ORLANDO, Fla. -- As a professional photographer specializing in wildlife, I have trekked some of the world's most exotic game preserves, from the jungles of India and Nepal to the plains of Kenya and Tanzania. I know a wart hog when I see one and I was not expecting to be impressed by Disney World's Animal Kingdom.
But even at 51 I'm still a kid at heart and part of being a kid is loving animals and having a sense of adventure.
So, while I was photographing this theme park, I was right at home, along with many other kids of all ages from around the globe, from toddlers in strollers to senior citizens in wheelchairs.
Judging from the smiles and laughter, all seemed thrilled to be having relatively close encounters with wild animals -- tigers, elephants, rhinos and exotic birds, to name a few -- and exploring the wilds of Africa and Asia.
Disney takes the worry out of being close.
Animal Kingdom is divided into seven majors areas:
THE OASIS: Upon entering the park, you are in an area that simulates a lush, tropical garden filled with macaws, flamingos, anteaters, wide boars and other critters all situated in very realistic habitats.
The Oasis is a good place to stock up on safari supplies -- snacks, film, one-time-use cameras (film processing is also available), sunscreen, bug repellent, cash (at the ATM machine) and pith helmets. Lockers, strollers and wheelchairs are available, too.
Don't miss Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade, which features the usual cast of Disney characters.
DISCOVERY ISLAND: Located in the middle of Animal Kingdom, Discovery Island's centerpiece is the Tree of Life, a massive 14-story tall structure carved with more than 325 animal images.
In the root system of the Tree of Life is the awesome 3-D movie, ''It's Tough to be a Bug,'' featuring characters from the Disney-Pixar movie, ''A Bug's Life.'' Put on the special 3-D glasses and you'll see life from a bug's perspective. There are a few surprises during the show, but I won't spill the beans.
AFRICA: The main attraction in Africa is the Kilimanjaro Safaris. For about 20 minutes, you ride through an African savannah on bumpy trails, through rivers and over rickety bridges in an open-air safari vehicle. You'll see elephants, giraffes, lions, gazelles and other African wildlife. Watch out for poachers who are after a baby rhino, and listen for the hum of the conservation warden's plane.
The Pangani Forest Exploration is another highlight of Africa. Walk along the shaded trail and you'll get up-close views of other Africa species, including my favorite -- gorillas. Viewing windows on underwater habitats offer way-cool views of hippos and fish. Guides are on hand and printed guides are available for animal identification.
RAFIKI'S PLANET WATCH: Most guests at Animal Kingdom visit this site to take a ride on the Wildlife Express Train, a rustic train that takes you through a fairly realistic African habitat, or to get up-close-and-personal with animals at the petting yard. But if you go, don't miss the Conservation Station. You'll learn about endangered animal habitats around the world, and get a peek at animal research and veterinary care. As a conservationist myself, I was pleased to see a focus on conserving our wildlife and wild places.
ASIA: The newest addition to Animal Kingdom, Asia actually transports visitors to Southeast Asia. On the Jaharajah Jungle Trek, which takes you through the Anandapur Royal Forest, complete with ruins of an ancient temple, you'll see tigers, bats (a very popular exhibit), tapirs and komodo dragons.
If you like action rides, don't miss the Kali River Rapids. Nestled in a large tube-like raft, a dozen adventure-seekers are taken down the Chakranadi River, past ruins and through a jungle habitat. It's fun and very wet. Be prepared to get soaked.
DINOLAND U.S.A.: Kids will love The Boneyard, where they can crawl through a maze of Triceratops, T-Rex and other animal bones from the age of the dinosaurs.
A stage show, Tarzan Rocks!, features Tarzan and Jane and other jungle gymnasts who will dazzle you with their gravity-defying stunts set to tunes from the Tarzan movie.
CAMP MINNIE-MICKEY: In a simulated Adirondack mountain retreat, kids get to meet -- you guessed it --Minnie and Mickey Mouse, along with a few of their cartoon pals.
Visitors who have seen the Lion King movie or stage show will enjoy singing, clapping and maybe even dancing along with three of the Lion King's main characters Simba, Timon and Pumbaa at the Festival of the Lion King stage show.
During the Pocahontas and Her Forest Friends stage show, Pocahontas the Grandmother Willow (from the Pocahontas movie) introduces kids to popular North American animals set to tunes from the movie.
The highlight of my visit to Disney World in December actually occurred outside my hotel. Standing next to me was a tall gentleman I immediately recognized, even though I hadn't seen him (on TV) for probably 40 years. He was Fess Parker, who played one of my childhood heroes in the Disney television series, Davy Crockett. I introduced myself and received a warm handshake and a friendly smile.
What did we talk about? That perhaps more than ever, kids need heroes. Even today, ''Davy Crockett'' is still ''king of the wild frontier'' in my book.
Rick Sammon is the host of the Digital Photography Workshop on the Do It Yourself (DIY) television network.
If You Go ...
GETTING AROUND: Be sure to pick up the Disney Animal Kingdom map. The handy fold-out will help you maneuver through and make the most of your time in the park. Show times are also listed.
You can make it through the park in two or three hours. Plan on arriving early in the day, when the lines are relatively short. The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Ask about Fast Pass. It will cut down your waiting time online.
ADMISSION: A one-park, one-day pass is $48 for an adult and $38 for a child. Seven-day Park Hopper passes, which let you go to all four Disney Theme Parks (Animal Kingdom, Epcot Center, Disney-MGM Studios and Magic Kingdom), are $307 for an adult and $247 for a child.
There are plenty of places to get good food, including the Rain Forest Cafe, the Pizzafari and Tusker House Restaurant.
There are places to shop, at almost every turn. You'll find everything from conservation-themed wear to upscale men and women's apparel.
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