Saturday, January 20, 2007

Finally back to the Florida trip, mostly because I wanted to talk about our day at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park.

I wasn't really sure what to expect out of the Animal Kingdom. Unlike the other three Disney World parks, which I have visited multiple times, I have only been to Animal Kingdom once on a somwhat atypical visit.

It happened when J. was 2 years old, and R. was just about 7 months. We were staying with my brother and sister-in-law and I had plans to take J. to the Orlando Science Center for the day. We discovered, however, that the museum was closed on Mondays, so we were thinking about what I should do with J. for the day. SIL suggested that I take him to the new Animal Kingdom park. Me, not needing a lot of arm twisting to convince me to go to Disney, agreed and we headed there.

Now, if you know my approach to visiting a Disney park, you know I always have a plan. I know what my must sees are, what would be nice to see and what I can skip and plan accordingly. However, since this was a spur of the moment trip to a park I had never visited before, I had no plan in place. I wasn't particularly worried about crowds, since this was an off-season trip, but I really didn't know much about what we should see.

So we get there, I pay $50 for a one-day ticket (J. was free) and we head into the park. I grab a map and start looking and see there's a Dinosaur ride. Great! J. likes dinosaurs, so we head that way.

Well, I get to the ride and see a bunch of the standard Disney warning signs not to go on this ride if you suffer from any of the various conditions, plus there's a height requirement. I notice that there is a kids play are nearby called the Boneyard, so I figure we'll just head in there for 20 minutes or so, J. can run off some steam and I can study the map and figure out what to do next.

Sounds like a good plan, right? Well, there was one minor problem. J. had no interest in leaving the Boneyard, which has all kinds of cool slides, things to climb on, and a big sandpit where you can dig for "dinosaur bones". I just could not coax him out and we ended up staying there for 90 minutes! I was sitting there thinking, "I just paid 50 bucks so he could play in the playground!" Finally, he got hungry and I got him to leave.

After grabbing something to eat we did one attaction, Rafiki's Planet Watch, and by then it was nap time. So let's just say that my first experience at Animal Kingdom was less than satisfying (for me, J. had a great time).

This time, of course, I had a detailed plan which started with getting up at the crack of dawn to get to the Animal Kingdom for it's 8AM opening on the day after Christmas. We arrived right at 8 and made our way through security and into the park.

The first thing I noticed about Animal Kingdom is how lush the landscaping is. Plants of many varieties are growing everywhere and everything is amazingly green, especially as compared to Massachusetts in December. We made our way through the Oasis, which is an area with animials in enclosures. We rushed through this in the morning to make our way to our first ride which was:

Expedition Everest: Disney World's newest headliner ride, Expedition Everest is a roller coaster that looks like a train which takes you up and around Mount Everest. Also waiting for you is the Yeti, who makes a couple of appearances during the course of the ride.

A. headed off to the Kilamanjaro Safari to grab some Fastpasses, since she had no interest in a big roller coaster. J., R. and I headed off to to Everest. It was early, so there was no line and we made our way through the wonderfully themed queue area. The line runs through a building that is something of a Yeti museum, with displays and speculation as to whether the mythical creature really exists. You then make your way to the "train station", which is the boarding area.

One thing I noticed about all of Animal Kingdom was the signage. There were lots of signs meant to add atmosphere, as if you were really in Asia or Africa or whatever. A lot of them were fun to read and looked as though they had been there for a very long time.

So we get on the train and we are taken on a very fast ride (the train reaches speeds of 55 MPH) which takes you up and down hills, through the dark and even backwards. Finally, we meet up with a wonderfully lifelike audio-animatronic Yeti who makes a grab for us as we went past.

We get off the train and R. is a little freaked out. She tells me that she didn't like going backwards so fast and that she didn't like the Yeti. I comfort her and tell her she never has to ride it again if she doesn't want to. R. is 7, so younger kids might be scared by this ride. J., who is 9 and I loved it.

We met up with A. She had purchased ponchos, since it was raining on and off (I mistook the rain for a special effect as we were going up the first hill on Everest). She had gotten the fastpasses for the Safari, but we had a little time until they were good, so we went on the first of two trail walks that we took that day.

Pangani Forest Exploration Trail and Maharajah Jungle Trek: Both of these are similar, so I'll talk about them both here. These are wonderful, zoo-like trails that you walk along and view the animals. No ride, no lines, just wonderful, close-up views of some amazing animals. If you spend your time at Animal Kingdom rushing from ride to ride, you are really missing out on something.

Kilamanjaro Safari: This was the best thing at Animal Kingdom. You get onto a truck that brings you through the park's savanah, where the animals roam free. Well, not really free. To prevent young guests from seeing the animals eat each other (and prevent them from eating the guests,too, I suppose), Disney has cleverly walled off the predators with natural looking barriers. Unless you were looking for the barriers, you would swear that that lion could come down and have a few of the paying customers for lunch.

We got on our truck for what the guide promised us was going to be a "two week tour". She starts driving us through the savanah and we see numerous animals up close. We even had to stop for a couple of minutes as the road was blocked by a giraffe crossing.

There was a nominal plot about poachers that cut our two week tour short to about 15 minutes, but seeing all these animals in a natural setting with no apparent barriers between them and us was nothing short of exhilirating.

Rafiki's Planet Watch: We took the train over to Rafiki's Planet Watch. The train ride itself is nothing special, although it does give you a backstage look at the buildings where the savanah animals spend the night. Rafiki's is a series of exhibits and hands on stuff (including a petting zoo) where we spent a fair amount of time. Again, no lines to stand in (other than to get on the train) and lots of cool stuff to see. One thing we did wait for were some character pictures with Rafiki, Pocohantas and the rarely seen Jiminy Cricket.

Festival of the Lion King: My one regret on this trip is that we didn't see many of the shows, but we did get to see the wonderful Festival of the Lion King. It doesn't really retell the story of the movie, but is more of a celebration hosted by Timon and includes lots of dancing, singing, acrobatics and even a guy who eats fire. Unfortunately, it was too dark in the theater for my pictures to come out but it was a lot of fun. Anyone who comes out of this show and isn't humming some tune from the Lion King soundtrack wasn't really paying attention.

Dinosaur: A. and R. headed off to the Boneyard while J. and I went to ride Dinosaur. The basic story is this: you travel back in time to save a dinosaur, just before the asteroid that wipes out the species hits. The pre-show consists of a video briefing on your "mission", and then you get into the ride vehicle. It's a car, somewhat similar to the ones on Test Track in Epcot. You then get sent back 65 million years into a really intense experience where dinosaurs pop out at you, lights flash and go out and the ride vehicle bounces this way and that. J. and I both thought it was fun, but definitely not for the faint of heart. When we left the ride we had the opportunity to buy a picture. J. was clutching my arm, and a little girl in the row in front of us had her head buried in her arms so she couldn't see anything.

Those were pretty much all the attractions we visited. The other thing the kids did was this stamp book. There was a station in each land where they did an activity and learned something about animals or conservation and they would get a stamp at each spot. When they completed all the stamps,they got a big stamp. Completing the book became a bit of a mission during the day. The kids had fun with it. My only complaint would be that it would have been nice if there was a better prize for completing the book. Maybe a pin?

So we had a great day at Animal Kingdom. It had such a different vibe than the other Disney parks. Instead of rushing from attraction to attraction, Animal Kingdom works best if you take the time to really see the animals and interact with the Cast Members and not just try to check rides off a checklist.


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