The Vacation Kingdom of the World: Animal Kingdom with Little Onesby Tom Richards, contributing writer
Disney's Animal Kingdom is often described as a half-day park. While it's true that there are fewer traditional Disney attractions at this park, the half-day moniker is unfair. Animal Kingdom is a park that invites guests to linger. Sure, there are attractions in the typical Disney vein, but there are numerous walking paths, animal exhibits, and live shows that invite guests to slow down and enjoy their stay. Nonetheless, the decision to take very young children to Disney's Animal Kingdom Park is a tricky one.
With young children in tow, our travel philosophy has changed from "let's do it all—twice" to "less is more." As a result, the decision on whether or not to visit Disney's Animal Kingdom has been a difficult one. Why?
Location – depending on your resort choice, Disney's Animal Kingdom may be a long bus ride; one that includes several stops along the way. With young children, this is an issue for some families.
Size – this is Disney's largest theme park, and while everyone in my family loves talking long walks or hikes, things can get complicated with young children in the group. Not only is this park huge, but the attractions are spread out. From a design standpoint, Animal Kingdom is wonderful. A beautiful place, the Imagineers planned its sightlines with utmost care. When pushing two strollers on a hot summer day, however, it can be problematic.
Temperature – Florida is hot, there's no getting around it. The heat, however, has never really factored into our travel itinerary or impaired out enjoyment of Walt Disney World, even during summer visits—that is, until the kids came along. Disney's Animal Kingdom is the most densely landscaped of Disney theme parks. The lush foliage adds to the theme, of course, and provides shelter and shade for the animal residents of the park. According to Disney cast members, the dense plantings also create a micro-climate. As a result of the abundance of tropical trees and plants, it is actually hotter at this park in the summer months and cooler in the winter months than, say, at the Magic Kingdom. Depending on the time of year, this fact may influence your decision to visit.
Attractions – this brings us to attractions, the heart of the matter when it comes to Disney theme parks. Are there enough experiences here to justify a visit to Disney's Animal Kingdom with very young children? Yes and no. Let's take a look at each area of the park.
The Oasis and Discovery Island
The "opening act" of Disney's Animal Kingdom is called the Oasis. It consists of several winding paths that meander through beautifully landscaped areas filled with sounds of rushing water. This area is also home to over 20 species of animals. There's plenty to keep little ones looking around this area, but it tends to be crowded at park opening and it is very, very humid. It is also difficult to see from a stroller. Even though small children may enjoy observing some of the animals, I wouldn't consider this a must-see for small ones.
Discovery Island, the first "land" in Disney's Animal Kingdom, is home to the iconic Tree of Life. This 14-story Disney creation is covered with amazing carvings of over 300 animals. It is surrounded by the Discovery Island Trails, home to smaller exotic animals. Much like the small areas in the Oasis, the paths and carvings are wonderfully interesting and unique. For very small children, however, they are difficult to see.
The Tree of Life is also home to Discovery Island's main attraction: It's Tough to be a Bug. This humorous 3-D film is hosted by Flik, star of the Disney-Pixar film A Bug's Life. The music and effects are fun but very frightening for small children. A dark theater, loud noises, a menacing Audio-Animatronic grasshopper, stinging bees, flashing lights, and billowing smoke may be too much for the preschool set.
This small "land"—rumored as a possible location for the announced Avatar attractions—was designed with small children in mind. The entrance includes whimsical statues of everyone's favorite classic Disney characters, and the Meet and Greeting Trails offer opportunities for autographs and photos with some of Disney's brightest stars. [Note: Changes to character greetings are scheduled for the very near future.]
The main draw in Camp Minnie-Mickey, however, is the joyous Festival of the Lion King. This live show includes just about everything but the proverbial kitchen sink: larger-than-life animated floats populated by characters from Disney's 1994 film The Lion King, live singers, acrobats, dancers, audience participation, and the beloved Elton John/Tim Rice music from the film. Rumors abound about the fate of this popular show with the anticipated construction for the Avatar-inspired land, but at present, this lively show remains. It is one of the highlights of a visit to Disney's Animal Kingdom for visitors of all ages, including young children.
For many guests bringing small children, the Festival of the Lion King, combined with the memorable experience of Africa's Kilimanjaro Safaris, is enough to warrant a visit to Disney's Animal Kingdom.
Every member of my family, from preschoolers to grandparents, loves this attraction. And for good reason. The convincing illusion of traversing the open plains and wide spaces of Africa is among Disney's best. The opportunity to spot wild animals in what appears to be their natural habitat is thrilling for children and grownups alike. This attraction, in my opinion, is worth the admission price alone. Is there a downside to visiting this attraction? If there is one, it's the location in the very back of the park. While we enjoy long walks, some guests may not enjoy pushing strollers on the long walk to the back of the park. Something to keep in mind when you decide whether or not you'll visit Animal Kingdom.
The other attraction in this area, the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, offers a wonderful hike punctuated with fascinating animals and picturesque views. This area feels more like a traditional zoo (significantly enhanced by the planning and imagination of Disney, of course.) The entire Africa area of the park is one of its most atmospheric, and we tend to enjoy lingering here for shopping and snacking as well.
While the Asia section of the park offers two of my favorites—the Kali River Rapids and the unparalleled thrills of Expedition Everest—there is not much here for the very young. The Maharajah Jungle Trek is lovely, and the tigers never cease to thrill, but since we live near three world-class zoos, it is seldom enough to entice us to visit this area with our little ones.
Rafiki's Planet Watch
A short ride on the Wildlife Express, a highly themed train ride, takes guests to Rafiki's Planet Watch. After a long uphill walk through dense foliage, guests arrive at Conservation Station, a well-designed "behind the scenes" attraction designed to engage younger visitors. In many ways, this area reminds me of a very upscale children's museum. Many of the activities—like Sound of the Rainforest, the Veterinary and Training Exhibits, Habitat Habit, and the Affection Section—are first class, but might be better saved for future visit with older children. Overall, this section of the park is best suited for older school-aged children rather than the preschool set.
With the exception of the charming Finding Nemo: The Musical, this is our least favorite land in Disney's Animal Kingdom. The raucous Dinosaur attraction is lots of fun, but definitely not for the very young. The entire Chester and Hester's Dino-Rama area is cheap and tacky. Even though that "look" of this area was intentional, we find it completely lacking in charm or interest for anyone in our family. Unless you have a strong interest in seeing the Nemo production or if the kids need to blow off some steam in the Boneyard playground, there's not much here for Disney's youngest visitors.
To Animal, or Not to Animal Kingdom
The fact that the majority of attractions at this park appeal to older children and adults is in no way shape or form a criticism, nor is my intention to discourage families with young children from visiting this wonderfully entertaining park. My travel philosophy of being prepared, however, plays an important role in planning any itinerary. Travelling with young children poses special challenges, and my intention is to help inform guests planning their Walt Disney World vacations. Hopefully, my reflections will help others when deciding whether or not they will spend a valuable vacation day with their very young children at Disney's Animal Kingdom. (Walt Disney World veterans with experience in the trenches are more than welcome to chime in and add their advice.)
Until next time, happy travels and happy planning!