If you’ve been a regular reader of this site, you’ve probably come across some of my posts regarding Disney’s Animal Kingdom that are fairly critical of the park. For a while, it was my least favorite park at Walt Disney World, and I’d say I was almost bitter at the park for squandering so much potential. This year, we have spent more time in Disney’s Animal Kingdom than in any previous year (given that we’ve visited Walt Disney World fewer times this year than in any past year, this should be doubly impressive), and I will admit that my opinion of the park has changed. In short, I was wrong about it.
Phrases like “I was wrong” are not the norm on the internet. The standard modus operandi is to establish a position, entrench oneself in that position, and refuse to relent no matter what countervailing reason and opinion are offered. Sorry, fellow internet commentators, if I’ve broken some sort of unspoken code of conduct by admitting that I was wrong. In my defense, while I will admit that I was wrong, I’m not saying I was totally wrong. In fact, I still think several of my specific points are valid. What I was wrong about were my general conclusions about the park, and my general demeanor and attitude towards it.
Let’s take a look at why I am now an Animal Kingdom fan.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a substantial departure from the typical Disney theme park archetype, and I think this fundamental difference in tone and structure causes many people to misunderstand Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Conversely, this same difference in tone and structure does give Animal Kingdom its own group of fervent fans who call it their favorite park, many of whom take great offense to criticism of the park. We definitely fell into the former group until this year.
In recent years, we’ve basically renounced the commando style (except in the mornings in Tokyo, where it’s almost a necessity), but my ‘epiphany’ that we might have been missing something with Animal Kingdom didn’t come until last year, of all places, in Disneyland Paris. Since we weren’t sure if we’d ever be back there, we made a point to soak up as much of that park as we could, doing a lot in the way of exploring, savoring details, and even reading signs or “historical” placards throughout the park. It was an incredible experience and gave me a deep appreciation for Disney’s most beautiful castle park. I later dubbed it a park that’s like a fine wine, and is meant to be sipped, not chugged.
I realized that there was a good chance that Animal Kingdom was the same way, so on our next trip to Walt Disney World, we opted to spend two days there–more time than we spent in any other park. This ‘fine wine’ analogy definitely applies there, too. Simply put, it’s an ambiance park.
Much like World Showcase at Epcot, you can’t go in expecting to do a lot of exciting attractions. Rather, the joy of the experience is in the atmosphere, and in discovering little things that make the theme park a place, rather than a collection of rides. To me, the atmosphere and these details are a big part of what separates Disney theme parks from other theme and amusement parks. If all you care about is running from attraction to attraction, why do Disney parks at all? There are better options for that.
In terms of “Disney Details,” Animal Kingdom ranks as some of Imagineering’s best work. It’s staggering, really, and even seasoned Animal Kingdom fans are likely to notice new things with each visit. I’ve made an effort to use photos of some of the lesser-known elements of Animal Kingdom in this article. If you don’t recognize a lot of what you’re seeing here, it might be time to rethink how you experience Animal Kingdom.
At Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the park tone is manifested in the many winding animal trails throughout the park, some of which are listed as attractions on the park map, some of which are not. It’s stopping to take a few minutes to watch a couple of animals play. It’s reading what one of the many posters plastered in Africa says, and thinking about how that relates to the theme of the area. It’s sitting back and watching a fountain flow while snacking. It’s all of these things and many more, all of which make Disney’s Animal Kingdom the most detailed and heavily themed park at Walt Disney World. What it lacks in nostalgia for most of us, it should make up for in character.
It’s safe to say that everyone knows about Expedition Everest, Kilimanjaro Safaris, It’s Tough to Be a Bug, Finding Nemo: The Musical, Dinosaur, Kali River Rapids, and Festival of the Lion King. We think it’s fair to call these all moderately good to great attractions. In the cases of Dinosaur and Kali River Rapids, we think there’s some unrealized potential, but they’re still fun.
It used to be the case that we’d do these attractions (besides Kali River Rapids), eat, wander a bit, and call it a day. It wasn’t until this year that we did Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, Flights of Wonders (I had done it as a kid, but not in recent years), and Maharajah Jungle Trek. These changed our outlook on Animal Kingdom, as they provided additional hours of entertainment, and also contradicted the notion that Animal Kingdom didn’t do enough to distinguish its animal exhibits from a zoo.
Add to that Rafiki’s Planet Watch, and you have four solid attractions that take a considerable chunk of time to experience right. There was no real reason that we skipped these in the past, we just did.
Our favorites of these are definitely Flights of Wonder and Maharajah Jungle Trek. Flights of Wonder is entertaining and engaging, with a bit of self-aware, cheesy comedy that works really well in the context of the show to balance out the serious conservationist message. The intelligence of birds is on full display here, and it’s really quite impressive. There was no real reason we had skipped it in the past, it was always just a matter of timing, but now we will be sure to prioritize it in order to make the time for Flights of Wonder. It really is a great blend of Disney entertainment and wildlife, and a prime example of how conceptually strong Animal Kingdom is as a theme park. Actually, I wish there were more shows similar in nature and tone to this one.
Maharajah Jungle Trek is a walk-through attraction, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as just a walk-through exhibit. Here, there are scenes that bring you up close to various animals, all while traversing through an elaborately themed Asian environment. While the animal encounters are great, as are the Cast Members here sharing information about them, the environments through which you walk (and even through which the animals roam) are the real star. At one point it seems as if you’re going through the ruins of a remote temple that has existed for thousands of years, and details abound everywhere. Disney could have just let the animals be the show here, with utilitarian paths between them, but by going further and creating the environments, it feels like you’re an active participant in some sort of exploration. It’s difficult to articulate, but it works really well as an attraction and is very rewarding for guests who take the time to soak it all in.
Pick 8 or so of these attractions, add in dining (some of our favorites, like Flame Tree BBQ and Tusker House, are in Animal Kingdom), roaming entertainment, and wandering around the park to enjoy its many details, and you have a day of entertainment that stacks up well to the other three theme parks at Walt Disney World.
Half Day Park?
Disney’s Animal Kingdom is not a half day park. Now, there is the artificial limitation of shorter park hours, but inherently, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is not a half day park.
The misconception concerning this status is likely perpetuated by theme park commandos, who race from E-Ticket attraction to E-Ticket attraction and try to complete parks in almost a checklist fashion. Experiencing Animal Kingdom in this manner is, flat out, the wrong way to do it. The main reason–that it’s an ambiance park meant to be slowly enjoyed–is set out above.
The other main reason is sort of related to that, and it’s the attraction distribution of Animal Kingdom. If guests are working from a ‘checklist’ of sorts, once they complete the big name attractions listed in the first paragraph of the “Attractions” section, what is left for them to do? The walk-through animal attractions and meandering trails, while very well done, don’t cater to the commando type because there is no instant gratification with these experiences. Now, this is their fault for viewing a theme park as a list of items to accomplish as quickly as possible, and not Animal Kingdom’s fault. However, even for more patient guests, the walk-throughs and trails are similar enough to one another that at some point it’s understandable if fatigue from similarity sets in and they grow restless.
To avoid encountering this same fatigue ourselves, we made sure to mix-in these walking and self-guided attractions with more “typical” theme park attractions. This definitely isn’t the most efficient way to experience Animal Kingdom, but it did nicely break up our days there. We think this is a good way to approach the park if you commonly find yourself ready to head for the buses around 1 pm.
So What Is Wrong?
I’m not suggesting Animal Kingdom is without fault. The biggest thing that I think is wrong is the aforementioned attraction distribution. This might seem to fly in the face of what I said above, as I described Animal Kingdom as a different kind of theme park and it being guests’ own problem if they skip the brilliant animal-centric attractions. While true, these things don’t change the fact that Animal Kingdom could use more traditional theme park attractions that further distance it from a zoo and provide better balance to its slate.
Beastly Kingdom would have accomplished this brilliantly. Its attractions could not have been anything featuring actual animals, unless Imagineering pulled off some sort of Jurassic Park-type feat and found a way to bring to life beasts that have up until now been mythical. (In which case, I doubt many people would be complaining about more “animal”-centric exhibits.) I won’t even bother speculating on what “that one” proposed land would do for the park, as it is highly divisive, and rekindling played out controversy over it is not the point of this article. Plus, despite its limited presence at last month’s D23 Expo, I don’t believe it’s actually happening.
The point remains, though, that Animal Kingdom could use some attractions about mythical or extinct animals that use Disney ride systems found in other parks. Not necessarily dark rides, but some sort of rides. A few attractions like this would bridge the gap between Animal Kingdom and traditional Disney theme parks. Animal Kingdom would still have its own, unique identity, and would also have better balance and more ways for guests to break up their time in the park.
Camp Minnie Mickey is the obvious location for such growth to occur, but I think it should also occur in Dinorama. While some people have taken to praising the “clever” backstory in Dinorama, this backstory is nothing more than lipstick on a pig. I think the majority of guests look past this lipstick to see the pig for what it is, and it’s time for this pig to become bacon. That carnival is an embarrassment to the rest of the theme park, and truly disappointing given how much potential there is for a land themed to dinosaurs. Cleaning the slate and building a worthy dinosaur themed land would be a huge success for the park. Dinosaurs are our greatest national treasure, and it’s time Disney started treating them like it.
I wouldn’t describe Animal Kingdom as lacking in entertainment acts, but it does lack entertainment “spectaculars.” Rivers of Light is the oft-discussed, but never realized nighttime show for Animal Kingdom that doesn’t seem like it will ever come to fruition at this point. Whether it’s Rivers of Light or something else, Animal Kingdom needs some sort of nighttime entertainment as an evening draw since so many attractions close at sundown. Additionally, I think another daytime show would be great (or perhaps instead of the parade). Legend of Mythica will soon be retired at Tokyo DisneySea, and while this is a total pipe dream, it’s a beautiful show that would be a great fit for Animal Kingdom. In a world of realism and finite budgets, there are other things I’d rather see added first, though.
Additionally, maintenance is not where it should be in Animal Kingdom. The Yeti and nets around the tree of life are the prime examples of this, but smaller issues abound throughout the park. I wouldn’t say Animal Kingdom is worse than any of the other parks, it’s probably the best, actually. Animal Kingdom benefits from having an intentionally gritty, real world feel. Due to this gritty realism, if a light here or there is burnt out, you’re much less likely to recognize it, or you might just assume it’s intentional.
This list of qualms and areas that should be addressed might seem so long that it almost “swallows” the rest of the praise in this article, but it’s not. If it’s any consolation, my list of what needs to be addressed to perfect Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios would be far longer.
Overall, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is an excellent theme park that people (like me) under appreciated because it’s not what we’re used to experiencing. It is not perfect and it has clear room for improvement–but not necessarily any more room for improvement than Epcot or Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Even without improvement, it’s a park that many of us could stand to spend a little more time enjoying and exploring, as it has a great deal of beauty that many Disney fans have never seen.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom is unquestionably the most divisive theme park at Walt Disney World…where do you stand on it? Are you a fan of it, or is it your least favorite park? Think you’ll give some of its “lesser-known” attractions a chance? Hearing from you is half the fun, so share your thoughts in the comments!