Animal Kingdom Lodge Earns Devoted Following

Orlando Sentinel: Ten years ago, amid a national recession, Walt Disney World opened what may have been the toughest-to-sell hotel it had ever built: a high-end resort themed as a simple African village, erected on Disney World's western fringe and away from its busiest theme parks, and whose central attraction was real-life zebras rather than animated mice.

Today, Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge isn't Disney's biggest hotel, or its most popular. But it has carved out a loyal niche from among the millions of people who visit Disney World every year, making it one of the most resilient of the giant resort's nearly two-dozen hotels.

The Animal Kingdom Lodge, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary by earning a coveted Four Diamond rating from the AAA travel club, demonstrated its strength during the most recent recession. Disney says the lodge churned out higher-than-average occupancy rates during the downturn, even as resort-wide occupancy sank from a peak of 93 percent to low of 81 percent.

Disney executives say the Animal Kingdom Lodge does particularly well with two key pools of travelers: animal lovers and repeat visitors.

The strength with animal lovers is easy to explain. The hotel's biggest, draw, after all, is a 40-acre wildlife preserve filled with more than 200 animals. Thirty species are spread over four Disney-created "savannahs," from long-necked giraffes to tiny Thompson's gazelles.

Approximately 70 percent of the lodge's 1,681 rooms — which includes 360 time-share units built in recent years — have balconies overlooking the savannahs. And the animals spend 22 hours a day grazing in view of guests.

But Disney says it is the many subtler touches to have earned the lodge a devoted following.

The lodge, for instance, is home to the largest publicly displayed collection of African art outside of the continent. More than 800 artifacts are on display between Jambo House and Kidani Village — the two buildings that constitute the lodge — from royal drinking horns out of Cameroon to a 16-foot-high Ijele mask that is the first of its kind ever to leave Nigeria.

Similarly, the lodge boasts the largest collection of South African wines outside South Africa, with 167 varietals served across three table-service restaurants and one counter-service eatery.

Disney also recruits roughly 90 "cultural representatives" from African countries every year, to staff the lodge with local experts who are encouraged to tell guests stories about their homes.


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