It's Nahtazu

by Steve Russo, staff writer

You've undoubtedly heard the criticisms:

"It's only a half-day park."

"It's just a zoo and we have a better one at home."

I recently read a blog written by a university professor who took Disney to task for being "fake." He actually disparaged the Kilimanjaro Safari attraction for not being in Africa. Seriously. What did Disney's Animal Kingdom do to deserve such abuse?

When Animal Kingdom opened, we all marveled at its Imagineering feats. Joe Rohde and his team had worked wonders to bring slices of Africa and Asia to those of us that might never make it there in person. Haven't we all marveled at the very real artifacts on display in the queues at Kilimanjaro Safari, Expedition Everest and the Kali River Rapids? I, for one, am willing to suspend reality for a few moments to imagine the Baobob is a real tree and not a concrete structure, the tusk marks on the side of the road were truly made by elephants and those same elephants have been scratching their hides on the termite mounds on the savanna. What does it hurt?

In the natural habitat? Photo by Steve Russo.

I read a recent trip report, written by my friend and fellow Disney nut, Jim Pertierra. To my horror, Jim admitted that Animal Kingdom was his "least favorite park." I gasped for a moment but then recalled how my own daughter, Stephanie, has often taken her leave of the park after just a few attractions. She also views it as her "least favorite." This caused me to do a little soul searching and realize that… wait for it… Disney's Animal Kingdom is also my least favorite park!

Up close and personal. Photo by Steve Russo.

There… I said it. But it's not as strong a condemnation as one might think. For me, all it means is that, if I were to rank the four major theme parks comprising Walt Disney World, Animal Kingdom would rank fourth—but a close fourth. By my estimation, Epcot leads by a smidge over Magic Kingdom which noses Disney's Hollywood Studios, which edges Animal Kingdom. In fact, the distance between first and fourth is not all that great.

So, why the negative vibe from so many people: friends, relatives and college professors? To my mind, it's perception. I think many people own a perception of what Animal Kingdom should be and are disappointed when it falls short. Take, for example, the professor's gibe that the Safari is not actually in Africa. That's sort of like being disappointed in the Peter Pan ride because pirate ships can't actually fly. If we could just suspend our hold on reality for a bit and embrace our imagination, the Safari is indeed in Africa; and Everest is real and contains a Yeti (non-moving as he may currently be); and we are walking through Asian temples on the Maharajah Jungle Trek; and… you get the picture, right? It's a theme park in central Florida—but for some of us, it's as close as we'll ever get, or maybe ever want to get, to the real thing.

Just hangin' around for your viewing pleasure. Photo by Steve Russo.

You see, Disney's Animal Kingdom is not a zoo. At the risk of disappointing all those who insist on comparing it to one, it was never intended to be a zoo. A few years ago, Disney embarked on a significant advertising campaign to tell us Animal Kingdom was "Nahtazu." Remember hearing, "Disney's Animal Kingdom, it's a lot of things but remember, it's Nahtazu"? It's clever marketing to help us remember what it's not but… what is it?

It is an opportunity to board a Safari vehicle and see elephants, young and old alike, in their "natural" habitat. It's a chance to get up close and personal with Black Rhinos, lions, cheetahs, ostriches, zebras and Thompson's gazelle ("They're 'Tommies'")… among other animals native to Africa.

You looking at me? Photo by Steve Russo.

Animal Kingdom provides an opportunity to stroll at your leisure through either of two walking trails: the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail or the aforementioned Maharajah Jungle Trek. You'll get to see all types of creepy crawlies as well as viewing fruit bats hanging around for your entertainment. It's easy to spend significant time watching the gorillas interact or catch sight of a Komodo Dragon having lunch. Literally, I could spend a half-day on these trails alone.

Flower petals? Again? Photo by Steve Russo.

I admit it took me several visits before I ventured out on the train to Rafiki's Planet Watch (formerly Conservation Station). Sure, it offers a rather tame petting zoo but there are some very interesting exhibits inside, as well as the opportunity to see the park's veterinarians at work. I was once there to observe a physical examination given to a fruit bat and saw a bit of surgery performed on a lioness. Once in a lifetime opportunities? For me, they certainly were.

Turn your head and cough. Photo by Steve Russo.

While there are ample occasions to spend time viewing monkeys, kangaroo, hippos, meerkat, etc. it's not just about the animals. There are a number of rides and attractions that should appeal to the theme park aficionados among us. I mentioned Expedition Everest, which seems to be a favorite with the roller coaster crowd. There's also white water rafting past a burning rainforest on Kali River Rapids or taking a trip back in time on Dinosaur. For the traditionalists there are the two rides within the ever cheesy Chester & Hester's Dino-Rama: Triceratop Spin and Primeval Whirl.

Expedition Everest. Photo by Steve Russo.

I admit to paying little attention to the Boneyard in Dinoland USA... but my two grandsons could have spent days digging and climbing in there. It's Tough to be a Bug is a first-class 3D attraction with possibly the most articulate audio animatronic in existence (Hopper). It's great fun but I would caution parents of small children that it can be frightening for toddlers (and possibly slightly older children as well).

It's not for everyone. Photo by Steve Russo.

Animal Kingdom boasts what I think are the two finest live shows on property: the high-energy Festival of the Lion King and Finding Nemo: the Musical. Did you know the score for Finding Nemo was composed by the Tony Award-winning team that brought Avenue Q to Broadway? And let's not forget the always underrated Flights of Wonder. Yeah, the humor is a tad corny but it is both fun and informative.

Is it a half-day park? For me, they're all half-day parks. I'm lucky in that we visit often enough that spending all day in a theme park is a thing of the past. A morning at Magic Kingdom is followed by an afternoon break and an evening at Epcot. But, seriously, can anyone actually visit the rides and shows mentioned above—even half of them—in a half-day? I think not.

I could spend hours... Photo by Steve Russo.

And hours... Photo by Steve Russo.

I guess my intent here is to plead the case for Disney's Animal Kingdom. It's not a zoo nor does it pretend to be one. It's also not Epcot, Magic Kingdom or Hollywood Studios but, at least in my opinion, it complements those parks nicely. I don't intend on spending an entire day there but, at least once each trip, I'll be on the Safari… and seeing the Festival of the Lion King… and riding Dinosaur… and…

As always, thanks for reading.



  1. By duke68012

    Although I hate chester and heater's themed area I do thoroughly enjoy the Animal Kingdom. As the park hours are much shorter than the other parks I don't feel like it's a 'half a day' park because it isn't open into the evenings. I always make a point of going to AK first on any trip I make to WDW. There is plenty to do with great shows, good rides and to just soak up the themeing behind this unique park. If any park should be branded as a half a day park, in my opinion, it is Disney's Hollywood Studios. HS is seriously lacking in attractions and the shows (with the exception of Fantasmic) are looking rather dated and tired. The only thing that keeps me interested in HS and keeps me there longer is the street-mosphere performances on Sunset Boulevard.

  2. By Jeff Kober

    The dictionary says a zoo is a garden or park where wild animals are kept for exhibition.

    Yep! That describes Disney's Animal Kingdom.

    And the fact that it's certified by the American Zoological Association would also clearly classify it as a zoo.

    The truth is…people have a negative perception of zoos in the same way that people have negative views of going to a carnival or staying in a time share. Disney has worked very hard to change those perceptions. But at the end of the day, the Magic Kingdom is a carnival, Disney Vacation Club is a time share, and Disney's Animal Kingdom is a zoo.

    I think that Disney's Animal Kingdom is also much more than a zoo. But for marketing to say Nahtazu, is really a slap in the face of scores of professionals who really work for the welfare of those animals at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Disney's Animal Kingdom has done much to improve people's understanding of animals in nature. I understand if people don't want to stand and look at animal exhibits. Lots of people don't want to stand around and look at exhibits at Epcot. But if they do, they'll find an experience that will enrich them far beyond the thrills of Expedition Everest.

  3. By Silvercat

    Funnily enough, we used to think it was our least favourite park too, and on some visits we actually left that one out of the itinerary! Then a couple of years ago, my husband and I had a minor spat when waiting for the afternoon parade there, as he said we only ever spend half a day there and never see everything we want to. When I thought about it, he was right (although I was reluctant to admit that to him!). So last year, we spent 2 separate full days there, took our time and enjoyed everything we saw, and we STILL didn't finish it all! We began to explore areas more slowly and thoroughly, and made time to see Flights of Wonder for the first time, (which we loved, by the way!), and even had a brief foray into Dinoland, although we weren't overly keen on that area personally.

    So I have to say that I agree with Steve's (thoroughly interesting) article - whilst this park remains our LEAST favourite, the 'fun' margin between our favourite, Epcot, and AK, is really extremely small, and we will indeed be visting AK again this year a couple of times, trying to finish off what we didn't see or do last year!

  4. By srusso100

    Great observations, all! I love it when you guys make me think ;-)

  5. By disnut8

    I think a key with Animal Kingdom is go into the park and realize that it's not all about the rides. Sure, you "ride" the Safari but if all you want to do there is just *see* every single animal, you will be disappointed. You won't see every animal listed as available but you will not only *see* but *hear and learn* about the animals you do see. The hear and learn part gets missed by some. My favorite part of the Pangani Trail? It's not the gorillas. It's the bullfrog who resides in the Naked Mole Rat area display. He was all alone for quite some time but I was so excited when he was added a friend in his area. *That* is Animal Kingdom to me.

    Another key for me is taking your time. Too many times I see families walking rapidly through either one of the trails and going up to a viewing area, not looking at the posted sign as to what the animal is, then rapidly walking away. They didn't take the time to read about the animal and learn the habitat of the animal. We hear the warthog being called Pumbaa and the meerkats being called Timon all the time but I'm not sure any of the families know anything else about those animals.

    So I guess my take on Animal Kingdom is more about learning about animals, not riding the rides.

  6. By adriennek

    Here's why I have a hard time with Animal Kingdom: Off and on over the years, we've had family passes to the San Diego Wild Animal Park. We love going there and going on their tour of the park - where the animals are in a much larger and much more natural setting. But that's not my problem with AK.

    When we went on that Safari, I was thinking "ooh, we'll get to go see the animals like at WAP." Nope. The vehicle barely slowed down. At WAP, they will stop the tram so you can actually SEE the animals and take pictures of them. AK? "Oh, look, there's an animal, let me keep telling my story line and driving through to get you back to the Queue and get another group through this ride!"

    It wasn't about learning about or appreciating the animals. It was about telling a story and riding a ride with real animals as the props. Maybe I got an "off" tour. I would've loved to take my time or learned about the animals. But it was still a show.

  7. By mkelm44

    I'd say that Animal Kingdom is not a 2-day park, but it certainly makes for a good one day park. If anything though, it suffers from a bit of dual personality, much like Epcot used to. Is it an educational experience? Is it an entertainment experience? Is it just way too big to walk through???

    As far as it being a zoo, I think that it certainly is a very good zoo. Living in the DC area, I have ample experience to visit the National Zoo, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution and therefore free. The one thing that always sticks out to me at the National Zoo is the fact that the spaces for the animals, while vastly improved over what they were 15 years ago, are fairly small. You won't see one of their Cheetahs getting up to full speed in that environment, and the pandas and apes spend an awful lot of time in concrete spaces. The thing I like about Animal Kingdom is that the Savannah seems to be the closest any zoo has ever come to having animals be on display and still in a near-natural environment. And Disney, which has always shown interest in environmental edutainment, does a good job teaching about the animals to a wide array of visitors, children and adults alike- or at least those who are interested.

    As far as it being an entertainment venue, the addition of Pandora, like the addition of Everest, has gone a long way to improving the theme park side. A nightime show will help keep people in the park, although with a relative lack of sitdown dining in the park, I'm not sure how successful this will be. If there was one long-standing, and true, complaint about the park was that there had been comparitively few rides to go on (the park has always been "show-heavy") but that seems to becoming corrected.

    I think that AK is a park you could do in a half day, since you could choose to only go on the rides or only visit the animals. I agree that when the park first opened and was pretty much only the Safari, and a handful of rides/shows that it could be done in a half day or so. Now however, with the last few years of ride improvements, it has become a full day experience. And while I think it will be a long time before it becomes more than a 1 day experience (a la Magic Kingdom or Epcot, which have much too much to do in one day and see it all) it no longer deserves the title of "Half-Day Park"

  8. By Jimbo996

    I have to defend Animal Kingdom. It is my third favorite park. I quite enjoyed it and I liked it better than Disney's Hollywood Studios. I felt from my first visit that DHS was a pale imiation of Universal Studios. Now, it is a pale imitation of Disney's California Adventure. Since DAK and DHS are both weak parks, I mainly loved the natural environment and the animal exhibits of DAK much more than the concrete/asphalt streets and the bare warehouse aethetic of DHS.

  9. By jms1969

    Steve, great article as always. I've never agreed with those who feel AK is a half-day park. While it's true you can rush through the major rides in that time period, or even less, I think those who do so are missing the whole point of the park. It is a zoo, but it's also so much more. If you appreciate it for what it is, there is more than enough to entertain the whole family for a full day or more. While I'm not a huge fan of the Pandora expansion, I think that it will, if done even half as good as I think we all expect from Disney, take away once and for all this criticism of AK.

    I'll also echo what others have said above - for our family, AK is park #3. MK and Epcot are clearly #1 and #2, with DHS bringing up the rear. Despite a couple great attractions in Toy Story Mania and Tower of Terror, the overall feel of the park is just a shadow of what it used to be. There aren't enough attractions, too many are horribly dated, and the loss of just about all actual production at the studio has taken the life out of the park. My biggest Disney wish for the next ten years is that Disney decides to give this park a total "facelift", much on the order of California Adventure. A couple new attractions, or even a new land, just won't do it for me in fixing the issues at DHS.

  10. By DisneyGator

    I suppose our blogging professor would hate Epcot because when he walked in the gates, he wasn't "in the future".

    I recently took a trip to SoCal where I hit Disneyland AND the World Famous San Diego Zoo. I can honestly say it was boring hitting what was just a zoo. It didn't have any great show, no water rides, no world class rollercoaster, no thematic characters walking around, and let's not forget my favorite Disney dining establishment, Flame Tree BBQ. So yes, there are zoos near where I live that I could go to, but they don't even come close to what the AK is.

    For us, this park is a two day park. There's so much that we love to do, and we love to do it over and over. I can't imagine a Disney trip where I didn't spend at least a full day in it, and then go back for a least a few attractions. In fact, just talking about this park has me nearly convinced to return to FL this year rather head down to Anaheim.

  11. By Dave1313

    Quote Originally Posted by adriennek View Post
    ............................When we went on that Safari, I was thinking "ooh, we'll get to go see the animals like at WAP." Nope. The vehicle barely slowed down. At WAP, they will stop the tram so you can actually SEE the animals and take pictures of them. AK? "Oh, look, there's an animal, let me keep telling my story line and driving through to get you back to the Queue and get another group through this ride!" .....................

    While I won't suggest it's the perfect solution, they do stop quite a bit more on the 3 hour tour Wild Africa Trek (part of the tour is on a regular vehicle, but they drive away from the main "track" and stop for a bit to check out certain exhibits. It's also a bit pricey if you start adding it up for a family, but it's there. It's a great experience and gets good close up interaction with the animals. It helps if you are not afraid of heights due to rope bridges that are part of the hiking part of the tour.

    In the broad sense of the DAK "1/2 day" characterization, I could never see everything in one day, probably not even 1 1/2. Across 2 years (probably a total of 2 1/2 to 3 days in this park) I've still not seen the Finding Nemo show, but I might have seen most other attractions at least once. I probably even spent 15-20 minutes photographing the various colorful bird houses in one area.

  12. By carolinakid

    While I enjoy AK and spend most of one day there per visit it remains my least favorite park because I'm just not that into animals. I would certainly like to see the park add more attractions and be open in the evenings. I've only been in AK after dark once in all my visits. Everest is spectacular at night and the incline view after the sun has set is incredible! And Yak & Yeti is my favorite AK restaurant.

  13. By danyoung

    I've always had a problem with the whole Nahtazu campaign. DAK most definitely IS a zoo, but it's so much more than that. Steve, your ranking of the parks was very close to mine. I put DAK in 3rd place, only because I don't ride the Rock N Roller Coaster or Tower of Terror, two of DHS's headliners (and because DAK has EE, my favorite roller coaster anywhere!). But I loved your take that the distance between 1st and 4th place is a very small distance!

  14. By DwarfPlanet

    This was brought up by someone else but I'm posting it again, per webster's:

    Zoo - a collection of living animals for public display

    My problem is the continous insult to my intelligence of people trying to tell me it's "Not a zoo". Hey if you want to label it as a wild animal park that is nicely themed by Disney okay, but don't tell me it's not a zoo.

  15. By srusso100

    Quote Originally Posted by DwarfPlanet View Post
    This was brought up by someone else but I'm posting it again, per webster's:

    Zoo - a collection of living animals for public display

    My problem is the continous insult to my intelligence of people trying to tell me it's "Not a zoo". Hey if you want to label it as a wild animal park that is nicely themed by Disney okay, but don't tell me it's not a zoo.

    In fairness... while the advertising campaign was definitely "Nahtazu", I believe the message being conveyed was "it's more than just a zoo".

  16. By houseofmouse

    I really love AK. So does my family. I feel like there is plenty to do to fill a whole day if you don't park hop. Just the shows alone make it worth while.
    We are huge animal lovers, so we spend a ton of time in the walking paths and when you used to be able to walk through the Tree of Life, we did that too. I love th parade, we see it at least once while we are there. My kids when younger used to love the Dino Yard and we could spend an hour or more in there alone.
    We have a blast searching for Hidden Mickeys. Rafikis Planet watch is FULL of them! The hands on experiences there are neat too. (ex. the CM's having snakes or lizards out of the little armadillo. THey have great BBQ and great shopping as well!

  17. By davidgra

    Animal Kingdom is certainly our family's least-favorite park. We'll visit at most one day during a 10-day trip, and some trips we don't go there at all. No one in the family is excited by it or feels that there's all that much they MUST do there.

    Our main complaint is the lack of imagination in theming. Three-quarters of the park is "themed" with overgrown plants lining both sides of the walkways. No attempt to create the impression that one is anywhere but a tropical forest. Yes, the Asia and Africa areas are very nicely themed, but the rest of the park is just a claustrophobic mess. The tall plants on both sides of the path also make the park unbearably stifling most of the year. No matter what the temperature is, it feels 10 degrees warmer at Animal Kingdom. Fine in January, not so great in September.

    A second complaint is the lack of "repeatable" attractions. Festival of the Lion King and the Flights of Wonder show are both great. The safari is excellent. It's Tough to Be a Bug is a very good attraction. Everest is... OK. And that's it. Nothing in Dinoland is memorable, and Dinosaur in particular is just an embarrassment (look to Indiana Jones at Disneyland for an example of how that attraction can be done well).

    The Nemo musical is simply an abomination. Pixar films were never intended to be musicals, and this one takes everything that was special and unique about the film and turns it into toddler-level entertainment -- puppets and bright colors. The Tarzan musical that it replaced was actually quite a bit better.

    Our family skips just about everything else. We'll visit Rafiki's Planet Watch maybe once every three or four years, and I don't think we've been on the Kali River Rapids in seven or eight years. The "nature walks," where you see actual animals, are simply not all that interesting after you've done them a couple of times.

    There's one thing that Animal Kingdom has going for it -- the parade. It's by far the best daytime parade at WDW. Not that there's much to compare it to at the moment.

  18. By Cory Gross

    My fiancee and I are going to WDW for the first time on our honeymoon in September, and besides the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom is the main thing we want to see. Looking at the list of shows and attractions, I actually feel like EPCOT and Hollywood Studios are the half-day parks, and that's all we've allotted to them. They could certainly surprise us (and we have left an extra day open to return to any park that happened to catch our interest), but EPCOT mostly seems really dull and going to Disney's fake Universal Studios Hollywood after we've been to the real Universal Studios Hollywood (and the real Hollywood) just seems... well... fake. We've got a full day booked for Animal Kingdom, and it is entirely plausible that we could use our spare day to go back.

    I suppose I have a bit of a bias because I actually work in a zoo, and we both work in a museum. The idea of Animal Kingdom being a zoo is actually the main thing that attracts me to it. I try to visit zoos or reserves wherever I go (four continents so far) because you never know what you're going to find there. The first time I ever saw my favourite bird - the Secretary Bird, from Africa - was in a zoo in Tokyo. Cheap showy stuff like trying to find a baby elephant doesn't appeal to me, but seeing actual elephants does. I can't imagine how cynical (or dull) you have to be to think that seeing lions and tigers and two-toed sloths is lamer than riding a roller coaster. Sorry man, no roller coaster will ever be better than seeing a Galapagos tortoise, a ring-tailed lemur, an okapi, a Komodo dragon, meerkats or a cheetah. Sure we'll go on Expedition Everest and Dinosaur, but we're also booking the Wild Africa Trek because getting right in the exhibits will totally be the best thing there. I'm really looking forward to it.

  19. By *Nala*

    I'm obviously in the minority here, but Animal Kingdom is my second favorite park, just barely behind Epcot. I love the music and the animals and the atmosphere. The Tree of Life is amazing. Festival of the Lion King and Finding Nemo will never get old to me. Even the parade is unique and fun. I am very skeptical about Avatar Land but that's a different topic!

  20. By danyoung

    Quote Originally Posted by davidgra View Post
    Animal Kingdom is certainly our family's least-favorite park.

    david, I just wanted to say that I disagree with almost every point you made. Not that you're wrong and I'm right, but that we look at the park very differently. I LOVE Expedition Everest, I think the Dinosaur ride is excellent, and I really enjoy the Nemo show (although I do agree with you that Tarzan Rocks was a better show). Just goes to show that all types visit the parks, and not everyone likes the same stuff.

  21. By WDWRox

    For the longest time, I have regarded Animal Kingdom as a "several hour" kind of park......not a whole day one and not even a half day one. And at one point, prior to Expedition Everest, I'd only visit AK maybe twice a trip, if that. These days, I really love Dinosaur, Kilimanjaro Safaris, It's Tough to Be a Bug, Expedition much so that I'll gladly visit the park multiple times a trip. I DETEST the Hester & Jester area, though. It feels like a crappy after-thought to the park and doesn't really belong anywhere in WDW.

  22. By yedliw

    I love going to AK. I can do (and usually do) the Safari multiple times each trip. It is a different ride each time.. On our last trip, our guide was having fun and had almost a Jungle Cruise type monologue.. (it wasn't all the puns of JC.. but when we came around the bend and saw the lion doing his business.. he did say, "Look, the King is on his throne" ). The second time around that day was with a more tourguide type driver. Still tons of info, but a little less personality. Not stuffy or dry by any means.. just not as light as the first driver.

    The Flights of Wonder is my favorite show at Disney. My wife loves Lion King and Nemo (I could take or leave both of those..)

    I am not looking forward to Avitarland.. (I think that capitol being invested could be better directed towards a larger Star Wars presence at HS.. ) but it is what it is..

    I guess I have a different mindset than a lot of people do.. I like how the park is presented. You can learn as much or as little as you want. If you are there for the rides.. knock yourself out.. if you want to learn about all the animals, there is that too..

    I do agree with some of the comments already posted that parts seem overgrown and claustrophobic.. That can be the case in a lot of places. I don't know how they could.. but it would be cool if they could theme a part of 'Africa' to have more of a desert feel (rather than the forest).

    The Dino-land USA is where I would have spent all my time when i was 12.. every time I walk through.. it takes me back to the local county fairs.. and small amusement parks that used to be more prevalent before 6 flags exploded to what it is now. (I love that they even have parking spaces painted, like it is a traveling carnival that is set up in a plaza parking lot.. )

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