For Christmas, Walt Disney World is debuting holiday overlays and entertainment at Animal Kingdom, with something in every land. We visited the park over the weekend and have a review, photos, info & tips for making the most of your visit to Animal Kingdom this Christmas, which runs from now until early January 2020.
This is the first year that Animal Kingdom is offering marquee holiday entertainment and decorations throughout the entire park, but hardly the beginning of holiday offerings at Animal Kingdom. For one, who doesn’t remember the iconic Mickey’s Jingle Jungle Parade?! Mickey to Rafiki. Come in, Rafiki! (Nobody? Okay, I’ll stop…) It’s been more than a few years since Jingle Jungle Parade last ran, so we’ll forgive you if you don’t recall that overlay.
More recently, as we cover in our Ultimate Guide to Christmas at Walt Disney World, Animal Kingdom has celebrated the holidays and multicultural winter traditions from around the globe, albeit in subtle ways. There was obviously the icon Christmas tree outside the park, but even within the lands, you could find on-theme decorations, many “crafted” out of found materials by local artisans…
This has been evident in Dino-rama, Asia, and Africa, where decorations had a handmade sensibility in keeping with the stories of those lands. These wreaths, garland, and other decor blended in really well…a little too well, in fact. Unless you had a keen eye looking for details, you might’ve missed them.
In large part, the new decorations are more of the same in each of these lands and Pandora. Unlike Magic Kingdom, which oozes a festive spirit the second you step onto Main Street, subtlety is the ideal approach at Animal Kingdom. The park is already beautifully layered, begging guests to take their time, linger, and peel back layers of details.
The village of Harambe in Africa blends the inspiration and style of western traditions with the colors and textiles of authentic African celebrations. Harambe’s performers appearing throughout the day introduce holiday-inspired enhancements, including costume additions and new music.
The holiday fun continues at Tusker House, one of the best and most ambitious character meals at Walt Disney World. There, Mickey and friends will have a light holiday overlay for this character buffet.
Speaking of holiday food, our only must-have at Animal Kingdom is over in Dino-Rama, and it’s the Double Chocolate Peppermint Ice Cream Sandwich at Dino-Bites Snacks. Unlike the other parks, Animal Kingdom doesn’t do many Christmas snacks, but this one is a doozy that we highly recommend!
This rich and decadent thanks to those double chocolate cookies (one of which is partially dipped in white chocolate), but with a refreshing kick thanks to the candy cane crunch covering the vanilla ice cream. Definitely plan on sharing this behemoth!
In addition to that glorious ice cream sandwich, Dino-Rama features kitschy Americana meets dinorific holiday fun. The new highlight here is Dino-Sue fully wrapped in Christmas lights and complete with a Santa hat and beard.
Other new and returning enhancements include a giant snowman, tinsel trees, lights at Restaurantosaurus, and some fun gags and displays throughout the land. Even Dino-Rama looks nice at Christmas.
Additionally, Donald’s Dino-Bash gets into the spirit with eclectic Christmas decorations in the style of Donald Duck and each of his pals. These can be found both on the meet & greet spots and the characters themselves.
At night, guests can gather ‘round the “Truck-O-Saurus” for the Holiday Hoopla Dance Party, featuring plenty of interactive fun and games plus Chip ‘n’ Dale, who are wearing dinosaur costumes…with Christmas costumes on top of those. (Costumes on top of costumes on top of costumes!)
In Asia, the residents of Anandapur have decorated the theatre district in celebration of Diwali, the holiday festival of lights in India. Glowing flowers, lanterns, and more illuminate the square between Anandapur Theater and the waterfront stage.
This debuted last Christmas and was an underrated gem that really gave life to this area of Animal Kingdom at night. It’s a great spot for a family holiday photo at night, as it’s often devoid of people, but offers bright and vibrant lighting.
Notably, the holiday spirit stretches off-planet to Pandora — The World of Avatar. There, the ex-pats working for Alpha Centauri Expeditions who inhabit Pandora bring a taste of Christmas to their alien home, with cheeky holiday decor at Pongu Pongu.
In actuality, cheeky only describes some of this decor, which is like Jingle Cruise meets Disney’s Yacht Club Resort (an odd combo, we know).
On the one hand, there’s the homesick crew members stranded thousands (or millions, as the case may be) miles from home bringing a vintage slice of Christmas to an exotic locale–like Jingle Cruise.
On the other, there are meticulously handcrafted items–like the yachts that adorn the Christmas trees and garland at Yacht Club.
There’s not a ton of holiday decor in Pandora – World of Avatar, but pay careful attention to the garland overhead.
This features beautifully carved banshee and other alien creatures from Avatar. (If only they sold these as ornaments in the gift shop–so much weird merchandise no one wants, yet we can’t get a nice wood banshee ornament!)
Saving the best for last, the unequivocal highlight of of the holidays at Animal Kingdom is Christmas on Discovery Island. Walking out of the Oasis and crossing the bridge to Discovery Island is actually a tad like stepping out from under the tunnel and stepping foot onto Main Street USA at Christmas, albeit in a very different way.
This area is in the midst of a celebration of winter, with holiday decorations that are hand-crafted by the eclectic community of artists who make Discovery Island their home. Discovery Island is brimming with sparkling white holiday decorations, animal luminaries on rooftops, wireframe bird-shaped lanterns, and themed garland adorning the buildings throughout the land.
During the day, Discovery Island is alive with a life-size “Merry Menagerie” of artisan-sculpted puppets that include reindeer, foxes, polar bears, penguins, birds, seals–and probably other critters we missed.
These winter animals are accompanied by serenading live musicians who mingle amongst guests and the Merry Menagerie of critters to create festive atmosphere.
The most obvious comparison for the life-size animal puppets is Kevin the bird from Up. This walk-around character debuted in Discovery Island this year and has been a smash hit with guests with spontaneous interactions and quickly posing for fun photos.
The Merry Menagerie of animal puppets is like Kevin, but less quirky and funny, and more majestic and awe-inspiring. Those are some strong words for what you could dismiss as visible humans moving around animals. You absolutely should not dismiss them, though.
In the sense that their human puppeteers are plainly visible, the Merry Menagerie is also like Finding Nemo: the Musical. The puppeteers emote as they control the animals, and the line between performer and critter is blurs, as each takes on the personality and emotions of the other.
It’s truly remarkable how effective this is, and how easy it is for guests to suspend disbelief. The Merry Menagerie of animals is mesmerizing as you watch the creatures interact with guests and one another. This isn’t hyperbole on our part, either.
We observed more guests than we could count pet the animals, and genuinely react when a fox pounced or a seal snuggled them. Several kids were taken aback by the polar bears, and a few asked their parents if it was okay to approach and touch the gentle giants.
The Merry Menagerie is hilarious and engaging; these animals add personality and substance to Discovery Island. In short, the Merry Menagerie is something wholesome and pure for the holidays that makes a huge impact on guests. It’s entertainment like this that showcases how Walt Disney World can do something special without being a blockbuster new attraction that cost $150 million and 5 years to build.
These Merry Menagerie puppets are the kind of thing that will be an indelible memory for some guests. Hopefully Disney expands this in the future and finds new and fun ways for interactions, as this is an incredible offering.
Without question, Merry Menagerie is the breakout star of the Christmas season at Walt Disney World.
The fun on Discovery Island doesn’t end when the Merry Menagerie heads off to hibernate for the night. The rooftop luminaries around Discovery Island create a warm and festive glow throughout the entire village.
Beautiful holiday background music continues to play, imbuing Discovery Island with a ‘winter wonderland’ elegance. At the center of Discovery Island, the Tree of Life is projected with a shade of deep blue, while snow collects on its trunk.
Beginning 30 minutes after sunset and continuing until park close, new Tree of Life Awakenings tell a series of winter tales, complete with a familiar and heartwarming holiday-inspired musical score. In each vignette, you’ll see some of the same wildlife from the Merry Menagerie engaged.
As always, the Tree of Life Awakenings are awesome.
These brief scenes 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. They’re the perfect way to end a holiday visit to Animal Kingdom.
In terms of strategy, not much is possible or even necessary. Our biggest piece of advice would be timing your visit to see the Merry Menagerie when crowds are lowest. It’s almost impossible to get ‘clean’ photos with the animals and puppeteers without other guests in the background.
However, avoiding high traffic times of day on Discovery Island can help with that. In our experience, Discovery Island is most busy as guests are arriving and when they’re leaving. This leaves the middle of the day, from around 1 pm to 3 pm, as the sweet spot. Note that the Merry Menagerie ends before sunset, with their last set currently ending at 5 pm.
For the sake of photos, we favor watching the Tree of Life Awakenings as soon as they begin. This is usually 30 minutes after sunset, at which time there’s still a glow and bit of color in the sky. (That’s when all of the Tree of Life Awakenings photos here were taken.)
The downside is that this is unquestionably when Discovery Island is most crowded, as many guests don’t seem to realize the Tree of Life Awakenings occur continuously until after park closing.
Overall, the new Christmas and other holiday entertainment at Disney’s Animal Kingdom are a nice addition. While the level of ambition and thoroughness varies, each land is decorated with thematic integrity, and the look makes sense in context. Most importantly, the new Merry Menagerie puppeteers on Discovery Island are simple but absolutely entrancing, and one of the holiday highlights in all of Walt Disney World.
We’ll be spending many afternoons on Discovery Island, watching them interact and listening to the live musicians before heading to Dino-Rama to grab one of those ice cream sandwiches and returning for the Tree of Life Awakenings. Animal Kingdom continues to offer incremental improvements and reasons to linger longer in the day, and now is quietly cementing its spot as the sleeper hit of the holiday season at Walt Disney World.
Finally, a few plugs. First, our freeVacation Kingdom at Christmas eBook is available for download! This free eBook is 90 pages, with 100+ photos, and tons of great tips & info for the holiday season at Walt Disney World. For more details on how to get this totally-free ebook, click here. Did we mention that it’s free?! 😉
What do you think of Animal Kingdom getting into the festivities this Christmas season? Are you excited for all of the offerings on Discovery Island? Think Merry Menagerie looks as awesome as our praise for it, or is it overrated? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!