Most of you Disney traditionalists are going to hate this article, but it’s time we all sat down and had a talk.
Let me go ahead and get in front of a few things here. First, I get it; Magic Kingdom is where you get to frolic away all of your cares while you’re whisked away inside your favorite fantasy story. EPCOT is an educational hub that promotes learning and cultural diversity by prompting you to buy things around a lake. Lastly, Hollywood Studios, well, Hollywood Studios has Star Wars.
All three of these parks at Walt Disney World have their strong points and a following of die-hard fan bases willing to go to war over their idea of which Disney Park is best, and they’d all be wrong. They’d all be fighting in vain because the undisputed champion of theme parks is not only the largest of them all, it’s flat-out better, and I will prove it to you! After today, you will see that Disney’s Animal KINGdom has “king” written right into the name for a reason!
How Disney’s Animal Kingdom Came To Be
April of 1998 was an exciting time. The Good Friday Agreement was signed between Northern Ireland and the British, a large earthquake rocked Slovenia, and deep down in the swamps of Florida, Walt Disney World opened its fourth park.
Coming off of the success of Disney’s MGM studios at Disney World, then CEO Michael Eisner sought to make Disney a leading competitor with other theme parks such as Busch Gardens. Disney already boasted the largest aquarium in Florida at EPCOT, had a working movie set in MGM Studios (Hollywood Studios), and now they would take on a wilder side! Walt Disney World would welcome Disney’s Animal Kingdom!
Building on the ideas of Walt Disney himself, the newest addition to Walt Disney World Resort would open on Earth Day, April 22nd 1998. The sprawling 580-acre Park would not only include shows and entertainment, but it would also house a collection of exotic animals for viewing.
Sounds a lot like a zoo, right? Not so fast, my friend; this was much more than a run-of-the-mill zoo. Animal Kingdom would not only include animal habitats, but it would work at the forefront of education and conservation efforts for species and habitats across the globe that found themselves threatened. Guests wouldn’t just see animals in cages or behind glass; they would experience them through heavily themed walking trails that mimic their natural habitat or at random viewing areas around the park.
Related: Animal Kingdom Retheme Fans Want
If that weren’t enough, Guests could also go on a safari! Kilimanjaro Safaris opened at Disney’s Animal Kingdom to much fanfare. Guests immediately fell in love with the ride as it offered an inside look at some of the most famous and fascinating animals on Earth. Side note, if you’re unaware, this is what Walt originally wanted the Jungle Cruise to be!
In addition the park housed the most expensive roller coaster ever built (at the time), not to mention the greatest Animal Kingdom ride ever, in Expedition Everest. Guests could literally go see lions, tigers, and then escape a giant animatronic yeti down a fast-faced exciting roller coaster!
The park was smash hit, despite missing the mark in terms of budget. Animal Kingdom was to initially be developed with a section of the park dedicated to mythical creatures from differing cultures. This didn’t happen; instead, we got Camp Mickey-Minnie, which is Pandora: World of Avatar today.
Although the mythological creature ideas didn’t happen, Guests could still readily see and learn about animals that existed and ones that used to be at DinoLand ,USA. There was something there for everyone. Animal Kingdom has you covered if you want to know more about veterinary sciences. If you were looking for thrills, this was the Park to attend. If you want to vibe and just enjoy scenic views, there’s no better place; Animal Kingdom truly hit a bullseye!
The Greatest Imagineer of All Time
A big reason, scratch that, THE BIGGEST REASON Disney’s Animal Kingdom was such a roaring success due to Mr. Joe Rohde. Rohde is a Disney Imagineer whose brain must come from somewhere other than Earth. Joe Rohde was the most influential voice in developing Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
As he served as the lead developer for the Park, Rohde’s creative prosperity is largely responsible for the finished product we see today at Disney World. His wealth of vision led a project that saw the creation of one of the most beautiful builds ever, the Tree of Life.
Featuring around 325 carvings of animals found worldwide, the Tree of Life is one of the most significant theme park accomplishments ever. It’s become the park’s icon (as intended) and is one of the most sought-after photo opportunities at Walt Disney World.
Rohde’s genius didn’t stop there, however, as he would later lead the charge to make mountains literally float in thin air! When Disney decided to retheme Camp Mickey-Minnie, they decided to take on the unique and breathtaking scenery from the top-grossing movie of all time, James Cameron’s Avatar (2009).
Rohde was the man for the job, and he quickly exceeded expectations when the park’s newest land opened in 2017. Guests were astonished at the modern engineering feat that had yet to be seen in any other theme park. Rohde had ripped Pandora from the screen and brought its bright bioluminescent flora to life right before our eyes. Rohde has literally moved mountains and made them float, as well as been instrumental in designing one of Disney World’s most popular attractions Avatar: Flight of Passage. He also helped make Na’vi River Journey, but that one isn’t nearly as impressive.
Joe Rohde had spent so much time traveling the globe studying ideas and cultures to influence his theme park, but this time, he had pulled make-believe out of nowhere and brought it to life! Fans fell in love with him for it!
To this day, Rohde stands as one of the most respected Disney Imagineers ever and is even immortalized at Tokyo DisneySea Tower of Terror, where he serves as the design’s main character! Rohde’s legacy at Disney’s Animal Kingdom makes it a place to behold, but it also remains one of the greatest in theming.
Animal Kingdom’s Detail Remains Unmatched
Disney is well known for their theming. The little details make a literal world of difference. You can find so many hidden details around Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and Hollywood Studios, but none of them hold a candle to Animal Kingdom. Joe Rohde spent countless hours trotting the globe to bring an unmatched level of cultural accuracy to the Africa and Asia sections of the park.
Whether it’s Harambe Market or the ride queues for hits like Kali River Rapids, the details stand alone in their authenticity. Guests are literally transported to different sections of the planet, all while in the confines of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The sights, sounds, and smells were all meticulously considered when designing and building the Park.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find this level of detailing and storytelling anywhere else at Walt Disney World. Not only is every inch of the park thought out with precise accuracy to ensure cultural appropriateness, but there are also stories to be told everywhere. Not by books, shows, or rides. Instead, the landscaping provides unique details about its inhabitants’ daily lives. The park is alive!
Instead of jumping from ride to ride, the next time you find yourself at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I challenge you to simply walk around and appreciate the immaculate details each land possesses. For instance, have you ever noticed the crashed helicopter in Pandora? Or maybe you’ve missed Michael Jackson in the Kali River Rapids queue. I bet if you tried hard enough, you could even find a fishing charter!
Furry (Sometimes Scaly) Friends
We all love animals in some way or another. Although there is much more to take in at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, dazzling vistas are only some of what the park offers. Much like a zoo, Animal Kingdom is home to a large variety of animals from different continents.
In Africa, you’ll find the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trails, designed to transport Guests to the Pangani forest; you can come face-to-face with hippos, zebra, and gorillas. In Asia, there is the Maharajah Jungle Trek. Step into the wild of Asia and experience water buffalo, over 50 species of bird, deer, and tigers. There isn’t a wilder time to be had!
Maybe walking through the jungle isn’t your thing. Perhaps you like friendlier animals that don’t want to eat you. I get that, and so does Disney. The Imagineers at Walt Disney World thought of this too and incorporated a really cool gem in the back of the Park where you can interact with mild-mannered animals.
Of course, we’re talking about Rafiki’s Planet Watch at Conversation Station. While you’re there, if you’re lucky enough, you can catch Animal Kingdom’s team of veterinarians performing procedures and providing education. You can even take a drawer class with a real Disney animator!
Lastly, there are several animal enclosures nestled around the park. These stand-alone areas include the American Crocodile, monkeys, meerkats, and anteaters, among many other animals you can view throughout the day. But the big show is the safari ride!
If the big guys and gals are what you’re looking for, you will want to hop onto Kilimanjaro Safaris (preferably in the morning or evening). This 20-minute ride takes you through the jungle, savannah, and forests while introducing up close to cheetahs, wild dogs, lions, elephants, free-roaming rhinos, giraffes, and so much more! This is a great way to maximize your animal viewing while learning fascinating facts about the furry, feathery, or scaly friends you see!
Some of the Best Food and Entertain at Disney World
When you think of food at Disney, you probably think of Disney Springs or EPCOT, which is fair. Those places have fantastic dining options, but Animal Kingdom is no slouch!
Although fewer options exist for food, both table service and quick service at Animal Kingdom have plenty to tantalize those taste buds. If you’re looking for a unique yet romantic option, there’s Tiffin’s Steakhouse or the Nomad Lounge. If you’re more adventurous, try something new at Tusker House!
Grab some Mr. Kamal’s fries and sit while you try to see how many animals you can find on the Tree of Life. Enjoy a nice alcoholic beverage from Satu’li Canteen, or try the Night Blossom from Pongu Pongu. We have yet to mention Yak and Yeti! It’s a fan-favorite and won’t leave you disappointed. There’s so much food to be had at Animal Kingdom; honestly, there’s very little we’ve tried that wasn’t amazing. You’ll leave full and satisfied after a day of eating at Animal Kingdom.
Last on our list of reasons Disney’s Animal Kingdom is entertainment. We’re happy to report that since the closings a couple of years ago, live entertainment has slowly been returning to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, including one of the best shows on Disney property. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Animal Kingdom hosts several acts and stage shows that fans are sure to love, and we promise we aren’t talking about Kite Tails. In addition, there are plenty of characters who are exclusive to the park. Moana, Mickey, Minnie, Rafiki, and Pocahontas are few that come to mind.
You could catch the acrobatic stunts over in Africa, and dancers in Asia, have a dance party with Timon on Discovery Island while you enjoy barbecue from Flame Tree, or even follow Kevin from Up (2009) as she explores Animal Kingdom. You can earn your Wilderness Explorer badge, but be sure to check out the musical Finding Nemo: The Big Blue and Beyond.
Tam tam drummers, street bands, and much more fun lives at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but the show that every one MUST SEE! The show that puts Animal Kingdom over the top and solidifies it’s Park as the Number 1 Theme Park at Walt Disney World is…
Festival of the Lion King! If you’re not a Disney’s Animal Kingdom fan and have never seen Festival of the Lion King, you haven’t given the Park a fair shot. This show has everything from familiar characters from the Lion King to singing, fire dancers, circus acts, and much more!
Join Simba and his friends as they celebrate his inauguration as King of the Jungle! Sing along with Timon and Pumba while you take in the death-defying stunt monkeys and their high-flying antics. Relive a classic telling of the fantastic animated classic while familiar songs and breathtaking colors and costumes!
Be part of the show as you interact with actors and take in the sights and sounds. Festival of the Lion King is easily the best live show at Disney Park, and there aren’t many who’d disagree with that. It’s a beautifully done work of art that truly encompasses the magic of what Disney is. It’s a perfect show!
Related: Details of the Lion King Sequel
So there you have it. Still think Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a “half day park?” You probably do. I haven’t had much luck changing the minds of those EPCOT die-hards out there. That’s okay. I want to challenge you to slow down during your next visit to Animal Kingdom. Take it all in and see if you can find a new appreciation for the park and its detail.
It really is a living, functioning work of art. Despite whether you consider it the best of the four parks at Walt Disney World, you can’t deny that it remains the undisputed king in terms of detail and what we think a theme park should look like. Animal Kingdom is what happens when the best minds that Disney Imagineering has to offer put their heart and soul into a project, and it’s very much reflected in the experience. For that reason, I consider it the undisputed KING of theme parks that belong to Disney.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the views of Disney Dining as a whole.