EDITORIAL: Four Reasons Why Animal Kingdom Is The Best Park at Walt Disney World

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It’s been 20 years since Animal Kingdom first opened its doors. Not really a standard theme park nor a zoo, it began as a half-day hybrid that, over two decades, has evolved quite a bit. By adjusting for its weaknesses and emphasizing its strengths, the work has paid off.

In the most recent Themed Entertainment Association yearly index, Animal Kingdom is now the third most attended theme park in the United States, seeing a 15% increase in guests over the year before. One can easily give credit for this to Pandora, its newest other-worldly land, but this would ignore all the more subtle reasons Animal Kingdom has become not only a great full-day experience, but currently the best park at the Walt Disney World resort. Here are four reasons to support that claim.

4. Amazing Vistas

While all of Disney’s parks have their beautiful views, Animal Kingdom graces its guests with a multitude of jaw-droppers. From the nightly glow of Pandora’s floating rocks to the sight of the Tree of Life upon entering, each of these showcase the majesty of nature, and accomplish this task in their own unique way.

The focal point of these views, such as Everest amongst the Asian themed landscape, are what Walt Disney called “weenies” because, like a weiner to a dog, they draw guests in from a distance. The creativity of the park’s vistas are that they rarely overlap their focal points, leaving each isolated for a truer sense of immersion.

There is no better evidence of this then these amazing photos by Matthew Cooper

© Matthew Cooper – https://www.thetimethespace.com. Used with permission.
© Matthew Cooper – https://www.thetimethespace.com. Used with permission.

3. The Unpredictability of Animals  

Unlike most theme parks, the experience at Animal Kingdom will vary on each visit due to its main attraction – animals. Though this can mean you don’t always see the beast you were hoping for, it usually guarantees you’ll catch a glimpse of something you hadn’t expected.

This unique unpredictability separates the majority of Animal Kingdom’s experiences from the typical controlled-experience attractions found around the rest of the resort. While it’s a small world will be the same no matter how many times you ride it, you never know what you’re getting on Kilimanjaro Safari and, with that, comes a spark of anticipation with each trip. Perhaps once you’ll see the wildebeests charge down the veldt while another visit has a lion roaring at the moon. The random actions of the animals guarantee the guests not only once-in-a-lifetime moments, but a reason to return.

2. Growing Into Its Design

When it comes to theme parks, cracks in walls and faded paint are signs of, at best, overuse, and, at worst, outright negligence. But Animal Kingdom’s design allows the park to organically grow into its own theming year after year. A new chip in a wall adds character to Harambe Village and overgrowth in the distance only helps immerse guests. That doesn’t mean that the park isn’t carefully maintained, but that the small stuff we’d notice in Tomorrowland feels natural in an Everest expedition office.

Joe Rohde, the park’s lead designer, has said that the park “has become much more focused on this idea of authenticity and realistic representation.” It is this goal that allows the park to embrace the natural wear and tear of certain design elements that would normally plague other parks, including other parks at Walt Disney World.

© Matthew Cooper – https://www.thetimethespace.com. Used with permission.

1. A Malleable Theme

For twenty years Animal Kingdom has been able to work with a set of themes that are specific in subject yet broad in execution: animals, nature, and exploration. With these in mind, the park has been able to add lands as distinct as Pandora without overall compromising its intended goals (Chester & Hester’s Dino-Rama may be the exception here). While other parks’ theming is either so broad they could be home to almost anything (Magic Kingdom and especially Hollywood Studios) or is too specific to evolve well (Epcot), Animal Kingdom has found just the right sweet spot.

For this we must thank Joe Rohde and his leadership since day one. Rohde has lead thousands of Imagineers and other creatives towards a singular vision and his constant presence over two decades brings connective tissue to everything that has occurred at the park. This visionary and continual leadership has not happened at a Disney park since Disneyland was built. In this way, Animal Kingdom should be considered Rohde’s park, just like Disneyland is considered Walt’s park.

Final Thoughts

As you read everyday here at WDWNT.com, there is much happening around the Walt Disney World resort. Perhaps in the future, the other parks could make adjustments that will shift how well they showcase their own themes. But, for now, Animal Kingdom sits as a prime example of what a theme park can be when it is allowed to develop and mature according to its original vision.


Many thanks to Matthew Cooper for the fantastic images (including the header image) used in this article.

Read more from Nathan Hartman including…

EDITORIAL: Five Fixes for Magic Kingdom (Over) Crowding

EDITORIAL: EPCOT: A History of Compromise, and What That Means for the Epcot of the Future

EDITORIAL: The Purple Wall Predicament

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About the author

Nathan Hartman

A sunshine state resident, Nathan is an avid Disney parks wonk as well as a university film professor.

Twitter: @somestuffisaid

8 Comments

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  • I suppose it depends on the age of the people you are with, but I had never understood the “half-day park” mentality some people had about Animal Kingdom. My family and I were there on New Year’s Day last year (with our then 7 and 4 year old daughters), and spent the entire day there and still ran out of time do and see everything. And I can agree with the unpredictability of the animals. I managed to make Kilimanjaro Safari the first and last things we did during the day, and (not surprisingly) we had two completely different experiences. The second trip was in almost total darkness, and we had rhinos running up right next to our truck. They even blocked our way for a few minutes. And the lion was roaring non-stop.

    And this was even before Pandora and Rivers of Light opened! I hope people don’t write off the best parts just because of the shiny new things.

  • 5. The Dinoland area is so amazing. No where else at WDW is there an area that looks more bare bones then my local Six Flags and even it had a McDonald’s when it opened. I love paying over $100 for roadside carney theming that only Joe Rohde can do. Six Flags does not even look this off the shelf.
    6. The realistic third world poverty country theming of Africa and Asia makes me feel great and the cast members are right at home and are even paid peasant wages for authenticity. Who wants to see the best that each country has to offer like Epcot? I love exposed wire, no AC, broken bikes, graffiti and a run-down train to nowhere. Now if only they could add people to pick pocket you
    7. See the giant grey industrial warehouses for Avatar and Everest from the parking lot with names of animals that cannot be found in the park. It is so magical to see the unfinished backside as you walk in and really sets the stage as Walt would say. I wish hotels would do the same thing and let you enter from the service entrance so you could see the industrial ACS and laundry carts. Joe Rohde even put an upside down concrete oil rig as a giant screw you to real environmentalists. I love this park

  • Completely agree. For me there are very few great theme parks in the world and Animal kingdom is without any doubt one of those.

  • I love Chester and Hester’s, it works perfectly with the whole of Dinoland. There are so many little details in Dinoland showing the evolution of a land from the start of fossil discovery to the time rovers that take us to the time of the dinosaurs. Add in the roadside theme park to cash in on all the excitement in this once sleepy corner of the world. Dinoland is amazing when you pay attention to the details.

  • My personal feeling is that it grew, from a full day park, into a 2 days park.. :-)
    Of course, ‘bored’ thrill junkies consider it 1/2 day, because there were only 2 or 3 rides fitting that frame, left apart the (my personal opinion) the whole worthless Dinosaur carnival…
    Now, Avatar still only adds a virtual thrill ride.
    (On a classic thrill experience scale : Everest *****, Kali river ***, Dinosaur dark ride **, Flight of Passage **)
    Apart for the waitrow hours, DAK is indeed a weak 1/2 day park…. for adrenalin junkies.
    But, it’s the 99,8% wrong reference public !
    Focus of DAK has been from day one : animal life, landscape splendour, hiking adventure (your feet are the real attraction transport mode), experiencing (sub-)tropical cultures. For the people who are into those, it really became a 2 days park.
    The only similar park, on a worldwide scan, is the Belgian Pairi Daiza animal theme park. (Again Diamond theme park award 2018 ‘Best animal park of Europe’) By total lack of thrill rides in P.D. however, the misguiding voices around ‘just a 1/2 day park’ have never happened there, because the adrenalin public is not attending it at all. Actually, also P.D. grew into a 2 days park from the viewpoint of total animal-gardens/landscape-&-culture exploration lovers. One has seen that through the explosion of year passes sales, over the past 5 years, with customers buying it in a travel distance range of over 200 km. (Or lets say, about 2.5 hours travel time) The park’s direction has grasped the public “love” for the park (for instance through the constant flood of top quality visitor’s videos on youtube) by also having extended opening hours to 11PM in mid summertime. Which is late, for “just an animal park”, right? Not so, because it’s an animal & culture adventure theme park where people want to experience an overdrive 1.25 day.. :-)
    I wonder how many year passes are actually being sold for DAK ? I mean, people who exclusively want to get into DAK year long ? (Probably as will most year passes in WDW, would appeal to Florida residents only, as travel distances are to big) The rate of year passes sold would show the real appreciation into the park.

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