September 4, 2018

Disney World After A Decade Away: Day Six- Animal Kingdom

Flight of Passage, Expedition Everest and Festival of the Lion King. These were the top items on our list for our second and final day at Animal Kingdom

In many ways, this was the day I was looking forward to the most. We were nearing the end of our trip as the following and last day we would visit the sorely truncated, currently under reconstruction, Disney's Hollywood Studios and its less than sufficient number of attractions. Then, sadly, it was off to the Orlando Airport. 

The size of the floating mountains 
match the size of the crowds.

We had a leisurely morning, letting everyone sleep in after a very long and wonderful day at the Magic Kingdom. Apparently, it just wasn't enough sleep for me.

As we strolled into Pandora to redeem our Fast Passes for Flight of Passage, the crowds were so thick it was almost unsafe. Wasn't too long until we got separated, and trying to find each other was very difficult- and worrisome when you have two little kids with you. 

Most of our crew finally made it to the station at the beginning of the queue, and we expected to do the child swap option as we already knew my granddaughter was about two inches too short to ride. But we couldn't find half of them. And I was just told they could not walk the Fast Pass line with us, instead we would have to split up and take two separate times through to get the five of us all to ride. I was not happy at all, and I made it known. Surveying the swelling crowd to find our other half, I blurted out "This is ridiculous!" It was not my finest moment and a not too subtle reminder that God still has a lot of work left to do in me.

Now for the real rant. Think about this: Disney suits know they are going to have massive crowds for their top drawer stellar projects. Especially when they go into sorely under built parks such as Animal Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios. Why, oh why, then do they stop short and design the area by throwing in one mega "F Ticket" attraction, one with much less in desirability and call it good? Listen- if you think Pandora is a mess to navigate, just wait until Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge opens in one park with so few attractions and in another park with narrow pathways and much smaller acreage. Rant - and warning -over.

Incredible detail wherever you look.

Sharing the bad news with the other half of our group, we split up and entered into the queue. Even with our Fast Passes, it took about 20 minutes to get on the attraction. Compared to the three hour plus wait for those in the Standby line, it was a breeze. 

As we got closer to beginning the ride, my wife was apprehensive, my grandson excited, and I was skeptical. Would the actual ride live up to all the hype about it? Let's be honest, nobody does hype like the Disney publicity machine. 

Surprisingly, the answer is "Yes"!

Pandora's centerpiece Flight of Passage is at once a beautiful, thrilling, and atmospheric attraction. Is it worth the sometimes posted four hour wait? No. Actually, in my mind nothing on the property is- or at any other theme park for that matter. But it is stunning in its scope and scale. There's not a single piece of it I would dissect and redo another way. The Imagineers outdid themselves with this new attraction. Was it due to the demands of James Cameron, the film's creative source? Perhaps. Regardless, Flight of Passage is the new must see on the Disney property for good reason. 

We all loved our flight.  My grandson and I were able to ride twice, and the second flight was just as thrilling and repeatable as the first. Now only if Na'vi River Journey had that same repeatability!

It's new home- where it always belonged.

Escaping the crowds of Pandora, it was time for the Festival of the Lion King, a favorite of my grandkids for two reasons: First, they loved it last visit, and second, they love the animated series based on those characters. I found I preferred Nemo, but there's no denying the performers put their heart and soul into the production.

Still a crowd pleaser!

Our first day at Animal Kingdom had a big disappointment: my favorite Walt Disney World attraction was down for a good portion of the day. Thankfully, today, Expedition: Everest was up and running! 

Even the approach to the attraction is compelling!

My wife and I were the only two in our group that had ridden it. Our granddaughter was too short this trip, so my wife took her for a treat and a bit of shopping while the rest of us rode. (She's a trouper! Not once did she complain about waiting or about being too small to ride.) Our Fast Pass wasn't for about a half an hour, but the line was pretty short, so we decided to go for it and hopefully ride twice.

One of this daughter's all time favorite attractions is Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. (In fact, it's become a family joke to take a picture of it and send it to her when one of us visits the parks and she's not with us. Even family friends have gotten in on the act. Of course, nothing beat the time we sent her one from Disneyland Paris... while she was battling a blizzard back home!) 

Anyway, I've long described Everest to her as "Big Thunder on Steroids". So, she was thrilled to finally ride it for herself, having passed it up last trip to focus on the rides all four of them could do together. 

So, off we went, the two younger men rode together and my daughter and I took the row behind them. I couldn't really see my brave grandsons's face to read how he was doing. I mean, the climb up this mountain is high- and the exposure to the open air makes it seem even higher than it is. And what about that backwards segment? It's very different than watching a video of the ride, something we'd done many, many times prior to the trip, just to see if he was ready. 

A T-shirt from Grandpa commemorating his first ride!
(Her's too- but no T-shirt.)

Needless to say, everyone thought it was a winner! My daughter declared it to be a "serious roller coaster", and she loved the drop down the mountain into the major winding turns around it. As for my grandson, he wanted to ride it again- this time with me. I was very happy to oblige. 

The Maharaja Jungle Trek. A beautiful hidden gem.

We had time for one more attraction before it was necessary to leave the park and make our late afternoon lunch appointment at Disney Springs. We opted for the trail through India to see some bats, tigers, and actually, one of the most beautiful remote spots in all of Animal Kingdom. 

It truly is a shame when I hear folks go to Disney's Animal Kingdom without taking a small segment of time to experience the Jungle Trek or Gorilla Falls nature trail in Africa. These are some of the smaller attractions that take you away from a theme park and out into areas that feel remote. They certainly don't replace the need for larger show stoppers, but they are ones that are so worth the effort to experience. Think of them as the smaller walk through exhibits at Disneyland, adding atmosphere, value, and variety to an already solid line up. If you're an animal lover, these are something worth your time. If you're not but love Disney theme parks for their immersion, then you truly have to experience them to understand what love and care Imagineer Joe Rohde and his team did in bringing the animal world to life. (Want to know more about the amazing story behind Animal Kingdom? Read my seven part - to date- in depth series on the creation and evolution of the place. It's part trip report, photo journey, historical perspective and art gallery just filled with concept art. Part One begins here.)

We ended our time at Animal Kingdom by slowly walking through the lands as we journeyed back to the exit. Our destination: the highly rated Morimotos at Disney Springs, my daughter's pick for a sit down restaurant. As we stayed at the park longer than we intended, a ride in a Minnie Van was well worth the expense. 

Beautifully designed and executed environment!

What can I say about Morimoto's that you haven't already read? The Iron Chef's Disney World location serves up expensive and sumptuous food in an elegant and modern environment with touches of the old world hidden in places you'd least expect. From appetizers to entrees, the place and the plates were a treat for all your senses. Would I dine there again? Absolutely. If I had rated our restaurant choices on food alone, this would be the winner.

I think her name is Bunga.
Her beloved possession- her only souvenir- 
and only available at Animal Kingdom.

The rest of our evening was spent at Disney Springs, walking around and enjoying the wonderful atmosphere. Having taken the water taxis to Old Key West and elsewhere, it dawned on me that part of what makes Disney World so special is the abundance of travel options and resort hotels to visit as well as four very different parks. Cruising along the waterways day or night is just so special! Something you cannot find in California. 

Well, one more day to cover, and that would be our half day at Disney's Half Day park, yes, Hollywood Studios. We'd just miss the opening of Toy Story Land, but I still have an abundance of stories to tell. See you then!

(Photographs copyright Mark Taft.)

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