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What To Know: A First-Timers Guide to Animal Kingdom

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Planning for and taking a trip to Walt Disney World can be stressful – especially if it’s your first visit. You want to stretch your vacation budget, and make sure that everyone enjoys their time. Animal Kingdom, the newest and largest Walt Disney World theme park, is its own unique puzzle. Only a few attractions have long lines – you’ll need to know how to fill your day with characters and rides and shows and animals.

So what is important to know when you visit Animal Kingdom for the first time? There are lots of resources to help you with that (The Unofficial Guide is one of our favorites). But here we’ll share some special tips and tricks that I wish I knew on my very first trip to Animal Kingdom. You might also give it a skim if you’ve visited before, but haven’t been back in 5 or 10 years.

Animal Kingdom Geography 101

Animal Kingdom is divided into six “lands” (themed areas) spread throughout the park. Similar to Magic Kingdom, most of the lands are arranged around a park hub that houses the park’s icon. In this case, the hub is Discovery Island, and the park icon is the 145-foot-tall Tree of Life. Leading from the park entrance to Discovery Island is the Oasis, a series of meandering pathways with animal exhibits. It’s the anti-Main Street that gets you in the mood for exploring and wandering.

Clockwise around Discovery Island, you’ll first find Pandora – World of Avatar. Home to Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey and floating mountains, this is absolutely the first land you should explore in the morning when you arrive in the park. Continuing clockwise, you’ll find Africa. Within Africa you’ll find Kilimanjaro Safaris, Gorilla Falls Trek, Festival of the Lion King, as well as dining and entertainment options. You’ll also find the gateway to Rafiki’s Planet Watch, with a train ride to Affection Section and Conservation Station.

Further along our clockwise tour of the park is Asia, anchored by Expedition Everest, along with more entertainment, animals, and attractions. Finally, you’ll find Dinoland USA. Shockingly, no live animals are in this area. But there are two attractions, roadside games, characters, and another show.

A map of Animal Kingdom in 2024

It’s Nahtazu

Back when Animal Kingdom first opened, there was a large marketing campaign all about how it was “Not a Zoo.” And, truthfully, it is so much more than a zoo. But now over two decades later, what you may most appreciate about Animal Kingdom is that out of all of the crowded and line-filled Walt Disney World theme parks, it is the least zoo-like. From a crush of humanity perspective.

Days at Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios, especially, have to be planned and executed carefully so that you don’t wind up in hours-long queues for popular attractions. At Animal Kingdom, the emphasis is more on exploring and discovering than planning and waiting. Does this mean you should show up without any prior knowledge? No. But good news, you’re already reading this, so you’re ahead of the curve. There are a few key things to know, but otherwise, Animal Kingdom is yours to enjoy.

Even on crowded days, there are still places to escape the crowds – like Maharajah Jungle Trek

Starting the Day Right

If you make good use of the very beginning of your Animal Kingdom day, everything else will fall into place smoothly. If you show up late or head in the wrong direction in the morning, you could be setting yourself up for some ugly waits for attractions (or less active animals) later in the day.

Frequently, Animal Kingdom is the park that opens the earliest. If you have access to early entry, you should arrive with the other (relatively) few early birds at least 45 minutes before official park opening – which is at least 15 minutes before early entry begins. Give yourself time to get through security and be lined up at the tapstiles. Once the park opens, hustle through the Oasis, onto Discovery Island, and take the left toward Pandora. If you don’t know where you’re going – just follow almost everybody else.

If you want to ride Flight of Passage, this is the time to do it. Go immediately to the queue. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Line up. And, uh, fly. If the park still hasn’t officially opened when you get off the ride, try Na’vi River Journey next. It gets long waits, and opinions vary on whether it’s worth waiting more than 20 minutes for.

Then, as close to actual park opening as possible, make your way back to Africa to ride Kilimanjaro Safaris. Lines will be shortest this early in the day, and the animals will be at their most active. After the Safari, the rest of your day should be smooth sailing.

With luck, you’ll barely have time to appreciate the immersive queue at Flight of Passage as you breeze past. (photo by Michael Carelli)

Starting Your Day … Late

Because most people at this point know that starting early is the key to enjoying a Disney theme park, and because Animal Kingdom doesn’t have as many “rides” as other parks, a lot of the crowds don’t stick around for a full day exploring everything that Animal Kingdom has to offer. That means that wait times start decreasing here earlier than they do at any other park.

Animal Kingdom also typically closes much earlier than any other park, so plenty of people will take the opportunity to go back to their resort midday before hitting another park, or hop away early in the afternoon instead. That gives you the opportunity to go against the flow and not show up until the afternoon. You won’t have as much time to experience everything, but wait times may start going down by around 2 pm. And if you take one of the very last Safaris of the day, that’s when the carnivores start getting more active, so you’ll have a very different experience than the morning rides do.

Alternatively, you could make Flight of Passage your very last ride of the day, entering the queue about 5 minutes before the park closes. The posted wait time will be high to try to scare people out of joining the line, but you’ll have one of the shortest waits of the day.

© Sarah Graffam
With any luck, the park will be open late enough to watch Awakenings on the Tree of Life as you close out the evening.

To Genie+ or Not to Genie+

Animal Kingdom is the park where Genie+ is always the least expensive. So many people are tempted to purchase it as a “good value” for skipping lines. Unfortunately, there really that many attractions where Genie+ is going to save you a decent amount of time compared to waiting in the Standby queue. Na’vi River Journey and Kilimanjaro Safaris are the big wins. But because the Safaris don’t open until regular park opening anyway, it’s possible to “rope drop” both of them – Na’vi River Journey during early entry and Kilimanjaro Safaris at regular opening time. If you are willing and able to take advantage of early entry, that eliminates the need for Genie+ at the two attractions where it saves a lot of time compared to standby.

The other available attractions, like Expedition Everest, Kali River Rapids, and DINOSAUR can be helpful – but typically only on the very most crowded days of the year. Otherwise, if you just stay ahead of “the pack” by working your way through these attractions after taking a Safari in the morning, you still won’t have much of a wait at any of them. And you certainly don’t need to use Genie+ at any of the shows in Animal Kingdom.

Flight of Passage isn’t included in Genie+ – instead, it’s only available via an Individual Lightning Lane purchase. If you don’t have early entry, or don’t want to wake up early, and you don’t want to stay late and get in line at the last minute, this is one of the most worthwhile Individual Lightning Lane purchases that you could make during your Walt Disney World vacation. It can save an incredible amount of time during peak hours.

The single rider queue will almost always save more time than Genie+ at Expedition Everest. (photo by Brandon Glover)

Fueling Up

Animal Kingdom has some of the highest-rated dining of any Walt Disney World Theme Park – especially when it comes to counter-service food. There are still some places you should probably avoid, and locations that we recommend seeking out. But the foodie highlights at this park easily beat out those offered at Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom, and put Animal Kingdom up with EPCOT for best theme park dining.

Some reliably good options include:

Table Service

Counter Service

A special shout-out goes to Nomad Lounge, which serves a lot of the same food and drinks as the signature restaurant next door, Tiffins. There are also “secret” off-menu chicken nuggets that are probably the best chicken you’ll get in any park. The Lounge is available by walk-up only, and is popular. Your best bet for getting a seat is before noon and in the last hour before the park closes. You can read more about Nomad Lounge here.

The views from the dining area at Flame Tree BBQ are spectacular.

The Wilderness Must Be Explored!

One of the best ways to explore the Animal Kingdom is by participating in the Wilderness Explorers program. This park-wide “scavenger hunt” is themed to the troop that Russell participates in during the move Up.

After signing up for the program at one of many marked kiosks throughout the park, you’ll visit specially-marked locations as you tour during the day and earn “badges” (stickers) for completing various activities.

Cast members that run these kiosks and special locations are some of the very best that Disney has to offer, and they’re trained to tweak their content to any age group. We’ve seen parties of adults all enjoy learning something new and collecting badges, and the tiniest little two-year-olds toddle up to a cast member who will kneel down to their level and get them excited about the topic at hand.

You can learn all about the Wilderness Explorers program here.

A great activity for Explorers of all ages

Let the Music Play

Animal Kingdom has some of the best entertainment of any park, whether musical or educational. Often both! Three big stage shows with their own theaters or amphitheaters headline the offerings:

  • Festival of the Lion King – Africa
  • Feathered Friends in Flight – Between Africa and Asia
  • Finding Nemo: the Big Blue … and Beyond – Dinoland USA

Of these, Festival of the Lion King is undoubtedly the most popular. Make sure to line up for it at least 15-20 minutes early. Feathered Friends in Flight teaches all about birds and their behaviors, and Finding Nemo has some of the most impressive puppets you’ll see in any park.

Beyond the big shows, though, are other acts that you can find around the park. Many of these musical acts are some of the highest-rated “attractions” in the park. The musicians are truly talented:

  • Viva Gaia Street Band! – Discovery Island
  • Kora Tinga Tinga – Africa (I personally rate this one as do-not-miss)
  • Tam Tam Drummers of Harambe – Africa
  • Chakrandi – Asia
As Kora Tinga Tinga wanders Harambe, most people won’t even know that the music they hear is being played for them live. Take the time to appreciate it!

Having a Plan is Key

Most first-time visitors to Animal Kingdom will head into the park without any plan. They’ll wander about the Oasis and take pictures of the (admittedly impressive) Tree of Life before arriving at Flight of Passage and being shocked by its already-terrible wait, and then end up eating at the first place they come to without a long line to order. Probably Pizzafari, which has the worst satisfaction in the park.

A little research and a plan can make an Animal Kingdom day more relaxing and fulfilling than any other theme park day. Plus it can include a good meal or two and some great snacks! If you’re a TouringPlans subscriber, you can check out some of our pre-made Animal Kingdom Touring Plans. Or you can create a personalized plan of your own and see what the optimizer recommends. Either method will give you an idea of the best way to approach your day.


If you’re an Animal Kingdom veteran, what tip would you share with a rookie? And if you’re planning your first visit, what questions do you have?

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Becky Gandillon

Becky Gandillon was trained in biomedical engineering, but is now a full-time data and analytics nerd. She loves problem solving and travelling. She and her husband, Jeff, live in St. Louis with their two daughters and they have Disney family movie night every Saturday. You can follow her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/becky-gandillon/ or instagram @raisingminniemes

One thought on “What To Know: A First-Timers Guide to Animal Kingdom

  • In the second paragraph, you provide a link to the Unofficial Guide . . . 2023 version. Are you just being modest? I’ve noticed you are co-author of the 2025 Guide. Congratulations! For someone who just considers this your hobby, you are accomplishing a lot.

    In the third sentence under the To Genie+ or Not to Genie+ section, you left out the verb. I suspect it should be really “aren’t.” although it would sure impact the meaning if it is really “are.”


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