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The Transformation of Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park

Nighttime adventures celebrating the magic of nature bring many changes to Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park.

Climb aboard an open-air safari vehicle for a guided tour of the African outback on Kilimanjaro Safaris® Expedition.

Photo: As to Disney artwork/properties © Disney

It may be difficult for vacationers who have never been to Walt Disney World® Resort to imagine what’s in store for them at the Disney Parks resort on the East Coast. Walt Disney World® Resort is far from just a larger version of Disneyland® Park—though, remarkably, all of Disneyland® Resort could fit inside Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park, one of the four theme parks in the Orlando, Florida, complex. In addition, Walt Disney World® Resort boasts two water parks, a reimagined shopping and dining district, four 18-hole championship golf courses, and more than 25 hotels on the property, each with different experiences than what a visitor to the Anaheim resort could choose.

Now, Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park is poised to offer guests even more innovative attractions, which have been years in the making. And these new entertainment offerings are changing the overall park experience from one that runs from 9-to-5 to one that continues well into the night.

When the theme park opened 18 years ago on Earth Day, Disney touted Animal Kingdom® as “nahtazu”—pronounced not a zoo—emphasizing that the 500-acre park offers many more entertainment options than a typical zoo. Indeed, that is true. Although there are numerous opportunities to observe animals, the goal of Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park is to immerse guests in the lives and stories of animals on many different platforms.

Rivers of Light, an elaborate nighttime show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park, scheduled to debut this summer, will tell such a story through animal spirit guides. It will take place on Discovery River and bring together elements of the natural world with performers, nearly 100 Asian lanterns and theatrical animal imagery. The finale of the show will delight audiences “with bursts of light as animal images soar to the heavens, signifying the ancient belief that when animals passed from one world to another, they danced in the sky and became beautiful rivers of light,” says the show’s creative director, Michael Jung of Walt Disney Imagineering.

But you don’t have to wait for summer to visit the park at night. Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park will offer extended park hours for the first time ever beginning Memorial Day Weekend. The popular Kilimanjaro Safaris® Expedition will be among the attractions staying open late. Special lighting will mimic a sunset and allow guests to see the animals in their natural habitats well into the night. Visitors may even spot nocturnal species, such as hyenas, that are not seen as often during the day treks. Plus, a new live show, “The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic,” is filled with music and special effects that will light up the night. Other attractions that will be available at night include the in-demand rides Expedition Everest®—Legend of the Forbidden Mountain Attraction, the DINOSAUR Attraction and the Kali River Rapids® Attraction.

The Tree of Life® is home to more than 300 meticulously detailed animal carvings; for a close-up view, stroll along the picturesque Discovery Island® Area.

Photo: As to Disney artwork/properties © Disney

The park’s iconic Tree of Life® Attraction, located near the center of Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park, will awaken each night with a show designed to highlight the carvings on the tree’s trunk. The lighting effects, which reportedly were incorporated into every branch and leaf, are used to showcase magical fireflies that bring animal spirits to life and reveal stories kept within the tree.

Guests also are invited to join two street parties—Harambe Wildlife Parti in Africa Land and Discovery Island® Carnivale on the central island—during which revelers can buy exotic foods and drinks and enjoy live music and dancing. Or for a top-notch, table-service dinner, visitors can try the new Tiffins restaurant, which boasts waterfront views. Tiffins will serve international dishes, including Thai curry soup, grilled octopus, frog legs tempura, berbere-spiced lamb chop, pan-seared duck breast and leg confit, Wagyu strip loin, braised short ribs, and whole fried sustainable fish.

All of these additions to Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park are reasons for guests to extend their day in the park this summer. But the biggest expansion in the park’s history is coming in 2017 with the addition of Pandora—The World of Avatar. The themed area will have elements from the James Cameron movie and its three forthcoming sequels, which will be released one a year beginning in 2017.

The Pandora environment is planned to be immersive, taking visitors to the film’s familiar rain forests, the Tree of Souls and the floating Hallelujah Mountains. A family-friendly boat ride, the Na’vi River Journey, will take passengers slowly through a mysterious river in the bioluminescent rainforest. Avatar Flight of Passage, a 3-D flight simulation more advanced than the Soarin® Attraction, will allow guests to feel like they are flying through the sky on a banshee. These attractions—plus the restaurants, shops and characters—are all designed for daytime and nighttime viewing. Even smaller features in the landscape, such as illuminated plants that respond to touch, will tempt guests to stay in the park so they can see the lighting effects after dark.

Certainly, the additions to Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park are exciting and will interest new vacationers as well as theme park veterans, solidifying their desire to spend an entire day—and night—at Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park.

  • Disney's Animal Kingdom - Dinosaur

    Travel back in time on the DINOSAUR Attraction in the DinoLand U.S.A.® Area.

    Photo Credit: As to Disney artwork/properties © Disney

  • Disney's Animal Kingdom Maharajah Jungle

    Encounter an Asian Tiger and other exotic animals on the Maharajah Jungle Trek® Attraction.

    Photo Credit: As to Disney artwork/properties © Disney

  • Disney's Animal Kingdom Harambe Wildlife Reserve

    Glimpse animals in their natural habitat on an expedition into the Harambe Wildlife Reserve.

    Photo Credit: As to Disney artwork/properties © Disney

  • Disney's Animal Kingdom the Jungle Book

    Celebrate the bare necessities with favorite characters from The Jungle Book, like King Louie.

    Photo Credit: As to Disney artwork/properties © Disney

  • Disney's Animal Kingdom Kali River Rapid

    Take a river raft ride through a lush jungle landscape on the Kali River Rapids® Attraction.

    Photo Credit: As to Disney artwork/properties © Disney

  • Disney's Animal Kingdom - Dinosaur
  • Disney's Animal Kingdom Maharajah Jungle
  • Disney's Animal Kingdom Harambe Wildlife Reserve
  • Disney's Animal Kingdom the Jungle Book
  • Disney's Animal Kingdom Kali River Rapid

AAA Travel offers a variety of options for Walt Disney World® vacation packages. Call 888-890-2429 to speak to a AAA Travel Counselor or book online today.

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Heidi Kazemi, AAA Travel Counselor, Roseville, Calif.

Customization is always my top priority when planning a client's vacation. I ask about their family and where they've been before. Their preferences guide our planning so the vacation is perfectly tailored for them.

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