Disney’s Animal Kingdom is an incredible park centered around conservation, discovery and delight in the amazing animals we share this planet with. Until now, it has also been a daytime only park with opportunities to explore after dark relegated to rare winter evenings when a very earlier sunset and holiday crowds justified keeping the park open later. Even then, with many attractions such as Kilimanjaro Safari closing early, options were limited. That all changed as part of the Summer Awakens celebration and the addition of a plethora of new nighttime experiences.
The object of much hype over the last couple months, this is without a doubt the most exciting development at Animal Kingdom in close to a decade. As the curtain was raised on a new era in Animal Kingdom’s history, the park was packed and there was a level of energy and excitement among the crowd that noticeably higher than normal. This was a big deal for Disney, but did they pull it off? Well, it’s a mixed bag. There was some great, some bad, and a little ugly.
1 – Extended Hours and Attractions at Night
Since Memorial Day Weekend Animal Kingdom has extended their hours from the typical closing time of 7:00 pm or 8:00 pm to 11:00 pm during the summer months. We’ve only experienced Animal Kingdom at night in the winter months when the sun sets around 5:00 pm and you might be able to get a small bit of time in the dark. We were thrilled for these extended hours as riding in the dark really does make it a whole new experience. Attractions that are open through the late closing are:
- Kilimanjaro Safaris
- Expedition Everest
- Kali River Rapids
- It’s Tough to Be a Bug
- Primeval Whirl
- Triceratops Spin
- The Boneyard
Those attractions that will not be open during the extended park hours include Rafiki’s Planet Watch, Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail and Maharajah Jungle Trek.
On Friday, May 27, wait times for these attractions varied. Not surprisingly, the wait for Kilimanjaro Safari’s was the longest at 65 minutes around 10:00 p.m. Expedition Everest was saw very short wait times (around 5-15 minutes) at the end of the evening. Expedition Everest is an entirely different ride in the dark. The portions of the ride inside the mountain are pitch black and we swear if feels twice as fast. The chance to ride Expedition Everest in the dark is one of the highlights of the Animal Kingdom Nighttime Experiences. We suggest taking advantage of the shorter wait times when the Jungle Book: Alive with Magic show draws people away from the lines.
2 – The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic
Recently, Disney announced a temporary “Plan B” for the highly anticipated, but delayed Rivers of Light show. Discovery River becomes the stage for a limited-engagement show inspired by Disney’s hit live-action film “The Jungle Book.” The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic Show features live music, singers, dancers and special effects that celebrates the new film and classic songs infused with an Indian influence.
When fans hear “nighttime spectacular” we naturally think of shows like Fantasmic or Illuminations. Unfortunately, Jungle Book: Alive with Magic isn’t even close.
There are two shows each evening at 9:00 pm and 10:30 pm. There are also two different entrances: A FastPass entrance in Asia across from Expedition Everest and the standby entrance in DinoLand. If you don’t have FastPasses, you will likely need to line up very early. On Friday, May 27, the theater was already packed at 8:00 pm. There is also very limited seating (more like standing room) on the bridge that links Asia and DinoLand U.S.A.
The set-up is interesting. The outdoor theater is essentially split into two separate audiences on side of Discovery River. On the river are three stationary barges just off the edge of the river where most of the performance takes place. The center barge features the singers and the side barges feature dancers. There are also on land stages at the front of both seating areas featuring dancers as well.
The angles of the barges are strange to say the least. The main performance barge is centered between the two seating areas and it’s difficult to see well from either side. Also, with the positioning of the barges just off the edges of Discovery River, it’s almost impossible to watch the live performers in the foreground and see the projections on the fans of water in the background (which may not be a bad thing – more on that next). The net effect of the staging is that there really isn’t a good seat in the house.
The major special effect of the show is gigantic “movie screen” created with fans of water onto which movie clips and other effects are projected. The effect is intended to be similar to what you see in Fantasmic but on a much bigger scale. I don’t know if the problem was with the projection equipment, the distance or the fans of water simply couldn’t provide the density of water needed to create the “screen,” but the effect fell completely flat. Images we saw were blurry and indecipherable.
I completely understand that Disney was in a bind with technical issues in the River of Light which was supposed to be the grand centerpiece of Animal Kingdom nighttime experiences. I also understand that by the time it was apparent Rivers of Light would not be ready on time there was less than two months to pull together a Plan B. However, this show is a bomb. With some enhancements and fine tuning it could move up into the “bad” category. For now, we have to say it was the ugliest part of the night.
3 – Tiffins and Nomad Lounge
While not technically a part of the new Animal Kingdom nighttime experiences, Disney did also introduce a brand new table service restaurant and lounge on May 27 and we were there to get a first-hand experience of this high-end restaurant. We were very excited to hear that Animal Kingdom was getting another table service dining option. Billed as a Signature Dining location (a classification reserved for Disney’s best and more expensive restaurants), expectations were set high.
I admit I was skeptical given the recent disappointment that is Skipper Canteen and the fact that Disney usually struggles in this area. With very limited exceptions, the best dining options on Disney property are operated by other restaurant groups and Disney operated locations tend to get a B rating on good days. However, to say that Disney hit a home run in Tiffins would be an understatement. It was an out of the park grand slam. The design and atmosphere were artistic and classy. The service was impeccable. The food was amazing. The Wagyu Striploin and Braised Short Rib was perfectly cooked and was frankly the best steak I’ve ever eaten at Disney, and in my top 5 all time (and I’ve been fortunate enough to eat in many of the finest steak houses around the country).
We will have full review with all the details and lots of pictures coming very soon! For now, let’s just say it is without question one of the top 5 restaurants on Disney property.
4 – Discovery Island Carnivale
On Discovery Island, there is a brand new celebration that will feature music, dancers, stilt walkers, food and more. This was fun to watch. The performers and dancers were very energetic and were successful in pulling in the crowd to participate in the fun. This definitely belongs in the “good” category. See the slideshow below for pictures of this fun experience:
5 – Harambe Parti
Harambe Village will also play host to a party where you can become a “party animal.” Guests will be invited to join this street festival that will begin in the late afternoon. Entertainment will include:
- Muziki, stilt walking musician and drummer
- the Karibu Sisters, an acapella group
- Harambe Soccer Meerkats, the village’s finest soccer players with skillful acrobatic dancing
- Harambe Village Acrobats
We witnessed the Harambe Village Acrobats and Muziki. The acrobats are simply amazing and a must see! Be sure to check out the video below for the full act! Muziki was also fun and did a great job getting people of all ages to get up and dance. Again, a great addition to Animal Kingdom.
6 – Tree of Life at Night
The highlight of the night was seeing the Tree of Life transformed into a magical display that only Disney can pull off. During the evening hours, pay special attention to the Tree of Life at the center of Disney’s Animal Kingdom park. At various times, flickering fireflies magically appear and awaken the wondrous animals’ spirits carved into the tree’s towering trunk—bringing to light a stunning visual extravaganza swarming with vivid color and animated imagery. The animal carvings that are impressive during the day come alive and move at night.
We sat at the base of the Tree of Life for about 50 minutes. The tree projections are amazing and Disney did a fantastic job. Most of the time, nothing much happens, here and there an animal that is carved into the tree, will make some kind of movement. The tiger movement in particular was a very cool effect.
There is also a short 5-minute show that is projected on the tree with music and scenes from the various animal centric Disney films. The show was fantastic. As you would expect, a very large crowd was a constant presence in the Tree area, all waiting to catch the show. There are no specific times announced and we were told times would vary on when it would be projected. But when it happens, prepare to be amazed.
Our only complaint is that the shows are too infrequent! We got our spots at the end of the first show of the night and then waited over 45 minutes for the show to play again. By 30 minutes there was a lot of grumbling in the crowd. We saw many families eventually give up and leave disappointed. Considering the show is less than 5 minutes long, we really expected a 15 to 25-minute wait between shows at most. We really hope that Disney increases the times the show is projected through the night.
Overall, Disney really did it again with this one! “Good” doesn’t quite cut it. This is a “great”!
Below is a short clip of the finale:
7 – Kilimanjaro Safaris at Night
We have been very eager to experience one of our favorites, Kilimanjaro Safaris, in a whole new light, or rather very little light. Until now, the Safari has only operated during daylight hours so we were very excited for this completely new opportunity. In addition to seeing the animals when many of them are much more active (and Florida is crazy hot so can you blame them), Disney has also introduced new nocturnal species such as painted dogs and hyenas.
While the idea is fantastic, unfortunately, we were very disappointed. Our FastPasses were for later in the evening so we rode around 10:00 pm when it was full dark. Disney used special lighting so as not to disturb the animals’ natural rhythms. However, most of the time it just was too dark to see anything. Sometimes you could see shadows and hints of animals, other times you couldn’t see a thing. There were large sections of the safari that were simply empty and we chuckled as our guide repeatedly encouraged us to “check out that big black thing that looks like a rock. That’s the back side of a rhino.”
On the grassland section, a huge screen projected what we came to realize was supposed to be a sunset, however, until you were next to it, it really looked like the trees were on fire. Because of all of the light coming from the screen, this section of the safari was the best lit and we were able to see the many of animals here. Half of the lion area was in complete darkness so it made things difficult to see. When we turned the corner there was some light and we were able to see two lionesses and one lion moving about. That was a real treat since during the day the lions are typically sleeping.
The new species were a no-show and I found myself thinking of the tour in the first Jurassic Park movie when most of the dinosaurs were nowhere to be seen. Fortunately, the odds of being chased down and eaten by a giraffe are low so this is likely to be a better experience than that.
If you have never experienced Kilimanjaro Safaris and have one day planned at Animal Kingdom, you will likely have a better experience with a daytime safari. We heard some good feedback about the safari around dusk. The animals were active, yet it still light enough to see! We would suggest trying for FastPasses in that timeframe.
It will be interesting to see how Disney tweaks the experience based on guest feedback. Again, love the idea, but unfortunately it didn’t really work once the sun had fully set and it was dark.
Overall, we think the Animal Kingdom nighttime experiences were a hit and will only improve as Disney polishes the rough edges. There is a beauty about Animal Kingdom at night that is truly touching and the opportunity for guests to finally experience it is welcome indeed! When Rivers of Light debuts, Animal Kingdom at night is going to go from good to amazing. Will you be hitting Animal Kingdom at night? What are you most excited about?