Orlando… a day at the park
Animal Kingdom
A group visit in 2013

The Park: Animal Kingdom

Located at: Disney World

Overview: Animal Kingdom is the fourth park at Disney World. And, in one of those funny incidents of timing, we found ourselves there when the park was celebrating Earth Day as well as its fifteenth anniversary.

(Quick side thought… the length of time between the opening of the Animal Kingdom and today is the longest stretch Disney has gone without adding a theme park to the Orlando property. Mind you… I don’t expect a fifth park any time soon… there is the Fantasyland expansion wrapping up, the Avatar expansion kicking off, and lots of whispers of other options for existing Disney World parks. There are questions and rumors and limits about what Universal Studios using Marvel characters and themes at Islands of Adventure means to Disney (the owners of Marvel). There are all sorts of possibilities from Star Wars and LucasFilm. Plus, expansion and new parks are happening in other corners of the United States and overseas. Long story a bit shorter… Disney would also love to see you to spend a week-plus at Disneyland, the Tokyo Disney Resort, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland. They are working in Shanghai. So… while they want you to return again and again to Disney World… and there almost definitely will someday be another park (or more) in Disney World… don’t look for it to happen or be announced soon. And yet… 2021 is closing in. Disney World’s 50th anniversary. And by then many of the efforts in existing parks will be complete and operating. It may not be soon… but it may not be that long either.)

Animal Kingdom is the park Terry and I have been away from the longest… our last visit here was part of the November 2005 family trip. And… in a few ways… it is the one that has changed the least over that time.

Obviously that isn’t completely true… since back in 2005 Expedition Everest was nearing completion and not yet open. The grand opening of that attraction was held in April of 2006, with previews beginning in January of that year. So we got pictures of the mountain, but had never been inside until this trip. And Expedition Everest is a significant part of the Animal Kingdom.

Other than Expedition Everest though, it would be a challenge to take a map from 2005 and a map from 2013 and find many differences. The new Fantasyland (Magic Kingdom), Test Track renovations and return of Captain Eo (Epcot), and the addition of Toy Story Midway Mania! (Hollywood Studios) have been part of updates and upgrades around Disney World… while Animal Kingdom has remained very consistent over the past 8 years.

And if you want to get into debates that range item by item, attraction by attraction, in order to defend the Animal Kingdom, then let’s think outside the attractions-dining-retail foundation and consider the animals and holidays. While decorated and gorgeous for special times of the year, there are no truly late hours in this park or show-stopping attractions. (And rightly so… as one of the reasons I’ve often seen cited is that something like a fireworks extravaganza would disturb the live animals.) There is no Halloween or Christmas party, Candlelight Processional, or Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.

Animal Kingdom is today… as it has been pretty much since the gates opened… the largest and the smallest Disney World theme park.

That is going to change… in an incredibly significant way. The announced plans for an Avatar-themed section is causing the big news right now for the Animal Kingdom, and Disney World. The additions from this project appear headed in a direction that will transform this park… in perception and reality.

And that’s good… because honestly, even at a slow pace you can hit all of the major attractions very quickly in this park. They can tell you it’s the biggest park at Disney all they want… it’s a false claim based on sheer size and not content. This park is great and fun… and it also needs more.

And while I know some people love it… to me, a portion of DinoLand U.S.A. (specifically around the Primeval Whirl and TriceraTop Spin) is the most un-Disney-like place in all of Disney World. It’s more carnival midway than land of dreams and imagination. I really view it as something thrown together to add a few rides and distractions in the park. I see none of the magic, none of the attention to detail that usually is at the foundation of Disney projects.

Rides we went on:

Kilimanjaro Safaris
Pangani Forest Exploration Trail
Expedition Everest
It’s Tough to be a Bug!
Maharajah Jungle Trek

Events we saw:

Finding Nemo – The Musical
Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade
Festival of the Lion King

Places we ate… or food we enjoyed:


The best of the best: I do wish that the Yeti in Expedition Everest was operational. Apparently there is some major structural problem that has prevented full operation for four years that can only be repaired during a major refurbishment of the ride because of the extent of the work involved. And that’s a shame. That said… very good ride and a well-designed attraction. Thrilled I finally had a chance to experience it.

We had an awesome driver for Kilimajaro Safaris, and I want to name that as one of the best features of this visit. Funny… personable… and always smiling or laughing.

And I want to give a nod to the Restaurantosaurus here. Ok… look… the food there was good. Nothing more. Chicken and burgers and fries. Basic stuff. But in several visits to the park, I have found their location always seems to match up perfectly with the timing of our visit to the Dinosaur attraction, the desire to eat, and a menu that seems to have everyone saying they can find something they’ll be happy eating. And, they always seem to have something more going on that other dining locations either don’t offer or can’t top.

First off… a full condiment bar. (Not too uncommon, as Disney offers a wide range of toppings for sandwiches and such in all of the parks.)

And second… free refills. I pulled aside a manager because we had a couple of people that bought commemorative refillable mugs. I wanted to know… since there was a beverage station in this place on the main floor near the toppings bar and not just behind the counter, what beverages could and could not be refilled. He told me any drink could be refilled, but the special for the mug was that you could return to Restaurantosaurus with that mug later on, and pretty much even on a different day, and get refills with it. According to him, he didn’t know of any other place at Disney that offered such an option.

Now… I’m not planning on multiple days in the Animal Kingdom during the same visit. In fact, once I’ve left the area, I’m not even planning to head over to Restaurantosaurus from other parts of the park during a visit on the same day just to refill the mug. Heck, they probably know you wouldn’t go running from Africa over to DinoLand just for a refill, which is why they offer it… they know you honestly won’t use it. But the idea that you could do it is pretty cool and a neat feature. I have seen similar ideas in the resorts and water parks at Disney. Did not find it at any other theme park during this visit.

You really need to know (and other observations): We arrived at the Animal Kingdom a few minutes after 9am and made the decision to head straight to Kilimanjaro Safaris. The reasons were the old reliable concepts: (1) When it comes to this ride, I have been told the animals are more active in the mornings, either out of hunger, because of the fresh energy of a new day, or simply because the afternoon sun presents the strongest heat and reason to be less active. (2) It is a popular ride, and as such the line can get longer as the day moves along and, regardless of how you use them, the longer you wait to get a FASTPASS the later your time slot will be.

We finished Kilimanjaro by walking the Pangani Trail. From there it was over to Expedition Everest, where the FASTPASS was actually being issued for about thirty to forty minutes away while the ride wait was around 20, so we decided to just stay in line.

We finished our day with Finding Nemo, the Jungle Parade, and Lion King.

What did we not do? I already told you I am not feeling Disney at the Primeval Whirl or TriceraTop Spin… and yes, we skipped those. But realistically there are only two attractions you could argue that we missed… the Kali River Rapids and the Wildlife Express Train.

We had talked, and not one of us was interested in getting wet on the Kali River Rapids. It was a unanimous group vote.

The Wildlife Express Train is also connected to the Habitat Habit!, Conservation Station and Affection Section. These are all fine areas and I have no problems with them at all. However, my main interest for seeing animals in the Disney park comes from -- if not along the Kilimajaro Safaris -- the gorillas and hippos in Pangani or the tigers and komodo dragon along Maharajah.

Other than that we missed nothing. I didn’t list them, but we saw The Oasis Exhibits during our arrival and exit from the park… we walked through the Discovery Island Trails while at the Tree of Life for It’s Tough to be a Bug!. So other than the rapids and train, the only thing… and I mean the only thing… would be The Boneyard or Fossil Fun Games.

A few moments ago, I said this area was (my words): “It’s more carnival midway than land of dreams and imagination.” And now, I quote the Fossil Fun Games description: “Play carnival-style games in the heart of DinoLand U.S.A.” (Let’s move on.)

And so, all aspects covered, I repeat -- Kali River Rapids... fun ride, great ride, and I would say do it if you want to, as I have in the past (and hope to again) -- Wildlife Express Train… nice area (looking forward to a future visit) -- we missed nothing.

The Nemo show we attended was at 3pm. We walked from Dinosaur over to the Maharajah Jungle Trek because it wasn’t yet 2pm and we had plenty of time before the next Nemo show.

The point I’m trying to make is simple… you can see everything in this park as it exists right now in less than a full day with no problem at all. Maybe not every-little-specific-thing. There are almost definitely treasures to be found, details to be appreciated, and fun we missed. Still, when you consider our stop for lunch, that we moved at a very leisurely pace, and never used a FASTPASS, I think you could conservatively say that we covered everything other than one ride (Kali River Rapids) and caught all of the shows (Nemo, Lion King and parade) in just about five hours. We were there for more than that, but the rest of our day was based around investing some time until the next show started, stopping by Guest Relations, and a few other details.

As I said, you will hear that Animal Kingdom is the biggest Disney theme park. It is. It has animals and a lots of acreage used for those animals. But when you say “biggest” you cannot confuse that with what that park contains. In many ways, the Animal Kingdom is the smallest Disney World theme park.

Some unexpected fun we had (or special moments we experienced): For our trip, this was the first park we entered. That made it the first Disney theme park Kim had ever visited. There were no real surprises with the content in this park -- though as I noted, when Avatar arrives, that will change. But… because it was her first visit…

They were giving out special pins for the park’s anniversary. And that reminded me to check on the pins that Disney makes available for birthdays, anniversaries, and… yup… first visits.

This is the park where we stopped at Guest Relations and got the pin for Kim.

Special praise (or complaints): Ok… I just spent some time talking about the number of attractions, the un-Disney-like zone in DinoLand, and how the park can be covered by the ambitious… from a to z (or at least a to w)… before lunch.

It’s still a pretty great place and should not be dismissed.

Expedition Everest is a fantastic ride. It’s Tough to be a Bug! holds up surprisingly well. And I think that -- when you are talking about the shows offered multiple times during the day… and not something of a park-closing-event stature such as Fantasmic!... the Festival of the Lion King is arguably the best in-park live show and the only one worth marking with do-not-miss status.

I enjoyed being back in the Animal Kingdom park on this trip to Disney World.

Putting a ribbon on the day: Our visit suffered from only one thing… the times for the shows.

At each of the other parks, there is at least one reason to be thinking FASTPASS. Here, while I’m sure it is worth it… especially on the busiest of days… we did better without it. The ride waits were so short that it would have taken us longer to leave and walk back than to wait in line.

The end result is that, from our perspective, moving from point-to-point could have a bit of an order to it. That doesn’t work as far as navigating lines. Pathways here (and to a degree in Hollywood Studios) are not as obvious as they are in the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. But if you wanted to follow Kilimanjaro with Everest and then head off to the Tree of Life… that worked.

It was in the afternoon, with shows (Nemo and Lion King) on opposite sides of the park, that we found ourselves staring at the map and the times guide, trying to make some sense out of the best places to move and when.

The Animal Kingdom is where you will be thinking about shows and parades, and likely more than you will be at any other park. Worth keeping that in mind from the moment you first enter the grounds and pick up a map.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com