Everything changes the moment you leave the main road and pass through the gate leading to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge: The green grass becomes pampas grass, the swamps become sand, and the mossy oaks African acacias. A sense of savanna comfortably takes hold—and that’s before you even arrive at Jambo House! “Jambo,” you’ll quickly learn, is a common Swahili greeting. It’s also the name of the primary guest resort.
Immediately there’s a feeling of belonging as you’re welcomed into the community by a check-in “ambassador,” who will familiarize you with the many activities and amenities the hotel offers, as well as the rules to observe while on hotel premises: Neither balloons nor plastic straws are permitted, as these are hazardous materials to wildlife, and there is plenty of wildlife on the grounds.
(Yes, there is a holding area for balloons, Amy had to inquire, as one doesn’t want to imagine a balloon being confiscated from either child or adult.)
In fact, there are enough activities to fill a page and make you think that no matter how many days you’re planning on staying it can’t possibly be enough. Sure, many are geared for children, but the gamut of possibilities entices. “I wanna learn how to play African drums!” Amy exclaimed, “and then listen to folktales and stories!”
Mark’s pragmatism kept Amy’s enthusiasm in check: “Should we cancel our reservation at Jiko?” Amy pouted but briefly, because, after all… Jiko! It was hard to imagine anything more fun than that!
Lobby and Grounds
Every photo we’d seen of the Jambo House lobby came to stunning life as we stood in awe of what seemed like an African museum, but with the comfort and fun touches of a Disney lobby. Every detail inspired further investigation, discovery and understanding, from the wrought iron “vines” climbing the five-story glass window overlooking the savanna to the high thatched ceilings and chandeliers decorated with translucent Maasai shields. Every motif and structure is implicitly meaningful and relevant to African culture, to its art and architecture, and above all, to the Dark Continent itself.
It’s definitely worth taking some time to explore and absorb, and maybe sit in on a talk by a cultural representative before drinks or dinner. There’s much worth learning, if you’re so inclined, and the lobby and its curved corridors display an impressive array of unique works of art that lend insight and inspiration to this enriching experience.
Darkness, we’ve found, is neither subtle nor accidental at Animal Kingdom Lodge. As you explore the horseshoe-shaped Jambo House, which is modeled after the Kraal African village design, you’ll feel like you’re winding your way along a mysterious path to an unexpected destination as if beneath a canopy of light-obscuring trees. And that feeling extends even into the restrooms! Though not ideal for makeup touch-ups or dealing with a temperamental contact lens, the consistency and depth of the theming makes for a richly immersive experience.
Outdoors, the darkness is even more authentic—given much of it is the result of night, the rest from a lack of artificial light. In large part, this is to maintain a natural environment for the indigenous African wildlife that roams seemingly freely on the grounds.
Even if you opt against the most expensive tier of rooms overlooking the savanna, you can still enjoy the wildlife element every bit as much, day or night.
Paths, lookout points, and viewing areas offer ample opportunity to observe the zebras, giraffes, antelopes, elks, kudus, gazelles, wildebeests and exotic birds in their various hangouts throughout the grounds. DISCLAIMER: Individual experiences will vary.
Even if you don’t encounter a particular animal, you can still familiarize yourself with it—along with the many others— through interactive displays, guides available in the rooms and at the front desk, and the most interactive of all, African conservationists (a.k.a., “Safari Guides”) who have first-hand knowledge of the wildlife as it exists in its native habitat.
It’s got Disney charm, for sure. The beds give the appearance of having a mosquito netting canopy for safe sleeping on safari, and the furnishings all have a hand-carved mahogany authenticity that lives up to the spirit of Jambo. Animals, African motifs and a color palette of soothing earth tones and vibrant reds and oranges are all inviting, immersive and fun.
Still, given the high bar Disney has set for itself, Animal Kingdom Lodge doesn’t live up as well as others: The adornments and appointments, while all perfection, there could have been just a little more; and compared to comparable rooms at the Wilderness Lodge, Contemporary Resort and Yacht Club, this just felt a bit lacking in the nuance department. It was also lacking in basic bathroom amenities, like a place to put your bathroom stuff, or a hook to hang a robe—or some other hanging toiletry related whatever. For Amy, it was irritating having everything on the floor that wouldn’t or couldn’t fit on the counter (Mark was less irritated). It was also a tighter space overall, relative to our other Disney resort experiences, making it feel more like a mid-tier Disney hotel room than the higher tiered resort feeling we’d hoped for.
But then, you’re not there to be in a room, which yes, by far, is the weakest link in the AKL experience. Everything else is spectacular!
In addition to the grounds and the many discoveries laying in wait, a hotel lobby second only to an authentic African exhibit within an authentically African environment, there are three exceedingly compelling reasons to stay at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge: 1) the food, 2) the close proximity to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and 3) the distance from everything else, which makes AKL dining a bit harder to reach if you’re staying at one of the other resorts.
If new and unusual flavor experiences are something you crave, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge will not disappoint. Whether you’re stopping in for a quick bite or poolside provisions at The Mara, going all out at the breakfast or dinner buffet at Boma —Flavors of Africa, experiencing the unique signature dining experience offered by Jiko—The Cooking Place or the more casual Sanaa, or just getting a small bite or two to accompany your cocktails at Victoria Falls Lounge, you’re in for a culinary adventure. Authentic dishes abound at all price points, and the vegetarian offerings are as flavorful and satisfying as anything with meat, fish or seafood.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge and Animal Kingdom park are not on the monorail route and are not accessible via watercraft, so transportation is going to require four wheels. If you’re taking advantage of Disney transportation, you’re going to be traveling by bus. The good news is there is no shorter bus ride to the Animal Kingdom park than from the Animal Kingdom Lodge, and the ride time is further expedited by not having to make any stops along the way. This might play a significant role in your reservation considerations if you’d like to dine at the Lodge or visit the park more than once in a single trip. At least, that’s what got Us to finally commit to our first AKL reservation—and subsequently a second for those same reasons. See “Jiko: First Time”—https://disneyfortwo.com/jiko/—for our culinary and transportation adventure.
When you’re ready to experience the Disney beyond the familiar paths of the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and the Studios, and seek the adventure that awaits, it might be time for that safari you never thought you’d go on. The Animal Kingdom Lodge might be just close enough to satisfy something deep within.