Tour Review: Wild by Design

Of all the tours I’ve done to date, I was looking forward to Wild by Design the least. At least the Backstage Safari went backstage. Based on the description, Wild by Design sounded like an onstage walking tour of the The Making of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park. I was not thrilled about paying $51.12 (with Disney VISA discount) to hear trivia from a book I’d already read.

With this in mind, I decided to do this tour solo (no point in wasting money bringing anyone else). So on a Friday in early May, I set out for my 8:30am tour alone. I had no problem parking, though Animal Kingdom is known for not opening the parking lot until just before park opening (9am that day). I trudged through the desolate parking lot and bag check before meeting up with my guides outside the turnstiles near Guest Relations.

Discovery Island sign

One of the first things we learned was that each land in Animal Kingdom has an official greeting. In Dinoland, U.S.A., folks "Dig ya' later!" Appropriately enough, it is the only land where the greeting is actually a farewell.

That’s right – guides. Plural. There were only two of us on the tour that day, and we had two guides (one was in training).  A one-to-one ratio. Seeing as how I like to use tours as an excuse to badger Cast Members with questions, things were looking better already.

After the usual get-to-know-you introductions, the four of us set out on what felt like a VIP experience.

Starting in the Oasis, our main guide explained that the parking lot was barren in order to provide a contrast to the lush landscaping of the park. This sounded good at the time, but now that I think about it there really isn’t much themeing in any of Disney’s parking lots. I guess they’re all trying to provide contrast…or it’s just too expensive/impractical to theme a parking lot like an international space station (which is obviously how Epcot’s lot should look.)

Tea bushes

These tea bushes at the base of Expedition Everest help tell the story of the Royal Anandapur Tea Company.

In Animal Kingdom’s spirit of conservation, our guide recycled the Backstage Safari fact about how Disney brought in the equivalent of 60 truckloads of dirt a day for two years to build the park. I’ve found this tidbit & the Haunted Mansion joke are common among Animal Kingdom tour guides. (What, you don’t know the joke? Okay, here it goes… Q: Why did Aladdin go in the Haunted Mansion? A: He was looking for Abu (a boo).)

I’m not going recite everything I learned on the tour because 1.) I don’t want to ruin it for anyone and 2.) I couldn’t remember it all if I tried. Just know that there was never a moment when we weren’t learning. Even if we were hustling to make the next schedule tour stop, the guides were constantly pointing out details along the way.

Expedition Everest peaks

Do you know which peak is Everest?

From the Oasis, we marched through Discover Island to Dinoland, U.S.A. I know Dinoland may possibly be the least-loved area in any Disney park, but the themeing there is impeccable. Hearing the backstory really gave me a new found appreciation for the the carny atmosphere of Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama.

After a quick tour there, we headed under the Cementosaurus bridge [the yellow dinosaur with light nipples (you heard me) by the carnival games] to Expedition Everest. Our trip through this part of Asia was swift because we had an appointment to make.

Prayer flags

Wind blowing through prayer flags indicates that the prayers are being read. Fading of the square-style flags indicates a prayer is being answered. For these strip-style flags, people attach bells to the prayers that have been answered so that they ring in the breeze.

Our first meeting (I didn’t know we’d have any) was with one of the primate keepers. I love animals, and getting to learn about some of the Animal Kingdom residents from the guy who knows them best was a wonderful treat. Jon, the keeper, had been working with primates for 7 years and talked to us at length about the white-cheeked gibbons.


A primate keeper explained how white-cheeked gibbons mate for life. Gibbon partners also sing together, and Disney's pair had already sung for 20 minutes that morning.

After meeting with Jon, we walked through the Maharajah Jungle Trek – which has rajah paintings that each have a Hidden Mickey. After that, we headed out of Asia and back over to Discovery Island to take a closer look at Animal Kingdom’s icon, the Tree of Life.


Animal Kingdom's bamboo was grown from cuttings of Disneyland's original batch of bamboo.

Our guides walked us behind the tree near the exit of It’s Tough to Be a Bug, which offered us a nice view of some of the specific animal carvings they talked about. One of my favorite parts of the Tree of Life is that the animals are carved with no respect to scale. Here a preying mantis is bigger than a hedgehog. We learned that the selection of animals on the tree was at the sole discretion of the lead artist, Zsolt Hormay.

Tree of Life close up

Zsolt Hormay, the lead artist for the Tree of Life, included a scorpion at his son's request among the 400+ animals carved onto the tree and it's roots.

From Discovery Island, we headed to Pizzafari for our mid-tour break.  Unlike most of Disney’s 3-hour tours, we didn’t just have 15-minutes to use the bathroom & rest. Nope, in true surprising Animal Kingdom style, food was involved. I hadn’t read anything about food – so our snack of fruit & breakfast pastries was certainly unexpected. The real kicker for me though was our choice of beverage. Not being a morning person in the best of times, I was well past due for a 10:30am Diet Coke after a week of doing early morning tours. Knowing that a Disney Diet Coke costs about $3 just made it taste all the better. (Okay, I know it was a $50 Diet Coke, but give a girl a break. I was ecstatic!)

Wild by Design tour snack

Though there was no mention of it in the tour description, halfway through we had a break with a very large snack. There was far more food than the two of us on the tour could eat. We also received fountain drinks of our choice.

Diet Coke still in hand, we headed out to finish up our tour. After walking through Harambe, we met with another keeper in the African aviary. He was quite the character and told us about how he got into bird watching after he once saw a bird die as a kid after shooting it with a BB gun. It was a sad story with a happy ending; he has been working with birds for over 15 years. He also described to us how they have to count all the birds in the aviary twice a day & how they can isolate any individual bird within an hour should they need to remove it for any reason.

Real baobab tree

As promised in an earlier post, here is a picture of Animal Kingdom's only real baobab tree according to my guides.

We wrapped up the tour by walking through the rest of an Pangani Forrest Exploration Trail. Our guides gave us our commemorative tour pins and posed for photos before bidding us adieu.

Cheesy jokes aside (or maybe because of them) – our guides were awesome. They were professional, engaging & cheery.  The cheery part was especially impressive since we were all sweating buckets by the end of our 3-hour trek. Both of the animal keepers were just as wonderful. I can say for certainty that myself and the other guest were very sad to see them go (but happy to head off to air conditioning.)

Hidden Mickey in the pavement

Near the real baobab in Harambe is one of the larger Hidden Mickey's on property.

As I mentioned, I was afraid this tour would just be a repeat of  The Making of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park book. While there was certainly some overlap between the book, the Backstage Safari and this tour, most of the information was new to me. In fact, the closest comparison I can make to this tour is DisneyShawn’s site – which has some amazing posts on the Imagineering details in Animal Kingdom. His Asia posts include many of the same facts as the tour.

Giant guide dog

While we were in the African aviary, this guide dog passed through. I know guide dogs are well trained, but my jaw dropped as he walked passed dozens of birds flittering in his path without so much as salivating. I can't say my (expensively trained) dog would fare nearly as well.

Regardless of whether or not you’ve read the book or taken one of the other Animal Kingdom tours, I recommend the Wild by Design tour for anyone who is a fan of Imagineering and wants to learn more about the layers of detail in Animal Kingdom. There are certainly people out there who’ve done more Disney research than me, but I read about Disney a lot. If a tour surprises me with new information, then I can assure you that there is truly something for everyone.

I also recommend Wild by Design for families with young teenagers looking for a tour. Disney’s backstage tours are restricted for guests ages 16 and above. Since Wild by Design is completely onstage, guests as young as 14 can enjoy the tour. Mind you, it will be most appreciated by teenagers who like learning about Disney themeing. Otherwise, they’ll probably just be irritated that you dragged them to the park early for something other than Expedition Everest.

I would not recommend this tour for anyone looking to experience attractions. Wild by Design does not take you on any rides or to see any shows or other attractions. Mind you, the tour is only 3 hours, so there should still be plenty of time left to experience attractions in the afternoon.

With that said, the Wild by Design tour is a great way to add to your day at Animal Kingdom. Many people, especially repeat visitors, complain that Animal Kingdom is a half-day park. One way to make the most of your park day would be to take this tour in the morning, have lunch, see some afternoon shows and then go the rides near park closing when the lines thin out. Backstage Safari is another good half-day Animal Kingdom tour.

If for no other reason, I would recommend going on the Wild by Design tour to increase your understanding of Dinoland, U.S.A. What is hailed by many as an example of Disney cheaping-out really does have a well thought out backstory. I’m not saying I’ll ever ride Primeval-Whirl again, but learning about ongoing rift between the Diggs County residents (the Dino Institute and Chester & Hester) has really improved my opinion of the area.

If you do take this tour, I definitely recommend wearing good shoes & sunscreen. Without a doubt, this was the quickest pace of any of the tours so far, and I was thankful for my comfortable footwear. Myself & the other guest were both young and capable of keeping up with a sometimes breakneck pace. I imagine in larger groups, the guide would need to slow down considerably.  We paused a few times for me to take photos, talk with keepers & for our snack break, but otherwise we were always walking and often in the sun.

All in all – I loved the Wild by Design tour. There seems to be a strong inverse relationship between my expectations for Animal Kingdom tours & my experiences. I can’t imagine the Wild Africa Trek will manage to live up to the hefty price tag, but if it does – Animal Kingdom will have a perfect tour record.

Wild by Design Tour Pin

At the end of the tour, we each received a commemorative tour pin. Like my UnDISCOVERed Future World pin, I can't bear to take it out of the plastic.

*If you want to learn more about the Wild by Design tour, be sure to check out our tour page here.  In addition to finding tour restrictions and discounts, we’ve included links to reviews 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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One Response to Tour Review: Wild by Design

  1. Pingback: Beyond the Wild by Design Tour | Disney Tour Reviews

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