Welcome back to another Disney Top 5.
On April 22, 15years ago, the Walt Disney Company opened its fourth and perhaps most ambitious theme park in Florida: Disney’s Animal Kingdom. For almost two decades this unique theme park has been walking the fine line between "edu-tainment" and entertainment, providing guests with the theme park thrills they desire while at the same time exposing them to the wonders of nature and animals.
Animal Kingdom is a wonderful place with something to behold around every corner. It’s got two of the best rides to be found in any theme park—Expedition Everest and Dinosaur. There are Broadway-quality shows like Finding Nemo – The Musical and Festival of the Lion King. There are terrific dining options available like the Yak and Yeti and Flame Tree Barbecue. Of course, given the park’s name, incredible encounters with nearly 1,700 amazing animals can be had everywhere you look and it’s all wrapped in one of the most lush, beautiful, and exquisitely detailed landscapes you’ll find anywhere.
We love spending time at Animal Kingdom. But you have to accept a few things about it before you visit in order to fully maximize your enjoyment of this unique place. The first is that in the warmer months, it’s hot. What? Hot in Orlando? Impossible! Yes, I know that seems like an obvious statement. But when you contrast it to the other parks, it makes sense. At the Magic Kingdom, for example, you can spend most of your day comfortably bouncing around from one air-conditioned attraction to the next. Even if you’re not inside a massive air-conditioned attraction building, you’re never too far away from an air-conditioned shop or place to eat. The majority of your time at Animal Kingdom is spent outside of the cranking air conditioning encountering the animals outdoors in natural habitats.
The second thing kind of piggy backs on the first. This is not a park with a long list of rides to experience. This park is meant for taking your time, exploring and immersing yourself in its natural environments. You’re not supposed to be running from attraction to attraction with a map in your hand. Stop. Slow down. Wait for the animals to poke their heads out of hiding. Soak in the views. Look for the details. If you do all of this the park really comes alive, quite literally, in front of your eyes.
Obviously, I’ve made it clear how much I love Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but this is a Top 5 column, so I’ve got to narrow down the experiences for you don’t I? With that let’s take a look at my Top 5 Things to Love About Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
5 – Expedition Everest
It’s hard to believe I’m putting this at number five on my list. After all, this is personally my favorite coaster anywhere. Some are certainly taller, crazier, and faster, but Everest delivers on so many different levels. It’s fast. It has a great drop. It goes backwards at one point.
The theming and detail of the queue is absolutely remarkable and can almost be considered an attraction onto itself. It’s a total blast from start to finish. It’s low on my list because as I stated above, I don’t think that Animal Kingdom is really about the rides. But, as far as rides go, this is the best in the park and one of the best rides in all of Walt Disney World.
4 – Kilimanjaro Safaris
The largest attraction in any of Disney’s theme parks, Kilimanjaro Safaris is over 100 acres of different “natural” environments that you drive through in authentic looking—and feeling, especially in the last bouncy row—safari busses. Animals are everywhere, and since the removal of the Little Red poaching storyline you can pretty much guarantee a different experience each time you visit. We’ve been on the Safari many, many times over the last ten years and it’s still a thrill to see the giraffes, elephants, rhinos, hippos and all of the other amazing creatures, some of which can be extremely close to your vehicle.
Our favorite summer touring tip came courtesy of a Safari cast member a few years back. Next time you’re in the park and one of those Florida rainstorms comes rolling through; don’t run for the nearest gift shop or restaurant. Make sure you run for Kilimanjaro Safaris. You’ll be covered in the vehicle and the animals all come out in the rain to cool off. We saw the most animals ever during an afternoon rainstorm. It’s a great tip.
3 – Pangani Forest Exploration Trail
This is exactly the type of thing that Animal Kingdom was created for. Why so many people bypass this wonderful section of the park is beyond me. Pangani means “place of enchantment” and there is no better description for the five acres you explore as you meander through the trail.
The theming of the research stations, the naked mole rats, the meerkats, hippos, okapis and the truly fantastic bird aviary are all precursors to the big stars, the lowland gorillas. The viewing area for the gorillas is perfectly designed to offer an up close and personal look at these incredible animals. The suspension bridge area that follows is lush and beautiful. This is a place to stop and spend some time soaking in the greenery, the waterfalls and the regal gorillas. Next time you walk off of the Safari, don’t keep on going past Pangani. Make that turn into the trail and experience one of the most special places in all of Walt Disney World.
2 – The Tree of Life and the Discovery Island Trails
The Tree of Life is Animal Kingdom’s central icon. While I adore Spaceship Earth and Cinderella Castle, the Tree of Life has to be the most impressive park icon in Walt Disney World. It’s an incredible work of art and the best way to experience it is up close on the Discovery Island trails that encircle its base. I’m consistently blown away by how many people ignore these trails as they rush past them on their way to score a spot on line at one of the other attractions.
Indeed, many times that we’ve wandered through the trails, we’ve been practically and sometimes quite literally on our own. The carvings of the Tree of Life are there to explore and photograph. There are cotton-top tamarins, kangaroos, Galapagos turtles and more to enjoy along the way. The lush foliage, streams and waterfalls and sheer peacefulness of these trails make them a completely magical escape that everyone should take advantage of.
1 – The Hidden Spots
Like I’ve said above, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a place to escape to, a place to wander through slowly and appreciate all that the rich landscaping and incredible animals have to offer. Yes, it’s got some great attractions, shows and places to eat and meet your favorite Disney characters. But it’s also a place to wander off the beaten path. Whether it’s the bridge and cave in the Oasis, the aforementioned Discovery Island Trails, or the many side paths that line the walkway between Africa and Asia, there are more places here to get away from it all than anywhere else in Walt Disney World.
My all time favorite hidden spot has to be the dining areas behind the Flame Tree Barbecue on Discovery Island.
There are multiple dining pavilions scattered throughout the flora, around ponds and along the shores of the lagoon. The views of Everest off in the distance and the visiting ducks and birds make this my favorite place in all of Animal Kingdom and one of my favorite hidden spots anywhere on Walt Disney World property. Seek it out next time you’re there. It’s a winner for sure.
Sometimes Animal Kingdom gets a bum rap. As I said in the beginning of this article, it can get quite hot…seemingly the hottest place in the World at times, and that’s saying something. I’ve also heard the criticism that it’s not a full day park because it has a limited number of attractions. I can argue each of these points quite efficiently. There’s not much I can say about the heat. It’s there. There’s less air-conditioning and in the summer… you feel it. Plan accordingly and visit the Festival of the Lion King and Finding Nemo – The Musical for some extended cooling breaks. Shop on Discovery Island. Have lunch at Pizzafari and admire the amazing murals. And of course, there’s always Kali River Rapids to get absolutely soaked and cooled off.
As far as the second criticism, I don’t buy it. If you go to Animal Kingdom for the rides only, you might be disappointed, but why go just for the rides? You’re missing out on a truly incredible place. It's hard to believe that a flat cow pasture has been completely and brilliantly transformed into a lush tropical oasis teeming with life. The hidden gems are everywhere. Take the time to appreciate all of the details both natural and manmade and you’ll soon come to see that Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a truly unique and magical part of the Walt Disney World experience.
Did I hit on your favorite things about Disney’s Animal Kingdom? If you agree with my picks or have your own, click on the link below, let me hear your thoughts and I’ll see you again with another Disney Top 5.