It’s time to dive into my recent trip to Walt Disney World over Martin Luther King weekend a few weeks ago. I chronicled the vacation on a recent Tomorrow Society Podcast episode, but that report just summarized our experiences. These blogs will dig further into everything we did and give the highlights (and any lowlights). I’m starting out with our first park day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom on Friday, January 12. I’ve enjoyed this place more with each successive trip, and this one was no different. My focus has typically been on attractions, but I’ve grown to appreciate how well the entire park works together beyond its rides and shows.
The Animal Kingdom offers incredible attractions, but the roster looks slim when compared to Epcot or The Magic Kingdom. That reaction doesn’t take into account the park’s theming and atmosphere. It’s easy to miss the details when you’re rushing to the next ride, and Disney’s focus on FastPass Plus encourages that approach. If you’re just concentrating on the headliners, it’s still easy to look at the Animal Kingdom as a half-day park. That idea misses the charms that lurk around every corner. We didn’t experience that many attractions on this day, but it still was a great time.
Before diving into our day, here’s a quick review of the FastPasses that I reserved more than 60 days earlier. We stayed on site at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, which gave us flexibility with those choices. The obvious target was Flight of Passage in Pandora: The World of Avatar, but I decided not to pursue it. My younger daughter isn’t tall enough, and my wife gets motion sickness. We could have split up, but it seemed overly complicated for the start of the day. I just selected Na’vi River Journey to make it easier. Here are the three FastPasses and times that I arranged back in November:
- Na’vi River Journey – 10:20 a.m. to 11:20 a.m.
- Kilimanjaro Safaris – 12:05 p.m. to 1:05 p.m.
- Rivers of Light – 6:30 p.m. show
Part of our plans for this trip was not to push it too early in the morning. While this isn’t the wisest touring strategy, it works better for our family. My daughters are still pretty young (8 and 4), and dragging them out of bed to make rope drop is not a good idea. I reserved our initial FastPasses to start the day around 10:15 or so each morning. For this day, we weren’t able to grab more because I wanted to ensure we secured a seat for Rivers of Light. There was about an hour after the show before closing time, but the odds of grabbing an extra FastPass at that time would be low.
Exploring Pandora: The World of Avatar
We arrived at the Animal Kingdom around 10:10 after the short bus ride from our resort. The Animal Kingdom Lodge may not be close to some parks, but it’s very convenient for this one. It’s another perk in staying at my favorite Disney World resort. After a quick stroll through security and the gate, we were off to Pandora. This was my first visit to this relatively new land, and it did not disappoint. I tried not to dig too much into photos and videos of this area before our vacation. I wanted to experience Pandora fresh and not let pre-conceived notions make too much of an impact.
What surprised me were all the little details lurking around every corner. Joe Rohde led this project, so I should expect this level of immersion. There’s odd vegetation everywhere, including high above you. The floating mountains are stunning, but it’s the small gems that stick with me. The mix of artificial and real vegetation is believable; bright blue and pink plants from another world stand right next to standard trees.
Water features also bring a sense of calmness to Pandora even when you’re surrounded by tourists. Small pathways wind around the trees and seem to lead nowhere. I kept getting confused and turned around, and that’s a compliment. The paths don’t follow normal theme park set-ups, yet I didn’t see packed areas. The sight lines are also excellent and sell the idea that you’ve entered a different land. You can’t see Everest or anything else from the park in Pandora.
I suspect there are callbacks to the movie Avatar that I missed since I haven’t seen it since the theaters. I did remember the Amplified Mobility Platform that villainous Stephen Lang piloted in the film; it stands here near Satu’li Canteen. We didn’t eat at that quick-service restaurant since we’d just arrived, but it looked quite large and impressive. Wind Traders is also spacious but felt a little too packed. We weren’t planning to buy small banshees to put on my daughters’ shoulders, and a lot of the merchandise looked generic. Even so, I liked how the souvenirs were isolated to one place, not spread out throughout the land.
Taking a Na’vi River Journey
After exploring Pandora and banging on some drums, it was time to use our FastPass for the Na’vi River Journey. The posted standby wait time was about 80 minutes, and it didn’t get much lower all day. We waited about 15 minutes in the FastPass line, which is pretty standard at Disney World. I suspect that the outdoor queue would be rough in the summer Florida heat. It appears mostly shaded, but the tight quarters are not tailor-made for serious humidity. The theming is fine within this queue though not particularly memorable. It’s just a quick set-up for the main event.
They may not help with capacity, but I really enjoyed the smaller boats. Our family had a vehicle to ourselves, and that made it feel more intimate. I’m not going to over sell the Na’vi River Journey to you, but I enjoyed it. There isn’t a story beyond just experiencing Pandora, and that’s okay. The projection technology creates stunning scenes that don’t feel just like typical screens. I love physical sets, but some of these effects would not work without screens. The environment is so charming and peaceful that I barely thought of how the show scenes were put together.
The Na’vi River Journey feels a little bit like riding through the environment of Rivers of Light. Both create a specific atmosphere that matches the overall ambience of the Animal Kingdom. The mix of sounds, music, and water helps deliver a remarkable sensory experience. On the other hand, the complaints about this attraction and Rivers of Light come from the same creative choices. Some guests want to experience a story and not just visit a place for a short time. I do wish that this ride was a few minutes longer; the four minutes go by so quickly. I was amazed when we were already seeing The Shaman of Songs after what felt like a small amount of time.
The star animatronic lives up to the hype and was larger than I expected. You also get quite close to it, and the effect stands up to that distance. Disney shows what they can do with this type of animatronic, and I wish they could have added several more to this attraction. An eight-minute version of the Na’vi River Journey would near E-ticket status for me. Visiting it with a FastPass, the shorter ride time isn’t as big an issue. I might have a different opinion after a 90-minute wait. Regardless, I enjoyed this attraction more than I expected and believe it could signify more successes for Disney with projections in the future.
What About Capacity?
One downside at Pandora is the lack of capacity to handle the tremendous demand for the two attractions. I’ve read estimates on multiple sites that Flight of Passage handles about 1,500 riders per hour, and the Na’vi River Journey can handle 2,500. Those numbers don’t sound terrible, but they’re likely a little high. In particular, the boat ride isn’t going to fill every vehicle, so you can knock that down significantly. Given the limited number of headliners in the Animal Kingdom in general, you’re going to have a lot more people than 4,000 stopping at those attractions during each hour.
Wait times are our best evidence that capacity is not even close to handling guest demand. During my visit on a Friday in January (Touring Plans 7/10 day), regular waits for Flight of Passage were 240 minutes. The line went far beyond the queue and into an overflow line on the path to Harambe. Pandora is still a pretty new land (it opened this past May), but there are few signs that demand is decreasing. Guests that visit the Animal Kingdom want to ride these attractions. The response to Flight of Passage has been enthusiastic, and that reaction only enhances the demand.
The real question is whether Disney cares about the lines. FastPass Plus artificially inflates the demand for many attractions throughout Disney World. Disney hasn’t expanded their parks to keep up with the crowds, which makes the lines longer across the board. Four-hour waits do not increase guest satisfaction, even if the experience is amazing. Walking by the massive line as we headed to Harambe, I was struck by a feeling that something was off about this formula. Disney seems to have no plans to expand capacity at the Animal Kingdom, so this will likely be a problem until new offerings at other parks draw guests’ attention. It’s a strange way to present a new land and pulls down Pandora’s overall success.
Seeing the Park
We spent much of our time at the Animal Kingdom visiting Wilderness Explorers stations around the park. This extensive scavenger hunt and educational tool is perfect for parents of kids interested in science and nature. My eight-year-old daughter is just the right age. We also visited areas of the park that we might normally skip. Our next stop after Pandora was Conservation Station at Rafiki’s Planet Watch. The Wildlife Express Train offers a nice view of backstage areas during the short ride to the secluded spot. There’s a short walk after departing the train, but it’s not too bad.
I wouldn’t call Rafiki’s Planet Watch a must-see location, but it has plenty to offer. We didn’t see much happening with animals directly, but I know they’re frequent here. Conservation Station isn’t just for show and effectively promotes its core message. The Wilderness Explorers stops in this area stress recycling and the diversity of the natural world. We also stopped inside Grandma Willow’s 3D audio booth, though my younger daughter was not a fan. The sounds were a bit too real for her in the dark.
Kilimanjaro Safaris was our next stop using our FastPass, and the line moved quickly. We boarded our vehicles around 12:40, and I was stunned by how many animals were active. It was the kind of experience where lions posed on rocks like they were waiting for photos. There was also a Florida rain shower during our ride, so we avoided a soaking through pure chance. A reminder from this entire day: weather forecasters are really bad at predicting when rain will happen. I was nervous about a downpour messing with our plans for the day, but there were just a few spot showers.
The Joys of Mobile Ordering
Following the safari, we ventured back to Discovery Island for a late lunch at Flame Tree Barbecue. There were a few Wilderness Explorers stops in Dinoland U.S.A., which is right next door. You also can’t go wrong with Flame Tree, which remains one of the most consistent counter-service spots. I ordered the Smoked Pulled Pork Sandwich — a pretty safe option. I’m not a huge fan of coleslaw, but it worked well. It was a great choice, though part of my enjoyment was the fact that I was hungry. I wouldn’t put this sandwich on par with top St. Louis places like Sugarfire, but it’s solid.
My wife ordered the Mixed Greens Salad with Roasted Chicken, and it worked out well as a healthier option. One area where Flame Tree could improve is with its kids’ menu for picky eaters. The choice among a Chicken Sandwich, Smucker’s Uncrustables Sandwich, a Baked Chicken Drumstick, and a Hot Dog might seem like enough, but it’s still a little thin. We compensated with fries plus items from other locations like fruit. We found a table in the quiet outdoor space behind the restaurant with few others around. The large area near the lake is another positive to Flame Tree.
We also used mobile ordering via the My Disney Experience app and saved a significant wait in line. I entered my order back in Harambe and then clicked the “I’m Here, Prepare My Order” button a few minutes away from the restaurant. By the time we arrived at the window, the cast member had our food ready to go. He even asked if I was Dan, which reveals how few guests are using this service. Take advantage now before more people find out about it! Meals are one of the most stressful aspects of visiting Disney World with a family, and mobile ordering removes a lot of the hassle of lines and indecision. This was our only meal with mobile ordering on this trip, but I definitely plan to use this service more in the future.
Digging in Dinoland
I struggle to build much excitement for visiting Dinoland, particularly Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama. That area includes some cool details, and I understand what the Imagineers are doing there. Even so, it’s just not a very pleasant spot to visit. There’s so much concrete, and the carnival games feel cheap. We actually rode TriceraTop Spin, which had about a 10-minute wait. While my daughters enjoyed controlling the height and pitch, the view doesn’t match that of Dumbo or the Astro Orbiter. TriceraTop Spin is another option for families with small kids, so I don’t mind it being there.
A Wilderness Explorers spot also took me into a place that I’d never visited before — The Boneyard. It’s another spot that has to be challenging on a hot day, but it was fine in 75-degree weather. There is a lot for kids to do in this area beyond the slides, and I enjoyed it. In particular, the dig site is a fun spot for uncovering bones and sitting for a little while. Crowds were light during our visit to The Boneyard, so that helped make it more enjoyable than I expected.
After grabbing every stamp in the Wilderness Explorers book (combined with our last trip), the Cast Members inducted my daughters into the club. It was fun, especially considering how much walking we did to get all the badges. I logged more than 25,000 steps, which was the most during our trip. In particular, the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail and Maharajah Jungle Trek are quite extensive. Both have so many interesting details, so I’m complaining about getting another chance to explore them.
We had a little bit of time before dinner and Rivers of Light, so my wife and daughter stopped at the Adventurers Outpost to see Mickey and Minnie. The posted wait was only 15 minutes, which is low for that popular spot. That time was too optimistic, but we weren’t in a hurry. While my younger daughter slept and they waited, the Discovery Island Carnivale happened right in front of me. I love the improvements Disney has made to live entertainment in the Animal Kingdom, especially in the evening.
Nighttime at the Animal Kingdom
I can’t say enough good things about the atmosphere at night in the Animal Kingdom. The lively entertainment makes for a fun experience beyond the specific attractions. Rivers of Light plays a big role, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. There were two shows at 6:30 and 7:45 on this day, which was a little surprising with the park closing at 8:00. I’d reserved a FastPass for the first show, so we needed to arrive a little early. We grabbed a quick dinner at the Yak & Yeti Local Food Cafes near the Rivers of Light entrance. That counter-service spot has a limited menu but is a great value. In particular, the Chicken Fried Rice side at $4.99 is a steal. It’s also quite tasty.
I wrote extensively about Rivers of Light after our trip last March, so I’ll keep my thoughts pretty brief this time. The show really works for me, especially because it fits within the park’s atmosphere. A bombastic show with fireworks and lots of Disney characters would feel strange at the Animal Kingdom. The park has a subtle vibe that fits with Rivers of Light, and the music and effects match that feeling. After seeing it a second time, I can see why it doesn’t click with everyone. In a similar way to the Na’vi River Journey, there’s no giant climax or clear narrative. It’s the magic of the atmosphere that drives both experiences, and I’m on board with less of a spectacle in favor of the natural beauty.
The highlight of our entire day was finally seeing the incredible Tree of Life: Awakenings. Following Rivers of Light, we were in no hurry to deal with the packed crowds as everyone left the theater. It was easy to just chill in Asia near the water, and we found a quiet spot to watch the Tree of Life: Awakenings. The way that the projections of the animals move around the tree and then morph back into the physical sculpture is mind-boggling. I could stand there and watch it for hours! Seeing it from Asia added to the impact because we weren’t stuck in crowds on the busier Discovery Island side. Instead, there were just a few others standing nearby, which is a rarity in most places at Disney World.
A Beautiful, Mostly Cohesive Park
The combination of Pandora and the nighttime additions has transformed the Animal Kingdom into a more complete park. There are still a few spots that could use improvement, especially in Dinoland. I’d love to see Disney build an E-ticket attraction in that space to spread out crowds even more. Even if they retain Chester and Hester, one more headliner would alleviate the pressure from Pandora. Placing that attraction in Dinoland would split the morning rush in a similar way to how Epcot functions. You avoid a situation where 90% of the people are moving to Flight of Passage while the rest of the park languishes.
Setting aside future possibilities and capacity issues, there’s still plenty to enjoy within the Animal Kingdom. The lands flow together well and create a cohesive experience. The Imagineers scored a creative success with Pandora by making it connect to the rest of the park. It has also become a hang-out park with great food and entertainment. The attractions are only part of the draw, and that makes it a classic Disney theme park. The Animal Kingdom deserves more acclaim for being a top destination, not just a spot you might skip during a short trip. It was definitely one of the highlights of this vacation, and I expect that trend to continue in the future.
Looking for more details from our trip? Here are some additional photos from our Animal Kingdom day to give you a closer look at the experience.
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