Dani’s Best Week Ever April 28, 2016: Disney’s Animal Kingdom Before It Changes Forever

In one month from now Disney’s Animal Kingdom will never been the same. Night time will descend upon the park and rather than become dormant, the park will spring to new life and welcome guests until as late as 11:00 PM. Ok, so I may be a bit dramatic, but still, to have the park open so late with quite a respectable amount of night time offerings is something many of us devoted DAK fans merely dreamed of. Now that such a dramatic change is on the horizon I wanted to visit Disney’s Animal Kingdom one more time before that dream becomes a reality.

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Sometimes weekends as an Orlando resident can be difficult. This is home after all and we have chores, responsibilities, and hobbies to spend time on just like everyone else. Despite what we may post on social media, it’s not a vacation 24/7 — but it still is a really fun place to live. Initially I planned to spend my Saturday taking care of my responsibilities, but after a few hours of doing what needed to be done while staring at the beautiful Spring weather, I couldn’t fight it anymore and headed off to enjoy my favorite WDW park!

I arrived just before 4:00 PM and not surprisingly only two other cars enter the parking lot at the same time I did. Once parked, only about ten to fifteen other guests joined me on the tram. As we pulled up to the entrance it appeared that about 150-200 guests waited to board the tram in order to exit the park. I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of being one of the rare few to enter a theme park towards the end of its operating hours for the day while rows of guests make their way for the exit.

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Unsurprisingly plenty of space awaited me at the front entrance. About six ticket touch points were ready and waiting without any guests ahead of me. This is the life. That relaxed yet joyous feeling grew stronger as I entered the Oasis. This first part of the park is the antithesis of all other Walt Disney World park entrances. It’s lush, it’s calm, you can’t see the park’s icon ahead of you. I simply adore it.

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The Oasis splits off to the left and to the right. Either path will lead you to the same place, however each side has different animal areas. I tend to be drawn to the left side when heading in (which is the right side when exiting). This side is home to less animals, but it also usually receives less traffic because the other side is where stroller rental, photo, and package pick-up reside.

As I ascended the bridge and gazed upon the iconic Tree of Life a sense of anticipation sprang to life. Soon this beautiful icon will be transformed at night with glowing lights and dazzling projections. I can’t wait to see it! I also observed how so much of Discovery Island has changed. I am still getting used to the massively expanded plaza and the new jewel and earth tone colors that took over for the once Bahamian style.

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I decided this afternoon’s visit would not be about rides or shows or anything in particular really, just about enjoying the park in its current state (besides, the problem with last minute afternoon trips is all the good FastPass+ options are all booked). So I took a stroll. As I went to the right of the Tree of Life I came upon the entrance to It’s Tough to Be a Bug, a 3D show that I have only seen twice, and I am ok with that. A posted standby wait of only 5 minutes wasn’t surprising, especially with it being about 4:15 PM and the park closes at 6:30 PM.

Animal Kingdom has seen a lot of food and beverage kiosks spring up throughout the park. The increase in kiosks is quite noticeable for anyone who is a frequent DAK visitor. There’s even a kiosk dedicated to gluten-free items just before the entrance to the Africa area. I decided to indulge in an adult beverage and browsed the menu at “The Feeding Ground” kiosk. Drinks like Island Punch and Island Margarita sounded very appealing, then I realized, dear goodness, that all the drinks were premixed! But in the spirit of adventure I decided to give the Island Punch a go.

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Yeah…….. it ummmmmm…. well, it basically tastes like cough syrup. At almost $10 with tax I just can’t justify the cost for the quality of the drink. I am okay with a premixed drink–well, not really, but if it has a good enough flavor I can overlook that it is premixed. This drink, however, is so blatantly premixed and tastes terrible. Sadly a lot of drinks inside Animal Kingdom have gone the premixed route. When in doubt as your bartender before ordering and if you desire ask what they can make you fresh that might be similar, I recommend tipping extra if the bartender does go above and beyond.

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As I slowly nursed my Island Punch I strolled over to the what I consider to be the most beautiful seating area for any counter service dining location anywhere on WDW property: Flame Tree BBQ. Lush landscape surrounds each pavilion. A beautiful and tranquil reflection ponds provides rest and relaxation.

When I entered the area around 4:30 PM (two hours before park closing), about half of the seating pavilions were roped off and being cleaned down for the day. I pondered how this area will change once “Rivers of Light” finally makes its debut.

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Continuing along with my sense of observation and discovery, I returned to the main walkway of Discovery Island and discovered that the Adventure Outpost, home to Mickey and Minnie Mouse’s meet and greet, was only a 10 minute post standby wait. The only place I’ve ever seen the big cheeses have such a little wait is here at Animal Kingdom, even back in the Camp Minnie Mickey days. If time is tight and you don’t want to use a FastPass+ to meet Mickey at Magic Kingdom or Epcot, then consider meeting him at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Though I am curious to see if this changes with the extended park hours.

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I waited about eight minutes and viola! I had my facetime with the mice. It is a rare treat to have both Mickey and Minnie together, and I’ve always loved their safari costumes. The greeting area is pretty well themed. It is a converted merchandise location and has pictures of Mickey and Minnie off on various adventures, with a few props as well.

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Having reverted back to a giggling child over Mickey and Minnie, I decided to head to the most spiritual part of the park: Asia. This part of the park was added in 1999. I find it to be incredibly beautiful, with layers of details and culture. The weather was warm, in the upper 80’s, and not surprisingly Kali River Rapids had a post 60 minute wait for standby.

The allure of exploring the ancient royal ruins of the Maharajah Jungle Trek pulled me in. The first section before the fruit bat house was partially under renovation, so the initial flow felt off. But once inside the fruit bat house the feeling of tranquility to which I am accustomed on this trek resumed.

As I journeyed through the trek the stillness, the near emptiness amazed me. It was just after 5:00 PM and I nearly had the entire trek to myself. The animals however rested and were still. Yet, the entire experience was serene and peaceful.

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My animal instincts kicked in, I needed to satisfy my hunger. I had yet to have the opportunity to dine inside the Harambe Market, which opened a year ago this month, this evening seemed a grand opportunity for my first visit. Venturing between Asia and Africa there are additional food and beverage kiosks. I’ve heard great things about the samosas and was tempted to try them out myself, but alas both kiosks were closed at 5:15 PM.

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When I arrived to Harambe Market I found it quiet and nearly abandoned. I had been inside Harambe Market before, and really appreciate all the incredible detail and overall atmosphere, but it was swamped last time. Now upon arrival at nearly 5:30 PM (one hour left in park operation) all but one window was open. There are three food windows, plus one beverage only window.

The sausage window served the much-raved-about curry corn down, plus the also popular milk tart for dessert, and beverages. The rib window served, you guessed it, ribs, plus the milk tart, plus beverages. The grill window, which was the only window open, serves both of these plus an all-beef gyro, plus a chicken skewer, and a vegetable stack.

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I went with the beef gyro ($10.49). I paired it with the red Pepper Pot wine ($9) – a great pairing indeed. I have eaten many a gyro in my time, in fact I am one of those annoying people that does not pronounce it “hero” but rather “yee-row.” It was a little dry and thin, but paired with the wine, the pepper of the beef was highlighted and then cooled by the vegetables and yogurt sauce. The black eyed pea salad that accompanied the gyro was actually my favorite part of the meal.

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Actually no, my favorite part of the meal was the atmosphere. Harambe Market is a gem, especially when it is not crowded. At the beginning of my dining experience a trio of performers told the story of Harambe and shared what life in an African market is like with stories and song. Their performance replaced the normal background music (BGM) over the speakers, so although I only could catch glimpses, I was able to at least hear their lovely performance.

After my delightful dining experience I opted to walk over to Kilimanjaro Safari. Even if the wait was long (which it was – a whopping 90 minutes for standby), I could still enjoy this area. I visited the crowned cranes whose habitat can be seen from the former FastPass distribution area.

The day was winding down. The sun ever so slowly beginning its descent. 6:30 PM arrived, the official park closing time. Yet, I snuck over to Dawa Bar and was gladly served a glass of delicious South African red wine. Two more parties arrived to the bar as I sipped on my wine and they were happily served despite it being after park closing.

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Wine plastic wine glass (cup?) in hand I slowly made my way from Africa up to Discovery Island. Just as I made my way onto Discovery Island, the final Festival of the Lion King show “dumped” into the streets. I decided to find a quiet spot to the side so i could savor my wine, let the crowd pass through the streets while I enjoyed the approaching twilight in my favorite park.

As I waited I noticed that the front of Tiffins Restaurant was near completion. This full service restaurant is slated to open on the weekend when Disney’s Animal  Kingdom changes forever: Memorial Day Weekend. Ok, so again I am being a bit dramatic, but as I sat there just after 7:00 PM, unhurried, unrushed to leave the park, it was difficult to not think about, and worry, about how the park I love so dear will change.

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I’m ok with change. But I am so used to how the park feels when it closes before all the other parks do. There is no rush to get out post-fireworks or night time show. There’s no mass exodus. But now there’s probably going to be, and the park exit really is not conducive to such behavior. So I enjoyed the quiet, empty departure one last time. Farewell Disney’s Animal Kingdom, as I knew thee. I look forward to seeing how you bloom in your new light.

Dani

Born and raised in the land of sunshine and dreams come true, Dani has always had a passion for tourism and hospitality. She is a proud Orlando Native who loves sharing her hometown with others. With work experience in six of Orlando's theme parks, she now works in the world of hotels. Follow her adventures on Twitter @thisfloridalife

5 thoughts on “Dani’s Best Week Ever April 28, 2016: Disney’s Animal Kingdom Before It Changes Forever

  • April 28, 2016 at 8:40 am
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    Thanks Dani! I had never thought about it that way before but you are totally right. On our last trip we went to eat dinner about 30 minutes before before park close. We were a large party and there were some technical difficulties so we didn’t head out of the park until well after park close. It was magically quiet and peaceful as we left, with barely another soul in sight. I’m glad I got to experience that one last time!

  • April 28, 2016 at 9:28 am
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    Just wondering why you didn’t book an FP in advance (say, for the safari)?

    • April 28, 2016 at 9:41 am
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      This was an impromptu visit. I made the decision to go to DAK at about 2pm and arrived close to 4pm. When I looked at the app around 2pm there were no FP+ available for safari (not surprising LOL).

      • April 28, 2016 at 10:11 am
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        This made my morning, thank you

  • April 28, 2016 at 11:39 pm
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    Thank you for the lovely tale Dani. I can’t wait to make it back to AK. I’m actually quite looking forward to everything new coming to the park, especially Avatar Land. The night time attractions will be one of a kind for sure.

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