Disney’s Animal Kingdom: First Impressions

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Growing up, animals were my favourite thing in the whole world. So I was super excited to experience Disney’s Animal Kingdom with our family for the first time. I mean come on, a zoo AND a theme park? Sign me up! And let me tell you, it did not disappoint! I feel like we say this phrase a lot, but the thing is, it’s true! It’s not like anything we have in the Disneyland Resort and it was so much fun to explore. The fun thing about having four different parks is there’s something for everyone. So while AK wasn’t my personal favourite, it was for some of the group. All of us loved Magic Kingdom and Epcot, but Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios were a bit more polarizing.  That being said, you can’t go wrong experiencing ANY of the Disney Parks, and Animal Kingdom is no exception.

You can get the most out of your day by showing up a little before the opening of the parks. Getting through security always takes a bit of time, so it’s nice to have a buffer. Disney often makes it worth your while by providing some type of entertainment to kick off the day. At Animal Kingdom, they open the park with parrots that do a short flight sequence. They fly right over you which is pretty neat.

Getting Into the Park

First things first, getting a picture with the Tree of Life in the background isn’t easy, so we definitely recommend getting there early to do this. Getting photos done right away is always one of our tips (but one we don’t always follow and then regret later on). We did it on our way out of the park this day and it was bad news bears. Babies were melting down, we were tired… just don’t do it. But I do recommend this location for photos as it makes for great pictures!

 


The history of this tree is super interesting. A while back, Costco came out with a “Disney Parks” DVD pack which featured each of the Disney Parks. (Find it
here on Amazon.) The kids love watching the DVDs, and I love the esoteric trivia that comes along with it (check me out Dad, I used esoteric in a sentence). Trivia like: The tree is 145 feet tall with a 50 foot base. There are over 300 animals carved in the trunk, including some mythical ones! When the park was created, they toyed with the idea of including a mythical animals section of the park. Apparently, there is a secret path as you leave Harambe that takes you up close and personal to the tree. I wish we had stopped to take a closer look at all of the carvings.

Here’s a little insider tip for you. We went back to Animal Kingdom in 2017 and we did not have the photo pass. We were walking through one of the side paths and I realized there was a great view of the tree of life. There was no one to take our picture so we had to ask a stranger (I always am looking for people that have that awkward ‘we need someone to take our picture look’- pay it forward!). It really payed off, there was not one behind us in the picture and we were all in the shade. 

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Rides and Attractions

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I loved that this park had exhibits while you walked around from attraction to attraction, because that adds to the whole “zoo” feel of it, and I love that they have such amazing humane habitats for the animals. Tip: Whilst going through the Gorilla exhibit DO NOT wave your arms. They see it as a threat and can get aggressive. We had some ladies near us that didn’t speak a lot of English who were trying to get the gorilla’s attention this way, and the cast member had to try to explain this to them. What I loved about this part was that you would be walking along, and then to your right there’d be monkeys just swinging around. They were on their own little island, but there was no cage, no wall between you and them. Just some monkeys, hanging out, while we walked from place to place.


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One thing I found about Animal Kingdom is that most of the attractions my kids were looking forward to had a height restriction. I think this is why, of all the parks in WDW, I was most underwhelmed with Animal Kingdom. I’m still not convinced that having live animals really added to anything; and definitely, for me, made it feel less “Disney”. Expedition Everest, DINOSAUR, and Primeval Whirl are all either a 40″ or 48″ height restriction. So heads up if you’re planning on going with littles. In DinoLand U.S.A. there is a huge jungle gym, which does help, but as far as actual rides for smaller kids… I agree. That’s where having the animals works for me. Even babies like looking at the animals.

Discovery Island

Discovery Island is the central hub that all of the lands branch off from. You will find the Tree of life here. You can find the Cotton-top Tamarin and the Ring-tailed Lemur hanging out in this area as well. Also, the only Starbucks in the park is here (inside Creature Comforts). At Adventurers Outpost we were able to grab a photo with Safari Mickey and Minnie. We did this right at opening and it took less than 5 mins!

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You can become a Wilderness Explorer, complete challenges and earn badges. 
This is also where you will find “It’s Tough to be a Bug!”… which is a family favourite of ours, but not for everyone. It can definitely feel intense for little kids. If your kid is a bit sensitive, maybe have them on your lap :). You get to go under some of the “roots” of the Tree of Life, and can see more of the details of the animal carvings on the trunk and on the roots themselves. Personally, I chose to sit out of this one. I really hate bugs, and the simulations are just too much for me. Could I sit through it? Of course. But why? I love walking through the stores, or checking out what’s in the area. If you’re traveling in a large group, don’t be afraid to strike out on your own every once in a while.

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Africa

We had the luck of getting a FastPass for Kilimanjaro Safaris early in the day (Bless you, Elisia), which I highly recommend for two reasons: One, it’s not as hot; and Two, the animals are always more active during the morning. I love, love, loooooved the safari. I love the way they separated different areas for animals that would never interact in the wild, but also had zones with all the animals that naturally would interact with each other in their own area. It felt like what I imagine a real safari would be like. The attraction encompasses 110 acres of land that completely transports you to an African Savannah. It was interesting how they strategically kept the predators separate from prey animals so that you didn’t get any…erm… surprises on your safari. On the surface it looks like the lion and the lamb are peacefully coexisting side by side, but in reality Imagineers have created barriers to separate certain animals from each other. The jeep you ride in is open with no air conditioning, so if you’re doing it in the heat of the day be mentally prepared for it to be a little warm.

 


We also did this ride in the afternoon and saw totally different animals, and different ones were awake. I’ve read that the Cast Members have specific strategies to get the animals out all day long, so don’t worry too much. If you have the time to go more than once, do it… it was really great. The park is now open for later hours, but keep in mind that after dark you aren’t going to have the same visibility.
In reading some reviews, it does sound like they light the areas. A lot of nocturnal animals are up and moving around. The small cat-like animals are difficult to see though, apparently.


We also almost got charged by a rhino on our first safari, so that was fun; and again, goes to show that it is as close to a real safari as you can get outside of Africa… with the animals in an enclosed piece of land so you’re guaranteed to see them. You also learn fun facts about some of the animals as you go along. Did you know Flamingos are pink because of what they eat? And when they aren’t getting enough of that food, they’re actually white? Neither did I.

Cast Members will not interfere with the animals. So this means if an animal decides to stop on the roadway, they will wait until it moves along on it’s own before carrying on. This can make both the ride time and the wait times longer. But it also makes it that much more exciting. We were able to see some really close up baby Giraffes because they were curious of the jeep. Make sure to have that camera ready!

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Asia

Out of all the areas in Animal Kingdom, I liked the feel in Asia the best. From the colourful Tibetan prayer flags, to the monkeys and the picturesque Everest, I just loved it. All the cool animal stuff aside, what really took the cake for us was Expedition Everest. Erica’s favourite ride in Disneyland is the Matterhorn, which I never understood because I find it boring. But EXPEDITION EVEREST!!!! This is all the things I WISH Matterhorn was. Speed, fun things to look at, a great story. And this is saying something because I’m not the speed demon in the family, but I wanted to ride this over and over. Plus, I loved the lineup with all of the Yeti stuff and information that has been gleaned in the past about the legend. If you are a thrill seeker I highly recommend asking to sit in the front. I won’t spoil it for you, but “you’re welcome” in advance. It was great. The girls were a bit apprehensive (because they find the Yeti quite scary on the Matterhorn) but even the 5 and 6 year old went on it. For more timid children I would recommend sitting in the middle. That was the only way we could get our kids back on it.

We used a FastPass for this one in the morning as well; however, it wasn’t necessary. (Especially now that Pandora is open.) This area was dead in the morning, so we actually ended up getting in the regular line up because there was no wait, and then using our FastPass right after for a second go at it. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law had both just been to Everest base camp before we left, so this area was particularly meaningful for my husband and I. It felt like we were transported into their photos.

Kali River Rapids is also in Asia. If Disneyland is your home park like us, don’t compare this one to Grizzly River Run. It was the biggest let down in the park I think. It’s a much shorter ride with a lot less drops and fun. The height restriction was less here than in DL so our 3 year old went on it. She didn’t love being splashed in the face. If you are in a large group it is a great one to do together, it seats up to 12 people! But beware, you may get absolutely drenched. We used ponchos for this ride which at least kept us dry. Make sure to pack dollar store ponchos. You can see our packing list for a Disney day here. You can get the ponchos at Dollar Tree or Walmart… the ones at the park are quite a bit more.

 

DinoLand U.S.A.

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unadjustednonraw_thumb_625fAnimal Kingdom also had a really fun kid’s section that was dinosaur-themed. This was pre-kid for me, but experiencing it with the nieces and nephews was so fun. We really loved this area! There is a boneyard to dig in (but just do this at the T-REX restaurant in Disney Springs and save some time). Primeval Whirl is here… we did this both days we were there, and it was absolutely fantastic. However, the height restriction is 48″. Our 5 year old was crushed that he couldn’t do this one. The smaller kids ended up doing TriceraTop Spin. It’s a bit like Dumbo, but the dinosaurs kind of hop rather than fly. And then of course you’ve got DINOSAUR… which is WDW’s version of Indiana Jones (as far as ride style goes, not theme). It was fun. It was nice not knowing where the cameras were and experiencing it for the first time.

In this area you will also find carnival games; all dinosaur-themed of course. You can purchase game vouchers ranging from $4 – $48. Just like at a carnival, you can win a prize… size of prize depends on how many games you play. It’s similar to the games you’ll find on Pixar Pier in Disney’s California Adventure. Our family doesn’t typically spend money on these types of things, but be sure to check it out if it’s your thing!

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Pandora – The World of Avatar

Sadly, when we went in 2016 they were not finished with this area of the park yet. My family missed the opening by one week when we were there before our cruise. It was open to Cast Members only and I was so sad! From what I have seen via pictures and ads it looks AMAZING… STUNNING! I was a huge fan of the movie, so this is such a draw to return for me.

If possible, you will want to FastPass the Avatar Flight of Passage ride… or else you may be stuck waiting 4 hours to ride it! If you are not able to get a FastPass for this ride you need to show up 60 mins before park opening. Go as far to the left front as they will let you go. The majority of people will be heading straight there from the rope drop if they weren’t able to get a FastPass. There are still no guarantees you won’t be waiting a long time, but if this ride is a must for you, this is the way we would do it. The other new ride in this section is Na’vi River Journey, which is for all ages. FastPasses are few and far between for this ride, so this is where staying on site is helpful, cause you can FastPass 60 days ahead instead of 30. For my upcoming trip, I got up at 4 am to get a FastPass (cause it opens at 7 am EST, 30 days ahead for offsite) and it was already gone.

Rafiki’s Planet Watch

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To get to this area you have to take a train from the Africa area. It was a great little ride that takes you behind the scenes of where they keep the animals at night. They trade the animals off so that they get rest and time away from people. Once you arrive there it is the ONLY air conditioned spot at this park. For the most part, this park is well shaded so it wasn’t too bad. But if you are there on a hot day and need a break, this is a great place to cool off. Inside the building they have a bunch of different things for the kids to explore, including an area they can watch animals being looked after by veterinarians. There was a cast member walking around with a snake that the kids were able to pet. Lots of interactive informational activities to explore. Outside you will find a petting zoo where the kids can brush the goats. This area was very educational, and really felt like a zoo to me. I greatly enjoyed reading about the different animals.

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Food

The day we heard that Starbucks was going to have cafes IN the Disney Parks was surely a happy day in our houses. There was tagging on Facebook, celebratory texts, and general excitement over the news. There are a couple things to note about Starbucks in the parks. They will have the iconic siren symbol, but are not labeled as “Starbucks”. The Animal Kingdom Starbucks can be found in Creature Comforts. You can earn stars here but you cannot redeem them. This is because they are not company stores. Pricing is higher than what you’d see in a regular store, but it is to be expected. Keep an eye out for crossover Starbucks/Disney merch!

In DinoLand U.S.A., one of the restaurants had a toppings bar, which we always love doing in Disney’s California Adventure at Smokejumpers Grill. Super yum! The restaurant is called Restaurantosaurus. The chili-cheese fries are only $6.50 and are more than filling enough for one adult. The toppings are technically for the burgers, but we love adding pickles, onions, fresh tomatoes, and lettuce to the fries. They serve the kids meals in a little sand pail that comes with a shovel. We ended up keeping them and the kids used them at the pool. Lots of people don’t want to take them home so they take the lining out and leave the buckets beside the garbage for people to take. Ain’t no shame in my game.

If you like small bites, check out the Trilo-Bites menu. When we were there they had a buffalo chicken waffle sandwich. It looks like they now have Buffalo Chicken Chips for $8.50, but I ain’t mad.

The Rainforest Cafe is connected to the entrance of the park from the outside, or once you are inside, through the Oasis. It’s a smaller restaurant than the one that was once in Downtown Disney but gives you the same feel. The food is okay but we always find the service to be not the best.

Right by Restaurantosaurus the girls waited to meet Pocahontas… this was a highlight for them. We hadn’t seen her before at DL, so even though it was a bit of a wait (around 30 min) it was worth it for them. Another reason why we think it’s worth it to get the PhotoPass is instead of having to grab a camera, you can enjoy watching your kids have a moment with the characters.

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Souvenirs

As in every park, the “You are Here” mugs from Starbucks are our go-to souvenir to pick up. In Animal Kingdom, they also had some really fun shops with statues of different animals. My mother-in-law is an elephant aficionado, so my husband and I picked her up a really interesting ebony elephant with tribal carvings. Musical instruments and items that fit the theme of animals are plentiful here, and you can’t get anything like them in any of the other parks.

Shows

Festival of the Lion King

If you love the music from this classic movie then make sure to check it out! It’s not a very long show but it included lots of singing and bright colours. This was a big disappointment for me. Pretty dull. It’s in a circle. It’s somewhat interactive. Meh. I love all things musical. One thing I truly love about The Lion King is the African influences in the music. The cast is largely African-American, and the singing is a truly moving experience. There’s just something about their voices filling the arena.

Finding Nemo – The Musical

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The quality of this show is high. There is music added to the story of Finding Nemo, and the sets are spectacular. My eleven month old did not appreciate it however, and I ended up having to exit before the ending. This show did not disappoint, it was great. Worth seeing for our family of 5 for sure. The songs were good, the quality was over the top.

UP! A Great Bird Adventure

This is a new show, but I’m thinking it’s like the regular bird show with Up characters infused into the show. I always like a good bird show, so I would check it out.

Rivers of Light

This opened in 2017 so only our family has experienced it. I will say it was nothing like I had expected. We were only in Animal Kingdom for one day before our cruise (if you want to know more about a Disney cruise click here) so we got a FastPass. But even WITH the FastPass we were told by a Cast Member to line up an hour and a half before the show. With only one day in the park it took up a good chunk of our evening. I stood in line and sent my husband and kids to do one ride and grab dinner. So at least it wasn’t a waste for all of us. Total, I think we waited 2 hrs by the time the show began. Maybe I was feeling a little irritated by that point but I was like, “We waited all that time for THIS?!” There was nothing specifically Disney about it. There were white lotus floats with lights that moved around in the water. At one point there were some boats with drummers. Overall I would never choose to spend my time watching this show again. I do however think it would have been something that my grandparents would have thoroughly enjoyed, so whatever floats your boat… no pun intended.

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This park was so different than anything in Disneyland, so it was a refreshing change because there weren’t the same comparisons that we had for the other parks. Plus, this one had more original things than some, so we weren’t thinking about the “shared” rides between the two parks, which made it feel very unique. Out of the four, it is the least “Disney” feeling park, but I definitely would recommend it. Especially now that they have added Pandora! I was so sad because it was still in progress when we were there. Oh well, just have to go back I guess! 2020 WDW trip anyone?

For our thoughts on the other 3 parks, check out Magic Kingdom: First ImpressionsDisney’s Hollywood Studios: First Impressions and Epcot: First Impressions.

Have a magical day!
Danielle, Heidi, Elisia, and Erica

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