Top 5 Hidden Gems at Disney’s Animal Kingdom
By Dustin West
Disney’s Animal Kingdom is crawling with hidden details and overlooked attractions that most people would just walk right past. This is not how I approach the park. I love Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I must admit, it is a relatively newfound passion within the last few years. I used to write it off as a theme park that could be experienced in half a day by simply bolting to the thrill rides. But there is so much more if you are willing to take a few moments to stop and really look at your surroundings. The following are my top 5 things that you are overlooking when you visit Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
5) Rafiki’s Planet Watch
This may come as no surprise. I think most people would expect Rafiki’s Planet Watch to be on this list. I’m going to assume that most of you reading this have never been there. This is Disney’s fault. They make it incredibly difficult to venture out to the most educational area of the theme park. You have to take a five minute train ride, which at best runs every five to seven minutes. There are no walking paths to Rafiki’s Planet Watch whatsoever. So, once you’re there you’re required to take the train back as well.
That being said, if you take the time to board the train and make the journey, you’ll find a real treasure. First and foremost, this area of the park abandons all traditional theming that you’re used to in an area of a Disney Park. This is on purpose. The theming of Rafiki’s Planet Watch is science, conservation, and nature. This area of the park butts right up against the actual veterinary hospital, nutrition center, and animal habitats that service Disney’s Animal Kingdom on a day to day basis. It doesn’t get more real than this. Not much theming is required.
There really is a lot to see at Rafiki’s Planet Watch. When you first exit the train, you walk down the habitat trail that shows you ways to build natural habitats for plants and animals in your own backyard. Then, once inside the Conservation Station building, you’re able to view live veterinary procedures and operations, learn more about what the animals eat, and even see the backstage homes of some of the animals via observation cameras.
Then, of course, you can head outside to Affection Section, to have a one on one experience with some of the domesticated animals. Rafiki’s Planet Watch is definitely the place to go if you want to learn more about what makes Disney’s Animal Kingdom tick.
4) Theming in Harambe
I’m not even sure where to start with this one. I would assume that most people, on their first encounter, cross the bridge to Africa from Discovery Island and make their way directly to the Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction. It’s set up so that it’s a straight shot from Point A to Point B. However, if you take the time to stop along the way you may notice some interesting theming elements scattered throughout the village of Harambe.
One thing that I’m sure goes unnoticed is that the village of Harambe has history. Look at your feet. You may see some sections of the ground are made of of a series of white bricks. This marks where the old fort walls in Harambe used to reside. It was once a military stronghold for European settlers. Now a booming trading village, there’s no need to keep any unwanted travelers out.
In addition, because of the heavy traveler and tourist influx, there are many hotels in Harambe. You should take a look up at the buildings that line the street. There are roof tops with pots and pans, folded linens, and you may even hear some of the staff doing the dishes. It’s a complete sensory experience as far as theming goes in Harambe.
There are so many details in Harambe that I could not even begin to cover all of them here. One that I feel enhances the experience in Africa however, is the transformation of the landscape. When you first enter the village of Harambe, you notice that you are in a coastal West African town. As you move along the street closer to the Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction, you’re now in a more Central African setting. Thatched roofs, hunting expeditions, and less vibrant terrain make up this portion of Harambe. As you make your way into the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail you’ve transitioned into the Tropical Rainforest. Having a themed land called Africa should showcase the various climates and cultures that an entire continent has to offer. The Disney Imagineers are able to capture at least a few elements of this in the village of Harambe.
3) Exploring Discovery Island
I’m not going to mention here the countless number of animal exhibits you are passing by as you dart toward Expedition: Everest or Kilimanjaro Safaris. But rather, I’d like to focus on the walking trails you’re missing out on. Discovery Island is more that just the Hub for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. There’s shopping and dining to be sure, but there are also places to get completely lost. In my opinion, Disney Imagineers have done their job well when you can enter an area and completely forget that you’re in a theme park in Central Florida.
If you go around the Tree of Life you’ll see little nooks, crannies, and walkway entrances. Go there! Check it out. You may happen upon kangaroos or exotic and rare birds. You’ll also be at the base of the Tree of Life which offers some unique vantage points and photo opportunities. The details carved on the park’s icon are amazing and from these walking trails, you can get up close and personal. Being well covered, this is also a great way to ditch the crowds and escape the heat.
I’d also like to take a moment to mention the theming in Discovery island. I would imagine most people don’t think about this. The theming is “an island.” But think about it for a second. Discovery Island could be located in the Caribbean, Australia, South East Asia, Africa, you name it. Somehow the Imagineers have created island themed art, architecture, and greenery that could fit into any existing island culture in the real world. It’s ambiguous and specific at the same time. That’s pretty impressive.
2) The Oasis
Our theme of the day seems to be barreling past things as you make your way to the big ticket attractions in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The most glaring example of this is The Oasis. A show of hands: who has any idea where the Oasis even is? The only way you’d know is if you read the park map. Once you proceed through the turnstiles, you’re immediately faced with a rock wall and a decision. Left or Right? This is the entrance to the Oasis. You walk through a path and eventually end up on the bridge to Discovery Island.
The Oasis is a hangover from the Imagineers’ original concept for Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Unlike any other theme park in existence, they wanted you to get lost. There weren’t going to be any park maps. There weren’t going to be any informational signs. All there would be was an adventure to be had by the guest. Higher-ups at Disney were not thrilled with the concept of having guests with bulging wallets wandering aimlessly. So instead the traditional ‘wheel and spokes’ design of the hub at Magic Kingdom was implemented.
However, you can get a glimpse of what Disney’s Animal Kingdom might have been like in the Oasis. If you venture off one of the two main paths that lead you toward Discovery Island, it’s not very hard to get turned around or absorbed in the scenery. Rock caverns, waterfalls, rope bridges, and animal exhibits line the paths you can explore in the much overlooked Oasis. I like the idea of a theme park that you can just get lost in. That’s why I love to take time to explore the Oasis at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
1) The Old Dino Institute
I highly doubt you know anything about our Number One entry for the Top 5 Hidden Gems at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. That’s why it’s number one. Have you ever eaten at Restaurantosaurus? Have you ever ridden Dinosaur at the Dino Institute? Well according to Disney’s theming, they have a shared history. You see, the Dino Institute you’re familiar with is fairly modern. Before its construction in the late 1990s, there was the Old Dino Institute.
That’s right, the building that now houses Restaurantosaurus was once the old Dino Institute. Now serving fast food to hungry tourists making their way to Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama, it was once a scientific research building. This is in my opinion the best themed quick service location in any theme park. The different dining rooms were once wings of the research center. One wing was the barracks for the paleontological interns, another a mechanic shop, and so on. Next time you’re grabbing a hamburger, take the time to look around at the details on the walls and above your head.
There’s so much more theming not only to DinoLand USA but to all of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Try not to run directly to the thrill rides. Take a moment to appreciate this vast world that the Disney Imagineers have created. I guarantee you will find a whole new appreciation for what you once considered a half day park.
If you’d like to learn more of my favorite hidden details in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, make sure you check out the “Overlooked Animal Kingdom” episodes of the DIS Unplugged.