Home » Behind the Ride: The Unprecedented Construction of Kilimanjaro Safaris

    Behind the Ride: The Unprecedented Construction of Kilimanjaro Safaris

    The bumpy ride convinces you of the realism of the experience. While you’ve never been on an exotic safari, you cannot shake the feeling that what you’re doing is similar. The only difference is that you’re perfectly safe in your vehicle. You and your family can gaze in wonder at the natural habitats of countless creatures, all the while knowing that you can leave the park and eat at Disney Springs immediately afterward. How is that even possible? Why, it’s Disney magic, of course. Today, let’s go behind the ride to explore the attraction that takes you on the wildest adventure of all, Kilimanjaro Safaris.

    The Experience: Hosting live animals at a popular theme park

    The Trick: Keeping Walt Disney’s dream alive 30 years after his death

    Image: DisneyWalt Disney always had a dream for the Happiest Place on Earth. His fervor for creating a destination location for family hangouts led to an amalgam of several popular forms of entertainment. Disneyland featured rides, shows, and other staples of entertainment for that era, up to and including King Arthur Carrousel, an attraction 80 years old than the park that hosts it.

    During the planning phase of an iconic attraction, Uncle Walt stated his vision. He wanted to create the most lifelike experience possible at Jungle Cruise, and that meant the ride needed live animals. Disney Imagineers were taken aback by this request. Even the guy who famously replied “can do, can do” didn’t see a way to do it, which is why Jungle Cruise has fake animals.

    Image: DisneyWhen the company chose to construct Disney’s Animal Kingdom, everyone knew that they were fulfilling one of Walt Disney’s greatest wishes. Kilimanjaro Safaris is the logical extension of the premise, the “ride” that carries guests through all the native habitats of the animals who permanent reside at the park. It’s the real version of the attraction that was once a glimmer in Uncle Walt’s eye as he contemplated Jungle Cruis

    The Experience: Feeling like you’re on safari…in the middle of Orlando

    The Trick: Transforming swampland into habitable land

    Image: DisneyThe building of Animal Kingdom was an exhaustive task. In particular, the “track” for Kilimanjaro Safaris had to be ready at the same time that the park opened. To achieve this goal, Disney had to design countless habitats on what was previously swampland. It wasn’t easy. There’s a reason that alligators and lions don’t hang out a lot, folks. They don’t like the same climate and soil.

    Disney needed to implement a specific process to build their proverbial Animal Kingdom. First, they had to move 1.5 million cubic yards of dirt, which should make you feel guilty the next time that you complain about raking the yard. The dirt was also spread out over a vast distance, particularly the Kilimanjaro Safaris portion. That park space is 110 acres; the ENTIRETY of Magic Kingdom is 107 acres. The attraction required this much land to add all the habitats.

    Image: DisneyOf course, moving the dirt was only the first step. Imagineers then had to introduce vegetation. Otherwise, the animals would never feel at home. Kilimanjaro Safaris brought in 2.3 million bushes, plants, and trees. Even with that much new vegetation, they still faced a problem, though.

    The Experience: Seeing animals on the safari

    The Trick: Clever placement of the salt licks

    Image: DisneyWhen Disney created the pathways for the attraction’s driving range, they had to guarantee that the animals would stay in sight of the humans on the safari. What would happen if Disney hosted dozens of safaris each hour but the animals didn’t visit? It would be the most boring ride ever constructed, not the greatest way to sell a new theme park.

    Alas, many of the creatures Disney introduced to the Animal Kingdom habitat are skittish by nature, particularly in the presence of people, who don’t have the greatest track record about treating exotic animals well. You’re starting to appreciate the scope of the undertaking that is Kilimanjaro Safaris. Despite not being a ride in any conventional sense, it’s legitimately in the conversation for most challenging theme park attraction ever built.

    Image: DisneyDisney attacked the problem in a novel way. They compiled a list of the best zookeepers and animal experts in the world and promptly hired as many as they could. It was an unprecedented compilation of talent, and these behavioral experts developed tricks to lure animals near the tracks. Eagle-eyed theme park tourists can see salt licks, watering holes, hay/grass, and sugar stashes at various points along the safari.

    These items are the bait. Without them, the residents of Kilimanjaro Safaris would avoid the vehicle paths. And on hot days, you may notice the residents hanging out at specific rocks. They’re fake ones that hide air-conditioning units. The animals have learned which ones keep them cool during the dog days of summer.

    The Experience: Populating the Noah’s Ark of theme park attractions

    The Trick: Choosing animals that wouldn’t kill each other on sight

    Image: DisneyFor the safari to work perfectly, it needs a wide range of animals. Otherwise, riders would get bored seeing the same species frolic repeatedly. Disney’s new zookeepers worked with famous Imagineer Joe Rohde, the project leader, to identify the most fantastic beasts for the safari. They had strange criteria for populating their land with creatures, though.

    Disney needed animals that would, in fact, frolic. Sedentary creatures are great for pictures, but they’re not good for safari entertainment. Diet and waste processing were other considerations. Some animals eat foods that aren’t conveniently available in central Florida, making them impractical residents. Others are messy with their *ahem* food redistribution.

    Disney generally preferred more hygienic creatures, although they did make some exceptions. As an example, the elephants are a highlight of the safari, but unlucky cast members have to clean up literally tons of poop each day. Nobody wants that job. Still, Rohde and his team found a way to turn the messes into a positive. The elephant dung gets recycled as fertilizer at other parts of Walt Disney World.

    Image: DisneyOther factors in choosing animals involved routine and behavior. Some creatures have a tendency to wander, which is the quickest way to get eaten. Disney spent a lot of money importing their animals, and so they needed safeguards in place to prevent unwanted, possibly fatal roaming. Some of the cliffs, trees, and ponds are natural ways that Disney keeps the creatures in their respective habitats. The range also includes electric fences for animals who aren’t deterred by the usual hazards.

    As for behavior, some critters just don’t get along. Zebras are the most famous example, as they have added an unwelcome amount of excitement to Kilimanjaro Safaris. Disney trumpeted the addition of plains zebras in 2012 before removing them a few months later. Their continued presence is a divisive issue because zebras have a tendency to fight one another…or the ride vehicles. Yes, zebras didn’t deal with the change and tried to ram a few oversized cars. Disney has since moved them to a different, safer part of the habitat.

    The Experience: Kilimanjaro Safaris after dark

    The Trick: Adding some lights and changing some behaviors

    Image: DisneyWhen Animal Kingdom and Kilimanjaro Safaris opened on Earth Day in 1998, critics marveled at the triumphant nature of the ride experience. Guests could see how animals lived, safely and pleasantly. Disney had even negated the natural odors of life on the safari, making the entire fake safari experience less smelly than the real thing. The one regret everyone had was the ride closed at night.

    Imagineers had a reasonable justification for this choice. Many of the animals require special treatments that are difficult to administer in their natural habitats. The zookeepers requested shelters for the caretaking of various creatures. To assure daily health checks, cast members trained their animal charges a special way. They musically signaled each species to head to its assigned overnight residence. A duck call meant it was time for the gazelles to move, the drums triggered an elephant charge, and so forth. It was a nightly exodus from the savannas to the safer parts of the park.

    Image: DisneyIn 2015, Disney finally decided to extend the hours at Animal Kingdom. They simultaneously turned Kilimanjaro Safaris into a dark ride but not the standard Disney kind. Imagineers added lights throughout their human-crafted jungle, which wasn’t that hard to do. After all, much of what you see at Kilimanjaro Safaris is already artificial. Many of the structures have concrete bases, but you can’t tell due to clever paint jobs and the usual Disney themed touches.

    The primary change was in animal behavior. A belief persists that the best time to ride Kilimanjaro Safaris is first thing in the morning when the creatures are up and stirring for the first time. To keep the evening version interesting for riders, Disney had to view their creatures in a new light, figuratively and literally. They had to illuminate the animals in a way that didn’t frighten or disrupt the creatures. Also, they had to persuade animals to suddenly change their lifestyles and daily routines.

    Image: DisneyUltimately, Disney altered the ride path for the nighttime version of the attraction. Some animals simply weren’t going to become nocturnal, even if their zookeepers nudged them down that path. The altered rules for the evening ride reward the animals who are willing to put on a show, though. Disney prevents guests from using flash photography at night, protecting the eyes of its creatures. The drivers compensate for the change by spending more time at each spot, giving riders a better opportunity to spot various creatures in the dark. And the animals get special treats out of feeders as a bonus for staying up past their bedtime.

    Given the above, you now understand why Kilimanjaro Safaris is such a hallmark achievement in theme park construction. From swampland, Disney constructed natural habitats for dozens of species. Then, they persuaded these creatures to feel comfortable around humans. Finally, they even convinced a few animals to change their sleeping patterns. It’s exactly the sort of Imagineering feat that would have made Walt Disney beam with pride.