Animal Kingdom is the Disney Park I’ve tended to skip when we were in Orlando. I went when they first opened, but have almost no memory of the visit. We went to Busch Gardens instead when we went to Orlando in 2013, but this time… I wanted to go to Animal Kingdom. My husband had never been, and I wanted to revisit.
I am so glad we did.
Animal Kingdom has its own kind of magic and vibrancy that’s different from the bustle of the other parks. A lot of care has gone into the details – which is the case with all the parks – but in Animal Kingdom, it’s easiest to forget you are in Florida.
Because of its name and Kilimanjaro Safaris, it’s easy to think of Animal Kingdom as a zoo. While we visited, I found myself comparing it to Busch Gardens. Animal Kingdom isn’t a zoo that was built with additions for eating and rollercoasters – it’s part-park, part-reserve, and the two blend together seamlessly. It’s the only park where it was easy to find a quiet corner from the crowds.
If Epcot is about the food, Magic Kingdom about the magic and adventure, Hollywood Studios about the fun… the Animal Kingdom is about nature and aesthetics. The animal habitats were scattered throughout Discovery Island and the Savannah. Disney cares about their animals – you won’t find plastic straws or balloons in this park. In fact if you try to bring in a balloon, they will hold it at guest services for the duration of your visit rather than allowing it to get away and end up where it could harm one of the animals.
I wish we spent more time finding animal exhibits. A lot of the ones we passed were closed, but it was remarkable to see the animals mixed into such a setting. For example, Animal Kingdom has several beautiful macaws, and they are trained to fly as flock too and from a lecture area and their habitat. I’m a New England girl – seeing a flock of colorful birds take flight overhead was amazing and beautiful.
The park is split in five different sections: Asia, Africa, Discovery Island, Pandora, and Dinoland USA. Discovery Island is the home of the Tree of Life. Dinoland is a brightly colored carnival area, whereas Asia and Africa are built to represent the aesthetic those continents. Think Asia leans toward Nepal, and Africa feels both natural and torn apart (purposefully). … It’s hard to explain. I particularly enjoyed the Africa area.
Then, of course, there is the land with all the crowds. Pandora.
People run through the newest addition to the Disney parks like they’re being chased by a pack of velociraptors. The lines for the two Pandora-based rides are astronomical – easily an hour each on stand-by when the crowds are light, and exceeding two hours when they were not. This is where Disney’s FastPass+ system comes into the play. Anyone with a park ticket can make three FastPass+ reservations before they visit. You can only choose one Pandora ride or the other.
They’re both really good, through. Flight of Passage uses 3D technology and the same system used in Soarin’ at Epcot to create an immersive ride. Na’vi River Journey is a Pirates of the Caribbean style dark ride, but the animatronics are amazing. There’s a Na’vi at the end of the ride, and I couldn’t stop staring at her… she was built flawlessly and moved so smoothly.
I liked Pandora, but for myself, I don’t think either ride is worth waiting for two hours. There a lot to do and a lot to see in Animal Kingdom, and I enjoyed the other areas a bit more. We were able to watch a percussion show in Pandora while we were waiting for our Na’vi River Journey FastPass+ to activate, and that was fun. They actually pulled Matt in, calling him “That Guy!” and had him play with them. It was a lot of fun.
I think that Animal Kingdom also has the best balance of things for children and adults to enjoy. Outside of Dinoland USA, most rides are thrilling, and there are lots of shows and street performers who will fascinate children and adults together. We were lucky enough to spot Devine, a dancer skilled at blending in to the plantlife as she performs, and it was so cool. A couple others had noticed her as well… a toddler and his dad, both captivated, trying to keep track of her.
It was fun, but it was low-key fun. The food stands are fantastic, there are so many beautiful locations for photos. It’s less walking than Epcot, but fewer crowds than Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. I loved it.
If you’re heading to Animal Kingdom, you need to do three things:
- Go on Kilimanjaro Safaris. It’s absolutely astounding to see the animals. We saw a lion and two lionesses on a ridge all lounging together in the evening heat. I don’t think I’ve ever been lucky enough to see one lion when I’ve been to zoos… they’re always hiding. Also I love the giraffes. 🙂
- Visit all the lands. It’s really easy to rush over to Pandora and forget about the rest of the park, but this park is beautiful.
- See a show. There are a lot of shows in Animal Kingdom themed from various films – A Bug’s Life, The Lion King, Up – and we didn’t see any of them. I have regrets.
I really love this park, and would make sure it was in my schedule the next time we’re down in Orlando. The thing about the Disney parks – any of the Disney parks – is that you can’t do any one of them in a day. They require two or three days to really appreciate. Even with a day and a handful of extra hours, I feel like we barely skimmed the surface of Animal Kingdom.