How does a fabulous African-inspired meal at Sanaa sound to you? I take every opportunity I get to indulge in the fabulous cuisine and simply love the décor of the restaurant in Kidani Village, the Disney Vacation property of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. African proverbs are painted on the walls and giant windows offer a look unto the wildlife grazing in the Savanna.
One of my favorite Sanaa experiences is the “Untamed Luncheon with an Animal Specialist.” Pairing a culinary experience with great conversation while learning how the animals at the lodge are cared for is simply amazing.
The luncheon is limited to 12 participants and the specialist joins the group for the meal, sharing fun facts about his or her work with the animals. I was surprised to learn how much field research is actually done at the lodge and delighted to find out that Disney is actively involved in wildlife conservation. The lunch is informal and allows for plenty of interaction between the guests and the animal specialist. When I visited, Malisa, an animal keeper and native from Iowa, was our host. Malisa grew up on a farm and graduated from the animal technology program of the Santa Fe College in Gainsville, a premier wild animal technology program in the United States.
But first a little about the restaurant and our meal: When we arrived, we were seated and greeted by the manager on duty. After introductions were made, she talked about Sanaa and what it stands for. Sanaa means “A work of art” in Swahili, and true to its name, the restaurant features some beautiful, handcrafted African artwork. The restaurant is meant to evoke the feel of a spice market; I especially love the beautiful lanterns everywhere.
Next chef Trish came out from the kitchen and told us about the food we were going to savor. The food is a fusion of African and Indian cuisine and is bursting with flavors due to the use of all kinds of spices.
We started our four-course meal with Indian Style Naan and Papadum bread and a selection of dipping sauces. We had nine different sauces. My favorites were Cucumber Raita, Mango Chutney, Red Pepper Hummus and Red Chili Sambal.
While Malisa revealed more about her work at the lodge we indulged in three different salads. I loved the Chickpeas with Cucumber and Tomato, while the Watermelon and Fennel offering was my least favorite.
My main dishes were Butter Chicken and Spicy Durban Shrimp served with Basmati rice. All dishes were infused with a variety of mouthwatering, aromatic flavorings without ever being too spicy. Mini portions of Chocolate Cake, Passion Fruit Kulfi with an edible chocolate spoon and Chai Cream rounded up the meal.
After the meal our undivided attention returned to Malisa. She told us that more than 200 birds and hoofed animals — including zebras, giraffes, gazelles, crowned cranes and more — roam the four savannas of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge & Villas. The animals here are out 22 hours a day, unlike at the park where animals are only outside while the park is open. Eight full-time veterinarians and about 250 animal keepers are employed by Disney to ensure the wellbeing of the animals at the park and the lodge. At the lodge all animals stay outdoors year-round except for the okapi and the red river hogs, who are sheltered when temperatures drop below 50F. In the winter the animals eat close to double the amount of food and feed on 300 lbs. of browse a day. With a bundle of browse at $30 apiece, I leave you doing the math!
While Disney offers the luncheon experience for children as of age 3, I believe that the meal is much more suited for older children. For kids 8 and up, it is a wonderful opportunity to ask questions and discover an unfamiliar cuisine. In our group we had one enthusiastic 12-year-old from Washington D.C. who asked numerous questions. Daniel wanted to know which animal, except for primates, is the most intelligent, and Malisa explained that at the lodge it was the red river hogs and at the park it was the elephants.
The conversation eventually turned to one of the most pressing problems in the wild: poaching. Malisa conveyed that due to poaching rhinos would be extinct within 10 years from now. The animals are hunted for their horns and she told us that recently dogs are being trained to sniff out passengers trying to import the horn into the United States. At the Chicago airport it is Lancer, a 4-year-old yellow Labrador retriever who is helping the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services fight the illegal trade. I was thrilled to find out that on my birthday, May 4th 2012, a white rhino calf was born at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. In September of 2013 the International Rhino Foundation was awarded a $25,000 grant from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, recognizing the foundation’s work to help save the rhinos from extinction.
After lunch Malisa took us outside, and behind one of the gates for Cast Members only we got a chance to meet up close and personal a critically endangered animal. A native from the Island of Madagascar, the radiated tortoise is considered one of the most beautiful tortoises in the world. Sadly there are only about 300 left in the wild. Did you know that the shell of the tortoise has blood vessels and nerves, allowing the animal to feel when it is touched? Before parting we all got a chance to take pictures of and with the tortoise.
Over the course of her work at Disney, Malisa has worked with different animals and when I asked what her favorite animal at the lodge was, she said, “You end up loving every any animal you work with.” Having listened to her over the past two hours I believe she really does. She barely touched her food making sure all questions were answered but reassured me that the staff will box up the lunch for her.
If you are looking for a special experience, I highly recommend a lunch with an animal specialist at Sanaa. I will be back and I know that Malisa or any other specialist will be able to capture my attention once more while the kitchen will serve yet another satisfying meal. The cost for the experience, including the four-course lunch, is $49 for adults and $29 for ages 3-9. The lunch is offered Wednesdays and Saturdays at noon and the price includes tax, gratuity and a $5 donation to the Disney Conservation Fund.
The Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund works to protect species and habitats and has since it’s founding in 1995, supported more than 1,000 conservation programs in 112 countries.