I’ve been to Disney about ten times in my life. A few of these times were as a child with my family and the rest were as an adult, either with friends or with Nick. Over the course of my life I’ve seen some serious changes in the parks. Magic Kingdom had its major Fantasyland upgrade with the opening of New Fantasyland and upgraded nighttime show. Hollywood Studios closed the Backlot Tour to make room for the exciting new additions of Toy Story Land and Star Wars Land. Epcot added new rides over the years and is now closing more old ones to make way for more updated thrilling experiences. The most changes, however, have occurred in Animal Kingdom.
When Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, it was unfinished. The plan was to eventually add on a “Beastly Kingdom” area in addition to the African, Asian, and Dinosaur themed areas that would focus on fantasy creatures. This was never built. I’m not sure exactly why, if it was due to budget issues or what, but instead, for many years Animal Kingdom was considered a half-day park. I can remember going to Animal Kingdom as a kid and I loved it because of the animals that were there. For adults however, I can see why many thought it was nothing but a glorified zoo. Throughout the years, Disney has added many new things to improve the park. Now that the park is more or less complete, it is my favorite park (as an adult) and it’s the park that I would recommend that anyone go to if you’re only visiting Disney World for one day. Here are my Top 5 reasons why:
1. The Festival Of The Lion King
Don’t let the title fool you, this show is not just for kids. Located in the Africa area of Animal Kingdom, this show has it all. It’s hosted by four extremely talented singers that lead you through the festival. The show has crazy-talented gymnasts that put on an insane acrobatic routine, an amazing fire-twirler, and a jaw-dropping dance duet. It is one mind blowing act after another that leaves the audience more and more stunned as the show goes on. In addition, the hosts keep the audience a part of the show by adding in some friendly competition with each other. Due to all of this, The Festival Of The Lion King is one of the best shows on Disney property.
2. Harambe Market
The Harambe Market is also located in the Africa area of Animal Kingdom near The Festival Of The Lion King. The market is so well themed, you actually feel like you’re there. One thing that Disney does well is immersion and the Harambe Market is one of the best examples of this. There are food shops that street vendors set up, music playing in the streets, and delicious food that follows the theming perfectly. The shops aren’t your average Disney souvenir shops either. They are shops that you would stumble upon in Africa, complete with merchandise that would be sold there. No Mickey plushes or sparkly ears can be found here, giving you the illusion that you are actually in Africa and not in Disney World.
3. Kilimanjaro Safaris
In a vast expanse of land behind the Harambe Market in Animal Kingdom is Kilimanjaro Safaris. This is not your average zoo safari. You board a bus-like vehicle driven by a tour guide and take off into the wilderness. Through the safari, you can see a multitude of animals including giraffes, hippos, gazelles, elephants, cheetahs, zebras, lions, and rhinos – just to name a few. What is cool about the area is that all the animals are able to free roam among other species. You see the giraffes and gazelles coexisting and the zebras and rhinos interacting. The lions and cheetahs are strategically separated into their own areas but there are no obvious signs of it being an enclosure since no fences or barriers can be seen from the vehicles. This is one of the best experiences in Animal Kingdom and a great way to see these exotic animals in a more natural habitat.
4. Expedition Everest
Expedition Everest is a roller coaster in an actual mountain. In the Asia themed area of Animal Kingdom, you enter an area that is themed like a Tibetan village. Prayer flags hang above the walkway as you make your way toward Mt. Everest. The queue for the ride is set in an old shrine that slowly bridges to a museum. In the museum, you are introduced to the legend of the yeti and the significance that he holds on the mountain. The roller coaster itself is a great roller coaster. It has thrilling drops and even goes backwards for awhile, but what makes it great is how the story is continued through the ride. You come across parts of the track that have been destroyed by the yeti and even come face to face with him. In addition, the views from the top of the mountain are amazing. Before you board the ride, ask a cast member to wait for the front row and they will direct you on where to go. The front row offers the best views. You can see all of Disney World from multiple different angles. We rode it at night on one of our trips, and we could see the Star Wars Fireworks going on across Disney in Hollywood Studios. The views, theming, and all around thrills make it the best roller coaster that Disney has to offer.
The World of Avatar that Disney built in Animal Kingdom is insane. They really went all out with the theming and scenery. There are floating mountains complete with waterfalls and you are completely cut off from the rest of the park. It’s so immersive that you can’t see anything else inside or outside the land while you are in it. The rides in Pandora are also two of the best rides in Disney World. The first one, Na’vi River Journey, is a dark boat ride through the forest of Pandora at night. If you’ve seen the movie Avatar, you probably remember the scenes at night where the forest becomes bioluminescent and the plants glow. This is what you ride through to Na’vi music being sung by the Shaman herself. The Shaman is a crazy fluid animatronic that, if I didn’t know better, would think was real. The second ride, Flight of Passage, is my favorite ride across all theme parks. You enter a queue that is as well themed as the rest of the land, walking through a mountain and then into an old lab where experiments and even a suspended Avatar body can be found. The ride itself is incredible. The people that compare it to Soarin’ in Epcot are just plain wrong. It is so much more thrilling and more immersive than Soarin’. You mount your Banshee (or Ikran) and start the exciting flight through the jungle of Pandora. You can feel the negative G’s and the wind in your hair as you dive through trees. The ocean sprays you and the smell the flowers fills the air as you fly by them. One of my favorite effects of Flight of Passage is that you can feel your banshee breathing against your legs. As it picks up speed or runs from something, the breathing picks up, and when it lands for a break, the breathing slows down. In addition to the amazing rides of the land is the next-level food. The quick-service restaurant, Satu’li Canteen, has great quality food that is even themed to Pandora – cheeseburger pods anyone? At night, the whole land lights up in the bioluminescent lights that you see in the movie. The plants and flowers all glow a different color and the sidewalk has a slight glow to illuminate the area where you walk. Pandora is by far the best themed land that Disney has built.
All in all, Animal Kingdom is great. I didn’t even mention the nighttime show, Rivers of Light, or Dinoland USA, but that can be covered another time. If you have one day at Disney World and you aren’t into the Princesses and Fantasy that is offered at Magic Kingdom, choose Animal Kingdom. While Hollywood Studios and Epcot both are great options, Hollywood Studios is currently in the process of building Star Wars Land which won’t open until Fall 2019 and Epcot currently has a lot of ride upgrades in progress. Animal Kingdom, while it has the zoo aspects, also has the immersive theming that adults and kids alike can appreciate and that still creates that sense of childhood wonder. Whether you are just passing through for a day, or going on a week long vacation to Disney World, make sure that you prioritize Animal Kingdom.