My Disney Top 5 - Things to See in Animal Kingdom's Africa

by Chris Barry, contributing writer

As I write this article, it's officially less than 100 days until I'll be in Walt Disney World again. There are about 25 of us headed down to celebrate my 50th birthday this July. I can't imagine being anywhere else on such a momentous day and I couldn't imagine it happening without the big crew of friends and family that will be there with me. We're deep into planning mode, trying to figure out where we're going each day and where to dine. My choice of resort for the big stay is once again, Disney's Yacht Club and I can't wait to be back.

On our last three trips we've stayed on Crescent Lake, twice at the Yacht Club and once at the BoardWalk Inn. Staying in the BoardWalk area tends to put you in Epcot quite a bit more than the other three parks. And why not? It's such a joy to be able to walk right into World Showcase and even more of a joy to take that short stroll back to your room after a long night.

While I fully intend on being in Epcot a lot, and I'm definitely planning on spending as much time as possible in the Magic Kingdom on my actual birthday, I want to make sure that I spend some good quality time in Animal Kingdom on this trip. We always seem to say, as we're walking out of Animal Kingdom, "Gee, we didn't spend enough time here on this trip." I don't want that to be the sentiment this time around. Animal Kingdom has truly evolved over the years. I always loved it there and now that Pandora is open, there's even more to love.

We've been touring around Animal Kingdom over the last few installments of Top 5. Last time we were in Asia, one of my top destinations in all of Walt Disney World. It's hard to top Asia for beauty, amazing attractions, and fantastic food, but our next stop, Africa, just might be able to take that top spot away from Asia. Now that Festival of the Lion King has landed in its rightful place in the park, and the Harambe Market was added to expand the dining choices in this area, Africa just might be the place to be in Animal Kingdom. It's as richly detailed as anything you'll find on Disney property. There are more animals here than anywhere else in the park of course given it's the home of Kilimanjaro Safaris. There's great shopping and plenty to eat and drink. Africa is also home to some truly wonderful music, more so than perhaps anywhere else in the World.

I've never been to the continent of Africa before, but the sounds, tastes, and sights to be seen here in this huge corner of Animal Kingdom certainly make me feel like I have been. Let's see what makes it so authentic and such a magical place to visit with my Top 5 things to see in Animal Kingdom's Africa.

5 – Mombasa Marketplace / Ziwani Traders

These are really the only gift shops in Africa, in the heart of Harambe Village. If you're looking for something unique and actually from Africa, this is your stop. They have a great selection of exclusive Animal Kingdom T-shirts and clothing as well as a selection of unique African art, carved wood figures, masks, pottery, and jewelry.

Much of the art for sale at the Mombasa Market Place spills out into street vendor carts as you might expect in an east African village. Some of this work is made locally, but most of it appears to be imported from Africa. All of it looks like serious art, worthy of display in any home. Photo by Bonnie Fink.

For years I have been getting leather bracelets here. I buy several on each trip. It's a little something that stems back to our grown-ups only trip when we renewed our wedding vows in the Magic Kingdom rose garden. I bought a few leather bracelets on that trip. My newly remarried bride attached it to my wrist. I didn't take it off until it literally fell off of my wrist months later and then made sure she tied the next one on. Nine years and about a dozen bracelets later, it's still a little tradition that we have to remind us of that trip where we recommitted to each other. It's a little sappy of me, but they're with me everyday and I can't walk through Africa without stopping in Mombasa and buying a few more bracelets.

4 – Harambe Entertainment

African music is such an important and vital part of the culture that it had to be represented here in Disney's African village of Harambe. Several times a day you can find drummers or a band playing, filling the streets with the authentic and uplifting sounds of Africa.

Harambe villagers perform in a group called Barudika, which is Swahili for "soothed", or "refreshed". Photo by Bonnie Fink.

African music is something that needs to be heard and experienced live and the different performances you will witness here in Harambe are all worth your time. The artists themselves are all from the African continent and seem more than happy to bring a bit of their rich culture to the guests that take the time to stop and listen. Actually, I'd say they're more bursting with pride than just happy. That's what makes this such a genuine and worthwhile thing to do when you're in Africa.

Don't just rush by on your way to the safari or to the Lion King. Stop and listen to these brilliant performers and get swept up—quite literally at times—in the infectious music and dance that they take the time to bring to you. We did so on the big high school trip I recently chaperoned. We stopped, listened, joined in, and it was one of the true highlights of the trip.

The next three things on this list were next to impossible to put in any kind of order. Three of my all-time Walt Disney World favorite things to do or see are in Africa. Choosing one above the other was indeed a challenge, but let's give it a shot.

3 – Kilimanjaro Safaris

Kilimanjaro Safaris is the showcase attraction of Animal Kingdom. I would say that it's the defining attraction of the park. After all, this is where you see, hear, smell, and learn about the very reason for this park's existence—the animals.

One of the lionesses keeps an eye out over passersby on Kilimanjaro Safaris. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka

Disney outdid themselves building this massive attraction. Consider the fact that you could fit the entire Magic Kingdom inside Kilimanjaro Safaris and you begin to understand the scope and size of this incredible attraction. I've been on it in the cooler months, the sweltering heat, day, and night and it's different every time. The best tip we ever got about experiencing the safari was to head straight to it during the ubiquitous summer afternoon rain shower. People tend to scatter from the park, but those in the know head back to Kilimanjaro because the vehicles are covered and the cool rain brings the animals out for relief from the Orlando heat. It never fails to ring true.

2 – Festival of the Lion King

As I said this was a hard battle for the top 3. It's hard to beat the emotional impact and wow factor of Festival of the Lion King.

The Festival of the Lion King finale never fails to impress. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Some of Disney's best music is given the ultimate royal treatment in this theater. The songs. The acrobats. The fire! It's a spectacle that gets me every time I see it and shouldn't be missed by anyone visiting Animal Kingdom anytime they visit. I could see it over and over again, and it never grows tired.

1 – Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail

I put this at number one because, quite simply, I absolutely love spending time in this self guided walk-through tour of some of Africa's most intriguing wildlife.

One of the bachelor gorillas snacks on some greens at the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail in Africa. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.

It's not just the gorillas though. It's the up close look at the hippos, the beautiful aviary, the lovable meerkats. This is what this park was designed for. Animal Kingdom is meant for exploring. I watch as people disembark Kilimanjaro Safaris and walk right out past Gorilla Falls, never even giving it the consideration it deserves. They are truly missing out on one of the most beautiful, lush and enticing areas of the entire park. The bridge area of Gorilla Falls is one of my favorite places to be anywhere on Disney property. It's a peaceful and stunningly beautiful spot. It's a masterpiece of Disney horticultural and landscape design. if you're one of those folks who hurry past it on your way out, don't do it. You're missing out on a real gem.

Africa is a special place. I'm sure that can be said of the actual continent, but Disney's version in Animal Kingdom is just wonderful. The thatched roofs, the worn out posters and signs on the walls, the dense foliage, the delicious food and drink, the African art, the music emanating from the streets of Harambe; it all invites you in and envelops you in the culture and warmth of the African people. I could, and have, spent hours and hours back there.

It's an amazing place and one that, as I keep trying to drive home in this series of Animal Kingdom articles, deserves your time and attention. If you can't experience the true Africa, then you can have the next best thing in this corner of Animal Kingdom. Take the time to explore it and let it soak in and you won't be disappointed. I think it's one of the Imagineers best accomplishments in any of the Disney parks, and as we all know - that's saying something.

That's it for Africa in Animal Kingdom. As always, I'd like to hear what you have to say about it. Click on the link below, let me hear your thoughts and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.