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Travel: Theme Parks - ...and meanwhile over in Florida's Disney World

The East Coast franchise last week unveiled its latest attraction: the Animal Kingdom. David Usborne took a virtual trip to Africa
BY FAR the dottiest of the attractions at Walt Disney World is Blizzard Beach. A glorified water playground outside its main theme parks, it features a man-made mountain covered with white stuff traced with giant slides and flumes. You are asked to accept that this part of central Florida has just suffered a freak snowstorm; the giant pool at the slope's base, complete with wave effects, is the resulting snow-melt.

Altogether more convincing - and not just from a climatic point of view - is Animal Kingdom. Opened to a deafening fanfare last month, it is the fourth of the theme parks inside Disney World, which already offers the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and MGM Universal Studios. Queue for an hour under the Florida sun just to get in and making the mental leap from Orlando to Africa will hardly be a strain.

But just in case your imagination is faulty, once inside you might hasten first to the Kilimanjaro Safari. On your way you will pass through Harambe Village, a collection of Zanzibar-style edifices that gives a convincing impression of a Tanzanian port town. (Assuming you can divert your eyes away from your fellow tourists in their rarely sartorial shorts.) Even the nails in the joists have been painted to evoke rust and Zulu craftsmen from South Africa were imported to make an authentic job of the thatch on the roofs.

The safari, however, is what Animal Kingdom is principally about. Disney's guiding philosophy, in its films and its theme parks, is story-telling. The tale here is journey through an East African game park, complete with savannah grasslands, rickety bridges and, of course, wild and exotic animal life.

You may not care for what Disney does - the hokiness of it all is inescapable. The tyre tracks along the safari route have actually been moulded into concrete. (No nasty mud here). The acacia trees that give the landscape the Serengeti look are actually artfully-pruned Florida oaks. And the bridge that really does wobble when you cross it - well, it is manipulated by hidden hydraulics. And frankly, I could have done without the staged poacher escapade along the way that is meant to divert anyone for whom real animals are not enough. But you will be hard-pressed to claim that it does not weave its fantasies well. And in this safari, as in most of the rest of what lies inside the Animal Kingdom, Disney has excelled itself.

After lining up once more (a visit to any Disney park, I quickly realised, is not unlike skiing; it involves serial queueing and is more physically exhausting than any day spent in the office) you will be invited aboard a 30-seat, open-side safari bus for your ride into the "savannah". With only a little bit of luck, you will soon begin to see, at close hand, some of the 1,000 animals that are packed into Animal Kingdom, representing more than 200 species. I had the perfect test-tourists in tow - my two children aged seven and four. Both were agape as we rumbled past hippos, antelope, ostriches, wildebeest, lions and zebra. The highlight for them was an unscheduled 10-minute stop in mid-tour as an indignant giraffe decided that the leaves on a high tree alongside our road were far too tasty a discovery to give up just to get out of our way. (Never mind that that its African-indigenous snack was probably attached to the boughs overnight by rangers.)

This moment of pleasure for my kids was a reminder of just what Disney has taken on. There is a reason that Walt confined himself originally to animals that either were humans in costumes or drawings in animation. He could control them. The company's departure into real-life creatures brings with it considerable risks. Obstinate giraffes can back up the tour trucks, lions will indulge themselves as usual by sleeping 18 hours a day, and, worst of all, some among the menagerie will meet untimely ends.

It was to Disney's immense chagrin that about a dozen deaths before the Animal Kingdom's opening - victims included four cheetah cubs, a hippopotamus and two rare rhinos - drew the unwelcome attention of both the US Department of Agriculture and animal rights organisations. Even though the USDA concluded there was no wrongdoing, Disney is still battling allegations that it is exploiting animals for financial gain when it was doing just fine before- hand with Mickey and Winnie and Pluto.

Careful to immunise itself from attack, Disney assembled an advisory board of some of the world's most respected zoologists and animal experts, including Jane Goodall whose work with chimpanzees will benefit from Disney's takings. To those protesting against Disney, she offers this: "There is such horrible cruelty to animals; there are such terrible zoos; there are the awful research labs; there's the circus issue; there's the abuse of pets; there's hunting; there's trapping. So why waste time criticising an operation which obviously has the best animal care and some of the best facilities in the world?"

And while Animal Kingdom is replica tourism - there is no sense of achievement in spotting that lion when you have been herded to its resting spot by bus - it is designed at least to make you think. Indeed, at times the conservationist message is hammered home to the point of becoming almost crass. Virtually every attraction, save, perhaps, for the live stage shows modelled on The Jungle Book and The Lion King, is heavily laden with the theme of animals in danger of extinction and the responsibility borne by homo sapiens to save them. Hence the faintly ludicrous poaching production. Do take the steam train to Conservation Station, which includes several interactive exhibits on endangered species, and look into the veterinary surgery where a sick animal may be under anaesthetic for treatment.

Even the entertaining 3-D movie about insects, It's Tough to be a Bug, is meant as a reproach for all those occasions we have wielded the aerosol can to rid the fridge of cockroaches or trained the light of the sun through a magnifying lens to burn an ant.

If Animal Kingdom is beginning to sound a tad sanctimonious, fear not. Disney has indulged its thrill-ride instincts in one corner of the park that blatantly exploits America's post-Jurassic Park dinosaur obsession. Called - if you please - DinoLand USA, it includes not just an area where children can pretend to be on an archaeological dig for antediluvian bones, but also Countdown to Extinction. Not for small children - much to my four-year-old's disgust - this will probably prove to be the other great crowd-pleaser in the Animal Kingdom, alongside the Kilimanjaro Safari. After entering the Dino Institute, you are seated in a Time Rover, that takes you on a neck-jarring journey back through time to the very day when the dinosaurs were rendered extinct by a terrible meteor landing. If you like being thrown about and need to see state-of-the-art animatronics on a, literally, monstrous scale, give it a go. Otherwise, don't bother.

Why, if you are from Britain, come to Animal Kingdom, when the same number of hours on a plane will take you to Kenya itself? A reasonable question, to which John Rohde, the park's principle designer tries to reply. "The park will never be a replacement for the real experience of the real world. I would never advise someone to not go on safari in Africa because they have come here first. What we are doing is creating stories. It is a theatrical circumstance, with a point, with a thrust to it." That thrust is education about, well, the real animal kingdom and how it is suffering. Not forgetting the fun to be had as well. And, after all, there is always Cinderella's Castle and indeed Blizzard Beach just a Disney World busride away.

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With the Animal Kingdom, passes to the four theme parks in Disney World have got more expensive. There are five-, seven- or nine-day All- In-One Hopper passes to choose from, giving entry to all the Florida Disney World attractions.

The seven-day pass costs pounds 180 per adult and pounds 145 per child; available from any Disney store in the UK. Ticket Shop USA (0181 600 7000) and Keith Prowse (01232 232425) are currently offering nine-day passes at discounted rates of pounds 199 for adults and pounds 160 for children when tickets are bought in advance. Unused days on your pass do not expire.

A free video is available (Call 0990 000000). For other information and brochures, call 0990 200 605.

A sample package for a family of four staying at Disney's Dixie Landings Resort in Florida, taken in June this year, will cost pounds 3,027 for seven days, or pounds 3,987 for fourteen. This includes flights from London or Manchester, car rental and unlimited entry to the parks. Call Virgin Holidays on 01293 617181.