Survivor’s guide to Walt Disney World Part 1: Animal Kingdom

Contented tiger on the Maharajah Trek, an Asian-themed zoo habitat, Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World (Scarborough photo)In my Intro to this family travel series on Walt Disney World (WDW) I talked about the importance of good planning in order to really enjoy the sprawling attractions of Disney’s giant theme parks in Orlando, Florida.

Think of a trip there as a major fun-but-pressured event, like a wedding. You wouldn’t just “wing it” for a wedding, would you?

It can be overwhelming to try to meet your entire family’s expectations, plus you’ll hear the marketing hype drumbeat of whatever Disney advertising campaign is in full swing. The 2007 theme is “Year of a Million Dreams.” There are some new rides and productions, giveaway contests plus the chance to sleep in the Royal Suite of Cinderella’s Castle, overlooking the park.

Don’t worry, though; there are specials and extras all the time, every year at the parks. Anyone can enjoy them with a little digging.

To get the scoop, a good starting point is ordering Disney’s free vacation planning DVD. Of course there’s a lot of woo-woo and slick, sparkly Tinkerbell stuff, but it does provide a good overview and comes pretty quickly in the mail. Watch it to take a quick virtual tour of the parks and get a sense of layout, rides, etc. (there are also helpful maps on each park’s Web site homepage.) Have your children decide which attractions interest them the most, so that you can begin sketching out how you’ll spend your time.

Meeting Goofy in his safari gear, Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World (Scarborough photo)

We started our WDW visit at Animal Kingdom, and it was a good choice. The park is relatively small, nicely laid out and can be “done” pretty quickly, so you don’t wear yourself out at the very beginning of your vacation.

My top tips:

** This park summarized: Mellow and compact, this is mostly African-themed good times for animal-loving younger kids, although bigger ones will like thrill rides like Expedition Everest and getting (very) soaked on the Kali River Rapids.

** Get there when it opens, or even better, a half hour before opening. Yes, this pretty much applies to every park, but if you want to see animals at their most lively, then 2 in the afternoon is NOT the right time. Not only are the critters more visible in the earlier morning, the Disney characters (usually dressed in safari gear here) are out and about and very accessible, if you want those photo ops. My daughter hates mascots/characters of any kind, my son loves them, so there you go. 🙂

** Go straight to the back of the park and jump on Kilimanjaro Safari. This is a fun ride that takes you on tourguide-driven jeepneys through an African “safari park.” The scripted route is designed for maximum wildlife viewing as the various lions, giraffes and other animals loll about in natural habitats, watching you watch them.

** Use FASTPASS for Expedition Everest. If you want a thrill ride, you’ll need to stand in line for it, as usual. Take advantage of FASTPASS (a reserved time to ride) to minimize shuffling along with the other Disney supplicants on this popular new multimedia train ride.

Street performers abound in the African-themed Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World (Scarborough photo)

** Sit-down fun stage entertainment. Enjoy a shortened Broadway-ish version of the Lion King. The costumes and music are wonderful.

** Use Advance Dining Reservations at (407) WDW-DINE (407-939-3463) to eat lunch or dinner at the Rainforest Cafe. Are you insane? Don’t just show up for a meal here when you get hungry — there are always lines to eat at this popular jungle-themed restaurant. You do NOT need to kill time in the gift shop buying stuffed gorillas for famished, cranky kids.

Yes, you can make reservations to eat at this restaurant, and at most other sit-down ones in all Disney parks. It’s free to do so, and they take reservations up to 180 days in advance. Only requirement? Planning to eat (duh, you’ll want to eat, you’ve got that question covered) and then deciding which meal and which restaurant. The smartest advance planning thing that you can do at the parks, besides using FASTPASS.

** Attraction that surprised us. We enjoyed the Maharajah Jungle Trek, a walk-through zoo/habitat with all sorts of animals that you can see (sometimes very closely) through plate glass windows. The tigers were stunning.

** Like animals and Africa a lot? Stay here, at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. This is one of the less-expensive Deluxe Disney hotel properties. Spring for the spectacular views and possible animal sightings from your hotel room by staying in a Savannah View room. Drawback: transportation to the other parks is by bus only so there can be waiting-around-for-the-bus delays (no monorail or boat option) and the on-site restaurants serve relatively exotic African-themed fare which may not go over well with picky younger kids.

** Special deals at this park. Backstage Safari is a three-hour, $65/per person walking tour behind the scenes, learning about animal care and wildlife conservation (minimum age is 16.) Wild By Design shows guests secrets of how the Imagineering magic is made at this park ($58/per person, minimum age 14.)

** Special meals at this park. Have a buffet character breakfast with Donald Duck and friends at the Restaurantosaurus American cuisine/burger joint in a prehistoric-themed section of the park.

Drumming in the African-themed Animal Kingdom, Walt Disney World (Scarborough photo)

** Good-to-know tidbit. Yep, you’ll have lots of fuzzy photos of hippos, Komodo dragons, giraffes, etc. taken at this park. Use the Disney camera services in all of the parks to burn photo CDs and print your digital photos right on the spot.

To sum up and review the highlights, here’s Fodor’s mini-guide Blitz Tour of the Animal Kingdom, and’s overview of the park.

Feeling mentally drained already? MouseSavers understands, and tries to give you the down-and-dirty.

Final note: Not to be a smart aleck here (well, OK, maybe I am!) but I am not a Disney genius.

Yes, lots of this info is from my own park experience, but I also simply read carefully through the Disney Web site. It’s almost all there. Really.

Next up in the series: Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, better known as Epcot.

Update 02 February 2007: Eileen Ogintz at Smarter Travel has the inside details on her stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge.