Animal Kingdom has spent the better part of twenty years trying to move beyond being considered the “half day” park at Walt Disney World. In addition to that hurdle, they’ve had to struggle to get over being considered nothing more than a glorified zoo. While I must confess that for a while I was part of the “half day” crowd, I’ve never thought the “not a zoo” thing was really necessary. Because let’s be honest, a Disney-run zoo would still be a pretty fantastic zoo.
We’re firm believers in getting to the park well before opening, and Animal Kingdom is a park that absolutely rewards early visitors (though we passed on the Extra Magic Hour – a perk that’s available to 30,000 or so hotel rooms isn’t exactly exclusive. Besides, on a Disney vacation the true Extra Magic Hour is the one you get to spend in bed).
Guests first pass through the Oasis area of the park. The Oasis serves a similar role as Main Street USA, acclimating guests into the immersive theming of the park. The major difference being that you’re not surrounded by shops. Animal Kingdom is a different kind of park, and it necessitates a different kind of mind-set.
There are some small animal areas as you pass through the Oasis (though nowhere near as impressive as what you’ll see along the way). Here’s a black swan. I literally just wasted five minutes trying to remember the lyrics to the Tori Amos song so I could reference it here. Then I realized that song was “Black Dove.” I also realized that I’m way too old to still be making Tori Amos song references.
This is a babirusa. Babirusas are native to Sulawesi, the Togian Islands, the Sula Islands, Buru, and other places that drive your spell check up the damn wall.
Here’s a Roseate spoonbill, which is actually native to the Southeastern United States. They cruise around the water with their bills partly open. As soon as anything alive gets in there, they snap shut.
Rounding off the Oasis is a Saddle-billed stork. There are a few other animals in the Oasis area, but it’s very easy to miss many of them based on the split-paths going through. They also do get rotated out.
We visited in April 2016, so they had this sand sculpture promoting the release of their live action Jungle Book flick. I did a little Googling and found that they had a sculpture last year promoting the release of “Monkey Kingdom,” so maybe this is something they’re going to start to do more often. They’ve certainly got some talented sculptors here.
So as you exit the Oasis, you enter Discovery Island and get your first view of the park’s iconic structure, the Tree of Life.
The Tree of Life is a pretty stunning creation. To create it, they took an old oil platform and flipped it over. It’s covered with over 100,000 kynar leaves, creating the appearance of a giant baobab tree. The closer you get, the more impressive the whole thing is.
Sculpted into the trunk and roots of the tree you’ll find hundreds of animals. But there’s actually much more to the structure than that.
It’s Tough to be a Bug is a 4D movie that plays in a 400-seat auditorium built into the base of the Tree of Life. Based on the 1998 Pixar film “A Bug’s Life,” this short film educates guests on how useful bugs can be and why you probably shouldn’t smash most of them.
The queue actually gives you a great opportunity to really check out the different animals that are part of the tree.
Do pay attention to the various advertisements you pass, though. There’s a lot of clever movie and Broadway related puns (being puns, there are also a lot of really awful ones too).
A smart photographer would have made a person get in the frame for scale purposes. I am not generally smart.