For quite a while, I was an off-site guy that couldn’t justify the higher costs of a Disney hotel. That feeling changed last year when we stayed at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge during MLK weekend. I still like the value and larger accommodations of staying off property, but there are definite benefits to staying on site. That trip was only four nights, so it made sense to fly to Orlando and use Disney’s Magical Express. I fell hard for the Animal Kingdom Lodge, especially the lobby and atmosphere. When we decided to return to Disney World this year, the resort choice was easy. I booked six nights during my daughters’ Spring Break in mid-March. We were driving down from Missouri this time and wanted a comfortable hotel after such a long journey.
Last year, I wrote an extensive review of the Animal Kingdom Lodge following our stay. Instead of just repeating my overall thoughts, I’ll talk more about this specific experience in the review. We stayed longer and splurged on the savanna-view room, so there are significant differences this time. Even so, many of the core elements remain the same. The lobby is incredible, the restaurants are among the best, and the animals bring that added touch that you can’t find at any other Disney resort.
For the most part, the resort worked out perfectly and delivered a great trip. We spent more time hanging out there and enjoyed the pool and other common areas. You don’t feel like you’re in the middle of the action at this resort, and that’s a good thing. There are enough activities happening without even visiting the parks. We didn’t spend a full day at the resort but also weren’t hitting rope drop every morning. This resort works best when you have the time to enjoy it. The proximity to Disney’s Animal Kingdom will also become more valuable with Pandora opening in May. Let’s dive into the highlights (and a few challenges) from my trip!
It’s hard to beat the first moments when you arrive on Disney World property. Whether you’re heading to the parks or checking in to a resort, the anticipation is off the charts. Driving into the Animal Kingdom Lodge parking lot felt different after using Magical Express last year. The obvious reason is that we had a lot of stuff with us. We initially planned to just park the car and haul in our luggage, but it was a serious walk to the entrance. Instead, we pulled up and hoped we could grab a luggage cart or some assistance. We are not experts at the right way to approach a Disney resort by car. This led to one of the strangest experiences that I’ve ever had at Walt Disney World.
The cast member at the entrance offered to help but acted strangely. He barely spoke and didn’t seem to listen. After helping us load the luggage on the cart, he said that another cast member would bring them to the room right away. This felt odd since we had already used online check-in to access our room. We also weren’t leaving our bags with the bell services desk while we visited the parks. A few minutes after reaching our room, I received a call from the front desk that asked if our bags had arrived. When I said no, the cast member sounded confused and said thanks. After waiting another 15 minutes or so, I decided it was time to figure out the issue.
When I reached the bell services desk, the cast member there informed me that they’d lost my luggage. Somehow it had disappeared from the driveway to the front door, which was ludicrous. My anger probably scared the guy, who took me into the luggage room to look for the cart. It only took a few minutes to find it tucked in the corner. The initial cast member never checked in our bags and just left them there. It was a relief to have our bags yet didn’t start our stay on a positive note. It showed a level of dysfunction that I’m not used to seeing from Disney. While nothing reached this level, I did notice a few other cracks in the magic at times during our trip.
Is a Savanna View Worth It?
During our previous stay, we booked a standard view room and actually saw quite a few animals from our window. Despite the higher cost, I decided that a savanna-view room was worth a shot this time. The only downside of last year’s room was its distance from the lobby and The Mara. This time, I had a lot more options for requesting a room in a prime location. I used the excellent Room Request tool from Touring Plans and requested a north-facing room on the Zebra Trail and the 3rd floor. My goal was 3427, which is near the lobby but has a small buffer. We received 3423, which is just two doors away and an ideal spot right near the center of the resort.
We arrived late on a Saturday afternoon and observed a large number of animals outside the window. This set the bar too high for the rest of the trip, but there were still plenty of sightings during the week. We saw multiple giraffes, zebra, gazelles, kudu, and others right outside the window. Our balcony did face out to the public areas behind the lobby, which was mostly positive. It did get a bit noisy at times, but the distractions were minimal.
Disney charges quite a premium for its savanna-view rooms over the standard options. We saw plenty of animals, and I loved the better location for grabbing breakfast at The Mara. On the other hand, I’m not sure the extra money was worth it. There are quite a few public areas that offer excellent views, and you can only get so close to the animals. I understand the value that we received with the savanna room, but the large difference in price is hard to justify. I love the Animal Kingdom Lodge and enjoyed our stay immensely, but the upgrade was limited.
The Joys of the Mara
As a family with two young girls (8 and 4), we can’t do many 12-hour days at the parks. We aren’t an early-morning family, so rope drop isn’t also likely. This means we’re eating breakfast at the resort on most days. Thankfully, The Mara is tailor-made for this type of approach. We began each park day with me grabbing breakfast to-go while the girls started getting ready. The Mara is also a step way up from the typical food court. It’s smaller and has more diverse choices for adults. It’s easy to avoid spending too much by swapping out sides from the kids’ meals.
Another benefit of The Mara was having a reliable place to grab dinner if we didn’t eat at the parks. It’s open late for dinner and even has a more limited menu for late-night guests. We grabbed desserts, beer and wine, and extra sides along with the dinners. I’ll dive more into the specific dishes in a separate review of The Mara. In general, even the burgers and pizza are hardly standard Disney fare. It’s also one of the few restaurants that felt like a value during our entire trip. I can’t understate how important The Mara is to the Animal Kingdom Lodge’s success.
The Uzima Springs Pool
The longer vacation gave us a chance to check out the massive Uzima Springs Pool, which did not disappoint. What makes it great for families is the large amount of space in the 11,000-square-foot area. Even with the Spring Break crowds, I never felt like other guests were on top of us. My daughters are still learning to swim, so the space helped a lot. The zero-entry side also was a plus with my younger daughter. Uzima Springs is one of the largest pools at Walt Disney World and includes a popular 67-foot water slide within the trees. The atmosphere is more exciting than the actual slide, but it’s still a blast for kids.
Another positive of Uzima Springs is the area surrounding it, which include several hot tubs, a playground, and a flamingo habitat. If that isn’t enough, there’s also another savanna with a cool viewing spot. Movie screenings also happen on Saturdays by the pool; they were showing Moana during our visit. The only thing missing at Uzima Springs are more original play areas and a defined theme. There’s still plenty to do there, including a daily schedule of activities. It just might pull this pool just below the top choices at Disney World resorts.
Visiting the Parks
Unlike our last trip, we had a car on site for reaching the parks. This was more convenient when traveling to the Animal Kingdom and the Studios, which are a short drive from the resort. It is more remote when traveling to Epcot and The Magic Kingdom, however. I might still suggest driving to Epcot, though it’s more of a wash. A lot depends on where you end up parking. The preferred parking option has changed the situation for the worse. It’s not really about Disney trying to make extra money for me. It’s the ripple effect of those spots not being available that impacts other guests. We lucked out at the Animal Kingdom with a late morning arrival and parked in essentially the best possible standard parking row. Chances are lower now, though.
Buses are still the way to go with The Magic Kingdom because of the distance and all the steps needed to reach the gates. We drove there on our last day (rookie move!) but did have a pleasant experience using the ferry. Even so, it was definitely not quicker. The killer is the tram (or walk) to the TTA before you even reach the ferry or monorail. With security procedures now moved away from the gate for driving guests, I’d definitely suggest taking the bus if you can.
Exploring the Resort
Despite a few issues here and there, I’d stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge again in a heartbeat. There are so many remarkable details in every corner of the resort. Even if you don’t have a room with a view of a savanna, there’s so much to recommend. There’s also plenty of resort-specific merchandise at the Zawadi Marketplace. I’ve barely mentioned the other three restaurants (Boma, Jiko, and Sanaa), which all rank among the top Disney dining locations. We enjoyed breakfast at Boma during our final day, and it’s quite a diverse buffet.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of stepping into the lobby at Jambo House after a long day at the parks. The “welcome home” message truly applies here, and I can’t get enough of the warm atmosphere. The background music adds so much to the ambience, and it rarely feels hectic. I’d love to stay at one of the villas in either Jambo House or Kidani Village, but it would take a serious discount to make that happen (Disney, you have my number). I’ll close this review with more photos that barely do justice to the charms of this fine resort.