When you think of Disney World in Orlando, Florida, you think of Magic Kingdom and you may even think of EPCOT. Hollywood Studios might cross your mind too but does Animal Kingdom?
If you are planning a trip to Disney World you may not consider Animal Kingdom as a must visit especially if you are planning only two or three parks during your stay. That could be a mistake on your part as A.K. shouldn't be summarily waved off.
Rob Schwartz who is one of our contributors here on AlongMainstreet, and he is a big fan of Animal Kingdom and it is easy to understand why.
Animal Kingdom is the youngest of the four Orlando Disney Parks having opened in 1998. That was long after Hollywood Studios opened in 1989. In 2017, the park got one of the biggest expansions in AK history as well as the other parks. Pandora.
Don't miss: Pandora
Pandora is a big reason to not exclude Animal Kingdom from your itinerary.
Nestled on the back left side of the Tree of Life, Pandora or as many call it Avatarland which is incorrect, is a beautiful area that brings the James Cameron film to life. The food at the canteen is wonderfully thought out and flavorful and the gift shop is even fun to peruse but it is the attention to detail that Disney Imagineers took that really brought this area to life.
Inside Pandora you will find two rides, Na'avi River Journey and Flight of Passage. Of the two, Flight of Passage is one of the best rides at any Disney Park but the wait time can easily exceed two hours. River Journey is far less of a wait on normal days and while it is an escape from the heat and the visuals are nice during the ride, it isn't a popular attraction.
Pandora is a great addition but it isn't the only reason you should visit Animal Kingdom.
Don't miss: The Kiliamanjaro Safari
As you move around through Animal Kingdom, the Kiliamanjaro Safari is one of the best attractions at the park and one of the longest rides you can take.
First time visitors or those who have not done this adventure should make it a point to do so. You board an all-terrain vehicle that looks more like an open bus than a jeep. You and the other guests are whisked off the loading dock and enter an incredible open nature preserve.
Giraffes, rhinos, gazelle, and ostriches greet you when you make the turn into the Serengiti plains. There are no fences in this early part of the journey and time can literally come to a stop when a rhino decides to lay down in the road ahead of you or a giraffe decides to explore the interior of the transport and smell the guests...yes, this has happened to me on a couple of occasions and my kids loved it.
In this vast area you can enjoy the animals as they come and go on their own terms and then after your winding tour through the plains you are still greeted with enclosures that have elephants walking in the open and on some days, the lions and lionesses can be seen in the shade on the rocks.
The trip includes hippos and crocodiles and other animals. The vehicles shade canopy is a break from the sun and it is a must see for any visitor to Animal Kingdom and a good enough reason to visit to begin with. No, this isn't a zoo, it's far more than that.
Don't miss: Everest
Animal Kingdom also boasts habitats for great apes and even tigers (my personal favorite) but thrill seekers shouldn't rule out AK as having none, Evererst is a worthy ride.
Those visitors looking for a little thrill will obviously hit Avatar: Flight of Passage but a far less wait time is ready for you at Everest, a true rollercoaster that dips and even takes you backwards.
Wait times rarely exceed 60 minutes and for those of you wanting to ride and not wait, the single rider line is a 5-10 minute line at most. Recently my two kids rode the attraction three times in under 40 minutes.
What makes Everest worthy is the rollercoaster that takes you into the mountains and surroundings of Mount Everest and the hunt for the Yeti (FanSided's own mascot who aptly is named Everest) The details Disney put into the line alone are incredible but even outside the ride there is a feel of being in a town in Nepal.
In this Asian themed area, you can experience the trek through some of the best animal lands that include Komodo Dragons, huge bats, and yes, Bengal tigers. On a good day you will see them playing with tires and balls, on a great day you will see them up close in the window.
On their own, each may not be a reason to visit Animal Kingdom but when combined together and some of the best food at any of the four parks, AK is a great place to visit but it is far from perfect and is the park that my family tends to visit early in the day and then park-hop out after 2:00.
When to skip Animal Kingdom
While Animal Kingdom is a great visit, there are reasons that it tends to be on the lower side of the priority list.
The number of attractions are not as great as they are at other parks. Everest, Pandora, and Killimanjaro Safari all stand out but Dinosaur isn't a great ride. It's ok. but nothing special that stands out and if you miss it, you won't be hitting yourself in the head over it.
Another ride that isn't all that impressive is the Kali River Rapids. This jump in a big tube river ride takes about 8-12 passengers on a winding ride down an Asian styled river with the threat of waterfalls and spray. On a hot day, and all days are hot in Florida, the ride would seem appealing but let's be realistic.
The ride time is quick and the long line is hot and mostly uncovered. You can get wet but typically it is just your feet from the pooling water. Despite the promises of getting drenched, you rarely are and by the time you realize that you are not going to get completely soaked the ride is over. If the wait time is less than 30 minutes, go for it but if it is less than 30, chances are the temperatures outside are less than 80.
Animal Kingdom is broken down into four areas. Asia, Africa, Pandora, and Dinosaur Land. The latter is great if you have kids and want to kill a lot of time. There is an area that they can explore rope bridges and tunnels and the area is gated so that little ones can't simply wander off but if you don't have small children this is a waste of time and the dino-dig site that gives kids a pretend dino-dig tends to be more of a throwing sand situation that a planned out fake excavation site.
I will say that the shows at Animal Kingdom are better than the other parks. The Lion King could be the best around, period and Nemo is pretty good as well and after both took a hiatus due to COVID and layoffs, they are now back and worth it.
The problem, at least for me, is that the Lion King is not easy to get into and you have to plan for it the minute you get into the park and by that I mean you need to get a ticket for it. Yes it is free but you are not going to wait in line when they open the ropes. Plan to meet a cast member outside of the show at least two hours before the next show and see if there is available seating for that next show.
The Nemo show is much easier to get into because the auditorium is much larger and yes, you can show up 10 minutes prior to showtime and get a seat.
While Animal Kingdom is often dismissed, the park is small and closes early. Most days can see the park close as early as 7:00 pm and sometimes 8. Rarely have I seen the park open later than that. In the course of a visit, guests can easily see everything AK has to offer before the gates close and this makes AK a perfect first park visit for those hopping to another park later in the day.
My family hit AK around 10:00 am and we are out and headed to any of the other parks by 2:00 if we plan it right. If you are planning to do park hop, make AK the first stop and definitely not the 2nd or your time will be only a short few hours and you will miss far too much.