Being First Family at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

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A giraffe watching us closely
A giraffe watching us closely during our private Safari

Have you ever had an extra magical experience at Disney? Maybe a Cast Member or even another guest found a way to throw some pixie dust your way? From the smallest gestures, like a departing guest passing on their still inflated balloon to a new guest, to the biggest surprises, say winning a night in Cinderella Castle, Disney is perpetually full of fairy-tale moments. My husband and I were lucky enough to experience that very thing when we were chosen as ‘First Family’ at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

I knew there was a First Family at Magic Kingdom. When chosen, those lucky ducks are invited to open the park from the train station platform as part of the Magic Kingdom Welcome Show. Families arrive to the entrance gates super early every morning in matching outfits for a shot at joining the characters up on stage. As someone without kids of my own, being that First Family never really interested me personally. I’d rather see a family with little kids enjoy it instead. Plus, the thought of being up on stage in front of that many people is terrifying to me. Visions of baby Simba hoisted above all the animals at Pride Rock in Disney’s Lion King would haunt my dreams. So, without realizing other parks participated in the practice of selecting a First Family too, I gave up on any notion of being one.

It was with that lack of knowledge and with minimal expectations that we woke up bright and early one morning to rope drop Animal Kingdom. We successfully arrived before the gates opened which gave us a distinct advantage. Once they started letting people through the gates past The Oasis in Animal Kingdom and into Discovery Island, we were at the very front of the hoard of people who would head towards Kilimanjaro Safaris when the park opened. As luck would have it, we were also right in front of the tower where all the macaw birds land during the official opening announcement as well. While watching all the beautiful birds flying overhead to perch in front of us, I kept thinking this can’t get any better.

Zebras from Kilimanjaro Safaris
Zebras as seen on Kilimanjaro Safaris

Then we started our walk back towards Kilimanjaro Safaris, and at this point, I was practically itching with excitement for the first attraction of the day. When we reached the bridge to Africa, a Cast Member in safari gear approached us and started a casual conversation with us. She commented that she liked my Lion King shirt, congratulated us on our anniversary, asked us if we were having a good day so far, questioned how many were in our group, etc. This is when I probably should have caught on, but most Cast Members are so friendly that I thought nothing of it.

As we approached the entrance for the line, she said, “Okay, everyone’s going to go that way, and you’re going to follow me down the FASTPASS Line”. I obviously wasn’t going to argue with that, so off we went! Barely containing my excitement, I looked up at my husband and tried to signal that something special might happen. I still wasn’t sure what was transpiring and didn’t want to embarrass myself by announcing an incorrect assumption out loud in front of the lovely Cast Member. I’m pretty sure I just looked at my husband and mouthed ‘Something’s happening”. And he probably looked at me with a ‘Well, duh’ expression.

Thankfully, the Cast Member didn’t keep us waiting long. She finally told us we were selected as First Family, and as such, we would get a private Kilimanjaro Safaris tour to open the park for the day. At that declaration, I’m pretty sure I squealed out of excitement to the point that the animals were probably ready to accept me as their own (or hunt me down as their next meal). Either way, we were off on our own with a driver and two Cast Members.

The lioness and tail of the male lion
The lioness and tail of the male lion
The male lion perched on his rock
The male lion perched on his rock

The tour was similar to the regular Kilimanjaro Safaris expedition for the most part. However, the smallest changes made all the difference in the world. The tour guide Cast Member was able to turn sideways in her bench and talk to us face to face since she wasn’t driving. I think because of that and because we were the only two on the tour, it was much more interactive. We were encouraged to ask tons of questions and learned more about backstage things that they don’t talk about on the regular safari. True to Disney theming, the normal version of the attraction is intended to emulate a real safari experience where you see animals in their natural habitat. During our private tour, however, our guide was able to break through that barrier a little bit regarding the animals and their upkeep. It was incredibly interesting and a very unique experience.

Gorillas posing for the camera
Gorillas posing for the camera

Before we knew it, we were back at the unloading zone. We said our goodbyes (and plenty of thank you’s) before heading off to our next adventure –Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, now known as Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail. Our luck continued there too! The first Cast Member we spoke to near the gorilla habitat told us that the gorillas were on their way out and would be crossing in front of us shortly. Thanks to being First Family, we were in and out of Kilimanjaro Safaris so quickly that we got to witness some extra magic there too. Even the baby gorillas were out to play.

Since returning from the trip, I’ve heard that some Animal Kingdom First Families get pictures, certificates, and even extra FastPasses. Though that was not the case for us, I still had an amazing time. I know from now on, I’ll be trying a little harder to get to Animal Kingdom and Kilimanjaro Safaris bright and early in the hopes of experiencing it all again. If it sounds like fun to you too, my tips are to arrive early, wear your celebration buttons, and dress accordingly. While I’m not sure that my Lion King shirt guaranteed us the honor, I’ll bet it didn’t hurt. And as always, stay positive. Even if you’re not selected, you’re still in for a wonderful safari experience.

Have any of you had the privilege to be First Family at any of the parks? I’d love to hear about it, your attempts, or your thoughts on the whole idea of First Family in the comments below!

Liz Mangan

Liz Mangan got her start in the trip planning business at the spry young age of five by color coding her mom’s Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with highlighters and post-it notes based on what she wanted to see and do on their upcoming trips. Over the last two decades since then, she’s enjoyed spending her spare time helping others plan their Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando Resort vacations.

21 thoughts on “Being First Family at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

  • September 9, 2016 at 7:55 am
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    We were chosen as “Family of the Day” at Epcot back in early December 2011. There were nine in our group – my husband and me, my sister and her husband, and five little girls between us. We were at the turnstiles before rope drop and a cast member started a conversation similar to yours. Then she asked if we would like to be the family of the day. We basically went on thru the turnstiles early and stood facing everyone else while they took our pictures, announced who we were and where from (I’m sure nobody in line cared but it was exciting to us), and then listened thru all the opening greetings. They gave us a certificate and a group fp for any attraction that day. I don’t know if they even do that anymore, I haven’t seen it on return visits, but maybe it’s just not everyday. It was all so unexpected, and on the last day of our trip, we were thrilled!

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    • September 9, 2016 at 11:52 am
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      I don’t think I’ve seen that happen recently at Epcot. What a cool experience!

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  • September 9, 2016 at 7:57 am
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    The first year we took our sons to WDW, we followed the Unofficial Guide like a theme park bible. Our boys were 6 and 8 and we were staying in a pirate room at CBR. We were always at the parks very early, in our matching tee shirts. On our second and last designated Magic Kingdom Day, we were sitting on the ground at the turnstiles, entertaining ourselves by making necklaces and bracelets with colored paperclips. One of the cast members (I think her name was Awilda?) pulled me aside and asked me if we would like to be the opening family that day. Holy Moly. Seriously, that may have been one of the most special days of my life. We had a private photo shoot with Snow White, Mickey, Pluto, and Daisy up in the top of the train station. A cast member took a ton of pictures with our camera, too. We were all grinning ear to ear, even my husband, who wasn’t entirely convinced that Disney Magic was real. When Mickey took each of my little guys by the hand, and walked them out across the tracks to the railing — I thought my heart would burst.
    Of course, as all the hundreds of people flowed into the gates below us, I had a moment of panic thinking “oh no! Now our touring plan is all shot to heck!” But it was worth it!!!!!!!

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    • September 9, 2016 at 11:54 am
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      Haha that’s so funny. I was thinking along the same lines – “Oh no, she’s slowing us down!”. But I agree, it’s definitely worth it!

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  • September 9, 2016 at 9:26 am
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    We had a very similar experience at Animal Kingdom. My son and I both had animal-themed shirts and we were one of the first families headed for the safari. I am such a OCD planner – thanks in part to this site – I was thinking… no, we can’t stop to chat, we have to get to the safari ride… lol! It was fun and we really enjoyed the personal experience provided by two cast members on our private safari ride.

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    • September 9, 2016 at 11:55 am
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      Haha I was thinking the same thing! I love to chat with the Cast Members, but at that point, I was only thinking about getting on the ride! Glad you got to experience it too 🙂

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  • September 9, 2016 at 11:36 am
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    Though we weren’t the “First Family”, we did have a similar experience on our trip back in April. We had 8am breakfast reservations at Donald’s Safari at Tusker House, and finished up just as the gates were opening. I urged my wife and kids to quickly make out way to the Safari before the first wave of crowds hit us. Upon making it to the loading area, we had just missed the loading of the jeep in front of us, and got into the next available one. There was no one behind us, and so the CM closed the gates, and off we went – just the 4 of us! The driver asked us if we wanted “his version” of the safari, or the official “Disney version”… It was a no-brainer! We had a blast, and the Driver was absolutely awesome!

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    • September 9, 2016 at 11:56 am
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      Breakfast AND a private ride?! Sounds awesome!

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  • September 9, 2016 at 11:50 am
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    My daughter and I went to the breakfast at Cinderella’s Castle a few years ago early in the morning. When we arrived they asked us how many were in our group (2), and advised us to go park the stroller and come back. When we did we were told she was chosen as princess of the day. She got a photo taken with Cinderella and extra time, and then they announced as Princess of the day she would be officially opening the castle. They gave her a special sticker, and something to hold to bring upstairs where we were given a great seat directly in front of the window. The entire day she was given extra attention by characters and cast members who would see the sticker and comment on her being princess of the day.

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    • September 9, 2016 at 12:08 pm
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      I love it! I bet that’s something you will remember for years to come. Thanks for sharing!

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  • September 9, 2016 at 12:15 pm
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    We were selected as First Family at Epcot for Soarin’! It was 2011, and the first visit to Epcot for me and my son (my wife had gone when she was a child). Castmember Jessi was hamming things up at the rope drop, and picked our son out of the line (I understand he looked “excited but calm”). Jessi told us that she had been assisting at line drop for a while, but this was her first time being able to choose a First Family, which was extra-cool. She had even brought a camera to document the occasion. No certificates or Fastpasses, but awesome memories.

    Epcot was still using paper Fastpasses, so of course my initial thought was “There goes my Touring Plan, I’m supposed to run to Test Track to get my Fastpasses first!”, but who can plan for something like this?

    Here’s the photos, which I put up so that Jessi could have copies (she gave us her email); in the second one, you can really see the people behind the rope: http://oakwine.net/soarin.php

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    • September 9, 2016 at 12:36 pm
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      Those pictures put such a huge grin on my face 🙂 Looks like everyone had a blast, even Jessi the Cast Member. Thanks for commenting!

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  • September 9, 2016 at 1:11 pm
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    When we visited last March we did what we usually do and went to the Makig Kingdom on our first morning there. We decided to travel over using the ferryboat. Once we were on board they closed the gates and told us we were having our own personal boat over that day.
    The crew came over to chat and pointed out that the electrical water pageant was on the lagoon for some filming and told us to look out for the blue angels flying overhead later in the morning and that it was the first time ever that they had formation flying ove disney.
    Only a small gesture from the crew of the boat but all adds to the magic of disney

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  • September 9, 2016 at 1:51 pm
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    While waiting on the parade route for the MSEP one year, my 12-year old niece was chatting it up with one of the Trash Collector CMs. She was getting the crowd to applaud him for changing the plastic bag and joking around about how if his name is Michael “Do all your friends call you Mickey?”. Of course, he’s asking where she’s from and so on.
    Fast forward to the actual parade and it seemed like every performer who could, came up right next to my niece and was saying “Hi” to her and calling her by name. It was hilarious to not only our family, but all the guests who had waited near us, how everyone in the parade was singling her out for the special greetings. Just another example of that unexpected Disney Magic making an extra special memory. I’m pretty sure there’s a moral to the story in there somewhere.

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  • September 9, 2016 at 3:42 pm
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    My then boyfriend (now husband) and I experience a similar bit of Disney magic a few years ago. We were driving to Disneyland from my home in San Diego, and we were incredibly early – I want to say we pulled into the parking lot over an hour before the park opened. When I rolled down my window to pay for parking, the CM says “oh, don’t worry about that, you’re our parking guest of the day!” He then reached into the car to tape a permit on the windshield, handed us a bus pass, and told us to follow the directions of the the other parking CMs. We had our own reserved “guest of the day” parking spot and a private bus to the parks. When we were ready to leave at the end of the day, we assumed our bus pass would allow us to skip the line, but the CM flagged down a bus just for us! Parking is such a small part of the experience, but it really set the magical tone for our day.

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  • September 9, 2016 at 5:05 pm
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    Visited Blizzard Beach early one Summer day with some friends and their children, and were chosen as First Family. We were all given buttons, towels, first choice of seating area, and once settled in we all went up to be the first ones down Summit Plummet. A very fun experience for all.

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    • September 9, 2016 at 7:58 pm
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      You beat me to it, Ron. In 2008, the GPS we had wasn’t showing Blizzard Beach, so we left extra early to make sure we got there at rope drop. We actually found the waterpark very quickly and settled in for what we thought would be a near hour long wait. 30 minutes into the wait, my 9 year old son (who was leaning on the turnstile) was approached by a lifeguard, photographer, and security worker. I figured they were going to ask him to stop leaning, but instead the lifeguard asked my son if he was going to go on Summit Plummet. He said he was, to which the lifeguard replied that it was broken, but they think they have fixed it, and if he would like to be the tester! My son looked at me, and I’m pretty sure I was over-enthusiastically nodding yes, you can go! We all got let in, and my 9-year old got they first slide and was followed by my 10 year old son, and finally me. Loved getting that 65 mph wedgie!

      We got the freebies, too: towels, locker, prime lounging spot in the center of the park, and two mugs with unlimited refills for the day.

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  • September 10, 2016 at 10:36 am
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    We were so lucky to have a magical moment the first time we brought our granddaughter to Disney. We were actually standing and debating if the line was too long for the Jungle Cruise. Two cast members came up to us and asked us if we wanted to go to the front of the line and have a boat to ourselves. It was indeed magical.

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  • September 10, 2016 at 3:00 pm
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    We have been lucky enough to be chosen as first family at both Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom. They were th most surreal, awesome experiences ever.

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  • September 12, 2016 at 12:32 pm
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    We weren’t chosen to be family of the day or anything but this year at Disneyland we were asking a cast member about an hour before the paint the night parade where the best place to sit was and if we could sit up by the train station. She let us up there and said we might have to stand if special guests came. So we went up and my son was setting up his camera to take pictures when another cast member came up and asked us how many was in our group and would we like to sit and watch the parade. My Husband said he would love a seat(bad knees). About ten minutes later she came back and ushered us down the stairs to a private roped off bench across from Moments with Lincoln. My son got to set up his camera on the tripod to take a video and we had the whole area to ourselves. It felt strange but awesome to be sitting behind a rope with no one else in the way or crowding you. It was the best parade view we ever. It was also a great end to a disney day that had been very crowded and busy. (We found out when we got home and looked online that it was a 10 that day for busyness)

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  • September 13, 2016 at 5:03 pm
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    Back during the Year of a Million Dreams in early 2008, my friends and I (four 20-something guys) were amusingly handed a “First Family” certificate at Hollywood Studios’ rope drop. A Tower of Terror bellhop took us through the backstage shortcut to Sunset Blvd, and the four of us got a private elevator as the first guest dispatch of the day on the Tower. I had assumed that this sort of thing was just done during the YoaMD promotion to increase the number of “dreams” fulfilled, but it’s cool to hear that it’s still happening to folks every day!

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