Fodor's Walt Disney World with Kids (2015)
When building the original Disneyland in 1955, Walt Disney hoped to have live animals in his park—a dream that proved impossible at the time. But now it’s a reality, here at the Animal Kingdom. This 500-acre park is far more than a zoo, encouraging the conservation and preservation of the world’s natural habitats. You’ll encounter animals from around the globe—and some pretty exciting rides as well!
The centerpiece of the Animal Kingdom is the Tree of Life, a mammoth artwork with over 325 animals carved into its trunk, including a tiny ant, since the legend of the tree (as told by cast members) is that it was the ant who originally asked Mother Earth for friends. In response, she gave the ant a tiny seed to plant. That seed sprouted into the Tree of Life, which became the hub of the Animal Kingdom.
This story is a great metaphor for the message of the Animal Kingdom—that just a tiny seed can change the world. Lessons here focus on how families can make the world a safer place for animals, especially species that are endangered. Witness the true circle of life by walking along the lush habitat trails or by taking a jeep ride through the African savanna; or, you can simply stop by to see how the animals are cared for at Rafiki’s Planet Watch. And, of course, there are plenty of thrills as well, such as Dinosaur and Expedition Everest, the park’s most thrilling thrill rides.
Animal Kingdom Touring Tips
The Animal Kingdom parking lot is relatively small. All on-site hotels run direct shuttles, and many off-site hotels do as well. If possible, arrive by bus. If you’re coming by car, try to arrive early, before the main parking lot is filled. Otherwise, you’ll be directed to an auxiliary lot.
With more than 500 acres, the Animal Kingdom is the largest of all the Disney parks, but most of the space is earmarked for animal habitats, such as the huge 100-acre savanna featured in Kilimanjaro Safaris. The walkable part of the park is relatively compact—a good thing, since the only real means of getting around is on foot. The layout is basically circular, with the 14-story Tree of Life in the center.
At Disney World it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “the faster you go, the more you’ll see,” but at the Animal Kingdom, the opposite is true. Slow your pace a little, because this park is designed for savoring. There are more than 1,700 live animals representing more than 250 species in the Animal Kingdom, and the park is also a botanical marvel, showcasing more than 3,000 species of plants. So, relax and enjoy the incredible natural beauty of the park and the many small-animal habitats tucked along the way. The Maharajah Jungle Trek and Pangani Forest Exploration Trail are major attractions, as well designed as any zoo, and there are other small enclaves of animal habitats around the Tree of Life.
Your First Hour
On Extra Magic Hour mornings only a few attractions will be operative during the first hour, but they will be indicated on a sign as you enter.
All families will want a FastPass+ for the über-popular Kilimanjaro Safaris. During the on-season also get a FastPass+ for Festival of the Lion King and, if your kids are old enough, Expedition Everest.
Because of their proximity, consider combining a morning visit to the Animal Kingdom and an afternoon visit to Blizzard Beach. The parks are five minutes apart by car and many hotel buses stop at both.
The Oasis is the entry area, much like Main Street in the Magic Kingdom, and it often opens 30 minutes before the stated entry time. Characters are usually on hand to keep the kids entertained.
The animal-habitat areas in the Oasis are charming, but don’t visit them in the morning. You’ll be stampeded by the people behind you hustling to get to the big rides—not to mention the fact that you need to hustle to the big rides yourself. It’s better to visit the Oasis in the afternoon or evening, on your way out of the park. That way it’s not a big deal if you stand there for 20 minutes waiting for the three-toed sloth to move.
The tip board in front of the Tree of Life also lists upcoming showtimes and the approximate wait time for major attractions.
If you haven’t made your FastPass+ selections, find a kiosk and choose them now, or scan your tickets with your smartphone and use the My Disney Experience app.
Head first to Africa and ride Kilimanjaro Safaris. Then cross to Asia and ride Expedition Everest.
The Animal Kingdom closes early (between 5 and 7 pm depending on the season).
Because of the relatively small number of attractions, you can tour the Animal Kingdom in about six hours. The park is often mobbed between 10 am and 3 pm, but it usually begins to clear out by mid-afternoon. If you can’t be there first thing in the morning, consider arriving after lunch.
Your Last Hour
A new closing show is planned for Animal Kingdom, which will take place along the Discovery River. Don’t expect any fireworks or pyrotechnics though—they would scare the animals. The show is more likely to be a sort of floating parade. Find a good spot along the river outside of DinoLand or in the Oasis.
Until the new closing show begins, closing time at Animal Kingdom is not as hectic as at the other parks, but if you have split up to ride a last ride or two, make sure you have a clear meeting point.
Food Choices in the Animal Kingdom
As the Animal Kingdom closes the earliest of all the parks—usually between 5 and 7 pm, depending on the season—people rarely eat dinner there.
The Tusker House in Africa is the site of the Animal Kingdom’s only character meals, Donald’s Safari Breakfast and Donald’s Safari Lunch. Reserve before you leave home by calling 407/939-3463 (407/WDW-DINE). (After the character meals are over each day, the Tusker House serves a buffet and remains one of the few places in the Animal Kingdom where you can consistently count on finding fresh vegetables.) “The food at the Tusker House character breakfast was outstanding,” said one mom of three. “We loved the Jungle Juice and the Mickey waffles. My daughter was so happy to finally meet Daisy Duck, and the characters do a little song that’s really cute.”
DISNEY’S ANIMAL KINGDOM DON’T-MISS LIST
Dinosaur (if your kids are 7 or older)
Expedition Everest (if kids are 8 or older and at least 44 inches tall)
Festival of the Lion King
Finding Nemo—The Musical
Kali River Rapids
Maharajah Jungle Trek
Pangani Forest Exploration Trail
Tree of Life—It’s Tough to Be a Bug!
There are three sit-down restaurants: Rainforest Café, which is just as you enter the park, and open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; the Tusker House Restaurant, which features a buffet for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and the Yak & Yeti, an Asian-fusion restaurant with table service, a full bar, quick-service options, and a beer garden that is open for lunch and dinner.
Pizzafari, between Discovery Island and Africa, and Flame Tree Barbecue, near the entrance to DinoLand, are also good lunch choices. All the restaurants have outdoor patios where you can take your food, find a pretty view, and really relax. These lush, shady eating areas in the Animal Kingdom help blur the line between fast food and sit-down dining.
The Dawa Bar, adjacent to the Tusker House patio, offers alcoholic beverages and entertainment in the afternoon.
Other Useful Information for Visiting Animal Kingdom
The Animal Kingdom provides interactive entertainment throughout the park. Cast members are stationed with animals, and kids are welcome to ask questions and have up-close encounters with the bugs, birds, reptiles, and small mammals. At the Dawa Bar in the Africa section you’ll find storytellers, music, African drumming, and acrobats.
Keep an eye out for DeVine, a moving human topiary, who can often be found literally hanging around the park. She blends in so well with the vegetation that she’s been known to startle some guests.
Character Meet and Greets
The Animal Kingdom can be a good spot to meet the characters, with new indoor (and thus air-conditioned) meet-and-greet pavilions having opened since Camp Minnie-Mickey shut down and the Festival of the Lion King relocated. Check your map or the tip board for the times and places where the characters are set to appear.
Most of Disney’s new interactive games, scattered throughout the four major theme parks, are pretty high-tech. But Wilderness Explorers, based on the movie Up!, is old-fashioned and hands-on. In fact, it’s similar to the Boy and Girl Scouts, with kids earning “badges” in the form of stickers from “troop leaders” stationed around the park. Kids will learn African currency, animal calls, and how to search for animals in the wild. To earn one of the more than 30 badges, a child must demonstrate knowledge of certain facts about the animal or his habitat. The tasks are designed to be age-appropriate for many levels and to encourage kids to take a brief break from the rides to focus on how cool the animals really are. This program is a welcome addition to the park!
Cast members have informed us that Wilderness Explorers is not meant to be tackled in a single day, so any child who aims to gather all 30 badges will have to understand that fulfilling all the requirements the entire program is something meant to happen over time and will require multiple visits to Animal Kingdom.
Animal Kingdom Attractions
The attractions may be few, but they’re powerful. Most are designed for the whole family to enjoy together.
Expedition Everest is one of the most exciting attractions in all of Disney World. The premise is that your mountain train is chugging up the snowy mountainside when it suddenly encounters a break in the track. Uh-oh. Wonder why? The trip back down not only involves wild plunges and even wilder speeds, but you also meet up with the yeti that lives in the mountain, and he’s not in a good mood. Your train races both forward and backward as you attempt to escape his rage.
Expedition Everest draws major crowds. Although the ride boards quickly and the lines move fast, come in the morning or use FastPass+. The ride is a huge hit with our readers, with almost 80% of them listing it as their favorite attraction in the Animal Kingdom. “I expected my 11-year-old to like it,” wrote one mom from Arizona, “but to my surprise my 6-year-old loved it just as much. Even my father-in-law insisted on riding twice!” Want the most intense ride? Be sure to sit at the front. Scare Factor Although Expedition Everest doesn’t have the corkscrews and flips of the Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster, the yeti is indeed slightly more frightening than Steven Tyler. Also, the train moves at almost twice the speed of Space Mountain, which means the ride will probably be too intense for kids under eight. The height requirement is 44 inches.
Flights of Wonder
The Caravan Stage is home to this lovely display of birds in free flight. The show’s premise is a bit silly, but you can count on seeing falcons, vultures, hawks, and toucans demonstrating their unusual talents. Several members of the audience, including kids, are invited onstage to interact with the birds. Showtimes are noted on your entertainment schedule; be there 10 minutes early to assure a good seat, 20 minutes during the on-season. Flights of Wonder is a good choice for the most crowded times of the afternoon. Scare Factor It’s not scary.
Kali River Rapids
For this water ride you board an eight-passenger raft for a descent down a meandering river through rapids, geysers, and waterfalls. Expect to get very wet, possibly soaked, depending on where you’re sitting in the raft. (As the rafts are circular and constantly turning throughout the ride, it’s impossible to predict which seats will catch the most spray.) Stow cameras and other water-sensitive valuables in lockers before you board, and bring your trusty poncho.
It’s also good to keep your feet up on the center bar. A wet backside is an inconvenience, but wet shoes and socks can lead to blisters and ruin your whole day. Also consider bringing a change of clothes. One mom said her soaking-wet child burst into tears and had to be taken back to the hotel to change.
Are some of your kids too young or too short to ride? Let them man Kali’s water cannons on the bridge as you approach the ride; there they can take aim against their older siblings as they pass in the rafts below. Revenge is sweet! And, to be honest, soaking strangers can be fun, too. Scare Factor The height requirement is only 38 inches, reflecting the fact that Kali River Rapids is a very mild ride, with only one sizable descent along the way. It’s fine for anyone who isn’t afraid of getting wet.
Maharajah Jungle Trek
Another lovely walking path, this one goes through habitats of Asia. The Bengal tigers are the undisputed stars of the show, but you’ll also encounter Komodo dragons, gibbons, and, most intriguing of all, giant fruit bats. Take time along the path to appreciate the glorious landscaping and the beauty of the architecture. Scare Factor It’s not scary.
FastPass+ rides and attractions at Animal Kingdom are not tiered, so you can choose as many as you wish from this list:
Festival of the Lion King
Finding Nemo—The Musical
Kali River Rapids
Meet Favorite Disney Pals at Adventurers Outpost
Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade
Mickey’s Jingle Jungle Parade (seasonal)
DinoLand is a story unto itself. The official history of this section is that a giant collection of dinosaur bones was found in central Florida, and the scientifically minded Dino Institute built its headquarters next to the dig site. The Institute attracted so many interns that separate quarters had to be built—in what is now Restaurantosaurus—and this led to the Institute’s becoming a tourist attraction. A Texan couple named Chester and Hester, never ones to let a good opportunity pass them by, bought up all the land surrounding the Institute to build a roadside attraction to entertain all those tourists. And thus the part-serious, part-wacky “DinoLand” was born.
A great attraction for kids seven and under, the Boneyard is a playground designed to simulate an archaeological dig. Kids can dig for “fossils,” excavate “bones,” and play on bridges and slides. The playground is visually witty—where else can you find slides made from what look like prehistoric animal skeletons?—and has fun surprises, such as a footprint that roars when you jump on it.
The Maharajah Jungle Trek is Hidden Mickey city. There are several in the drawings on the ruins just as you enter the tiger habitat.
Visit the Boneyard after you’ve toured the biggies and the kids are ready to romp for a while. The play area can get very hot on a Florida afternoon, however, so remember the sunscreen and water bottles. If it’s a really roasting day, head for the woolly mammoth dig-site area, which is covered and has large fans to cut down on the heat. “My 3-year-old loved the dig site,” reported one father. “We hung out there for about an hour while my wife took the older kids on Dinosaur.” Scare Factor It’s not scary.
You’re strapped into “high-speed” motion vehicles and sent back in time to the Cretaceous period to save the gentle, plant-eating iguanodon from extinction.
It’s a noble mission, but it ain’t easy. Along the way, Disney throws everything it has at you: asteroids, meteors, incoming pterodactyls, and ticked-off people-eating dinosaurs. The dinosaurs are extremely lifelike, and in some cases extremely close. The jeeps bounce around like mad, so Dinosaur can be a bit rough—but it’s also a powerfully fun ride. Scare Factor Dinosaur combines atmospheric scariness with a wild-moving vehicle. The height requirement is 40 inches, which means that plenty of preschoolers qualify to board; nonetheless, based on the realism of the dinosaurs, we say wait until kids are at least seven to ride, and even then consider whether they’re brave enough to handle very big, very loud dinosaurs jumping out at them while the car takes steep drops. “As much as our young son (age 7) loves dinosaurs, this ride proved to be too much for him,” wrote a mom of two. “We are planning another trip to Disney this year, and he still reminds us that he is not going on the dinosaur ride again.”
Finding Nemo—The Musical (In Theater in the Wild)
Based on the animated film Finding Nemo, this kid-pleasing musical combines performances by puppets, dancers, and acrobats, all choreographed to envelop you in Nemo’s big blue world. The puppets, created by the same team who brought The Lion King to Broadway, are especially amazing, and the special effects are dazzling.
Really into animals? Willing to pay for a one-of-a-kind adventure? Consider the three-hour, family-friendly, behind-the-scenes Wild Africa Trek, which is suitable for ages eight and up. One highlight is crossing a rope bridge that sways 50 feet above a creek full of crocodiles. You’re safely tethered with a bungee cord, of course, and the bridge is created only to seem precarious, but it’s still exciting. You also hike through the bush, get up close to hippos, eat a stupendously good lunch from a deck in the savanna, and have access to guides who give far more info than you’d get on Kilimanjaro Safaris. In fact, the Trek is the perfect basis for a school project. Despite the $189-$249 per-person price, tours fill up fast. Make reservations at 407/939-8687 (407/WDW-TOUR) well in advance.
This show is a good example of why closer isn’t always better. If you sit too close to the stage, you’ll miss some of the action, which takes place on the catwalk behind the section closest to the stage. The best viewing is the center section, about two-thirds of the way back.
The story will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the movie—Nemo and his father, Marlin, go on separate journeys that ultimately teach them how to understand each other. The catchy pop music and multigenerational humor are designed to appeal to all age groups, and the ending may cause you to shed a tear. Arrive at the theater 20 minutes ahead of showtime, 30-45 during the on-season, to guarantee good seats. Scare Factor It’s not scary.
The second ride in Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama is Primeval Whirl, a crazy mouse-style coaster with spinning cars, hairpin turns, and numerous dips. Primeval Whirl is a slow-boarding, low-capacity ride and can draw lines. Scare Factor A bit surprisingly, Primeval Whirl has a 48-inch height requirement. The ride is faster than it looks and has many spins. Most kids over five (assuming they make the height requirement) love it, but if you have any doubts, watch it make a cycle or two before joining the queue. This is not a good choice for anyone prone to motion sickness.
The kid-friendly TriceraTop Spin is a circular ride similar to Dumbo, except that you fly in dinosaurs, naturally. The beasts tilt back and forth as you climb or descend. Scare Factor If they loved Dumbo, they’ll love TriceraTop Spin.
The good news is that kids can lose themselves in the Boneyard and happily play for an hour. The bad news is that parents can lose their kids as well. The Boneyard is sprawling, so keep your eyes on young children at all times, especially when they’re playing on the slides. When they enter at the top, it’s often hard to tell what chute they’re in or where they’ll emerge.
It’s Tough to Be a Bug!
This state-of-the-art 3-D film is shown inside the Tree of Life, which is an amazing edifice with 325 animals carved into its trunk—perfect for pictures. The show combines visual, sensory, and tactile effects, and the cast of characters, including an accurately named Stinkbug, is so funny that everyone leaves laughing. The best effect of all is at the very end of the show.
Be aware that at one point large spider puppets dangle over your head. Later, the theater goes dark, you hear swarming wasps, and the back of your seat might give you a small electrical zap. (Not into pain? Simply lean forward in your seat.) Scare Factor The show is a huge hit with most kids, who seem to find Flik and friends to be great fun, but the scary scenes mean that there’s usually at least one child crying in the audience. If your kids are scared of the dark or bugs, skip the show. “My 7-year-old girl is normally a brave thing,” wrote a mom from England. “She went on Tower of Terror, Space Mountain, Expedition Everest, etc., with no problem at all. But It’s Tough to Be a Bug! scared her so badly she was ready to leave.…”
Festival of the Lion King
One of the best attractions in the Animal Kingdom has recently moved to a new theater in the Africa section of the park. Festival of the Lion King features what you might expect—singers, dancers, the characters—as well as acrobatic “monkeys” twirling fire batons and “birds” that dramatically take flight. The costuming is incredible, the music is wonderful, and the finale is guaranteed to give you goose bumps.
The area formerly known as Camp Minnie-Mickey is closed to make way for the new Avatar section of the park. Avatar isn’t expected to be completed until at least 2018, and as of this writing details are few. Stay tuned.
The performers interact directly with the audience, and at one point small children from the crowd are invited to join in a simple circular parade. Children sitting near the front are more apt to be tapped.
Showtimes are printed on your entertainment schedule; be there at least 30 minutes early if you’d like to sit near the front. Because of its popularity, Festival of the Lion King is one of the few theater-style attractions which justify using a FastPass+. Scare Factor It’s not scary.
This is the Animal Kingdom’s premier attraction, a 2-mile ride through the open bush that simulates an African photo safari. The animals have a great deal of open space around them and appear to be running free—although cleverly incorporated water and plant barriers ensure that the cheetahs don’t meet up with the ostriches and graphically illustrate the circle of life right in front of the kids.
Your guide helps you tell the impalas from the gazelles and at times your vehicle (called a lorry) comes startlingly close to the wildlife.
Safari drivers say that the animals are often active in the morning but that you have a better chance of seeing cheetahs, rhinos, and warthogs later in the day. And because of the attraction’s mammoth and unpredictable animal cast, Kilimanjaro is, in essence, a different adventure every time. You could go on one safari in the morning and return in the afternoon for a whole new show. As part of the Animal Kingdom expansion, a nighttime version of Kilimanjaro Safaris is expected to premier soon. Scare Factor It’s not terribly scary, but the animal encounters could frighten some small kids.
Rafiki’s Planet Watch requires time and effort for the round-trip. Save it for after the major attractions. If you’re on a tight schedule, it’s skippable.
Pangani Forest Exploration Trail
Near the exit of Kilimanjaro Safaris is this self-guided walking trail. The highlight is seeing the jungle home of Gino, the silverback gorilla, and his harem. (The dominant male in a gorilla troop is called the silverback because he is ordinarily older than the other males and often has gray hairs mixed in with the black.) Along the trail you also pass everything from mole rats to hippos to birds in an enclosed aviary, but children seem especially to enjoy the warthogs and meerkats in the savanna exhibit. Trail Guides are on hand to answer questions and help point out the animals. Scare Factor It’s not scary.
Rafiki’s Planet Watch
This attraction will answer many of the questions you may have about how Disney cares for animals in the park.
You board a nifty train called the Wildlife Express for a five-minute ride to Rafiki’s Planet Watch. Along the way, you’ll see where the animals sleep at night—a cool peek behind the scenes that older kids appreciate. You disembark at Rafiki’s Planet Watch, a station in the farthest-flung section of the park. There you’ll find exhibits on the subjects of conservation and animal endangerment. Kids especially enjoy touring the veterinary labs, where newborns and sick animals get a lot of attention, and the Affection Station, where they can pat and touch the friendly goats, llamas, and sheep.
Rafiki’s Planet Watch is difficult to reach with small children, since getting from the train to the station is quite a hike. For kids under five, make sure to bring your stroller. The good news is that once you get there, you can park it and see everything relatively easily—including great meet-and-greet opportunities with Rafiki, Pocahontas, and the rarely seen Jiminy Cricket. Scare Factor It’s not scary.