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Plan your day at Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World

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Published: May 26, 2013 at 9:19 PM

Walt Disney World added Disney's Animal Kingdom to its theme park lineup in 1998, providing Disney with a competitor to the Busch Garden theme park in Tampa, which long has featured live animal exhibits. Disney's Animal Kingdom also puts the spotlight on wildlife, with several attractions devoted to the animals of Africa and Asia.

The Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom
The Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom

What to do before you go

Please see our guide to the Magic Kingdom for advice on booking hotels and buying tickets to the Walt Disney World Resort and its four theme parks. Advance dining reservations are not essential at Disney's Animal Kingdom, but if you have the cash, you might consider booking a guided wildlife tour for part of your day in the park.

For the closest look at the park's wildlife, book the Wild Africa Trek, a three-hour guided tour through the park's Safi River Valley, where you'll walk on a rope bridge over hippos and crocodiles, then ride in a safari vehicle to see rhinos, giraffes and other African animals. The tour includes photographs of your expedition, taken by a Disney photographer, as well as an African-inspired gourmet breakfast or lunch. It's not cheap -- $189 per person, and you must be at least 8 years old and 48 inches tall to participate. Call +1-407-WDW-TOUR or visit Disney's website to book in advance of your visit.

When planning which day to visit Disney's Animal Kingdom, note that the park closes earlier than the other Walt Disney World theme parks, usually at 7 or 8pm, even during the busy summer months. So many visitors with park-hopper passes choose to spend the rest of the evening in another park. To beat the crowds early in the morning, choose to visit on a day when the park is not offering early admission to Disney hotel guests through the Extra Magic Hours program. On those days, you might find long waits for the park's most popular rides even by the time the park opens to "regular" visitors. Check Disney's website for operating hours.

What to do when you get to Disney's Animal Kingdom

Disney's Animal Kingdom is the largest and most remote from the three other Disney World theme parks. There's no monorail or boat service connecting Animal Kingdom to the other parks -- you'll have to drive or take a bus to get there. Like all Disney World theme parks, it's $14 to park, but your parking pass is good for the rest of the day at all four parks, so you can come and go as you please without having to pay again for parking.

Given Animal Kingdom's immense size -- 580 acres -- you'll need to ask yourself if you think it worth the time and effort to spend 20 minutes or more walking back and forth across the park to reduce your wait for a particular attraction. Disney's Animal Kingdom includes fewer than 20 attractions, only about half of which earn high ratings from Theme Park Insider readers. Three recommended attractions are walking trails that never have a wait, and three others are shows, one of which runs continuously with rarely more than a short wait between performances. Get a show schedule when you enter the park, and check the show times for the Finding Nemo -- the Musical and Festival of the Lion King shows, as they run at specific times during the day and you'll need to show up at least 30 minutes before their show times to get seats.

Expedition Everest
Expedition Everest

Ideally, start your day with Kilimanjaro Safaris. Animal Kingdom's animals tend to be much more active in the cooler mornings than in the often hot and humid afternoons. A perfect visiting plan would have you continue around the park from there, clockwise, visiting the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail and Maharajah Jungle Trek, before riding Expedition Everest, watching the Finding Nemo show, riding Dinosaur, then wrapping up with the It's Tough to Be a Bug and Festival of the Lion King shows. If it's a hot day, and you're in the mood to get wet, cut back across the bridge from Discovery Island to Asia after the Nemo or It's Tough to be a Big shows to throw in a mid-day ride on the Kali River Rapids.

The one problem with that itinerary is that it puts you in the Everest queue after it's built up to a long wait on most days. Here are your potential solutions:

  1. Use FastPass+ to reserve a mid- to late-morning ride time on Everest, if you have access to FastPass+
  2. Swing by Everest when the park opens to get traditional FastPasses, before cutting across Asia and Africa to ride Kilimanjaro Safaris.
  3. Break up your group and use the single rider line to cut your wait time on Everest.
  4. Visit during the school year when the Everest stand-by line stays under 30 minutes throughout the day.

Options 1, 3, and 4 are best if you want to minimize walking around this huge park. Everest's single rider line tends to move swiftly. It's not as quick as the Fastpass return queue, but you're not stuck with an inflexible ride time, either, so we'd recommend using the single rider option if you don't have small children in your group who need a reassuring parent or older sibling with whom to ride.

In general, attractions in this park have better-than-average capacity and none of the major attractions here ever gets an insufferable wait, so seeing everything worth seeing before the park closes shouldn't be too difficult.

Where to eat

Theme Park Insider readers' favorite restaurant at Disney's Animal Kingdom is the counter-service Flame Tree Barbecue, located near the center of the park in Discovery Island. It's also conveniently located if you're using our touring plan described above, as you can dine there before or after the Nemo or It's Tough to Be a Bug! shows.

Readers also give high marks to two table-service restaurants that accept advance dining reservations: The Tusker House Restaurant in Africa, which offers a character buffet with Donald Duck at breakfast and lunch, and the Yak and Yeti restaurant in Asia. Call +1-407-WDW-DINE or visit Disney World's website to book.

What's Next?

Disney's announced that it will be a major new land for Disney's Animal Kingdom, based on James Cameron's Avatar. That land will replace the current Camp Mickey-Minnie land, and the Festival of the Lion King show will move to a new theater in the park's Africa section to make way for Avatar. No opening date has been set.

We have updated this post since it was first published, in response to reader comments.

Next week: Disney's Hollywood Studios

Previously:

Readers' Opinions

From robert morris on May 27, 2013 at 5:53 AM
Always thought it was best to head for the Safari first and then work clockwise through Asia, to Nemo and Dinosaur with Bug's Life and Lion King to wrap it up the day by 1pm.

Safari doesn't have single rider option and while lower rated than than Everest...it is probably the biggest reason a guest visits this park for the first time.

From 99.127.132.124 on May 27, 2013 at 7:19 AM
WHAT? No Triceratopspin? No Affection Station? Those are the best attractions in the park!!!

In all seriousness, what about Flights of Wonder? I have found it to be a great bird show especially compared to many zoos across America.

From David Brown on May 27, 2013 at 8:46 AM
My wife and I did the Wild Africa Trek last November. Without a doubt it was the highlight of our entire two week vacation and we cannot speak highly enough of the experience. What was really nice was that there was no pretence that we were in Africa, like on the Kilimanjaro attraction. Instead we were given a lot of background information and were able to get a unique perspective on the whole thing that really enhanced my admiration for it. And the photos when the arrived back home were the icing on the cake.

If you're not doing the Wild Africa Trek you might want to consider doing the Kilimanjaro Safari earlier in the day as the animals are at their most active before it gets hot and you will see far more than later on when they are largely sleeping...

From Tyler Harris on May 27, 2013 at 1:05 PM
Animal Kingdom is awsome forever and ever!

*hides Universal Studious shirt.

From Johnathan Ramey on May 27, 2013 at 3:57 PM
DAK is one of those parks that you have to plan your day based of the type of EXP you would like to have.

If you are a ride fanatic you hit E.E and then move on working your way around the park.

If you are all about the show you hit up Nemo and then work your way counter clock-wards towards FOLK.

If you love animals then you hit Kilimanjaro Safari first thing (earlier the better cause there are more animal out in the open) and work clockwise though the park hitting the tails.

What EVERYONE misses out on is the 100% stellar performances put on by entertainment with the street entertainment. everyone walks by and never gives them a second thought

From Russell Meyer on May 27, 2013 at 7:04 PM
I would also recommend doing the safari either first thing or grabbing a FastPass on the walk to Everest to ride sometime before 11:00 AM. Having taken morning and afternoon safaris, my experience has been that there are far more animals out and about before noon than after lunch. Disney does try to keep the animals out and visible, but the later in the day you take the safari, the fewer animals you're likely to see.
From 108.248.91.17 on May 28, 2013 at 8:52 AM
I find that DAK is a wandering park. If you go in with notions of "Hit this first", and schedule that, you miss out on what the park is all about, which is wandering about discovering things.

There is so much to see and do that is not specifically attraction based - Meander through the streets of Asia, taking lots of pictures, explore the trails around the TOL trying to spot as many animals as you can, sit in the shade near the water's edge and watch the monkeys (or turn around and watch the people), get splashed in one of the many "showers" positioned through out the park, study the beautiful architecture on Discovery Island, and listen to Guitar Dan make up songs on the fly.

Go slow - DAK is a steaming jungle that will suck the soft, air-conditioned life right out of you, but it's best enjoyed by going slow.

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