Hakuna Matata at Animal Kingdom

January 24th, 2014

The laid-back fun of Disney’s Animal Kingdom1458

It was nine degrees Fahrenheit when I woke up this morning, the first time in all my 18 years of living in Little Rock that the temperature has been a single digit. Spring, and spring break, can’t get here soon enough. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some more memories of last year’s Orlando theme park vacation, to keep me warm, and to help anyone who might be planning their own visit to the parks.

To recap, we spent the first day at the Magic Kingdom—the first visit by any of us to Walt Disney World. We spent the next day at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and went back the day after that for even more time at Harry Potter’s World of Wizarding. We sent Patrick home to get back to work, and the rest of us took a day off from the parks to visit Cocoa Beach. Our last day was spent at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

It looks like such a light itinerary now, but if you’ve never been on an Orlando theme park vacation, you can’t imagine how exhausting it is. Not to say we weren’t having the time of our lives, but by Day Five, we were all fading.   

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Animal Kingdom was just our speed, with a pace that was way laid back compared to the carnival atmosphere of the other parks. Also, it’s beautiful. You don’t want to rush through this place.

We arrived a little past opening, and went straight to the Kilamanjaro Safari, in case the lines got long. Getting to popular attractions early in the day was a great piece of advice from my friend Natalie that served us well, but didn’t much matter at Animal Kingdom that day. We were able to take the Safari twice without a long wait either time. Basically, you board a tram, and enjoy a leisurely tour of the savannah.

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It’s a bit of a bumpy ride, and I only had my iphone for a camera, so I didn’t get a lot of great pictures of the animals, but we had a great view of all of them. The enclosures are built into the landscape as to be practically invisible. In fact, the boys made it a game to figure out where the barriers were.

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Of all three parks we visited, Animal Kingdom seemed like the most ideal for the very young. I found it hard to imagine why anyone would bring a toddler to the Magic Kingdom, but the Animal Kingdom has lots for little ones to look at without overwhelming them. The safari lets you sit back and relax.

The Safari is in the Africa section of the park, which has most of the live animal exhibits, including an African forest trail. We had a snack from a food cart at the African marketplace, Harambe. The food in Animal Kingdom was much more interesting and healthier than what we’d seen at the other parks that week, with more international flavors.

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Then we were off to Asia, to walk the Maharajah Jungle Trek.

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It was exquisitely serene.

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But the Asia section of the park is also where the big thrill is: the Expedition Everest rollercoaster, ranked in one of my guidebooks among most extreme theme park rides.

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I already recounted the trauma of my first-ever rollercoaster ride on Space Mountain on Day One, which I was pushed into by my mother. And I haven’t gotten around to the story of being goaded by my cousin Shelley into riding the Hulk at Universal, which I may one day turn into a Ted talk on finding the power of the present moment, even when you are upside down.

Especially when you are upside down.

At the Animal Kingdom, I decided to take destiny in my own hands, and voluntarily got on Expedition Everest. And that, my friends, is the day I fell in love with a roller coaster. I rode it at least three more times. I loved it so much, I broke down and bought one of those ridiculously expensive and cheesy souvenir photos.

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I will never know who those people in front of me are, but our life stories are now entwined forever.

There are other fun rides in Animal Kingdom. The boys enjoyed the Kali River Rapids. I enjoyed pushing the button to spray them from the bridge.

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Asia was my favorite part of the park. It was so beautiful, and as friend who has been to India many times said, the faith to detail is amazing. We also enjoyed a great meal of curry there, at the Yak and Yeti restaurant. This was our only table service experience at a Disney park that week, and it was fantastic.

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This was taken in the lobby of the restaurant. I think it says everything there is to say about the mood of the setting and the day.

We did get around to DinoLand, USA, which seemed like a bit of an odd fit within the rest of Animal Kingdom. It’s much more in line with traditional amusement parks, and the big featured ride there, DINOSAUR, was okay, but not as fun as Jurassic Park at Universal. In my opinion, DinoLand was entirely skip-able, even for dinosaur buffs. There was some neat stuff on Discovery Island, including a fun 3-D show called, It’s a Bug’s Life (not for very little kids—one toddler was freaking out). We also had our one and only up-close character encounter there, with the backpacking kid and talking dog from “UP.”

Our curtain call at Animal Kingdom was one of the highlights of the vacation, and something I might not have done if I hadn’t been encouraged by other guides to take in the live shows. I’m not a big fan of musical theater, and you have to make a point to catch those events at certain times, often in out of the way corners of the parks. The Festival of the Lion King was playing just as we were ready to call it a day, and though I think everyone would have gladly skipped it at that stage of the game, I’m so glad we didn’t. It was spectacular.

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Our time at both Magic and Animal Kingdoms was so special, I hope we’ll get back to visit the other two Disney World parks (Hollywood Studios and Epcot). And make a return trip to Universal to see the newly expanded World of Wizarding! More on that, and our first two visits to Hogwarts, very soon.

4 Responses to “Hakuna Matata at Animal Kingdom”

  1. erniebufflo says:

    Weirdly, Magic Kingdom was my fave with toddlers. Mine were 18 months, and there was a shocking amount of rides they could go on at Magic Kingdom: carousel (we could have ridden this one over and over), Small World, Peter Pan’s Flight, Winnie the Pooh, Voyage of the Little Mermaid, Pirates of the Caribbean, the train, the Jungle Cruise, Aladdin’s carpets, and Dumbo. Animal Kingdom was probably my second favorite with them though.

  2. I’m so glad they and you had a great time! I guess when I think of the cost, I can’t imagine teensy ones find it proportionately that much more exciting than say, the local fair or zoo. But I’m such a long way from those years now, my perspective is bound to be skewed. I think I would still recommend waiting to families who might only be able to take that kind of vacation once in a great while, so the kids will remember it as vividly as the parents.

    On the flip side, my boys were almost too old for MK. Given a choice of parks, I doubt it would be on the top of their list to return now that they’ve been once. At least until they have kids of their own. As for me, I was as thrilled to be a first time visitor at 43 as I would have been at three or four! :-)

  3. erniebufflo says:

    I absolutely agree about the cost. I wouldn’t have taken them if kids under 2 didn’t get in free! I absolutely recommend waiting until nobody needs a stroller, at the least.

    • Free? Well, that explains so much! Here I was thinking people were spending $100 a day on tickets for one year olds. I told you I was way out of the toddler loop. :-)

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