A JUNGLE WITH SECRETS
The jungle doesn’t give up its secrets easily. First impressions inspired by Disney’s Animal Kingdom park bear no resemblance to those at the Magic Kingdom (“Look, a giant castle!”) or Epcot (“Look, a giant ball!”). Nothing so obvious here in Disney’s jungle. Even if you’ve visited the Animal Kingdom before, you may never have noticed the giant tree at the entrance — and we’re not talking about the park’s icon, the Tree of Life (which cannot be seen from the entrance area). Here there is an equally large tree, but a secret one, which you may have walked right across without noticing. The pavement of the entrance plaza is composed of green and red-brown colored concrete – follow the outlines of the green pavement to behold an elegant and massive tree with branches like graceful tendrils. Its roots are around the tram stop while the tops of its branches nearly touch the tapstiles.
But there’s another secret here: you don’t need to get in those long lines for the main entrance tapstiles. A hidden entrance awaits, just for you. Go into the Rain Forest Cafe, pass through the gift shop, and spy the mini park entrance. Have your Magic Band ready to tap – there will be no wait here.
Whether you choose the main entrance or the secret Rain Forest Cafe gate, be sure to snap a photo of the central ticket sales building to “anchor” your day’s photos with one including the park name and a welcoming elephant (above the ticket windows). There are three heads at the entrance representing the park’s animal groups: an elephant for the animals of today, a triceratops for those of the past, and a dragon for those of legend. (Deciding which category the Yeti belongs to is up to you!) Note the beautiful bougainvillea growing over the trellised awnings here. Guest relations, plus stroller and locker rentals are just ahead, once inside the park entrance.
ENTRY TO ADVENTURE: THE OASIS
You’ve just promenaded across a wide open plaza, but as you enter the Oasis, the first “land” of the park itself, dense foliage begins to close in around you. Public spaces seem to constrict as the sense of adventure deepens. Pathways winding out of sight into the forest on the Oasis will have you reaching for your machete to cut a passage through the ferns and foliage – which is exactly how the Imagineers intend you to feel. While the Animal Kingdom Park is the largest of all Disney parks the world over, its narrow pathways create a sense of palm-fringed mystery, adventure, and exploration. As an entranceway, the Oasis couldn’t be more different from one like Main Street USA. At the Animal Kingdom, you won’t be able to see where you’re going until you get there. Here, every turning in the path, with exotic plants and formidable igneous stones, brings an unexpected surprise. Depending on the pole-fenced path you choose, you may see trickling streams, waterfalls, and wildlife such as African Spoonbill, Barking Deer, Two Toed Sloth, Wallaby, Hyacinth Macaws, and a Giant Anteater. Be sure to take note of the walkway below onto which Imagineers have impressed various paw prints and bird prints. Education is part of Disney’s mission at the Animal Kingdom, and you’re likely to meet wildlife ambassadors who can tell you about the animals on the Oasis trails. At last you wind to the end of the Oasis pathways and emerge at the entrance to the bridge over Discovery River, you’ll finally see the majestic Tree of Life presiding over Discovery Island.
This bridge may be the most popular photo spot in the park as it affords a great view of the Tree of Life, and a Photopass photographer will nearly always be standing by. (Your guide map will have all the other top picture spots marked.)
Souvenir shops flank your arrival onto the island. Stop by the Island Mercantile for all your adventuring needs. Looking for a new safari outfit? Check out Disney Outfitters, and be sure to take time to appreciate the detailed architecture of the flamboyantly painted buildings. Many feature stylized animals carvings, mirroring their towering neighbor, the Tree of Life.
THE TREE OF LIFE
At the far end of the bridge, after passing the tipboard, a Tree of Life Gardens sign marks the entrance to what are now called “Discovery Island Trails.” These are charming walkways that go into caves and over bridges, winding around the Tree of Life and giving up-close viewing of the animal carvings covering the arboreal giant. The plants growing riotously in every direction give the illusion that the 150-foot Tree of Life must be real, too. The tree might not be real, but the magic is. An international team of artists was assembled to create a tree bark tapestry composed of more than 300 diverse animals that flow contiguously from one to another, waiting to be discovered by the observant. Is that a gnarled root? No, it’s a snake. A curving branch? No, it’s the carving of a deer’s antler. And this 150-foot piece of artwork can also stand up to hurricane force winds! One of the most famous carvings is that of Jane Goodall’s Greybeard, located adjacent to the entrance to the Tough to Be a Bug show.
IT’S TOUGH TO BE A BUG
The 400-seat theater housing It’s Tough to Be A Bug is built right into the base of the Tree of Life. This is a 4-D show that will keep everyone on the edge of their seats — and at times wishing they could leap right up and stand on their seat! It may be too intense for young children or anyone who is squeamish about creepy-crawlies. The 3D “bug” glasses make a great photo op – so, before the show starts, be sure to snap a photo of the loved ones who bug you the most. Flik, the blue ant from A BUG’S LIFE, is the lovable host of the show.
Habitats with Cotton-Top Tamarin, Porcupine, Red Kangaroo, and Otter can be found around the main Discovery Island walkway and are marked on the guide map. Personally, I prefer to bypass these animals on the way in, it gets crowded in the morning, and take my time checking them out on the way out of the park in the afternoon.
SAFARI MINNIE AND MICKEY
You can meet Minnie and Mickey decked out in their cute khakis and safari helmets at the Adventurer’s Outpost near the bridge to Asia. Most of the queue is air conditioned, but FastPass+ is still a good idea for this meet and greet.
HUNGER IN THE JUNGLE
Discovery Island has two great counter service options as well as a number of kiosks offering barbecued ribs, chicken, and turkey legs. Pizzafari is on the side of the island adjacent to the now-closed Camp Minnie Mickey (home in 2017 to Pandora: the World of AVATAR). Pizzafari has the advantage of air conditioned seating. Flame Tree Barbecue is next to the DinoLand bridge and boasts its own smoke house and beautiful gardens.
The Animal Kingdom pathways wind in every direction, but they end at the same destination: discovery … and fun!