Observations from Disney’s Animal Kingdom: August 15, 2014

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Observations from Disney's Animal Kingdom
Take a day — or at least 2/3s of one — to walk around Animal Kingdom with Touring Plans (photos by Seth Kubersky).

This week it was time for me to make some observations from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and is there any place in Walt Disney World more welcoming on a muggy, humid day? Wait, don’t answer that… As an infrequent visitor to Animal Kingdom, it was my objective to visit as many of park’s major and mid-tier attractions as possible, in order to test Derek Burgan’s controversial theory that DAK is indeed more than a “half-day park.”


While the typical Touring Plans approach is to arrive before rope drop, I decided to give Animal Kingdom a fighting chance by pulling onto Disney property a half hour after the park’s 9 a.m. opening time. The first sight that greeted me past the toll booths was a large section of the overflow parking lot where grass was being replaced with asphalt.


Rather than wait for the parking tram, I cut across the bus parking lot towards the park entrance, catching a look at these construction cranes for Pandora: The World of Avatar.


I skirted past the crowd at bag check (hooray for pockets!) and entered The Oasis, saying good morning to the black swan who habitates just inside the park entrance.

Anima Kingdom’s black swan (not Natalie Portman or Mila Kunis)

Upon crossing into Discovery Island, I noticed the first of many, many construction walls that are currently congesting the heart of the park. It’s Tough to be a Bug and most of the Discovery Trails are unavailable during this refurbishment.


More construction wall surround part of Flame Tree Barbecue, which remains open for business.


It was a few minutes before 10 a.m. when I arrived at Dinosaur, my first destination for the day. This ride seems to do a particularly poor job of merging their standby and FastPass+ cues, so I wanted to visit fairly early in the day while there were few FastPass+ returnees.


My plan worked, and I was through the preshow and on board my Time Rover in a little less than the 10 minutes that was posted. While Dinosaur’s ride system is fantastic (as proven in Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure) this attraction’s effects continue to deteriorate. The first carnotaurus was completely static, and many sound and lighting effect were missing or misadjusted. The laser light that gives away the finale’s escape path remains a particular pet peeve of mine.


On the way out of Dinoland U.S.A., I noticed that a brontosaurus in Dinorama is having some work done on his belly…


My first FastPass+ reservation of the day was ready at Expedition Everest, allowing me to bypass a 25 minute posted wait. I really appreciate that, unlike many attractions, the FastPass+ queue for Everest is as elaborately themed as the standby one.


Despite rumors that repairs on the infamous Disco Yeti could begin soon, there is no sign of progress on the ride’s immobile animatronic. However the steam effect on the loading platform looked good, and the “bird on a stick” at the top of the mountain, which was gone for many years, has returned to full-time service.


Walking through Asia, I had to stop a moment to watch some monkey business.


Technically it is ape business, but you get the idea…


It was past time for my breakfast, so I visited the Dawa Bar in Harambe for one of their new speciality Bloody Marys. They are served until 11 a.m. daily, and pack a punch with not only alcohol but umami.


I tried the Dawa Bloody Mary ($9.50), and found it more drinkable than expected given the hearty ingredients. The rolled prosciutto garnish even made a nice appetizer, though the truffle and blue cheese stuffed olives were too pungent for me to finish.


My FastPass+ window had arrived for Kilimanjaro Safaris, which remains far and away my favorite ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and the most ambitious achievement in landscape design at Walt Disney World. Plus…animals!


The attraction’s standby queue was posted as 10 minutes, but looked closer to 20. Either way, I made it to the merge point without pausing, and was rolling into the reserve a couple minutes later.


The best part about the safaris is that it’s never the same show twice. On this trip, I got some great close encounters with giraffes as they crossed the central savannah.


Elephants were also on parade, though canvas fences obscure the view of the herd past the red clay pits.


Finally, I had a coveted male lion sighting — or at least the bottom of his feet.


I followed my safari with a swift stroll through the Pangani Forest walking trail, where I was grateful to find the gorillas being unusually observable.


It was time to use my last FastPass+ of the morning at Festival of the Lion King. I hadn’t seen the show since it’s new theater opened, and wanted to see how FastPass+ worked in the new venue. As it turns out, the theater’s facade and surroundings are stunningly detailed, but little or nothing is different in the interior. Because I arrived at the end of my entry window, I was directed to bleacher along with a bunch of standby guests, completely negating any purpose to my FastPass+ reservation.


The show itself remains more or less identical, with the addition of some upgraded lighting and fog effects that would likely go unnoticed by the average attendee. Still, FotLK is a superb way to escape the heat at Animal Kingdom for a half hour.


After the show, I checked out the wall blocking the path that will one day lead to Pandora.


Returning to Harambe, I noticed a number of construction walls in the center of town, behind the Tamu Tamu dining complex.


Speaking of Tamu Tamu, I decided to forgo my usual Flame Tree lunch in favor of trying the pulled beef sandwich at the Harambe food counter.


Bad choice: the meat was under-seasoned and dripping with so much water that it soaked through the doughy pita, making an inedible sloppy mess that I could barely eat half of. The only high point was the flavorful house-made potato chips with African-style spices.


Since I had used all 3 of my prearranged FastPass+ reservations, I visited the MyMagic+ service center to book a fourth. I took an immediate appointment at Primeval Whirl, mostly because I didn’t know what else to take.


On my way back to Dinoland, I noticed that a performance of Finding Nemo The Musical was about to begin, so I grabbed an empty seat in the center section. This remains one of my favorite scripts and scores in a theme park musical, but the cast’s performances have gotten a bit mushy over the years. It’s still a quality production, but could use some cleanup rehearsals to bring back the original spark.


I exited the theater with a couple minutes to spare in my Primeval Whirl FastPass+, where the standby wait was 30 minutes. I was riding in only 6, but ended up regretting it; the ride is feeling rough these days, with lots of peeling paint. I’d rather ride the nearly identical spinning coaster at Fun Spot in Kissimmee — at least its “Rockstar Energy Drink” branding is less obtrusive than Chester & Hester’s garish theming. (I jest…sorta.)


Fleeing from Dinorama, I made a quick return trip to Everest, this time through the single rider line. Though posted as a 20 minute wait, I was riding in about 5.


I checked on the wait time at Kali River Rapids, but there was no way I was going to wait that long just to make myself damper and smellier than I already was.


Instead, I took time to experience my pick for the most underrated attraction at Animal Kingdom, the Maharaja Jungle Trek.


Because you can never get enough bats and/or bengals:


Before my final attraction of the afternoon, I refueled with a Yeti Triple Blast layered margarita from Upcountry Beverages, on the recommendation of the Drunk on Disney podcast. It was pleasantly potent, but I’d prefer it with a little less mango next time.


I ended my visit with Flights of Wonder, the last of the park’s major stage shows. There’s nothing more beautiful than these magnificent birds performing natural behaviors, but the “Guano Jane” comic relief is incredibly cloying, and nearly kills the momentum. This show’s script has been rewritten more times than I can count over the years, but perhaps it’s time they took one more crack at it.


As the 2:45 p.m. show concluded, I realized that I had already completed every ride, show, and walking trail that I had any interest in experiencing. It’s Tough to be a Bug was closed, and I skipped the train to Planet Watch, but combined they would have occupied less than an hour of my time. The Wilderness Explorer activities would have easily extended my day, but it was just too hot and humid for me to focus on the tasks this day. As result, I’d have to call Animal Kingdom a “2/3rds day park” as far as this visit went. Not quite a full day’s entertainment in my book yet — at least until the big blue people arrive — but it’s at least 16% better than a “half-day park.”


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Seth Kubersky

Author of The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando. Co-author of The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland and Beyond Disney. Contributor to Unofficial Guides to WDW and Las Vegas. Live Active Cultures columnist for the Orlando Weekly. Travel and arts journalist. Theatrical director and producer.

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