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.


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