March 18, 2016

Our WDW Christmas Vacation Part VI: Disney's Animal Kingdom

Back in 2004 during our last visit to WDW, Animal Kingdom struck me as the least interesting. Part of this is due to personal taste and expectations from a Disney based park. For one thing, viewing wild animals live in person was low on my priority list. Don’t get me wrong, these are amazing creatures but now necessarily something I want to see at Disney (I can do that at a local zoo). The park also felt vastly underdeveloped…the ratio of space to attractions feeling oddly unbalanced. The early closings just added to this feeling that you could easily do everything by late afternoon and have no need to return. 

Dragons did not make the final cut.

I remember McDonald’s running a promotion when AK first opened which consisted of 4 drinking glasses (one for each park). The AK logo showed a parade of animals, from real to mythical (the fantasy aspect represented by a dragon). 

There was something about the design that fired up my imagination as well as expectations for the new park. Alas, Beastly Kingdom, as it was to be called, never came to fruition. This was to be a land dedicated to mythical animals such as unicorns, sea monsters, and of course, dragons. Instead AK got Camp Minnie-Mickey. Like Walt’s vision of Epcot, one can only imagine how different the park might have become had the company followed through with their original plans.

A million miles from Orlando or so it seems.

A treacherous climb to the top.

Guardian of the mountain.

The blog owner's favorite Walt Disney World attraction.

So it was with lukewarm feelings that we entered AK last December. Of course, we were looking forward to Expedition Everest (still a metal skeletal frame during our last visit)! The fact that a mythical creature like the Yeti lived in the mountains already gave the E-Ticket ride a strong edge. The roller coaster ride itself does not disappoint. The ride is imaginatively designed to reach the end of vandalized tracks and then flung backwards in a myriad of loops and dips. 

Shadow of a beast
compared to the attraction's opening day.

But, and this is a big but, the yeti is a failure!!! I know Disney was having trouble with the animatronics, but the silhouetted figure against a cave wall and a brief glimpse through strobe lights are not adequate substitutes. With Beastly Kingdom being a no go, it seems imperative that the first mythical creature to appear in AK should… actually work! As a result, Expedition ends up being a major thrill and disappointment all in one breath.

Local dining and beautiful atmosphere.

Other than that one strike, I was totally shocked by how much Sue and I enjoyed Animal Kingdom. Where to begin? First, and perhaps most important, is the food. We couldn’t find a bad meal even if we tried. Somewhere in Africa we came across these delicious teri-beef sliders. A little bigger than a silver dollar, the meat is marinated in a slightly sweet sauce and served on a moist bun with an assortment of veggies. A little pricey at five bucks a pop, but that didn’t stop us from ordering a few. 

Guilty pleasures at Sanaa
in Animal Kingdom Lodge.

And then there are the incredible breads at Sanaa (okay it’s not technically in the park, but we can probably lump the lodge in the same boat). I’m a bread lover, so I’m not easily impressed, but the texture and density of the African based carbs were pure delight. Adding to that is an assortment of dipping sauces from hot & spicy to tangy sweet that just added to taste bud nirvana!

Harambe Market is the newest addition to AK and is the beginning of what I hope is a gradual expansion to the overall theming of the park. The Imagineers found just the right mix between authentic cultural trappings and imaginative visual aesthetics. I’m not sure it’s indigenous to African art, but the combination of colors and patterns used for in AK’s Christmas decorations were downright mesmerizing. I truly can say that the holiday trimmings here were second to none. 

We were able to catch several musical performances here and all were top notch with amazing rhythms and vocals. Even the shops seem to carry merchandise that were a cut above the normal tourist offerings found elsewhere. My wife picked up a set of ceramic bowls with a very classy and colorful motif while I purchased a pull over sweater featuring patches designed around Expedition Everest (okay, I now I grumbled about the ride earlier, but this jacket was too beautiful to pass up). It seems to me that a lot of the merchandise here shows a bit more restraint in the advertising / marketing graphics. Whereas a lot of stuff will scream “Look, I’ve been to Disney!”, AK’s wares have a more subtle, low key approach that focuses more on the art itself.

The only blue tinted beings found in Animal Kingdom...
but not for long!

Did I mention that AK has not one, but two of the best musical productions in all of WDW? “Festival of the Lion King” and “Finding Nemo the Musical” feel like elaborate Broadway productions with their amazing vocal talent, grade A staging/props, outstanding musical numbers. I prefer Festival to the Broadway play, as it wasn’t a scene for scene mimicry of the movie. Nemo’s careful integration of actor and puppet works to perfection and the audience can really buy into this symbiotic relationship as believable.

DiVine is heavenly.

Prior to visiting the park, I started seeing images of a character named DiVine. These are dancers hired to perform in costume as living embodiments of nature. Her movements are slow and graceful, accomplished while on stilts! DiVine often startles guests by blending in with the plants and trees, but more often it gasps of amazement or the gleeful chuckle of a child that is the end result. It’s interesting that something as small as DiVine’s performance can add so much to a park that is already loaded with heavy hitter attractions. It’s a prime example of what Disney does the best…attention to even the smallest details. It’s this philosophy that’s worked well for the company and why they’ve been able to keep ahead of the competition all these years (although Universal is closing that gap).

The wonders of man's creation and God's creation
are both found in this park!

Not only has AK matched Epcot as a favorite park, the potential for growth far surpasses all the rest. With the coming of River of Lights and Avatarland, I think Imagineers are truly starting to tap into the unlimited potential Ak has to offer. If the good Lord is willing, I hope to be back in several years to see some amazing sights and changes!

It's a jungle in there.

A big mahalo to Mark Taft for allowing me to share my thoughts and pictures with all of you! I hope it hasn’t caused anyone to avoid this wonderful blog as Mark has done an incredible job entertaining and informing us throughout the years. And although I did nitpick areas of WDW, I still highly recommend a visit to the parks if you have a chance (but don’t forget to see the real world too). Thank you for your time and have a wonderful day!

Editor's note: Thank you, Len, for this incredible series of posts and the absolutely wonderful photographs! I've saved the most beautiful Animal Kingdom photo ever taken for a later post...

(Photographs copyright Len Yokoyama.)

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