When it comes to family road trips, of course, all highways eventually lead to Orlando and the vast theme park megalopolis that is Walt Disney World. But a whole other world awaits beyond the Space Mountain roller coaster, perky character parades, Mickey Mouse-shaped ice cream treats and endless princess meet-and-greets. (Wait time for a one-on-one with Elsa and Anna on our last visit with the grandchildren: 110 minutes.)
We’re talking about the world of behind-the-scenes experiences—admission extra—that have been crafted to create indelible family memories of “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
They range from a tame two-hour Family Magic Tour that takes families on a whirlwind guided trip through the Magic Kingdom (a nice way to orient first-time visitors) to the Epcot Seas Aqua Tour, a snorkeling adventure that brings you up-close and personal with the 6,000 sea animals that inhabit the enormous Caribbean Coral Reef aquarium.
Or you can do what we did, which is embark on the three-hour Wild Africa Trek in Disney Animal Kingdom’s Harambe Wildlife Reserve. Among other highlights, they clipped us into safety harnesses in order to traverse a series of rickety rope bridges suspended over the hippo and crocodile habitats. Live hippos and crocodiles, please; these aren’t the animatronic animals that pop up out of the river on cue in the Magic Kingdom’s classic, comedic Jungle Cruise. This being Disney, netting was suspended under the bridges; even so, looking down at the wide-gaping mouths of a dozen 18-foot-long crocs (turns out they keep their mouths open to regulate body temperature) was disconcerting.
The 110-acre Harambe Wildlife Reserve is home to 34 species—everything from antelopes to zebras. We’ve taken the Kilimanjaro Safari, an 18-minute large-jeep safari that’s open to all Animal Kingdom visitors, several times; it’s perhaps the highlight of the entire Animal Kingdom experience for everyday visitors to the park.
But this time we are not everyday visitors. We are Wild Animal Trek explorers, and soon we’re climbing up a densely forested cliff to reach the watery home of Henry and Hans, father-and-son hippos. Hooked into our harnesses, we lean out over the pond as our guide bangs a stick on her metal pail filled with romaine lettuce. Little Hans—all 3,000 pounds of him—swims right under our feet and nibbles on the vegetables she throws down to him. We watch in fascination as our guide tells us about the species. (Who knew that hippos chew with their tusks, which unlike elephants, are located inside their mouths?)
Perhaps the most fascinating creatures on the trek? The homo sapiens—guides Stephanie and Benji, who accompany us. (Benji has spent the last seven years leading safaris all over Africa). They enthusiastically answer every obscure question we throw at them. And now I know the difference between white and black rhinos. (No, it’s not their skin color, as both are dark gray—it’s the shape of their mouths.)
Beyond the Wild Africa Trek, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a terrific experience for families. Calmer than the Magic Kingdom, it offers both experiences for animal watching (the gorillas on the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail were a highlight) and thrills and chills (Expedition Everest is a gasp-inducing roller coaster). Families with young children head to Dinoland, with its Boneyard Playground strewn with “fossils” buried in the sand. And we dare you not to get all lumpy-throated during Finding Nemo, the Musical, created by the same husband-and-wife team who wrote Frozen; full of clever, large-scale puppetry and touching songs, it is way, way better than the film. Be sure to pick up a Wilderness Explorer handbook near the entrance; kids can visit ranger stations throughout the park and earn badges to become Wilderness Explorers. (Motto: “An Explorer is a friend to all, be it plants or fish or tiny mole.”)
Many visitors extend the experience by staying at nearby Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, with its own savannah that’s home to giraffes, wildebeests, antelopes and zebras. You can dine on authentic African cuisine at the Boma restaurant buffet. (Don’t worry, they offer mac ‘n’ cheese and similar fare for finicky young eaters.)
Wild Animal Treks embark several times a day from a special “hut” near the Kilimanjaro Safari. Disney limits each trek to 12 participants; you must also be at least 8 years old and 48 inches tall and weigh between 45 and 300 pounds. (Yes, they weigh you, perhaps the scariest part of the adventure.) The trek costs $200 per person on top of park admission. Worth it? You bet.
MORE FAMILY TRIPS
The federal government officially shut down its space shuttle program in 2011, but there’s still plenty of reason to make the trek to the Kennedy Space Center. Rockets still shoot up periodically from the center, and old-school astronauts are known to stop by to discuss their otherworldly adventures. Grab a close-up view of the shuttle Atlantis and marvel at the overwhelming 363-foot height of the original Saturn V. Even the cynical will feel their hearts swell with patriotism at the center’s “rocket garden,” an outdoor collection of towering spacecraft that honors the ingenuity and bravery that took Americans to the moon.
For parents, Legos are a love-hate affair. Love them for the way they keep your kids occupied for hours at a time. Hate them when you step on one in the middle of the night and tear up your arch. For kids, though, it’s pure love-love, a relationship that will deepen considerably during a visit to Legoland. The theme park features a number of rides for kids at all levels of Lego obsession, with rollercoasters and mini-boats, plus giant, detailed Lego recreations of monuments from around the world.
For a dose of edutainment, mosey up to Tampa’s Glazer Children’s Museum, stocked with a variety of fun interactive stations. Captain a tugboat, learn the art of plumbing, pilot a plane above Tampa Bay… whatever your kid’s into, he or she will likely find a demo here. Save some cash, pack a lunch and enjoy a picnic next door, on the sprawling green of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, which offers across-the-water views of the beautiful University of Tampa. End the day with a stroll along the city’s new Riverwalk. After all that, your kids will undoubtedly fall asleep in the car on the way home. Thank God.