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Expeditions into the wilds of Africa begin at the edge of a typical wildlife reserve in the coastal village of Harambe, with its bustling marketplace, white-washed walls and reed-thatched roofs typical of present-day Swahili architecture. A huge, gnarled baobab tree, traditional icon of the African savannah, serves as the starting point for Kilimanjaro Safari . Traveling in large, open-sided safari lorries, guests follow bumpy trails exploring 110 acres of forests, rivers, hills and grasslands filled with free-roaming antelope, rhinos, hippopotamus, zebra, crocodiles, baboons and other creatures. The high adventure culminates in a race to save an elephant herd from a gang of dangerous ivory poachers.

The journey ends at Pangani Forest Exploration Trail where guests can disembark and walk through a bamboo jungle inhabited by two troops of lowland gorillas, see hippos from an underwater viewing area and explore a forest of exotic birds. And they can board the well-worn steam trains of Wildlife Express to Planet Watch for a backstage look at the veterinary headquarters and center for Disney's Animal Kingdom conservation programs. Visitors can enjoy interactive experiences and meet wildlife experts to discover how they can help endangered animals around the world. In The Affection Section, guests meet and touch fascinating animals.

Like a snapshot from an African safari, towering acacia trees and tall grasses paint a familiar picture of the Serengeti on a vast stretch of rolling landscape. But this is Central Florida, not East Africa, and the acacia is really a 30-foot-tall Southern live oak with a close-cropped crew cut.

"Disney is the first to 'build' a realistic African savannah," says Paul Comstock, lead creative designer and one of nine Walt Disney Imagineering landscape architects for Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park. "Its 4 million plants represent 3,000 species -- a huge, open-air experiment."

This corner of Africa is just one part of the enormous undertaking to landscape the latest Walt Disney World theme park, Disney's Animal Kingdom. Unlike the traditional Disney parks where the landscaping complements themed buildings, at Disney's Animal Kingdom the landscaping, in many areas, is the stage and set.

"We cast trees as characters into the landscape, taking into consideration size, shade and accent," explains WDI landscape architect Bill Evans. "Then, if you can't use your ideal tree, you look around for somebody who can play that part. It's sort of like an 'understudy' -- you keep a large cast of characters at hand."

Thus the live oaks as "stand-ins" for acacias. However, many of the trees and shrubs and grasses have been gathered from around the globe, as Comstock can attest. He's been to 37 states and 28 countries, and has coordinated the collection of seeds and plants from places like Madagascar, Botswana, South Africa, Bali, Thailand, Tasmania, Nepal and the People's Republic of China.

Disney's Animal Kingdom has plants from every continent on Earth except Antarctica.

The first tree planted at the site in December 1995 was an authentic Acacia xanthophloa, a tree native to Africa. And now, the overall plant numbers are astounding: 40,000 mature trees, 16,000 of them grown right at the Walt Disney World Tree Farm, including 850 species of trees (40 species of palm trees alone). There are 2,000 species of shrubs -- 2.5 million in all -- and 260 different types of grasses. And there are enormous collections, like the third largest cycad collection in all of North America -- more than 3,000 of the ancient, fern-like plants.






Video: Wildlife Express Train

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