Planning a list-minute visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom? Just not interested in planning your FastPass selections weeks or months in advance? You may feel like you’re making a mistake but not planning your entire day as soon as the FastPass windows open up, but you can still tour the parks efficiently and help minimize your time waiting in line even without the early planning.
Since I often plan my Disney trips at the last-minute (which I don’t necessarily recommend for everyone), I often find myself without FastPasses or other reservations made in advance. While this usually means I make my FastPass reservations the night before I visit a given park (usually on my phone before falling asleep in my hotel room to be perfectly honest) I’m no stranger to showing up at the parks with absolutely no plans. If you find yourself in this situation the following tips should help you avoid long lines and make the most of your time at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Arrive when the park opens
Getting to any Disney theme park early is always a good idea to avoid crowds, but being an early bird at Disney’s Animal Kingdom can be even more beneficial as the animals are most active in the morning. For this reason, and to avoid crowds, arriving when the park opens is a must. If you are staying at a Disney resort and are able to take advantage of Extra Magic Hours, arriving then (usually at 8:00 am) can give you even more time to see some of the animals or get in a short line for a ride before the park really fills up.
Check for FastPass+ reservations
Checking to see what FastPass selections are still available never hurts, and it’s super easy to check with the My Disney Experience app. (If you don’t want to use the app you can still easily make your choices from a kiosk in the park.) When you enter the park, make a quick detour to the Island Mercantile shop in Discovery Island, where you’ll find the nearest FastPass kiosk. If available, the attractions that you would find a FastPass to be most useful for are Flight of Passage, Na’vi River Journey, Expedition Everest, Dinosaur, Kilimanjaro Safaris, and if you are visiting in the summer: Kali River Rapids. If you can’t find FastPasses for any of these attractions, don’t fret– this itinerary will still help you get through the day FastPass-free.
Start in Africa or Pandora
I suggest wandering through Discovery Island towards either Pandora: The World of Avatar or Africa. Some of the most popular attractions in the park are located in these lands (Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey in Pandora, and Kilimanjaro Safaris in Africa). There are advantages to doing both early in the morning. For Pandora, you’ll be able to experience these attractions before the wait times go up (which will happen quickly due to this land still being new), and in Africa you’ll experience shorter lines and likely see more animals the earlier you experience Kilimanjaro Safaris. You’ll backtrack less (in terms of walking distance) if you start in Pandora, but if seeing the animals in Africa early is more of a priority you can’t go wrong heading to Africa first.
After visiting either Pandora or experiencing Kilimanjaro Safaris, spend some more time exploring Africa. The Gorillas Falls Exploration Trail is one of the most overlooked attractions in the park, as many guests tend to skip any attraction that requires additional walking. As the name suggests, this trail is the only place in the park to see the gorillas, along with other animals including meerkats, hippos, tropical fish, and more.
Africa is also home to the Festival of the Lion King show, a Broadway-inspired musical celebration based on the classic animated film. The show typically takes place on the hour from about 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Consult a Times Guide or check the My Disney Experience app to see when the next showtime is during your visit. Unless you visit during a peak season like the middle of summer, school vacation week, or Christmas, arriving about 20 minutes early should be enough time to secure a seat for the show.
Head towards Asia
A short walk to the next themed land will bring you to Asia, where the most popular attractions are Expedition Everest and Kali River Rapids (assuming the weather is warm). Expedition Everest is well-worth the wait, and if you only have one day to visit Disney’s Animal Kingdom I recommend riding regardless of the wait time. If you want to cut down on the wait and don’t mind riding individually, the single rider line is located to the right of the entrance next to the gift shop.
Kali River Rapids is a great way to cool off, but it’s not necessarily an attraction I do often because you have the potential to get absolutely soaked– I’m not really interested in wearing a poncho on the ride, or feeling wet all day, so it’s something I usually skip. The line can also get quite long in the summer, so if you cannot get a FastPass you may end up spending a great deal of time waiting to cool off.
Don’t leave Asia before checking out the Maharajah Jungle Trek (an animal walking trail featuring tigers, bats, rare birds, and more). Two tiger cubs were born in the park in late 2017, and while they’re growing up fast there is still plenty to see in the Sumatran tiger exhibit. There are also plenty of cast members on hand to answer any questions you have about these beautiful animals, and this trail is one of the best ways to learn about Animal Kingdom’s powerful conservation message.
Dig around DinoLand U.S.A.
DinoLand U.S.A. features two distinctly different areas that attempt to coincide with each other in a storyline that goes over most guests’ heads. Before reaching either of the two lands however, you’ll walk by the Theater in the Wild which is home to Finding Nemo: The Musical. If you think you’ll have time to do Finding Nemo and the Festival of the Lion King in the same day, see both! If not, consider which one is more of a priority for you.
Festival of the Lion King is the more popular choice and is more of an interactive celebration featuring familiar songs from the film, while Finding Nemo is an original musical with all-new songs you’ll only hear at Walt Disney World and a more traditional theater setting using actors and puppets. The show typically takes place every hour on the hour from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm, with a break at 2:00 pm.
Chester and Hester’s DinoRama is the kitschy carnival-themed area in DinoLand which includes the Fossil Fun Games (or Disney’s non-rigged and less sketchy versions of traditional midway games), Primeval Whirl, a wildmouse-style rollercoaster, TriceraTop Spin, and a delightfully tacky gift shop called Chester and Hester’s Dinosaur Treasures. This part of DinoLand is a hit with some guests and a total miss with others, but there are rarely actual crowds here so if you do want to experience all that DinoRama has to offer you should have plenty of time to do so.
The more popular attraction in DinoLand U.S.A. is just around the corner from the carnival. Dinosaur takes guests on a journey back to the Cretaceous Period to bring back an Iguanodon. The ride takes place in the dark surrounded by life-like dinosaurs and is rather bumpy making it a solid thrill ride for guests who are not interested in rollercoasters. A FastPass is useful here but not entirely necessary.
Animal Kingdom after dark
By the time you’ve looped around the entire park, many of the attractions will be changing over to their nighttime-specific offerings. It can be difficult to experience all of the nightly attractions and entertainment in one day, and if I had to choose I would say to prioritize an evening visit to Pandora and the Tree of Life Awakenings.
Kilimanjaro Safaris offers a unique nighttime experience as the animal viewing areas are lit to look like a sunset, and additional entertainment takes place in Africa with live music and other performances as well as of course Rivers of Light, the nighttime spectacular that can be seen from around the lagoon in the center of the park. All of these are wonderful experiences, but if you’re short on time or only have one day I would plan on spending the evening taking in the bioluminescent effects in Pandora and catching the projection shows known as the Tree of Life Awakenings.
If did not end up waiting in line for either of the attractions in Pandora in the morning, the later evening hours can also be an ideal time to experience them with a shorter wait. Get in line for the Pandora attraction of your choice minutes before the park closes. When the park does close, you’ll still be able to get on the ride as long as you’re already in line, and you’ll find that the line will move much faster once no one is able to enter through the FastPass line.
Where to eat
For one day in Animal Kingdom, quick service meals and/or snacks are the way to go. While I adore many of Disney’s table service restaurants, I find it difficult to justify spending the time eating in that kind of setting when you only have one day in the park. My go-to restaurants for a one-day Animal Kingdom visit are typically Flame Tree Barbecue in Discovery Island or the Yak and Yeti Local Foods Counter in Asia, though the recent opening of Pandora’s Satu’li Canteen has made the decision a bit more difficult.
If you don’t mind doing a little bit of planning, I would check out the menus on the My Disney Experience app and place an order online during your free time (so you can pick it up without having to wait at the restaurant). Planning is by no means required though as Animal Kingdom has really strong quick service options and you really can’t go wrong with any of them. You’ll also find a nice array of snacks in the park including ice cream, nachos, falafel, and more.
If you have time…
If you happen to find yourself with some extra time, there are some other experiences I would recommend during your visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The animal exhibits in the Oasis near the front of the park are extremely overlooked. The animals here are quite interesting though and walking through this area would be a nice way to spend some extra time. Rivers of Light, while not my personal favorite of the nighttime shows at Walt Disney World is still an awe-inspiring experience that I would recommend seeing at least once if you have the time.
Lastly I would check out all of the entertainment available around the park, as street performances are really becoming a huge part of visiting Disney’s Animal Kingdom and many of their sets are excellent. If you are interested, you can also meet some characters that do not have meet and greets in any other Disney park, including Dug and Russell from Up!, Pocahontas, characters from the Jungle Book and more.
You might have noticed that Rafiki’s Planet Watch is missing from this list altogether– know that this is simply for the sake of time. If you have only one day to visit the park and something just has to go, the trek to and from Rafiki’s Planet Watch via the Wildlife Express Train (which is the only way to get there) makes it a bit too time consuming. If you find yourself with extra time though, consider making the trip up to Rafiki’s as the area includes additional character meet and greets, a petting zoo, and a behind the scenes look at how some of the park’s animals are cared for in the veterinary facilities.
Remember that Animal Kingdom has so much more to offer than rides alone, and to get the full experience of visiting the park you’ll want to take the time to see the animals and take in all of the details that help immerse you into the different areas of the park. Even if you swear by the My Disney Experience app, picking up an Animal Guide (located where the maps are) on your way into the parks can really help you spot all of the different animals throughout the day.
Do you have a 1-day routine for visiting Disney’s Animal Kingdom? Let me know in the comments what your usual plan is or if you really do just wing-it!