(A version of this post was shared with Pirates & Princesses, and published on February 17, 2022)
(Updated February 17, 2024)
Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde led Imagineers in the development of Disney’s Animal Kingdom with the mission of sharing an appreciation of our natural environment and animal conservation. Rohde walks in inspiring footsteps, as Walt Disney himself once shared this exact philosophy through his nature film series. All animals large and small, alive and extinct (and imagined), share a feeling of appreciation in Walt Disney World’s youngest theme park.
But Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a lot more than a glorified zoo. While saying hello to furry and feathered friends, guests of this park can also enjoy some amazing attractions. Let’s look at the most popular ones.
With Animal Kingdom’s mission in mind, we start this list off with the granddaddy of all Animal Kingdom attractions – Kilimanjaro Safaris. The largest attraction in any Disney resort covers over 100 acres of ground. In fact, the vast size of the safari puts Animal Kingdom atop the list of the largest Disney theme parks worldwide.
Hop on board an open-air sightseeing bus as you tour the Harambe Wildlife Reserve in East Africa. This simulated African Serengeti tour offers sightings of (and in some cases interactions with) elephants, giraffes, antelopes, crocodiles, hippopotamuses, lions, hyenas, warthogs, flamingos, wildebeests, and many others. The tour guide cheerfully informs guests with interesting facts and fascinating stories of the animals with which we share our planet. Many of the animals are allowed to roam freely throughout the savannah, which can lead to entertaining and often humorous interactions with the tour buses and the guests aboard them. These unpredictable moments are what make the safari such a rich experience, and one that is unique and new with each trip.
True to its name, Expedition Everest holds the distinction of being the tallest mountain (in fact, the tallest attraction) at Walt Disney World.
Upon first arrival, 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.
Watch out for the Yeti! 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.
This runaway train makes Magic Kingdom’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad look like child’s play. Guests fleeing from the ominous snow monster will reach speeds of up to 50 mph!
Avatar Flight of Passage
Pandora: The Land of Avatar is an attraction unto itself. Although completely fantastical, it embodies Animal Kingdom’s spirit of preservation, conservation, and cultural awareness. This living, breathing land thrives during the day, and glows brightly at night.
Flight of Passage is the marquis attraction in Pandora. Humans and the Na’vi natives are attempting to restore the flying banshee population to natural levels. Alpha Centauri Expeditions (ACE) has reactivated the avatar program through the Pandora Conservation Initiative as a method of conducting research, and allows guests to link with an avatar and partake in the Na’vi’s tribal coming-of-age tradition.
Guests race through the Pandoran skies on their very own flying (and breathing) banshee (think of it as a flying dragon). Hold onto your banshee – and your 3D glasses. Things will be a bit fuzzy without them.
Flight of Passage is exhilarating, and the virtual reality experience is amazing. The one detriment to this experience is that the visuals feel animated, in a video game sort of way, undercutting the realistic experience that is being attempted. I enjoy this attraction, but I enjoy Soarin’ a whole lot more.
Na’vi River Journey
While still in Pandora, Na’vi River Journey is the opposite of Flight of Passage. Instead of a frantic flight through the skies, guests take a gentle cruise through a 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 message of protection and conservation are delivered forcefully here, even more directly than in the rest of the park.
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 and continue to draw huge crowds, but a lack of engrossing story makes this a not-every-visit kind of attraction for frequent guests.
Kali River Rapids
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 the 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 was Splash Mountain in Magic Kingdom (which will soon reopen as Tiana’s Bayou Adventure). Not everyone is up for this degree of waterlogging, but if you enjoy getting wet (and cooled off), then you will love this trip.
The attraction offers lockers, and you’re gonna need one! Phones, wallets, change of clothes, Mickey Mouse plush – stuff it all in there. You’ll be happy you did. For folks in the party who don’t wish to get wet, there is a viewing platform where you can watch your party from a safely dry perch.
Some folks love ‘em. Some folks hate ‘em. Big, fluffy, cuddly dinosaurs! They may no longer walk the planet with us, but this is your chance to jump in a time machine and briefly visit the age of dinosaurs – something many imaginations have dreamt of since being a kid. This attraction may be the most exciting classic dark ride in all of Walt Disney World. Guests travel back to the Cretaceous period to rescue a baby Iguanodon. The time traveling Jeep-like 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.
Ride photos from this attraction run the gamut from terrified to party time. It is worthwhile to spend a few minutes at the ride-photo viewing area on the way out, to check out the faces of some unsuspecting guests.
It’s Tough To Be a Bug
Animal Kingdom’s iconic Tree of Life does a lot more than just look good in your Instagram photos. It is home to the attraction It’s Tough To Be a Bug. Here, guests get to hang out with all their creepy crawly friends as they learn the ins and outs of the unappreciated life of a bug.
Flik from A Bug’s Life hosts an approximately 10-minute show which features dazzling 3D effects, audio-animatronics figures, and 4D surprises. Things always feel *almost* out of hand with visits from a tarantula (and its flying quills), a soldier termite, and the very appropriately named stink bug. The show climaxes when Hopper (the grasshopper villain from A Bug’s Life) unexpectedly shows up, with his grasshopper army. All’s well that ends well, but this attraction may make you think twice the next time you’re about to step on a bug!
Festival of the Lion King
Located in the Africa neighborhood of Animal Kingdom, Festival of the Lion King may be the best live show in all of Walt Disney World. It was scaled down due the COVID pandemic, but is now back to its full operation, the color, style, and acrobatic performances in this indoor venue are second to none in the parks.
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, as the consistently high crowds will confirm.
Don’t Skip These Overlooked Attractions
Despite the beautifully immersive surroundings, guests immediately flock to Kilimanjaro Safaris, Expedition Everest, and Pandora to hit the most popular attractions in the park. But several other attractions, often overlooked by guests, perfectly capture the spirit of Animal Kingdom. Don’t miss them on your next trip.
Rafiki’s Planet Watch
More than just an attraction, Rafiki’s Planet Watch is actually a miniature land unto itself. This area suffers as an overlooked attraction for two reasons. First, it is often perceived as being relatively inaccessible. The only way to get there is by taking the Wildlife Express Train. While the train ride is brief and quite pleasant, the added step can be a deterrent to impatient guests. This mental barrier also discourages guests from visiting Tom Sawyer Island in Magic Kingdom. Second and more importantly, guests don’t realize how much there is to see and do there.
Rafiki’s Planet Watch is broken up into four individual experiences. 1) Wildlife Express Train. This short seven-minute trip takes guests behind Kilimanjaro Safaris, and along some of the animal barns. Lucky guests may see several furry friends along the trip. 2) Conservation Station. This is the main building, which offers several animal exhibits and learning activities. 3) Affection Section, where guests can enjoy a closer experience with some of the more tame residents of Animal Kingdom. 4) Animation Experience. A 20-30 minute class where guests can learn to draw a Disney animal character.
Guests who are interested in animals and their care will definitely enjoy this experience. Due to the hands-on nature of the experience, guests can expect to spend as little as 45 minutes, or upwards of two hours. This hidden gem is 100% worth the effort.
Wilderness Exploration Trails
For inquisitive guests who like a break from the attraction rush, Animal Kingdom’s exploration trails give just the right combination of entertainment and animal zen.
While in the Africa neighborhood, guests can stroll down the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail. Don’t let the name fool you. While the trail clearly features gorillas, guests can also encounter many other animals, including meerkats, zebras, hippos, monkeys, and many species of birds.
Over in Asia, the Maharajah Jungle Trek takes guests by an assortment of furry, feathered, and scaly friends, including tigers, gibbons, water buffalos, Komodo dragons, and over fifty species of birds.
Each trail can take as little as five minutes to see, but guests should plan about 20-25 minutes to get the full experience. Cast Members are sprinkled along each trail to help guests appreciate what they are seeing.
Feathered Friends In Flight!
Few performance moments can elicit an immediate smile as much as watching a trained animal carrying out a specific task. Feathered Friends in Flight! is an entertaining and educational stage show featuring an assortment of well-trained free-flying birds. Disney’s talented trainers wow guests with a host of amusing bird tricks, ranging from untying shoes to grabbing a twenty-dollar bill from a guest in the audience. To see a bird of the wild perform such a specific trick successfully is always gratifying, and this open air performance is full of those moments.
A bit of behind-the-scenes magic: The trainers for this show are not teaching the birds entirely new behavior. They are really just guiding the birds to perform actions that are similar to their natural survival instincts.
While technically not an attraction, the show takes place in an outdoor (but thankfully shaded) theater. It’s easy to find, being right in the middle of the park – across the bridge from the Tree of Life and nearby to Kali River Rapids. The show lasts about 25 minutes, so it’s not a huge time sink.
When you sprinkle a few overlooked gems in with the most popular attractions, it makes for a very busy and entertaining day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. And that still leaves everything in the middle (or to go on a second safari, this time at dusk).