On April 22, 1998, Disney unleashed its newest theme park on the world in the form of Disney's Animal Kingdom.
This newest venture marked a departure from what Disney had been turning out in the way of theme parks for many years. Any park banking its success on "edutainment" was bound to have issues, and Disney knew it. EPCOT proved it was effectively kryptonite for children, and Disney was challenged to make sure that Animal Kingdom didn't suffer the same fate. Despite some of its early preachiness (and some unfair press about animal care at the park) - Disney's Animal Kingdom opened to generally good reviews.
At a cost of nearly $1 Billion to complete, Animal Kingdom was an expensive theme park. In fact, one of the planned 'lands' for Animal Kingdom was eventually cut from development due to cost overruns in the budget. The never realized land was to be called the Beastly Kingdom and feature a myriad of rides themed around mythical creatures. The Imagineers who were laid off when the plans were scrapped, were eventually hired by Universal Orlando.
Tip: If you are planning on taking pictures on the Safari, try to get a seat on the end of the row. That way you won't have peoples' heads in your pictures. Plan on riding it twice to get the animals on each side of the truck.
Animal Kingdom's 500 acres are home to some 1,700 animals representing 250 different species throughout the park. A ride on the Kilimanjaro Safari will give you a chance to see many of them as they take you through the African Savannah (though the jeeps you ride in will rarely slow down long enough to allow you a good picture. This has led us to refer to this attraction as the "Kilimanjaro 500"). If you do want a chance to get better pictures, Animal Kingdom offers the Wild Africa Trek, a tour that gives you up-close views of the animals, sends you on a rope bridge over hippos and crocodiles and lunch in a private safari camp on the savannah. Of course, this is Disney, so these "extras" will come at a cost.
As the Park's perennial icon, the Tree of Life is truly a work of art in the best Disney tradition. At 145 ft, this 14 story artificial tree has the images of more than 300 animals hand-carved into its trunk. The base of the Tree of Life is home to the 3D film It's Tough to be a Bug. On your way to see the show, you will invariably encounter those holding up the line to stare at each and every one of the animals on the tree. Feel free to push those people to the ground and keep going :)
A good portion of Animal Kingdom's growth came with the opening of Asia in 1999. The Maharajah Jungle Trek - which is a walking tour that features bats, komodo dragons, bats, deer, birds, did I mention bats? The 'bat cage' is just plain creepy, and if you have an aversion to bats the way I do, you'll find this part of the walking tour uncomfortable. The second notable attraction in Asia is Kali River Rapids. If you have trouble finding it, just look for the people going on the water ride wearing big yellow ponchos (to this day I can't figure out why you'd go on a water ride wearing a poncho - isn't it just easier not to ride if you don't want to get wet?). As water rides go, Kali River Rapids is okay - like most attractions these days it's a bit too short, and keeping with Animal Kingdom's general preachiness, you learn about the evils of deforestation while riding on machinery and materials that will still be trying to biodegrade in 500 years. Gotta love irony.
Gracing the landscape in Asia is the incredible Expedition Everest. The attraction features a two way track system that takes guests forward, then backward when attacked by the mythical yeti that guards the "forbidden mountain." While technically a roller coaster, it's a roller coaster of the Big Thunder Mountain variety - which means it's family friendly. I don't do well on coasters at all, and I enjoyed this one thoroughly.
The DinoLand USA section of Animal Kingdom park is host to Dinosaur. This is a fast paced, and somewhat jerky ride that's not recommended for those with back/heart conditions. (For those who have experienced the Indiana Jones attraction at Disneyland, this utilizes the same ride system). While it can get a bit rough, this is one of the better rides you'll find at Walt Disney World.
On May 27, 2017 Disney’s Animal Kingdom welcomed a brand-new land to the park. Pandora – The World of Avatar is an extremely immersive area of the park that allows guests to walk into the world of the Na'vi. This land inspired by James Cameron’s film Avatar has floating mountains, two attractions, and so much more. Flight of Passage is a thrilling attraction that allows guests to fly on the back of a banshee as they glide around Pandora. Na'vi River Journey is a slow moving boat ride that showcases the beauty of the bioluminescent forest of Pandora. Guests will also see the unique animals of Pandora, as well and pass by mystical Shaman of Songs. The environment is exceptionally detailed, and the bioluminescent plants really morph this entire land so in order to take in all of Pandora – The World of Avatar make sure to visit both in the daytime and at night. If you like shopping check out Windtraders, which offers unique souvenirs like a mechanical banshee, Na’vi artifacts, the list goes on and on.
There are also some unique dining experiences at Animal Kingdom. The Flame Tree Barbecue remains one of our steady favorites. The St. Louis Ribs or smoked 1/2 chicken are both excellent. While the Rainforest Cafe at Animal Kingdom falls under the category of "unique," it unfortunately seems to avoid consistency like the plague. This restaurant is a very 'hit or miss' experience.
Some advice.... In an effort to keep the animals on a strict schedule, Animal Kingdom typically closes earlier then the other Walt Disney World theme parks. Arriving first thing in the morning is usually recommended during peak season. Kilimanjaro Safari and Expedition Everest get long lines very quickly, so be sure to hit those first, or at least get fast passes early in the day.
You should also be warned that Animal Kingdom is, for some unknown reason, the hottest place on the face of the earth. The park is suspiciously devoid of shade, and while I'm all for authenticity in theming - it really doesn't need to be "Africa hot." If you can, avoid this park during the summer season - it's just an unpleasant experience. If you have to go when it's hot - HAVE A PLAN (and lots of water). The layout of Animal Kingdom is such that you're often forced to back track in order to navigate the park. This adds a lot of walking to the list of things to be aware of before going. A good pair of comfortable shoes will be your best friend at Animal Kingdom. You should also be sure to adjust your expectations to get the most out of this park. Most of what you will experience here will have a general message of conservation. While that's a good thing, and worthy of support - some arrive expecting a more traditional theme park experience and are invariably disappointed. It's important to appreciate Animal Kingdom for what it is - do that, and you'll have a very enjoyable time in this very unique park.