When planning a Disney World vacation, parents often focus solely on the Magic Kingdom for entertaining their preschoolers. It’s the obvious choice; Cinderella Castle greeting you from afar and plenty of recognizable characters and rides aimed squarely at their youthful audience. Epcot and Hollywood Studios fill in the extra days. Lost in the shuffle is Animal Kingdom.
With only three rides for little tykes, parents overlook all the amazing shows and adventure and animals. “Isn’t it just a zoo?” Over the years I’ve come to enjoy Animal Kingdom from my daughter’s perspective. First as a toddler and now moving into her tween years. There are so many layers to the park that it’s easy to grow along with from the curiosity of a preschooler to the knowledge seeking of a teen. Here are several reasons why Animal Kingdom is one of our favorite parks and one my daughter always enjoys.
Exploring the World at Animal Kingdom
While Magic Kingdom focuses on pure fantasy, Animal Kingdom uses its resources to spark your imagination. Preschoolers love to explore and have an insatiable curiosity, so what better place to be than one where they can discover something new around each and every turn. An African town, the mountains of Nepal, the jungles of India; all fantastical places to the young mind. The level of detail the Disney Imagineers incorporated into the park gives it an authentic feel that even well traveled adults will appreciate.
Activities for Preschoolers at Animal Kingdom
While there may not be many rides for younger kids, there are several different activities to keep them busy all day. Interactive and fun, they will not even realize lessons about animals, nature, and foreign cultures are being learned.
Wilderness Explorers – Stop by the booth before on the bridge to the Tree of Life and pick up a Wilderness Explorers Field Guide. A cast member (Disney employee) will give you an introduction and swear you in as a member. The guide book lists 30 activities which can be found at locations throughout the park. The stations cover a wide array of topics from identifying dinosaur fossils to flamingo habitats or even learning a bit of another language. The cast members at each station will talk about a topic and get kids involved in an activity. Once completed, a badge will be awarded in the form of a sticker to place in the Field Guide. While some topics may be too advanced for preschool kids, it’s still easy to get involved in most and is perfect for families with kids of different ages.
The Boneyard – Give a kid a shovel and they’ll dig to their heart’s content. The Boneyard is an enclosed archaeological area full of child friendly activities. Rope ladders and slides, a jeep to play on, and of course sand. There are replica dinosaur and mammoth bones kids can dig up and cast members who can help them out and teach a few things about these prehistoric animals along the way. There are some shaded areas with mist fans, but keep an eye on kids in the open dig areas under the Florida sun. The dig site is near DinoLand USA, so a great spot to split up if there are older members of your group who want to hit some rides.
Character Meet and Greets – It may not be obvious at first glance, but there are several character meet and greets available at Animal Kingdom. Popular favorites, such as Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy can be found in various locations. The real treat is the characters unique to the park, such as Pocahontas or Russell and Dug from the the movie Up! Look for random rare characters near the front entrance in the mornings to kick off the day. For big character fans, make lunch reservations at Tusker House. Mickey and pals are there dressed for safari and each spend plenty of time at your table for interaction and pictures. It is our favorite spot for character meets and also has an excellent buffet. Follow this link for some tips on getting the most out of Disney World meet and greets.
Animal Kingdom is not a Zoo
Many Disney World novices miss out on Animal Kingdom. Either they don’t think there is anything for their kids to do or assume it is just a zoo. While there are enough animals to fill a quality zoo, they are not the main attraction. Instead, the animals have been placed as part of the living environment so you experience both the human side and their habitats. You’ll be surprised by how many animals can easily be missed merely for the fact that you looked the other way or focused in the path ahead, not noticing the habitat blended seamlessly with the surroundings. There are several areas of the park that focus directly on the animals. Safaris, zoo type pathways, and even a vet clinic offer a wide range of experiences. Here is what you’ll find around the park.
Kilimanjaro Safaris — Guests board trucks and head out to see the animals, just like a real African safari. Preschoolers will especially enjoy the experience of driving to get up close to the animals in their own environments; so different from a traditional zoo visit. Tips: Reserve a FastPass+ for this ride as it is very popular. Mornings are the best time to see the animals moving about and evening rides are now available as the park hours have been extended.
Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail (Formerly Pangani) – Centered around animals from Africa, the winding pathways will lead you through habitats featuring gorillas, zebras, and an enclosure where guests can mingle with beautiful tropical birds.
Maharajah Jungle Trek – This lush pathway leads guests on a self-guided tour of the Indian jungles. Highlights include large fruit bats, an aviary, and tigers. As with the Gorilla Falls trail, these are areas where young children can wander freely and see fascinating animals up close. Both trails are best in the mornings when it is cooler and the animals are moving about more.
Rafiki’s Planet Watch – This is another area perfect for preschoolers. First, board a small train for a leisurely ride to the Conservation Station, then head out for some exciting activities. Kids can learn about conservation and animal habitats, watch veterinarians as they perform, routine checkups, or even surgery, on park animals, and get hands on with goats at the petting zoo. This is a great place to get away from the crowds and heat for a bit if kids get overstimulated or just need some down time.
Live Entertainment at Animal Kingdom
Animal Kingdom is not a place where younger kids will find a lot of rides. In fact, there are only three suited for this age group. The Kilimanjaro Safaris, Na’vi River Journey in Pandora, and TriceraTop Spin, which is a typical spinner ride like Dumbo in Magic Kingdom. What the park lacks in rides, they make up for in street entertainment and live shows.
Street Performers – Wandering through Animal Kingdom you’ll stumble across many forms of live entertainment. In Africa there is often live music, which draws a large crowd. In India you’ll find a DJ hosting a dance party. And, if you look closely, you may find even the plants come to life. The appeal for preschoolers depends on mostly on their temperament. Some may run out and join the dancers while others will be annoyed by the loud music and crowds.
Festival of the Lion King – This theater in the round version of the popular musical of the popular movie is a hit with young kids. Sitting in bleachers on four sides, guests watch as floating stages and actors move in and out of the theater performing several scenes. The atmosphere is very kid friendly with plenty of singing, colorful costumes, and even acrobats. Before the show kids can mingle with performers in the stage area to kick off the performance.
Finding Nemo the Musical – This has become one of my recent favorites. The stage version follows the story of the Pixar movie, but is performed by puppeteers wearing and/or operating large scale characters. You’ll find that you tune out the actors while watching the show and focus solely on the puppets. Kids love this show with the familiar easy to follow story and colorful characters. Spoiler alert: Nemo’s mother dies at the beginning, movie and stage show, so you may have some parental explaining/dodging if your kids haven’t fully processed that yet.
The Bird Show – The amazing Flights of Wonder bird show retired recently and will be replaced with an updated version featuring the characters Russell and Dug from the movie Up! If it is anything like the former show, there will be plenty of birds flying around and some audience interaction. The new show is due to debut in Spring of 2018, so watch for news updates from Disney.
A Bugs’ Life – A combination of animatronic theater show and 3D visuals. This attraction is located under the Tree of Life. While it is a fun show, there are a few segments where the special effects may scare some younger kids. In one scene the lights turn off and it feels like bugs are flying around, so use your own judgment of how you think your children will react.
Nighttime entertainment is something new at Animal Kingdom. Previously, experiencing this park after dark was a rarity reserved for those times of year when evening came early and it was busy enough for hours to be extended. In late 2016 Disney introduced a new projection show for the Tree of Life in which the carved creatures covering the tree come to life. Shortly after, the Rivers of Light show was unveiled. This nightly performance takes place on the lake with boats, water fountains, and animal floats in a spectacular light show. While the atmosphere of Animal Kingdom at night is utterly beautiful, it may not be the best place for kids who are afraid of the dark. The lighting is dim, which can amplify the mysteriousness of the jungle plants and sounds.
Exploring the World of Pandora at Animal Kingdom
Finally, Pandora. This new land, which opened in 2017, is based on James Cameron’s Avatar film. The alien world of Pandora features a lush forest landscape with floating mountains. The highlight, though, is at night when this bio-luminescent world comes to life. Everything from the plants to sidewalks are aglow with light. It is a truly amazing experience and preschoolers will be amazed just walking around in this display of imagination. You’ll also find the Na’Vi River Journey here. This boat ride through the jungle is an amazing and relaxing ride, which will keep younger kids entertained. It is currently one of the most popular attractions at Disney World, so be sure to book a FastPass+ reservation as soon as possible or face a very long wait in line, which is rarely fun with little kids.
Often considered a ‘half-day park’ by fans who only seek out rides, this theme park has so much more to offer. Disney’s Animal Kingdom is truly a wonderful place for preschoolers to explore. They can indulge their curiosity and imagination to the fullest and maybe even learn some lessons along the way. As a parent, I’ve enjoyed that my daughter can be fully immersed in an imaginary world, yet one that brings the real one closer to home. There are few places where one can experience so much of the world.