A Roaring Good Time at Disney World's Animal Kingdom

ORLANDO -- The big rock didn't look like much.

``Go on, touch it,'' Casey Holliday urged. I reached over, tentatively. Lights didn't flash or sirens sound. But I knew I was reaching back through time -- 67 million years to be exact. I'd just touched Sue -- a part of her, anyway -- the largest (at 45 feet long, weighing 7 tons) and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.

Yet here we were at Walt Disney World, the Land of the Fake-Made-to-Look-Real. Outside the small lab tucked in the middle of the year-old Animal Kingdom, park goers peer through glass walls as scientists painstakingly strip Sue's famous fossilized bones -- arguably the most famous dino bones in the world -- from rock and protective plaster. Informed Disney guides are on hand to help explain the process.

If onlookers are lucky and really interested, they might get invited in for a close-up view of the work, as I was. ``There's a WOW effect when people realize this is real,'' acknowledged Bruce Shumacher, the scientist overseeing this small, fossil-preparing outpost of Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History.

The Field Museum won Sue for $8.4 million at a much-publicized auction with substantial help from McDonald's and Walt Disney World. Fossil preparators there are hard at work on Sue's bones at the much larger McDonald's Fossil Preparation Lab where onlookers also may watch the process leading to Sue's exhibition next year. (Learn more about Sue at the Field's Web site, www.fmnh.org.)

Shumacher and his group will be working at Disney World until November. ``When we've got the dust flying and tools going, people stick around for a half-hour or more. It's exciting,'' said Holliday, a member of the Florida team.

``Disney World is about entertainment,'' added Shumacher, noting that the lab also is a good place to get out of the hot sun. ``This is one part of science that really is entertainment.''

Such seamless merging of science and entertainment is evident throughout Animal Kingdom, Disney World's fourth major park. After all, this place is home to some 1,700 animals cared for by best experts in the business as well as Mickey, Minnie and their pals. (They obligingly hand out autographs and pose for pictures at Camp Minnie-Mickey.) The Festival of the Lion King show wins raves. So do the animal encounters.

Where else but on Maharajah Jungle Trek through a ``royal forest'' can you see a giant flying fox, the largest and weirdest looking bat in the world, or a Komodo dragon, a 10-foot-long, 250-pound lizard?

For a moment or two, you'll forget you're in Orlando as you wander through the the ruins of an ancient rural Asian village complete with ornate animal carvings and carefully reconstructed ``ruins.'' The architecture, of course, is lost on the kids, parents agree, but not the exotic feel of the place. ``Much more fun than a zoo,'' offered 11-year-old Matthew Mirandi, who lives in New Jersey.

More than at Disney's other parks, though, it's harder here to sort out what's real from what's not. Take the much-touted Kilimanjaro Safari. (Be prepared for`long lines.) We bounce over rutted roads (workmen keep those ruts just so) past pools of hippos, zebra, gazelle, elephants, lions -- all closer than we've ever seen them in what certainly looks like Africa.

But that's not enough. We suddenly must help save these creatures from ivory poachers! Sure, it's a scripted story. The actors perform flawlessly. But there are those magnificent real animals, bumping reality right into the fantasy.

Back in DinoLand, right after checking out Sue's valuable bones with the real scientists, we hopped on Countdown to Extinction, barreling back in time at the behest of other ``scientists'' to save the last dinosaur from a crash of a giant asteroid, dodging ferocious dinos and flaming meteorites along the way.

Junior paleontologists, meanwhile, were happily playing in the gigantic Boneyard playground designed to look like a dinosaur dig, complete with ``skeletons'' for kids to climb and slide through and plenty of ``fossils'' to find.

``I couldn't get my boys out of there,'' said Debbie Mirandi. ``We didn't expect to like Animal Kingdom so much,'' she continued. ``But we got hooked. We stayed till 6 p.m.''

``It's nice when you can plug in a little learning with your theme park fun,'' agreed Paula Berry, a Georgia teacher whose 7-year-old daughter also gave Animal Kingdom a thumbs up.

Just don't forget to slather on the sun screen and bring plenty of water bottles and a little fan, she advised. Yet with more than four million trees and shrubs, not to mention 110 acres of African forest and grasslands, there seems to be more shade than elsewhere at Disney World.

There's also the chance to cool off, for a few minutes anyway, on the new Kali River Rapids, an all-too-short white-water raft adventure through a rainforest. My 8-year-old daughter pronounced the rapids ``just the right amount of scary.''

I just worry how the real thing would stack up in comparison.

IF YOU GO: Animal Kingdom typically opens at 7 a.m. Go early on a weekday to beat the crowds. Savvy park goers believe you have more chance of seeing the safari animals then, too. Instead of waiting on line for the characters' autographs, have breakfast with them at DinoLand U.S.A. The all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet is $13.95 for adults and $7.95 for kids. The Rainforest Cafe, near the main entrance, also is guaranteed to be a hit with the kids -- and a welcome break for you.

One-day passes cost $46.64 for adults and $37.10 for kids. Four-day park-hopper passes enable you to go in and out of the four main Disney parks for $177.02 for adults and $142.04 for kids. For dining and resort reservations, call 407-W-DISNEY. For general Disney information, call 407-824-4321 or www.disneyworld.com. Call the Field Museum in Chicago at 312-922-9410.

(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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