Animal Kingdom’s moment comes next year when Pandora the World of AVATAR debuts, bringing James Cameron’s cinematic creation to life at a Disney theme park. Yet there is no denying how important this year 2016 is for the park as it tries to build its case to be considered amongst the pantheon of great Disney theme parks and worthy of your vacation dollars in the same way Magic Kingdom is or Epcot should be. Yet as you drive around Walt Disney World the billboards tell of the grand night awakenings that come to life on the majestic Tree of Life, billboards that had everything gone to plan would certainly have carried the flagship draw that Rivers of Light could have been, should have been and hopefully one day soon will be. Without Rivers of Light, as magical as several aspects of the new nighttime offerings at Disney’s Animal Kingdom are – there just isn’t enough. Without Rivers of light to fill in the gaps of Disney’s Animal Kingdom at night sans the AVATAR themed land of Pandora, it’s now Animal Kingdom’s nights and not its afternoon’s that feel half-baked. Despite these shortcomings Disney’s Animal Kingdom has ventured into the night and that in of itself is an achievement considering how long this park has gone regularly without them. The formula has always been within Disney’s Animal Kingdom for a great park, it’s already my personal favorite at Walt Disney World but even I who naturally hopes to shower this park with praise for its character and charm must say that I was left longing for more Disney spectacle because the bar is so high at Disney’s other theme parks at night. But before we harp on what’s missing let’s take a quick look at what Disney has gotten right.
“If You’ve Never Been To Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Night, It’s Like You’ve Never Been.”
If you haven’t been to Disney’s Animal Kingdom at night, in many ways it’s like you’ve never been to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Disney Parks shine at night and this one is no different, the lighting much of it subdued and warm, think New Fantasyland or some of Epcot’s World Showcase. But beyond that, this park represents nature and as such it takes on a whole other persona as the natural symbiosis between the sun, the park and its animals including us humans venture past the warm glow of sunset and into the clear, dark, star-sprinkled skies of the night. Your senses will be heightened when riding Kali River Rapids at night and definitely Expedition Everest feels like an entirely new beast away from the protection of the Sun, all broken-yeti jokes aside. And that’s just the table stakes, because now with the enhanced entertainment around Discovery Island, Africa and even in DinoLand U.S.A., Disney’s Animal Kingdom is more than not a zoo, it finally feels like a true Disney theme park despite the still-lingering flaws.
“The Tree of Life awakens every night as a spectacular backdrop for a projection show that truly begins to blur the lines of technology and art.”
Before we go any further let’s get this right out there, the reason you must visit Disney’s Animal Kingdom at least until Rivers of Light debuts stands at the center of the park. The illustrious park icon, the wonder of human ingenuity that represents the best of nature and in some ways the best of humankind, the Tree of Life awakens every night as a spectacular backdrop for a projection show that truly begins to blur the lines of technology and art in the way that makes us all think “Disney magic” and makes me utter to myself, “they’ve done it.” You see once you’ve seen Celebrate the Magic, Magic Kingdom’s castle projection show, you know that it’s awesome but applied in a very in-your-face-way. It’s a spectacle to be sure but I always knew that this concept would take on more integrated forms that would feel more natural.
That’s where this new night experience at Disney’s Animal Kingdom excels. It blends the impeccable piece of art that is the Tree of Life with the latest Disney projection mapping technology and animation to give life to the once dormant creatures sculpted into the very trunk of the tree. It is part captivating and part mind-blowing and in day and age, where the millennials and I will proclaim we’ve seen it all, it is incredible when you have that moment that even we have to put our phones away and gawk at the wonder before us. As if seeing a tiger turn from bark to spirit creature awakening from slumber and then falling back in it wouldn’t be enough to stir our hearts and get hundreds of people to huddle up in front of the Tree of Life in a herd-like fashion, this tree has another trick up her sleeve.
Three wondrous projection shows, more in the vein of Celebrate the Magic but much more concise yet also more rich in emotion, storyline and Disney creative execution that again we all deem magical. Whether it’d be the story of foxes, a romantic tale of hummingbirds or the fan-favorite Disney animal character-filled show, they all turn the Tree of Life into a can’t miss drama in the air of the night. It’s got so much spirit and each show strikes right towards the core of what makes Disney’s Animal Kingdom great. Perhaps with this new grandiose expression of Disney’s Animal Kingdom more will begin to see the beauty I’ve seen in this park for so long.
It Is Time, To Dance In The Streets
Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a celebration of nature but also the role we play as humans within this planet and our celebration of the environments we share. The vibe is of happiness and joy even over the flaws of our way of life. Sure you can see the electricity wires dangling over the modest but beautiful weathered buildings of Harambe or see the perils of deforestation in Asia whilst riding Kali River Rapids but the music, the beat of Disney’s Animal Kingdom celebrates the spirit of what is good, of those who fight against the odds and celebrate their path towards making their positive mark on the world. Disney’s Animal Kingdom has always been a circle of dance but now with the expanded nightly entertainment it feels alive and that’s the way it should always have been. Whether enjoying the new prehistoric DJ over by Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama!, joining the Discovery Island Carnivale or engaging with the atmosphere of Harambe nights with the multitude of performers ranging from acrobats to vocalists the nightly human entertainment is another standout feature of your Animal Kingdom nightly adventures. But now it’s time to enter the Harambe Wildlife Preserve to see whether our animal friends put on a show for us after the Sun has settled upon the horizon.
Kilimanjaro Sunset Safaris – A Mixed Bag Leaves Me with Mixed Emotions
Sunset safaris at Kilimanjaro Safaris is almost a mythical legend. A version of the nightly excursions was tested long ago and born from it the idea that one night soon, Disney’s Animal Kingdom would have its flagship attraction offering enthralling nightly excursions. On paper it would seem to make sense, take in what many ways what was Walt Disney World’s ultimate attraction, Kilimanjaro Safaris a roaming jeep safari adventure with live animals in a recreated African setting and take it deep into the night where some animals are naturally more active and everything seemingly would be more interesting. But alas in our few encounters this just hasn’t been the case. In fact our first Safari driver used most of the journey to lambaste the attraction with snarky remarks that made me wonder at times whether the driver was intentionally trying to make fun of the Sunset Safaris in the vein of other Disney attractions such as the Jungle Cruise. But that wasn’t the case. This driver already knew what many onboard would soon experience. Outside of the incredible but few breathtaking animal encounters, this attraction at night feels lacking in many ways even when just compared to its sunny daytime self. Listening to fake animal calls playing from speakers in the bushes isn’t exciting for most in the vehicle, the lack of any apparent storyline on the attraction does little for it and worst of all the hyenas and wild dogs added for the nightly attraction were dormant on our safaris.
A large section of the ride, where you encounter the failing bridge that acts as the one visceral theme park ride element has effectively been removed as one never proceeds that way. The only chance we got to see the giant elephants was to turn our heads and catch a tiny glimpse of them in the distance because the new roadway for the nightly adventures goes from the African Serengeti to the Flamingo pond skipping a big chunk of the daytime route. The latter doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ride the attraction, there are still many incredible moments to be had but just be forewarned that at least in these early days of this new attraction it’s not exactly always going to live up to its billing and you should probably temper your expectations so as to enjoy it for what it is. An attraction that will let you see animals at night under the moonlight and often under artificial lighting that hopes to recreate the moods of sunset and early evening much as if you were in the wilds of Africa. What the Imagineers were going for on this attraction often seems worthy but the execution on the aforementioned speaker encounters with the sounds of wild animals or even the “magical sunset moment” that attempts to recreate that time of day when the sun just shares its final light as it prisms through the trees largely falls flat. Luckily animals are incredible you’ll see everything from Giraffes to Rhinos in the shadows and that will likely be enough to make you smile with enough wonder to endure through the pain points of this attraction at night.
Why Didn’t They Just Leave It Alone? The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic
When you announce that your game changing nightly experiences at Disney’s Animal Kingdom are going to be anchored by Rivers of Light a new Disney nighttime spectacular featuring projections on larger than life water screens, floating animal shaped lanterns that move across Discovery River, live music, fire and more it’s a hard pill to swallow that instead you are going to have to watch a temporary replacement created in a month and a half instead. It isn’t that The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic is in itself somehow unworthy of our time, it has many redeeming qualities from the live vocalists singing the songs you know and love from The Jungle Book to the rhythmic dancers and even some of the Rivers of Light water screens that are in use. It’s that the expectations for a Disney nighttime show that Disney itself has created through years of excellence and years of marketing and promotion are that their shows will be category redefining extravaganzas that are like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Rivers of Light had that promise, The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic feels very much like what it is, a temporary stop-gap solution for the technical problems that are facing Rivers of Light and keeping it from leading the march of Disney’s Animal Kingdom nights forward the way it was supposed to.
Now instead we wait, we wait to see if Rivers of Light can overcome the technological obstacles that are keeping the show from debuting. We wait to see if we are ever going to get the full show Rivers of Light was going to deliver. And we wait to see if Rivers of Light indeed ends up being so incredible, so tied into the roots of what Disney’s Animal Kingdom is that it makes us forget this setback. No matter how unfortunate this delay for Rivers of Light is and our sympathies go out to the team (much larger now from the rumblings we’ve heard) working on the project, it is hard not to see this as a major failure because at least for now it removed the possibility of completely cementing Disney’s Animal Kingdom as a must do Disney destination at night for a park that was vastly underfunded from the start and has since never been able to shake the reputation as being a half-day park. This was the Walt Disney Company’s first great crack at reshaping this image and frankly – they blew it. Worse is that they should have just let Rivers of Light open when it was ready rather than putting in a half measure to cover up its mistakes. Rivers of Light will undoubtedly be many times better than the temporary show that runs near the banks of Expedition Everest now but they’ve already shown off some of its tricks including the water projection screens and that in of itself will make the future show feel less new and original. Disney’s Animal Kingdom would have been better served to just open with the experiences that were ready rather than to debut a nightly show that isn’t up to Disney’s standards.
Tiffin’s Restaurant & Nomad Lounge
All is not lost traveler for if there is food and drink there can be merriment. Disney’s Animal Kingdom has largely been devoid of bountifulness when it comes to food options but over the past couple of years as preparation began for Disney’s Animal Kingdom nights it became clear that rectifying this in some measure was part of the plans. Whether it be the opening of Harambe Market, the opening of a new quick service counter and bar near Expedition Everest, or the fortifying and reworking of the food options on Discovery Island, Disney was on a food mission at this their fourth proper Walt Disney World theme park. And it’s in Discovery Island where we find the pièce de résistance. Tiffin’s Restaurant and the accompanying Nomad Lounge are the park’s ode to the essence of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Nomad Lounge as the name implies is a beautiful bar and lounge that gives guests the opportunity to bask in the wonder of travel. The Lounge extends outside where beautiful seating extends out to the Discovery River below and points towards the ongoing construction of Pandora: The World of Avatar. It’s the perfect watering hole for Disney guests enjoying a day or night at the park. Tiffin’s is an extension of this traveler’s theme and it displays the rich history and research ventures Walt Disney Imagineering took in order to bring such a masterful park to life at Walt Disney World. The inspirations for Imagineer Joe Rhode and his team are displayed in photos some featuring the vivacious characters themselves for our enjoyment. If you are a fan of Disney’s Animal Kingdom this restaurant and its many details (including smaller lantern animals much like the ones we are supposed to see in Rivers of Light) were made for you and we can’t wait to try its fine dining experience in full and report back to you our thoughts. For now though we can safely say that what we’ve seen is a great addition to the dining roster at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
The future…AVATAR and Hopefully Rivers of Light
The future is still bright for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I believe Kilimanjaro Safaris at night will get tweaked over time and be better, Rivers of Light will be a vast improvement over what is running there now and Pandora: The World of Avatar looks like it will be a stunning place to visit day and especially at night with its bioluminescent rainforests, glowing waterfalls and towering floating mountains. But this weekend made one thing certain without Pandora: The World of Avatar headlining the nighttime experiences at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, there just isn’t enough to do that’s worthwhile at the park at night. Animal Kingdom needs Avatar and that is more obvious now than ever. It also needs to do some growing up before the land opens in 2017. The quick service food options have been bolstered at the park but trying to find a late night bite somewhere on Discovery Island is next to impossible. Need to grab a bite, they will literally point you towards the land of dinosaurs. Animal Kingdom at the very least needs its own version of Casey’s Corner and might we suggest that you at least leave Pizzafari open till park close. I expect these pain points to be smoothed out before next year, I expect that somehow, some way we get an incredible Rivers of Light to open later this summer and I fully expect that in 2017 Pandora: The World of Avatar will exceed most guest’s expectations. I just wish Disney’s Animal Kingdom had done that in mid-2016 as well.