2016: Animal Kingdom’s Coming Out Party

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It was around 5:30 p.m. as I stood next to my tripod on the bridge from Discovery Island to Africa in early December, watching a gorgeous sunset take shape. Not another soul passed by, which would not be exceptionally noteworthy in my nighttime photography, save for the fact that this park was still open for over another hour.

I couldn’t help but think to myself, “now is the last time I’m going to experience this.” While the sun set, literally, on an empty park that evening, I think the sun is rising, figuratively, on Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The park is poised to debut the Rivers of Light nighttime spectacular in Spring 2016, which will be a huge addition. Not only will Animal Kingdom no longer be closing so early, but it will no longer be a ghost town after about 4 p.m.

Even before the biggest addition, Pandora: World of Avatar, slated for the park opens in 2017, Animal Kingdom will finally come into its own. In short, 2016 will be the year of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

In terms of big attendance gains, 2016 may not be the year for Animal Kingdom. It goes without saying that Rivers of Light will increase attendance, but there’s the question of whether it will increase or increase dramatically. Will guests now feel Animal Kingdom is a full-day park, or will the park only see a slight attendance bump, with the larger gain in hours per day spent there by guests?

Unless you’re a large shareholder or interested in talking shop about theme parks, predictions about attendance don’t really matter. What’s more important to theme park fans and the general public is the overall quality of the experience. To that end, this should be the year when Animal Kingdom finally sheds that scarlet “half-day park” label once and for all.

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One thing I’m comfortable in predicting is the number of “bold” proclamations come Spring 2016 that Animal Kingdom is the best park at Walt Disney World, made by people who previously ignored the park. There will be a lot of them. I call these bold proclamations half in jest: it’s unquestionably true that Rivers of Light does a lot to flesh out Animal Kingdom, but to go from shunned to the best overnight is a tad funny.

I suppose Animal Kingdom is the ugly duckling of Walt Disney World in that sense, and has been for roughly a decade. Save for a small group of super-fans, it simply does not have the same level of adoration as Magic Kingdom or Epcot. I speak from experience: we largely ignored the park until gaining a greater appreciation in 2013 (seeI Was Wrong About Disney’s Animal Kingdom“). Many of the problems Animal Kingdom has had up until now are of its own doing, but just as many are due to guests misunderstanding the park.

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The thing is, it won’t actually be going from worst to best overnight. In terms of the heart of the park, Animal Kingdom has been the one of the top two parks at Walt Disney World for a while. It’s slowly been coming into its own, and even more of this congealed last year with a number of under-the-radar projects that collectively brought about some significant changes for Animal Kingdom. It’s almost as if the Imagineering team heading up the Pandora project siphoned off a chunk of the funds allocated for that into a slush fund for other pet projects throughout the park.

In actuality, it’s more likely that executives and Imagineers realized the influx of crowds that would flock to Animal Kingdom for Rivers of Light and Avatar Land would necessitate other changes to the park to support that level of crowds. Seeing these two projects as a quasi-reboot for Animal Kingdom, they took the initiative to invest in other areas that needed addressing. In any case, beyond just the obvious changes and additions in New Harambe and Harambe Market, there have been little improvements.

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The central hub of the park was expanded, with new roots added to the Tree of Life that simultaneously gave more depth and allowed for a better close-up view of the area around the Tree of Life (not sure how this was accomplished, but I’m not complaining).

Other changes include the toning-down of pastel art that might have seemed like a good idea in the 1990s (then again, so did parachute pants–it was a tubular time of questionable style choices, indeed) were also made. The changes range from relatively minor to fairly major, and there has yet to be a misfire among them. The park is looking better than ever.

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Rivers of Light is the most exciting and important change to Animal Kingdom since 1998. Bigger than Expedition Everest in terms of its impact on the park, what Rivers of Light brings to the table is a viable reason for guests to stay into the evening hours. This is something not even Extra Magic Hours could previously accomplish. Even on the busiest days of the year for the other parks, Animal Kingdom was quiet in the evening hours. The number of times I’ve ever waited longer than 5 minutes to ride Expedition Everest after 5 p.m.? Zero.

Barring a ‘Light Magic’ level catastrophe, Rivers of Light will keep a large number of guests at Animal Kingdom into the evening hours. If Rivers of Light can keep guests in Animal Kingdom after 8 p.m., it will be huge. For many (a majority?) that’s effectively doubling the amount of time they previously spent in Animal Kingdom.

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This increased amount of time in the park will effectively force guests to experience attractions they would otherwise–or previously–ignore, as they flocked for the exits by 3 p.m. In so doing, guests will “discover” overlooked attractions, many of which are criminally underrated. This will give guests a greater appreciation for the park, and elevate the status of the park as a whole in the minds of guests. If this happens, it will be directly attributable to Rivers of Light, which is why the show’s quality and popularity is so important.

What Rivers of Light also does is round out the attraction slate, both by (finally) giving Animal Kingdom a nighttime spectacular to serve as the finale of guests’ days and by providing another offering that isn’t wildlife-centric. In our 1-Day Animal Kingdom Park Itinerary, we warn of “animal fatigue” and the need to scatter trails and animal-based attractions among traditional theme park attractions for a well-rounded day. Rivers of Light helps address this problem–and the perception of Animal Kingdom as a glorified zoo.

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Admittedly, Rivers of Light doesn’t do as much as is needed to address this issue, but it will help. The other big (announced) addition for this year, the Sunset Kilimanjaro Safaris, a nighttime version of the existing safari, won’t help with that at all. However, it does provide another attraction for guests to experience at night, which is another piece of the puzzle for Animal Kingdom’s long-term success. Other entertainment additions are expected to be plugged in on the fly, as well. Hopefully these work towards providing a well-rounded guest experience. (Oh, and let’s not forget that the park just got an aardvark. I repeat, ANIMAL KINGDOM JUST GOT AN AARDVARK. HELL YEAH! 😉 )

Balancing out the attraction slate to further alleviate that “animal fatigue” is why Pandora: World of Avatar is so important going forward. Unless James Cameron has perfected some crazy technology in his Cameron-Cave to actually bring the blue smurf kittens to life, they are mythical creatures. As such, the Pandora attractions necessarily won’t feature actual wildlife, and instead will be traditional theme park attractions.

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I’ve constantly reiterated by excitement for Pandora: World of Avatar, irrespective of the questionable source material. After seeing the Alpha Centauri Expeditions booth at the D23 Expo, I’m even more optimistic about the prospects for Pandora. These attractions and the draw of exploring the land of Pandora will bring further needed balance to Animal Kingdom. Accordingly, I think Pandora will be just what Animal Kingdom needs to round out the park and cement it as one of Disney’s best parks in the world.

Despite Pandora’s likely opening date next year, I still think this year is Animal Kingdom’s coming out party, when a huge contingent of fans will finally take notice of the park. Rivers of Light is what will get people spending more time there, experiencing things they hadn’t previously done, and drinking up those resplendent details. Pandora obviously will have a huge impact next year, but Rivers of Light is the rising tide that lifts all ships…or ride vehicles, as the case may be.

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With Animal Kingdom nailing the design fundamentals and laying the foundation for accommodating huge crowds while adding nighttime entertainment and big-budget attractions, it’s poised for a very bright future. If it’s not about to be the best park at Walt Disney World, it’s at least the park with the most near-term upside.

As Epcot is a shell of its former self and Disney’s Hollywood Studios is…well, I don’t even need to go there…it’s only real competition in that regard is Magic Kingdom. Any park would have a tough time competing with the cultural touchstone that is the Magic Kingdom.

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Before I allow myself to get caught up in the hype that’s sure to ensue later this spring when Rivers of Light debuts, I’ll go on record now and contend that no (currently announced) changes or additions to Animal Kingdom can propel it past Magic Kingdom. The latter is simply too iconic, and benefits from Walt’s visionary design 60+ years ago in California, refined 40+ years ago in Florida, and since iterated upon and added to in the intervening decades.

Rather, Animal Kingdom will stand proudly as a worthy second gate, a concept park that fulfills its mission and fires on all cylinders. In its history, Disney has had two such parks: EPCOT Center and Tokyo DisneySea. We shall soon see whether Animal Kingdom enters that conversation as the third. You know where my money is on that one.

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Your Thoughts

Do you agree or disagree that Animal Kingdom will come into its own in 2016 thanks, largely, to Rivers of Light? Do you think the park still needs additional non-animal attractions, in addition to what’s promised with Avatar Land? Have any other “wish list” items? Where do you rank Animal Kingdom in terms of the Walt Disney World parks? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments below!


32 Responses to “2016: Animal Kingdom’s Coming Out Party”
  1. Dan December 19, 2016
  2. Kate Kramer May 5, 2016
  3. Linda March 25, 2016

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