Our most recent trip to Disney World was quite different from our normal vacations to the massive Orlando resort. We’ve typically stayed at an off-site condo because of the better value and added space. For this shorter excursion, it made sense to simplify and just use Disney transportation. Once we made that decision, the next choice was picking an on-site resort. My thoughts initially went to the moderates, but the four-night length and some good discounts brought a few deluxe options into the picture. We eventually decided on The Animal Kingdom Lodge, which seemed more enticing without totally breaking the bank. This was a very wise choice.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is located on the southwestern edge of Disney property near I-192 and the Western Expressway. Although it’s close to the Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios, it feels quite secluded. Your interest in this more remote location will play a key role in deciding if the Animal Kingdom Lodge is right for you. I was immediately drawn into the feeling that we weren’t in the middle of theme park madness. Instead, there was a real sense that we’d arrived at a separate resort. That feeling was refreshing after a day of travel and remained throughout our trip. The hotel was an escape from the crowds and chaos of the parks.
We stayed at the Jambo House, and strolling into the massive lobby for the first time was quite an experience. My jaw stayed on the floor for quite a while. Pictures can’t do justice to the scope of this gorgeous space. What makes it so impressive are the smaller details that give the lobby a unique flavor. There’s nothing garish or cheap about the African theme. The Disney style is present, but it feels more subtle. This is the opposite of the lavish décor of the Grand Floridian and is still warm and cozy. In quieter times, it’s a spot where you can curl up with a book or just relax with friends.
Another surprise was the volume of separate viewing areas and small corners where you could escape other guests. It’s hard to avoid the herd mentality of Disney World, but that can happen at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. It’s a large resort that remains intimate because of smart design choices. Architect Peter Dominick also designed the Wilderness Lodge and Grand Californian resorts, and each has warmth that’s often missing from modern hotels. I’d watched videos and read plenty about this hotel, but I still didn’t expect to find it so impressive.
Despite my willingness to choose a deluxe resort, there was a limit to my extravagance. It was quite a jump in price from the Animal Kingdom Lodge’s standard view rooms to the prized savanna view rooms. I chose the former because we planned to spend most of our time in the parks. Using the Touring Plans.com room finder, I requested a third-floor room that faced a savanna but had a slightly limited perspective. We ended up on the fourth floor on the Kudu Trail with a northwest-facing view of the Sunset Savanna. If you’re looking for a standard view room that still brings the goods, I can’t say enough great things about room 4318. It’s a real gem without paying a premium!
I expected to glimpse some animals from our balcony but figured we’d need the public areas to see most of them. Amazingly, that wasn’t the case at all. We had clear views of nearly all the different types of animals from our room. One morning, we got a late start for the parks and saw a wide range of wildlife including six zebras. On our final night, we returned from the Magic Kingdom after the fireworks to find a giraffe outside our window. The room was a bit further removed from the savanna, but it still gave plenty of chances for incredible views of the animals.
The one drawback of the room was the size, which was only 344 square feet and a little tight for a family of four. The shower and toilet felt especially cramped and barely allowed room to close the door. The room was clean and had nice décor, and I knew about the space limitations beforehand. Even so, just a slight reconfiguration could have made a big difference. Disney also should invest in a few more nightstands for added surface area. The bed also was surprisingly hard and did our backs no favors. I don’t have other deluxe resorts to use as comparison, but these beds really needed a softer mattress. Despite these issues, I still enjoyed the room. The animals and gorgeous public areas are the real draw in this resort.
Another highlight of the Animal Kingdom Lodge is its restaurants, which offer great variety at every price level. While there’s no large food court, the Mara does an excellent job in offering quick-service fare of good quality. The crowds were also reasonable; getting a table was fairly easy. We had two dinners and three breakfasts at the Mara during our five days at the resort, and none were disappointing. I’d heard so many good things about Boma, and our breakfast there on our departure day lived up to expectations. I’ll go into more details about both experiences in separate articles down the road.
Our kids aren’t very adventurous eaters, but they still found plenty to eat at both the Mara and Boma. Jiko and Sanaa didn’t fit within this short family trip, but I expect that both would live up to the hype. Even fairly basic choices like a Caesar salad or pepperoni pizza were of good quality at the Mara. We also took advantage of the ability to carry out drinks and desserts on multiple occasions. Convenience is so important in a place like Disney World, and this resort definitely offered the right options. The only challenge was the path to the Mara, which felt a little convoluted. I’m guessing there was a better route that I just didn’t locate in our brief stay.
The biggest surprises for me about the Animal Kingdom Lodge were the little details throughout the resort. I’d seen photos of the grand lobby and viewing areas but didn’t expect to find so many other discoveries. The common areas on each floor include African art and feel more like a museum exhibit than a normal hotel. There are lots of cultural offerings for adults looking for some education along with the fun. The outdoor areas near the lobby resemble zoo exhibits and include an attention to detail that matches the parks. The resort feels like a natural extension of what makes the Animal Kingdom shine while standing on its own merits.
What makes these touches click is the subtlety in which they appear throughout the resort. You can easily walk by and barely notice them. They encourage guests to explore the resort and slow down, which is also true of the best Disney park areas. There are many well-themed overlooks with rocking chairs and comfortable space. Each person can find their own favorite spot without being worried it will be overwhelmed by crowds. The attractive bridge above the lobby is one of many extra touches that add to the experience.
The Animal Kingdom Lodge is a large resort, but it never felt overwhelming or too sprawling. Our room was a decent walk to the lobby and the Mara, so keep that in mind when submitting a request. The distance wasn’t too bad for adults and just seemed longer with younger kids. That said, I’d have no hesitation about staying at a similar area on a future visit. The hallways are quite long and you can get turned around, so it helps to pay attention and not get distracted. Several times, I found myself wandering right past my destination. I can’t really blame that on the hotel; your mind gets a bit fuzzy after a few long theme park days.
The two options for reaching the parks are renting a car or using the Disney bus system. Our ride time by bus was 20 minutes to the Magic Kingdom and 15 to Epcot. We chose the parks that were furthest from the resort, and even those times weren’t bad. Our wait for the next bus to arrive was rarely more than 5-10 minutes. A major benefit was only sharing the bus with Kidani Village, which helped avoided long lines. We found seats without a problem each time we left from the resort and never had to wait for a second bus.
The Animal Kingdom Lodge was the first deluxe resort I’ve stayed at as an adult, so I can’t rank it against the others. Given the fairly reasonable price point (by Disney standards) combined with a room-only discount, it was a solid value. I’d love to stay at a villa in the future but it might take quite a deal to make that happen. Regardless, there are enough benefits without the larger room to make it worthwhile. It was perfect for our shorter trip and would probably work even better for a longer vacation. I’ll close with more photos that reveal the many charms of this gorgeous resort.