With its lush flora, winding streams, meandering paths, and exotic setting, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a stunningly beautiful theme park. The landscaping alone conjures images of rainforest, 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 1,700 animals, replicas of Africa’s and Asia’s most intriguing architecture, and a diverse array of singularly original attractions, and you have the most distinctive of all the Disney theme parks.

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, and Pandora: The World of Avatar (opening in 2017)..

Its expansion notwithstanding, Animal Kingdom offers a limited number of attractions. To be exact, there are nine rides, several walk-through exhibits, an indoor theater, three 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. Up to that time, Disney had preferred the neatly controlled movements of Audio-Animatronic 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 serves up more than its share of innovations. 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 embedded in concrete. The Imagineers even take 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.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom has received mixed reviews since it opened in 1998. Guests complain loudly about the park layout, the necessity of backtracking through Discovery Island in order to access the various themed areas, congested walkways, and lack of shade. However, most of the attractions have been well received, as have the animal exhibits and the park’s architecture and landscaping. We marvel at the fact that readers of similar backgrounds 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.

In 2016 the Animal Kingdom rolled out two new attractions. The first is a nighttime version of its popular Kilimanjaro Safaris expedition, complete with new nocturnal species and high-tech wizardry to let you observe the grasslands at night. The second attraction is Rivers of Light, an evening water pageant that celebrates nature through floats, fountains, stunning visual displays, and music. See page 603 for more details.

If everything goes according to schedule, the Animal Kingdom will complete in 2017 a major expansion project that began when Disney signed Avatar filmmaker James Cameron to a development deal in 2011. That project is Pandora: The World of Avatar, the largest expansion in the park’s history. Besides two new headliner rides—Avatar: Flight of Passage and Na’Vi River Journey—Disney has brought to life the floating mountains and glow-in-the-dark plant life of Cameron’s blockbuster film. Of course, you’ll want to stay well into the evening to see all of these new effects—did we mention the Avatar restaurants? And making the Animal Kingdom a full-day park is exactly what Disney wanted to do.

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, Coronado Springs Resort, and the All-Star Resorts. For driving directions, see page 449. Animal Kingdom Lodge is about a mile away from the park on its west side. From Interstate 4, take Exit 65, Osceola Parkway. 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 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. With the nighttime Rivers of Light show, expect Animal Kingdom to be open until at least 10 p.m. during summer, and at least 8 p.m. in winter. That’s a couple of hours after sundown, enough time for Disney to run one or two Rivers of Light shows and lots of nighttime Kilimanjaro Safaris.

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 will usually find Kilimanjaro Safaris, Expedition Everest, and TriceraTop Spin already open. Both Pandora attractions should join this list when they open in 2017.

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.

Animal Kingdom currently holds two morning Extra Magic Hours sessions per week, although we don’t think they save 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. As we went to press, Disney had not added evening Extra Magic Hours to the Animal Kingdom’s schedule on any day through November 2016.

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. After you pass through the turnstiles, wheelchair and stroller rentals are to your right. Guest Relations—park headquarters for information, guide maps, entertainment schedules (Times Guides), missing persons, and lost and found—is to the left. Nearby are restrooms, 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 and dining center. From Discovery Island, guests can access the respective themed areas of Africa, 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.

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.