Before anyone screams "Fail!" for placing the beautiful Disney's Animal Kingdom just above the horrible Walt Disney Studios Paris, let me state up front that there couldn't be a larger gap between any other two parks on the list when it comes to quality and presentation.
With any "Best of" list, there is an automatic time stamp on them once they are completed. Had this list been created a few years ago, the ranking would be somewhat different as Disney has made some great strides with other parks, all while letting some- like Animal Kingdom- slide by neglect.
Joe Rohde and team's Animal Kingdom had a terrific if slightly shallow roster at opening. The addition of Expedition: Everest in 2006 gained new fans for the park and raised hopes for its future. We waited. Imagineering moved forward. The suits did not.
(The park's history is fascinating. The chronology of its development and growth - including rare concept art and photos- is found on my blog series starting here. In fact, you could almost consider this article the next piece in the continuing series!)
Let's discuss the park's strengths before observing its weaknesses.
Theme and execution of theme: With a wide open and embracing theme of man's love for animals, the park is broad in appeal and possibilities, yet focused in its presentation.
It is almost impossible to stroll through this place without being in awe of the surroundings. The abundance of plant life astounds, creating an instant refuge from the real world. The animal displays are designed with such care, it would be easy to forget this is somewhat your basic zoo. Elegant, Disneyfied, and lush, but still an animal exhibition at the core.
The execution of the theme only falls short on a few attractions. Kali River Rapids fails with its pedestrian presentation and lack of continuing story. Dinorama tries to pass on cheap quality carnival rides for true Disney Imagineering. In contrast, the remaining pieces of the park are stunningly beautiful and incredibly detailed. The term "feast for the eyes" could have been coined by guests at the park!
Dining: Some of the best meal opportunities in all of Walt Disney World exist within this theme park. Africa's Tusker House serves delicious and authentic fare, with the restaurant much worse for the wear when it transformed into a character meal location. By the same scale and with the same high price tag, Yak & Yeti in nearby Asia, offers exotic cuisine in a lavishly decorated series of rooms. On the carry out/take away side of meal options, Flame Tree Barbecue presents top quality, mouth watering meats. It's secluded seating location next to the lake makes for a relaxing meal.
Shopping: As with the dining, Animal Kingdom's merchandise used to be among the most unique in all the World. That said, the variety is still fairly good but it is sliding, with much more Disney character and cable show merchandise finding its way into places it doesn't belong. (Like the entire park!)
Unique Attractions: With Kilimanjaro Safaris leading the way, Disney will probably never build these type of attractions or ones on this scope and scale ever again. Why? First, animal care is expensive. Audio-Animatronic versions will never match the real thing, but they do not require the same type of upkeep.
Additionally, Disney continues to move forward with a movie character based mentality when it comes to designing new attractions- especially under the Robert Iger/John Lasseter watch. These two reasons alone will keep Animal Kingdom a unique experience that will not be duplicated.
In spite of its breathtaking scenery and unique attractions, Disney's fourth park in the Walt Disney World complex suffers from a couple of near fatal flaws: too few attractions, including too many of the same type, too much reliance on theater shows, no night time hours, and lack of an evening spectacular.
Viewing animals in and of itself will not satisfy the bulk of Disney's hardcore guests who return year after year. National zoos are also giving Disney some competition, upping the ante and making the experience less unique. (Look here.)
In spite of these facts, the money barons at Disney seem to be letting Animal Kingdom stagnate. With broken special effects, including the star of the thrilling Expedition: Everest; closing attractions with no replacement; stale parades and a decade old theater show, the experience is becoming less fun and alluring as times passes.
I really enjoy this park, yet after our last visit, it has now moved to the bottom of the rung in the Walt Disney World Resort. Will a new attraction bring me back? A definite "maybe", depending on which one is built.
Number 6? Well, I think this one will cause some debate...
(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)