By Teresa Pitman
You know that Walt Disney loved trains, so you’re not surprised to discover one in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. But this is really one of the oddest trains you’ve ever seen. How many trains have seats facing sideways?
The Wildlife Express does.
Climb aboard and take your seat (the nicely themed station is near Kilimanjaro Safaris) and you’ll find yourself looking out on one side of the train as it moves slowly down the track. Keep looking, and you’ll see some of the night-time quarters of the animals from the Safaris. Most of the buildings or pens are labelled with large signs so you know exactly which critters live there, and if you are lucky you may see some of the animals who’ve been kept in their pens for one reason or another. I’ve seen rhinos, giraffes and hippos at various times.
When the train stops – and there is only one stop! – you will have arrived at one of the often-missed gems of Animal Kingdom: Rafiki’s Planet Watch. Your visit begins with a relaxing walk through the woods. You might want to stop for some of the activities for kids set up along the way (especially if you have a young Wilderness Explorer with you who is trying to complete some badges) and cast members are there, ready to tell you more about some of the animals you’ll see.
But let’s say you just did Expedition Everest seven times in a row…a leisurely stroll down the path between lush gardens might be exactly what you need to recover.
Relaxed now? Good, because you’ve arrived at your destination: Conservation Station. You might want to look first at the huge mural just inside the entrance, with its stunningly detailed paintings of animals – and plenty of hidden Mickeys. I have been told there are actually dozens of them but I’ve only found a couple.
For animal-lovers, this building is a fascinating place. Disney employs several veterinarians to look after the animals, and their examining and operating rooms are right here, with large glass windows so visitors can watch. If you’ve only ever taken your dog or cat to the vet, this is a very different experience! The veterinarians who work here need to know how to care for a wide variety of animals. On any given day you might see a snake undergoing surgery, a Thompson’s gazelle getting his annual check-up or an injured bird having his wing set. Most check-ups are done in the morning, but later in the day, or on days when nothing is scheduled, there will often be videos playing on the TV sets of past animal care treatments.
Another room is home to some of the researchers studying the Animal Kingdom animals. Some, for example, are analyzing the calls and sounds made by the elephants so that we can better understand how they communicate with each other. Others are tracking rehabilitated sea turtles and manatees to learn more about where they travel and how they feed. Various posters and displays in the window tell some of their stories of discovery. Other rooms provide information (and samples!) about the food prepared for the animals and about their habitats.
If you are looking for some characters, Pocahontas and Rafiki are often here and enthusiastic about meeting with visitors.
You may also meet another kind of “character.” Throughout the day, Cast Members will bring out smaller animals such as lizards, birds and small mammals for visitors to see and (often) touch – a great opportunity to learn more about some of these species. (Sometimes they bring out other things too – an alligator’s tooth or samples of “poop” from various creatures.)
If you didn’t get enough animal interaction that way, step outside to the Affection Section. Be sure to wash your hands first – you don’t want to carry any germs to the animals. Inside, you’ll find pigs, goats and sheep wandering freely, as well as some other animals behind fences that aren’t quite so friendly. Brushes are available to groom the animals.
This area is another example of Disney’s efforts to meet the animal’s needs as well as the interests of their guests. There are roped-off areas where the animals can go if they don’t want to interact with people. Having this available helps the animals to feel less stressed, and many of them clearly enjoy being brushed or patted by the people who visit. Take a few minutes to chat with one of the Cast Members on hand as well – they know the animals well and can tell you fascinating facts about them. They may even show you how the animals are trained to accept medical treatments and to let people examine them for possible health problems.
It’s also interesting to watch the animals interacting with each other – some of the goats are bossy and determined to get the best spots in the shade, others are sneaky and still others just accept their spots at the bottom of the pile. A lot like people, I’d say.
When you are ready, you can wander back down the path and catch the Wilderness Express again for another sideways-seated ride back to the rest of the park. On a busy day, Planet Watch can be a peaceful break that takes Disney’s message about nature and conservation to a deeper level.
And you might even get to touch real elephant poop!