Welcome one, welcome all, to the third of my travel posts from my recent trip to Orlando, Florida! In my previous posts I did a guide (of sorts) to Universal Studios’ The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and to Epcot at Walt Disney World and now we move onto the second of my Disney World guides/recaps.
Whilst planning out my recaps of the four parks, I decided I should do a sort of reverse/ascending order, starting with the park which I liked least or, rather, my fourth favourite because, let’s face it, Disney World is amazing so I didn’t actually dislike any of the parks! But today I’m here to bring you my thoughts on my third favourite park, Animal Kingdom!
“Welcome to a kingdom of animals… real, ancient and imagined: a kingdom ruled by lions, dinosaurs and dragons; a kingdom of balance, harmony and survival; a kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama, and learn.”
We were lucky enough to happen to be in Animal Kingdom in its 20th year – that’s right, it’s only 20 years old, having been opened on Earth Day in 1998. It’s the youngest but also the largest theme park and, as you can tell from its name, it is themed entirely around the natural world and animal conservation. The park is split into seven sections: Oasis, Discovery Island, Pandora, Asia, Africa, Dinoland USA, and Rafiki’s Planet Watch (although the last was closed when we were there).
Oasis and Discovery Island
Oasis acts as the “main street” of the park, so there’s not much to say there, except Animal Kingdom is instantly bizarre – you arrive expecting a theme park but feel like you’re stepping out of the parking lot straight into a zoo… which you are, I suppose, but my brain still found it odd given that it also has attractions and rides as well as the animals and conservation projects. Moving swiftly on from my idiocy, we come to Discovery Island which is the central part of Animal Kingdom, connecting all the rest, and home to the famous Tree of Life, a huge sculptured baobab tree with all manner of animals carved into its trunk and roots. It’s quite a sight to behold, especially once darkness falls, when the park uses projection mapping to light up the tree in astounding ways. And just in case you forgot you were also surrounded by animals, there’s the Discovery Island Trails which allow you to see some of them in their habitats!
Unsurprisingly, the DinoLand U.S.A. area of the park is centred around dinosaurs and other extinct prehistoric life. It is home to the Dino Institute and, inside it, Dinosaur, described as a dark thrill ride, where riders take a (not so pleasant) journey to the Late Cretaceous period, just before the meteor strikes. The ride photo we have from this might be one of the funniest because me and Liz just look so unsure of whatever we’re looking at – probably a terrifying dinosaur! The entire themeing of the queuing area was probably my favourite bit, which sounds like I’m being mean about the ride itself but no, the Dino Institute is just so well put together with its scientific backdrop and dino skeletons!
We didn’t frequent the nearby Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama because Liz had already plenty forewarned me about the sickness-inducing Wild Mouse spinning roller coaster and TriceraTop Spin and I decided we should give that a miss. We did, however, pop along to the Theater in the Wild which hosts Finding Nemo – The Musical. Can we just stop for one second to appreciate this musical please? It’s a live-action musical stage show and the performers are INCREDIBLE – they all control puppets (I guess) of each of the characters and they sing and dance their way through the story of Finding Nemo in style. This was probably one of my favourites of the stage shows we saw in our time at Disney and it was a lot of fun (and emotional, to be honest) for kids and big kids alike!
Next up, let’s hop over to Asia to see what that area had on offer. Set in the fictional kingdom of Anandapur (which means “Place of many delights” in Sanskrit), this area is a bit of a mishmash of Cambodian, Indian, Indonesian, Mongolian, Nepalese, and Thai cultures and places. It has a riverside village (known also as Anandapur) and Serka Zong, (“Fortress of the Chasm”) which is set in the foothills of the Himalayas. And with the Himalayas comes one thing and one thing only – Everest or, to give the ride its full title, Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain.
I’ll be honest, Everest is a ride that terrified me before I went to Disney, largely because I insisted on watching on-ride videos so I could be fully aware of what I was letting myself in for. (Yes, I am the wimp that needs to know what a ride has in store for her before she’ll agree to go on it.) In my defence, I’d heard about the ride switching tracks whilst you’re distracted by the allegedly yeti destroyed track section, and then it zooming you back downwards (it does). But first, the queue area is amazing – themed around the idea of a fictional travel agency, “Himalayan Escapes” you pass expedition equipment and a museum all about the infamous Yeti who is said to protect the Forbidden Mountain. Then you board into the “train” itself and the fun really begins. So. Did I like it? Yes. But did I close my eyes for some portion of the ride because I realised just how frigging high up I was? Yes. Does Everest still terrify me? Yes. But will I probably still be coaxed onto it if/when I visit Disney World again? Yes.
Nearby is Kali River Rapids which is described as a rapids ride down the Chakranadi River, through a rainforest, past an illegal logging operation, and then down a waterfall. It’s well known for absolutely SOAKING its riders. It’s also something we, unfortunately, didn’t get to go on. When we arrived at the park early in the morning it was much (much) too cold to think about adding cold water to the equation and by the time it was the height of the afternoon the queue time was ridiculous. So, word to the wise: think about the temperature when you go on it, I’m sure you’ll be thankful of it in the heat of summer but maybe not when it’s a cold morning!
Last up in the Asia area is the Maharajah Jungle Trek which is amazing! The concept is that it was once the constructed hunting ground of a maharajah who, fittingly, later died in a hunting accident. The story goes that once this happened the subsequent maharajahs transformed the area into a nature preserve and concentrated on the conservation of the animals instead. I won’t spoil everything but there’s plenty of exotic birds (just casually walking along the path with you, you are in their habitat, after all), bantengs, tapirs, Sumatran tigers, and probably my favourites: Komodo dragons!
One of the original areas of Animal Kingdom, the Africa area is set in Harambe, a fictional port village in east Africa. Harambe is SO vibrant and definitely the area we hung around in most in our days in the park – there’s always something going on in the town square, so much live entertainment and plenty to keep you entertained even if you’re just sitting by the side of the path taking a bit of a break. I like the fact that it’s also kind of… lived-in and rustic and shabby, and it all looks part and parcel of the environment. It looks like a dusty African village.
Near the village is the fictional Harambe Wildlife Preserve which hosts Kilimanjaro Safaris. As you may be able to guess, Kilimanjaro Safaris allows people to… well… go on safari, right there in the theme park! One word I will say first: if you’re prone to sickness, maybe be sensible and don’t eat a tonne before going on the safari as the paths are very bumpy and the jeep does bump about a lot. We went on this a couple of times because it’s so much fun, and you get to see wild dogs, rhinos, hyenas, giraffes, lions, elephants, wildebeest, crocodiles, antelopes, birds, and so on… It’s also a really good thing to do if the queue time isn’t too long and your feet are hurting from walking about the park all day. Adjacent is Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail, where you walk about the forest and see some animals – a perfect alternative for people who can’t, or don’t want to, go on the Kilimanjaro Safari. You get to see plenty of gorillas, hippos, snakes, spiders, mole rats, monkeys, okapi, hippos and meerkats!
The main reason we actually visited Animal Kingdom for the entire day on one of our days at Disney was largely due to having booked breakfast at Tusker House. Because we were staying at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, we had a dining plan for Quick Service meals. This meant a lot of the food we ate was at QS locations (all of which were amazing, by the way), but we splashed out on paying for the breakfast buffet at Harambe’s Tusker House because it is a character dining experience as well as offering amazing food. It’s safe to say I was slightly concerned about that bit of the experience because, hey, I love Disney but I didn’t know if maybe (just maybe) I was too old for this shit? Friends, you’re NEVER too old for this shit – you will still get a strange sense of glee when you spot safari Mickey wandering into the dining area, I ASSURE YOU.
The food itself was INCREDIBLE. It was all-you-can-eat which is my favourite phrase when applied to breakfast. There was every manner of eggs, bacon, sausages, frittata, pastries, fruit, waffles, cake. Here’s a tip though, don’t go to an African-inspired breakfast buffet if you’re going to turn your nose up at even trying some of the dishes – and if you do, you’re missing out, by the way, because bobotie is THE BEST. There’s also Mickey waffles, so I mean… there’s plenty of familiar stuff. Me and Liz ate waaaaay too much, I think I can safely say the amount of food I consumed was nothing less than excessive, and I regretted it slightly afterwards when we were walking about the park.
Beside Tusker House is the Harambe Theater, home to Festival of the Lion King, which is (you guessed it) based on The Lion King. This live theatre show is… astounding. Remember when I said earlier that we all need to stop for a minute and celebrate the performers in Finding Nemo – The Musical. Yeah, we need to do the same for these guys because oh my god. They can sing. They can dance. They can… do ridiculous acrobatics and gymnastics that definitely look unsafe but somehow they don’t fall. The level of performance and entertainment is incredible. And we lucked out somehow and, on my very first time at the show, managed to be seated in the best section – the lion – so we got to make the huge roaring sound when called upon to do so. I think we all did Simba proud.
I’ve saved the newest addition to the Animal Kingdom for last, so I’m going to hop over to a land which I was hesitant to explore for one very key reason: I haven’t seen even a single second of Avatar, the film that this entire land is themed for. It turns out that really doesn’t matter, because you’ll still frigging LOVE it anyway. Pandora is… unlike anything else I’ve ever seen and it’s an incredible experience to just walk around it, never mind the rides (which I’ll get to in a second). You can tell that this is the newest and flashiest area of the park because as soon as you get through the ticket barriers, everyone veers left and heads for Pandora to try to beat the queues. The queuing times once the park opens are RIDICULOUS (we’re talking easily a 90 minute wait once the park has been open for 30 mins) so for the love of all that is good and holy, if you have FastPass opportunities, FastPass Pandora’s two attractions. That’s exactly what we did and I’m glad I did because, as much as Pandora is astounding, would I have still found it quite as astounding if I’d spent 120 minutes waiting for one of its rides? (Only time will tell since I’m sure I’ll visit again and have to do this without a FastPass.)
The schtick goes that you enter Pandora a generation after the conflict between the indigenous Na’vi and the exploiting Resources Development Administration – “now” the Na’vi and humans interact peacefully and a fictional tourism company called Alpha Centauri Expeditions organise ecotourism and scientific research expeditions to help preserve and study Pandora and its species. And the world of Pandora is an incredible thing to walk around – the “floating mountains” of the Valley of Mo’ara are a thing to behold, and definitely worth many a photo.
Anyway, to the rides themselves: we went on Na’vi River Journey first as the park was still fairly empty and we wanted to “get this out of the way” before the main event. In short, it’s a bit like an LSD version of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which is to say it’s a slow-moving boat journey round various sets. The sets were incredible and take full advantage of bioluminescence to make you feel like you’re really part of a journey through the weird and wonderful landscape of Pandora’s Kasvapan River, spotting the native flora and fauna as well as the bizarre creatures.
Then comes the main attraction of the land (and possibly the whole park), Flight of Passage. This is the ride you will wait 2 hours for. And you’ll probably come off it and still say it was worth every single minute of those wasted hours you will never get back. (I saw a guy in the queue not even blink and simply pull out a hardback book from his backpack. Smart man.) I think it’s safe to say this is the ride I was fully prepared to say was just hype, that it wasn’t worth it, that I wouldn’t queue the ridiculous long time for it. I so wanted to come off the ride and think that. I was proved wrong. Flight of Passage is worth ALL the hype it receives, and I saw that as someone who hasn’t even seen the film Avatar so I can’t imagine how excited I’d be about it if I had seen the film it’s based on.
It’s an augmented reality 3D simulator ride in which riders learn how to fly a mountain Banshee, the winged creatures that inhabit Mo’ara. The idea is that the Alpha Centauri Expeditions company has restarted the Avatar program as part of the conservation efforts, hoping to restore the levels of native banshees. Guests are invited to link with an avatar in order to take part in the Na’vi race’s coming-of-age tradition – flying on a Banshee across the valley. The technology involved in this ride is INCREDIBLE. You sit on a sort of motorbike-looking thing, in front of a huge screen, and you lean forward slightly over the bike so that your legs and back can be restrained in place. When you sit forward, the bike between your legs/under your chest vibrates as your avatar is trying to link up and it also moves in and out, as though you can feel the banshee you’re riding actually breathing. It’s an incredible little touch that feels SO WEIRD but helps immerse you in the experience right from the get go.
The ride itself is… I don’t think words can do it justice, it has to be experienced to be believed but let me just say it’s INSANE. The simulation is cutting edge and feels SO REALISTIC and, somehow, despite the fact the bike you’re sitting on moves and tilts to help make you feel like you’re swooping through a valley on a banshee, I didn’t feel particularly motion sick. After the trauma of The Forbidden Journey at Harry Potter World, this was something I was super worried about, but I was mostly fine and so engrossed in the amazing graphics of Pandora, that I didn’t have the time or the attention to worry about whether or not I felt nauseous. I think that speaks volumes on how good the ride was. Oh and whatever smell they pump into that chamber as you’re on the ride swooping over the valley? Bottle it. Sell it. You’ll make millions.
Rivers of Light
One final word on the evening attraction that Animal Kingdom has on offer. Due to its status as part theme park, part zoo, Animal Kingdom can’t have the same kind of fireworks and pyrotechnics that the other parks can, for the sake of the animals’ wellbeing. Because of this, the park has a different approach: Rivers of Light. You know how I say a lot of the Disney fireworks are a bit trippy? Well, this is definitely that. At one point there was a huge floating, luminous flower peeing water everywhere. And that was just standard. I could try to describe the way they project images onto the walls of water (much like Fantasmic, but newer and better themed) but it’s easier to just say it was AMAZING and then link someone else’s video. My description simply couldn’t do it justice if I tried.
There we have it, folks, that was my recap/guide/thoughts on Animal Kingdom! Have you been to Disney yourself? If so, do you like Animal Kingdom and what’s your favourite ride/show?