AFTER a long day’s travelling I awoke to the sight of giraffes ambling past my window. They shared plains that stretched as far as the eye could see with wildebeest, zebra, flamingo, Thomson’s gazelle and ostrich.
Yet the luxurious hotel I woke up in is thousands of miles from Africa. Instead, it is one of many jewels in the crown of Walt Disney World, Florida.
Animal Kingdom Lodge is evidence, if evidence were needed, that Disney World is not just for children. The resort is home to more than 30 species of African wildlife. Along with the swimming pools and a health club with spa, the impressive horseshoe-shaped wooden building also houses one of the largest collections of African art in the United States.
And then there is the food. At Jiko – The Cooking Place, roaring wood-burning ovens are used to fuse traditional African, Indian and Mediterranean cuisine. The seasonal menu may include oak-grilled filet mignon with sweetcorn risotto, peri peri chicken with herb-crushed potatoes and brick oven-fired flatbreads. There are also regular South African wine tasting sessions, and the hotel boasts several other restaurants, lounges and pool bars.
Animal Kingdom is one of four theme parks that make up Disney World, Florida. The first one our merry band of journalists and “plus ones” visited was Magic Kingdom, which is aimed squarely at children and represents what most people probably associate with this place.
At its heart, the impressive Cinderella Castle towers over various relatively gentle rides and attractions. After sunset, we watched a cartoon cavalcade of Disney characters (led by Mickey, naturally) parade down “Main Street” towards the castle before the spectacular “Wishes” fireworks and lights display, during which Tinkerbell appeared to fly from the top of the castle.
The experience was a full-frontal assault on the senses that left us all feeling well and truly Disneyed, which is no bad thing.
With the exception of the Beauty and the Beast-themed Be Our Guest restaurant, alcohol is not available in child-centric Magic Kingdom. In stark contrast, Epcot affords visitors the opportunity to drink their way around the world, among other experiences.
The park’s name is an acronym for Experimental Protoype Community of Tomorrow and stems from Walt Disney’s vision of a Utopian city – in his words “a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise”.
That vision is reflected in attractions such as Mission: Space, which simulates the experiences an astronaut may go through on a mission to the red planet including the G-force of take-off.
At Test Track, visitors can try designing a car based on the testing procedures used by General Motors on its vehicles. The attraction culminates in a dizzying 65mph ride around the track.
The theme of simulated travel continues at Soarin’, a breathtaking virtual tour of the sights and smells of California by hang-glider. And in the iconic Spaceship Earth, Dame Judi Dench narrates a journey through time from the origins of man through the creation of the printing press to today.
Epcot also features the World Showcase. Each of the 11 countries featured, including the United Kingdom, sells products unique to that country and in the autumn the International Food and Wine Festival attracts gourmands in their thousands.
Having familiarised ourselves with the assorted fauna gracing our hotel grounds, it was time to explore Animal Kingdom proper. The park boasts its own safari park, home to more than 1,700 creatures across 250 species. As if on cue, all the big draws made an appearance for us. The crocodiles were massed in the river we crossed, the male lion sat proud on a hilltop silhouetted against the sky and the white rhino came close to inspect our open topped vehicle. As evidence of Disney’s almost obsessive attention to detail, a mature baobab tree did not seem out of place, despite the fact that they take thousands of years to grow in their native Africa. As we passed a herd of elephants a mother played with her calf, their trunks entwined. If I was forced to pick a single highlight of the trip, that would be it.
Animal Kingdom is also home to a thrilling roller coaster, Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain, themed around the Yeti. It took six years to build at a reported cost of $100 million. I would definitely recommend going on the ride before visiting the nearby Yak and Yeti restaurant, rather than the other way around.
The Yak and Yeti epitomises the sheer breadth of experiences on offer at Disney World. Here amid the thrill rides in central Florida is an excellent Nepali-themed restaurant with a menu drawn from Japan and across south-east Asia.
If the weather takes a turn for the worse then best visit the fourth of the four theme parks, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, where most of the attractions are indoors. Perhaps the most iconic is the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. For a few days after our visit I had slight reservations about getting into lifts.
Another white-knuckle ride it would seem remiss not to try is the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, which takes the form of a stretch limousine hurtling through the darkened streets of Los Angeles to the tunes of rock band Aerosmith. The ride accelerates from 0 to 60mph in just 2.8 seconds and the riders experience 4.5G as they enter the first turn – more than an astronaut on a space shuttle launch.
Walt Disney World Florida really is not just for the children. The resort covers 66 square miles and in addition to the four theme parks it houses dozens of themed resort hotels, two water parks and four golf courses, along with dozens of spas and its own “Downtown” district. Of course it’s all artificial. You can go on African safari and then hurtle through the Himalayas. The only limit is your own imagination.
• 14 nights in Orlando with Walt Disney Travel Company (0800 16 90 730 or www.disneyholidays.co.uk) including return economy flights with Virgin Atlantic departing London Gatwick direct to Orlando, and accommodation at Disney’s All Star Music resort during November costs from £977 per person. The price is based on two adults and two children (age 3-12) sharing a standard room for 14 nights and purchasing Disney’s Ultimate 14-day ticket for the price of 7 offer for all members of the party. The price is based on a departure on 11 November from London Gatwick.