It’s time for another update from Animal Kingdom Lodge, which is the only resort at Walt Disney World with a major addition to its holiday offerings. We’ll take a look at the savanna woodland critter Christmas creations, egg-citing ostrich ornaments, and major menu updates to several restaurants at AKL. Buckle up, because it’s going to be a wild ride!
Animal Kingdom Lodge is one of our favorite hotels at Walt Disney World year-round, and that’s taken up a notch during the Christmas season. While it doesn’t hit the same holiday high notes as Wilderness Lodge, it’s a very similar idea. If you’ve never visited AKL, this is the perfect time of year to remedy that, and doing a dinner at Sanaa, Jiko, Boma…or perhaps one of the lower profile restaurants getting menu updates is a great way to do that.
However, when it comes to visiting Animal Kingdom Lodge at Christmas, we do not recommend going on your Magic Kingdom day. Walt Disney World transportation is too convoluted, and if you drive yourself, you risk being turned away at busier times (although that’s not as likely at Animal Kingdom Lodge as it is at the Epcot or Magic Kingdom area resorts).
Instead, do Animal Kingdom Lodge in the evening after your Animal Kingdom day. Even with Pandora now keeping that park open later, it still regularly closes at 8 p.m., which is perfect timing for a relaxing night at Animal Kingdom Lodge, perhaps with a romantic dinner at Jiko or Sanaa, or an all-you-can-eat affair at Boma.
Purely subjective, but I also think there are some resorts where Christmas “comes alive” more at night than during the day. Nowhere is this more true than at Wilderness and Animal Kingdom Lodges. It’s not just sitting around the fireplaces or enjoying an empty lobby after the crowds have cleared out and everyone has gone to bed.
Due to the large windows letting light into the lobby, the lodges don’t look as good during the daytime. Don’t get me wrong, I love natural light–but I think the core design and decor lends itself better to the darkness of night. Just compare the top two lobby photos and tell me you don’t agree! In my opinion, the evening one is far superior.
By contrast, I think all of the monorail loop resorts are just as good during the day as at night. Same goes for the Crescent Lake hotels. While I prefer visiting all of them in the evening for seasonal serenity, I don’t feel short-changed with the substance of the decorations when visiting during the day. But I digress.
Animal Kingdom Lodge is arguably the best resort at Walt Disney World. When viewed objectively, I think that’s the case. Thematically, Animal Kingdom Lodge is on par with Wilderness Lodge, sharing similar bloodlines and the same basic design sensibilities.
On top of that, Animal Kingdom Lodge has superior dining, rooms, and pools. Then there’s the savanna, the ultimate “amenity” at any Walt Disney World resort, period. We cover all of this in more depth in our Animal Kingdom Lodge v. Wilderness Lodge post, so I won’t fixate on it here.
There are also a lot of similarities between the two resorts at Christmas. Both have large ‘icon’ Christmas trees, a variety of garland, and wreaths around the resorts, plus soothing background music loops. On paper, they are very evenly-matched.
However, after spending a good amount of time at each this Christmas season, my unequivocal favorite is Wilderness Lodge. For one, I think there’s a lot more depth and diversity to Wilderness Lodge’s decorations. There’s simply more, and a wider range of decor, at Wilderness Lodge.
While Christmas is celebrated in Africa as both a religious and secular holiday, it isn’t as prominent or all-encompassing. This is likely why the decor is largely muted throughout Animal Kingdom, with small wreaths made of found-materials and other additions that mostly blend-in with the existing details of the park.
Then there’s my admitted bias as an American who was born and raised in the snowbelt of Michigan. I grew up around fireplaces, antlers, Native American art and culture, and the version of Christmas generally reflected in Wilderness Lodge. Even though it’s themed to the Pacific Northwest, many elements of Wilderness Lodge would be at home–or close to it–in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or even other areas of the state.
But I digress…again. I already dedicated much of our Wilderness Lodge at Christmas post to discussing how Christmas in Florida isn’t “real” as my preconceived notion of the holiday is what I experienced as a kid in Michigan.
If that’s how I view Florida–a place I’ve spent a ton of time in the winter–I’m sure you can imagine my view of Christmas in Africa. Fair or not, Animal Kingdom Lodge is right there with the Polynesian as having a base theme that, in my mind, is pretty much the antithesis of winter and, by extension, Christmas.
This is entirely on me, and shouldn’t be construed as a value judgment about the quality of Animal Kingdom Lodge’s Christmas decor. My failure to fully “connect” with Animal Kingdom Lodge to the same degree as Wilderness Lodge during the holidays is mostly rooted in my own sentimentality and preferences.
I mention all of this, though, because there’s a decent chance those reading this will have similar biases. (Walt Disney World’s largest markets outside of Florida are the Chicago and New York metro areas–two places with “real” winters.)
Nevertheless, I can still appreciate culture, beauty, and incredible themed design–and Animal Kingdom Lodge has all of this in spades. That the resort manages to get into the festive spirit to the degree that it does is really a testament to the creative team that designed the holiday overlay package.
The icon tree is one of the best in all of Walt Disney World, the warm Christmas lights shine brilliantly against the resort’s color scheme, and the background music is a sleeper contender for best Christmas loop at Walt Disney World.
And to the resort’s credit, Christmas at Animal Kingdom Lodge keeps getting better!
The first big improvement is the replacement of wicker giraffes by the hotel’s roadside welcome sign with much more elaborate and substantial ones. These are so cool and detailed that I actually think it’s a shame they aren’t on display by the front entrance. It’s tough to see the details while passing by on a bus that’s bouncing around.
Inside the hotel, Christmas 2022 at Animal Kingdom Lodge also continues the tradition begun last year when a life-sized baby giraffe made a surprise, unannounced appearance in early December at Animal Kingdom Lodge.
This year, the life-sized Baby Gingerbread Giraffe has been joined by a brand-new Baby Zebra–you can also purchase a Gingeraffe Cookie to commemorate the occasion.
This is a really fun enhancement, and the kind of “plussing” that I think every Deluxe Resort should have in addition to the icon Christmas trees.
Back in 2019, Wilderness Lodge quietly added Humphrey the Bear’s gingerbread cabin. It was a pretty big hit with guests, and made for a popular snack spot at Wilderness Lodge. It has yet to return, possibly because it was simply too good and made Wilderness Lodge way too awesome at Christmas. Could be a safety issue with minds being blown as guests were overwhelmed by the spirit of the season or something of that sort.
These savanna woodland Christmas critters are not as good as Humphrey the Bear’s log cabin, but they are pretty cool.
Due to its off-the-beaten-path location, these edible animals are also far less popular than literally any other gingerbread displays at Walt Disney World. You’ll notice literally no other guests in my photos, which were taken during the middle of the day. That’s not good timing of Photoshop trickery–it’s simply a normal midday at Animal Kingdom Lodge.
Walt Disney World’s “Ginger-affe” and “Debra the Zebra” are the creations of Pastry Chef Lexy Ross and the Animal Kingdom Lodge Bakery Team.
As indicated in the above photo, the display is brought to life by approximately 32,256 honey bees pollinating nearly 84 million flowers on crops such as apples, cranberries, coffee, and avocados to produce the 42 pounds of honey used for the display. One honey bee visits about 225,000 flowers in a single day.
I couldn’t find any other display–like those around the gingerbread houses–indicating what other ingredients were used beyond honey. The animals feature gingerbread and fondant, so…whatever makes those things. (My culinary chops are confined to microwaving things, so don’t ask me.)
Regardless, these Christmas critters demonstrate the creative and artistic talents of the Animal Kingdom Lodge pastry team, as well as their skills in the kitchen…which were already obvious to anyone who has dined at literally any AKL restaurant. Speaking of which…
Animal Kingdom Lodge has a bunch of new menu items starting today (December 8, 2022). Starting out at Maji Pool Bar, which is adding poolside snacks with an African twist. First up is the Shrimp Bakuli, which means bowl in Swahili. This dish is inspired by the open-air food markets found in Zanzibar, Chef Sahib Bhatti’s home country, where each evening as the sun sets, the vendors prepare seafood delicacies with the day’s catch. The bakuli includes chilled poached shrimp, pickled carrots, and Basmati rice with a flavorful soy-ginger dressing and berbere aïoli.
For plant-based patrons, the chefs have also created a new offering just for you – the Multigrain Tabbouleh. This bowl is a vibrant salad with protein-rich grains, fresh herbs, and grilled vegetables.
For those with a less adventurous palate, the team has developed two more traditional offerings with African flair. The Spiced Pork Nachos are topped with spiced pork, beans, herbed crema, and kachumbari. The “spiced pork” used is pork vindaloo, originally from Goa but based on a Portuguese dish “carne de vinha d’alhos.” This tender pork is prepared with flavors of paprika, garlic, tomato, vinegar, and a house-made spice blend.
Another mouth-watering option available is the Short Rib Grilled Cheese. The short ribs are slow-cooked with a house-made spice blend, tamarind, and red wine until tender. The buttery brioche bread is topped with short ribs, gouda cheese, and pickled onion and pressed to order.
I know at Animal Kingdom Lodge I should order adventurous, envelope-pushing entrees. That’s what I want to see more of at Walt Disney World, and saying what I want is one thing–but voting with my wallet is much more powerful. However, that Short Rib Grilled Cheese has my name on it. Holy cow. I’m sorry, everyone, but I’ve gotta do the “unadventurous” thing and eat that. It’s for research. (You all should go ahead and order the Shrimp Bakuli and Tabbouleh, though!)
The Mara will also be adding a few items to the menu starting today.
For those who are looking to keep their safari on the tamer side, there is the Marinated Sun-dried Tomato and Herbed Ricotta Flatbread with sun-dried tomatoes, fresh herb ricotta, tomato sauce, four-cheese blend, and arugula.
For those looking to walk on the wild side, the chefs have created three new bowls. The Chermoula-spiced Shrimp Bowl is a must-try with grilled shrimp, pilau rice, kale slaw, cucumber-tomato salad, and chermoula sour cream. Pilau rice is similar to rice pilaf, and this version is simmered with The Mara’s unique spice blend and utilized as the base for all three bowls.
Also available is the Oak-grilled Chicken Bowl made with marinated chicken thighs, slow-roasted over the oak-fired spit.
Rounding out the new additions at The Mara is the plant-based South African Vegetable Bowl. Chef Wendy Welcovitz and Sous Chef Khuloud Abu Samra drew inspiration from South African cuisine to craft each component: curried vegetable stew, pilau rice, kale slaw, dried fruit achar, and avocado-tahini sauce.
I’m hoping these perform well and the Mara becomes a quasi-Satu’li Canteen, but with more menu choices.
Jiko: The Cooking Place is adding a variety of seasonal items to its menu for this winter. You can always enjoy fan-favorites like the Oak-grilled Filet Mignon or Braaied Wild Boar Tenderloin, but there is a new appetizer to try – Sweet Potato-Groundnut Soup. This soup features spiced groundnuts, finger lime, pickled red chilies, and sorrel.
Finally, to celebrate the premiere of “Avatar: The Way of Water” on December 16, Animal Kingdom Lodge will be introducing a signature beverage for those over 21. Available at Boma: Flavors of Africa, Sanaa, and Victoria Falls Lounge, Way of Water is a shimmering blend of African Starr Rum, BACARDÍ Raspberry Rum, Bols Blue Curaçao, and lemonade garnished with a glowing lotus flower and mint.
Another egg-citing addition at Animal Kingdom is a new activity to get you in the holiday spirit– decorating Christmas tree ornaments with ostrich shells. Throughout the month of December, you can create a mosaic-like ornament made from crushed and dyed ostrich eggs.
Guests of all ages can make a whimsical ornament that uses real eggs laid by ostriches at the resort and Animal Kingdom. With no male ostriches at the park or lodge, these eggs remain unfertilized and go unused by the female ostriches who lay them on a cycle similar to chickens. Once cleaned, the eggs are crushed and colorfully dyed, glued onto an animal-shaped ornament of your choosing and tied off with a recycled telephone wire.
At the end of the activity, you’ll bring home a special keepsake reminiscent of all the wildlife you’ve seen and memories you’ve made during your visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. Guests can participate by visiting the recreation clubhouses at Jambo House from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Kidani Village from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. until December 31, 2022.
Ultimately, all of these new and updated offerings at Animal Kingdom Lodge should give you more than enough of an “excuse” to make the trip out to the out-of-the-way hotel for Christmas 2022 at Walt Disney World. Even if you’re unable to secure a dinner ADR at Jiko, Boma, or Sanaa, it is well worth your time. (The new menu options at the Mara sound great, as do those at the pool bar, and Victoria Falls Lounge is a strong sleeper pick.)
Even before all of this, Animal Kingdom Lodge is a top 5 resort year-round, but especially at Christmas. Subjectively, it doesn’t have the same sense of nostalgia or Christmasy charm that puts Wilderness Lodge over the top for me, but Animal Kingdom Lodge is still an excellent resort at Christmas (and now, an “eggs-cellent” one, apparently!) that is absolutely worth your limited vacation time. Go check it out after a day at DAK if you’re visiting this Christmas season!
What do you think of Animal Kingdom Lodge at Christmas? Do you find Animal Kingdom Lodge every bit as charming as Wilderness Lodge at Christmas, or do you agree with me? What do you think of the Christmas tree and background music at Animal Kingdom Lodge? 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!