Tips for Experiencing Animal Kingdom at Night

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Starting this summer, Animal Kingdom has been ‘awakening’ at night, for several new experiences that keep the park open well into the night. From Jungle Book: Alive with Magic to Tree of Life Awakenings, and more, there’s a variety of new entertainment that offers a new experience for guests experiencing Animal Kingdom after dark.

We’ve been really excited for this. Since first visiting Animal Kingdom during evening Extra Magic Hours a few years ago, I’ve yearned for additional chances to experience nighttime at Animal Kingdom. Before the new Animal Kingdom at Night summer offerings debuted, I went as far as to predict that this would be a game changer–Animal Kingdom’s coming out party.

Well…it wasn’t. I was definitely wrong on that one. Still, it was awesome being in Animal Kingdom after sunset, and there was a lot to enjoy about the experience, even if there were some misfires. The biggest misfire was the lack of Rivers of Light. This would have been the anchor of Animal Kingdom at night, and it has been delayed indefinitely. Had Rivers of Light opened as planned, I think some of the other issues we’ll discuss wouldn’t have been as significant.

In fairness, while there were some other misfires, there were some hits, too. Namely, again, the experience itself. Any excuse to have Animal Kingdom open at night is a good excuse, and kudos to Walt Disney World management for not pulling the plug on the whole nighttime closings once it was known that Rivers of Light was going to miss its target debut by several months.

I think this bears emphasizing: Animal Kingdom could be closing at 7 p.m. all summer, but management decided to forge ahead with the later, more expensive closings. We critique a lot of the cost-cutting decisions Disney makes here, so I think it’s only fair to also highlight some of the positives. While the experience has a lot of room for improvement, I’d much rather have the park open late into the evening with hit and miss new entertainment than the status quo of early closings.

In our newest vlog, we cover some things we enjoyed about spending the evening at Animal Kingdom, including :

Now, let’s take a look at the good, bad, and ugly of Animal Kingdom at night…

Streetmosphere Parties

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One of the best elements is the Discovery Island Carnivale and Harambe Wildlife Parti, which are essentially, dance parties. When I first heard that Animal Kingdom at night would feature dance parties, I shuddered, envisioning the blood-boiling, sexually suggestive pop “music” played at high decibel levels in Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland that I can hear from inside Carousel of Progress. (P.S. Get off my lawn.)

Thematic coherence and the eardrums of guests with good taste in music were thankfully spared from such an unfortunate fate, and we received beautiful, thematically appropriate performances at both of these parties. Uptempo (on-theme) music and elaborate costumes inspired by animal life made these dance parties befitting of the Disney name.

With lots of props, great costuming, and an eclectic selection of high-energy entertainers, these troupes are pitch-perfect for Animal Kingdom, and guests of all ages appeared to love the performances. For me, this reinforces the notion that quality wins out, and you don’t have to go for the low-hanging fruit of what’s hot in pop culture to have captivating entertainment.

I would happily invite these dance parties onto my lawn. As a grumpy ole curmudgeon, that’s about the highest praise I can give here.

We recommend seeing these shows early in the evening while lines for everything else start to die down, and the crowds are larger for their performances. A sizable crowd adds to the energy of these parties.

Tree of Life Awakenings

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Here’s another aspect of the good–the really good. The Tree of Life Awakenings are awesome. These brief vignettes during which the animals on the Tree of Life come alive via projections are awesome. This is pure Disney magic, and the experience reminds me a lot of (a technologically more impressive version of) the Kiss Goodnight at Magic Kingdom.

Each Awakening only lasts a few minutes, but they are beautiful, both in story and visuals. It captures the heart and the essence of Animal Kingdom, and we definitely recommend making an effort to see a couple of them. (There’s typically one that occurs shortly after park closing as most guests are exiting from Jungle Book: Alive with Magic).

Kilimanjaro Safaris

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I’ve lauded the removal of the ‘chasing poachers’ storyline at Kilimanjaro Safaris, calling it an unnecessary pretext. I think this is true during the daytime version, where there’s something special about the safari experience itself. No added layer of storytelling fluff is necessary, because the environments were Imagineered so meticulously to emulate an authentic safari experience.

Unfortunately, the nighttime version of Kilimanjaro Safaris does not stand on its own quite so well or, really, at all. It can barely crawl on its own. We were fortunate enough to see a few animals, including the lions at the peak of their activity, but otherwise, it was a bumpy ride in the dark with little that captured the spirit of exploration the same way the daytime version does.

Part of this was the result of our driver, who provided a quiet, monotone narration that did little to captivate guests. This got me thinking about how much a layer of fluff would really help here in propping up an otherwise lackluster experience. If you’re going to transform Kilimanjaro Safaris to something different at night and you already know that the animals and lighting aren’t going to cooperate, you’ve got to look for other ways to transform it.

I wouldn’t go as far as subverting the experience and turning it into a veritable Jungle Cruise 2.0, but something beyond the animal-gazing experience is necessary. Tinkering with the light, as has purportedly been happening, is not going to cut it. Quick fixes would include adding a soundtrack via the radio music (who doesn’t love Hapa Duniani?!) another part might be adding some storytelling contrivance that can easily be activated once the sun goes down. Or, maybe they just turn off the lights completely, add a few poking effects in the vehicles, hasty projections, and turn it into “Hauntimanjaro Safaris – Mission: Animal Ghost BREAKOUT!”

As it stands, I’d highly recommend experiencing this as close to official sunset time as possible. It gets dark on the savanna quickly, and if you wait until dusk, you’re going to have a difficult time seeing the “action.”

Jungle Book: Alive with Magic

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This might be where you expect me to twist the knife, but I’m not going to do that. Not because I liked the show (it is awful), but because I think it would just be piling on at this point given the number of negative reviews that have already been written.

It’s unfortunate, because this show features a lot of performers, and they are clearly giving it their all. If there is any saving grace to Jungle Book: Alive with Magic, it’s these entertainers who at least breathe some sense of life into it.

On this blog, I hammer on my belief that you should experience attractions and entertainment for yourself rather than deferring to popular sentiment. I’m not sure if I can extend that philosophy to Alive with Magic. Seeing this show requires a decent amount of time and effort, and most people are going to be let down with the quality of the show in light of that investment.

It’s not just a matter of the 20 minutes of your life you’ll never get back from watching Stitch’s Great Escape, as here you either have to commit to a FastPass+ or purchase a dinner package. Neither are ideal options. Alternatively, (and this is what we recommend) you could just show up in standby 15 minutes before the show starts and be seated in non-optimal seats. This option will likely lead to the fewest regrets.

If you have a long vacation, by all means, get a FastPass+ and see it. If your trip is shorter, you might want to think hard about whether it’s a good use of FastPass+ (especially considering that it means you will be limited to 3 FP+ for the entire day since this show is at the end of the night) and your time to see this. Some people may very well like the show (we had a friend with us who did), but I think that won’t be the predominant sentiment.

Other Tips

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There are plenty of other things you can enjoy about Animal Kingdom at night, and here are a few of our recommendations:

  • Towards the end of the night, popular attractions will be near walk-ons, so don’t wait in long lines early in the night for Expedition Everest, Dinosaur, etc.
  • Disney Hollywood Studios’ Star Wars fireworks show is visible over Everest from the Harambe bridge leading through Africa towards Tusker House.
  • Do Kilimanjaro Safaris earlier in the day if you want photos–it’s virtually impossible to take good photos at night, so don’t even bother.
  • We recommend doing a late lunch at Tiffins rather than doing a table service dinner–enjoy the nighttime experience of Animal Kingdom!
  • Stage shows are not running in the evening, so focus on these earlier in the day and do rides at night.
  • Make a point of seeing multiple Tree of Life Awakenings, as they are each unique.
  • If you watch the second Jungle Book: Alive with Magic showing, you should have about 5-10 minutes afterwards to jump in line for Everest before the park closes.

Rivers of Light?

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If you’re planning a Walt Disney World vacation for late summer, fall, winter, or even 2017, you might be anxiously awaiting updates on Rivers of Light, only to hear…crickets.

At this point, no one knows when Rivers of Light will actually debut, or in what form. Guest response has not be positive towards Jungle Book: Alive with Magic (meaning there is no intention of morphing that show from an interim replacement to something permanent). Debuting Rivers of Light as soon as possible remains the goal.

Issues that existed with the mobile barges for Rivers of Light have yet to be resolved. (Obviously, or we’d have heard an official debut date by now.) My speculation is that a solution for these structural problems is not yet known–that it’s a matter of changing things, making tests, and seeing what works.

All of what follows is speculation: I assume that, at this point, there will be an ‘a ha’ moment with a solution or workaround being found, implemented, and Rivers of Light being able to have a debut date. The problem with an ‘a ha’ moment is that it’s not exactly predictable. Such a moment could occur tomorrow, or it could occur in 3 months. Given how much has already been done in terms of testing and adjusting, it would seem that there are significant problems with the barges and how they navigate Discovery River, so it’s not a simple, quick fix.

If it takes longer to find a solution, you have to wonder at what point Disney will decide to simply hold back Rivers of Light until Pandora: World of Avatar is ready to officially open.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that Pandora is going to have its grand opening on April 22, 2017 (as we are predicting). Let’s also say that Rivers of Light is good to go in January 2017. What incentive is there to debut it then, when crowds are low and Animal Kingdom could otherwise be closing at an earlier time?

In that scenario, it seems much more plausible to hold back Rivers of Light until March, do a soft run of it for about a month, and then have one extravagant re-launch for Animal Kingdom with both Rivers of Light and Pandora in April 2017. Rivers of Light would make a bigger splash then, during a large scale media event that highlights what’s new aside from Pandora as part of that re-launch.

Again, this is total speculation (and should not be construed as a rumor since it’s supposition on my part), but my prediction is that if we don’t see Rivers of Light debut by Christmas 2016, we won’t see it (officially) debut until Pandora opens.

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While I might’ve been wrong about this year being Animal Kingdom’s coming out party, that event has just been delayed, not canceled entirely. You better believe I am counting down the days until we can step foot (on that crazy, space-age fiber optic ground) in Pandora, see Rivers of Light, and experience a fully-fledged nighttime experience at Animal Kingdom. This was just a small taste of what’s to come, and even it is a really enjoyable experience, warts and all.

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Your Thoughts

Do you agree or disagree with our opinions on Animal Kingdom at night? If you’ve seen Jungle Book: Alive with Magic, what did you think? Which other entertainment did you enjoy the most? Share any questions, tips, or additional thoughts you have in the comments!


25 Responses to “Tips for Experiencing Animal Kingdom at Night”
  1. Kristen Clark May 16, 2017
  2. Shannon May 10, 2017
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