Tour Review: Backstage Safari

The Backstage Safari at Animal Kingdom was my first tour at Walt Disney World back in March 2011.  I was not looking forward to it in the same way I was looking forward to other tours such as Behind the Seeds and Backstage Magic.  Disney’s description and the tour reviews I read made it clear that while the tour was about animal care, you would not get to touch any animals.

Animal Kingdom Entrance

An all day downpour kept Animal Kingdom crowds at bay, but our tour soldiered on.

My trouble with zoos is that I am not permitted to pet the animals.  There are only two things preventing me from jumping into enclosures and hugging the heck out of every non-snake animal I see:

  1. Rules
  2. The likelihood of being mauled

Let me make myself clear, my aversion to wrong-doing comes first in this decision process.

I mention my “goody two-shoes” approach to rules upfront for a reason: taking photos backstage on any Disney tour is not allowed.  I never violate this rule.  However, if I can ever see backstage from an onstage location – I take as many photos as I want.  With that said, any backstage photos included in this review were taken from aboard the Wildlife Express Train.

Back to the review, I was not looking forward to the tour AND it was raining monsooning.  (No offense to those who actually live where monsoons occur.) By the time I got to Guest Relations from the parking lot, I was already soaked through my sneakers, raincoat & flimsy poncho.  Our tour guide was waiting for me with a smile and a sturdy Disney poncho in her out-streched hand.  This simple gesture was an indicator that, despite the weather, we were in for a good time.

Due to the downpour, there were only 3 of us on the tour – myself, a father and his teenage daughter.  Four people no-showed.  Walt Disney World has a two-day cancelation policy for tour refunds, and tours go on rain or shine unless there is a hurricane.  So those people decided to eat the cost rather than slog through the rain.

For those of who don’t read any further because you don’t want to see any spoilers, let me assure you – out of the 11 tours I’ve done to date, the Backstage Safari was the biggest surprise.  Even in a monsoon, I did not give a second thought to paying $65.18 (with 15% AP discount, including tax) for my tour.  I also did not regret giving up any park time, even though this was day one of my first multi-day trip to the World in my memorable life.

The other surprise hit for me was the Wild by Design tour, also at Animal Kingdom.  These two tours are a great way to make a full day out of what has become known as a half-day park. They increased my appreciation for a park I already read a lot about, which is more than I can say for the often hyped Keys to the Kingdom and Backstage Magic tours.  On with the review…

[Note: Includes some spoilers, but I will not repeat every piece of trivia learned on the tour.]

Animal Kingdom's African Elephant Compound

The African Elephant building is next door to the rhinos. Animal Kingdom has two separate elephant herds.

After waiting 10 minutes for the no-shows, the 4 of us poncho-ed up and hit the road.  Because of the weather, the in-park tour intro was shortened, and we quickly made our way backstage to a 15-passenger van. (Note: when the tour exceeds 15 people, groups split into two vans, with the second being driven by an AK intern.) To keep us out of the rain as much as possible, the guide delivered her spiel and answered all our questions in the van between stops.  No transportation time was wasted on the tour.  We were also able to leave our belongings in the van.

Our first stop backstage was outside the African Elephant and White Rhino compounds.  Since the animals are out on the Kilimanjaro Safari savannas during the day, most pens we saw were empty.  However, Animal Kingdom has one white rhino who basically refuses to go out to the savanna anymore.  Since Disney is adamant than animals are not forced to do anything they don’t want to do, Sampson gets to hang out backstage everyday.   At 43, he is their oldest white rhino by a good 20 years, and his daughter and one of his grandchildren are part of his crash (rhino herd) – meaning Disney has three generations living together.  Sampson also has a second grandchild who was given to another facility.

Animal Kingdom "baobab" tree

Our guide jokingly pointed out the obviously "Disney" 1,000 year-old baobab trees.

While we met with one of the rhino keepers, Sampson came over to check us out.  The keeper kept feeding him during his talk, so we had a great view into his mouth.  I’m not sure what I thought a rhino mouth looked like inside, but it defied all expectations.  The keeper was very amazed at how long Sampson hung out with us, as he often ignores tour guests.   Sampson was the only backstage animal we got to see up close on the tour.  Note: While you may read about petting animals in some of the older tour reviews, this is no longer permitted.

Kilimanjaro Safari termite mound

These Disney termite mounds are related to the baobab trees (and those ever-present ostrich eggs are oddly heavy.)

After visiting the white rhino and elephant compounds, we got to take our own private ride on the Kilimanjaro Safari with the standard Warden Wilson track turned off.  Our safari ride was delayed a few minutes because there was lightening, which causes both the safaris and Expedition Everest to close.  Once we got the all clear, we were treated to what I’m sure was the best safari ride ever.   I’ve yet to experience the Wild Africa Trek or Sunrise Safari (which also include private Kilimanjaro Safari rides), but I know on those tours you are with larger groups.  With just the 3 of us, plus our guide and the driver – we felt very, very VIP.

Due to the rain, all the other safari vehicles were running empty (only adding to our surreal private experience).  Our driver explained that the free-roaming animals on the savanna are accustomed to having safari vehicles drive by all day long.  Once the vehicles stop, they are called backstage for the night.   Whether there are guests or not, the Cast Members have to keep vehicles running to prevent the animals from trying to go on Early Release (the Cast Member term for leaving before the shift is over.)  The giraffes are known for trying to ER everyday, clearing the savanna and lining up at their backstage exit for dinner.  So if you go on the safari in the late afternoon and don’t see any giraffes, you know where they snuck off to.

Giraffes' escape hatch to meal time

If you don't see any giraffes on the savanna, look here to see if they're lined up looking for Early Release.

Throughout our safari, the guide and driver pointed out details and shared animal trivia not from the usual Kilimanjaro experience.  Among other things, we learned how the best viewing was in the rain (the animals were very active) and that the dominate female ostrich had taken on a darker male coloration because Disney’s flock is all female.

After the safari, we took the van backstage to the vet area (part of Conservation Station), where Disney was also holding spring break camps for children with connections to Cast Members.  Inside we had our mid-morning break with an offering of water or instant hot chocolate in reusable mugs (bottled water isn’t eco-friendly) and our choice of snacks (granola bars, Nutrigrain bars, pretzels or Goldfish.)  While we snacked, the guide told us a bit about the Tree of Life construction (we got to hold a leaf!) and about the onstage tour, Wild by Design, which focuses on Animal Kingdom’s detailed theming.

Kilimanjaro Safari Elephant

The AK Horticulture team refers to the elephants as "job insurance" because they can eat 200 lbs. of food a day and bulldoze the landscaping, which needs replacing all the time. Notice those leaning palms? Elephant back scratchers.

If you’re interested in learning more about the design of the Animal Kingdom, I recommend checking out the book The Making Of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park.  Your local library might have a copy or be able to obtain it through inter-library loan from another institution.  Also, I’ve noticed very cheap used copies on Amazon. (Note: DTR receives a small percentage of Amazon sales made through these affiliate links, but we don’t get any off of used book sales – so I’m really not shilling.  I am shilling when I say support your local library – check out books!)

After break time,  we walked over to where the animals’ food is prepared.  This facility was cleaner than any restaurant kitchen, and we had to go through an air stream to prevent any bugs from entering the facility with us.  Most of the animals’ nutrition comes from pellets, but a wide variety of kitchen-grade fresh produce and meat is carefully measured out for each individual animal to provide enrichment.  Food is tracked by the gram and consumption is heavily monitored, since a decrease in appetite is often the first sign an animal may not be well.

Reusable Backstage Safari mug

In keeping with Animal Kingdom's conservation message, the Backstage Safari tour switched from bottled water to reusable mugs.

Warning: if you are squeamish, the food facility (while immaculate), may put you off your recently-consumed Goldfish.  I was caught off guard when one of the food-prep women walked non-chalantly out of the freezer with a tray of labeled “proteins” to demonstrate to our group the various frozen feeder animals used throughout the park.  This tray included frozen baby animals of the cute variety.  Consider yourself warned.

After I recovered (okay, I’m still reeling from the frozen cuteness), we went back over to the vet facility.  During our tour, they were using the vet room – so we did not get to go inside.  We went and checked out what was going on through the public-viewing area in the Conservation Station.  That morning they were doing an annual physical on one of their “Asian” tigers.  Disney was not interested in breeding tigers, so they accepted six tigers from a private source that were confiscated for being illegal hybrids of two different tiger species.  Cross-breeding tigers is a no-no, so Disney is taking care of tigers that breeding zoos are not interested in keeping.  Win-win.

Animal care room at the Conservation Station

All Animal Kingdom guests can view daily animal check-ups and surgeries at the Conservation Station viewing area. On my tour, we saw an adorable hybrid tiger with ginormous paws against the glass.

The cutest thing I’ve ever seen at Animal Kingdom was that tiger’s paw 4 inches away from me on the other side of the vet room glass.  Had we been permitted backstage, I might have broken free and fought off the 16 (!) vets & other CMs in the room to give the tiger a hug.  It was under anesthesia after all, so there was little threat of mauling.

Unfortunately, since I didn’t know we would be going onstage, my camera was back in the van – so I have no documentation of the amazingness it was to see a tiger that close.  This brings me to my Rafiki’s Planet Watch – Conservation Station Tips:

  1. Bring your camera with you to the vet area in case you pop onstage and can take photos.
  2. If you want to see an animal in the vet viewing area on your own time, head out to the Conservation Station before 10:30am or so.  They have a schedule posted of what animals will be seen that day, but they are usually finished by noon.
  3. The Conservation Station is one of the only areas in all of the parks where you can meet Jiminy Cricket, if you are of the character-chasing sort.  He and Rafiki are often hanging out there.
  4. When you go into the Conservation Station, keep your eyes out for untoward creatures.  I had my second uncomfortable experience of the tour when I noticed that a large indigo snake was out for public viewing.  I had a lot of trouble focusing on the tour guide, while the snake (a mere 20 ft away) was giving me the “I’m gonna come get you” look.  The fact we were petting a edible-sized ferret, also out on display, probably gave the snake more incentive to slither our way.

After wrapping up our time at the Conservation Station, our tour (sadly) came to an end.  Our guide offered to drop us off in the African section of the park or back up at the Oasis.  I got the feeling she kindly offered give us a ride to the Oasis because of our small group size and the ongoing torrential downpour.

Flamingo Island on the Kilimanjaro Safari

Can you spot the Hidden Mickey?

All in all, my Backstage Safari experience was awesome.  While I didn’t go into it in depth here (for fear or writing a novel), much of my positive experience is attributable to the information learned in response to guests’ questions.  So much was dependent on guest interactivity, that I am going to do a separate post with all we learned because we made the most of having an Animal Kingdom guide all to ourselves for 3 full hours.

I would recommend this tour to anyone who wants to go backstage at Animal Kingdom, learn more about Disney’s animal care operations and/or wants to expand their appreciation for what is an often-overlooked park. Disney enthusiasts will love going to off limits areas and talking with backstage Cast Members.  Provided they are 16 years or older, future vets will love being able to talk directly with animal educators and keepers

This tour is also a good option for anyone looking for an afternoon tour. Most Walt Disney World tours are only offered in the morning, but the Backstage Safari is offered Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays & Fridays at 8:30am & 1pm.  You can check out your favorite Animal Kingdom attractions in the morning, eat lunch and then take the tour in the afternoon.  By the time the 1pm tour ends, it will be close to park closing time (if there are no Extra Magic Hours), and Expedition Everest will likely be a walk on.  Note: there will most likely not be any animals in the vet room during the afternoon tour.  Which is good if you’d like to go backstage in that area, rather than view it from onstage.

White Elephant Cupcake

End your tour with a sweet treat from the Kusafiri Coffee Shop and Bakery in the Harambe Village.

I would not recommend this tour for any one kicking and dragging their heels. If you want to go, and your travel partner doesn’t – leave them at the hotel.  I do this ALL the time.  While I would bet my bottom dollar that non-enthusiastic guests would end up having a good time (remember: I wasn’t thrilled about taking this tour), it is not worth the $72 price tag (Discounts available) to make them go.  Every tour I’ve been on has solo people who did exactly what I’m suggesting.  Have your grumpy gus meet you at the end of a tour with some fastpasses and a White Elephant Cupcake from the Kusafiri Coffee Shop.   Then you can have your cake and gloat about your tour too.

If I had one tip for making sure your tour is fantastic, it would be to ask questions.  The animal educators leading the Backstage Safari know far more than a memorized tour script.  If they don’t know the answers, they will find someone who does.  While the tour is mainly focused on animals and their care, I asked numerous questions about general park operations.

As far as ruining the magic, I wouldn’t worry about it. Animal Kingdom is deeply rooted in reality – with its focus on plants, animals and conservation.  This tour does not try to pull back the curtain on Disney magic; you’re not going behind the scenes at Dinosaur or Expedition Everest.  It’s about how Animal Kingdom’s amazing menagerie is cared for – which I don’t find magic spoiling so much as magic enhancing.  Just seeing the animals on the Kilimanjaro Safari savannas is one thing, knowing it takes 200 keepers to get them there takes it to a whole new level.

 

*If you want to learn more about the Backstage Safari tour, be sure to check out our tour page here.  In addition to finding tour restrictions and discounts, we’ve included links to reviews and podcasts from other websites so you check out other people’s opinions on this tour.

*Agree or disagree with this review?  Have any specific questions about this tour?  Just let us know by posting in the comments below.

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10 Responses to Tour Review: Backstage Safari

  1. Pingback: Backstage Safari Tour Trivia | Disney Tour Reviews

  2. Katie says:

    I’m glad they had a sturdy poncho for you. I would hate for you to repeat the Apenheul experience :)

  3. Lindsay says:

    Oh, I was way wetter that day than at Apenheul. I met Leah after the tour, and we did the World Showcase over at Epcot. It was Spring Break, but NO ONE was there. I saw things I didn’t even know existed over there. And for some reason, I was under the delusion that my feet had managed to stay dry in my sneakers. Apparently, they were so numb from the cold I couldn’t feel any water. I was very surprised to see their pickled state that night when I took off my shows. Whatever – free poncho!

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  10. Natalie Fox says:

    Really great review! I’ll be going to WDW for the 11th time in April and after recently becoming a CM in the UK, I wanted to take full advantage of using my 50% off tours. After already booking keys to the kingdom, your review definitely tipped us over into booking this one too! Have loved reading up on all your hints and tips!
    x

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