With its lush flora, winding streams, meandering paths, and exotic setting, the Animal Kingdom is a stunningly beautiful theme park. The landscaping alone conjures images of rain forest, veldt, and formal gardens. Soothing, mysterious, and exciting, every vista is a feast for the eye. Add to this loveliness a population of more than 1,000 animals, replicas of Africa's and Asia's most intriguing architecture, and a diverse array of singularly original attractions, and you have the most unique of all Disney theme parks. In the Animal Kingdom, Disney has created an environment to savor.

At 500 acres, Disney's Animal Kingdom is five times the size of the Magic Kingdom and more than twice the size of Epcot. But like Disney's Hollywood Studios, most of the Animal Kingdom's vast geography is only accessible on guided tours or as part of attractions. The Animal Kingdom features six sections or "lands": The Oasis, Discovery Island, DinoLand U.S.A., Camp Minnie-Mickey, Africa, and Asia. Its size notwithstanding, the Animal Kingdom features a limited number of attractions. To be exact, there are seven, several walkthrough exhibits, an indoor theater, four amphitheaters, a conservation exhibit, and a children's playground.

Unofficial Tip

Three of the attractions - DINOSAUR, Expedition Everest, and Kilimanjaro Safaris - are among the best in the Disney repertoire.

Animal Kingdom's opening was seen as Disney taking dead aim at Busch Gardens in Tampa, a theme park known for its exceptional zoological exhibits, and who had seen a marked increase in attendance in the 1990s with the addition of numerous thrill rides. Up to that time, Disney had preferred the neatly controlled movements of audioanimatronic animals to the unpredictable behaviors of real critters.

Unfortunately for Disney, however, the combination of creative natural-habitat zoological exhibits and coasters developed by Busch Gardens became immensely popular, and as any student of the Walt Disney Company can attest, there's nothing like a successful competitor to make the Disney folks change their tune. So, all the press releases aside, Disney's Animal Kingdom was designed as a combination of natural-habitat zoological exhibits and thrill rides. Big surprise!

Even if the recipe was copied, the Disney version served up more than its share of innovations, particularly when it comes to the wildlife habitats. For starters, there's lots of space, thus allowing for the sweeping vistas that Discovery Channel viewers would expect in, say, an African veldt setting. Then there are the enclosures, natural in appearance, with few or no apparent barriers between you and the animals. The operative word, of course, is apparent. That flimsy stand of bamboo separating you from a gorilla is actually a neatly disguised set of steel rods imbedded in concrete. The Imagineers even took a crack at certain animals' stubborn unwillingness to be on display. A lion that would rather sleep out of sight under a bush, for example, is lured to center stage with nice, cool, climate-controlled artificial rocks.

Animal Kingdom has received mixed reviews. Guests complain loudly about the park layout and the necessity of backtracking through Discovery Island in order to access the various theme areas. Congested walkways, lack of shade, and insufficient air conditioning also rank high on the gripe list. However, most of the attractions (with one or two notable exceptions) have been well received. Also praised are the natural habitat animal exhibits as well as the park architecture and landscaping. We marvel at how demographically similar readers come away with such vastly differing opinions.

In truth, Animal Kingdom is a park to linger over and savor—two things that Disney, with its crowds, lines, and regimentation, has conditioned us not to do. But many people intuit that Animal Kingdom must be approached in a different way, including this mother of three (ages 5, 7, and 9) from Hampton Bay, New York:

To enjoy Animal Kingdom, you must have the right attitude. It’s an educational experience, not a thrill park. We spoke to a cast member who played games with the kids—my daughter found a drawer full of butterflies, and the boys located a hidden ostrich egg and lion skull.

Though we offer one-day touring plans for Animal Kingdom, a Cleveland reader argues for more time:

I can’t see how Animal Kingdom takes less than a day. There is so much to look at, animal-wise, architecturally, street performances— we kept going back at different times, and each time we saw the place literally in a new light or with different animals active.

Finally, a major construction project currently under way will bring the flora and fauna of James Cameron’s Avatar to the park sometime in 2017. What used to be known as Camp Minnie-Mickey has been demolished and its attractions relocated to other areas of the park to make way for the new themed area, named Pandora - The World of AVATAR. Most of the construction will be confined to backstage areas, so impact to guests should be limited.

Arriving

Unofficial Tip

Take a picture of the row you're parked in with your cell phone or digital camera.

Disney's Animal Kingdom is off Osceola Parkway in the southwest corner of Walt Disney World, and is not too far from Blizzard Beach, the Coronado Springs Resort, and the All-Star Resorts. The Animal Kingdom Lodge is about a mile away from the park on its northwest side. From I-4, take Exit 64B, US 192, to the so-called Walt Disney World main entrance (World Drive) and follow the signs to the Animal Kingdom. The Animal Kingdom has its own vast pay parking lot with close-in parking for the disabled. Once parked, you can walk to the entrance or catch a ride on one of Disney's trams.

The park is connected to other Walt Disney World destinations by the Disney bus system. If you’re staying at a Disney resort and plan to arrive at Animal Kingdom before park opening, use Disney transportation rather than taking your own car.

Operating Hours

The Animal Kingdom's opening time roughly corresponds to that of the other parks. Thus, you can expect a 9 a.m. opening during less busy times of the year and an 8 a.m. opening during holidays and high season. The Animal Kingdom usually closes well before the other parks—as early as 5 p.m., in fact, during off-season. More common is a 6 or 7 p.m. closing.

Animal Kingdom’s standard park-opening procedure lets all guests through the turnstiles about 15–30 minutes before official park opening. When this happens, you’ll usually find Kilimanjaro Safaris, Expedition Everest, and TriceraTop Spin already open.

During slower or colder times of year, Disney may delay the daily opening of Kali River Rapids in Asia, as well as the Boneyard playground, the Wildlife Express Train, and Conservation Station. These procedures may change, so check the Times Guide or Lines for the exact schedule when you arrive. The rest of the attractions come online at official park opening time.

On holidays and other days of projected heavy attendance, Disney will open the park 30 or 60 minutes early.

Unofficial Tip

Arrive, admission in hand, 40 minutes before official opening during the summer and holiday periods, and 30 minutes before official opening the rest of the year.

For now, Kilimanjaro Safaris and the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail close around 30–60 minutes before sunset. Thus, as days get shorter with the change of seasons, the attractions close earlier in the day. A nighttime version of Kilimanjaro Safaris is expected to open in late 2015 or early 2016; the Pangani Trail may also stay open past dark, though nothing official has been announced. In the fall, when the clocks are rolled back, Disney closes all animal exhibits as early as 4:45 p.m.

Animal Kingdom currently holds two morning Extra Magic Hours sessions per week, and no evening Extra Magic Hours. As for the morning session, we don’t think it saves you all that much time in line. Our advice is to get an extra hour of sleep and visit when early entry is not in effect.

Animal Kingdom Services
Baby Care Center On Discovery Island, behind Creature Comforts
Banking Services ATMs at the main entrance and near DINOSAUR in Dinoland U.S.A.
Camera and Photo Supplies Just inside the main entrance at Garden Gate Gifts, in Africa at Duka La Filimu and Mombasa Marketplace, and at other retail shops throughout the park
First Aid On Discovery Island, next to Creature Comforts
Guest Relations and Information Inside the main entrance on the left
Live Entertainment Information Pick up a park map and Times Guide just after going through turnstiles and before entering Discovery Island
Lost and Found At Guest Relations. After park close, all items are taken to the resort's main Lost and Found at the Transportation and Ticket Center
Lost Persons Can be reported at Guest Relations, the Baby Care Center, or to any Cast Member
Storage Lockers Can be rented for day-use to the left after entering turnstiles
Wheelchair, ECV, and Stroller Rentals To the right after you go through the turnstiles

Getting Oriented

At the entrance plaza are ticket kiosks fronting the main entrance. To your right, before the turnstiles, is an ATM. Passing through the turnstiles, wheelchair and stroller rentals are to your right. Guest Relations - the park headquarters for information, handout park maps, entertainment schedules (Times Guides), missing persons, and lost and found - is to the left. Nearby are rest rooms, public phones, and rental lockers. Beyond the entrance plaza you enter The Oasis, a lushly vegetated network of converging pathways winding through a landscape punctuated with streams, waterfalls, and misty glades, and inhabited by what Disney calls "colorful and unusual animals."

The park is arranged somewhat like the Magic Kingdom, in a hub-and-spoke configuration. The lush, tropical Oasis serves as Main Street, funneling visitors to Discovery Island at the center of the park. Dominated by the park's central icon, the 14-story hand-carved Tree of Life, Discovery Island is the park's retail center. From Discovery Island, guests can access the respective theme areas, known as Africa, Camp Minnie-Mickey, Asia, and DinoLand U.S.A. Discovery Island additionally hosts the 3-D film, It's Tough to be a Bug! in the Tree of Life, and a number of short nature trails.

Even if you dawdle in the shops and linger over the wildlife exhibits, you should easily be able to take in the Animal Kingdom in one day.