Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Half-Day Park?

Written by George Taylor. Posted in Animal Kingdom, Disney, Disney Parks, Features, Imaginerding, Walt Disney World

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Published on June 16, 2014 at 12:45 am with 25 Comments

One of our running gags on Communicore Weekly concerns Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The call of “half-day park” is usually one of my rejoinders whenever Jeff mentions the Animal Kingdom. I joke about it being a half-day park while Jeff defends the park’s reputation. Based on the comments from people I meet in the parks and through social media, it’s pretty much half and half on the status of the park. I try to ask people why they think it’s a half-day park and most responses center around the fact that there’s just not enough to do. Sometimes they’ll add that Disney’s Hollywood Studios suffers the same issue.

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There’s actually a lot of hidden details in this scene.

I’ve thought about Animal kingdom a lot and pondered why I think of it as a half-day park. Certainly, it seems like there aren’t enough attractions, but it’s also the largest Disney theme park in the world. Shouldn’t the sheer size of the park amount to something?

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The world’s most over-themed Coca-Cola soda stand.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios (nee Disney-MGM Studios) is a perfect example of how Eisner’s regime built parks. The three US-based parks built after EPCOT Center fit a similar mold of “build it small with the intent to grow” (which rarely happens). The Disney-MGM Studios was built specifically to be a half-day park in order to give guests an extra reason to lengthen their stay. Eisner wanted to expand the size of the park as the popularity grew. From opening, it was obvious that the Disney-MGM Studios was woefully undersized, so attractions were added. The massive fix for Disney California Adventure came with a billion dollar price tag and it’s been argued that the billion dollars should have been added at the beginning.

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Pipes sticking out of the ground? No problem! Let’s dress it up like a water station.

I’m a firm believer that the Disneyland-style park is the best design for a theme park. The revolutionary design of a single entrance with a hub-and-spoke layout offers the best experience. The fact that Disneyland is the model for four other parks around the world speaks volumes. I contend that if a company besides Disney had built EPCOT Center, it would have been a miserable failure. I love Epcot as it stands today, but not as much as the EPCOT Center from the first decade. Even then, Disney didn’t understand how to promote EPCOT Center but it’s popularity grew from word-of-mouth.

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It’s a great tableau, but what a mess!

That being said, EPCOT Center was a departure from the Disneyland mold and really needed to be. It was heavily influenced by the World’s Fairs it was (sort of) replacing and offered an exciting, if not slightly homogeneous, view of the future and a handful of countries. Not many other entertainment companies could have pulled off the massive edu-tainment attractions in Future World without being totally lackluster. The sheer size of the Future World attractions screamed Disney, especially with the huge numbers of audio-animatroincs used. I guess that’s my reasoning for calling Animal Kingdom a half-day park.

It doesn’t seem like a Disney theme park to me, at all.

The Magic Kingdom-style parks are all Disney, through and through. Most of the attractions are based on Disney properties or represent the Disney model of a theme park attractions. A hallmark of a Disney attraction is story and the ability to transport you to another place. Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean is a prime example. It’s grandiose, mesmerizing and offers a great experience. EPCOT Center offered similar attractions that educated, entertained and left you feeling positive about the future. Disney’s Hollywood Studios comes close to the Disney standard but lacks the staying power of the Magic Kingdom. The last over-the-top animatronics attraction, The Great Movie Ride, offers a great experience but it was an attraction that was built on the waning edge of the animatronics; Disney experimented with new technologies after that. There was a larger focus on outside properties (Lucasfilm) that held a sentimental value and offered experiences close, but not on par with, the Magic Kingdom.

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Let’s make it look like a parking lot!

To me, the Animal Kingdom just doesn’t feel like a Disney park.

The theming and attention to detail is top notch, but I feel like you’re missing the attractions that pull you in and engage you with storytelling. There are exceptions, like the Kilimanjaro Safari and Finding Nemo, the Musical which can pull you in on their scale and charm, but many of the attractions seem to be there as space holders.

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Even though the theming is a high point of the park, it doesn’t feel like Disney theming. Disney California Adventure has two amazing themed areas: Buena Vista Street and Carsland (which is a great name for a parking lot). Buena Vista Street, like Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios capitalizes on nostalgia. Buena Vista Street takes it a step further by waxing nostalgic about Walt Disney and the halcyon days of the Studio. Carsland is amazing but feels really out of place in the park. For Cars fans, though, there’s no better themed space.

Realism is Animal Kingdom’s strength; they sacrificed any fantasy architecture for a realism that’s stunning in its authenticity. Believe it or not, but Epcot is full of fantasy architecture, including the Future World pavilions. The Future World pavilions were designed to help prepare you for the attraction by telling you some of the story through the architecture. They inspire hope for the future as well as challenging our thoughts on architecture and design. World Showcase is nothing but fantasy architecture that is meant to instill a sense of nostalgia and adventure. It’s like a greatest hits of world architecture.

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My argument about the theming at Animal Kingdom is that the Imagineers over-themed in order to show that they could do it. Sort of a “look at how cool we are by overtheming.” They pushed for realism as opposed to the nostalgic and fantasy themes of the Magic Kingdom, where even the scale is proportionate. As opposed to cute sight gags or tributes to former attractions and cast members, Animal Kingdom is more about realism than fantasy. To me, there’s just nothing magical about the park. I understand that the park celebrates the animal life in our world and you have to take a specific approach in order to present these themes seriously. I still see the park, like the Disney-MGM Studios, as a way for Eisner to capture the audience of an already established park; a way of keeping people on property longer.

My attempt was not to bash the Animal Kingdom, but to discuss some issues that I’ve held during my visits to the park. It’s always been last on my list of things to do as well as the park I would drop for another day at the Magic Kingdom. There were several trips in which I didn’t visit the Animal Kingdom at all. The Animal Kingdom is beautiful and has several world-class attractions, but it still doesn’t hold the appeal or magic that the other domestic parks do. The walking trails are spectacular and they’re a great way to bring the animals up close and in a tangible environment. It’s more what you’d expect from a zoo and not a theme park. But, as the marketing has said since the very beginning, it’s Nahtazu!

So, what are your thoughts on Disney’s Animal Kingdom? Is it a half-day park? Does it feel like a Disney theme park to you?


ImagiNERDing is written and edited by George Taylor

About George Taylor

George has been obsessed with Disney theme parks since the first time he saw a photo of the Haunted Mansion in the early 70s. He started writing about Disney in 2007 and has amassed one of the world's largest Disney-related libraries.

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  • Hakuna Matata

    I can totally understand the idea that the Animal Kingdom does not seem like a Disney Park because with all the realistic theming, it’s not what we expect from Disney. However, I beg to differ. The theming may be done in a different manner than other parks, but that doesn’t make it any less Disney, it just shows Disney has other tricks up it’s sleeve. It’s like a Rolling Stones fan who loved Exile on Main Street because they see the Stones as a rock band. Then the Stones put out Some Girls, which features country, funk and disco influences, and the fan goes,”Hey- this isn’t what I expect from the Rolling Stones.” It’s not that the Some Girls record wasn’t any good, it’s just not what everyone was expecting. That is how I see the Animal Kingdom.

    My wife and I love the Animal Kingdom, and we set aside 2 days for it on every trip. All the trails and quiet places in the park make it a very magical place, just not the same kind of magic as the other parks. Conversely, we set aside half a day for the Movie Park. Being from SoCal, we can ride Star Tours and Toy Story any time, so he hit the Great Movie Ride, One Man’s Dream, and the Mermaid Show and pretty much call it a day.

  • CaptainAction

    Yes, a half day park.

    We have two great zoos and a wonderful animal “drive through” park.

    Dinosaur probably has the worst animatronics of any Disney ride. The Pterodactyl on the wall your vehicle drives beneath is so bad it’s sad. The story is worse.

    We really like the Tough to Be a Bug film. We liked Everest when the Yeti worked over six years ago.

    Justazu.

  • jcruise86

    At least if you hit your favorites, it’s an excellent half a day!
    This was my wife’s favorite WDW park and if fit the AKL where we stayed.
    “The Festival of the Lion King” was excellent when we saw it, and I really liked the trails.
    If preceded with a swim and followed by a theme matching dinner at (and exploration of) the Animal Kingdom Lodge, a great day can be had.

    • jcruise86

      f” should be “it”.

      More importantly, THANKS, George!

  • Park Hopper

    We’ll be taking a trip to WDW this fall. We have 5 days there and 4 days at Universal. The way it’s shaping up, we’ll take one day and spend the morning to early afternoon at Animal Kingdom and then head over to the Studios for the rest of the day. The rest of the time we’ll spend at Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Since we’re fairly regular visitors to WDW, a half day is all we feel we need at those two parks. However, for someone who doesn’t go regularly or who has never been there before, it might be a different story.

    • snookers

      The problem with this strategy now is the replacement of the old fastpass system with FastPass +. Until they allow for park hopping options… going from DAK to Hollywood Studios on the same day means that you give up the FastPass option at one park. I suppose if you choose Hollywood Studios in the afternoon and pick your FastPass + rides there you can probably hit DAK early enough to avoid needing FastPasses. I look forward to someone catching us up on how they manage two parks in the same day without the traditional FastPass.

  • TheBig2na

    I try to do DAK and DHS in a day at the beginning of the trip after I have done MK and Epcot. We usually go for 10-14 days so we hit all of the parks a few times, but they are definitely half day parks. You could stretch it out by seeing all of the shows and riding every ride or seeing every attraction but we don’t usually do everything in any of the parks because we don’t like some things. Pandora if done right will be a great addition along with the night time show. DAK at night is a beautiful site. Hoolywood Studios needs DCA treatment. A ton of money needs to be thrown at it. Epcot needs to fix up the closed or should be closed rides and add something to freshen up Future World.

    Lots they could do, but will they?

  • Cory Gross

    After New Fantasyland, Animal Kingdom is the thing I’m most looking forward to seeing at WDW.

    Considering my own article on Form and Content in Disneyland, it’s hard to judge something like the “magic” of a park like Animal Kingdom because “magic” is subjective. What might not have “magic” for one person might have it for another. The best we can do is try to explain why it may or may not touch a cord with you, which I think you’ve done an admirable job of here.

    I have a feeling that a subjective appraisal of DAK’s success or failure depends a lot on one’s attitudes towards zoos. The Roller Coaster Warriors, the people who are all about E-ticket this and E-ticket that, are not going to like DAK. There’s going to be “nothing to do” because there are “only three rides.” (and I’m not saying that’s you George, but I think that attitude is out there… There are even people who think there’s “nothing to do” at Disneyland or MK, just out of spite). At the other extreme, you’re going to have someone more like myself, who really doesn’t care that much about the rides. Sure we’ll go on Kilimanjaro Safaris and Expedition Everest, but what I’m really looking forward to is the Wild Africa Trek. I want to spend time enjoying the animals and the theming. Given that I can easily spend a whole day in a zoo, I’m not sure how I could not spend a whole day in DAK. To ground that zoo in amazing theming that may perfectly replicate the real places those animals are from is the apotheosis of good zoo design. I’m pretty excited about seeing it first hand!

  • Erik Olson

    Our typical five-day trips to WDW include this breakdown of time in the parks: 1) AK early-morning preference; 2) Magic Kingdom open / lunch / back to resort / dinner at park, close park; 1) DHS open / resort or off-campus lunch / dinner at park, close park; 1) Epcot all day.

    We tend to take advantage of the afternoon peak for a break. With new attractions and shows coming online in a couple years at AK, we’ll change our strategy. Also, we’ve upgraded to the premium APs this year, so we’ll be juggling-in days in one of the two waterparks – especially during our August trip.

    The “fantasy” question on theming for AK isn’t a bad one. Asia and Africa are really breathtaking, while the Dino area feels like what it looks like. A roadshow carnival that’s been plunked-down into an archaeological dig somewhere in the Southwest. Yeah…

    This park represents a moment to breathe during our weeks in Orlando, and I very much appreciate that. I don’t feel rushed to push as hard in Animal Kingdom – heck, it almost feels like I’m in a *park*! I look forward to the day when it becomes a full-day destination that’ll keep people’s attention, but for the moment, I’ll enjoy relaxing in one of the best-themed parks in the world.

  • tooncity

    DAK is weak. The best attraction is the express Bus ride back to the Magic Kingdom.

    this place is un-inspired.
    dinosaur parking lot-land, is a perfect example of a theme park…jumping the shark. it’s embarrassing.
    I live in San Diego, where we have 2 zoos. San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park (which use to be known asthe Wild Animal Park). DAK fails as a Zoo and as a theme park.

    The Realistic Theming was done, only because it was thought to be a cheap way to ‘theme’ and it would be less expansive to maintain. You don’t have to repair something that is suppose to look-like it’s in disrepair. You don’t have to repair a Yeti if you just strobe a light on it. Embarrassing. Disney has no-shame.

    It’s amazing how, the attraction that gets the highest ratings, was built on used, left-over floats from the Lion King parade. To date it remains the best thing they’ve done with the Lion King characters in 20 years. Before Frozen, Lion King was Feature Animation’s great achievement since Walt Died.

    It always cracks me up, when the Disney defenders chime-in on how Disney will build a FROZEN high-end attraction soon. Fat chance. You guys are dreaming. Stop looking at Disney with the preverbal Rose-Colored glasses.

    At the current pace, Avatar-land will arrive sometime in the next century. People love to cheer this park, because it’s quiet and peaceful If you need that, go to the county park, it’s FREE. Why spend $100 to do 3 hours worth of attractions??? Why spend extra days at an $500 hotel room to go to a drained swamp???

    • delmarjohn

      lighten up my friend,more attractions are coming just not as fast as you would like…you can thank the dumbing down of people and the ever present lawsuits by some truly dumb people…

      • solarnole

        Yeah Disney will add an Asian or African roadside carvinal area with off the shelf rides. They will also have a guy in a raptor suit with human legs and maybe a McDonalds resturant because that’s the extra Disney magic.

        I can’t wait for a Soarin clone themed to a movie with such deep characters.

        You are dumb to not pay $100 for a magical zoo carvinal dedicated to the beauty of nature with a upside down ocean oil rig themed to a tree.

        It even has a petting zoo connected to a one way train what else do you want?

        ITS NOT A ZOO! Zoo’s have more attractions and animals

  • daveyjones

    My argument about the theming at Animal Kingdom is that the Imagineers over-themed in order to show that they could do it. Sort of a “look at how cool we are by overtheming.”

    i couldn’t disagree more. animal kingdom has the most immersive and successful thematic environments in all of WDW. it’s the closest florida gets to approaching the majesty that is tokyo disneysea.

    themerica.org/blog

    • solarnole

      Animal Kingdom is themed to poverty stricken areas, roadside carnivals and a petting zoo.

      Disney Sea is themed to fantasy and a romantic view of times gone by like the American waterfront. No third world poverty themed areas in that park. Plus it has more then two rides.

  • Ppanfreak11

    Ive only had the privilege to visit WDW parks twice. We did only spent a half day at AK on both visits. There is a lot no great stuff to experience there, but not enough to stay the whole day. (however, I could watch the gorillas for hours.) I however about died there in August. Tooooooo humid at AK. That is all.

    Thank you George for another great article.

  • toonaspie

    If only we had gotten Beastly Kingdome. Then we would have gotten to see Disney escapist theming at work in DAK.

  • Imagineer45

    If you think it is overthemed, then you obviously went like Tier I theme parks. The goal is to have top notch theming. DAK will be a full day park to all once Pandora is done, although it is already a full day park in my opinion. The one problem I have with the park is Chester and Hester over at DinoLand. It completely ruins the theming and is out of place. The rest of DinoLand is fine. Disney should get rid of Chester and Hester and build a fake excavation site with a wooden roller coaster. The coaster could take riders around the excavation site. This would make the park the best themed park in the world, in my opinion.

  • AaroniusPolonius

    Regarding George’s argument:

    I actually love the thematic elements in DAK, and that they went for a more realistic approach than at the Magic Kingdom styled parks. I think there’s a lot of DHS’ Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard as well as the World Showcase pavilions in them, however. All of them are creating a reality that never was: France without Nazis and poo on the streets, Hollywood in the 20s, without hookers and MGM rape parties, Africa without malaria, AIDS and Uganda.

    In my opinion, there are two pressing issues regarding Animal Kingdom.

    The first is that the amazing thematic elements can’t possible detract from a lack of stuff to do, either from an attraction/ride/show standpoint or an animal habitat standpoint.

    If you take it as a San Diego style zoo (or, for that matter, a ZooMiami styled zoo,) then they’re lacking in animal activities. You can give up some theme and see many more animals at Busch Gardens in Tampa…and never go on a single ride there, either. So, those defending the park as being “too much of a zoo experience” seem off the mark to me, as (a) plenty of people love zoos and (b) the park seems to be set up to cater to ‘continental’ habitats for animals. Where’s the Australia land and corresponding habitats? Where’s the Amazon (which seems like SUCH a natural fit, as Florida isn’t too far off the mark there, already.)

    If you take it as a hybrid animal/theme park (remember, even Disney wants us to think that it’s ‘Natazu,’) then the attractions are also lacking. There’s just not enough ‘there’ there. One can easily do Yeti, the Bug Movie, the Dino Coaster, the Dino Ride, the Dino Dumbo, the two shows and the Rapids in less than three hours (seriously.) Which leaves you six hours to fill with the animals, also not comprehensively represented…even if you walk really slowly and “soak it all in,” as fans of the park will promote. There’s just not enough to do, theme excellence or not. Go to Busch Gardens. Or San Diego. Or Miami. Or Lion Country Safari. Or…

    The other issue regarding DAK involves how utterly unbalanced the attractions are in the park. When they hit it, it’s a home run. The safari ride and the Jungle Trek are just plain stunners of attractions. And when they don’t hit it, it’s a mouse turd (DinoLand.) So the really great attractions draw attention to how cheaply and quickly the other stuff was installed. (I’d give Yeti a plus, even with the broken Yeti, but they didn’t finish the balk half of the mountain. Bad form, Disney.)

    I’m looking forward to what they’re going to do with Avatar, actually, because the park really does need some substance to marry with its high style. But, I’d really like for them to balance that suite of ‘non-animal’ attractions out with some animal ones.

    Until they really get cracking with that, it will remain Minimal Kingdom. Best thematic experience of any Disney Park in the US. Just not enough stuff.

  • AaroniusPolonius

    Now, having said that, if one looks at a WDW vacation as a week-long or multi-week ‘Catskills’ vacation, I can see DAK being used as a ‘down day’ for those visitors. When my sister and I would go for a week using the Florida Play-4 Pass, we’d make DAK last because there was less to do and we were already exhausted from the other parks…so we’d mind less that there wasn’t as much ‘there’ there. (We’d make DHS first to ‘rev up our engines for theme parking,’ so to speak.)

    But, again, we’re talking about a Florida Resident Discount Ticket here, where each day cost about $25-$30-ish. DAK is totally worth about $30, and especially if it’s part of a package where the “good” parks are marked down, as well. (I think it’s up to $160 now.) I’m uncertain if it’s worth the whole $100 (and the attendance figures bear this out.) I’m uncertain if it’s worth plane fare for a family of four, either. But…it sure is pretty!

  • solarnole

    Animal Kingdom looks unfinished with its themed roadside carnival, bare bones rapids ride, and one side facing train to a lame dead end petting zoo.

    In Epcot they show the best of each country, in Animal Kingdom they show run down third world poverty. No one wants to pretend they are in a slum.

    Most zoos have more animals that can be viewed without being forced to go on a hokey Safari ride where you stop fake poachers.