By the co-author of The easy Guide to Your Walt Disney World Visit 2020, the best-reviewed Disney World guidebook series ever.

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The Transformation of Disney’s Animal Kingdom

By Dave Shute

I thought, as we come up on six months after Pandora: World of Avatar opened at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, that it would be fun to take a step back and revisit the slew of changes at the Disney’s Animal Kingdom over the past few years.


The total transformation at the park has been remarkable. At the cost of the former Pocahontas meet and greet, we got among other things the best theme park fine dining restaurant in Orlando with Tiffins, the most completely-imagined themed area in the world in Pandora, and the best theme park ride in the U.S. in Flight of Passage.

Add to this Sunset Safaris in Africa, Tree of Life Awakenings, the evening show Rivers of Light, the single big miss of Na’vi River Journey, and the fact that broad swathes of the park can now be enjoyed after dark (most notably Expedition Everest, but don’t forget Chester and Hester’s Dinorama, which has always been its best after dark), and it’s hard not to be impressed.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened with a focus on animals. Most major additions after it opened did not—with the signature addition being the roller coaster Expedition Everest about a decade ago. While in its early years the park did have after-dark opportunities, in this decade they were narrowed to just evening Extra Magic Hours and late closes during the holiday season—and in the last few years the evening Extra Magic Hours went away, largely leaving Animal Kingdom at night only to those who visited in the holiday season.

The transformation was meant to broaden the appeal of the park, widen the parts of the day during which it could be enjoyed, anchor it in some well-known intellectual property (the worlds of James Cameron’s Pandora from Avatar, whose sequels are expected well before the Second Coming), and—frankly—to show Universal Orlando that Disney was willing to compete at the high level of theming and ride quality that it showed in its Harry Potter offerings.

The re-imagining began with the closure of the old Camp Minnie Mickey area, and the rebuilding of a new home for Festival of the Lion King in Africa, where it had always belonged anyway.

Next—and as significant to me personally as anything other than Flight of Passage—was the opening of Harambe Market, a new quick service venue in Africa, my go-to place for what I think of as an Indian-inspired corn dog but which Disney insists on calling a “beef and pork sausage” on its menu.

Then April 22, 2016 came and went, noted principally by those who booked vacations on Disney’s promise that this was the date that the new evening show River of Light would open. In the biggest schedule miss in recent memory, it didn’t open then, not debuting until almost a year later, but lovely wife Amy Girl and I still had fun during our visit that weekend, including walking behind Joe Rhode’s earring down one of the long hallways of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge.

In May 2016 the other parts of Disney’s evening program at Animal Kingdom opened, as did Tiffins—the best theme park fine dining restaurant in Orlando, accompanied by a great bar, and probably the most likely place after Raglan Road (and the drunk tank) to find Disney World bloggers and guidebook writers.

The new evening program included the short-lived and best-forgotten Jungle Book show in the Rivers of Light area, and the still-extant Tree of Life Awakenings—likely the most charming minor entertainment in any Disney Park, which I view as a don’t miss—and the Sunset Safari at Kilimanjaro Safaris.

It’s best to think of Sunset Safari as two additional offerings, on around sunset and one after dark. The one around sunset is a terrific supplement to or replacement of a daylight visit to Kilimanjaro Safaris, as certain animals–especially the cats—are much more active at this time of day. The after-dark version is different, worth doing, but much less compelling than a daytime or sunset visit, and should be viewed as an addition to one of those visits, and not be your sole visit to Kilimanjaro Safaris.

The sunset safaris also expended the vocabulary of most of us, adding “crepuscular,” “civil twilight,” “nautical twilight,” and “astronomical twilight” as we tried to advise people on what to see when, and why, while acting like we knew these words all along.

In February 2017 the evening show Rivers of Light finally opened. While diminished compared to its aspirations (this mismatch, and trying to resolve it, was the main reason it took so long to go live), and the only evening show at Disney World that is hardly anyone’s favorite, it has great charm, musicality, and visual delight, and I view it as a four-star don’t miss.

Then in May 2017 Pandora: World of Avatar opened in the old Camp Minnie Mickey area, bringing two new rides, Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey, dining in Satu’li Canteen and shopping at the Windtraders gift shop.

Pandora is the most completely realized themed area ever built, with remnants of the Resources Development Administration base from the first Avatar movie underpinning a stunning depiction of the shapes, colors and life of the moon Pandora.

The land is set ~20 years after the first movie, which both frees it from that specific movie and any sequels that come out while taking advantage of the astonishing visually lush setting. James Cameron is at his best in visualizing worlds (and worst in creating plots).

You don’t need to have seen the movie to enjoy the land, but it helps—particularly helping with the lesser of the two rides here, Na’vi River Journey, a gentle homage to the animals and plants of Pandora, and the religion of the Na’vi, which frankly needs all the help it can get.

If you do watch Avatar again (or for the first time), be patient. The beginning is dull, the avatar science makes no sense, and the middle, with its long stretches of workout routines and self-regard, is hard to be captivated by. The story (whose borrowings are much debated—I see it as a mix of The Dragonriders of Pern, Pocahontas, Jurassic Park, and a Jane Fonda workout video) really works only from beginning to end (and, far, far better on a 3D big screen than at home), so you need to begin at the beginning on the biggest TV you own, and give it time to unfold. (As an aside, I’ve always thought it too bad that the two movies Cameron is most famous for—Titanic and Avatar—are among his worst. Much better are Terminator 2, Aliens, True Lies, and The Abyss, which is particularly under-appreciated.)

Flight of Passage (the full name, that no one uses, is Avatar Flight of Passage) is the headliner, and the best theme park ride to come out in years—and the best at Disney World. You will see folk comparing it to Soarin’ Around the World at Epcot—a comparison that is not false, but adds as much value to understanding Flight of Passage as the claim that hamburger and Kobe beef are based on the same cow system adds to dining.

Flight of Passage simulates riding the back of a flying banshee through sublime, beautiful, gentle, tumultuous and dramatic scenes from Pandora. It is the culmination of a lengthy queue that begins outdoors among the flying mountains of the Valley of Mo’ara (actually, all too commonly it begins way back on the bridge between Discovery Island and Pandora…) then makes its way inside through scenes from abandoned industrial facilities and an active scientific research lab, culminating in a couple of pre-shows.

You will see some advocate skipping even trying for FastPass+ in order to see all the details of the Flight of Passage queue. For big fans of abandoned industrial buildings and biology labs, good advice. Everyone else should try for a FastPass+, although the mismatch between ride capacity and demand for it means that FastPass+ for Flight of Passage is quite hard to get, even for those booking right at 60 days.

Na’vi River Journey is much the lesser ride and easier to get as a FastPass+. So if you can’t get a FastPass+ for Flight of Passage, get one for Na’vi and show up at Animal Kingdom at least 75 minutes prior to the official opening, and once you are in, head straight for the Flight of Passage queue. After this morning visit, you should return to Pandora in one of the later sunset periods—perhaps at civil twilight?—to see the delicacy with which the bioluminescent plants in Pandora shift from day to night.

Speaking of queues, Flight of Passage has at least one too many pre-shows. Having gone through them multiple times since its May opening (although not remotely as many as Tom Corless has…), I kinda miss the days when Disney would build rides like Space Mountain where you went straight from the line to deepest space without any intervening explanation whatsoever.

I’d noted earlier in this post that

The transformation was meant to broaden the appeal of the park, widen the parts of the day during which it could be enjoyed, anchor it in some well-known intellectual property (the worlds of James Cameron’s Pandora from Avatar, whose sequels are expected well before the Second Coming), and—frankly—to show Universal Orlando that Disney was willing to compete at the high level of theming and ride quality that it showed in its Harry Potter offerings.

In my judgement, even though Rivers of Light and Na’vi River Journey each could have been better, overall the transformation has spectacularly succeeded on all these fronts.

Think of what you can now do in an evening at Animal Kingdom

  • Ride late in the afternoon via FastPass+ the best ride at Disney World, Flight of Passage
  • Have dinner at Tiffin’s, the best theme park restaurant in Orlando, towards the end of daylight
  • Ride Kilimanjaro Safaris at the beginning of sunset
  • Return to Pandora to see Pandora shift to its night colors
  • See a scene or two from Tree of Life Awakenings on the way to Rivers of Light
  • See Rivers of Light
  • Ride Expedition Everest after dark
  • See more from Tree of Life Awakenings on your way out of the park

A transformation, indeed.

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1 Anonymous { 11.07.17 at 10:56 am }

I’m excited for our visit next February! I’m surprised you liked Tiffins so much. I found it to be good, but prefer Jiko, Narcoossees, or Yachtsman to it.

2 Dave { 11.08.17 at 7:04 am }

Hey, I literally meant “theme park restaurant.” There’s many resort restaurants as good or better, as you note!

3 Anthony { 11.09.17 at 10:14 am }

Dave, I’m Anonymous above! You’re right. I missed that qualifier. It is the best theme park restaurant!

4 Melissa { 12.31.17 at 8:05 am }

I’ve always thought Avatar was the movie “Ferngully” on steroids. Very very close to the same plot with other similarities.

5 Dave { 01.01.18 at 11:44 am }

🙂 Melissa

6 Kerri { 04.27.18 at 7:22 pm }

I am planning to do AK on Sunday, August 19th. The park closes at 8:30pm and RoL is at 8:45pm. Sunset will be just after 8pm. Will I have enough time to walk through Pandora after dark and then make it to RoL (we have the dining package)? Or will I be able to walk through after, even though the park will be closed? I don’t understand why they aren’t staying open longer after sunset!! Thank you!

7 Dave { 04.28.18 at 10:32 am }

Hi Kerri, I would not be surprised to see a schedule update with longer hours, but if that does not happen, no, you won’t be able to see Pandora after dark.

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