Disney's Animal Kingdom is a theme park set in a lush tropical landscape. Out of the four Walt Disney World parks, Animal Kingdom shines at showing just how much detailed, rich theming elevates a park and how effective a ride is when you give it a story to tell. While the park only contains a few major attractions, Animal Kingdom is arguably one of the best parks out there. The common misconception is that this park is "small", only worth a few hours of your time while at Disney property; however, it's quite the opposite. It's the richest, largest park that definitely packs a full Disney experience and is well deserving of several visits, not just a quick run through the park.
Walking into the front gate, the attention to detail is evident. The Magic Band scanners are specially themed to Animal Kingdom, and even though they are a small thing, it creates the very first impression of the park - the means of entering. Once Disney sets the stage, they begin to really lay on the theme. The first few steps into the park probably have you saying "wow" and "look at the detail of this" about every few seconds. The animals greet you immediately, and it's a very effective way to set up the park. The central pathway that leads to all of the attractions serves to effectively create an introductory statement about the atmosphere and theme. At this point, I stopped for a few moments to capture some photos of the animals - the parrots seemed to be the highlight of this section of animals.
Before I move onto the rides, I would like to emphasize how much of a key role the theme in this park plays. Could I imagine an Animal Kingdom without its theming? Absolutely not. What's the park without one little thing? Essentially nothing . . . That one "little thing" is theming and it is the single most important component of the guests' experience in this park. Every tiny, rich detail that you see in this park comes from the theme department and it makes all the difference. If this park had no theme it would just be a place with a fairly decent sized coaster, a short rapids ride, a typical spinning wild mouse coaster, a strange motion dark ride, and a safari ride. Now, that's not much. So, why is Animal Kingdom still a great park? I've said it once and will say it many times - theming.
Let me explain. Since the park is not thrill ride heavy, there needs to be something to elevate it to the Disney level, and while walking through Animal Kingdom, it is evident that this park is different from most. It's a park truly worthy of the "theme park" title. The park doesn't even need the rides; I would still visit Animal Kingdom to appreciate each small detail that sets this park apart from others. There is eye candy literally everywhere - you won't walk ten feet without an object or piece that will make you slow down and stop to admire it or take a picture (yes, I have so many pictures of the theming and special details of this park). Going back to the rides, the theme elevates them and adds to the satisfaction of the ride experience. For example, Expedition Everest does a great job of this - the mountain façade is imposing to bystanders, and while the ride is just shy of 200 feet, the mountain looks much taller and much more ominous due to the Imagineer's way of creating this using forced perspective. The ride isn't really that special, but the theming elevates it to a new level and sets it apart from other rides.
Knowing that the park closes in just a few hours, we ran over to Dinosaur for a quick ride. Now, I'll say that at first I did not think that Dinosaur would be something special or worth riding, but after riding it, I have now found a gem. It's fast, it's a blast, and it's in the past. That's the ride's tagline, and Dinosaur lives up to that. While walking up to the entrance, the Dinosaur skeletons are foreboding and set the mood for the ride. After passing through the entrance, there was no line for this ride, so we were quickly ushered to the pre - show room, which narrates our mission, which is to travel back to dinosaur age to capture an iguanodon dinosaur, which will be the "key to understanding the past".
After a short safety briefing, we're off to the ride's station. The Time Rovers lurch forward, and the gates open so we can board the Rovers. While strapping in, I noticed a very stable looking safety grip, so I knew I was in for an intense ride. Just as suddenly as the rovers came in, they're off again, and before not too long, the rovers plunge into complete darkness. To start off the ride and to justify the time travel, we move into the time travel chamber, which rocks the rovers back and forth gently, as if they were floating through time. Red lights illuminate on the sides of the track to give the chamber a experimental feel.
Once the time travel journey is complete, the ride moves onto the next stage, with the trains "encountering" vast species of dinosaurs. During each encounter, the rovers jerk back and forth to enhance the experience, and give the ride an out of control feel. Yes, this is where that grab bar comes in handy; grasp it tightly or you'll be thrown around! Now, if you're reading this and are a bit scared that you might get nauseous on this ride, don't be; there are breaks in the motion where you get to see a dinosaur roar at the rover and experience the full prehistoric encounters with them. Disney expertly plays the fast, intense moments along with the dinosaur encounters to create an intense experience, without making riders sick.
While the dinosaurs in this attraction are merely animatronics that have no chance of harming the riders, the danger element feels as real as it can. The realism of the dinosaurs is top notch, so riders jump in very real fear when the dinosaurs lurch at the rovers. Now, with that thought, while I do like the finale of the ride when the largest dinosaur growls at the train from up above the rover, I think that this is an area for improvement. Just before the dino attacks, bright lights flash for an instant, which reveals the surprise to vigilant riders. The effect would have been better executed if all of the show effect would have come on all at once, providing a startling, stunning, and surprising climax - especially since the dinosaur is above the riders' heads. With all things considered, I find Dinosaur to be a great ride, and it should not be missed when taking a visit to Animal Kingdom. It's the hidden gem of the park.
The second main attraction in Dinoland is Primeval Whirl. This ride departs from what you would expect to see from Disney and just sticks out like a sore thumb. Disney is known for dark rides with elaborate sets, intricate animatronics, and, overall, attention to detail that is bar none. Primeval Whirl, however, is the polar opposite. This attraction falls short of the Disney reputation. I'm not sure if they were going for the carnival ride look, but if they were, they achieved it. All of the sets are two dimensional and feature an explosion of colors that are too distracting to be visually appealing. The ride itself offers up a wild mouse coaster with short and quick drops and turns.
While there are a few dozen of these exact same rides elsewhere, I still feel that these actually are good coasters that provide the thrills. The first half of the coaster provides a few sharp turns that throw you around in the seat if you are not careful. The next section introduces a drop, albeit small, but still very effective since this is the first actual drop the coaster has given us, so we are not fully exposed to the complete thrill of a major drop yet. A few more quick turns, then you're dropping again, this time a larger drop as to not repeat the same experience as before with the smaller introductory drop. Time for the coaster to reach the grand finale - the spins. Before the riders even know it, the trains begin rotating on the track while whipping around on hairpin turns just like the first section of the ride. Form this point on, it's an all-out spin fest until the brakes save us from getting a bit too queasy.
Overall, this ride succeeds by introducing new concepts one at a time. The pace does not bore us, nor does it provide too much at once either. While it's not one of my most favorite coasters, it deserves credit for providing a story throughout the course of the ride. Oh, and it's a very compact coaster too, which is always a plus. Now, back to the theme of the ride. While it's not a ride that lives up to the Disney potential, it still elevates the ride. The theme does not tell a linear story (such as Dinosaur), it merely provides details that could be considered prehistoric. It is more of a theme one might see if they were put into a time machine set back to prehistoric times and what they would encounter and see. After realizing that the trains are actually "time machines", I do suppose that this theme for the ride works. While it is not the most elaborate set up by Disney standards, It would still be considered exceptional in the normal amusement park world, so by some means it is a success.
Since there was no wait, we headed on over to Kilimanjaro Safaris. This is the ride that screams Animal Kingdom when I hear about it, but it really isn't that special. If you're an animal lover, I would recommend it, but otherwise it's not worth too much of your time. The safari is a twenty minute trek through the African lands, so of course there are animals. On the trip, you'll see a wide variety of species form tigers to wildebeests to alligators - there is much to see. To embark on the journey, riders board rugged off-road vehicles, which are equipped and prepared for a few dozen passengers in each vehicle. Above each row of seats is a guide to all of the animals you may encounter on the safari, which is a nice touch - it allows the passengers to distinguish the species of the lesser-known animals quickly and conveniently. Once the vehicle departs, a guide comes over the speaker and introduces himself as the guide of our tour. Our guide was fine, but he could have been a bit more enthusiastic; the tour somewhat fell flat after a few minutes.
This tour could have definitely been much more interesting with a more enthusiastic guide, but the sights are still there, so I presume it wouldn't make much of a difference. Speaking of the animals, while it was nice to see them, they could have been closer to the vehicles, because for most of the tour it was a Where's Waldo of animal spotting, and I wouldn't have seen as much of the animals without our apathetic guide pointing them out. For example, Six Flags Great Adventure's Safari had the animals extremely close to the vehicles making for some great pictures as well as a more enjoyable tour. They could have also used a bit more animals to occupy more area of land - the tour was one sided, and all of the action occurred on the left side of the vehicle. So, if you're ever riding, make sure to sit on the far left! You'll get a better ride experience that way.
Also, the majority of the tour was driving around the perimeter of the animal reserve, and lacked the action. I know that a Safari should be a bit more laid back than riding Expedition Everest, but I would have liked to see a "ride component" in play with the safari - they are Disney after all. An example of this ride section could be as simple as crossing a river and having the boat "accidentally" disengage and slide downstream. This of course would be all pre - programmed and planned, but I feel that some type of element like this halfway throughout the trek would breathe new life into the safari, and, in some sorts, make sure the riders are paying attention. To be fair, I will say that I still enjoyed the tour, but it is my least favorite attraction in the park. If you go in not expecting much, it will probably be a better experience, as opposed to me who went in with a high bar set, as I have heard many things about the the tour, thus expecting a mile.
Heading on over to Asia, the sun was scorching, so a ride on Kali River Rapids would be a good remedy to the Florida sun and heat. Back in the woods, the Chakranadi River roars, definitely letting us know we will get wet on this ride. In the queue, the rafts can be seen floating along at a gentle pace, so the river is not made to be ominous in the first impressions. While riding, you will discover the river's true rage. The beauty of Kali River Rapids lies in the story set up from when you first set foot in the queue. The decorum and scenery make the wait seem shorter as I was constantly glancing at scenery details while the line was moving, and before I knew it was time to ride.
Once entering the station, you are directed to your raft for the expedition, and each raft has a clever name - Delhi Donut, Monsoon Mama, and Himalayan Hummer are some examples. Now, once you've boarded your assigned raft, the Cast Members direct you to stow all precious belongings into the central watertight vessel. This was very convenient for me, because now I did not have to stress that my new camera would get wet. Shortly after fastening the seatbelt, we're off, and after a short section the rafts are climbing the lift. The lift is engulfed in mist, which makes for a nice relaxing ride to the top. At the top, however, a large water jet is pointed directly upwards from the river, threatening to soak us - we know that rapids are about to start and the relaxing drift is over. The gentle rapids with the beautiful tropical forest may just seem like filler to lengthen the expedition, but it is one of the most crucial parts to the ride. It sets us up for the devastating effects when we soon see the illegal logging happening near the river.
Without the raw beauty of the forest shown to us before the illegal loggers begin destroying this forest, there would be no contrast. The juxtaposition works very well. Before not too long, we are exposed to the culprit of this task, and the logger is trying to carry out the logs, but to no avail - he is stuck in the river, an act of karma as some would call it. I could be off on this, but I thing the Imagineers were trying to draw a connection to this Hinduism belief of Karma, which is predominant in Asia. It's just the small details that count - the more you ride this, the more you'll discover. While still gazing at this whole logging operation, the ride's largest drop of thirty feet comes up. We're falling fast, and at the bottom about half of the raft gets drenched - not a dry spot on them from head to toe. It's random who is going to get the soaking, but that just adds to the fun. The effect of the major drop is to show the impacts of the logging, which destroyed our bridge, now soaking us in the process. Now, we know that we want to get wet on this ride, but I feel as if the Imagineers choose to make the drop symbolic of the illegal logging.
After the major climax of the ride, there has to be some time for us to reflect on the logging by showing us the lush landscapes again. Some more jets spray us, but do not soak us as much as that drop. We pass under the bridge, and some spectators have the chance to shower the rafts by pressing a button. The station comes up again, and the riders disembark, and we cross the same bridge that the spectators sprayed us while we were on the ride. I did a double take when I realized that the jet sprayers were free, as most other amusement parks make you pay some money to press the button to shower the rafts. I had to remind myself that this is Disney, a completely different animal than other theme parks. After soaking a few rafts, we headed over to our next ride. Overall, Kali River Rapids is my favorite ride in the park because of the story it creates and uses strategically to enhance the typical raft ride.
After getting off Kali, the next stop was clearly Expedition Everest. Throughout, a giant mountain stands out and beckons for your attention. After beholding the Disney version of Mount Everest for a moment, it's time to ride. Walking up to the entrance, I peer at the ride wait time, and see that it is only a thirty minute wait. Good thing we saved this one for last - all the crowds must have cleared out. The queue is mostly shaded, which is good in the blazing sun. That's not the only thing that is good for this queue, however. The scenery kicks it up a notch, and I really didn't mind waiting in line for Everest, because the constant detail of each element had me gazing around, not consciously noticing that the line was moving at a speedy pace. The elements in the queue attempt to create drama and mystery over the mythical yeti, and it achieves.
The queue is themed as an exhibit on the Yeti, showing all of the facts about this creature and some proof that it exists. An example of this is in one part of the queue there are some foot prints from typical sized animals (such as a bear), which is then compared to the Yeti's footprint. The Yeti's footprint is much larger than the bear's. This does a good job of displaying the true size of the Yeti and showing that it may exist. Also in the exhibit are some books about the mysterious Yeti, in which people attempt to document the Yeti and prove its existence. This ride does not have a pre-show, nor does it need one, as the queue provides the same effect that would be achieved by a pre-show. The queue itself is not too long, so were in the station rather quickly. Now I have to give the operations crew for Everest a hand. They were immensely efficient in sending the trains out. I would say that one would dispatch every fifteen to twenty seconds, which was the reason the line was not overly long - the sign said thirty minutes, but it was only about ten. Also, when a train needed to be moved to the maintenance bay, it only took all of two minutes for the train to be moved. In other parks, this could be a fifteen minute operation, but here, they were very efficient.
What they did was quickly wrap a neon-colored strap around the bar on the train's lead car to indicate the operator to switch the transfer track. The operator quickly switched the track, advanced the train, switched the transfer track back, and then opened the gates for the next riders. It took maybe a minute - possibly two. Once sitting down, the attendants ask you to pull down the bar, and a few seconds later the train is off. A few quick turns follow, and the train engages on the first lift. It's a short lift, but is enough to give the train enough energy to move through the first main section before the major lift. This section doesn't really provide the trills, rather it follows the terrain and stays close to the ground. I would have liked to see a few pops of airtime in this section, but Disney wanted to tell the story instead of throw the thrill aspect into the mix early on. The main importance of the section is to provide a commonplace train ride thrill, which is the ride's theme - you're taking a train to the top of Everest to discover the Yeti.
The first section, to tell the story properly, must maintain a low thrill dynamic. It wouldn't be so effective if they chose to have a major drop right out of the station, right? That's why they decided to step-by-step amp up the thrills until you reach the infamous Yeti, which of course is followed by the largest drop on the ride. The first section may not be my favorite, but I understand its importance to the ride. Next up, is the lift, and if you're riding in the front row, it can indeed be intimidating. Looking up and seeing track rise above for what seems like too long, yes, the Imagineers have done their jobs well. While going up, the train passes through what seems like a temple or shrine, showcasing the Yeti. Nearing the top of the lift, the track can be seen wrapping around the peak of the mountain, and we are moved to the side of the train as the train drops down. A few quick turns, and the train reaches the most dramatic section of the ride.
Beyond us is a straight section of track, nothing appears to be out of sorts at first, but we are soon proved wrong when we look up - a huge section of mangled track presents itself. What is going to happen next is probably the only thought going through the heads of first time riders as they peer over to the edge and see that we clearly are not headed down that way. The Yeti has sabotaged our course, and the only answer? Backwards. The train lurches back, a surprise to some, but still, it's a great element. The train then heads down some decent sized helixes, but since the train is going backward it feels like an out of control ride, but in reality it's a few good sized turns. This whole section is in the veil of darkness, further inducing the thrills. Now, the importance of this is to show how the Yeti has greater control over our measly train. The Yeti has us in its grasp and will not let go soon. The backward thrills die down and we are directed into a large cavern, where a projection of the Yeti, in shadow, tearing up the tracks can be seen. It's a bit late for this; we have already experienced the broken track, but this is still a good effect. I would have liked it before the actual broken track section, as it would have given us something to fear, but it doesn't make much of a difference that it's in this location. At this point in time, a major drop is next, and we're blasted out of the cave into the drop. This drop delivers; if you put your arms up, you'll get some decent thrills. Following are more helix maneuvers, than a dive into a cave to see the real Yeti.
The Yeti is effective as a climax moment, but it could have been better executed. There were some strobe lights flashing at the animatronic, but it was very dimly lit. More lights would have been better. I do know that this creature used to swing its arm at the train, but doesn't anymore. While I'm not really irritated that it doesn't move anymore, it must have really been quite the experience to see this Yeti actually move - the animatronic is gargantuan. It would have really been a sight to behold. After this encounter, the train moves out of the cave and hits the brakes. It has definitely been an expedition. We've seen the Yeti, traveled backwards, been launched out of a cave into a major drop, and all while that was happening, the story was there. While this is not my favorite coaster ever, it provides the thrills in a quality way. Everest does not shove the thrills in your face, instead it lets you savor them.
Disney's Animal Kingdom requires a mature audience for it to be fully appreciated. While the rides at the park are great, the theming is better. If you don't pay attention to every detail put into this park, you will not enjoy it as much. I really found the beauty within this park, and would rank it as my favorite Disney park. It's very rewarding to recognize the small detail and genuinely understand the stories on the rides; how they take you though a journey, and how they immerse you on the experience. The moral I found for this park is that you have to be old enough to appreciate every detail. Take a step back and walk a bit slower, and really soak up every last drop that Disney left for you, whether it's the final drop on Everest, or that one last detail that you notice while walking from ride to ride.
Coasters are my passion. It's what I do, it's who I am.