Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Mane Event - Harambe Nights at Animal Kingdom

For a month, we kept a secret from my Lion King FANATIC daughter.  And when I say FANATIC, I mean FANATIC!  She can quote lines from all three Lion King movies.  She can tell you the names of Simba and Nala’s two children and the real name of Scar.  If there was a Lion King Trivia competition, this girl would win hands down!   So what was the big secret?  We had tickets to Harambe Nights, the after-hours celebration at Animal Kingdom marking the 20th anniversary of the Lion King.

We arrived at the park around 5:15pm. Disney Daughter (DD) thought we were there to buy something for her birthday.  As we walked in, cast members held signs announcing the entrance to Harambe Nights.  Our acting skills were spot on.  We asked a cast member what the event was all about .  “Hmmm, wish we had tickets,” hubby said.   Wasn’t until they put the special band on DD’s wrist and gave us our event booklet that she realized we were going and that was her present. 

Harambe Nights started at 7pm, so we had a little time on our hands and headed straight to Expedition Everest.  A 5-minute wait, WHAT?!?!  Yes, we hopped on it twice before meandering over to Africa around 6:10.  Guests gathered around the Dawa bar waiting for the night’s festivities to begin.  And, yes, the early bird catches the worm - or in this case, early entry.  Around 6:40, guests were led into the area in front of the newly constructed home of the Festival of the Lion King.

We were greeted by the music of an Afro-Pop band as the MC welcomed us to the evening’s festivities. Cocktail tables topped with African-themed décor filled the area along with food and beverage stations serving drinks and appetizers.  It was a party atmosphere and excitement filled the air.

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The Spicy Durban Chicken, Pickled Fennel Paneer Cheese and Moroccan Beef Kefta were delicious and seemed authentic.  However, the big hit was the Safari Cheeseburger Roll.  Hubby had 9. No joke, 9.  The beverage stands offered a variety of beer, wine, soda, water, and Jungle Juice.  On its own, the Jungle Juice was non-alcoholic and had a mango and citrus flavor.  And on request, bartenders would add a splash of rum. Yum!

Our MC encouraged guests to talk to the Cultural Representatives stationed throughout the venue.  We spoke with a lovely young lady from South Africa.  She said that people usually think Africa looks like the Pride Lands in the Lion King and are surprised to learn that she is from a big city.  Another Cultural Representative taught us how to play Mancala, an African game.

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Adding to the atmosphere were painters brushing neon tribal prints onto the faces of willing guests. A splash of bright orange and green markings, and DD was ready to go!

We had plenty of time to mingle, eat, and drink before we were asked to enter the show.  Entrances were divided into the four animals we recognized from the Festival of the Lion King.  We were Giraffes and headed to our designated area where greeters handed out wooden tubes containing “Lion Chow”.  

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DD and DS (Disney Son) weren’t too big on the Lion Chow spices.  Hubby enjoyed the candied pecans while I “Lion Chowed down” on the Sea Salted Toasted Pretzel Chips.  And yes, we kept the wood container as a souvenir.

The VIP ticket holders sat center stage on the floor.  Our Giraffe area was to the side and still had a fantastic view.   The band was located on the left, the choir on the right, and in front was an empty space for performers.  The guest narrator and host were elevated on Pride Rock at the center of the stage while large TV screens flanked each side.   

The show took clips from the beloved Lion King movie and intertwined them with live music, live performance, choir accompaniment and narration.  We were fortunate to have Viola Davis, star of the movie The Help, as our Guest Narrator.  She began with a note about her own connection with the Lion King 20 years ago, how she cried when Mufasa died and felt as though she had lost a member of her own family.  I saw my DD connect with her, a kindred spirit.

Ms. Davis’ performance was passionate and included a cute “Simba” voice for parts as well as a terrifying Scar.  Several talented Disney artists emerged from the choir to sing beautiful solo performances including “He Lives In You”, a song my DD identified as not from the 1st movie, but from the sequel and Broadway musical. The choreography was beautiful and the performances fantastic.  Dancers played the role of jungle animals, cackling hyenas, the beloved Rafiki, and our jungle lovebirds (or lions that is) Simba and Nala.  The show ended with a well-deserved standing ovation.

After the performance, dinner was served and the Street Party began.  We were directed to the central Africa area of Animal Kingdom.  The celebration stretched from the Discovery Island Bridge to the Kilimanjaro Safari exit.  Food stations filled up quickly both outside and inside the Tusker House.  We had to wait a bit in line but found an impressive variety and amount of food once we reached the buffet.   There was something to appeal to everyone in our party.   
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I enjoyed the Watercress, Melon, Feta and Berry Balsamic Onion Salad as well as the Fork Tender BBQ Pork.  Oh, and of course, the Papadum Bread and Vegetable Samosas were delish.  DS ate 2 helpings of the Seared Lamb Chops with Tamarind Pomegranate Sauce.  And for DD, Macaroni and Cheese was the highlight of her dinner.

The desserts were quite interesting.  Pineapple pieces covered in coconut  were hubby's favorite.  Not as big a hit was the Rice Pudding with Dried Fruit Compote and Pistachio Gremolata.  It required several other foods and drinks to clean the taste off of the palate.   The Chai Cream with Zebra Stripes reminded me of Egg Nog with a touch of Nutmeg.   Just when we thought we were finished, they brought out the Mickey Bar and other ice cream treats.  A perfect end to a delicious meal.  Did I mention that the St. George and Tusker Lager were refreshing on the hot and humid night?

There was dancing in the streets with the Afro-pop band and various dancers encouraging party goers to get on the floor and shake it.  Mickey and Minnie in African garb floated around the party as well as Timon and Rafiki.  The Africa shops were open and offered event specific merchandise and limited edition Lion King Collectables.  Costa Alavezos, a Senior Character Artist for Disney was on hand signing Lion King Prints.  We purchased a sketch of Simba, Timon and Pumba that he personalized for our DD.

By 10pm we were partied out, had full bellies, and huge smiles on our faces.  As we left the park, the Tree of Life was aglow with twinkling lights, like fireflies dancing in the night.  A parade of animals and cast members bid us farewell.  It was a night to remember.  Was it a huge price tag?  Yes.  But we felt it was worth it.  The performance was a top notch production, the type you would expect from Disney.  They spared no expense on the unlimited food and beverages.  And the décor and cast members led you into a magical world of fun.  When asked to sum up the night in two words, everyone agreed… Hakuna Matata!


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