July 16, 2012

A Brand New Animal Kingdom

It's not every day that a theme park guest gets to experience an expansion of this magnitude. Yes, California Adventure has it's long awaited Buena Vista Street- and the icing on the cake, Cars Land's Radiator Springs Racers. Elsewhere on the West Coast, Universal Studios has its new Transformers attraction, while things are very quiet in Orlando- other than the first Dumbo inspired expansion of the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland.

With vacation dollars shrinking and summer quickly passing us by, those of us with limits on both time and money are taking day trips and "staycations". We're no exception. Fortunately, the Denver Zoo has provided a bit a escape for city dwellers wishing to experience the wildlife of Asia. The new Toyota Elephant Passage is just about  everything you'd expect from an expansion this size. There's enough detailed elements to temporarily fool a guest into thinking they had stumbled into a new section of Disney's Animal Kingdom, doing some things better than Disney itself.

In the last several years, it has been apparent that Zoo officials wanted to move beyond the expected "animal in a cage" arrangement. The Predators (Lions) section was elaborately redesigned as was the African Gorilla exhibit. A brand new entrance area with a noticeable increase in vegetation and walkway elevations gave the zoo a whole new opening act. The venerable elephant exhibit was next- and the results do not disappoint.

The new section is at the back end of the zoo, and the long walk over filled me with anticipation. Sure, there wasn't an Expedition Everest or even a Kali River Rapids waiting for me as a reward, but I was only paying fifteen dollars a piece for several hours, not the almost one hundred dollars a person a day for a more lush environment with a few great rides added in.

After passing through the entry gates, we were drawn into the village area. In contrast to the intentionally weathered look of Asia at Animal Kingdom, the Denver Zoo chose to present a more kept up version. It looked sparkling new- and I wasn't sure if I liked that or not. Had I been spoiled by a faux weathered Animal Kingdom? Regardless, the exhibits both large and small are filled with details. Themed signage is everywhere as are small artifacts placed throughout the village to give it an inhabited appearance. Bags of rice stacked up against a building, prayer flags hung high above, and in a touch of whimsy I found charming, the drinking fountain has a small metal frog on it- while its lunch (a small metallic fly) is placed just out of reach on the wall right above it. Pretty clever!

Being built on a tight schedule, there certainly was a lack of trees at the zoo compared to Disney's version of Asia, but you could tell where a couple years of growth would fill things in. Even winter hardy bamboo was planted to make a study fence here and there, sheltering guests from seeing the harder side of the clever animal enclosures. Lily pads fill a natural shaped pond, and there are plenty of flowers to be seen, making for lots of color where it is needed.The animals were plentiful, although on this particular day you had to see farther in the back as many were hiding from the 90 degree heat- but without any humidity!

In a nod to the hoards of littler guest that visit, there are a couple of small tents set up with telescopes they can use to watch the animals, radios that play clever bits describing what was around the area, and small bridges and rope swings that certainly encourage a bit of playtime. All were right in theme along with the more traditional zoo like signs talking about feeding habits, geography, and local conservation efforts.

Stopping for a cool drink as we backtracked through the park made for a nice break. In a little over two hours, the designers had given us enough to see and do in one new area. No rides, no animal shows, no expensive gift shops. I walked away thinking they had done a pretty good job- and sadly being reminded of what Disney's Animal Kingdom could and should have been. It's a stunning setting for an absolutely neglected theme park. Perhaps between now and the pending Avatarland, the Imagineers- no the budgeteers- will surprise us. But don't hold your breath. Support your local zoo instead for a fraction of the price.
(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

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