Animal Kingdom Report: Disney World’s Holiday “Hidden” Gem!

We visited Animal Kingdom over the weekend to check out its Christmas entertainment and decorations, and also enjoy a rare evening in the park. This post shares photos of the holiday decor, tips & info, our experience with crowds, nighttime in Pandora, and a new recommendation for the best day of the week to visit Animal Kingdom.

Historically, Animal Kingdom has done the least for Christmas of any park at Walt Disney World. That changed last year with the debut of Merry Menagerie, Tree of Life Holiday Awakenings, Donald’s Dino Bash Holiday Hoopla Dance Party, and Christmas decorations added to every land, including Pandora – World of Avatar.

Despite announcing everything that would be happening in the other three parks, Walt Disney World has been relatively quiet about Christmas at Animal Kingdom. They announced a few food items, festive flotillas, and that’s about it. We were thus quite surprised to find Animal Kingdom offering a robust slate of Christmas entertainment over the weekend. So much, in fact, that we’d call it Walt Disney World’s holiday hidden gem.

Before we get you too excited, there’s no Merry Menagerie in Discovery Island this year. These were the artisan-sculpted puppets that include reindeer, foxes, polar bears, penguins, birds, seals, and other critters. The winter animals are accompanied by serenading live musicians who mingled amongst guests and the Merry Menagerie of critters to create festive atmosphere.

Seriously, these puppets were something special and we hyped them up as being among the best of Walt Disney World’s holiday offerings last year. They didn’t get nearly the fan attention they deserved (as is often the case with anything at Animal Kingdom that isn’t Flight of Passage), but they were a sleeper hit and we really hope they make a return next year.

We set out to Animal Kingdom with the goal of seeing the holiday overlays to the character flotillas. Let’s get these out of the way first.

Per Walt Disney World, “Donald’s Dino Bash Festive Flotilla” takes its seasonal celebration to the water, with character friends waving to everyone as they pass, and Chip ‘n’ Dale jingle through the jungle, bringing their own style of holiday flair to the river.

Also per Walt Disney World, the Discovery Island Drummers cruise along, entertaining guests on the shore with an energetic holiday beat. Santa Claus also makes the trek to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, spreading the joyous spirit of the season to all he sees along the way.

I’m embarrassed to admit how much time we spent in the Rivers of Life amphitheater waiting for the Discovery Island Drummers and Santa Claus, but it was definitely too long. We never saw either, which could have been due to the weather forecast (both should have appeared according to the entertainment showtimes in My Disney Experience.

Sitting around two-plus hours waiting for Santa Claus is totally on us, and something sane guests won’t do. These flotillas are absolutely best enjoyed randomly in passing, or while dining at Flame Tree BBQ.

Nevertheless, I really don’t think they’re as good as the cavalcades in the other three parks. They don’t bring the same energy to Animal Kingdom, and sort of fall flat. It’d be awesome if Animal Kingdom could also do cavalcades–perhaps a puppet processional of wintry animals?!

Let’s switch gears to the positive aspects of our visit, which was quite literally everything else.

On the food front, the only one of the Christmas snacks (read our preview) that has debuted thus far is the Pumpkin Ice Cream Sandwich at Dino—Bite Snacks in Dinoland. These are always a winner, and this one is no exception. Not as good as the Double-Chocolate Peppermint version (that I’m assuming will debut in December), but few things are. Still very much worth buying.

Christmas decorations are once again up in every land of Animal Kingdom.

Outside of Dinoland and Discovery Island, some of these are very subtle (like Africa) or located only in small pockets of each land (like Pandora).

Far and away the best area of Animal Kingdom during the holiday season is Discovery Island. I’m not normally a huge fan of this section of the park, but it’s perfect during Christmas season. Right up there with Main Street and Echo Lake, the latter of which we’ve repeatedly dubbed another of Walt Disney World’s holiday hidden gems.

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.

It’s hard to fully articulate what makes the atmosphere on Discovery Island so delightful during the Christmas season.

Rather than trying to over-explain, I’ll just share some more photos and let them do the talking:

Even photos don’t fully do Discovery Island justice.

If you have the time, we highly recommend grabbing a cupcake or Peppermint Mocha from the Creature Comforts Starbucks, taking it over to Discovery Island at sunset, and just taking a seat. Savor the joyous music, flickering lanterns, and snowfall on the Tree of Life.

Although Walt Disney World hasn’t officially announced their return, the Tree of Life Holiday Awakenings are back. (At least, on evenings when the hours allow for them.)

These begin shortly after sunset and continuing until park close, telling a series of winter tales, complete with a familiar and heartwarming holiday-inspired musical score.

These brief scenes during which the animals on the Tree of Life come alive via projections are awesome. This is pure Walt Disney World 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. They capture 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 fairness, the Tree of Life Holiday Awakenings are also taste-specific. If you like fast-paced entertainment with familiar Disney characters and music, these might not be your cup of tea. They’re slower paced, with subtle and elegant beauty.

We absolutely loved the Tree of Life Holiday Awakenings, but they’re more on the Rivers of Light or IllumiNations end of the spectrum as opposed to Happily Ever After. However, they do have cute animals and don’t overstay their welcome, so perhaps we’re underestimating the appeal?

Walt Disney World has not announced any of this, which is a huge part of why it’s a holiday hidden gem. However, all of this occurring unofficially makes sense.

For most non-holiday weekdays in November and December, Animal Kingdom is only open until 5 pm. That’s before sunset, meaning that the Tree of Life Holiday Awakenings presumably won’t be happening on weeknights. If Walt Disney World announced all of this, that would’ve resulted in many disappointed guests–or too many rescheduling their visits for the weekends.

This Friday through Sunday, Animal Kingdom was open until 8 pm each night.

The hours are similar on upcoming weekends, albeit with 6 pm or 7 pm closures. Those hours could still be extended as the dates draw nearer.

In addition to enjoying the Tree of Life Holiday Awakenings, we also got to see something we haven’t in a while: nighttime in Pandora – World of Avatar.

I’m a huge fan of this land at night, especially now that the bioluminescence has been redone and really pops. Pandora is incredibly moody and atmospheric after sunset, and is very much worth experiencing then.

Beyond that, no matter how busy Animal Kingdom is during the day, the wait times really drop off at the end of the day. (Our Awesome Afternoon in Animal Kingdom gives a rundown of everything we recently accomplished there, including actual v. posted wait times.)

This was true over the weekend, with the shortest waits for Avatar Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey in the last hour or so the park was open. Even though midday crowds were much higher than on a weekday, everything dropped off later in the day.

Above on the right you can see the “End of Line” sign for Avatar Flight of Passage. (Props to the Cast Member giving me thumbs up; a “detail” I didn’t notice until editing these photos.)

This line just kept getting shorter towards the end of the night. It was never a walk-on like we’ve experienced on past weekends, but it wasn’t bad. Everything outside of Pandora was a walk-on at the end of the day.

Previously, we had tepidly endorsed Animal Kingdom as a possible pick for Sunday–but recommended avoiding every park except Disney’s Hollywood Studios on the weekends if you could. (DHS remains our pick for Saturday if you’re visiting over a weekend.)

We’re now modifying that advice for weekends when Animal Kingdom is open until 7 pm or later (maybe even 6 pm). It’s now our qualitative recommendation for Friday or Sunday. That’s to say you will encounter longer posted wait times than during the week, but it’s worthwhile because our subjective view is that the added nighttime experiences more than offset the increased daytime waits.

Ultimately, all of that is why Animal Kingdom is our pick for Walt Disney World’s holiday hidden gem, and why we strongly recommend doing the park on a weekend. It’s worth noting that Animal Kingdom is an especially good option for afternoon arrivals. Wait times decrease after about 2 pm, which happens in large part because Animal Kingdom opens early and there isn’t enough for most guests to fill an entire day in the park right now.

It’s perfectly realistic to arrive at 2 pm or so, knock out a few low-wait attractions, jump in line for the Pandora – World of Avatar attractions in the last hour the park is open, and then slowly make your way out of Discovery Island after Animal Kingdom has closed. The wildcard here is when the Tree of Life Holiday Awakenings end. In the past, they’ve been shown sporadically after park closing, but there’s no guarantee that’s the case this year. We’ll return this weekend to see whether that’s the case, testing a new afternoon Christmas itinerary for Animal Kingdom in the process. Stay tuned for that!

For comprehensive tips for planning your Christmas-time trip to Walt Disney World, check out our Ultimate Guide to Christmas at Walt Disney World. For Walt Disney World trip planning tips and comprehensive advice, make sure to read our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide and related articles.


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 it’ll be worth doing Animal Kingdom on a busier weekend day to enjoy the evening holiday entertainment and decorations? 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!

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