Unfairly maligned, Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park enters in at my fifth favourite of Disney's theme parks around the world. Of the three additional theme parks at Walt Disney World, two are elaborations of lands within the Magic Kingdom. One could readily argue that Epcot is an elaboration of Tomorrowland, and Animal Kingdom is an elaboration of Adventureland. I suppose that if Disney ever went ahead with the plans for "Disney's America" it would be fitting to have it at Walt Disney World as an elaboration of Frontierland and Liberty Square. Epcot, unfortunately, suffers for many of the same reasons that Tomorrowland suffers; namely, the future keeps catching up and the best thing Disney can think to do to compensate is inject more Disney characters. I had no particular love for the Maelstrom ride - it's somewhat overrated in my opinion - though I do wonder at what point the Norway pavilion will cease to be Norway.
Animal Kingdom, on the other hand, is entirely brilliant. I think it's dodgy that Disney freaked out about Universal Studios and jumped the gun to get the Avatar licence... A totally needless albatross around their necks at this point. They would have done much better to 1) have waited to see how Universal's expansions ended up being a numerical non-threat, and 2) have concentrated on ideas that would have had more integrity in Animal Kingdom's subject matter. In the alternate reality that is made to my specifications, Disney would be in the process of importing Mysterious Island from Tokyo Disneysea and Mystic Point from Hong Kong Disneyland.
Another poor line of thought that went into saddling Animal Kingdom with Avatar was the persistent myth that Animal Kingdom is a half-day park. That myth is, I think, perpetuated by an attitude that doesn't necessarily understand what Animal Kingdom is supposed to be for. They might look at the four E-ticket rides - Kilimanjaro Safaris, Kali River Rapids, Expedition Everest, and Dinosaur! - and arrive at the conclusion that there's nothing to do there. That misses the point of the park, which is to slow down, take your time, and immerse yourself in its flawless environments to appreciate the wildlife and cultures of those exotic areas of the world. You're supposed to enjoy the animals, the performers, strike up a conversation with a castmember who is actually from India or Africa, the foods, the flowers. Literally, stop and smell the roses.
Having been to Africa - Ashley to South Africa and me to Madagascar - we can attest that Animal Kingdom is about as close as it gets without actually going. Just being in the park is an adventure unto itself. A couple E-ticket rides aren't even the best part.
#1: Wild Africa Trek
Perhaps it is a little unfair to list this premium priced tour as the top attraction at Animal Kingdom, but nevertheless, it is what I enjoyed the most. Rather than doing the mass transit version in Kilimanjaro Safaris, we took to our heels and walked past the hippos and crocodiles with our expert guides (one of whom did spend a long part of his tenure at Disney on the Jungle Cruise). A rickety bridge over toothy reptiles provided the faux-thrills, and then a special charter truck took us out onto the savannah along the same road used by the ride. At the end, a light lunch was held at a lodge retreat. The Wild Africa Trek alone takes a half-day. The rest of our time in Animal Kingdom was a little rushed thereafter, but I wouldn't have traded in doing it.
#2: Maharajah Jungle Trek
Speaking as a museum and heritage professional, working in both a zoo and a museum (as well as doing freelance educational programming on the side), with a keen interest in design, the Maharajah Jungle Trek is one of the most marvelous exhibits in the world. The choice to nest a faux-nature reserve within a faux-temple ruin was an inspired choice to capture the mystique of India and present their collection of tigers, bats, and birds. The Maharajah Jungle Trek is richly atmospheric and invites the guest to linger in its mystery and romance.
#3: Expedition Everest
As rides at Animal Kingdom go, Expedition Everest is the best. Yes the Yeti doesn't work and hasn't in years, but that's a relatively small problem compared to everything the ride has going for it. A ramped up version of the Matterhorn and Big Thunder Mountain, what really makes it is the storyline conveyed through a beautifully rendered queue and temple areas. I mentioned being a little rushed after the Wild Africa Trek, but we still found time to ride Expedition Everest more than once.
#4: Pangani Forest Exploration Trail
This trail is on the list for many of the same reasons as the Maharajah Jungle Trek. More naturalistic than the Trek's ruined temple, this is still one of the marvelous chances to view wildlife that the park offers.
#5: Live Performers
Not a specific attraction as such, one of the great pleasures of Animal Kingdom is to stop and listen to African drummers or Indian tabla and sitar players. I usually don't pay much mind to performers at Disney parks... I may pause for half a song of the Dapper Dans or Royal Street Bachelors, but there are other things I'm more interested in. Not so here. In Animal Kingdom, these performers are even more intrinsically a part of their venue, lending a sense of authenticity to Disney faux-villages.
Honourable Mention: Dinoland USA
Easily the most criticized and hated part of Animal Kingdom, Dinoland USA's rides suck. There's no way around that. The idea of a chintzy roadside carnival was just a thin excuse to put cheap carnival rides in the park, and the E-ticket Dinosaur! ride is just not very good (and I LOVE dinosaurs!). But that said, I actually kinda' like the land, insofar as I get a kick out of the kitschy roadside tourist traps. I will happily veer the car off the road whenever I see a tacky old sign from the Sixties promising some fibreglass wonder. Whether or not a copy of something like that actually belongs in a Disney park is a topic of debate, but Disney does a very charming copy of one nonetheless.