Hands down, my favorite Disney park is Disney's Animal Kingdom. I love animals and I spent many years volunteering with various animal organizations in Southern California, including The Greater Los Angeles Zoo. Part of my volunteer time at the zoo was spent collecting field data for the research department, including a flamingo study. I've probably spent more time with flamingos than anyone else you've ever met.
I was so excited for Animal Kingdom, that I kept it for our last full-day of the vacation.
Animal Kingdom still had its Christmas decorations, and as you might imagine, they were all nature themed; a little more subdued than the holiday decor in the other parks, but not less pretty.
Dan bought me Mickey ears! I've gotten value for money by wearing them on every future trip to a Disney park. I also wear them around the house. They make vacuuming and doing the dishes a lot more fun. Just a spoonful of sugar...
Forget castles, The Tree of Life is the best park icon.
Before we can explore, we needed Starbucks. I used to be a grump over Disney adding Starbucks to the parks, but you know what? I love my lattes and I got over it real fast. To be honest, although it breaks from the unique theming in the parks, the coffee is better. I think all of the other park guests had the same idea as us. Fast pass for Starbucks?
We headed to Harambe, the fictional village that is the Africa section of the park. All of the Disney parks have impeccable theming, but I think Animal Kingdom is the cream of the crop. I notice something new on every single visit, and I never leave feeling anything less than transported to a different continent and culture.
I love the attractions, but my favorite thing about Disney's Animal Kingdom are the two animal trails, primarily because they allow me to spend as much time as I want observing the animals. On a previous trip, I went on a behind the scenes tour, and was allowed into the park an hour early. I spent about forty-five minutes watching a mother and baby hippo play, while I chatted with the hippo keeper, without any other guests in the area. It was amazing. The trails tend to get overlooked by park guests, so they tend to be less crowded and quieter, all of which lead to more active animals. Here are pictures from the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, which includes a gorillas, hippos, zebras, and a beautiful aviary with a fish tank.
Kilimanjaro Safaris takes guests on a guided trek through the African savannah to see animals like lions, elephants, and gazelles. Although the animals appear to be roaming free, they are of course safely contained within their own segments of the tour. The illusion of a real safari is well maintained, and some of the animals, like ostriches, are able to approach the vehicles and sometimes even block the road.
From that same behind-the-scenes-tour that I mentioned, I learned that keepers entice the lions to sit on a giant rock ( The Lion King-esque), by having the rock air-conditioned and they drop meat made into a popsicle over the side of the rock, out of view of park guests, but so the lion need to be on the rock to eat it. I thought this was brilliant, as the lion still has the choice to be on view, but he is getting a sweetened deal with the treat. Unfortunately, many of our pictures from the safari didn't turn out, but truly it is something better experienced. On recent trips, I've left my camera in my purse and just enjoyed the safari.
After our safari, we caught a train out of Harambe to Rafiki's Planet Watch and Conservation Station. This is another one of my favorite, yet underrated areas of Disney's Animal Kingdom. I think the issue is that the only way to access this part of the park, is by a train, which eats up time. Also, this area contains no popular attractions, it's educational. What makes this area very special, is it gives guests access to zoo keepers, dietitians, and veterinarians. If you're very lucky, you might be able to watch a veterinarian procedure taking place on the other side of a window. If you're interested or have a kid who's interested in pursuing a career in animal care, this is a must-visit. There is also a very cool exhibit that is comprised of small booths with headphones; you go inside and the lights are dimmed while you listen to sounds of the rainforest. It sounds like a Jaguar is panting in your ear!
I liked this map of USA's National Parks. There are so many parks and so many I've not yet had the opportunity to visit.
Outside, there is a small petting zoo, where they provide brushes to interact with the animals. The animals all have areas where they can escape people-contact, but I found that a majority of them enjoying being brushed. The brushes are better for little kids trying to interact with the animals, over the traditional food offering. Petting zoo animals are less aggressive when food is not part of the equation.
Lunch was at Yak & Yeti, which I think is one of Disney's best restaurants, both with theming and with food quality. Yak & Yeti is located in the Asia section of the park, themed to the fictional Anandapur. I've included pictures of the menu, but the food at Yak & Yeti is not themed to one part of Asia, it's a bit of a hodgepodge of different countries and Americanized. Authentic or not, the food is delicious. I highly recommend the seared miso salmon. It's divine. Dan enjoyed his chicken tika masala, although like most American curry, it wasn't spicy enough for his British palate. We shared a dim sum starter, which included bao, something I grew up eating with my Chinese-American friends, and I passed along to Dan. These are a fancy version of bao buns, but they made me realize that the dirt-cheap bao from Chinatown is actually tastier! The best part of Yak & Yeti is the dessert. You must save room for dessert. You have to go with the cream cheese wontons with the pineapple sauce. Heavenly. Don't share like we did, it will cause a domestic dispute with bloody forks!
With full bellies, we briefly considered a ride on Kali River Rapids, a very fun, yet very wet white water rapids ride. It was warm out, but it was also January, so we thought it wasn't worth getting soaked.
There are so many things that I love about Disney's Animal Kingdom, but my absolute favorite thing in the whole park is located on the Maharajah Jungle Trek....GIANT FRUIT BATS!!!! The giant fruit bats are absolutely adorable, especially when munching on slices of watermelon. The trek is also home to other animals from Asia, like tigers and komodo dragon.
Here are more pictures of Asia, as we made our way to Anandapur's e-ticket attraction, Expedition Everest.
Expedition Everest is not just one of my favorite Disney coasters, but it's one of my favorite overall attractions. The theming is gorgeous and even includes a humorous "Yeti Museum" that explains the myth of the Yeti, which explorers encounter on the ride. A few years ago, I visited Loch Ness in Scotland, where they play up the mythology surrounding the Loch Ness Monster, including a Nessy Museum, not dissimilar to the fake Yeti Museum in the Expedition Everest queue. The coaster is thrilling, my stomach drops every single time I ride it. Luckily we had fast passes, as the wait was long and growing. We rode Expedition Everest many times during our summer trip, when the queue was short enough to not need a fast pass.
Next, we headed to Dinoland U.S.A., which is themed to be a dinosaur roadside attraction fun fair. This area has carnival games and smaller rides, like the Triceratop Spin and Primeval Whirl, a spinning coaster. Primeval Whirl is fun, but bumpy and even a little painful. I laughed and kept saying "ouch" during the entire ride, and even ended up with a large bruise on my hip. It's better if you sit alone or with a small kid, rather than another adult.
Dinosaur, a time-traveling jeep expedition ride, was our last attraction. Dinosaur uses the same ride vehicles and the same track, as my all-time favorite attraction, Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure. The tone of the rides are completely different, with Dinosaur being a lot darker, disorienting, and even a bit frightening. Dinosaur was closed when we visited with the kids during the summer, but I wondered if this might be the one attraction too scary for them.
Unfortunately, we missed my favorite Disney park show, Finding Nemo-The Musical. We just ran out of time. We intentionally skipped, It's Tough to Be a Bug, because we have a same attraction in California, however, if it's your first visit, you shouldn't miss it. The best part of It's Tough to Be a Bug is the queue, which affords you a close-up look at the sculptures on The Tree of Life. Keep an eye out for Jane Goodall's favorite chimp, David Graybeard.