Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

Visiting Disney’s Animal Kingdom right now feels a little bit like a trip back in time…

I’m not necessarily referring to the obvious indicators of the season we live in—like ubiquitous masks over guest faces, character cavalcades, or omnipresent plexiglass. Much has remained the same inside this incredible park since before the lockdowns of 2020.

The thing that feels so different at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the room to breathe…

Before the opening of the World of Pandora in 2017, Animal Kingdom stood as a unique sanctuary at Walt Disney World. Despite being Disney’s most beautiful park, this singular paradise struggled to draw crowds at times. While Florida locals and seasoned Disney guests appreciated it, I can’t even count the number of conversations I had with casual visitors who just couldn’t fathom why they should visit it. Throughout most of the resort’s history, guests have largely underestimated Disney’s Animal Kingdom as an elaborate zoo, and that kept crowds at medial levels. On top of this, the park was only open during daytime hours.

Komodo Dragon at Maharajah Jungle Trek
Image: David Vega

The opening of the World of Pandora turned the park overnight into one of Disney’s biggest draws (until it was finally toppled by the opening of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance in late 2019). After that, it became increasingly difficult to visit Disney’s Animal Kingdom without having to navigate significant crowds and lengthy waits.

Post-reopening, Disney’s Animal Kingdom has taken a strange step back to its former quietness. The park is still immensely popular—it remains the home of several of the resort’s top attractions. However, lower guest capacity has restored a sense of serenity to its streets. None of Disney’s parks were designed with a global pandemic in mind, but of all Walt Disney World, Disney’s Animal Kingdom might be the best park to visit during this unusual season.

Our most recent visit took place on Thursday, January 21st—an ideal example of a weekday visit with low crowds. If you plan on visiting on a weekend in the near future, you can expect a slight increase in crowds (with highest crowds on holiday weekends like President’s Day). Here’s what we found…

1. You’re going to want to get up early

Sleepy lizard (from Maharajah Jungle Trek)
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

Let’s start with one of the few drawbacks—if you want a full day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom right now, you may need to set that alarm a little earlier than normal…

This season at Walt Disney World has offered some rather luxuriant hours for guests who like to sleep in—for example, Disney’s Hollywood Studios was opening at 10 AM for much of last year, and Epcot is currently opening at 11 AM to accommodate for later hours. The departure of Extra Magic Hours has further reduced early morning stress for late-risers.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is currently opening at the brisk hour of 8 AM, with the park closing well before sunset at 5 PM.

Drinkwallah side hut
Image: David Vega

This was one of the first areas where our visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom felt like a blast from the past—before the opening of the World of Pandora, daytime-only hours were commonplace in the park. While the early opening time isn’t an impossible feat for families staying nearby, local visitors commuting from outside Orlando may have to wake up pretty early to make opening gate.

Lately, we’ve taken a pretty nonchalant attitude towards trying to make opening gate at other parks since capacity has been so low—indeed, at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, you’re likely to find the longest lines of the day within an hour or two of opening.

With Disney’s Animal Kingdom, however, it might actually be worth making the effort to arrive early, purely because of the park’s unusual hours. With the park closing so early in the evening, you may end up feeling like you didn’t get to experience the whole thing if you arrive too late. It’s also a particularly attractive park to choose if you plan on park hopping (more on that later).

2. Lots of room for social distancing

Video: YouTube, @MyKingdomForAMouse (Jett Farrell-Vega)

This park is massive, and wow, it makes a difference during this pandemic.

Of all Disney’s parks, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the one with the most space for guests to spread out. This has proven a major point of difficulty at other parks, particularly Epcot with its many bottlenecks and labyrinth of construction walls. We visited on a relatively low capacity day, but Disney’s Animal Kingdom largely felt empty—something we haven’t seen much of since before Pandora opened.

The broad avenues and sprawling size of Disney’s Animal Kingdom make it much easier for guests to social distance. While we did run into the usual issue where some guests are just bad at this (God bless ‘em, but I still can’t grasp why some folks magnetize towards the nearest person even if there’s twenty feet of available space), it wasn’t a major point of stress. With few exceptions, this park definitely wins as our favorite so far to stay socially distanced.

3. Crowding at some exhibits can prove problematic

Parties fill in available windows at Maharajah Jungle Trek Tiger view
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

We found two exceptions to the easy-social-distancing scenario. The first was when Dinosaur broke down early in the day (around 11:50 AM), which caused a mass exodus of guests departing that queue all at once. This dispersed pretty quickly.

The other exception was one we saw take place several times, and it marked one of the only frustrations we had with this particular visit: guests crowding small exhibit spaces can prove frustrating.

Some of this is par for the course at Disney’s Animal Kingdom—animal displays tend to draw a lot of people to the same few spots. Some of the viewing areas throughout the park (particularly on walking trails) are particularly small, and crowds can gum up all available space quickly.

Social Distancing sign at Walt Disney World
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

The problem comes when you throw social distancing into the mix—as with all things, some guests are more courteous than others. While most guests were perfectly polite, on a few occasions we had difficulty viewing exhibits like fruit bats, gorillas, and tigers without other guests ignoring social distancing to find a spot to get close.

Another problem came in the form of families camping out in prime viewing spots with tight confines (like the tiger viewing windows on the Maharajah Jungle Trek). A cast member finally had to intervene when the area grew too congested with parties piling in for a look. On two different occasions on that particular tour (which overall was fantastic), we had to surrender and step back when oblivious guests insisted on shuffling close, preventing us from getting more than a few seconds glimpse at the animals before having to change positions. Needless to say, this sort of thing is bad behavior on the best of days but a definite no-no during the season we’re in.


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