An amusement park ticket booth with a large sign that read "Animal Kingdom"
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Animal Kingdom: My Favorite Walt Disney World Park

While AJ tends to be more charmed by the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom was my absolute favorite park at Walt Disney World. Our visit came at the end of a very long and tiring week, and yet this park was still a lot of fun. It held my interest enough to help me keep going all day, even when any reasonable person would go directly to bed and stay there.

The park was set to open at 9:00am the day we visited, and we were so proud of ourselves that we had actually made it there early. We parked at about 8:30, making sure to take careful note of the car’s location this time, and hopped on the tram toward the entrance. I think it was around then that AJ got a text from his sister Becky saying the she and Jason were already in the park and in line for a ride. I guess they open the park and rides earlier than advertised. We should have gotten there at 8:00 – or earlier!

Four people sit in a row in an amusement park jungle safari ride vehicle

Pandora – The World of Avatar

You will probably think I’m crazy. I haven’t ever seen the entirety of the movie Avatar, and I wasn’t terribly interested in the short part that I did see. I can hear you now. “WHAT?! You haven’t seen AVATAR?!” Nope.

The good news is that it didn’t stop me from really enjoying Pandora at Animal Kingdom. The theming in this section of the park, which opened in May of 2017, is over-the-top amazing. It’s detailed, imaginative, and very original as theme parks go.

A lush alien jungle section of a theme park with arched trees and greenery
Pandora in the morning

Once we were through the gates of the park, we made a beeline for Pandora. Since we had FastPasses scheduled for Flight of Passage later in the day, we joined Becky and Jason in line for the other ride in Pandora, Na’vi River Journey, which they had already done once. This ride is a boat ride in the same vein as Pirates of the Caribbean, and the theming is, as in the rest of Pandora, really special. Plus, it’s a good introduction to some of the Avatar characters, especially if you haven’t seen the movie. Just like with Frozen Ever After at Epcot, Disney is stepping up their animatronics game with Na’vi River Journey.

Flight of Passage is definitely a contender for my #1 favorite Disney ride in the world – and AJ and I have been on (almost) all of them. The use of cutting-edge technology combined with old-fashioned special effects makes this ride just breathtaking. We were lucky enough to get to ride twice – once with our FastPasses and once right at park closing (see tips below!). We were so glad we went through the regular queue at the end of the day, since the FastPass queue bypasses most of the cool stuff.

Another reason we were glad we went on Flight of Passage at night was that it gave us an opportunity to explore the luminescent walkways of Pandora. They use black lights for this effect, and the luminescence is everywhere – on the ground, in the bushes, and overhead in the trees.. It’s like a totally different world at night.

A luminescent section of a theme park with alien arched trees overhead
Pandora is at its most spectacular at night.

Africa

After riding Na’vi River Journey in the morning, we headed over to Africa for our first FastPass of the day on Kilimanjaro Safaris. One of the biggest draws at Animal Kingdom, this ride is where you get to see the most animals. We had pretty good luck on our safari in terms of animal sightings. We saw ambling rhinos, bathing flamingos, and sleeping lions, among many others. It’s educational without being boring, and the narration is fun without the absurdity of my least favorite Disney ride, the Jungle Cruise.

A jungle safari ride vehicle surrounded by lush greenery
The safari vehicle ahead of us waiting for animals to clear the road so it can proceed

I had one complaint about the safari. The seats are rock solid, and the vehicles obviously jostle quite a bit as you drive along the dirt paths of the safari area. The bones in my spine were ground into the back of the seat, making me pretty uncomfortable. It would have been so much better if they’d had just a little padding on those seats.

Two lions asleep on rocks in the sun
Do not disturb!

Becky and Jason were wearing their anniversary pins all week, and (we think) because of that, we were stopped by cast members as we were walking along in Africa to see if we wanted to go to Festival of the Lion King. We had planned on going later in the day, but we said “sure, why not?” We ended up with front row seats.

Performed in the round and with a clearly high production value, the show is quite spectacular. The premise is basically that Timon and Pumbaa, with the help of human storytellers, are reenacting the story of The Lion King for King Simba. The singing was pretty good, the dancing was very good, and there were several surprises from tumblers and aerialists. Personally, I’m not super into the audience participation aspects, but I think little kids (and less cranky adults than I) would have a lot of fun with that. AJ got to show off his epic elephant impersonation.

Two aerialists dressed in bird costumes with a singer holding a microphone in the background
Can you feel the love tonight?

As with when I heard the Voices of Liberty perform at Epcot, I found myself wondering what on Earth they’re doing over at Hollywood Studios as I watched this show. The quality of Festival of the Lion King was exponentially higher than any show we saw at that park.

For our last stop in Africa, we walked the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail. It features various exotic birds, hippos, and, you guessed it, gorillas. While certainly not the most memorable part of the day, it was worth exploring. We didn’t dawdle there and were quickly off to the next adventure.

Discovery Island

The only thing we really did on Discovery Island, other than look for pins – more on that later – was see It’s Tough to Be a Bug. I’ve never seen A Bug’s Life. (I really haven’t seen anything, have I?) Even though I wasn’t familiar with the characters, I thought it was cute and had some unexpected special effects, which I won’t ruin for you. But compared to the other two shows we saw that day, it was just so-so.

Dinoland U.S.A.

There are two main draws in Dinoland: Finding Nemo – The Musical (although I’m not sure what that has to do with dinosaurs) and the ride DINOSAUR. We did both.

Finding Nemo – The Musical was so incredibly charming. Disney has figured out a genius way to get around the fact that all of the main characters are, you know, fish. They’ve developed sophisticated puppets that the actors playing the parts hold and control as they speak and sing. It’s really cool.

The performance we attended had a slight glitch with one of the actors’ microphones. It failed just as a musical number was about to start, and they actually had to stop the show for a couple of minutes to get a replacement. Everybody handled it like pros, and as a performer, I was all the more impressed with the show because of it.

To be honest, I didn’t remember anything about going on DINOSAUR the ride, and I had to watch some YouTube videos of it to refresh my memory before writing about it. Now, granted, I’m writing several months after the fact, since I’m a terrible blogger, but there are other rides that I can remember clear as day. I guess that says something about how much impact this ride had on me.

A blue-green dinosaur statue sits in from of a ride building at a theme park
It may be time to re-theme this ride.

The premise of DINOSAUR is that guests are being sent back in time to the very end of the Cretaceous period and are tasked with bringing an Iguanodon back to the future. The ride follows a similar track to the Indiana Jones rides in California and Tokyo, so much so that you can’t help but compare the two. Once my memory was jogged, I recalled wishing I were on an Indiana Jones ride. The jostling ride vehicle and so-so animatronics weren’t enough to impress this former wannabe paleontologist.

Asia

Expedition Everest might have been my favorite ride of the day, had it not been for Flight of Passage. We went on it two or three times, since it was relatively easy to book FastPasses for it. It’s a mostly traditional roller coaster ride with a surprise twist that I was not expecting the first time I rode it. I was even a little concerned that something had gone wrong with the ride! But no, it was just that pesky Yeti who protects the Forbidden Mountain.

A couple in their mid-thirties smile in front of a theme park version of Mount Everest
All smiles at Expedition Everest

Kali River Rapids was the first of a few raft rides we went on at the various Disney parks. The ride consists of a circular raft, seating twelve people, that rotates around rather unpredictably as you jostle along the jungle-themed rapids ride. We hardly got wet at all on this one, but depending on where you’re sitting and the luck of the draw, you could end up soaked, even if you’re wearing a poncho. It’s not a terrible ride, but we only felt the need to go on it once.

My friend Samus has a friend who works on Rivers of Light, the nighttime show at Animal Kingdom, and he was able to put us on the VIP list for the show. Since we had dinner reservations at Jiko: The Cooking Place at Animal Kingdom Lodge that day, we wouldn’t have been able to wait in line for the first showtime. It was a real time saver to be able to walk right up and sit down. Plus, they were great seats! Thanks again, Samus and Samus’ friend!

Lit-up large pink flowers bloom as water spurts out of them
Rivers of Light

Rivers of Light was a welcome change for a highly sensitive person like me. Sure, fireworks are great, and the show at the Magic Kingdom is phenomenal, but it’s a total sensory overload. Since they don’t want to scare or disturb the animals in the park, Rivers of Light is much quieter. No fireworks. No super loud music. It was beautiful, and the fact that there was a lightning storm happening in the distance that evening only added to the ambiance.

The one thing in Asia that we would have loved to do that we didn’t get the chance to do was the Maharajah Jungle Trek. We actually came back to the Animal Kingdom the next day for a very limited time, since we had the Park Hopper Plus ticket for that day anyway. Unfortunately, though we’d hoped to do the Maharajah Jungle Trek then, we ended up spending the whole time speeding around the park looking for pins for our souvenir pin collection. That was somewhat disappointing, but at least the pin collection turned out great. Plus, now we have a reason to go back!

Tips:

1. Have a good FastPass game.

This pretty much goes for any park in Walt Disney World, so it’s not new information. In the case of Animal Kingdom, Pandora is extremely popular, so if you can line up a FastPass Plus for Flight of Passage ahead of time, do it! Other FastPasses to try to get on the day include Expedition Everest, Kali River Rapids, Kilimanjaro Safaris, and Festival of the Lion King.

2. Get there early and run for Pandora

As I mentioned, the day we were there, they opened the park way earlier than advertised. I’d recommend getting there an hour early to get a good position in line. Once they open, run for Pandora. If you already have a FastPass for Flight of Passage, go for Na’vi River Journey first. If you don’t, then hightail it to Flight of Passage for sure.

3. Don’t trust the wait times at park closing.

My friends Samus and Adam, former annual pass holders, tipped us off that Disney tends to jack up the wait times at the end of the day to discourage people from getting in line. That was definitely true when we went on Flight of Passage right at park closing. The wait time was listed as 80 minutes, when in reality, it was only 40 minutes.

A large theme park tree is lit up in multiple colors at night while the sky is lit up by lightning behind it
The Tree of Life lit up by the lightning storm

What are your favorite Animal Kingdom tips and tricks? Let us know in the comments below!

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