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.
Three of the attractions - Dinosaur, Expedition Everest, and Kilimanjaro Safaris - are among the best in the Disney repertoire.
The Animal Kingdomâ€™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 1990â€™s 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, thereâ€™s nothing like a successful competitor to make the Disney folks change their tune. So, all the press releases aside, Disneyâ€™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, thereâ€™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 animalsâ€™ 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.
The 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. A 36-year-old mother of three, for example, exclaims that:
The Animal Kingdom is a monstrous disappointment! Disney should be ashamed to have their name on it!
While a 34-year-old mom with two children reports:
The Animal Kingdom was our favorite theme park at Disney World. We spent four evenings out of our seven-day vacation there.
In truth, the Animal Kingdom is a park to linger over and savor-two things Disney, with its crowds, lines, and regimentation, has conditioned us not to do. But many people intuit that the Animal Kingdom must be approached in a different way, including this mother of three (ages five, seven, and nine) from Hampton Bays, New York:
Despite the crowds, we really enjoyed Animal Kingdom. In order to enjoy it, you really must have the right attitude. It is an educational experience, not a thrill park. Talk to the employees and you won't regret it. We spoke to an employee 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. If we had not stopped to talk to this guide, we would have joined the hordes running down the trail in search of "something exciting to do."
A Southwestern family agrees, writing:
Animal Kingdom with kids should be approached as you would birdwatching, fossil hunting, or nature walks. To enjoy it, you need to slow down, stop and look, and, especially, engage the cast members. Most have years of experience with animals and are very capable of interacting and sharing their knowledge on any level. Encourage your children to ask questions; the answers are educational, enlightening, and a wonderful alternative to standing in a hot queue.
Be sure to mark the location of your car on your parking receipt and tuck it in a safe place (preferably on your person as opposed to in your car).
THE ANIMAL KINGDOM IS SITUATED 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 6,000-car 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 trademark trams.
The park is connected to other Walt Disney World destinations by the Disney bus system.
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.
Park opening procedures at the Animal Kingdom vary. Sometimes guests arriving prior to the official opening time are admitted to The Oasis and Discovery Island. The remainder of the park is roped off until official opening time. The rest of the time, those arriving early are held at the entrance turnstiles.
During the financial turmoil of the last few years, Disney laid off a number of cast members and trotted out several cost-cutting initiatives. One of these is to delay the daily opening of the Asia section of the park, as well as The Boneyard playground, the Wildlife Express train, and Conservation Station until 30 minutes or so after the rest of the Animal Kingdom opens. It's not clear whether these delayed openings are temporary or permanent, or seasonal or year-round.
On holidays and other days of projected heavy attendance, Disney will open the park 30 or 60 minutes early.
Arrive, admission in hand, 30 minutes before official opening during the summer and holiday periods, and 20 minutes before official opening the rest of the year.
Many guests wrap up their tour and leave by 3:30 or 4 p.m. Lines for the major rides and the 3-D movie in the Tree of Life will usually thin appreciably between 4 p.m. and closing time. If you arrive at 2 p.m. and take in a couple of stage shows described elsewhere), waits should be tolerable by the time you hit the Tree of Life and the rides. As an added bonus for late-afternoon touring, the animals tend to be more active.
The Animal Kingdom has joined the other three major theme parks in the Extra Magic Hours program. Even with Expedition Everest, getting up early to participate in the program doesn't really save you any time standing in line. Our testing has shown that the additional attendance on early-entry days totally nullifies any advantage associated with being admitted an hour early - the time required to see the same set of attractions is almost exactly equal to the time required on a non-early entry day. OUr advice is to get an extra hour of sleep and vist when early entry is not in effect.
Evening Extra Magic Hours are another story. In early 2011, Disney quietly changed Animal Kingdomâ€™s schedule so that it no longer included evening Extra Magic Hours. As we went to press, no evening hours were scheduled through August 2012, including holidays and other days of peak attendance. Weâ€™re not sure whether this is a temporary cost-cutting move or a permanent change; your best bet is to check the Disney website as you plan your visit.
Most animal exhibits and all of Rafiki's Planet Watch including the Wildlife Express Train and Conservation Station close at the same time that is posted for day guests. Exceptions to this will be Kilimanjaro Safaris and Pangani Forest Expiration Trail. These vary by sunset and stay open during Extra Magic Hours until 7:30 on regular closing hours of 5, 6 and 7 and 8 p.m. As days get shorter with the change of seasons, the attractions close earlier. In the fall when the clocks are rolled back, Disney closes ALL animal exhibits as early as 4:45 p.m.
Extra Magic Hours do, however, space the Animal Kingdom theater productions over a longer time period, making it possible to see them all at a more leisurely pace.
Animal Kingdom Services
|Most of the park's services are located inside the main entrance and on Discovery Island as follows:|
|Wheelchair and Stroller Rental Inside the main entrance to the right|
|Banking Services ATMs are located at the mainentrance and on Discovery Island|
|Storage Lockers Inside the main entrance to the left|
|Lost and Found Inside the main entrance to the left|
|Live Entertainment / Parade Info / Character Info Included in the park guide map available free at Guest Relations and throughout the park|
|Lost Persons Report lost persons at Guest Relations or at Baby Services on Discovery Island|
|Walt Disney World and Local Attraction Information At Guest Relations|
|First Aid On Discovery Island, next to the Creature Comforts Shop|
|Baby Center / Baby-Care Needs On Discovery Island, next to the Creature Comforts Shop|
|Camera Supplies Just inside the main entrance at Garden Gate Gifts and in Africa at Duka La Filimu.|
AT THE ENTRANCE PLAZA ARE TICKET KIOSKS fronting the main entrance. To your right before the turnstiles are the kennel and 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."
We suggest that you be open-minded and try everything. Disney rides and shows are rarely what you would anticipate.
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 handcarved Tree of Life, Discovery Island is the park's retail and dining 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 a theater attraction in the Tree of Life, and a number of short nature trails.
To help you plan your day, we have profiled all of the Animal Kingdom's major attractions.
For the time being, 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.