Welcome back my friend! We’ve had a busy time of late. First, we visited the Most Magical Place on Earth in the Magic Kingdom. Then, we walked around the world at Epcot. Most recently, we stepped back in time (and to a galaxy far, far away) in Hollywood Studios.
We have soundly determined that Walt Disney World’s appeal goes far beyond just families with children. Now we’ll visit WDW’s fourth (and newest) theme park – Animal Kingdom. But this time, let’s take it a step further and demonstrate that Animal Kingdom is for more than just animal lovers.
Where Nature Meets Entertainment
All Disney parks are fun, both with and without children, but Animal Kingdom is second only to Epcot as far as the entertainment value without kids. Let’s explore the best Animal Kingdom has to offer without little ones in tow.
“I can go to a zoo closer to home. Why spend my time at Disney here?”
Animal Kingdom is perhaps the most versatile park in WDW. If you want it to be a zoo, it can be a zoo. If you want it to be an amusement park, Disney’s got you covered. If you prefer to just be in harmony with nature and cultural immersion – this is where Animal Kingdom shines.
At the moment when children run out of patience, interested adults can find so much value simply soaking in this park. In creating Animal Kingdom, Joe Rohde and the other Disney Imagineers wrote a love letter to Mother Nature and to all the natural world. This includes human culture in those areas of the world often neglected by advanced society.
They did all this without being too preachy. It is the perfect marriage of celebration and awareness.
But First, Breakfast
Before we step foot inside the park, I recommend eating a small, early breakfast. Animal Kingdom has several scrumptious food options, but the best of the Kingdom’s food is served at lunch and dinner (unless you do breakfast at Tusker House, which caters to kids with character interactions). I’ll expand more on this later.
An Otherworldly Experience
Go with us here. We ‘re gonna start our trip through some of the planet’s most celebrated animal folk by…leaving the planet. Nearly twenty years after opening Animal Kingdom, Disney debuted the park’s newest land – Pandora – in 2017. This land celebrates a fictional nature-based civilization, and seeks to teach would-be conservationists the value of being one in harmony with the world around us.
Disney accomplished this by building on the world of James Cameron’s Avatar, and in doing so created a small piece of a unique and beautiful planet. This world is lush and beautiful by day, and – spoiler alert – shines even brighter at night. I suggest checking out Pandora at both times. Morning is the prime time to experience both attractions with shorter waits, and the evening is best to simply soak in the beauty of the land.
Flight of Passage
You’ve already taken a leisurely glide on Epcot’s Soarin’. Now, ratchet that up a few degrees as you race through the Pandoran skies on your very own flying (and breathing) mountain banshee (think of it as a flying dragon). Hold onto your banshee – and your 3D glasses. Things will be a bit fuzzy without them.
On Flight of Passage, what guests enjoy in thrill they give up in realism. While the ride is exhilarating, the visual experience is completely animated. And it FEELS animated, in a sort of video game way. I enjoy this attraction, but I’ll put my time and money on Soarin’.
Na’vi River Journey
At the beginning of this article, I applauded Animal Kingdom for creating the perfect blend of celebration and awareness of nature. Here is the one place where you’ll hear the message of protection and conservation more forcefully delivered than the rest of the park.
Na’vi River Journey is the opposite of Flight of Passage. Instead of a frantic flight through the skies, you’ll take a gentle cruise through a Na’vi bioluminescent rainforest. Think of this as Pirates of the Caribbean meets Living With the Land. There’s no real story plot – you’ll learn about the residents of Pandora’s natural world, and be reminded of the need to protect them.
The lighting and effects of this attraction are exceptional, and the big payoff at the end is meeting the Na’vi Shaman – one of Disney Imagineering’s most advanced animatronics to date. The effects on this attraction are eye-popping, but a lack of engrossing story makes this a not-every-visit kind of attraction.
If you started your morning right at rope drop, and successfully rode both Pandora attractions without too much wait, then it may feel a bit early for breakfast. But if you followed my suggestion and had only a small nibble for an early breakfast, then you’ll be rewarded with your choice of some of the tastiest (and healthiest) food bowls on WDW property.
Satu’li Canteen takes the ideas of Panera Bread salad and grain bowls, or Chipotle burrito bowls, and plusses them with exceptional ingredients and delightful presentation. These are among the healthiest quick-service options you’ll find at WDW. This mid-to-late morning meal will fill you up and give you time to digest before dinner (which is gonna be soooo good!).
Ok, we’re back on earth now, let’s head for Africa. Take the semi-secret walking trail directly from Pandora to the fictional village of Harambe, East Africa. Here you’ll experience the single largest nature attraction at WDW.
“I know that I must do what’s right
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti” – Toto
Hop aboard an open-sided tram to tour the Harambe Wildlife Reserve on safari. Your tour guide will escort you though the African Serengeti, introducing you to dozens of wildlife species. You’ll see everything from flamingos and crocodiles to giraffes, lions, and elephants (oh my).
The best part of this attraction? You’ll never have the same experience twice! The residents of the African Serengeti are largely independent (within certain safety parameters) so you never know exactly what you’ll see, and where. Early morning safari tours are also much different then evening tours. This is one attraction I recommend riding many times, over the course of multiple park visits.
If you’d like to learn more about the history of Kilimanjaro Safaris, check out Imagineer Podcast. Host Matt Krul used to work as a Cast Member on the safari. He gives an excellent account of the full ride experience – from the perspective of the guests and the Cast Members. This episode is not to be missed!
Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail
While you’re in the neighborhood, take a stroll down the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail. This is just one of many places where you can visit some of Animal Kingdom’s resident animals at your own pace.
And there’s more than just gorillas. You may also see meerkats, zebras, and many species of birds.
Festival of the Lion King
While you are still in Africa, check out what I think is the best live show in all of WDW – The Festival of the Lion King. It is currently scaled down as we exit the COVID pandemic, but in its full operation, the color, style, and acrobatic performances in this indoor venue are second to none.
I think of this as being a half step away from Cirque du Soleil. It has the Disney storytelling touch around a high energy stage show. Adults or kids – it doesn’t matter. This performance is brilliant every time.
Out of Africa, Enter Asia
As you enter the world’s largest continent, you find yourself in the tiny kingdom of Anandapur. Native Asian animals populate this portion of Animal Kingdom. But before you get up close and personal with the wildlife, you have an important decision to make.
“To soak or not to soak?”
Kali River Rapids
You are approaching the Kali River Expedition company, whose sole mission is to help you cool off. Read the sign carefully. It doesn’t say “You may get wet.” It says “You will get wet. You may get soaked.” This is a very important distinction!
Here, you and eleven of your closest friends will bob your way down the Kali River. Your clothing ensemble will be completely at the mercy of the river current, as you’ll get hit from front, back, side, and above. This is one of only two rides in the four WDW theme parks specifically designed to get you very wet. The other is Splash Mountain in Magic Kingdom. Not everyone is up for this degree of waterlogging, but if you enjoy getting wet (and cooled off), then you will love this trip.
Both kids and adults enjoy this attraction, but the reason I include it here as a good option for adults is in the degree of work associated with doing this attraction. You have the option (I’d make it a VERY strong recommendation) to put your valuables in a locker. Phones, wallets, change of dry clothes, Mickey Mouse plush – stuff it all in there. It’s a lot easier to pull this off when you are only concerned about drying and changing yourself, rather than also needing to help little ones figure this out.
If you don’t like being wet (and a lot of people don’t – no judgement here!) then feel free to skip this attraction and move along towards the giant 29,000-foot mountain in the room. But along the way, check out some Asian wildlife.
Maharajah Jungle Trek
If you decided to brave the rapids, take a moment to wring out your socks, and dry out a bit by wandering through some of the Asian wildlife. Maharajah Jungle Trek will take you by an assortment of furry, feathered, and scaly friends, including tigers, gibbons, water buffalos, Komodo dragons, and over 50 species of birds.
Keep heading east, and the path will widen. You are now approaching Mount Everest…
Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain
True to its name, Expedition Everest holds the distinction of being the tallest mountain (in fact, the tallest attraction) at Walt Disney World.
You’ll first visit the “Himalayan Escapes” travel agency, where you’ll have the opportunity to board a train to head to Mount Everest. On your way up and around, you’ll pass the ruins of a temple that has been claimed by the legendary Yeti snow monster. As you reach near the top of the mountain, you encounter more evidence of the Yeti’s handiwork, in the form of a torn apart rail track.
Here’s where your ride literally spirals out of control. Your train will roll backwards and around the inside of the mountain, then rock forward again, where you’ll encounter the Yeti himself. Thankfully, the train is moving so fast you’ll slide by the Yeti en route to the base of the mountain and back to the tourism office. Phew, that was a close one! You’d think the Himalayan Escapes travel agency might consider refunding your money.
Since you had an early lunch, you might want to consider an afternoon snack. There’s still a bit to do before dinner.
Yak & Yeti
Great food and amazing theming – that’s what Yak & Yeti serves up. At this time of day (and considering dinner plans) I suggest just a snack this time around, though Yak & Yeti offers both table service and quick service (lounge) options. The atmosphere is hard to beat. On the smaller menu, you can get anything from egg rolls to a turkey leg. And to cool you off in the mid-afternoon, try a Cruzan Mule or Yak Attack! Stay for a bit, get refreshed and recharged, then let’s go prehistoric.
When you get out of the shadow of Everest, head past Finding Nemo towards DinoLand U.S.A. As the story goes, DinoLand was born out of a chance dinosaur fossil discovery, bringing to town a host of university students and archaeological types. Two locals – Chester and Hester were able to parlay this transformation into riches of sorts – creating their own kitschy dinosaur-themed amusement park.
Guests traditionally have very mixed feelings about this portion of Animal Kingdom. On one hand, the amusement theme doesn’t fit at all with the rest of Animal Kingdom. On the other hand, the degree of Disney’s storytelling is actually among the deepest in all the parks. This area can be fun for kids, but most adults prefer to skip it, with one possible exception.
I love dinosaurs. Always have. So to have an opportunity to jump in a time machine and briefly visit the age of dinosaurs is something I dreamed of since being a kid. In my opinion, this attraction is more exciting than any other dark ride in WDW. Your time travelling vehicle will endure bumps, perform jumps, be chased, and come face to face with a surprisingly frightening Carnotaurus. And of course, that is the very moment Disney captures your ride photo.
I put this attraction high on my list for Animal Kingdom, but others who have no use for dinosaurs may choose to skip this one.
We’ve got one land left to visit – the one with the dang tree! Let’s go there now.
This is the heart of Animal Kingdom. We rushed through here in the morning to take care of business in Pandora, but now you can take some time to explore the area and its inhabitants.
The Tree of Life
Being the park icon and all, the Tree of Life is surprisingly hard to see from certain areas of the park. Now’s your chance to get up close and personal with some 325 carvings, 8,000 branches, and over 100,000 thermoplastic kynar leaves. The Tree of Life is an artificial tree based on the baobab tree, native to mainland Africa, Madagascar, and Australia. Believe it or not, the base of the tree is actually constructed using a refitted oil rig platform.
The carvings around the tree represent animals of the world – past and present – along with a few other influences in the natural world. If you like hidden Mickeys, you’ll love this tree. Not because of actual Hidden Mickeys (though there is one of those) but because of the countless hidden animals you can search for while exploring the tree. Kids enjoy a glance at the tree, but adults possess more of the patience that pays off when exploring this gem.
Don’t forget the obligatory Instagram photo op in front of the tree! Because if you didn’t post your picture on Instagram, were you even there???
Discovery Island Trails
The last self-guided trail exploration we’ll do today is a walk through the Discovery Island Trails. I find this to be the prettiest of Animal Kingdom’s nature trails. You may see storks, kangaroos, lemurs, macaws, and even a Galapagos Tortoise. Plus – you’re in the shade! What could be more divine than that, except actually seeing Divine.
Who’s Divine? She’s a heavily camouflaged secret resident of Animal Kingdom. She’s covered in lush vines and leaves, helping her to blend in with the surrounding environment. She mostly hangs out in the walkways between Africa and Asia, but she’s been known to appear in other areas as well.
She’s hard to spot, even though she’s over ten feet tall, so keep your eyes peeled!
This is the moment your taste buds have been waiting for – bread service!
You’ve eaten a bit sparsely thus far. Now you’ll be rewarded for it. Bread service at Tiffins may be the most exciting thing you can do for your mouth while at WDW. This appetizer option would be filling for one, but it’s a perfect size for two. The service includes a platter full of three types of bread (a themed multi-grain, pita, and a crispy tortilla-like chip). They are served alongside three sauces/spreads – red pepper hummus, spicy coriander yogurt, and ginger-pear chutney. You’ll experience sweet and savory, and kinda wish you didn’t order an actual meal (instead of more bread)!
Aside from the bread service, Tiffins celebrates the spirit of travel and exploration across the globe. Dining rooms are themed to Africa, Asia, and the animal world. The food is equally diverse, with options like butter chicken, tamarind-braised short rib, and surf and turf.
Finish off your meal with a South American chocolate ganache, and your choice of over a dozen coffees and teas. If you are like me, and coffee and tea aren’t in your wheelhouse, there are plenty of beers, wines, and specialty beverages (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) you’ll enjoy. My favorite is the Lamu Libation (trust me – try it).
Our day is nearing its end, but before we head out, let’s revisit a couple locations we saw earlier in the day. While Animal Kingdom is amazing by day, these two places really shine at night.
Tree of Life: Awakenings
Every ten minutes after dark, the Tree of Life awakens with a swirl of fireflies, and brings you short visual storytellings featuring hummingbirds, foxes, deer, and other woodland creatures. The colors and music will warm your heart, yet won’t take much of your time.
Pandora at Night
When we first chatted about Pandora, I suggested doing the attractions in the morning, and returning at night. Now, in the moonlight, Pandora glows with a brilliance not seen elsewhere in WDW. The famous bioluminescent vegetation will beckon you at every turn. As much as Tiffins was a feast for your tastebuds, Pandora at night is a feast for your eyes. But don’t just look – listen too. Hidden creatures come to life in this living, breathing world.
Take your time, and take your photos! Warning – taking glowing, IG-worthy nighttime photos is something I absolutely stink at. Look for Disney Photopass members, and let them take your picture. They know all the tricks!
From morning to night, through the Circle of Life, we’ve explored our way around WDW’s most under-appreciated theme park. Now head back to your resort, go online, and order those paper straws you’ve been sipping your beverages with!
Several of the experiences I discussed here may be temporarily changed due to COVID adjustments, or park improvements and refurbishments. But as the world – and the theme parks – return to a satisfying sense of normalcy, more and more of these experiences continue to return.
I recommend the services of a Disney travel planner to help you navigate the vacation planning waters. Check out Far Beyond Infinity Travel, and be sure to contact them at [email protected] for a free no-obligation quote request. I know John, and he will get you squared away, so all you need to do is dream big (and pack your bags).
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