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Jolene goes to Disney's Animal Kingdom

Our first Disney World park was Animal Kingdom. This was not necessarily by choice; as I mentioned in my planning post, I looked at which parks had Extra Magic Hours, and Animal Kingdom had a morning Extra Magic Hour.

To be honest, I wasn't sure I knew what to expect. Animals? Pandora? Expedition Everest? I had a piecemeal image in my mind, but nothing prepared me for the pure beauty and grandeur that is Animal Kingdom.

Animal Kingdom is broken up into sections, and each section has a distinct aesthetic and incredibly detailed decor, magically transporting you into another world. Africa, Asia, Pandora, Discovery Island, and Dino Land U.S.A. are all different spaces where guests can enjoy different attractions, foods, and experiences. Each part is so carefully crafted that sometimes it's easy to forget you're at a Disney Park.

Since May 2017, the buzz words related to Animal Kingdom have included Pandora and Flight of Passage. Pandora, inspired by the blockbuster film Avatar, is Animal Kingdom's newest section, and it includes the ever-raved-about Flight of Passage ride, a adrenaline-pumping 3D ride that pays homage to the iconic banshee flight of passage from the film. If you consult Disney blogs like I do, you will read post after post about the wait times for Flight of Passage (3+ hours!), but also about the unrivaled genius behind the ride. Naturally, this makes for a stressful consideration - to ride or not to ride? That was the million dollar question.

I watched several Youtube videos, thankful that some faithful bloggers documented their rope drop experiences. "Rope drop" refers to the very moment the park opens, and taking advantage of getting to the park early. Due to my extreme paranoia and extreme desire to accomplish our park goals, we decided to forego the free transportation and take a Minnie Van in order to make the best of our first Disney World rope drop.

The Minnie Van service is in partnership with Lyft, and even though it's pricey, it can be a faster and more calm (no screaming kids!) way for you to get to your park. The cast member who drove us was a wonderful conversationalist and offered a lot of really great tips for our day. It was quite pleasant and fun. Plus, the car was just so cute!

We arrived at the park probably around 7:20AM, eagerly awaiting Extra Magic Hour to begin at 8AM. We approached the crowd to get in line, and literally all around me, all I could hear were people talking about going to Pandora.

Amazingly, we were let in at 7:30AM! The lines began to move, and "Circle of Life" started playing over the speakers. It was an incredible moment full of absolute excitement - my first Disney World park!

Once we made it through the Magic Band scan, we followed the crowd toward Pandora, and I was already completely enamored by Animal Kingdom. Everything about Animal Kingdom feels authentic, rustic, and majestic. There are surprises around every corner, and beauty in every nook. When we arrived in Pandora, I realized the photos I'd seen couldn't do it justice. It was absolutely stunning!

Soon after arriving in Pandora, we found our way into the Flight of Passage line. We passed the sign that said '60 minutes' and I was THRILLED. Only an hour? Great! People literally wait HOURS for this ride. I was excited to go through the intricately-adorned line, admire the details, and enjoy the air conditioning. Yes, even before 8AM, AC is wonderful.

To my surprise, we didn't pass through any of the line I'd read about. Where was the lab? The forest? The cool life-size avatar floating in the tank? I was confused until I realized we were already starting to board for the ride. We only waited 20 minutes for Flight of Passage, and technically Extra Magic Hour hadn't even started yet.

I did not take many photos at this point, and it is impossible to capture the experience that is Flight of Passage. Often compared to a cross between Soarin' over the World and Star Tours, Flight of Passage is inspired by the part of Avatar where a Na'vi connects with a banshee and goes on their first flight as a pair. I am not the hugest fan of the movie (in fact, I watched it only weeks ago for the first time SOLELY to prepare for this trip), but this attraction almost made me cry mid-ride. It was so beautiful, so well done, and I got lost in the experience. To me, 3D rides have lost their luster in many cases and are often a dime a dozen. This is most definitely not the case with Flight of Passage; Disney has reinvented the idea of a 3D ride and has successfully created an immersive experience. True to the movie and the park itself, Flight of Passage as well as Pandora both point to a major theme we saw in the park all day: respect for the earth, respect for animals, and respect for the beauty of nature are all necessary for a harmonious existence on our planet.

The rest of our day at Animal Kingdom was full of adrenaline, good food, gorgeous details, plenty of animals, and unique shows. I was fortunate enough to have a FastPass+ for Na'vi River Journey (the other Avatar-inspired ride in Pandora), Expedition Everest, and Finding Nemo: The Musical. Since it was so early, we squeezed in Kilamanjaro Safari in the morning as well, and were unbelievably privileged to see many animals awake for their feeding.

I highly recommend the Kilamanjaro Safari (especially in the morning), if you can manage it. The wait times are often long, and I can totally understand why. This attraction is appropriately named - guests board a safari vehicle and are driven through several different areas with many animals on view, including lions, elephants, giraffes, and rhinos.

We also conquered Expedition Everest - I have to admit, this was the ride that I was the most excited for. Expedition Everest is a high-speed roller coaster that takes place in a very impressive mountain inspired by Mount Everest. Adrenaline junkies, this ride may not be the most thrilling (no loops, corkscrews, etc.), but I'd still say it's for you! I'd seen many POV videos of this ride, so I knew what to expect, but I was still overwhelmed when I rode it. I definitely screamed bloody murder the first time, but the second time was a bit less terrifying for me. The theming on this ride is absolutely incredible, beginning with the yeti museum in the line, all the way to the yeti you become acquainted with on the ride itself.

Another stand-out feature of Animal Kingdom is its entertainment, namely Finding Nemo: The Musical and Festival of the Lion King. Both shows are exceptionally entertaining, but they are very different. Finding Nemo is more of a classic broadway-esque show, while Festival of the Lion King is an interactive celebration accompanied by lots of singing and amazing acts and acrobatics.

I loved both shows, but my preference leans toward Finding Nemo, only because I feel like it had more of a story and I enjoyed the cleverness with which it was executed.

All four Disney World parks have their own night show, and for Animal Kingdom, it's Rivers of Light. To avoid spending extra time to stake out a spot for the show, we indulged in a dining package that came with preferred seating for Rivers of Light. We probably could have arrived at the seating earlier, but we were too caught up in the park!

We snagged some seats at the far end and enjoyed the peaceful display of colors, light, and water. While Rivers of Light may not be the most exciting Disney World night show, it's perfectly in line with the park and its message. To maintain the animals' wellbeing, there are no fireworks, but there is plenty for your eyes to feast on.

I had the hardest time leaving the park once the show was done. The good news is that we got one last taste of Animal Kingdom during one of the Tree of Life Awakenings - a light show on the main landmark in the park, the Tree of Life. It was a beautiful send off.

Overall, Animal Kingdom is my favorite Disney World park. It is incredibly unique, is entertainingly educational, and provides a side of Disney most don't get to see. The Disney Magic isn't all dependent on pixie dust and Mickey ears - the Disney Magic lies in Disney's ability to create an environment and transport guests to other worlds.

Of course, food is a big part of any Disney park as well. Click here to read about my foodie adventures at Animal Kingdom.

Check out some of my favorite snaps from the park, as well as our ride photos below!

Animal Kingdom is perfect for adventurers great and small, with shows and attractions for the whole family. It is a subtly beautiful park with exciting trails, exotic animals and unique rides. I absolutely adore this park!

Until next time,

Happy wandering!


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