Pandora: The World of Avatar Puts Animal Kingdom Back In the Spotlight

The Tree of Life

The opening of the billion dollar Pandora: World of Avatar land has put Disney’s Animal Kingdom at the forefront of Disney’s immense marketing machine.  Animal Kingdom’s last major addition was Expedition Everest in 2006.  For the last 11 years Animal Kingdom has been hiding in the background as the majority of Disney’s PR muscle has focused on other parks and events.  The addition of Pandora puts the spotlight back on this wonderful theme park.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is criminally underrated. The level of theming park wide is above and beyond anything you will find outside of Tokyo Disney Sea.  Imagineers went to great lengths to make Animal Kingdom look natural and lived in.  You are hard pressed to find anything that looks out of place in nature. 

Elephants are one of the many animals seen on Kilimanjaro Safari’s

Animals walk around in the same type of environment that they would in the wild, complete with plants, trees, and terrain native to their own.  Buildings are aged to look lived in along with naturalistic elements that show what happens when mother nature is not as forgiving as the imaginary worlds Disney usually creates.  Animal Kingdom has scars and not just the character from the Lion King.

The fourth theme park at Walt Disney World opened in 1998.  At well over 500 acres, the park is so large, the other three Walt Disney World parks could fit inside Animal Kingdom with room to spare.  Over 1,500 animals representing more than 250 different species call the park home.

The opening land is the Oasis, a naturalistic trail that leads up to Discovery Island and the centerpiece icon of the park, The Tree of Life.  From there the park branches out in a similar fashion to other Disney parks into the various lands.  Those include Africa, Asia, Dinoland U.S.A. and the new Pandora: World of Avatar.       

The primary criticisms when Animal Kingdom opened were that it was a half day park and it was too much like a local zoo.  Disney’s mantra of “nahtazu” became a talking points as they attempted to show off that this was much more than what you would find in a local zoo and while park certainly was short on traditional rides, it has as many experiences throughout the park as the other Walt Disney World properties.

While a traditional zoo makes no attempt to conceal the barriers that prevent the animals from leaving their habitat, Disney has largely hidden them.  They are hidden so well in fact, that there are some places that make you wonder why the animals haven’t wandered into the public areas. 

The wide open spaces give animals room to roam as well as add to the ambiance of it being more nature preserve than theme park.  This is particularly true in the signature attraction at Animal Kingdom.  Kilimanjaro Safari’s is the closest you will get to being on an African safari without traveling to Africa.  Take a ride through various habitats where animals wander around without fences. This one attraction alone is more than worth the price of park admission as it would take thousands of dollars to have this type of experience elsewhere.

Animal Kingdom is not the place to look for a lot of traditional roller coasters, but one does pack a punch.  Expedition Everest takes you on a wild ride through a recreation of the tallest mountain on the planet.  Even though its signature Yeti animatronic stopped functioning shortly after it opened, Expedition Everest is a fine coaster and provides one of the signature photo spots at Walt Disney World.

Expedition Everest

The best way to experience Animal Kingdom is through its shows and walk thru experiences.  Festival of the Lion King is the best daytime show on property.  Flights of Wonder is an entertaining showcase of various birds found in the wild.  Finding Nemo is a well done musical, enjoyable for the whole family.  Smaller atmosphere entertainment is plentiful and well worth checking out. 

Entrance to Gorillas Falls.

The various trails in Animal Kingdom are a highlight of the park and well worth spending a lot of time exploring.  The Maharajah Jungle Trek is a tour of animals found in Asia including Tigers and bats.  The Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail guides you through the animals of Africa including exotic birds, Hippos, and of course Gorillas.  Two of the more underrated trails are the Oasis Exhibits and the Discovery Island Trails.  What they lack in exotic animals like Tigers or Gorilla’s, they make up for in ambiance and setting.  They are wonderful places to step away from the crowds and enjoy a moment of reflection and connect with nature.    

One of the trails in the Oasis

The nighttime spectacular River’s of Light recently debuted and along with the addition of Pandora have brought Animal Kingdom to life at night.  Traditionally the park would close at or before sunset.  The park is beautiful at night and like many Disney parks feels like a completely different place after dark.

Expedition Everest off in the distance

There will undoubtedly be a surge in attendance to check out the shiny new experiences at Animal Kingdom.  You may rush in to see Pandora but be sure to take your time and soak up the rest of this wonderful park.  Some theme parks are taken in one big gulp by visitors as they rush from ride to ride.  Animal Kingdom is best sipped and savored like a fine wine.  Take your time and appreciate the details.  The best attraction at Animal Kingdom is the park itself.

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