May 2016 — The Opening of Animal Kingdom at Night
It’s here… the long awaited opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park at night! This is a first for Disney; never before has Animal Kingdom been open after dark. Previously, of the 4 Disney Parks in Orlando, Animal Kingdom had the shortest hours. Since its inception, the park always closed at dusk. There was a good reason for that — the animals! After all, this park is dedicated to the animals. And animals, like you and I, need proper care and rest. Bright lights and loud noises are known to be very stressful for certain animals. So you can imagine the immense challenge that Disney had in creating a nighttime experience that pleased its guests without compromising the pampering and well-being of the animals. But hey, if anyone is up for a challenge… it’s Disney!
Hubby and I experienced Animal Kingdom at night on June 1st, just 5 days after its debut. Just like a Hollywood Premier, there was much chatter and anxious anticipation from Disney fans, fanatics, and critics. So yeah, I just had to see for myself what all the buzz was about. As seasoned Annual Passholders we have the luxury of choosing to spend an entire day or just a few hours at the theme parks. With a heat index of 106° that day, guess which option we chose? We arrived at Animal Kingdom around 5:30 PM — that’s about the time of day the fiery heat of the Florida sun begins to dissipate. When we went on Wednesday the park was open until 11:00 PM. We had done our homework, scheduled our 3 FastPass+ attractions in advance, and planned on staying late.
The Festival of the Lion King — A Kaleidoscope of Color!
Our first stop was The Festival of the Lion King performance in Africa. I regret not taking the time to view this incredible show in previous visits. I was thinking it would be too ‘juvenile’ for me without my grandson present… WRONG! It’s a 30-minute high energy Broadway-like stage show of puppetry and colorful pageantry celebrating, of course, Simba. The little lion prince and his friends take the liberty to do their version of the story, a bit different from the movie, but hey, the would-be king can do what he wants! There were dazzling dancers, stilt walkers (how do they do that?), gigantic moving floats with animatronic characters, larger-than-life puppets, acrobatic monkeys, and (near and dear to my heart) a fire dancer twirling his torch. [Did I mention I used to do that? No, really! Waaaay back in the day, I was a competitive twirler using multiple batons, knives, and fire batons (have you ever smelled singed hair or fingernails?). But I’m all grown up now, only a spectator with enormous respect for those who attempt such fascinating feats.] Disney also managed to strategically insert at least 6 songs from the film — Hakuna Matata, Be Prepared, Can You Feel the Love Tonight, I Just Can’t Wait to Be King, and The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Circle of Life signaled the grand finale, which, quite honestly, came a bit too soon for me. I thought the fast moving production was magnificently done. Even if you’re doing an adult-only Disney vacation, you need to make room for this energetic tribal celebration. You’ll leave the theatre feeling good… and refreshed (it’s also a great place to cool down!).
Finding Nemo — The Musical
Our next stop in Animal Kingdom was the 7:00 show of Finding Nemo — The Musical, located in Dinoland. Thus far, the park looked and felt just like it did on any of our previous visits, but the sky was still sunny and bright. Finding Nemo is a stage show whereby Disney took a hugely popular non-musical animated movie and recreated it into a musical production; the first time Disney had done that. The show is almost entirely portrayed through outstanding puppetry mixed with colorful props, animated projections, really cool lighting, and under water effects that only Disney masterminds could produce. Now when I refer to “puppetry,” you need to reprogram your brain to think of puppets the Disney way… not those tiny little (boring) hand puppets we remember as a kid. No, you need to envision gigantic, humongous, colossal creations that so cleverly camouflage the puppeteers that you forget real people are controlling them. Two of the puppets in particular were so massive they practically consumed the entire stage. Remember Crush the turtle? Well, he was the cadillac of puppets since he was as big as a car. Then there was Nigel, the pelican, who was so tall his head almost went through the roof. I’m not kidding. It’s a 40-minutes show, unless they have technical difficulties right in the middle of it like they did during our show. Even so, they fully recovered, and after a 10 minute delay the show went on. It’s a great story line with elements of drama, humor, and suspense — I won’t give away the plot, though, in the rare event that you haven’t seen Finding Nemo.
I was impressed with both The Festival of the Lion King and Finding Nemo. However, if time is an issue and you have to choose just one, I would recommend The Lion King. The non-stop high energy vibe is a bit more exhilarating. Both of them are indoors allowing you to wipe the sweat from your brow.
***TIP #1 For both of the aforementioned shows, because of the layout of the theaters, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house! In other words, you can arrive late in line and still be assured a good viewing spot. Therefore, you can save your FastPass+ to use on busy ride attractions rather than these two shows.
***TIP #2 If you’re a camera buff like I am, be advised that Finding Nemo does not allow flash photography or video lights. While you’re waiting for the show to start, set your camera to nighttime setting (with no flash) and you won’t miss any good photo opportunities. In The Lion King it’s okay to use flash photography.
After Dark in the Park
By the time we had exited Finding Nemo — The Musical it was 7:50 and sunset was just a half hour away. Animal Kingdom was beginning to take on a whole new look and ‘feel.’ It was dusk, and small pockets of lights were popping up here and there. The lighting was not over-done. In fact, some areas in the park were very dark with little or no lighting. At times, it became difficult to read the signage. Several times we asked a Disney Cast Member for directions.
We had some time to spare before our scheduled FastPass+ at Kilimanjaro Safari, so we stopped at Yak & Yeti’s™ counter service for a bite to eat. Hubby had the Teriyaki Beef Bowl and I chose the Honey Chicken. We shared a side of Pork Egg Rolls. By the time we finished it was quite dark in the park and time to head over to the Safari.
We walked through Harambe, the African village within Disney’s Animal Kingdom park. This is where the Harambe Wildlife Parti takes place. Playing on the stage was the Burudika Band, a group of Afro-Pop musicians performing music popular in Africa. Park guests were dancing in the street to their upbeat tunes. Harambe also has a vibrant marketplace and diverse eateries. You’ll notice from the photo below that the daytime crowds had thinned out. In fact, this section was quite un-busy by Disney’s standards. We did not see the advertised stilt walkers, the Karibu Sisters, the Harambe Soccer Meerkats, or the Village Acrobats. I’m not sure if they were not performing this night or if they were in a different spot and we missed them. Again, Animal Kingdom at night is a brand new Disney experience, and like any opening, they are still working on perfecting things.
Kilimanjaro’s Safari Nocturnal Encounter — Highly Disappointing!
We arrived at the Kilimanjaro Safari and took our place in the FastPass+ line. Our wait was approximately 10 minutes, far better than the 30-minute posted wait time in the standby entrance. I had been on the Safari ride umpteen times before, but was excited to be able to view the nighttime habits of the animals. For some of them, the setting sun doesn’t signify bedtime. For instance, lions lounge around during the day, but become more active at night. Antelopes only sleep in short spurts as they’re constantly aware of predators who desire them for dinner (of course, they don’t realize their home is Disney, and not the African savanna in the wild!).
We boarded our open-air safari jeep and my camera was pre-set to ‘nighttime’ as I didn’t want to miss a photo opportunity. Unfortunately, during our 18-minute expedition into the 110-acre Harambe Wildlife Reserve, we only seen a few animals… maybe 6 or 7 at best. I was certain our bumpy transport through the rugged terrain would yield many glimpses of the rarely seen nocturnal habits of certain animals. But exploring the African savanna at night wasn’t the unforgettable journey I had anticipated. At times, the tour seemed like we were actually in Africa with some elements of adventure and suspense. It was eerily quiet, except for weird unidentifiable animal noises in the distance and surrounding bush. I expected something to jump out at any moment… but, nope! Sometimes the 18-minute tour seemed like an eternity and actually, well, for lack of a better word, boring. That was my personal opinion, but in exiting the ride, I overheard many people expressing the same sentiment. I felt bad for the droves of park guests who stood in the standby line for upwards of half an hour. I fully understand that, just like the daytime Kilimanjaro Safari Tour, everyone’s experience will differ. After all, even Disney magic can’t control the actions of live animals. Even though I was disappointed, hopefully your tour will yield better results.
How Disney Prepared for Nighttime at Animal Kingdom
To me, it seemed that Disney spent a ton of time and money on something that can be very hit or miss. The Kilimanjaro Safari nighttime project actually started 3 years ago. Everything had to be done carefully to ensure they wouldn’t disturb the animals. Here’s a few of the changes they made to the Safari:
- Doubled the animal population. Many of the animals receive their pampering after dark. For example, this is when the elephants get bathed backstage. And yeah, the process is a little longer than bathing a dog! So, in order to have enough animals on display for the tour, they almost doubled the animal population by both breeding and acquisition. They even added 2 new species — hyenas and painted dogs.
- Disney installed soundproofing. For some of the animals noise can be bothersome and even stressful. As you know, Disney’s nighttime shows can be very loud, so Disney installed soundproofing around the areas of certain animals. Soundtracks for their new nighttime shows were played over and over again so the animal caretakers could observe what they could comfortably tolerate. Fireworks were a definite no go! Even though Disney’s other 3 theme parks have them, they were considered too stressful for the Animal Kingdom inhabitants. Instead, they created a nighttime show with floating lanterns and huge water screens called, “Rivers of Light.”
- Special Safari lighting was installed. In order for the Safari guests to be able to see, special lighting had to be installed. The positioning of the lights and the wattages had to be carefully considered. To maintain the quality of life for the animals, Disney wanted a softly lit environment, something that looked like ‘natural’ light. Now, parts of the savanna was made to look like the glow of the setting sun. Other parts are still dark with no special lighting so the animals can choose whether to roam in the light or remain in the dark. (The latter was the case on my tour!)
As mentioned, we only seen a handful of animals during our nighttime Kilimanjaro Safari Tour. I captured this giraffe (photo above) in the darkness. In addition, I saw some Nile Crocodile, a White Rhinoceros, Nile Hippopotamus, Sable Antelope, and a few unknown birds. Unfortunately, my photos were too dark for the animals to be recognizable. I’m glad I took the nighttime Safari to see what all the fuss was about. But honestly, unless I’m hosting out-of-town visitors who insist on seeing it, it was my first and last nighttime Safari. For me, the whole idea of taking a Safari ride is to view animals, and the daytime tour at Animal Kingdom is much more conducive for that!
The Tree of Life Comes Alive!
One of the highlights of my visit to Animal Kingdom at night was watching the park’s iconic Tree of Life come ‘alive.’ I’ve always enjoyed looking at the Tree of Life, the centerpiece of Animal Kingdom, and marveled at the artistic carvings of various animals in the trunk of the massive 145-feet-tall, 50-feet-wide sculpted tree. But this night it was even more spectacular. One of the new nighttime additions to the park is the “awakenings,” as Disney calls it. They are high-tech projection shows that feature short stories (about 3 0r 4 minutes long) of a particular animal. “Magical fireflies” kick off each scene. When you see the tiny dancing white lights surround the tree, that is your cue to look up. The flickering fireflies seem to “awaken” the animal carvings that suddenly come alive and almost appear realistic.
The first was the story of a red fox and its unlikely friendship with a polar bear. (Only Disney can turn a lush green forest into a winter wonderland before you can blink your eyes.) For me, this was the most visually stimulating of the 2 shows. It was action-packed and at times the tree seemed to explode. The second story was a playful deer and bird in the woods. Simply incredible! Disney has taken the invention of projection mapping technology to new heights. I would have liked to see them all. Disney Cast Members have said there is no set time for the projection shows, and in the Animal Kingdom brochure there is no set schedule listed. They are advertised as random, but seem to be every 15-20 minutes. We watched 2 of them in half an hour. But even when the projections are not being played, the bright, almost psychedelic-looking, changing colors on the Tree of Life create continual photo and video opportunities. Yes, this is definitely a not-to-be-missed event in Animal Kingdom after dark.
New Evening Experiences at Animal Kingdom
Disney is working on a new animal-friendly nighttime water and light show called, “Rivers of Light.” A sneak peek into the previews looks pretty spectacular, but the opening has been delayed. There is a temporary water show called, “The Jungle Book: Alive With Magic” that debuted on May 28th. Like any Disney “first” it’s difficult to see it without waiting in the standby line for hours, scheduling a FastPass+ (which was already maxed out for the night we went), or booking a pricey combination dinner/show package which allows VIP seating for the show. Initially we opted for the standby line, but changed our mind when we approached the brand new 5,000-seat amphitheater. Patience is a virtue but sometimes I’m not a virtuous woman! Wasn’t in the mood to exchange 2 hours of my time for a 20-minute show — after all, I am a local so I’ll catch it later.
Part of the new evening experiences at Animal Kingdom include a few of the daytime classics… after dark. Not all of the attractions remain open at night, but in addition to Kilimanjaro Safari, 2 hugely popular ones, Expedition Everest and Kali River Rapids are both available until the park closes. Also, a new full-service restaurant called “Tiffins” has opened along with the “Nomad Lounge” right next door. The menu items look a bit more exotic and upscale compared to other restaurant offerings in the park. A must-try for me and the foodie in your family!
All in all, I had a great night at Animal Kingdom. A few disappointments for sure, but the overall atmosphere after dark was worth a visit. I think it’s especially nice for adults. It almost has a ‘romantic’ feel to it. Perhaps its all the deliberately dimly-lit little alcoves hidden here and there — and really, all the best things in life happen in the dark!
Have you been to Animal Kingdom at night? I’d love to hear about your experience. Or maybe a question popped into your mind while reading this article. Submit either of them via the comment section below! And… have a “magical day!”