LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Whispering winds sweep across the balmy, Africa-like plain, a peaceful sanctuary at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge. From balconies overlooking the savannahs, hotel guests marvel as creatures large and small roam the grasses, forage for food and play in harmony.
But now Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge concierge-level guests can actually enter this serene animal reserve for an up-close personal encounter thanks to the newly launched Wanyama Safari experience.
Just before sunset three nights a week, adventurers gather outside the 1,293-room lodge with a guide who readies the group for a traditional game-viewing safari. Up to eight persons can board a specially designed pop-top vehicle for a bird's eye view of a typical North African safari.
Safari-goers are absorbed in careful observation as the vehicle moves along the Uzima savannah, the first of three picturesque savannahs that horseshoe the majestic lodge. A pair of female reticulated giraffes from Northern Kenya pause from browsing and gracefully move within feet of the vehicle. Guests' cameras and videos are poised to capture an unforgettable encounter with the tallest of the land mammals.
Joe Kalla, the resort's animal curator, says the safari strives to recreate the essence of an African experience with free-roaming wildlife in an authentic environment.
"We wanted to give our guests a close look at our animals, understand how we manage the animals and offer a glimpse into the training of the animals," said Kalla.
The hotel's savannahs are home to more than 200 mammals and exotic birds representing a cross-section of the African palette -- bongo, greater kudu, zebra, wildebeest, spiral-horned antelope, impala, African spoonbills and pink-backed pelicans, to name a few. Even the once-endangered national bird of South Africa, the blue crane, has found a home at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge.
"One of the real challenges was introducing animals and choosing the right ones to live in harmony in this environment," said Kalla.
A customary South African "sundowner" rounds out the safari experience. Fresh-squeezed guava/pineapple juice, dried beef, figs and nuts are shared with guests in a ceremonial moment.
The second part of the journey leads to the resort's signature restaurant, Jiko-The Cooking Place, where a savory South African feast awaits safari-goers. Flavors of Africa fill the air in a memorable meal blending regional spices and grains.
The experience begins with a basket of warm kalamata olive flatbreads and African dips, followed by maize tamales with herb and white truffle oil, lentil pastilles and cinnamon-spiced beef rolls. Entrees such as oak-roasted filet of beef and chermoula-basted and roasted chicken with mashed potatoes, olives and roasted garlic are served family-style. Popular South African wines are paired with each course, which includes a sweet display of desserts.
The Wanyama Safari is offered to Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge adult concierge-level guests on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays at 4 p.m. The 3 ½-hour experience, including dinner, is $150 per person, with a maximum of eight persons. For reservations, contact 407/938-4755.