Unlike any other Disney park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s entrance does not reach out to greet you with snappy familiar tunes. There are no iconic characters, no shiny red locomotive and no telltale landmarks punctuating the sky. What there is is a sense of peaceful expanse, gently pulling you into its hidden depths with music so organic it blends seamlessly with fantasies of a jungle oasis untouched by civilization, yet existing harmoniously with humankind. There is a feeling of authenticity that prevails, from the carved animal motifs above the entry points to the minimal landscaping whose presence feels unmanipulated, despite what we know to be quite the contrary. If anything, the entrance feels as unassuming as a wildlife preserve, existing more as a checkpoint and cantina, a last chance to stock up on necessities, like sunscreen, water, and, of course, sundries and souvenirs.
Guests to the Animal Kingdom more drift into the park than run or pour like a migrating herd. Where most Disney parks open into a circle, like the bowl of a spoon that inevitably straightens into a path of mandatory use, the Animal Kingdom presents but a modest “oasis,” a place to stock your pack with nutrition and refreshment, and to consider your direction. At first, you may think this park like a zoo: an illusion of a labyrinth designed to give you a tour of all the animals on display as if you’re choosing your own way, when in fact you’re essentially on a track. But the Animal Kingdom is no zoo: the winding paths wind, and neither circle back on themselves nor take you on a tour of everything there is to see. The Animal Kingdom rightfully gives the impression of a place where you can get lost. You can get lost. You can happen upon a secluded spot and not be able to find it again, even with the aid of a fold-out map. The Animal Kingdom is not a zoo.
There’s an unconscious desire to mosey, as you would in a national park, because every step is a new step with unanticipated reward. And just like a national park, it pays to give thought to how you want to traverse it, because there’s no sense of the entrance once you commit to the journey.
A note of warning…
It’s advisable to go into a day at the Animal Kingdom as you would an all-day hike: The expanse is vast and the physical demands strenuous. The ground isn’t always flat and the exit isn’t always close by or easily accessible. Good walking shoes, a sensible gait, and staying hydrated—even in cooler temperatures—should be considered mission-critical. Any and all health conditions should be taken into consideration before embarking on any serious trek.
You may think you’re just following the thatched-branch fence separating you from the babirusa or the macaws, but already that’s a decision that will affect the day’s destiny. The paths diverge exactly that quickly, and there are even more choices beyond which path to take. Whether safari or path, there is a trek before you with adventure at every turn.
Everest is out there somewhere, you know that. Its legend precedes it and you’re anxious to experience it for yourself. But be forewarned: Asia is a way’s away. Wherever you are, Asia and Africa are distant destinations—and still, not the most distant of destinations. To reach either continent quickly is arduous and your brain will be saying all the while, “We’ve gotta go back to that. We have to go back to that! Wait—where does that go?” This is not the kind of Disney experience that will have you running from one attraction to the next. Here, you’re a traveler and an explorer, and for best results, it helps to take that seriously: a good hat, good shoes, sunscreen and sunglasses, if not a poncho then something to put on or change into when you get so wet because you know you’ll never dry, a piece of fruit or a power bar for when you find yourself too far from civilization to comfortably make it back, a map… particularly in the hotter months such provisions will prove indispensable.
Mammals, reptiles, birds and insects all coexist in this magical realm, where even the prehistoric world has its place of dominance. But not all paths intersect. if you keep following one, you can’t expect to come upon the other. If this is your one and only visit, you may want to have at least the basic framework of a plan if there are specific sites you’d hate to miss. Yes, this is just like traveling to a far-away place and only being able to see so much of it. For one thing, the Animal Kingdom closes at dusk, just like in real natural habitats. There’s also the Fatigue Factor, an oft-underestimated condition that tends to afflict the overzealous. Likely you will not be able to see everything there is to see in a single visit, and that isn’t meant as a dare.
It’s easy to work up a thirst—and an appetite—trekking the continents. Fortunately, there’s plenty of opportunity to satisfy either or both of these needs throughout the park. In fact, the food and drink options at Disney’s Animal Kingdom are second only to Epcot in diversity and quality. Flame Tree Barbecue (Discovery Island), Yak & Yeti (Anandapur), Harambe Market (Africa) and Tiffins are just a sampling of select choices for anything from small bites, snacks and sandwiches to full-on filling meals, and all are set in unique and authentic atmospheres.
For a cold brew or cocktail, there’s Dawa Bar (Africa) and Nomad Lounge (Discovery Island); and for that soothing little pick-me-up, the Royal Anandapur Tea Company (Anandapur) has a menu of 12 tea choices (in addition to other non-alcoholic beverages and snacks)! Whether it’s counter service or sit-down, the in-the-park dining options are just further reason to spend more than a single day exploring Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Like all Disney parks approaching closing time, there is no warning bell or loudspeaker announcement. The park just starts contracting. Little by little access points are blocked, gently corralling all the humans towards the entrance-turned-exit. As you make your way, now unthinkingly, with the flow of the herd, you’ll notice even more that you would’ve liked to spend some time enjoying. “I didn’t know there were parrots there!” And if only you’d come to the entrance earlier, you would’ve noticed the enormous gift shop that only now you’re in the mood to spend time browsing. Oh, and good to know you can get a salad at that place, were you to want a salad. All things to remember for the next time. That’s how it is at the Animal Kingdom.
As you wait to load the bus or the tram back to the car, and the fatigue and mental exhilaration engage in a seductive dance, you may dreamily recollect some of the secluded spots you encountered along the way that inspired the spending of time. How nice to go back and spend some time.