Caring For Giants: A Giant Tour Review

Prior to arriving at Animal Kingdom, I really had no idea what to expect with Caring for Giants. On Disney’s website they call it a tour, a term I echoed on my Facebook page and on Twitter, but that’s not entirely an accurate description. The reality is that it’s more of an experience than anything else. Caring for Giants takes guests behind the scenes for a closer look at the elephants who live in Animal Kingdom, as well as offering the opportunity to talk with animal specialists about how they’re cared for and some of the challenges they face in the wild.

Caring for Giants cost us $30 per person (bear in mind that prices are very subject to change). It’s worth noting that the proceeds from that price go towards conservation efforts. They only take up to fourteen people per group, so reservations are highly recommended. It’s still worth checking, though, if you’re at Animal Kingdom and you want to try to do it without booking in advance. While we were waiting for our reserved time, we saw a couple people come up and manage to get into a group for the same day (though the park wasn’t really that busy).

We arrived at the tour and events check-in desk, right outside of the Kilimanjaro Safari entrance, about fifteen minutes before our 11:00am slot. We rode the safari just before checking in, and it was pouring pretty hard at times during that trip, but Caring for Giants does happen rain or shine. So we were prepared to still see elephants, and just get wet in the process. However, right after we checked in the rain turned into a thunderstorm, and it turns out that the experience will get canceled if there’s lightning. We huddled under the small booth’s roof with a couple other parties (and the cast members) as we waited to see if the weather would clear up, but after close to a half hour of thunder and lightning they finally called it. We were able to move our reservation to the 1:00pm slot, then we left for a bit and hoped that things would get better. As compensation, they offered us a Fastpass for just about any attraction (they did ask specifically which attraction we wanted, and wrote that onto the Fastpass), and we were able to use that to get onto Test Track at EPCOT later in the afternoon.

Fortunately, by the time we got back to the booth at about 12:30pm the worst of the weather had passed. The rain had even started to let up by the time we checked in again, and it stopped completely shortly before we set out to see elephants.

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The name tags they give you are made with 85% elephant poop! I’m not sure what the other 15% is.

Once things got underway we were escorted by a cast member through a backstage area to a small bus, and another drove us out to see the elephants. As we rode around behind the scenes, the driver talked about where we were and what we were looking at. We learned a little bit about the night housing for the animals, and why we could see one young elephant hanging out by himself there (male elephants tend to be very solitary, as it’s a matriarchal society).

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The elephant house, where the pachyderms go at night (so cast members can clean the outdoor habitat) and where their care happens. I took this pic as we took the Wildlife Express Train from Harambe to Rafiki’s Planet Watch, as there were no photos allowed on the backstage portion of Caring for Giants.

Once we got to our destination and got off the bus, we were greeted by an animal specialist who escorted us up a few stairs to the elephant viewing area. While not extremely up close and personal, it is much closer than you can get while on the Kilimanjaro Safari vehicles. The specialist spoke about the elephants, and answered any questions that the group had. We learned a lot about their society, the training and enrichment programs at Animal Kingdom, and the personalities of the elephants that live there. She explained how they cared for the animals at the park, and discussed their work with conservation efforts around the world and with other zoos and habitats. While we spoke, we also had the opportunity to take a lot of pictures.

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One of the cool things about Caring for Giants is the fact that you’re able to stand and observe the elephants for a while, rather than just going by their habitat in a safari vehicle.

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Elephants live in a matriarchal society, and this single-tusked female is the boss at Animal Kingdom. She also has an apprentice, a younger female who is learning how to lead the herd.

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We got to see baby Stella, Animal Kingdom’s newest elephant, and she’s adorable.

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It had been raining heavily earlier in the day, but that had cleared up by the time we did Caring for Giants. It was still a bit overcast, and not oppressively hot, which made for a very pleasant experience. The tour will go out rain or shine, though, and the observation area itself is shaded by trees.

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Even getting to watch these beautiful animals do basic things–eat, walk around, scratch against a tree, etc–was really cool.

We stood there for a while, watching the elephants and asking questions. Then Snowie, a woman from South Africa, spoke about some of the peril that wild elephants face there and what’s being done to help save them. It was pretty sobering to spend time watching these majestic creatures and having a fun conversation with the animal specialist about them, only to then learn about the serious danger that they’re in. It really hammered the message home in a powerful way.

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Elephants, as it turns out, are afraid of bees. So in South Africa farmers have devised these “bee fences” to keep elephants off their land. Thin wire stretches between the hives, and if an elephant disturbs that line then bees come out and scare the pachyderm away. Not only does this save farmland (and prevent farmers from killing elephants to protect the land) but there’s the added bonus of a new honey industry!

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This sculpture was created from a wire snares found in the African bush. Not only does removing the snare help protect animals, but using the wire in such a way allows local artists to develop something unique.

After this discussion, Snowie handed out buttons to each of us.

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I said this earlier, but it bears mentioning again: the proceeds from the tour’s price go toward conservation. So you get a great experience, a cool button, and you’re helping save elephants. Not bad for thirty bucks!

After about a half hour at the elephant observation area, we returned to the van, which then took us back to the parking area backstage. From there we were escorted to where we started–the tour desk near Kilimanjaro Safari. We returned our lanyards (we could keep the paper nametags themselves, but they ask for the lanyard back to reuse them), and that was the end of the experience.

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I need to give a big shout-out to the amazing cast members who helped to make our Caring for Giants experience even more awesome. At the front desk there was Ashley, Hollis, and Kelsey. Yuri drove us out to the elephants and back, Ashley (a different one) answered our questions, and Snowie discussed conservation. They were all just great and made the whole thing, even the weather-related drama early on, just that much better.

With Caring for Giants, you’re not really on a guided tour (like, for example, Behind the Seeds at EPCOT) being directed by someone who is feeding you specific information. Instead, you’re brought to a location and from there it’s really up to you to get what you want out of it. Some people were asking lots of questions, others found a good spot and just watched the elephants, and there were those who were focused on getting really good photos. The structure is such that you really get out of the experience what you choose to put into it.

Ultimately, was Caring for Giants worth it? I think so. It was really cool to see the elephants, and while you’re not super close (closer than the safari vehicle gets, but not right up in their trunks) you still get a great view and you have the opportunity to stand there for a while and watch them rather than just roll on by. The cast members were very knowledgeable and answered lots of questions, and I can say that we definitely learned things that we didn’t know before about elephants as well as the dangers they face and the conservation efforts people are using to try and save them. Plus, it was neat to get a “behind the scenes” look at how the park cares for some of its animals and get a look at some areas that guests wouldn’t see otherwise. Overall it was a really neat experience that offered a lot for anybody who loves animals in general and elephants in particular, and it was something a bit different to do while at Animal Kingdom.

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I’m wrapping this up with another pic of baby Stella. Just because she’s the cutest thing ever, and what better way to end a post?

 

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