Get close to ele­phants at Dis­ney

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Kath­leen Chris­tiansen | Staff Writer

On World Ele­phant Day, take a look at the Car­ing for Gi­ants tour at Dis­ney’s An­i­mal King­dom.

It’s World Ele­phant Day, and in honor of the hol­i­day cel­e­brat­ing this pow­er­ful pachy­derm, let’s go be­hind the scenes at Walt Dis­ney World’s An­i­mal King­dom to see how an­i­mal spe­cial­ists care for the theme park’s African ele­phant herd.

Car­ing for Gi­ants, a 60-minute Dis­ney ex­pe­ri­ence, gives guests a glimpse into the day-to-day main­te­nance of An­i­mal King­dom’s herd — as well as the chance to learn some fas­ci­nat­ing facts about African ele­phants.

“I think what makes Car­ing for Gi­ants spe­cial is it re­ally is an up-close look at how we care for our an­i­mals,” said Scott Ter­rell, An­i­mal King­dom’s Di­rec­tor of An­i­mal and Sci­ence Op­er­a­tions. “This is re­ally a mi­cro­cosm, a snap­shot, a hy­per­look at just how much our cast cares for our ele­phants and for mak­ing the world a bet­ter place. So it re­ally adds a level of magic and a level of just in­ti­macy to our ele­phant ex­pe­ri­ence here at An­i­mal King­dom.”

The tour takes guests to within 80 to 100 feet of the ele­phants, an even closer en­counter with the an­i­mal than is of­fered by other in-park ex­pe­ri­ences.

Car­ing for Gi­ants, which has been of­fered for about two years, be­gins with a bus ride in the back­stage area of An­i­mal King­dom; the bus driver shares some An­i­mal King­dom facts — in­clud­ing that Dis­ney’s largest park houses about 300 species

and about 1,500 an­i­mals to­tal — and quizzes guests with trivia.

At the view­ing lo­ca­tion, our group was greeted by In­ter­pre­tive Keeper Mel Baker, who ex­plained some of the ele­phant main­te­nance at An­i­mal King­dom while the herd’s dom­i­nant fe­male, Rafiki, am­bled in the back­ground, cre­at­ing a pic­ture-per­fect op­por­tu­nity for guests. Baker ex­plained that they teach the ele­phants to ac­tively par­tic­i­pate in their own health care. For ex­am­ple, Dis­ney keep­ers train the ele­phants to show their feet to help with toe­nail main­te­nance.

In all, Dis­ney’s ele­phants know about 40 ver­bal cues.

Cul­tural Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Amanda En­gel­brecht of Namibia then shared in­for­ma­tion about Dis­ney’s ele­phant con­ser­va­tion ef­forts in Africa, in­clud­ing how 100 per­cent of the pro­ceeds from the tour ben­e­fits such en­deav­ors.

Dis­ney also part­ners with the Ele­phants and Bees Project by Save the Ele­phants to uti­lize bees — which the pachy­derm dis­likes be­cause of the sound bees emit and the stings they can de­liver to sen­si­tive ar­eas such as eyes and ears — to re­duce the im­pact of crop-raid­ing ele­phants and min­i­mize ele­phant-farmer con­flicts.

“There are a lot of is­sues fac­ing ele­phants,” Ter­rell said. “Peo­ple love them be­cause of their power, their size, their majesty. There are very def­i­nite ways to help pro­tect ele­phants — sim­ple things like re­cy­cling your cell­phone, com­plex things like Ele­phants and Bees — just un­der­stand that they are in trou­ble like many an­i­mals in the world.”

En­gel­brecht said hu­mans are the main cause for the en­dan­gered sta­tus of ele­phants, from poach­ers who kill them for their ivory to ele­phant-farmer con­flicts over crops that of­ten lead to ele­phant deaths.

She said one hope to end poach­ing — which is il­le­gal, plus the pro­tec­tion of ele­phants is writ­ten into African govern­ments’ con­sti­tu­tions — is the tagua nut. Also known as veg­etable ivory, this nut re­sem­bles ivory and could be used in its place to cre­ate jew­elry and carv­ings, En­gel­brecht said, which would re­duce the de­mand for ivory and thus help cut back on poach­ing.

“Ele­phants are such an im­por­tant crea­ture for this park; they con­vey so much power,” Ter­rell said. “We [Dis­ney] are do­ing so much with ele­phants in the wild through a project called Ele­phants and Bees to re­ally pro­tect wild ele­phants that we thought that this was an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity to tell that story in a re­ally spe­cial way.”

Tours start at 9:30 a.m. and de­part in 30-minute in­ter­vals, with the last one leav­ing at 4 p.m. Car­ing for Gi­ants takes place seven days a week and is for ages 4 and up. It costs $30 per per­son. For more in­for­ma­tion or to book a reser­va­tion, call 407-939-7529.

African ele­phants, Nadi­rah, left, Stella, cen­ter, and Luna stroll by Fri­day at Dis­ney’s An­i­mal King­dom dur­ing the Car­ing for Gi­ants tour. The spe­cial-ac­cess event gives guests a closer view of the herd. JOE BURBANK/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

JOE BURBANK/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Baby Stella plays Fri­day as guests at Dis­ney’s An­i­mal King­dom get an up-close view of African ele­phants.

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