There’s so much to do on a Walt Disney World Resort vacation in Orlando. Guests want to press every advantage to get the most out of their vacation dollars.
Unless you’ve planned a longer-than-most getaway, you won’t get everything done.
With this in mind, how do you maximize your time and money without going too far and robbing yourself of the restorative powers of a vacation?
I try to take time in the middle to take a break and enjoy the hotel pool, shop and dine. But I also schedule a day at the Animal Kingdom. Part zoo, part theme park, the Animal Kingdom has the least hustle and bustle of Disney parks.
Sure, there are must-dos. But there are a lot of attractions at the Animal Kingdom that don’t make or break the trip. I certainly enjoy seeing gorillas, lions and tigers. But if I miss them? We’ve got a zoo 45 minutes from the house.
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What are your best tips for the Animal Kingdom?
Let’s take a look.
1. Ride Flight of Passage
If you can’t get Individual Lightning Lane, you’re just gonna have to suck it up and wait in line. But it’s worth it. Flight of Passage is a theme park miracle.
It’s one of the most spectacular rides ever invented. Don’t miss it.
2. Take a Safari
You can’t come to Animal Kingdom and not ride Kilimanjaro Safaris. Get a Genie+ if you can. But if you can’t, you’ve got to build time in your day to ride even if it means waiting.
If you rope drop, however, be prepared for a hike. The last time we rope dropped the ride, Disney had made a possible miscalculation in the ride queue. We were led on a meandering path from Pandora through Africa to some place backstage and all over the place. We may even have briefly been routed through EPCOT.
The problem was the queue was three or four times longer than the line required. We just walked and walked and walked, barely resting until we were seated on the ride.
3. Mind the heat
The heat in Animal Kingdom is more oppressive than in the other parks. You’d think the Magic Kingdom, with its relative lack of shade and seating, would be the worst and it does get quite hot there.
But the Animal Kingdom, even with all its shade, has the most oppressive heat. I suspect that all the vegetation helps add to the humidity and pushes the heat index higher there than EPCOT or Hollywood Studios where it’s a drier heat.
Once, I was feeling overheated in Animal Kingdom and, after a rest, made my way to Pandora. As we were crossing the bridge, I felt for my wedding ring and fearing it had slipped off, began looking for it.
The problem? I’d lost the thing years earlier while spinning it on a desk several hundred miles away. I shook myself out of it and found some shade and a cool drink. But it’s the only time I ever got truly over-heated in a Disney park.
4. Don’t overlook the animals
I know a lot of people who approach this park with the attitude of, “We have a zoo back at home. We need to do the things in Disney we can’t do at home.”
Heck, not six paragraphs ago I said if we miss some animals, it’s not a deal breaker.
But you need to see at least SOME of the animals.
The Animal Kingdom is a unique zoo experience. In addition to the Safari ride, the Maharajah Jungle Trek in Asia and the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail are excellent and informative.
The Discovery Island Trails surrounding the Tree of Life is a great way for guests to see a lot of animals as they make their way from the entrances through the heart of the park.
5. Skip Rafiki’s Planet Watch
Look, the Wildlife Express Train to and from the Planet Watch is probably worth the price of admission.
Also, Planet Watch and Conservation Station are fine and educational. However, it’s not what I come to the theme parks for. And the petting zoo? You can get that at your local zoo. Young kids may enjoy it. But I’d save time for the rest of the park.
6. Seek out the unique character meet and greets
You get some fun characters in Animal Kingdom. My eldest is crazy for “Up!” so seeing Doug, Carl Fredrickson and Kevin was a real treat.
We’ve also run into some really deep cuts over the years. Thumper and Blossom from “Bambi” and Terk from “Tarzan” spring to mind.
That said, if you’re looking for classic favorites, you can find Mickey and Minnie over at the Adventurers Outpost and Donald and Daisy at DinoLand U.S.A.
7. Try the Yak & Yeti
Animal Kingdom is full of interesting food options. Whether you get a dining reservation at a table service restaurant or go the quick service route, Animal Kingdom is a great place to dine.
Yak & Yeti sits at the base of Mt. Everest and offers Pan-Asian cuisine. In addition to the table service restaurant, there is a smaller quick-service place next door. I recommend the Chicken Tikka Masala.
I could make a must-do list of just-food options in the park. For example, Tiffins is wonderful. But we’re only assuming one day for your visit, and you can only eat so many meals.
8. Get a drink at the Nomad Lounge
A stop at Nomad Lounge is a great way to end your day in the Kingdom.
As the sun goes down and the park winds down, make your way to the Nomad with enough time to enjoy a specialty cocktail or two before taking advantage of the Disney transportation system to get you back to your hotel.
9. See the Festival of the Lion King
Located in Africa, Festival of the Lion King may be the best non-fireworks Disney show on the property.
Featuring songs and characters from “The Lion King”, the show is a spectacle that holds up on repeated viewing.
Finding Nemo: The Big Blue… and Beyond is quite good as well, but it doesn’t make an impression like Lion King.
10. Marvel at the immersive Pandora
Immersive worlds based on major intellectual property are all the rage in theme parks these days. From Star Wars to Harry Potter to Nintendo and to Pandora, building lands that put you inside another time or place has been big business for the parks.
Disney bet big on James Cameron’s Pandora a decade ago and while the world is fantastic, questions started to arise about the long-awaited sequel. Now that the “Way of the Water” has been a major hit, it’s clear that this part of the Animal Kingdom has staying power.
The land itself is amazing and the theming is immaculate.
11. Get the Cheeseburger Pods from Satu’li Canteen
Pandora’s quick-service dining location is a must. I remain incredibly impressed by Disney’s chefs’ ability to create an interesting cuisine that feels sufficiently alien but is also delicious.
The Cheeseburger Steamed Pods, or Bao Buns, are stuffed with ground beef, ketchup, mustard, pickle and cheddar cheese and served with a crunchy slaw and vegetable chips. It’s an iconic Disney treat.
12. Play the games
I’m a sucker for carnival games and Animal Kingdom has a great little carnival games section in DinoLand U.S.A. My kids have inherited my competitiveness and so when we venture into these little carnival game areas, it can get costly. The Gullions are winners, and we’re willing to pay ridiculous amounts to do so.
We were there a couple of years ago and my middle child JP and I were in the games section while the girls were off doing something else. We tried every game in the place and seemed we were going to have to walk away empty-handed.
I handed him the last of the game tickets and explained the situation. He chose a ball toss game and got his throws. The first rolled around the colored cup and out. The second bounced harmlessly away.
The final throw? It bounced right onto the biggest prize cup, and we celebrated like he’d hit the game-winning point in the NBA finals.
Could we have purchased a nicer souvenir for less money? Sure. Would it have meant as much as the one he won in the clutch? Not in a million years.
13. Cool off with Kali River Rapids
Why didn’t I mention Kali River Rapids as a possible destination to start the day? You don’t want to walk around all day soaked. However, it can be quite refreshing in the heat of the day to ride the rapids and get soaked.
Ideally, you’ll have some replacement shoe and sock options you can store in a locker so you don’t have to squish around. But the Rapids are a must-ride, either way.
14. Visit DinoLand U.S.A.
It’s clear that change is coming to Animal Kingdom, likely either in or adjacent to DinoLand U.S.A.
With the demolished Primeval Whirl site still empty and the remaining area mostly taken up by the easily moveable Fossil Fun Games, the site is ripe for renovation or a complete makeover.
What could be coming? Rumors of ZooTopia or Moana-themed lands are persistent. I think something Indiana Jones-related would be great, but that’s more wishing than any real expectation.
15. Ride Expedition Everest
There was a time Everest was one of the stars of the Disney galaxy. Then came Flight and Rise and the Runaway Railway and Guardians and Tron, and now Everest has fallen down the food chain some.
But that’s good for you. Wait times or more reasonable. Our group was able to hop on a couple of times on our most recent visit without much of a wait at all.
Animal Kingdom needs more rides, but until it gets them, multiple rides on Everest will do nicely.
16. Do a character breakfast at Tusker House
Back in the old days, Tucker House opened well before the park. Therefore, you could do your character meet and greets with Mickey, Donald, Goofy and Minnie and have a nice breakfast with African flavors before the park opened.
We did it once and timed our exit from the breakfast right into the rope drop. They did a second mini-rope drop right there for us and walked on to the Safari ride. It may have been the best bit of Disney planning I’ve ever done.
Now, the restaurant opens at 8 am, a half-hour after early entry and just as the regular Joes are allowed in.
Even without the extra early entry, it remains one of our favorite character dining experiences.
That said, a character breakfast can really cut into your plans if you want to rope drop the best attractions. The solution? Plan your breakfast slightly later in the morning, hit the big rides and treat the Tusker House fare as brunch.
Or use Genie+ and Lightning Lanes to secure reservations for the best rides of the day and enjoy a magic breakfast with the crew to start your Animal Kingdom adventure.
17. Strategize where you want to go first in the Animal Kingdom
You’ve basically got two choices if you rope drop Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and both are centered around the park’s most popular attractions.
Look for Pandora or Kilimanjaro Safaris. Those are where the most significant wait times will be later in the day so you can save yourself the most time by hitting those early.
If you employ Disney Genie+ or Individual Lightning Lanes, that can affect your plan. I usually go to the Pandora World of Avatar first because I know those are the attractions with the longest wait times.
If I’m there at rope drop and Avatar Flight of Passage has a decent wait time, I’m going even if I have a Lightning Lane for later in the day.
The wait times for Na’vi River Journey are not as bad as its sister Pandora, but if you hit it first thing in the morning, you can catch it as basically a walk-on as you make your way through the world.
If you must choose, take Flight, which is one of the top two or three rides in Orlando. Wait times ratchet up quickly. Even if you ride twice in one day, you will enjoy it just as much.
Plus, the cool and soothing Navi River Journey is a great break from the heat of the day, especially if you get a reservation via Disney Genie+.
Your other opening option is Kilimanjaro Safari in Africa. As noted, the animals are likely more active in the morning.
It’s certainly cool to see the giraffes sauntering across the Savanah. Ride times can get long during the day and so if Pandora is packed or you have reservations for later, it’s time to take a safari.
Your other rope drop option is Expedition Everest, but wait times for the park’s only roller coaster have been far more reasonable since it’s no longer the top dog. Also, the single rider line is available for anyone who wants to ride but can’t stand to wait.
How do I get the most out of Animal Kingdom?
To get the most out of a park like Animal Kingdom, the simplest piece of advice is to get there early.
The park comes alive in the morning and closes at the earliest of any of the Disney theme parks.
The consensus is the park’s animals are most active in the morning, especially on Kilimanjaro Safaris.
I can say my anecdotal experiences back that up, but I don’t have hard scientific evidence on early morning versus, say, dusk.
Do I need to do Disney Genie+ or Individual Lightning Lanes?
If you don’t mind a little bit of a wait, I think you can make it through Animal Kingdom without Disney Genie+.
You can get on the big rides, except for Flight of Passage, in reasonable wait times. Let’s say under 45 minutes if you manage your day on the My Disney Experience app and are prepared to move when a wait time drops.
If you want to ride Flight of Passage, you need to purchase an Individual Lightning Lane if possible. If you can’t get one or are not the first person in the park when it opens, you can expect wait times above an hour, maybe an hour and a half.
It’s probably worth it, but your experience will be better if you avoid the massive wait times.
What are your best Animal Kingdom tips? Let us know in the comments.