Home » 10 Misconceptions People Get Totally Wrong About Disney’s Animal Kingdom

10 Misconceptions People Get Totally Wrong About Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Tree of Life

The best park at Walt Disney World isn’t the one you’d think…

Every Disney fan has a favorite park which may vary from person to person. Magic Kingdom holds an ironclad throne in the realm of nostalgia. Epcot captivates fans with its eclectic celebration of the human spirit past, present, and future. Disney’s Hollywood Studios houses some of the resort’s best thrill rides and soon will be the home of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge

However, there is no park quite like Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is an experience in a category all its own, and it may just rank as one of the company’s most significant achievements. When Walt Disney first pitched his vision for Disneyland, he wanted guests to be able to enjoy an attraction where they could encounter animals in a realistic environment. This idea evolved into the Jungle Cruise, but imagineers feared that real animals would prove far too unpredictable. Instead, audio-animatronics were used. However, this dream lingered in Walt’s mind and would carry to his successors.

Tree of Life

Image: Disney

When Walt Disney World in Florida opened, the vision for a theme park where humans and animals could interact finally came somewhat to fruition in 1974 the form of Discovery Island (called “Treasure Island” originally)—an isolated nature park in the center of Bay Lake where guests could encounter parrots, monkeys, Galapagos tortoises, and lemurs up close. However, Discovery Island proved only to be a stepping-stone to a greater vision.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened on Earth Day in 1998, a park that immediately defied description. Was it a zoo or a theme park? Michael Eisner famously described it as, “a kingdom of animals… real, ancient and imagined: a kingdom ruled by lions, dinosaurs and dragons; a kingdom of balance, harmony and survival; a kingdom we enter to share in the wonder, gaze at the beauty, thrill at the drama, and learn.” While they hit their fair share of bumps in the road early in the park’s development, Disney achieved something spectacular– an all-ages experience where humans could experience nature without bars, where even distance worlds would be made breathtakingly tangible.

Despite all of this, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is still often overlooked or misjudged due to total misconceptions. Have you heard any of these ten things people get totally wrong about this amazing park?

1. It’s just a zoo

Baby elephant and mama

Image: Disney

The biggest misconception of all—one that actually keeps many visitors from ever experiencing Disney’s Animal Kingdom—is the assumption that the park is just a zoo. After all, why would anyone spending Disney prices to visit a zoo when Florida already has so many, especially considering competing parks like Tampa’s Busch Gardens?

While animals are the central focus of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, this park is so much more than a zoo. Immersion has been a major buzzword in theme parks the last decade, but for Disney, you could say the concept of an ultra-immersive park began with Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This is a place where you don’t come to look at animals through bars—you come for an adventure amidst nature in all its vibrant forms.

The park is home to over 2000 animals as well as two of Disney’s highest rated attractions—Avatar: Flight of Passage and Expedition: Everest. In Disney’s Animal Kingdom you can experience an African safari, traverse the hidden trails of Asian temples, explore menageries of exotic birds, fly on a banshee, and even time travel to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The park also celebrates Disney’s nature-focused films with attractions like Festival of the Lion King, It’s Tough to Be a Bug, Finding Nemo: The Musical, and UP! A Great Bird Adventure. It is also home to one of the most successful park expansions in Disney’s history, The World of Pandora—a land so unexpectedly popular that it single-handedly skyrocketed park attendance.

2. The animals probably don’t have much space

Baby giraffe and mama

Image: Disney

One of the saddest things about visiting most zoos is seeing animals in small enclosures. Sure, most modern American zoos make efforts to ensure their animals have plenty of space, but between bars, concrete ditches, and looming fences, you just can’t fully escape the sense you’re watching a creature that just doesn’t have enough space. Even the world-famous San Diego Zoo often feels like a parade of cages.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom overcomes this issue in two remarkable ways. First off, the park is absolutely massive. At a whopping 580 acres, it is Walt Disney World’s largest park. It’s so large that navigating it can get both confusing and exhausting at times. As for the animal habitats, the Kilimanjaro Safari grounds are so expansive that the entirety of Magic Kingdom could fit inside them. Disney has long touted a commitment to conservation and the care of its animals, and they’ve also been the subject of plenty of scrutiny in regards to the treatment of their animal denizens. The animals on the Savannah grounds have a lot of room to move around freely, as do the large animals on the park’s walking trails.

The other thing that truly makes Disney’s Animal Kingdom unique is the way they keep the animals safe and contained. Disney painstakingly has camouflaged almost all of the habitat barriers they use—to the point you may wonder what’s actually between you and the animals. Fences and walls are hidden by rocks and foliage. Natural barriers like ditches and moats keep large animals like the park’s tigers and gorillas contained. Ground-level chains on the Kilimanjaro Safari track may look like they serve some purpose to clean the vehicle tires, but they actually keep the animals from moving from one habitat to another. On some of the walking trails, glass is utilized so guests can get a closer view of tigers, gorillas, and Komodo dragons. A huge amount of care is put into both the presentation and care of each animal. The animals all also have privacy spaces where they can retreat if they just don’t want to see people or be seen.

3. Kilimanjaro Safari is the only way to really see animals

Baby gorilla and mama

Image: Disney

While Kilimanjaro Safari is the most popular way to see animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, many guests miss the absolute gems which are the park’s lush walking trails.

The first you will encounter upon entering the park are the Discovery Island trails. Situated around the Tree of Life, these peaceful trails are an often-overlooked oasis where guests can encounter macaws, porcupines, otters, red kangaroos, and more. They are one of the quietest places in the park if you need a break from crowds, a great place to get a close look at some of the incredible animal sculptures carved into the bark of the Tree of Life.

The park’s most popular trail is the Gorilla Falls Trail in Africa (formerly called the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail). This place can get very busy at mid-day due to its proximity to the exit of Kilimanjaro Safari, so it is usually best to visit first thing in the morning or just before sunset. On this gorgeous forest trail, you can encounter meerkats, zebra, African weaver birds, hippos, and of course, gorillas. If you’re fortunate, you may even get to see one of the park’s baby gorillas with its mother if one was recently born.

Tiger with cubs

Image: Disney

Our personal favorite trail is the Maharajah Jungle Trek in Asia, a somewhat more secluded trail that leads guests through temple ruins populated by tigers and Komodo dragons. The entrance to the trek is situated near Kali River Rapids, in a corner of the Asia pavilion a bit behind the gibbons’ island. While the tigers are the trail’s most famous denizens, other highlights include an incredible aviary full of exotic birds (the unique weaver birds here are particularly hilarious as they squabble incessantly). Another unique stop includes a habitat for Malayan Flying Foxes, an enormous species of fruit bat. You may assume the glass for this exhibit is exceptionally clean, but a closer inspection will reveal that there is no glass between guests and the bats—the flying foxes just like keeping to themselves.

Really want to see the animals up close? Check out one of Disney’s behind the scenes experiences like the Wild Africa Trek or the Savor the Savannah Evening Safari.

4. All of the animals are real… or at least grounded in reality

Avatar Flight of Passage - Flying banshees

Image: Disney

Part of the vision for Disney’s Animal Kingdom included giving guests a way to experience animals you would never be able to see in a zoo—creatures either long extinct or fully mythological. Hints of this can still be seen in the park’s logo which includes a dragon silhouetted amidst other animals.

Original plans for the park included a now-infamous expansion called Beastly Kingdom. We’ve covered the fascinating story of this failed project before, but the short version is that Beastly Kingdom was a planned land where guests could choose one of two paths into a mythological realm. The path of light would have led guests on a quest through a lush fairy maze in search of a mythical unicorn. The path of darkness would take guests through a scorched village to a dragon’s tower, where a cruel drake tormented any who might draw near. Guests would embark on a single thrilling attraction—an indoor roller coaster through the castle interior with the dragon in hot pursuit.

While Beastly Kingdom was planned as a phase two expansion for the park, it never came to pass except through its spiritual successor, The Lost Continent at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. However, this commitment to introduce guests to ancient and fantastical creatures didn’t snuff out entirely.

Iguanadon in front of Dinosaur ride

First, in DinoLand USA, guests were given the opportunity to travel back in time to the age of the dinosaurs on the thrilling adventure called Countdown to Extinction. This was an attraction so terrifying that for a time, it ranked as one of Disney’s most pulse-pounding thrill-rides. After the release of Disney’s Dinosaur, the ride was renamed after the film and some of the more nail-biting elements of the attraction were dialed back to make it more family-friendly.

It wasn’t until 2017 that imagineers’ vision to incorporate fantastical realms into Disney’s Animal Kingdom was realized with the opening of The World of Pandora. While fans were skeptical of the company’s decision to base a land off James Cameron’s Avatar (a film that hadn’t seen popularity since its release in 2009), the World of Pandora proved an overwhelming success. It has become one of the biggest draws in Walt Disney World not just for its two attractions—Avatar: Flight of Passage and the Navi River Journey—but also for its ultra-immersive atmosphere, a breathtaking world of floating islands by day and a stunning bioluminescent garden by night, complete with alien fauna species.

5. All of the scenery is real

Lions resting on rocks

Image: Luis Brizzante, Flickr (license)

On the subject of things that aren’t real, Disney employed plenty of magic in making Disney’s Animal Kingdom feel totally real—even when it isn’t always. The Tree of Life, for example, is actually constructed from parts of an oil rig made to resemble a massive baobab tree. Indeed, all of the baobab trees in the park are fake except for one near Tusker House.

Another famous scenery element hiding in plain sight is the ostrich eggs on Kilimanjaro Safari. While the savannah’s resident ostriches do make regular appearances and sometimes breed, the eggs seen during the tour are fake, placed there as an educational aid.

By the way, ever wonder how Disney gets the animals to cooperate so freely? Many of the rocks and scenery elements along the Kilimanjaro Safari trail are facades that include hidden items to encourage animals to come within sight of the vehicles. Some of the hidden lures include salt licks, food stores, and even temperature-controlled rocks that the lions love to rest on.

6. It’s not as family-friendly as Magic Kingdom

Family in Pandora at night with small girl

Image: Disney

One of the biggest misconceptions about Walt Disney World in general is the idea that Magic Kingdom is the only park really worth visiting. No matter the age group in question, people seem to assume Magic Kingdom is the best park to visit—kids are supposed to love Fantasyland, teens are supposed to love Space Mountain, and adults are supposed to love the nostalgia.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom runs into the opposite problem. No matter the age group, people assume there is some reason they won’t like it. Is it too scary for small children? Will teens be interested in a park with so much educational focus? Will adults find it too whimsical or tiring from all the walking?

There is possibly no park at Walt Disney World more universally friendly to all ages than Disney’s Animal Kingdom. There is seriously something for everyone at this park. Part of this broad appeal is the beauty of nature—you don’t have to be a particular age to appreciate animals. Families with small children will love the park’s Wilderness Explorers scavenger hunt, the park’s many character encounters and shows, and the Boneyard at Dinoland USA, a huge hands-on play area. The park is also a popular favorite among teenagers. Avatar: Flight of Passage is a consistent winner with teen visitors as is Expedition: Everest—especially if you let them marathon ride it when the line is short! Kali River Rapids and Dinosaur are great choices too.

As for adults and seniors, there is so much to enjoy from the park’s eclectic attractions, to its peaceful trails, to its outstanding dining options. It could be argued that the food at Disney’s Animal Kingdom surpasses even much of the food at Epcot, especially at its primary restaurants, Tusker House and Tiffin’s. Tusker House pairs a buffet of mouth-watering African food with a family-friend character dinner, while Tiffin’s treats guests to a mature signature dining experience with international flavors.

7. It really hasn’t changed since opening except for the Pandora expansion


Image: Disney

While the Beastly Kingdom expansion never came to pass, Disney’s Animal Kingdom hasn’t completely stayed the same since its opening. For example, in the park’s history, the story for Kilimanjaro Safaris was changed significantly. The original safari included a somewhat heavy-handed storyline about poachers hunting a baby elephant. This proved just a little too dark for such a lighthearted attraction, so the storyline was eliminated in favor of the more straightforward attraction guests are familiar with today.

The park’s first major expansion was actually the Asia section which opened in 1999. It’s two main attractions were the Maharajah Jungle Trek and Kali River Rapids. Expedition: Everest wouldn’t open until 2006! It can be hard to imagine the park without this mainstay attraction, but it was actually a phase 3 addition.

While most of the park’s lands have remained mostly the same, the only notable section that permanently closed was Camp Minnie-Mickey, a children’s area which closed in 2014 to make way for the World of Pandora. One much-loved addition that came with the World of Pandora (though not situated inside the land) was the signature dining restaurant, Tiffin’s. Themed as an art gallery celebrating the travels of the imagineers who founded Disney’s Animal Kingdom, this world class restaurant houses some of the best food in Disney parks. Try the Crispy Sadza or the Gobi Manchurian on your next visit!

8. Mount Everest really looks like that

Expedition Everest from a distance

Image: Disney

Geography aficionados may raise eyebrows at Disney’s depiction of Mount Everest. While it may make for some neat pictures, Expedition: Everest actually has more in common with Beastly Kingdom or the World of Pandora than it does its actual namesake mountain. The reason why is that Disney’s version includes an entire extra mountain that doesn’t exist in real life.

With the Asia pavilion set in the fictional kingdom of Anandapur (a sort of hodge-podge of India, Tibet, Nepal, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand), the story of Expedition: Everest includes a fantastical mountain that sits right next to Everest– the Forbidden Mountain, home of the yeti. The real Mount
Everest doesn’t include this extra peak or a means to access its upper crags by mine cart. In this one area, Expedition: Everest fills its own role in helping Disney’s Animal Kingdom provide mythological thrills as well as natural ones.  

9. All of the animals you’ll see are captive

Mama duck on a pond with babies

Image: Neil Mullins, Flickr (license)

Florida’s local wildlife love Walt Disney World—to the point Disney has to work hard to make sure they behave themselves and stay safe sometimes. Florida’s birds are regular visitors of all Disney parks and especially Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Local storks and ibis blend seamlessly with the park’s flamingos and safari denizens. Great horned owls have been spotted nesting and fledging in the Maharajah Jungle Trek. Ducks frequent the park, along with local lizards, insects, and even the occasional snake (though Disney’s animal control teams are usually quick to remove these if they are spotted).

Disney’s commitment to conservation and care doesn’t end with their captive species. Visitors to the park’s Conservation Station at Rafiki’s Planet Watch (when it is seasonally open) may on occasion get to view medical procedures done on local wildlife who become injured. On one visit, we watched as doctors repaired the injured foot of one of the local ducks, complete with giving him a waterproof duck-foot-shaped bandage!

10. One time is enough to see everything

Girl with mouse ears looking up at floating islands at Pandora

Image: Neil Mullins, Flickr (license)

There is no other park at Walt Disney World where this statement could possibly be more wrong. Disney’s Animal Kingdom isn’t just a full-day park—it’s a park you are going to want to visit more than once.

There is so much to see at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Between all of the park’s attractions, shows, and dining experiences, you would have to serious pack a day to experience it all. The park’s sheer size makes it difficult to explore in just one day, but the other element that will make you want to keep coming back is the animals.

You could ride Kilimanjaro Safari a dozen times and have a different experience each time. The same goes for the Gorilla Falls Trail and Maharajah Jungle Trek—there is no telling what the animals will be up to, and each day brings new surprises. It’s a park where you don’t want to rush. The dining alone is worth visiting more than once. Disney’s Animal Kingdom houses some truly excellent restaurants. Beyond the two table service restaurants already mentioned—Tusker House and Tiffin’s— some of the excellent counter-service options available in the park include Yak and Yeti, Flame Tree Barbecue, and Satul’I Canteen.

What are some other misconceptions you’ve heard about Disney’s Animal Kingdom? Be sure and check out our first article in this series, 10 Misconceptions Every Gets Wrong About Disney’s Epcot!