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Cultural Representatives at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge− Bringing the Spirit of Africa Alive with Every Smile

Karen McClintock

by , Food & Beverage Content Relations Manager, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts

Inspired by the picturesque beauty of an African wildlife reserve, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is known for its African architecture and design with its beautiful hand-carved furnishings, rich wood, and vibrant colors. Adding another layer of authenticity to this African experience are the engaging Cultural Representatives. Traveling from various African countries, they participate in a special one-year program allowing them to share insight into their culture with guests visiting Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. These Cultural Representatives play a role in the Sense of Africa and Wanyama Safari tours where they immerse guests in the diverse cultures of the African continent through personal stories.

They also have a prominent presence in our restaurants at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. At each of the three table-service restaurants (Jiko-The Cooking Place, Boma-Flavors of Africa, and Sanaa) they welcome guests and escort parties to their tables, captivating everyone with their warm personalities and genuine smiles. Some Cultural Representatives have roles in the kitchens, adding their African culinary expertise to the menus.

We recently had an opportunity to sit down with four of our Food & Beverage Cultural Representatives. They are all incredibly interesting, personable, and truly embody the spirit of Africa.

Greeter Yvonne Bahlangene from Boma – Flavors of Africa at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge

Boma – Flavors of Africa 

Greeter Yvonne Bahlangene from Harare, Zimbabwe

Why did you want to become a Cultural Representative at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge?

To share my African experience with others. I love sharing my culture, wildlife experiences, food, and the lifestyle of living in the villages as well as the vibrant city of Harare. 

What was your work experience in Africa?

I worked at a photographic safari camp where we catered to visitors from all over the world. My main job was to share stories about our people, culture, food, and tradition. It is very similar to what I do here at Disney, which I am grateful to continue doing for our guests.  

What surprised you the most when you first came to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge?

I was surprised by how the lodge was built with such an amazing African feel. Everywhere you look in the resort there is a story to be told. The architecture, artwork, colors, décor, and restaurant themes all made me reminisce of being home!

When talking to guests, is there a question you get asked repeatedly?

The number one question I am asked is, “Where did you learn English?” We grew up learning English in school and it is also the language of business back home.

Which Disney character would your family and friends say you are most like and why?

Simba from ‘The Lion King!’ This is an easy one for me. It may sound cliché I picked a character from a story set in Africa, however, as a cub Simba was playful, naughty, and curious about what was on the other side which I can definitely relate to. When I was growing up in the village I did not want to be left out. I was the shortest, youngest, and loudest in the family. I must admit I found myself in a lot of trouble just like Simba.

Favorite animal on the savanna and why?

My favorite animal would be the zebra. The zebra is our Family Totem. Back home most families have an animal is passed down from generation to generation which they guard and protect.

Greeter Hloniphani Dube from Jiko – The Cooking Place at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge

Jiko – The Cooking Place 

Greeter Hloniphani Dube from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe 

Why did you want to become a Cultural Representative at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge?

I always had a desire to be in an environment where I could learn about different cultures and be in the presence of those who will take an interest in listening, learning, and would appreciate knowing about my own culture.

What was your work experience in Africa?

I worked for a rental car company as a rental sales agent, chauffeur, and tour guide.

Favorite memory at Jiko -The Cooking Place?

My favorite memory is when I took a guest and her daughter to a table and shared stories of African animals and my homeland. I found out it was the guest’s 80th birthday so we got her a birthday button and a card signed by all the Cast Members. After their dining experience, Valarie, the daughter, came to me and told me how much she appreciated what I had done for her mother. A month later the family came back for a holiday dinner at Boma – Flavors of Africa. The family took the time to come find me at Jiko to express their appreciation for something I had done a month prior. This really touched me and made me realize how doing something so simple can make someone’s day magical.

Favorite dish at Jiko-The Cooking Place

Botswana Short Rib because of its familiar taste and wonderful aroma.

Favorite animal in the savanna and why?

The impala because of their parenting nature. They have the ability to prolong giving birth if there is a predator close by.

Greeter Marvelous Bonasi from Sanaa at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge

Sanaa 

Greeter Marvelous Bonasi from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe 

Why did you want to become a Cultural Representative at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge?

I love interacting with people and thought it would be a great way to share my culture with others and the perfect opportunity to learn the cultures of others. I recognized the fact people from all over the world make Walt Disney World a destination.   

What was your work experience in Africa?

I was a coordinator and co-founder for a youth academy. I helped coach young people with soccer and helped as a mentor. This was all voluntary work. 

What surprised you the most when you first came to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge?

The animals! I had heard about a restaurant with animals right outside the windows but I thought guests would have to go out of their way to actually see them – especially African animals! When I arrived at Sanaa I was shocked to see the animals just a stone’s throw from the restaurant. 

When talking to guests, is there a question you get asked repeatedly?

“Is your name really Marvelous?” And IT IS! My dad thought I was going to be a girl because our family already had three boys. My dad was still hoping for a boy and when I arrived – my dad said, “This is Marvelous!”

Which Disney character would your family and friends say you are most like and why?

I am like Timon – because I am hilarious – if I say so myself! People say I have an infectious laugh and wonderful sense of humor. And, like Timon, I am funny and small!

Culinary Cultural Representative Phumlani David Thabethe from The Mara at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge

The Mara 

Culinary Cultural Representative Phumlani David Thabethe from Durban, South Africa

Why did you want to become a Cultural Representative at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge?

I wanted to represent my culture and traditions in the kitchen and gain culinary experience in an internationally-recognized company.

What was your work experience in Africa?

I was working as a pastry chef at a game reserve lodge.

What surprised you the most when you first came to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge? 

I was surprised about the food served in the restaurants. The food is authentically African – including the names of the dishes!

Favorite dish at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge and why? 

My favorite dish is a Butter Chicken Curry from Sanaa. It is my favorite because the dish is made with the same spices we use back home which makes it smell and taste like what we serve in Africa.

When talking to guests, is there a question you get asked repeatedly? 

“Is this the food we eat in Africa?” The answer is “yes!”

Which Disney character would your family and friends say you are most like and why?

Winnie the Pooh because I am a sweet and humble individual and I have a sweet tooth!

A reminder you don’t need to stay at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge to dine at any of these wonderful restaurants or partake in any of the special dining events such as “The Lion King” Limited-Time Dining Experience at Jiko-The Cooking Place. Visit the Walt Disney World Resort website or call 407 WDW-DINE (407 939-3463) to learn more about the restaurants and their offerings or to make reservations and meet Yvonne, Hloniphani, Marvelous, Phumlani, and all the other Cultural Representatives.

Comments

  • Although I never stay at AKL (would love to however) I always resort hop there for meals and to meet the lovely representatives there. I have had many lovely chats with them over the years.

  • I want to know more about what Yvonne said on family totems, that sounds amazing.

  • As a DVC owner, AKL is one of our home resorts and we love it! Although I wasn’t able to find accommodations for our October 2019 trip, I was able to make dining reservations at Boma (best breakfast buffet on property) and Sanaa for dinner. The bread service and the butter chicken is amazing! See you in October!

  • Every time we stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, my family has wonderful interactions with the cultural representatives and have learned so much from them. It’s definitely one of the reasons we keep returning again and again.

  • Jiko and Sanaa are two of the best places to eat and drink on property. My wife and I always go to at least one of these places on every trip we take. Can’t wait to be home again!