Walt Disney World celebrates Animal Kingdom's 20th birthday

April 22, 2018, 6:56 AM · Walt Disney World celebrated the 20th anniversary of Disney's Animal Kingdom today with a ceremony and a new show.

Even though today was the theme park's birthday, Disney World's fourth park got its big present 11 months ago, when Pandora: The World of Avatar opened and made Animal Kingdom what many fans (including yours truly) now believe to be the best theme park in Orlando.

"When we first proposed that The Walt Disney Company build a park about animals, it was regarded as a particularly challenging and unlikely thing to do. But Animal Kingdom has now become a beloved member of the Disney family of parks," Imagineer Joe Rohde wrote on his Instagram this weekend.

"We work with obvious tools - with wires and plastic, with concrete and steel, with scripts and talent, with all the technology and cleverness we can muster - but nothing can compare to the beauty and the majesty and the touching fragility of the living animals that are the soul of Disney's Animal Kingdom. For all of our technological showmanship, the best places in the park are the quiet places, where we, who call ourselves magicians, step aside for a moment and hold up our frame as if to say, 'Look at that! Is that not the most beautiful creature you have ever seen? Nature itself holds the truest magic. The magic of life itself.'"

But even as animals provided the inspiration and attractions for this park two decades ago, Disney's march toward incorporating franchise IP has not avoided Animal Kingdom. Pandora, of course, is based upon the highest-grossing film of all time — James Cameron's Avatar. Even the park's central icon, the Tree of Life, contains underneath it a 4D show based on a Pixar film that came out a few months after the park opened. And that new show, debuting for the anniversary, is UP! A Great Bird Adventure, a Pixar-themed refurb of the old Flights of Wonder show, now featuring animated characters Russell and Dug.

Nevertheless, Animal Kingdom manages to find space to accommodate both IP and the natural world, one the reasons why it has become so compelling for so many fans. Sure, you can watch first-class musical productions based on The Lion King and Finding Nemo. But you also can enjoy the elegant beauty of Rivers of Light or gaze upon the objets d'art and photos of Imagineers at work in the field on the walls at Tiffins, the world's best in-park table service restaurant (as Theme Park Insider readers voted last year). Or you can take all the time you want to simply watch the animals on the park's many walk-through trails.

This isn't some one-note park. It's a sonata of themed entertainment, filled with variety that can engage and inspire any theme park fan.

Replies (16)

April 22, 2018 at 7:18 AM ·

After years sice I had last been to AK (skipping the park on some of my Orlando travels), I went back there last year. After almost crying after Flights of Passage, taking hundreds of pictures in Pandora, watching Rivers of Light, and much more, I was walking out of the almost empty park (because of the time), and saw the Tree of Life lit up. That day made me realized how much I love this park.

April 22, 2018 at 8:50 AM ·

I like Animal Kingdom and definitely have it a strong number 2 at Disney World. That being said...I was able to visit last September and I walked away from the new additions with a resounding meh. Pandora is is beautiful and well themed but hardly struck any sort of emotional note with me. FOP is fun but not the end all ride everyone overhypes it to be and NRJ is a joke. I also felt Rivers of Light was clunky and half the effects were either not working or mistimed. Good park not great.

April 22, 2018 at 8:50 AM ·

Oh also those mountains are NOT floating.

April 22, 2018 at 11:22 AM ·

Hard to believe it’s been 20 years. I was working on IOA when DAK first opened. With the opening of Pandora DAK has emerged as Orlando’s best themed entertainment experience.

April 22, 2018 at 1:18 PM ·

My family was there just months after its opening and enjoyed it well for the freshness. And was there the next year to enjoy the Asia section with Kali River Rapids. And another good timing as after some time away from WDW, was there in early 2006 just after Everest opened so got to see the Yeti in perfect working order.

Sadly been a while since last visit but now a must-see for me due to the Pandora section. And I keep thinking they're missing the point not turning that train ride bit into a Zootopia-themed area. So it's good to see it's lasted so long and rising up well.

April 22, 2018 at 2:34 PM ·

Love Joe Rhodes words.

Great park but needs to fix yeti, retheme Dino USA, and give people a reason to ride the Wilderness train before I can consider this park one of the world's best.

April 22, 2018 at 4:30 PM ·

Zootopia is a big modern city. DAK is supposed to celebrate the intrinsic value of nature, Zootopia doesn't fit the theming at all. That addition wouldn't make any sense and would be tacky IMO.

The park was neat but lacked attractions and infrastructure when it first opened. It is such a better park now...with the additions of Avatar and Rivers of Light DAK is my favorite park in the world, and i've been to every Disney Park and most major theme parks in the world. I love how it has lots of unique attractions and no clones (except Primeval Whirl which I don't really count), the theming is top notch, and the Safari is extremely impressive (i'll admit I haven't been to GADV since they opened it as a ride in the main park - but am comfortable making an assumption that it's not nearly as good)

April 22, 2018 at 8:51 PM ·

No offense but as great as Kilimangaro Safari is anybody from Southern CA knows that it's just a knock off of San Diego's beautiful Safari Park tour, pioneered nearly 30 years before, albeit a good one.

April 22, 2018 at 10:32 PM ·

Pandora is a spectacular new land. As for ROL, we didn't find time for it on our last trip, but we also loved Tree of Life Awakenings. AK is a great park, although MK is still my fave.

April 22, 2018 at 11:12 PM ·

I don't see how Animal Kingdom is that great. It still has an incredibly poor ride line-up and even its animal exhibits pale next to Sea World's. Heck Busch Gardens is still a superior zoolological park in my opinion. I'd put it a solid fourth or fifth best in Orlando.

April 23, 2018 at 7:06 AM ·

Animal Kingdom is an amazing park that's marred by the awful Dinosaur Land. They went IP at the expense of having more animal exhibits. They should transplant the closed Bugs Land and place it along side of the Tree of Life with the still running Bugs show. Then replace Dinosaur ride with Indiana Jones Adventure and replace Dino-rama with the Raging Spirits roller coaster. The boat ride similar to the one at Tokyo DisneySeas would be a nice finishing touch to the park.

April 23, 2018 at 9:06 AM ·

It's kind of disappointing that it took 20 years for DAK to finally reach maturity. Disney tinkered with this park, and tried the cheap and quick fixes to alter its original "Nahtazoo" image. They ultimately realized that people pay good money to visit WDW, and won't accept cheap carnival rides and stuff they can see at their local zoo. Disney changed the feel of the park ever so slightly to where it appeals to a much wider audience now, and the amount of attractions is appropriate for a full day. Hopefully Disney doesn't see this occasion as one to celebrate a pinnacle, but a stop along the way to continuously improve what is right now the best park at WDW. A theme park should be be complete, and DAK has so much more potential, and could eventually be considered one of the best theme parks in the world if they keep going.

April 23, 2018 at 8:57 AM ·

Must...fix...Yeti. Then I could be down with calling DAK best in Orlando.

April 23, 2018 at 10:36 AM ·

Love that park, even with a broken Yeti, it's still my favorite. Maybe because the park as a whole feels more real than any of the other parks.

April 23, 2018 at 8:25 PM ·

best park in the world! i love it

April 24, 2018 at 3:25 AM ·

Great Park? Yes! But I don't know about it being the best. When it first opened, I thought it would just be a glorified Zoo. I'm glad I was wrong. It certainly is a lot better than a zoo. I enjoy all the rides, the food, and the shows. The other Disney Parks seem to need more new stuff. HS is getting some new stuff, so it should get better. EPCOT is in need of a lot more. Illuminations is old and doesn't really appeal to me as much. MK is still a great place, but little things like closing the magic shop in the magic kingdom just bugs me.

Disney is always changing. Some good/great changes and some not so good. It is and always will be a great vacation. I've spent 25 vacations there so far (one week at a time), and 4 Disney Cruises. I have more of both planned already.

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