For years, Animal Kingdom had this stigma in my family of being the most boring out of all the Disney parks: it had a few things to offer, like the Lion King Show and Everest, but just didn’t seem worth the ticket price – and they closed so early on top of it all! I hadn’t been back until I purchased my annual pass a few months ago, but it wasn’t until recently that I discovered you could become a Wilderness Explorer.
If you haven’t seen the movie Up, my sheer joy may seem a little off. I’ll give you a quick run-down: in the movie, a young boy named Russell is a Wilderness Explorer trying to earn his Helping the Elderly badge (this is how he meets Mr. Jefferson, the main protagonist of the story). He is sworn to help protect all life, “be it plants or fish or tiny mole,” which gets him and Mr. Jefferson into some hilarious situations, but ultimately becomes their greatest asset. It’s easy to understand then why Animal Kingdom – centered around conservation and wildlife education – was chosen to house this activity.
But I assure you, it was all fun and games. If you’re only in the park for a day, it’s best to use your full visit in order to budget wait times and general enjoyment of the park as you stroll along and earn your badges. If you’re an annual passholder like my fiancé and I, you could make the game a little more interesting, and set out to achieve the status of Senior Wilderness Explorer (which you achieve when you earn all 31 badges) as fast as possible.
The process of earning badges was adorable and exciting. If you decide to join a troop when you first enter the park, the first badge you’ll earn after being sworn in and handed your booklet is your “Wilderness Explorer Call Badge” – essentially making animal sounds as high pitched and excitedly as possible. Later you’ll earn your “Fossil Badge,” where the troop leader in Dinoland has you complete an activity centered on various dinosaur fossils with him (ours was centered around the untimely demise of Little Foot and his friends; I was sorely disappointed when I realized the little kids next to us didn’t understand the references).
But as much fun as we had, and the cast members had with us, the experience was also very educational. For one badge, you had to exchange currencies; another centered on why it’s so important humans don’t expose animals to food that isn’t part of their natural diet. Especially when the badges revolved in some way around animals, your “troop leaders” were extremely informative, well versed not because they memorized a speech, but because they legitimately knew a lot about the species they work with and have a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.
My favorites though were the ones where you had to talk to the cast members. Several badges centered around learning about cultures and beliefs of people around the world: in Indonesia, we chatted with a guy about how great their food was and how many islands there were; we spoke with one girl near the Everest ride about her hometown’s personal beliefs of the Yeti; and in Africa, we talked with a young man from Johannesburg who told us about the many languages spoken there (eleven) and how people tend to pick up more than the two languages they’re required to learn just by being in that environment (he himself knew four).
My fiancé and I were able to join the ranks of the Senior Wilderness Explorers in roughly three hours. The troop leader who gave us our last badge was all smiles and particularly surprised with the speed we completed them. He asked us about our day, which animals we had and hadn’t been able to see, and finally swore us in.
If you weren’t a fan of Up, don’t fret; the game can still be just as interesting. My fiancé is an Eagle Scout, and he was surprised with how much influence the Boy Scouts had on the creation of this fictional organization. If your sons are scouts, perhaps they’ll enjoy finding the signs in the booklet and around the park, too. If you love competition, this is a really great game to play with your friends with a “divide and conquer” mindset. If you just enjoy animals, pull any of the troop leaders aside and ask them a few questions; they love getting to know people and helping the less informed better understand wildlife and the consequences our actions tend to have on them.
Keep in mind, if you don’t want to rush like we did, or if you came in the summer and spent your entire day waiting in lines, you’re able to take your booklet home and save it for your next Disney trip. The badges never expire, and you’ll still have a ranking to show for all your efforts. Personally, we’re thinking about making a new game: how many times you can achieve Senior Wilderness Explorer status in one year.