wild!  As we drove off, the lion walked behind the rocks and out of view.  I felt so bad for the Kilimanjaro Safaris vehicles that were just pulling up because they had just missed out on a great opportunity to see the king of the jungle in action.

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If you have been on Kilimanjaro Safaris you may have noticed a covered deck that sits at the top of the Savannah.  Well, this was the next stop on our Wild Africa Trek.  Here we could visit the restrooms and enjoy a wonderful break near the end of our adventure.  On the covered deck were a group of small tables.  Each one was set with a red plaid table cloth, stainless steel cups, a round stainless steel bento box, and a tall pitcher of the same famous passion fruit, orange guava juice served at Boma.  We sat down and the guides instructed us to open up the food containers and walked us through all of the delectable goodies inside.

 

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Depending on what time of day you trek you will have one of two meals.

In the morning you can expect:

•Air-dried beef and prosciutto

•Smoked salmon roulade with dill

•Fig cake with Boursin cheese

•Brie cheese and dried apricots

•Berry yogurt and dried cranberries

•Fresh fruit marinated in mint and ginger

In the afternoon you will enjoy:

•Chicken curry salad

•Sun-dried tomato hummus and mini pita

•Marinated tandoori shrimp

•Smoked salmon roulade with dill

•Air-dried beef and prosciutto

•Fresh fruit marinated in mint and ginger

As the first trek of the day, we had the morning meal.  Going into the trek I was a little nervous about how filling the meal would be.  When it comes to a Disney vacation these days, you need to plan out most of your meals in advance and I wasn’t sure what to plan for lunch and dinner that day based on our Wild Africa Trek meal.  After eating it, I would describe it as something between a very satisfying snack and a refreshing light lunch.  Everything we ate was fresh and flavorful.  My personal favorites were the fig cakes, yogurt, and fresh fruit.  Rachel really enjoyed the air-dried beef and brie cheese with apricot.  We have polar opposite tastes when it comes to food, so there was a little something for both of us!

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The real treat of the meal though is the view.  From here you can see the giraffes moving about the Savannah, the flamingos nearby, the elephants in the distance, and everyone’s favorite, the ostrich.  Actually, when I asked Kayle and Hilary about their favorite animal on the safari it took them both a minute to decide.  However, when I asked what their least favorite was they both immediately said the ostrich!  In addition to the view from the tables, there is a long deck that runs behind the main observation building and back to the rhinoceros habitat.  We could see an entirely different part of the Harambe Reserve once there.  As I said, this is a nice break during the trek and there was ample time to relax, eat, and explore both vantage points.

With everyone full of food and good views, it was time to walk back onto the truck.  It’s just a short drive from here back to the beginning of the trek.  Along the way we saw a couple more animals and asked our guides our remaining questions.  Hilary and Kayle concluded our trip with a message about the impressive conservation efforts ongoing at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  We were then each given a rock that we could choose to place in one of four boxes, representing four different animals.  Whichever we chose would receive a portion of the Wild Africa Trek admission price to help fund conservation for that species.

Before we left we got to take a picture with our two new friends and we made sure to say Asante Sana!  That is swahili for “thank you very much,” which they taught us along the way.   Thanks to them we had one of the best experiences we have ever had at Walt Disney World.

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So, are you ready to sign up?  Well, I hope so!  The big question when it comes to backstage tours is, are they worth the extra cost?  For me, the answer to Wild Africa Trek is a resounding YES!  Just alone, the feeling of stepping off the beaten path, watching a giant hippopotamus eat breakfast a few feet away, swaying over a rope bridge, or watching a lion belt out a gentle roar made the trek worthwhile.  When you combine all of these experiences together and add in the extensive knowledge of the animals and the park we learned along the way, there is no doubt that this will be an adventure you won’t regret.

Currently the cost for Wild Africa Trek ranges between $139.00 -$249.00 per participant.  As with all Disney extras, the more expensive ticket comes at peak times, especially holidays.  On average, you can plan on around $200 per person for the trek.   We did use our Disney Visa credit card which gave us a 10% discount, so be sure to mention that at the time of booking if you are a card holder.  If you are an Annual Pass Holder or a DVC Member, you will also qualify for discounts.  To book your Wild Africa Trek call (407) WDW-TOUR, that’s (407) 939-8687.

The trek normally runs from 8:00 am till 2:30 pm, with times available every 45 minutes or so.  As I said at the top of the podcast, we opted for one of the first treks which I would recommend for several reasons.  First, you can gain access to the park before it opens!  We arrived at the main gate about 8:00 for our 8:45 trek.  Once our guide arrived at the front of the park, we scanned our Magic Bands like normal and were granted access before rope drop.  Now, you can’t just roam into any area you would like this time of day, but you can get some great pictures of the Tree of Life and other parts of the park without hundreds of people around.  We enjoyed a leisurely stroll back to Africa and took a lot of pictures along the way.  The other thing I liked about the early trek was that we were done with enough time to enjoy other parts of the park before the day was gone.  And as with the Safari, I think the animals are more active in the early morning hours, before it gets too hot.  Finally, it is very important to know Wild Africa Trek is NOT cancelled due to rain.  With there always being a good chance for an afternoon shower I think your chances of a dry expedition are better earlier in the day.  The trek can be cancelled due to severe weather or lightning.  However, if the trek is not cancelled due to severe weather you must be prepared to go on even in a little rain.  Any no-shows or cancellations within 2 days of your reservation means you forfeit the entire price of the trek.  You don’t want that!  So, plan on an early morning trek and pack a poncho just in case.

Well, I think that covers our first Backstage Pass Podcast!  I hope you enjoyed it.  I really hope I have you pumped up about trying Wild Africa Trek on your next Disney vacation.  If you have been to the parks before and you are looking for some new magic to explore this is your ticket!  The beauty of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the close up encounters with some magnificent animals, and the friendly team at Wild Africa Trek make this an unforgettable experience.  It gets my Ride Guide seal of approval!

Thank you for coming by and spending some time with me today!  I hope this has brought a little Disney magic home for you and look forward to bringing you more exciting adventures from Walt Disney World next week!  Until then, make each day a ride worth taking!

 

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