Gorillas, meerkats and Mickey get Road Trip 2008 going

With Orlando the first stop on my annual summer voyage, of course Disney's Animal Kingdom is on top of the list of things to visit.

A gorilla does his best to ignore everyone around as a Monday afternoon crowd at Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., looks on. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

ANIMAL KINGDOM, Fla.--And so it begins.

For the third year in a row, I've set out for a lengthy journey through one of the United States' major geographic regions. It's time for Road Trip 2008, several thousand miles of traveling the American South.

Last year it was the Southwest, and in 2006 it was the Pacific Northwest.

And since I've started this trip in Orlando, there's only one way to really begin: total immersion in Disney World.

That's why at about 9 p.m. Sunday--after checking into my hotel and getting situated, I jumped on a shuttle and headed on over to Magic Kingdom, where I was able to stay--standing up most of the time, mind you--until nearly 2 a.m. Monday.

But more on that later.

A meerkat looks for danger at Animal Kingdom. Most likely, it is safe from the hordes of 9-year-olds who come to stare at it intently each day. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

Today, after taking care of a few Road Trip practicalities, such as buying a USB hub and getting all my camera gear taken care of, I hopped another shuttle and made it here, to this family-packed, animal-theme wonderland.

Fortunately, since I'm staying at one of Disney World's resort hotels, I'm able to stay late at some of the parks. That's why I was able to play around in Magic Kingdom so late last night and why I'll be able to patrol Animal Kingdom until 11 tonight.

Which is good, because I haven't gotten to see that much.

Mainly, I wanted to orient myself and take this first opportunity to share some of what I've been doing.

One of the first things I did was wander into the domain of a rather paranoid meerkat. But, despite its cuddly visage, it's actually quite the nervous animal, so it being hyper-aware of everything around it wasn't surprising.

Nearby was the gorilla enclosure, and sure enough, an adult male and adult female ape were happy to indulge the oh-so-eager masses wanting to see them. Whether they were willing to express their happiness at our presence is another matter. Their faces were more the picture of pensive solo thought.

I myself have spent much of my time here, and at Magic Kingdom last night, wondering about these places and what they mean in our society. And while this might not be the place for my philosophical ramblings on the matter, I will say one thing: if you have some choice of when to come to Disney World, I'd suggest maybe staying away when the world's kids aren't in school--it is a madhouse here.

But, there's still fun to be had if you're willing to wait, or to try the ride less traveled.

For instance, last night--I guess more accurately, early this morning--after walking around for hours and being rather exhausted and unable to deal with the still imposing after-midnight crowds--I alighted on Alladin's magic carpet ride in Magic Kingdom.

There were no lines, and it was possible to get on and stay on as long as you liked. So, needing a little peaceful solitude, that's just what I did, staying put for six full go-rounds, rising up as high as I could each time and enjoying the lovely breeze and sense of being alone that came from riding above everyone else.

Back here at Animal Kingdom, I was struck by the One Tree. This is a masterpiece of man-made detail, a phenomenal faux-tree with endless animal life carved into its synthetic trunk and roots.

The One Tree, the centerpiece of Animal Kingdom. Though from afar it looks real, its actually man-made on top of an old oil platform. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News.com

From what I gather, the "tree" was actually built on top of the structure of an old oil platform, and looking at it from below, it's easy to see why they needed to use something that big: this is one mammoth plant.

Speaking of things man-made, that leads me to technology, one of the things that will feature prominently throughout Road Trip. I'm testing out a number of devices, and I had one of them on-hand with me today: a smartphone loaded with Qik's live streaming media service. This is a device that allows you to live-broadcast low-fi video to the Internet. I encourage you to stay tuned to my Qik channel throughout Road Trip, as I'll be incorporating this a lot.

For the time being, though, I am still in learning mode with this thing. So if you do peruse my channel, I beg a little bit of indulgence as I master this thing. Rocky video, poor timing, and even the wrong orientation are things that may frustrate you today but which I promise you will get better as I go.

Lastly, I had with me a Pal Mickey, a little toy Mickey Mouse that senses where it is in any one of four Disney World parks and blurts out little pieces of trivia or jokes about the parks' many features.

This is definitely for kids, as the information really doesn't lead to much actual understanding of what's going on, but it does serve to alert you to what you're walking around, as, for example, I neared the gorilla enclosure, Mickey vibrated and laughed and prompted me to squeeze his belly to tell me a bad joke about the gorillas.

And, well, I'm an adult, but if I was a kid, I'd probably really have enjoyed that.

But since Mickey is a little bit age-inappropriate for me, and since I've already gotten the idea of what this interactive toy does, I'm going to give my Pal Mickey away sometime in the next couple of days.

If you're in Disney World right now, and are reading this, and you're the first person to Twitter me (my ID is GreeterDan) the name of the animal that shares space with the meerkats, Pal Mickey is yours. But only until the end of business Wednesday. After that, I won't be here to make the hand-off.

And since you'll be heading on over to Twitter anyway, please consider following me there, as I'll be posting updates there about Road Trip constantly.

And that's because there's still a long way to go now that I'm on the road. Please stay tuned. I promise a fun ride.

 

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