ORLANDO, Fla. — The gorilla stared from a squat in a Walt Disney World version of an African woodland setting. He was dark of fur, long of arm, powerful of build and, it seemed, tired of human chatter.
A father in a New York Yankees ball cap shouted from an Animal Kingdom observation area.
“See the ape!” the dad said to his young son. He jabbed a meaty index finger toward the gorilla. He lifted his son to see. “Wave to the ape!”
The son squirmed, but did not wave. The father kept urging him on, as if this would cause the gorilla to move closer for a better photo opportunity.
Instead, after a moment, the gorilla turned his back on the gathering crowd.
Let's just say it was quite a back.
Male gorillas weigh about 400 pounds, with females about half that weight. Males are around 5 feet 9 inches, but have arm spans beyond 8 feet, which would make them potentially fierce basketball defenders. This gorilla looked as if he could squash your average NFL linebacker.
Gorillas are among the 1,700 animals and 250 species in the 500-acre Animal Kingdom, the biggest of any Disney theme park. And it is, Disney officials say, a theme park, not a zoo. They spent $1 billion to build it with the focus on animals that are currently alive and those that aren't (can you say dinosaurs?). Animal Kingdom opened in 1998 as the first Disney theme park to emphasize animal conservation.
If you're wondering, a one-day ticket costs $89 for those 10 and older, $83 for those 3 to 9.
The centerpiece is Discovery Island, which is dominated by the Tree of Life, a sculpted 145-foot tall artificial tree. More than 300 animals are carved into its trunk.
Animal Kingdom is divided into seven themed areas or “lands.” Three contain animals — Africa, Asia and Rafiki's Planet Watch. Original plans had included a land called the “Beastly Kingdom” that was to feature mythical creatures such as unicorns and dragons. That was eventually scrapped because of budget overruns, and became Camp Minnie-Mickey.
Yes, even Disney has to stick to a budget.
Africa has the Kilimanjaro Safari, where you ride in jeeps while listening to tour guides talk about the animals you see, such as lions, giraffes, elephants, rhinos and gazelles. Africa also has Pangani Forest Exploration Trail. It's where you walk past areas for birds, fish, hippos and, yes, gorillas. For those with bigger wallets and more ambitious adventure goals, there's the Wild Africa Trek which is, in essence, a private safari.
Asia has its Maharajah Jungle Trek. It's a walking tour that includes Komodo dragons, tigers, giant fruit bats, birds and more.
Rafiki's Planet Watch has Habitat Habit, which is an outdoor discovery trail that includes cotton-top tamarins and advice on how to share the world, and even your neighborhood, with animals. There's also the Conservation Station that includes live animal encounters and access to Animal Kingdom's animal care facilities, including a veterinary exam room. Don't forget the Affection Section, which is basically a petting zoo (Disney bills it as a “petting yard”) that includes sheep, goats and other domestic animals from around the world.
And for a touch of the future, at least that envisioned by movie director James Cameron, Disney officials plan to build a new area based on the 2009 mega-hit movie, Avatar. Construction is set to begin in 2013.
There won't be any animals there.
At least, not real ones.