Making the most of an all-too-quick visit to Animal Kingdom

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T1018ANIMALKINGDOM1_TS_HR [credit: Tom Stieghorst]
A tour truck on the Kilimanjaro Safari adventure in Animal Kingdom gets close to two giraffes and a springbok. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

I'd never been to the Animal Kingdom park at Walt Disney World, so as I made my first visit late last month, I wondered if it could possibly be any better than the other fine Florida animal attractions I've visited in the past.

I should have known better.

Not only did I find the animal exhibits first-rate, the restaurants and shops compelling and the theming detailed and imaginative, but the rides associated with Animal Kingdom put it in a league of its own among animal attractions. And one of the rides is among the very best at Disney World.

I made my visit to Animal Kingdom on the front end of a two-day stay to experience Walt Disney World's 50th anniversary celebrations. My plane was late in departing, so the challenge became to experience as much as I could in the two hours I had before the park closed for the day.

T1018ANIMALKINGDOM3_TS [credit: Tom Stieghorst]
The Mombasa Marketplace, a shop in the Africa section of Animal Kingdom. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

I arrived shortly before 5 p.m. with a plan. I figured with luck I would have time to do four things before the park's 7 p.m. closing. Seeing animals was a must, so I knew that the Kilimanjaro Safari would be my first stop.

I'd also been told that the Avatar Flight of Passage ride was very exciting, but a good strategy was to save it for the last activity of the day to avoid the queue. So that left me with two options sandwiched in between. Disney lists 173 attractions in Animal Kingdom on its website, so I was resigned to missing lots of good stuff.

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It was a decent hike from the park entrance to the safari tour, so I got to soak up some Animal Kingdom atmosphere along the way. Landscaping throughout the park is terrific, and I was especially impressed by the theming in the Africa section. Although I've never been to Africa, the markets and bazaars rang true to what I've seen in photos, albeit in that cleaned-up Disney sort of way.

The safari is a 20-minute tour of a savanna/forest in a 32-passenger truck rigged like an oversize safari vehicle. There's a carefully curated pile of loose baggage and gear secured with bungee cords atop the cab of the expedition truck. Only a handful of people were aboard for my sunset tour, so social distancing was no problem.

Disney says it cares for 34 species on the 110-acre Harambe Wildlife Reserve, and I think I saw most of them on the tour. We didn't see all of the Big 5, but I checked off lion and elephant. Cheetahs just awakening from a nap were a treat. Giraffes loped, an ostrich rolled in the dirt, and wildebeests grazed and gamboled.

It was all a giant step up from Magic Kingdom's Jungle Cruise ride.

After my safari, I let serendipity decide my course and ended up walking the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail. Once again, a nice combination of real animals and Disney-quality theming. Around one bend, I saw a hippo lumbering into a pool and watched it walk the bottom from a glass observation wall. Nearby, meerkats frolicked and vocalized.

I wanted to grab at least a light dinner before the park closed, so I headed to Flame Tree Barbeque, which served up a nice pulled pork sandwich topped with cole slaw, some delicious baked beans and a local craft brew.

T1018ANIMALKINGDOM4_TS [credit: Tom Stieghorst]
Bioluminescent plant life from the imaginary moon Pandora is on display outside the Avatar Flight of Passage ride at Animal Kingdom. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

Three down, one to go.

I headed for Pandora, the fantastic alien moon created for the 2009 science fiction movie "Avatar." Disney Imagineering was in rare form when it created Animal Park's Pandora. The park's floating mountain structure has to be seen to be believed.

I was grateful for the advice to save the best for last, as I walked right to the front of the line. The ride is a 3-D flying simulator, akin to Epcot's Soarin', but from the back of an animated dragon in an alien world. Riders get cautions about motion sickness and fear of heights. But if you're not prone to those things, it's a blast. I immediately wanted to ride again.

Alas, it was closing time. But I was happy to have completed my abbreviated agenda. Animal Kingdom is far from a two-hour park. Next time I'll brave the queues and show up when the doors open.

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