Animal Kingdom for Little Tykes

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Top Five Animal Kingdom Attractions for Visitors with Very Young Children

With its lush flora, winding streams, meandering paths, and exotic setting, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a stunningly beautiful theme park. Add a population of more than 1,000 animals, replicas of Africa’s and Asia’s most intriguing architecture, and a diverse array of attractions, and you have the most distinctive of all Walt Disney World theme parks. The Animal Kingdom’s five sections, or “lands,” are The Oasis, Discovery Island, DinoLand U.S.A., Africa, and Asia.

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The natural-habitat zoological exhibits are primarily designed for the comfort and well-being of the animals. Because most habitats are large and provide ample terrain for the occupants to hide, you must linger and concentrate, looking for small movements in the vegetation. This is not always easy with very young children. The Jungle Trek in Asia, which is also less congested than the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail in Africa, is a good choice for seeing plenty of animals. Tigers, gibbons, bats, and birds are waiting to be discovered along a path winding through the fabulous ruins of the maharajah’s palace.

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An indoor, air-conditioned character-greeting location for Mickey and Minnie, Adventurers Outpost is decorated with photos, memorabilia, and souvenirs from the Mouses’ world travels. Two air-conditioned greeting rooms house two identical sets of characters, so lines move fairly quickly. If you go first thing in the morning, you won’t need FastPass+. We really like this meet-and-greet, as you get to take a picture with both Mickey and Minnie at the same time. It is especially fun to do this in early December, when both wear their Winter outfits, and it makes for a great holiday greeting card photo.

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The Festival of the Lion King Show, held at the Harambe Theater, is where fantastic pageantry and dazzling costumes come together for a mini–Broadway show. The theater is air-conditioned and the 30-minute show is performed several times a day. There is some audience participation prior to the show; if you want your little one to have a chance to march with the animals at the end of the show, arrive early and claim a seat in the first row of the theater-in-the-round.

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An absolute must is the Kilimanjaro Safaris. All ages will love the open safari vehicle ride through a simulated African savanna, looking for hippos, zebras, giraffes, lions, and rhinos. Many readers have asked us whether fewer animals are visible from Kilimanjaro Safaris around lunchtime than at park opening, out of concern that the animals might be less active in the midday heat. To help answer that question, we sent a team of researchers to ride continuously during one week in the summer and had them count the number of animals visible at different times of day. We subdivided our counting into large animals (elephants, hippos, and lions, for example), small (deer and other ungulates), and birds. Our results indicate that you’ll probably see the same number of animals regardless of when you visit. This finding is almost certainly due to Disney’s deliberate placement of water, food, and shade near the safari vehicles. We hear the Safaris will begin offering nighttime tours in late 2015 or early 2016, probably around the time that Rivers of Light makes its debut. If you love to take pictures, we recommend you ride it at least twice—we sure do, even when we’re not just counting animals!

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The best show at the Animal Kingdom is Finding Nemo—The Musical. Based on the Disney-Pixar animated feature, Finding Nemo—The Musical is a stage show headlining puppets, dancers, acrobats, and special effects. It is arguably the most elaborate live show in any Disney World park. A few scenes, such as the one in which Nemo’s mom is eaten (!), may be too intense for some very small children. Some of the mid-show musical numbers slow the pace, so the main concern for parents is whether the kids can sit still for the entire show. However, it is a must-see, and we advise parents to catch an afternoon performance after seeing the rest of Animal Kingdom. Kids will have let out some steam and will be ready for this wonderful performance. To get a seat, show up 20–25 minutes in advance for morning and late-afternoon shows and 30–35 minutes in advance for shows scheduled noon–4:30 p.m. Access to the theater is via a relatively narrow pedestrian path; if you arrive as the previous show is letting out, you’ll feel like a salmon swimming upstream.

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And, of course, there has to be playtime! Here is a bonus attraction preschoolers will definitely enjoy. The Boneyard playground, an elaborate area for kids ages 12 and younger, is a great place for them to let off steam and get dirty (or at least sandy). The playground equipment consists of skeletal replicas of Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus rex, Brachiosaurus, and the like. In addition, there are climbing mazes, plus sandpits where little ones can scrounge for bones and fossils. The Boneyard can get very hot in the scorching Florida sun, so make sure your kids are properly hydrated and protected against sunburn. The playground is huge, and parents might lose sight of a small child. Fortunately, however, there’s only one entrance and exit. Your little ones are going to love The Boneyard, so resign yourself to staying awhile.

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Animal Kingdom—Where Learning Is Fun

Throughout the day, Disney staff conduct impromptu short lectures on specific animals at the park. Look for a cast member in safari garb holding a bird, reptile, or small mammal.

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Animal Kingdom Wilderness Explorers is a scavenger hunt based on the movie Up. It offers kids ages 4–8 a structured learning experience as they tour the Animal Kingdom. Set up along walkways in six themed areas, the Wilderness Explorers stations are manned by cast members who supervise a different activity at each station. A souvenir activity book, available for free, is stamped at each station when the child completes a task. Kids enjoy collecting the badges (stamps) and working puzzles in the logbook while in attraction lines. You can register for the game near the bridge from The Oasis to Discovery Island. You’ll receive your activity book and a map showing the park location for each badge to be earned. Cast members will tailor the activities based on the age of the child playing. It is a wonderful way to discover the Animal Kingdom when going on rides is not a priority.

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The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids by Bob Sehlinger and Liliane Opsomer, with Len Testa, has lots of information for families planning a visit to the Kingdom of the Mouse.

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