ORLANDO, Florida—A bellow echoes across the savanna. A cloud of dust rises near an ancient baobab tree, grabbing the attention of a reticulated giraffe diligently stripping the leaves from tall shrubs with his long black tongue. On this afternoon in the grasslands, it’s not just distant thunderheads that look threatening. A 1200-pound Ankole bull is worked up. As the cloud of dust settles, he sends up another, driving his 8-foot span of enormous horns into a mound of dirt, snorting and pawing as he tosses the earth into the air and onto his back. He stops, nostrils flaring, a wild look in his eyes, muscles tensed. Ankole cattle have the largest, most dramatic horns of any breed and it’s not just for show. At home in Africa, the heat of the midday sun can bake the earth at 120 degrees. Ankole horns are honeycombed. They’re basically air conditioning units. Blood circulates through, is cooled then returns to the cattle’s body.
Another bellow rises up from the savanna. There’s no cooling off this bull. He’s hot. He’s bothered. And, he’s got his sight set on a group of females about 50 yards away. At the very least, they appear to be entertained. A herd of Red River hogs nearby couldn’t care less. They continue they’re snuffling about, poking their bristly snouts under a log looking for pretty much anything edible, grubs, mushrooms, whatever they can dig up for a little afternoon snack.
A song now wafts up. The Beatles? "I want you. I want you so bad." Laughter erupts then the singing continues, "It’s driving me mad. It’s driving me mad."
The bull is unfazed. He shakes his enormous horns back and forth, beads of sweat flying from his back. He lets loose with another guttural call for love and stomps the ground, stirring up another cloud of dust around him.
A breeze rustles the leaves of a stand of Live Oak trees and plays with the hair of a mother and daughter watching the drama unfold. They giggle, hand in hand, and continue to quietly hum the Beatles tune. African safaris have grown exponentially in popularity. It’s the draw of scenes like this, playing out on a minute-by-minute basis. You miss the antics of a love-struck Ankole bull, wait a couple of minutes and you’ll catch a Marabou stork harassing a small herd of Grant’s zebras galloping by.
The lure of an exotic adventure is huge. But, the price tag can be equally enormous. Here’s a little secret. That mother and daughter reveling in the midday drama of the savanna were me and my 9-year-old. We were on summer vacation, sitting on the balcony of our hotel room at Walt Disney World, lemonades in hand. Imagine that! We didn’t have to get a second mortgage to cover our overseas tickets, tour and lodging costs. And, we missed out on the joy of typhoid, hepatitis and rabies vaccinations, not to mention the threat of yellow fever and malaria.
The Animal Kingdom Lodge is my family’s favorite place at Walt Disney World. It sits in the middle of three savannas where more than 200 mammals and birds roam, pretty much wherever they want, across 33 acres. And, yes, that includes right outside of many of the rooms. Unfortunately, for the hot and bothered Ankole bull, a fence separated him from the objects of his desire. The keepers have to make sure the boys stay away from the girls unless it’s time for the pitter patter of little hooves. I learned that during an actual safari that my family went on at the lodge, complete with rugged SUV, authentic African snacks and a close encounter of the reticulated kind. A mother and baby giraffe walked right up to us. The keepers told us not to make any sudden moves. We obliged. It was amazing!
I’m always amazed at the reactions I get when folks learn that I’m taking my children to Disney World. For us, it really is the Happiest Place on Earth. For others, apparently, not so much with reactions varying from "Oh man, good luck with that!" to "Eight days?! What are you going to do for eight days at Disney World?!" The question actually is: what didn’t we do? Let me count the ways that we did Disney: hot air ballooning, bass fishing (man, did we catch some lunkers), swimming, horseback riding (saw three white-tailed deer), touring the Princess Di exhibit, parasailing (woo hoo!!!), nighttime viewing of big game and, yes, of course, tons of fabulous rides (I’m vowing to get a much better score on my next trip through Toy Story Mania, what a hoot!). Disney World is about a lot more than the incredible parks. We love those, but if you try to squeeze everything into a couple of days from dawn through dusk, it can feel like a death march. You’re stressed. The children are stressed. Not fun. And you end up telling others who are going, "Good luck with that!" Magic pixie dust is not required to soar through Disney World. However, "happy thoughts" would be a good start and you can get those on one of the many golf courses, in the spas, out on the hiking trails, the list goes on and on and on. You just have to give yourself some down days where, say, water’s lapping at your bass boat as your guide spins tales of the monsters that lurk beneath the surface.
On the surface, the parks can seem like purgatory where you wait and sweat and wait and sweat and wait and sweat. On the off-hand chance that doesn’t strike you as exhilarating, I have two remedies. One is the FASTPASS. This is a fabulous invention that anyone can use. It’s free and it lets you get tickets for the extremely popular attractions, like Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom Park. Instead of all of that fun and excitement of waiting in line, you come back at the time stamped on your FASTPASS and pretty much bypass the whole joyful line-waiting experience. If that doesn’t deserve a huge WOO HOO, I don’t know what does. The second? Well, if you stay at any one of the properties at Walt Disney World, you can join in on what’s called Extra Magic Hours. On any given day, one of the parks is open early and another open late. Only resort guests can enter. What this means, is little to no wait at the most popular attractions!
Are you thinking happy thoughts? It just takes a wee bit of planning and that dreaded march will disappear into a fairytale ending, with you rocking on a handmade chair next to a blazing bonfire as the sun sets over a savanna, the bellow of a love struck Ankole bull in the distance—no immunizations required.