Emerging from the African jungle, my knees wobbled as I carefully traversed the missing slats in the rickety footbridge. In the river chasm below, a dozen sunbathing crocodiles were awaiting my first misstep.
This surreal safari scene seemed real enough to me -- even though I knew the make-believe jungle was deep inside a theme park carved out of Florida swampland.
Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., has been offering the three-hour Wild Africa Trek for about a month now, taking about a dozen visitors at a time on VIP guided tours through the theme park's Pangani Forest. The $189 experience essentially triples the price of admission to the park (which is not included in the cost of the tour).
Nothing on my carefully crafted and tightly choreographed adventure was left to chance – from the animal actors that hit every cue to the encounters with researchers along the trail to the perceived dangers cleared by Disney lawyers. Yet at every turn, the fully encompassing storytelling and 360-degree, open-air theater made every moment feel like a real trek through the jungle rather than a behind-the-scenes tour of a theme park.
At the start of our tour, my fellow trekkers and I slipped into expedition harnesses with carabiner clips designed to keep us from meeting the untimely death mentioned in the liability waiver that we'd just signed. We were each issued a wireless earpiece, which made it much easier to listen to our tour guide, Laura Beers.
The beginning of the tour took us through the theme park, with our first stop at the silverback gorillas compound, where a band of the knuckle-draggers appeared on schedule as if released by a hidden stage hand. Carefully concealed food caused the gorillas to pause for a perfect photo op. Half an hour into the tour, a similar stop to see the antelope exhibit left me wondering when we'd be heading off the beaten track.
We finally passed through a gate marked "Authorized Trek Guides Only" for our bushwalk through dense fern, bamboo and vine that felt more like a long walk in the woods than an exotic jungle journey. After stumbling upon some strategically placed animal skulls along the trail that conveniently broke up the hike and allowed for some storytelling foreshadowing, I began to wonder when we were going to see the promised living creatures in the wild.
Arriving at a clearing, we happened upon a researcher tossing watermelon wedges into the hippopotamus pool 10 feet below. After we clipped our carabiners onto safety tethers, a hippo popped up to feed just in time for us to peek out over the edge of the cliff and snap some photos. In between fast facts ("A hippo can reach a top speed of 30 mph"), the researcher tossed more watermelon to pique the hippo's interest.
"How fast can a human run?" I asked, wondering what would happen if the tether failed.
"Not as fast a hippo," said the researcher, as if he'd repeated the line a thousands times.
While our guide, Laura, narrated the trek through our earpieces, photographer Lani Hendryx snapped candid moments and asked trekkers to pose for postcard portraits.
An hour into the tour, we reached a pair of rope bridges that crossed the Safi River. On a dirt road 30 feet below theme park visitors passed by on the open-sided trucks of the Kilmanjaro Safari, the marquee attraction of Disney's Animal Kingdom.
After hooking my carabiner to an overhead cable, I started across the bridge only to step on a purposely broken slat. Stumbling, I grasped for the rope railing of the bouncing and rocking bridge as the non-animatronic vultures in the treetops a few feet away sized up my nutritional value. If this was a show I now had a starring role. As I reached the other side of the bridge I unconsciously left behind the alternate-reality theme park world and fully slipped into the safari adventure.
Midway across the second bridge I suddenly froze. Down below the dozen crocodiles lazed in the sun on a spit of land in the middle of a shallow pool. My knees shuddered. I was truly scared.
Safely back on land, my fellow trekkers clipped in for another peek over a cliff at the crocs below, but I stayed back from the edge.
"What would happen if I somehow fell in?" I asked, watching the crocodiles slide en mass into the water.
"You'd be dead," said guide Laura, who had been cheerful up to that point.
Midway through the tour we piled into open-air safari trucks for a VIP tour of the savanna, which was far shorter and less extensive than the regular Kilmanjaro Safari, with frequent stops to photograph the wildlife. Our driver pulled off to the side of the trail at key locations to let the larger safari trucks pass. At one such spot, a giraffe wandered over to a knotty tree trunk hole stuffed with food at just his height.
The final stop on our tour was the Boma gathering place, an elevated and covered platform built for the Wild Africa Trek right in the middle of the savanna. Trekkers were encouraged to lounge in any of the chairs arranged neatly around the perimeter of the deck, which felt like the grand front porch of a wilderness lodge. Binoculars were available for viewing the grazing wildebeest, gazelles, antelope and elephants. The Boma also offered the first restroom break in more than two hours .
While we surveyed the savanna, Laura and Lani transformed from guide and photographer into chef and waitress, pulling prepared meals from a super-sized cooler stowed on the safari truck.
Lunch was served in stainless steel camping containers with snap-on lids. The surprisingly delicious food (keeping in mind we were still in a theme park) fell somewhere between a meal and an appetizer. I'd call it an elegant ploughman's plate, with yogurt, fruit (dried and fresh), cheeses, cured meats and bread. Jungle Juice (a mix of passion fruit, orange and guava) was served in military-style canteen cups with butterfly handles. It was the perfect end to a wonderful journey.
So was it worth it? The $189 price tag for the Wild Africa Trek guided tour is steep to keep the experience exclusive and the visitor interest manageable. The trek includes a private safari, a Disney PhotoPass CD, a fine dining meal plus the three-hour guided tour.
If you view the cost through the prism of Disney dollars, where inflated prices are double or triple what you typically expect to pay elsewhere, you could say the Wild Africa Trek is almost a bargain. But I imagine the VIP tour is just that, designed for people who think money is no object or who are willing to pay anything for the ultimate Disney experience -- the free-spending rich and the hard-core fans.
If the Wild Africa Trek proves popular, Disney's Animal Kingdom is expected to add a variety of VIP jungle itineraries, including a zip-line adventure.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times