The Best of Walt Disney World - Disney's Animal Kingdom

by Steve Russo, staff writer
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This is the fourth (and last – I can hear the cheers now) in a series of “Best of Walt Disney World” articles. The first three focused on the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This article, as you can probably guess, will focus on the attractions and restaurants in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Ahhh, Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Does any of this sound familiar?

“We have better zoos at home.”

“But… it’s Nahtazu.”

ldquo;It’s a half-day park at best.”

“I could spend hours exploring the hidden paths.”

“It’s not a real safari.”

“I love the opportunity to see real African animals in their habitat.”

Quite a quandary, isn’t it? Disney’s Animal Kingdom seems to mean different things to different people. It has its fans and its detractors. Personally, I love the extensive theming in the park, the live shows and the attractions but if you held a gun to my head, I’d still rank it slightly below the other parks—maybe in a third-place tie with Disney’s Hollywood Studios. But that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. I really, really (yes, two “really”s for emphasis) like Disney’s Animal Kingdom—it’s just that I seem to like the others a bit more.

Nevertheless, we’re here to select the best in the park so without further ado, I present a salute to all Walt Disney World parks, but mostly Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Top Three Four Attractions

  1. Expedition Everest


Expedition Everest. Photo by Steve Russo.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that this is not my favorite Disney’s Animal Kingdom ride. But I rank it first because it deserves it. It’s top notch, from the theming in the queue to the thrills on the ride itself. I’ve ridden several times but I just don’t care for the “backwards in the dark” part. I know others love it but it’s just not my cup of tea.

In my last column on Disney’s Hollywood Studios, I neglected to include the Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster Starring Aerosmith in my Top Three Attractions. While admitting it’s a great coaster, I downgraded it due mainly to my “aversion to inversion”, but many of you thought I should have included it anyway. I’ve ridden Everest several times and readily admit it’s a great attraction even though it’s not my favorite so, to avoid more backlash, I’m including it here and giving it the ranking it deserves.

If there’s anything wrong with the attraction, it’s the continued absence of movement from the Yeti. In the early days, he (or is it she?) would lunge and swipe at the ride vehicles just before the drop—a very exciting effect. Unfortunately, s/he hasn’t lunged in some time and the effect is now provided by a simple strobe light as you pass.

I know there are tons of rumors about this problem and I’ll use this opportunity to set the record straight. I have it on good authority (one I trust anyway) that the issue resides within the attraction’s infrastructure. The animatronics, when active, included a very rapid movement across a large distance (the lunge and swipe). Over time, that violent movement caused the yeti to torque off two of its mounts creating technical issues that would cause a system shutdown. The restart of the system was/is very time consuming.

The situation worsens when the yeti’s position within the attraction, relative to the tracks and structural frame, is considered—in other words, it’s not an easy fix and will likely involve bringing in additional steel. The decision then was to hold off repairs until a major refurbishment was required.

  1. Kilimanjaro Safaris


It looks pretty real to me. Photo by Steve Russo.

I really enjoy attractions that change a bit each time you ride them. I know purists sometimes scoff at a “natural habitat” that includes a cement baobab tree, ersatz termite hills and ostrich eggs that never seem to hatch but this is as close as I’m going to get to a tour through an African savanna and I love the close up views of the animals.

  1. Festival of the Lion King


New location; same show. Photo by Steve Russo.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen this show but it never fails to entertain. It’s now in its new home in Harambe but the show remains the same and one I’m sure to enjoy for many years to come.

  1. (tie) Pangani Forest Exploration Trail and Maharajah Jungle Trek


I could spend an hour. Photo by Steve Russo.

I upped the ante from Top Three to Top Four so I could include these walking tours and I called it a tie because it would be difficult to choose one over the other. Tigers, bats, Komodo dragons, hippos, meerkats, naked mole rats… to name just a few of the animals you’ll spy along the way. You can take as little or as much time as you’d like to enjoy these walking exhibits. Heck, I could sometimes spend an hour with the gorillas alone.

Honorable Mentions:

Flights of Wonder is a personal favorite and one that often doesn’t get the attention I think it deserves.


Underrated? Photo by Steve Russo.

Kali River Rapids is a favorite but only on warmer days. You will get wet and, quite possibly, drenched. I try to make this our last attraction before leaving the park.

Dinosaur is fun but the abrupt vehicle movements can be tough on bad backs.

Finding Nemo: the Musical is, apparently, not for everyone. I’ve always enjoyed it but I’ve read some complaints centered on making a musical about a non-musical film. That doesn’t bother me and I recommend the show but if you can only see one, my favorite is the afore-mentioned Festival of the Lion King.

It’s Tough to Be a Bug is a cute and fun attraction that combines 3D with some live animatronics but… there’s about a minute and a half in there that I’m certain has filled more than a few diapers. When Hopper appears, things get a bit scary and more than a few young ones may start bawling. I urge parents of toddlers and young children to exercise some caution here. This definitely is not for everyone.


Parents take heed. Photo by Steve Russo.

Lastly, I’ll mention the Boneyard. This opportunity for children to climb and dig is not for me but my grandsons love it and could probably spend a day there.

Top Three DAK Restaurants

By know you know the drill… selecting favorite restaurants is difficult because our tastes are so varied and yadda, yadda, yadda. I will offer another quirk of mine in that I rarely visit table service restaurants for lunch – they’re usually for dinner only. Because Disney’s Animal Kingdom typically closes earlier in the day, I never seem to have dinner there so… my experience with table service here is limited.

Table Service

  1. Tusker House Restaurant

Calling the Tusker House “table service” is a stretch because it’s really a buffet… but a very good one. It’s a character meal for breakfast and lunch (not dinner) and features an African-flavored menu. There’s traditional fare available as well but the more adventurous palates will be pleased.

  1. Yak and Yeti Restaurant

There’s also a counter service component here and both restaurants offer a Pan-Asian themed menu.

  1. Rainforest Cafe

I enjoy the Rainforest Café, both here in Disney’s Animal Kingdom and at Downtown Disney but… I enjoy it more for breakfast. At lunch and dinner, the place seems to get much noisier and, to be honest, while there’s no reason to hate the food, there’s also no reason for a heavy recommendation either.

Counter Service

Now we’re talking. I think I enjoy the counter service more at Disney’s Animal Kingdom than any of the other parks.

  1. Flame Tree Barbecue

This counter service restaurant features smoked items such as ribs and chicken and some very good sandwiches. The seating is plentiful and outdoors… and mostly covered. Some of the tables down by the water are particularly nice.

  1. Restaurantasaurus

It’s McDonald’s-like in that it features burgers, sandwiches and salads (hot dogs too) but I’ve found the burgers here to be much better than the other counter service places on property—although I’m certain some will argue Pecos Bill’s is better. They would be wrong but they could argue.

  1. Pizzafari

Ample seating in air-conditioned and well-themed rooms makes this a favorite stop on hot days—or cool ones for that matter. It’s mainly personal pizzas and salads but they’re good and reasonably priced (all together now… “for Disney”.) I’d also put in a plug for the Hot Italian-Style Sandwich here—just one “hot Italian” recommending another (oh, there’s gonna be hate mail for that one.)

Honorable Mention:

Tamu Tamu Refreshments and Kusafiri Coffee Shop and Bakery are two of my favorite post-Safari stops. They’re across the street from one another in Harambe and offer good coffee, juice, muffins and breakfast sandwiches.

This article wraps up my little mini-series centered on the Best of Walt Disney World. It’s been fun to take a virtual stroll through each park with an eye toward the attractions and restaurants I’ve favored. I’ve appreciated all the comments on my choices—both those that agreed with me and those that were wrong (just kidding, folks). I particularly enjoyed reading about your favorites and have filed a few recommendations away for trying on future trips.

Keep those recommendations coming and, as always, thanks for reading.

Comments

  1. By jms1969

    I'm always amazed at how much I agree with your ranking articles, and this one is no exception. Overall, I'd also put AK as tied for my third-favorite Disney park with Hollywood Studios (which has really lost something since no actual film work is done there). I'd add one thought, however...my overall opinion of AK is very dependent on the time of the year. Because most of the attractions are outside, and because of all the vegetation, AK is without a doubt my least favorite Disney park in summer. It just isn't a fun environment to be in when the temperature is over 90 degrees with 80% humidity. In the other parks, you can at least get out of the heat for most of the attractions.

    It's a bit of a surprise to me that you would elect to go top four attractions in a park where I would have actually stopped at two...Kilimanjaro Safari and Expedition Everest. These two attractions are definitely clearly above the rest, IMO. For the "slightly different each time" factor, and the sheer scope of the attraction I'd personally rate that Safari as number one, but I can certainly understand how a top notch thrill ride as Everest can get the vote of others.

    I'm not a huge show fan, so I have a tough time rating Lion King or Nemo in my top three, although I will admit they are well done, as are the animal trails you mention. The two thrill attractions that I'd consider (Dinosaur and Kali River) both have major issues that keep them from being as fun as they should be (as you mentioned, Dinosaur is just a painful experience that takes the fun away from it, and Kali River gets you so soaked that it's no fun to ride except at very specific times). I guess It's Tough to Be a Bug would be my #3 if I had to come up with one - it's well done and part of the show is certainly watching the little ones flip out during the loud and scary parts!

    Like you, we do very little table service at AK, and I agree with your counter service choices. Pizzafari is our normal lunch stop...the Italian Style Sandwich is my wife's favorite. Flame Tree Barbeque is a close second for our family and is probably my personal favorite.

  2. By DisneyGator

    I've never understood the disdain for this park. Anyone who says it's as good as their zoo has either not been to AK or not been to their zoo. I took my family to World Famous San Diego Zoo. While it's a good zoo, all it really did was make wish I'd done a WDW trip instead of a DL trip with the zoo thrown in there. It just couldn't compare Disney's Animal Kingdom.

    As for me, my list of attractions would be: 1- Kilamanjaro Safari, 2- Ex:Ev, and 3-Finding Nemo:The Musical. Number 1 and 2 are virtually interchangeable. Nemo, to me, has really great music and is a lot of fun....and the seats have backs! That's important for someone with a bad back.

    As for eating, we loved the Tusker House for a character lunch. But really, it comes down to Flame Tree BBQ. I'd rather eat here (on a beautiful Florida winter day) than anywhere else on property. The food is great and the scenery is the best.

  3. By cstephens

    I love Everest and would trade the Matterhorn for it in a heartbeat, except that there's not enough room in Disneyland for Everest.

    For food, we always do the same - Flame Tree for lunch and Yak & Yeti for dinner.

    Oh, and here's a thumbs up vote for Pizzafari for breakfast. We were pleased to find that they had a regular breakfast platter available (scrambled eggs, sausage and hash brown), at least they did when we were there in 2011. Sugary baked goods for breakfast don't work for us, so it was nice to find a regular protein breakfast available. We happened to see the sign out front, so we went in to look.

  4. By baylakebeliever

    Hi Steve
    Writing to you from WDW! Great article and Im going to take your advice and see The Lion King Show tomorrow when we visit AK. We haven't seen the show since our first visit in 2004. Thanks for writing! Now off to EPCOT!
    Gail

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