If you missed Part 3, click here to go back and read about Epcot.
Thursday, September 26th, 2017...another day, another Walt Disney World theme park to check out. After using our days at Disney's Hollywood Studios and Epcot, only the two kingdoms remained...the fantastical (Magic Kingdom) and the natural (Animal Kingdom). Choosing which to visit ended up being a bit of a planning conundrum, as it would force us to do the fourth park on Saturday (Friday was reserved for a different activity). So, which park to pick? Ultimately, the choice was made by the schedule for Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party, as I didn't want to miss Magic Kingdom's evening entertainment.
Part 4: Kingdom of the Animals
The newest of Walt Disney World's theme parks, Disney's Animal Kingdom has yet to celebrate 20 years of operation (that will come next year). However, with the exception of Magic Kingdom, it has probably seen the most investment since opening day. The park opened with only a handful of attractions, as the main draw was intended to be the animals. Over time, however, it has grown into more of an animal theme park, adding some of the best attractions at the resort and expanding from a 4 hour park to one worthy of a full day (at least for first-timers). In fact, just this year Animal Kingdom opened an entire new themed area: Pandora - The World of Avatar. Themed to the planet of the same name from a film many saw exactly once, the land represents a departure from the non-fiction settings of Africa and Asia into a fictional alien world. It is also home to Flight of Passage, claimed by some to be the single best attraction ever created.
Pandora was what broke my Fastpass+ streak. At the previous parks, I was able to get exactly what I wanted, but this time it didn't work out. Despite logging in exactly 30 days prior to the visit, there was no availability for Flight of Passage. Every single Fastpass for the day had been claimed 60 days out by those who planned special trips to visit this land and who were staying on Walt Disney World property. Disappointing, yes, but not unexpected. I instead grabbed one for Pandora's secondary ride, Na'vi River Journey (as well as Expedition Everest and Kilimanjaro Safaris), then made a plan to hit Flight of Passage first thing in the morning.
Well, that's not what happened. As this would be a day where Evan and I were on our own (it's not a vacation for locals, after all), I went over my plans for the day with everyone at the house prior to visiting. The decision was unanimous...ignore the advice of almost every online guide and do Pandora in the afternoon, after the opening day rush has worn off and before people come back for a second ride. Supposedly, afternoon wait times were typically only in the 60-70 minute range most days. I was skeptical, but I trust the word of several friends who I know visit regularly over an online guide by someone I've never met. I did check the app about 15 minutes after opening, and Flight of Passage was posting 140 minutes. Seems like a good call to hold off.
Saving Pandora for later, and taking the immense size of the park into consideration, we opted for a simple counter-clockwise loop around the park. As a result, our first stop was Dinoland U.S.A., home to Walt Disney World's Indiana Jones equivalent.
Simply named Dinosaur, the ride is an adventure back through time in order to rescue an Iguanodon. On paper, the ride sounds intriguing, and given that Indiana Jones Adventure is among the best dark rides ever built, it has to be decent, right? Nope, not even close. There is little more to this ride than racing through a dark prehistoric forest and stopping suddenly at intervals so a dinosaur can pop out. While the first Carnotaurus is a surprise, the ride is so repetitive that by the end you don't care about the story and just want to return to the present. This is the only motion base ride that I've experienced that fails to make it into the must ride category, and that says something about the quality (or lack thereof) of the attraction.
To avoid showcasing something that makes Walt Disney Studios Paris look good, this photo has been intentionally omitted.
Next door to Dinosaur stands Chester and Hester's Dino-Rama, which looks exactly like what I'd picture a Disney traveling carnival to be. Midway games surround TriceraTop Spin, the Dumbo equivalent of Animal Kingdom. The back, however, contains a roller coaster...or, technically, two roller coasters.
Side by side, the Primeval Whirl coasters are stock spinning mice themed to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Covered in cardboard cutouts with only simple animation, this ride is very reminiscent of Goofy's Sky School. There's just one problem...the ride flat out sucks. With trims on almost every block and a complete lack of spinning, this wild mouse is nothing but mild. In fact, it wins the distinction of being the both the worst attraction I experienced at Walt Disney World and the worst coaster on the trip, even when the unthemed clone at Fun Spot and the smaller kiddie coasters are considered. I rarely say this, but this ride needs to go.
Moving onward, we come to Finding Nemo-The Musical. While technically a part of Dinoland, the show is removed from the rest of the area and thematically doesn't mesh well with the nearby carnival. However, it is probably the best part of Dinoland.
Full disclaimer...I like Finding Nemo, but I consider it one of Pixar's more overrated movies and don't get the high praise it receives (I rank it more in the middle of the pack). However, I actually enjoyed the live musical version better than the film. The show is mostly an extremely fancy puppet show, but it uses extremely fancy puppets and a lot of interesting effects and choreography to bring the world of Finding Nemo to life on the stage. Additionally, Disney did a phenomenal job adapting the movie into a 40 minute musical performance. No, it isn't Aladdin, but it is still well worth at least one viewing.
Leaving Dinoland behind, a bridge leads across Discovery River to the continent of Asia. Here, I get my first look at what is probably my most anticipated ride of the entire trip (at least at Walt Disney World).
As a child, I never had a particularly strong interest in visiting Walt Disney World. Back then, I saw Disney World as the Magic Kingdom, and while it was a place that many talked about, I didn't see the point in flying across the country when Disneyland was just 45 minutes up the freeway. Over time, my opinion changed a bit as I learned more about Walt Disney World and got more involved in the enthusiast community, but it was still never a priority. Cedar Point, Holiday World, Kennywood...places like that, featured on every amusement park TV show, were still more of a priority. Then, one attraction made Walt Disney World a must visit destination...Expedition Everest!
Towering 199 ft. above Animal Kingdom, the Forbidden Mountain is the largest Disney has built. Housed within is a $100 million roller coaster, careening inside and outside of the structure along 4,424 ft. of track at speeds of up to 50 MPH. The whole ride last just shy of three minutes, and includes two lift hills, a backwards section, an 80 ft. drop, and an encounter with the Yeti (who has recently developed a disco fetish). It is the Matterhorn Bobsleds on steroids, reimagined with modern technology and elevated in thrill level to match most major non-looping coasters. It is also the best roller coaster Walt Disney Parks & Resorts has ever built.
Expedition Everest begins with a long queue line through a museum full of Himalayan artifacts, many of which were lost on me as I kept pace with the party in front of me through a nearly empty queue. For once, I actually wished the line was longer (it never got above 20 minutes all day). At the end of the queue, you board a steam-powered mine train for a journey up the mountain. At first, everything is fine and dandy, but then a broken track forces the train to reverse course. It is here that the roller coaster really begins, and the remainder of the ride consists of a winding run in, around, and through the Forbidden Mountain, with just the right level of intensity to ensure everyone is thrilled without being too much for someone who rarely rides big coasters. The ride is so good that I rode not once, not twice, but SIX times during the course of my day at the park. Now, if I were to evaluate it strictly as a roller coaster, California Screamin' does have a slight edge over Everest, but the theming and unique aspects of the latter elevate it above Screamin' as a Disney attraction. I've ridden over 400 roller coasters, and Everest is the only Disney coaster to make my top 50.
Following our escape from the Yeti and a quick trip on the Kali (an unremarkable rapids ride), it was time for lunch. On Evan's recommendation, I secured a reservation at Yak and Yeti, which actually ended up being a bit of a challenge. However, it was worth the hassle...of the three full service meals I had in the parks, this was probably the best. The restaurant is immaculately detailed as a Nepalese inn, and from our table on the second story we had a great view of Asia below. The food consists of a mixture of various Asian cuisines, ranging from the common to the more obscure, but omitting anything too exotic. I don't remember what Evan ordered, but I opted for the Chicken Tikka Masala, an Indian dish consisting of roasted chicken in a curry sauce and accompanied by Jasmine Rice and Naan bread. It was, in a word, delicious. Spicy, but not excessively so, and with a nice mixture of flavors when accompanied by the rice. Evan's recommendation was right...Yak and Yeti is excellent.
With our return time for the Kilimanjaro Safaris approaching, we made our way over to Africa and joined the queue to enter the Harambe Reserve. This attraction was Animal Kingdom's original E-ticket, and while portions of the attraction have been removed throughout the years, it still provides an excellent simulated safari through manufactured nature.
While many of the animals present can be viewed in most major zoos, the attraction presents them in a way most guests may not be accustomed to, with no visible barriers inside the rather large enclosure. Picture taking is encouraged, as the ride is a photo safari, and even though it lacks any story the settings make up for it. It can't hold a candle to something like the San Diego Zoo's Safari Park or even the Safari Off-Road Adventure at Six Flags Great Adventure, but evaluated on its own merit the attraction is very well done and an absolute must-ride for all visitors.
While we didn't see it into much later in the day, Africa contains one other notable attraction: Festival of the Lion King. A performance using the theater in the round setup, this show is part parade, part circus, and part sing-a-long. Each seating section is assigned an animal (Warthog, Elephant, Giraffe, and Lion), with guests asked to make noises and gestures representative of their mascot to complete the celebration. Framed as a party for Simba and using popular songs from the film, the performance features the tumble monkeys trapeze artists, a fire-twirler, an aerial dance, and plenty of audience participation. While the show lacks production value, the acts are entertaining, and the entire experience is just a whole lot of fun. Excluding nighttime spectaculars, this was probably my favorite show at Walt Disney World (tough call between it and American Adventure). Perhaps if Disneyland in California had performances like this, locals would be more receptive to show-based attractions.
Continuing beyond Africa, a long winding path follows the river toward the Valley of Mo'ara. This is Pandora - The World of Avatar. It has been 50 years since the events of the film, and Alpha Centuri Expeditions has turned Pandora into a tourist destination. Here, guests can immerse themselves in an alien world overrun with bioluminescent flora and teeming with otherworldly fauna. And, best of all, in the center of this magnificent valley floats a mountain range. Except...well...
Behold...the legendary Hallelujah Arch of Pandora!
From the initial announcement of Pandora, I've been extremely skeptical of the land. Not only does the property not feel right for a Disney park (let alone Animal Kingdom), it is one that was popular for a year and then faded into obscurity. Even today the future of the franchise is unknown. However, Disney opted to continue forward, and the end result now sits in the southwestern corner of Animal Kingdom. As much as I wanted to like it, and as much as I tried to give Disney the benefit of the doubt, Pandora just falls flat on so many levels. Even if I had just watched the movie, I would not recognize the area Disney created as the world of the Na'vi. There are also some poor design choices here, as things that are rendered in CGI don't necessarily translate well to the real world (especially when such things would be impossible to replicate faithfully). It's an immaculately detailed area, and it is clear that Disney put a ton of effort into Pandora, but it just isn't Pandora. Sadly, I was extremely hyped for Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge after attending D23, but seeing what happened here has sown some doubt in my mind that Disney can do it right. However, even if a land as a whole doesn't work, it may still have attractions that do (for example, Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land). So, on with the rides.
First up, Flight of Passage. It's been called the best new attraction of 2017 by many reputable sources, and some have gone as far as saying it's the world's best theme park attraction. Given that, I was not fazed by the 95 minute wait time...for a brand new E-ticket, that's acceptable. There's only one problem...the line didn't take 95 minutes. As we wound through the queue admiring a Pandoran cave, announcement after announcement sounded about the ride operating at reduced capacity. Eventually, a cast member came through and explained the situation: Two of the four simulators had overheated, and despite the best efforts of the maintenance team they just couldn't be brought back online. As a result, priority was being given to Fastpass, and we should expect to wait at least twice as long as posted. When all was said and done, this ride broke my record for longest wait for a theme park attraction, as we ended up waiting about 220 minutes. We were given a bonus Fastpass as compensation, but unfortunately it couldn't be used for another ride on Flight of Passage (it became an Everest ride). More than anything, this incident exposes why Fastpass needs to change...not only were guests missing their return windows at other attractions, those with a Fastpass were taking nearly every available seat, making the wait longer than it really needed to be. A simple solution would be to just make all the Fastpasses valid for the rest of the day, then keep the ratios the same and warn Fastpass users about the long wait and encourage them to try later. It just isn't right to let only one party from standby enter per 100 Fastpass guests.
As for the ride itself, the story is this: The Banshee population on Pandora is dying, so Alpha Centuri Expeditions have restarted the Avatar program to conduct research and reverse this trend. In order to help fund their research, tourists are being given the opportunity to fly aboard a Banshee. After an elaborate preshow where riders are linked with their avatars, they are given flight glasses and seated in a link chair. The ride that follows is essentially Soarin' Orange Team - More Intense Flying, as the ride has the motion of something like Star Tours while you're on a seat similar to Pony Express. It is an outstanding simulator attraction, and is probably the best simulator I've experienced, but at the end of the day it is still just a simulator. As good as the ride was, I still prefer a majority of the E-ticket level dark rides, and I would never wait 220 minutes for another ride. That sentiment was present among every single person heading out the exit...extremely cool and very good (and probably Animal Kingdom's best ride), but not worth the wait time given how long it was.
Due to the long line for Flight of Passage, we ended up missing out on most of the shows we wanted to see, though we made it to the ones mentioned previously. Afterward, we returned to Pandora to use our Fastpasses on the Na'vi River Journey. To me, this attraction felt like one that had a lot of potential, but squandered it by going only 80% of the way. The ride is simply a 5 minute cruise through the jungle of Pandora, featuring incredibly detailed sets but mainly projection effects for characters and animals. The lone exception comes in the form of the Na'vi Shaman of Songs featured toward the end of the ride, a full size animatronic Na'vi that sings to guests as they float past. While I was not blown away by this animatronic, I was still very impressed, and it elevated this ride from "pass" to "worth a short wait." That said, the regular line was 90 minutes, and I can't imagine anyone being satisfied after waiting 90 minutes for this. I also don't understand why Disney built a boat ride in 2017 that only seats 8 passengers per boat...Pirates sat 22 in 1967, when crowds were much, much smaller.
The inside of Na'vi River Journey represents what all of Pandora should have been...a land covered in bioluminescent plants, teeming with wildlife, and featuring the Na'vi interacting with visitors. Instead, the land is a generic-feeling alien world that feels dominated by tourists, with little of the natural wilderness remaining behind. Yes, Flight of Passage is an outstanding attraction on its own, and the Satu'li Canteen serves some of the best counter service food found within the World, but as a whole Pandora is more of a disappointment than anything else. For something that took years to build and was meant to dethrone the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it mostly failed in my opinion. I really hope Disney learns what didn't work and fixes it for Star Wars Land, because mistakes on a minor franchise may disappoint visitors, but poor execution of (possibly) the most popular franchise of all time could turn lifelong fans into total haters.
I think my Christmas lights have more bioluminescence than this.
By the time we finished Pandora, night was falling and the showtime for Rivers of Light was creeping closer. We made our way back to Dinoland and joined the queue for stand-by viewing, which occupies the far end of the 5,000 seat amphitheater. This is the lowest capacity nighttime spectacular at Walt Disney World, and with only one showing per night it often plays to capacity crowds. Fortunately, we managed to get into the performance.
Rivers of Light is a brand new show that debuted back in February and, unlike most of Walt Disney World's attractions, I had no idea what the show was. The best way to describe the show is World of Color meets the Electrical Water Pageant (which I unfortunately never got to see), though completely devoid of IP and focusing on the natural world. The show opens as two teams of storytellers, one representing fire and the other water, sail to the center of the lagoon from opposite sides.
Using their mystical instruments, the shamans call a parade of spirit animals, each representing one of the four elements of nature (tiger for fire, elephant for earth, sea turtle for water, and owl for air). Following this, the show becomes largely a fountain and water projection show, with footage similar to what would be expected in a DisneyNature documentary and an original musical score.
Finally, the River of Light (aka aurora borealis) appears, leading to a grand finale full of everything seen throughout the show, plus the mandatory fire tower (though no pyrotechnics). The show is beautifully put together, and while it lacks the punch of many of Disney's nighttime spectaculars, it's still well worth a viewing (I'd personally rank it above World of Color).
Rivers of Light ends about 30 minutes before park closure, which left a little more time to enjoy the park. We opted to head back to Asia and close out the night with an Expedition Everest mini-marathon. By this point, the park was so empty that all guests were being directed through the shorter Fastpass queue, enabling us to get several rides on the coaster in darkness. Eventually, 9:00 P.M. came and it was time to head out of the park.
Looking back on it, Animal Kingdom is much like California Adventure in that it is a difficult park to evaluate. While the park doesn't contain as many thrill rides as Hollywood Studios, Expedition Everest is the best ride at the World in that category save only Tower. However, the overall attraction selection, while slightly lacking in quantity, is just as good in quality as what can be found at Epcot or Hollywood Studios. The park's landscaping is probably the best among a Disney park, and while the theming isn't quite as strong as Epcot's, outside of Dinoland it is still top notch. Evaluated objectively, the park would probably score third among the WDW parks. However, despite the weaknesses of Animal Kingdom, I truly enjoyed the park much more than the previous two. As much as I love Tower of Terror and Star Wars, DAK would be my second day choice if I only had two. It is not a perfect park by any means...Dinoland needs a complete replacement, the park as a whole could use more attractions, and those looking for a true Disney experience will be disappointed by the relative lack of IP (I don't mind the last one), but it is a unique theme park with an exceptional balance between rides, shows, and walkthrough attractions, all set in a fully immersive environment. It is overall a relaxing park to visit, yet those craving an adrenaline rush will be able to find it here as well.
Disney's Animal Kingdom Scorecard:
Dinosaur - 7/10
Expedition Everest - 9/10
Festival of the Lion King - 8.5/10
Finding Nemo-The Musical - 8/10
Flight of Passage - 9/10
Kali River Rapids - 7/10
Kilimanjaro Safaris - 8.5/10
Na'vi River Journey - 7/10
Pandora (as a whole) - 8/10
Primeval Whirl - 4.5/10
Rivers of Light - 8/10
Overall Park Score - 8/10
Three Disney parks down, and one to go. However, the last park will have to wait, as our next day would instead be bringing us to Florida's original Animal Kingdom.
To view the entire photo album from this park, click here.Tweet
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