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We’d never been to the Animal Kingdom Lodge, and the many rave reviews of Jiko, the hotel’s signature restaurant, was all the excuse we needed to put it on our must-do list.

We had our 7:45 reservation, and after a full and hefty day that felt a lot like a jungle trek, we fell in line to catch the Disney bus to the hotel. Without exception, this is the bus most in demand, so the wait time was taxing, only to be topped by a standing-room-only ride to the hotel.

Hot, tired and bedraggled, we appreciated the piercing irony that the bus felt more like being in the jungle than being in the jungle, and by time we were in the authentically appointed lobby, even Mark had to concede that packing the change of clothes in our daypacks had been a good idea—even though we had to change in a bathroom stall.

Now that we’d arrived…

Feeling refreshed for being in fresh clothes for dinner, we checked in with the Jiko hostess, who instantly made us feel welcome and in for an adventure—and from what little we’d glimpsed of the room we were already excited. We had a little time to spare before our reservation came up, so we took advantage of the surplus time to explore the Savannah and have a cocktail.

Where the Savannah required being on our feet, the cocktail did not, and we happily enjoyed our gin gimlets in the charming Victoria Lounge bar area overlooking Boma, the more family-oriented restaurant featuring an endless buffet of authentic African fare. The exhaustion was dissipating with every sip of elixir and our anticipation was building with every minute closer we came to our reservation time.

A room with many views

Our table was ready on cue, and as our hostess led us through the room to to our table it was difficult to keep step as every detail beckoned to be appreciated. “Oh, look at that! [Gasp] Oh my gosh, look at thaaaat…” Amy heard her voice trailing behind her. Our table was a two-seater between two others still vacant, yet any thought of asking for a more “intimate” placement was vanquished by the awe that had us swept into a visual tango and convinced us to stay.

Our gazes were aswirl with wonder and delight at the many visual motifs: origami-esque gulls, placed as if in an animated sequence, appeared to fly across the sky. But then, “Oh, loooook,” Amy cooed as she and Mark were realizing in the exact same moment that the wall was gradually changing colors from sunrise to sunset, making the birds’ flight all the more poetic and profound. Wherever our eye fell it was met with meaning and relevance wielded with a delicate artistry. The room was a tour de force of architecture and design inspired by Africa, as depicted in The Lion King, a sublime balance of whimsy and elegance, serenity and sensation.

Then George arrived…

To further endear us to what was destined to be one of the most joyous and gratifying dining experiences of our lives, our waiter, George, brought the menu to life with each description, intoxicating our imaginations and sense of adventure for what was to come. In the meantime, the two chilled martinis he served individually and tableside were a perfect complement to the “hakuna matata” spirit as we perused the varied and compelling menu. And the basket of flaxseed bread and papadum, accompanied by an irresistibly luxurious honey butter, helped remind us to practice willpower.

Appetizers and a party

Amy was intrigued by the Duck Confit and Fig Salad with comice pears, black mission figs, and goat cheese crouton—but not Mark. Both of us, however, were drawn to the fire-roasted mussels with lamb merguez and sweet potatoes, but we’d already had mussels twice, so that was out. In the end—and with George’s guidance, Amy ordered the seared Ostrich Filet with vidalia onion fondue, rocket cream and spiced cherries; and Mark went for the Lamb “Patis,” consisting of pulled lamb rolled in phyllo and served with a mint-cilantro chutney. We’d never had ostrich before, and this made for a splendid introduction. The lamb “patis” should be served on street corners (and maybe are!) they were such an addictive finger food. We were off to an excellent start.

And then a couple of fashionable gents were seated beside us. Instantly it was clear they were as enthralled with the decor and theming as we’d been—and still were—and, just because of the proximity, it felt only natural to welcome them to the neighborhood. It didn’t take long before we were immersed in a vibrant discussion with our new neighbors who sounded very much like us.

“The Duck and Fig Salad looks interesting,” one of them was saying, and Amy was quick to agree. When it arrived, his eyes lit up, as did Amy’s, who was both gratified and envious for seeing what could have been her order. It was beautiful, and so was the picture he took of it.

Soon thereafter, a young couple was seated on our other side, and the now four of us “veteran diners” welcomed the new arrivals. The good time was getting better still as we all shared in common our love of Disney, which made our differences all the more interesting to the others: The young couple had come with their 2-year-old and the husband’s parents, so they were flying high just for having a night out alone. Even their drinks reflected their night of abandon, hers being a tall, hourglass figured fuchsia concoction with a tropical garnish, and his a chartreuse martini with a bright cherry. Together, the drinks somehow seemed to form a heart and the photos they took were the photos of newlyweds.

Enter the entrees

There was a time when we thought the only reason to put a chicken dish on the menu was because every menu needed a chicken dish. But Jiko opened our minds, thanks to our Ambassador of Flavor, George, who recommended the Chermoula Tanglewood Chicken as a standout Moroccan dish. With a spicy harissa accent and served in a citrus broth with preserved lemons and Israeli couscous (referred to as “Fregola Pasta” on the menu), the description had Mark sold. Amy vacillated between the Kenyan Coffee BBQ-Braised Beef Short Rib and the Wood-fired Lamb Loin with Ethiopian Berbere spiced lentils, baby carrots, and a lemon infused demi-glace, until both Mark and George swung her favor to the lamb.

Happily, the neighboring guest who’d ordered Amy’s duck and fig salad ordered the short rib, which, of course, looked as mouth-watering as short ribs always do, but Amy was thrilled with her decision to go with the lamb.

In summary: Yummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!!!!!!!!!

A last hurrah

A continuation of the first two thirds of the menu, the dessert selection presented no less a fascinating flair of African spices and flavor pairings. So as full as we were, we had to go the distance. The hope, however, was to share something, despite our very different tastes in dessert. The Pistachio Creme Brulee with chocolate layered bottom, though a departure from the standard brulee, wasn’t quite enough of a departure; and the Autumn Spiced Pumpkin Roll with apple and cranberry compote, cinnamon ice cream and grated nutmeg, though interesting, was a bit too autumnal. George urged us in favor of the House-made Lemon Curd, with pomegranate and blueberry compote, sour cream ice cream and white chocolate biscotti. While this was almost everything Mark would normally steer away from—the white chocolate biscotti being the only “friendly” element in the dish—he put his trust in George, whom, after all, had changed his life with the chicken.

And sure enough, the dessert proved as groundbreaking as all the preceding courses. George had hit another home run, and Mark couldn’t believe how extraordinarily delicious a seemingly abhorrent combination of components could be when unified in a single dish. “I’m eating curd!” he exclaimed with incredulity, “And I’m loving it!” “Curd!” he added for emphasis, “and sour cream ice cream!” He laughed like a 10-year-old discovering that reptiles are really neat.

Still, the adventure continued…

Having been the first to arrive, we were the first to leave, and we wished our fun dining companions all the best for the rest of their trip. We left on a cloud of jubilance, buoyed by food and drink, and floated through the lobby to the front of the hotel to catch the Disney transport, a.k.a., the bus, back to the Yacht Club where we were staying. Hopefully, we wouldn’t have long to wait.

In fact, we wouldn’t have to wait at all. “Ohmygod, what perfect timing!” Amy exclaimed, seeing the bus parked only about 15 yards away. We were delirious with cheer for all things just falling in place. And then the bus started to pull away from the curb.

Amy’s feet could have stood for more sitting, but what they really weren’t up for was running, particularly in heels. Still, that didn’t stop her from taking off in the direction of the bus, arms waving frantically as she screamed, “No, no, wait, waiiiiiiiiiitttttttttt!”

Normally, Amy would prefer to not make a spectacle of herself, but in that moment she only knew one thing: That bus was not leaving without us. Considering she was willing to use her own body as a blockade if need be, it was nice of the bus driver to stop short of the point of impact and open the door.

All aboard!

It was not an elegant entrance. We were huffing and puffing and everyone on the bus—all six of them—were witness to our desperate sprint. We thanked everyone—particularly the bus driver—and joked about really needing that workout after spending the entire day at Animal Kingdom. The couple sitting across from us managed to stop laughing long enough to confess they had had to do the exact same thing the day before and knew exactly how we felt. We ended up having a nonstop conversation with our riding companions, who were telling us about their breakfast at Boma only the day before, only to realize we were taking anything but a direct route back to our hotel at the Boardwalk. In fact, we were basically making a giant U-turn! While that afforded the opportunity to see Disney Springs at night and cover a wide range of topics with our bus mates, the ride ended up taking a good 35 minutes instead of a mere 10!

And Finally…

While the bus ride was enough to make us think twice before going back to Jiko twice in one trip, it does make us reconsider non-Disney transportation in the future—or staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge and taking an elevator! But even with the long journey at the end of a long day, nothing could detract from what was an evening of lifelong memories of the happiest calibre.