My Disney Top 5 - Things to Love About Disney's Animal Kingdom

by Chris Barry, contributing writer

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.

The entrance to Disney's Animal Kingdom. Photo by Samantha Barry.

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 mighty, mighty Mount Everest. Photo by Chris Barry.

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.

A giraffe on the Kilimanjaro Safari savanna. Photo by Chris Barry.

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.

A gorilla in the Pagani Forest Exploration Trail. Photo by Sue Holland.

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.

The amazing Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Photo by Chris Barry.

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.

A waterfall on Discovery Island. Photo by Chris Barry.

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.

This guy joined me and Mark Goldhaber for lunch one day at The Flame Tree. Photo by Chris Barry.

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.


  1. By THpoohbear

    Loved this article! Thanks Chris! AK is my favorite park at WDW. I've never understood the claim that AK is a half day park. As much as I want to slow down and enjoy this park, with the shorter park hours, I find that I'm always rushing through to try to get everything in there is to see... and I *still* often miss key attractions or shows. We always do both trails, Finding Nemo, Festival of the Lion King, Safari and Expedition Everest with at least one meal. We try to catch Flights of Wonder if we can. That is one full day! Not to mention the parade is really fantastic, too. The theming can not be beat. Animal Kingdom truly transports me to a different place.

  2. By MaryCGIbson

    We love AK! On a typical week's trip we often allot two full days to the visit. While my daughter and therefore I still believe the Disney character fantasies, it is refreshing to spend time in such a beautiful nature conservatory. I would say its great to slow down but that's not easy with so many wonderful things to do. Of course the thrills of expedition Everest and the Kali River Rapids are compelling but we spend as much time on the trails, viewing the various habitats and on safari. We never miss Nemo - It's so beautifully done- or FOLK or Flights.... Or the screams at Its tough to be a Bug! We will splurge ever so often on the Wild Africa Trek. AK is truly a must see on any WDW visit, carrying equal weight in our minds!

  3. By Princess of Pi

    You hit the nail on the head as to why we love AK. In planning our first trip so many sources claimed "half day park" but we ended up spending 2 1/2 days there. Loved the theming and the hidden spots that you talked about, we often found no one else in whole areas of the park even during busy spring break when every other park felt like a sea of humanity. We were surprised to see so many people just bypass anything off the beaten path including Devine. The shows, trails and safari are so amazing that the rides, although great, were not as important for us.

  4. By DaLoon

    THpoohbear mentioned the parade. It is, in my mind, the best parade at WDW. Maybe that is because I do not go with young princesses. Maybe it is because living in the home of Mardi Gras, big floats are not uncommon. But I love the simplicity, the closeness to the action, the art. The only excuse for calling AK a half-day park is it usually closes before the others. Not a problem, park hop to somewhere else and come back another day. And not seeing Devine misses one of the great attractions. Go first to Rafiki and you will see vets giving animals check-ups and even treatments or surgeries -- children and adults stand and watch. Most people do not even notice the train to the Conservation Station. You did not mention the Maharajah Jungle Trek or the drummers. The length of stay at WDW is the only reason to restrict time here, and then only if you also restrict time at the other parks. Both of the "big shows" Lion King and Nemo are must-sees

  5. By DwarfPlanet

    So I'm going to be the negative one, sorry folks but "Itsazoo". It has some wonderful Disney attractions and shows but basically its a zoo. I grew up with Northwest Trek, nothing really different between it and Kilimanjaro except where the animals come from, especially now that the Little Red scenario is gone. The treks are neat but I've done treks before at Woodland Park in Seattle, San Francisco Zoo, and now where I live currently the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. I find Dinosaur way to jerky compared to the Indiana ride in DL. Bugs Life same as the one in DL. But,,, I will say I really do enjoy wandering around the Tree of Life and looking for all the animals on it. Expedition Everest is also one of my favorite roller coasters, I actually got DW to ride it a second time which rarely rarely happens. One of my favorite things I actually did like to do there was see if I could spot the green lady (Eve?) in the park.

  6. By davidgra

    DwarfPlanet, you're not the only one. We spend maybe one day per trip at DAK, and our trips last anywhere from eight to eleven days. Overall, we don't like the "feel" of the park -- it is claustrophobic, with no open spaces and high plant growth on both sides of practically every path. The Africa and Asia sections are worse, with dead-ends and people crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder even on non-crowded days.

    Yes, we like some attractions -- the safari, Expedition Everest, Flights of Wonder, Festival of the Lion King -- but there are also some AWFUL attractions in DAK, like Dinosaur (let's just shake the riders around in the dark) and the Finding Nemo musical (a complete abomination; no Pixar movie should be turned into a musical).

    Overall, though, it's just the closed-in feeling of DAK that keeps us away. In warm weather, DAK always feels ten degrees warmer than any other park, because there's never any air movement.

  7. By carolinakid

    Another non AK fan here. I wish all that money had been spent on a real fantastic 4th gate. AK only rates a 1 day visit during our annual 8 day stay.

  8. By Drince88

    'Green lady' is De Vine (or maybe Devine or DeVine)

  9. By DisneyGator

    For my top five, I'd just flip the list over.

  10. By PhiSigDuchessCV

    Animal Kingdom is my favorite Disney Park between DL Resort and WDW Resort. How I explain it to my friends is take San Diego's Wild Animal Park and combine it with Disney and you have the Animal Kingdom.

    I agree with those that say it is NOT a half day park. We get there at opening and end up leaving when the park closes. I encourage my friends to not leave until the park closes and then pay attention to the trees as you are walking near the Tree of Life. One of my favorites views a couple years ago was all the white birds roosting in the trees as the sun set. It looked like the trees had sprouted cotton balls there were so many birds nesting.

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