Tree of Life awakening at night

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.


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