It’s impossible to visit the Animal Kingdom or even think about the Animal Kingdom without JAMBO EVERYONE popping up in my head. Brothers Dave and Mike (a.k.a. Safari Mike) run the only website + blog dedicated to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, keeping up with news, writing features, and also spearheading their own (brilliant) Animal Kingdom podcast called Radio Harambe. I’m so thrilled to have Safari Mike on the blog today as we discuss all things DAK, even the tougher subjects — like why some guests just don’t like it.
Yay, Mike! So excited to have chat with you on This Happy Place Blog today, as part of my annual Animal Kingdom Appreciation month. Ever since I heard you on a BE OUR GUEST PODCAST episode back in the day, you have been my go-to source for all things Animal Kingdom. So let’s start with the basics. Why did you decide to start a website & blog dedicated to Animal Kingdom?
Well, first of all, it wasn’t just me but my brother, Dave and myself. In 2007, we started a blog called Mouse Extra. It was Dave who first started the idea of a site dedicated strictly to the Animal Kingdom and the Lodge. The old blog which was your basic news, reviews and editorials on Disney at large had kind of run its course. And we both felt that the Animal Kingdom got the short stick by many of the hardcore Disney fans. The whole “half day park” nonsense. But it was my favorite park and one of Dave’s as well. So we decided to show people why we love it so much. And our podcast, Radio Harambe, just grew out of that.
But for me personally, I had been a Disney fan since forever. My parents took me in 1972 (no I am not old enough to remember that trip, thank you) and we went every other year or so. So I was a big big fan. As I got older, I also became very involved in conservation and environmental awareness. Because of those interests, I started as a docent at the Bronx Zoo in 1990 and did that for 18 years. I always thought that Disney would do great things if they got into the “zoo business.” So when, I heard they were doing that, I wanted to see it. In the fall of 1998, I got married and went to Disney for my honeymoon (obviously) and Brooke and I fell in love with the place.
//instagram.com/p/kazysOpwI0/embed/I love your enthusiasm for the park so much because I think out of all the parks Animal Kingdom gets the most flack. Why do you think it’s so misunderstood?
I think it’s only misunderstood by some really. It has consistently beaten Hollywood Studios for attendance the last couple years, even though DHS has Star Wars Weekends and Osborn Family Lights to draw big crowds for those special events. The problem I think is the Touring Plans mentality of some park goers. They gravitate towards the Step 1 E ticket, proceed to Step 2 for D ticket, etc. idea of theme park travel. And Animal Kingdom is really not geared for that. It’s a park to linger over, to meander through, to soak in. To me, in that way, it’s very much like World Showcase. Sure there are some rides, but the park is about the details. No other park has the detailed theming that Animal Kingdom does. No other park is as unified in its theme either. There is no, as far as I can tell, shoe horning of attractions where they don’t belong, like Stitch and Monsters Inc Laugh Floor in Tomorrowland. And there’s no empty show buildings like Wonders of Life, or neutered attractions like the Animation Building. It all fits in so well.
Because it provides such a different experience than the other three parks, what advice would you give DAK first-timers?
Exactly what I said before. There’s a lot more to do here than just rides. I know there are more rides in the other parks. But take your time and enjoy the Maharajah Jungle Trek, don’t skip it because you have a zoo near home. The details there are amazing. Find them. Watch the Burudika Band in Harambe. They are terrific. And go to the shows, the Animal Kingdom has the three best shows in any Disney park.
The park has gone through a good amount of changes since it opened in 1998. What do you think has been its highest point so far? The lowest?
This is a tough one. There isn’t too many low points in my mind. I suppose the low point would have to be the budget constraints. The plans for the Beastly Kingdomme and for Tiger River Rapids seemed so ambitious but just couldn’t get done. And the fact they can’t fix the Yeti is a sore point for many including me. Actually, I take that all back. Tarzan Rocks, now that’s a low point. On the high side, I think it’s just the park opening. I know that sounds lame, but my first visit there in 1998, walking through the Oasis and seeing the Tree of Life for the first time. Amazing.
How has becoming so interested in the park enhanced how you feel about nature and the animal world?
As I said before, I have long had an interest in conservation, zoos and the animal world. But maybe what’s the best thing for me, is all of this has given us a chance to give back. The Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund does a lot of good work. And we try to do a small part. We have conservation partners who we try to raise money for, all of whom have ties to DWCF. Some examples of what we have tried to do: my wife has made bracelets that we sell and all of the profits go to whichever of our conservation partners the buyer selects. And a friend of mine on twitter is a school teacher in England. Her students for a class project selected the Cheetah Conservation Fund, a partner of ours and have raised several hundred dollars for them and they are still going. Stuff like that just makes me feel good.
If you were the President of the Disney Parks, what would you propose the first change be at DAK?
There are so many things I would love to do like bring Mystic Point to the park or an Australia section. But I think I would build the Jungle Book Cruise in Anandapur. King Louie’s ruins would fit so well there in its aesthetic. There is plenty of room between Africa and Asia for a major dark ride and this park doesn’t have one. Yes, the Animal Kingdom is a different kind of park but in the end it’s still a Disney park.
//instagram.com/p/lVJajCpwPL/embed/You write a lot about the attractions that never came to be on the Bwana Blog. Which of these, if any, do you think has a chance to actually happen in the future?
Tough call. But you know what they say in Imagineering no good idea is ever thrown away. I suppose if any of the lost attractions could make it, it would be the three tiered carousel that was initially designed to be the icon. Essentially, the bottom of the attraction would be a boat spinner where guests rode fish, dolphins, ducks, and the like. The middle would be a typical carousel where riders rode things like zebra and rhinos. And, naturally, up top would be a Dumbo like ride with guests flying around in birds and bats. I think this could fit wonderfully at Rafiki’s Planet Watch.
Since it’ll be a few years until we have Avatarland (a.k.a. a major expansion in DAK), what little changes do you think they could make to keep the park fresh and exciting?
Well, one thing would be to spruce up Rafiki’s maybe with the aforementioned carousel, maybe a kiddie coaster. I love the idea of a botanical garden out there as well. Also, I think they need to add a wing to the Dino Institute that is a walk through museum with fossils and hands on stuff, kind of like the old Dinosaur Jubilee. I would also love to see them focus again on animals. Maybe a new trail in Serka Zong near Everest with red pandas and clouded leopards. I mean, red pandas would sell a lot of plush. But the most important thing will be the night time parade, that’s what will keep people in late.
Do you think people’s feelings on DAK are related to whether they are animal or nature people? Or do you think it’s because the park is really different from the others and guests aren’t sure what to do with that on their vacation?
I think guests who don’t particularly care about zoos might at first glance not want to go. Disney recognized that issue right away with the whole “nahtezu” campaign. But no matter what they say, the Animal Kingdom is part zoo. And I think people may dismiss it because they have a zoo near their home so why go here. I mean they don’t have anything like Epcot by their house. So they need to embrace the fact that this isn’t just a zoo, it’s a great zoo, with a great theme, great attractions and shows, and well, just a great place to be.
Thanks so much for the chat, Mike!