The largest Disney theme park in Florida (500 acres), Disney’s Animal Kingdom is enjoying a rebirth—or more accurately, a second life—now that it’s open at night, too. The park, Disney’s third-most popular (10.9 million visits at last count) debuted in 1998 at a reported cost of $800 million as a competitor to Busch Gardens, doesn’t take all day to visit because most of that land is used up by a menagerie of exotic animals. Instead of cages, they’re kept in paddocks rimmed with cleverly disguised trenches that are concealed behind landscaping. Most attractions are given a mild environmentalist message (ironic, considering how much Florida swamp was obliterated to build this resort, but never you mind).
There is a one problem that arises from nighttime opening: Because animals retire to the shade as the Florida heat builds, a visit here most times of year should begin as soon as the gates open, usually around 8am, yet there really isn’t enough to keep you here for 15 hours until the summer sun goes down. If you only have one day here, you really should choose whether to come in the morning (more active animals) or skew toward the evening (a nighttime spectacular but fewer animals). Tips: Check the weather before you come, because if it’s excessively hot or wet, you will be miserable: Only three major attractions take place indoors. There is currently no parade at Animal Kingdom, but there is an evening show.
Staples such as locker and stroller rental are just past the gates, in what’s called the Oasis, a lush buffer zone that gradually acclimates guests to the world of the park. Pick up a free “Guidemap,” a “Times Guide,” and an “Animal Guide.” The locations of animal enclosures are noted on the map, so if you’re most interested in seeing wildlife, follow those.
Generally speaking, the biggest animals and the most astute design collects at the back of the park (Africa and Asia), the thrills to the right (Asia and DinoLand U.S.A.). Nowhere will you find balloons—they choke animals—and straws are made of paper for the same reason.
The first thing you should do, like everyone else, is beeline it to the back of the Africa section. That’s where the Kilimanjaro Safari is, and first thing in the morning is the best time to do it. Crowds grow more ferocious than the lions.
The Best of Disney’s Animal Kingdom
- Don’t miss if you’re 6: Festival of the Lion King
- Don’t miss if you’re 16: DINOSAUR
- Requisite photo op: The drop at Expedition Everest
- Food you can only get here: Frozen chai, Royal Anandapur Tea Company
- The most crowded, so Fastpass or go early: Kilimanjaro Safaris
- Skippable: Rafiki’s Planet Watch
- Quintessentially Disney: It’s Tough to Be a Bug!
- Biggest thrill: Expedition Everest
- Best show: Rivers of Light
- Character meals: Tusker House Restaurant, Africa
- Best shopping: Bhaktapur Market, Asia; Island Mercantile, Oasis
- Where to find peace: Discovery Island Trails