A Late Arrival to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park

by josh on February 12, 2013

We’ll take a late night visit out to Animal Kingdom.  I had planned to pop over around 6pm, but didn’t end up arriving until about 7:20pm, so the pictures may be even more unrelated to what I’m talking about than usual.  Or it might just be like normal.

By the time these turnstiles are operational, about 90% will be RFID-enabled.  With all newly issued tickets coming “RFID-enhanced,” that just leaves us peasants with Annual Passes and those silly enough to pay less for their tickets from a reseller relying on the old school turnstiles.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Disney just sends out a cast member with a large sign that reads “LOSERS” with a red arrow pointing over to the far left.  I’ve never been so embarrassed.

Animal Kingdom is the perfect candidate for a late arrival.  I think this is the only website, book, guide, etc. that recommends doing such a thing.  The general Disney blogosphere seems to think the only two theme parks that exist in Florida are Magic Kingdom and Epcot.  And chatting up Universal seems to be pretty trendy too.

Animal Kingdom is unique in that the crowds tend to flee shortly after the 3:45pm Parade.  It isn’t a coincidence that the Parade here is later than the others.  It’s Disney’s way of keeping families here as long as they think they can get away with it.  Animal Kingdom doesn’t offer evening entertainment, which means there isn’t anything discernible for most casual vacationers to stick around for.  At Magic Kingdom, you’ve obviously got the Electrical Parade and Wishes.  At Epcot, it’s IllumiNations.  And with Hollywood Studios offering Fantasmic 98.7% of the time, ten to twenty thousand people a day stick around for that.

And let’s face it.  Animal Kingdom has fewer attractions than Magic Kingdom and Epcot.  So people like to think they “did everything” by the early afternoon and plan to head elsewhere.  Nevermind that when you ask these people what they thought of Flights of Wonder, Maharajah Jungle Trek, Rafiki’s Planet Watch, etc. you get the collective, “Huh?”

This past weekend was pretty busy.  The crowd calendar had Saturday as a “7,” which is the same overall crowd level as the beginning of June.  Sunday was slightly less busy, with an overall crowd level of “6.”  The contributing factors were the Louisiana crowd arriving for a Mardis Gras trip, along with a major cheerleading competition, and the remnants of the South American tour groups.  The next few days will see average crowds until we really ratchet things up moving into President’s Day.  If you look at the February Crowd Calendar, you’ll notice that there aren’t any 1′s and 2′s in February.  The first week was one of the best weeks of the year to visit, but this past weekend through the 23rd is going to be busy.  Things will let up considerably for about two weeks until the Spring Break crowds arrive in force during the second week in March.

When planning a late arrival at Animal Kingdom, you’ll find yourself basically working backwards from a morning arrival.  That means hitting the high capacity/low popularity rides when you first arrive and then saving the headliners for the final 60 to 120 minutes of operation.  The exception is Kilimanjaro Safaris because it ceases operation before dusk.  Here in February, you have to be in line for Safaris by 5:30pm regardless of the closing time.  I recommend collecting FASTPASSes for Kilimanjaro upon your arrival.

If you’re planning to skip the Parade, there’s another trick I like to use.  The Parade basically cuts off traffic to Africa.  You’ll want to be in Africa by 3:35pm, at which point I like to walk Pangani Forest Exploration Trail for about 30 minutes.  Around 4:05pm, hop in line for Kilimanjaro Safaris.  Just about everyone in line prior to the start of the Parade will have moved through already and very few people will be arriving with the Parade completely cutting off access from most of the Park.  You can expect to wait less than ten minutes after experiencing Pangani with the lowest crowds outside of 9am – 10am.  The attractions that usually close early are Rafiki’s Planet Watch, Wildlife Express Train, Kilimanjaro Safaris, Maharajah Jungle Trek, and Pangani Forest Exploration Trail.  The Boneyard may also close early.  Check your Times Guide and plan to visit these attractions before they close if they’re of interest.

Most Animal Kingdom quick service options will shut down an hour before the rest of the Park, including Flame Tree Barbecue and Yak & Yeti quick service.  Pizzafari and Restaurantosaurus continue operating until close.  That’s a cast member on the far left with two people waiting for their food at Pizzafari after 7:30pm.  Food is usually freshest this time of night because they don’t make it until you order it.  Earlier in the day, pizzas will be sitting out until someone orders them.

But my recommendation is to book a dinner reservation right at Park close at Tusker House, Yak & Yeti, or Rainforest Cafe.  I just looked up availability for Saturday February 16th and I could book Tusker House at 8pm, Rainforest Cafe at 8:15pm, or Yak & Yeti at 7:30pm.  That would allow you to take advantage of the low crowds at the end of the night and extend your evening until 9pm or later.  Disney makes a point of getting you back to your Disney resort and will call a bus if there isn’t one on its way when you arrive at the exit.  Boma is also available at 8:40pm or you could head over to Sanaa for an 8:15pm reservation.

In menu land, the only recent change is Tamu Tamu Refreshments.

The excellent Slow-roasted Pulled Beef Sandwich survives, but the turkey sandwich and salad have left the building.  The replacements sound promising and it’s nice to see Disney moving towards “authentic” dishes.

The Beef Sandwich.  There can be only one!

The entirely forgettable Turkey Focaccia.

And the decent, but now extinct, Tandori Chicken Salad.  I’ll have to return for the two new items.  We do have a Falafel Pita to look forward to at Mara though!

Fitting in the various shows can be a challenge with a late arrival.  You may want to plan to arrive a little earlier in order to catch Finding Nemo and/or Festival of the Lion King.  This week, Finding Nemo is scheduled at 11am, 12pm, 1pm, 3pm, and 5pm.  Lion King is scheduled at 10:30am, 11:30am, 12:30pm, 1:30pm, 2:30pm, 3:30pm, 4:30pm, 5:30pm, and 6:30pm.  Lion King is easier to fit in with the later shows.  The problem with Nemo is that the 3pm show would make it impossible to get over to Africa in front of the parade to ride Safaris with a short wait.  And the 5pm show would be difficult to get to if you were planning to get in line for Safaris around 4:15pm.  The 5:30pm Lion King show is perfect if you want to head over to DinoLand after or the 6:30pm show is perfect if you’re headed to Asia after.

There’s something eerie about arriving at an empty DinoLand.  It “feels” like a creepy, abandoned carnival.  Maybe because it is a creepy, abandoned carnival.  Ideally, you’ll arrive in DinoLand around two hours before the Park closes.  Do DINOSAUR first, then Primeval Whirl, and then TriceraTop Spin if desired.

Don’t be shy about hopping on TriceraTop if the wait is short or nonexistent, as it usually is in the final 90 minutes of operation.  It’s kind of fun to fly high above the carnival and you’ll only invest five or ten minutes doing it.

The Boneyard lighting is a lot of fun and crowds are usually nonexistent in its final hour of operation if you have kids that still have some energy.

Visit Asia in the final hour of operation, where you should find mostly nonexistent waits at Kali River Rapids and Expedition Everest.  Waits will only get shorter as closing time nears.

Like any operating attraction, you can get in line up to the stated closing time, regardless of how long the posted wait is.

You don’t have to hurry through the queue like the seven people that were ahead of me.  Once you’re in, you’re riding.

Despite moderate afternoon crowds, you could ride Everest virtually nonstop in the final hour.  Here, there are enough people remaining to fill about half a train.

Everest is even better in the dark.  The people ahead of me are a lot gutsier than I am.  My eyes are straight ahead.

Fast forward three or four months and Kali River Rapids is going to have longer waits than Everest or Kilimanjaro Safaris, thanks to its limited capacity and increased popularity with higher temperatures.  The addition of the lockers next door should make a ride on Kali more pleasant as you won’t have to worry as much about your Mickey Dooney or SLR camera, but I’m still not crazy about getting that wet, regardless of the temperature.  Keep in mind that you’ll most likely get soaked on Kali, which makes it a poor choice right before a dinner reservation or long ride home.

Once the Park is officially “closed,” wait around Everest for five or ten minutes to let people stream out in front of you.

You’ll basically have the Park to yourself.  The nice thing about this time of year is that it gets dark around 6:30pm and Animal Kingdom’s nighttime lighting package is beautiful.  The entire Park is transformed into a dimly lit paradise.  Save for the Creepy Carnival perhaps.

Immediately after close is also the best time to do your theme park shopping.

Most of the kiosks remain open through Park close and the major stores near the Tree of Life will stay open until at least 30 minutes after close, if not longer.  You’ll basically have the place to yourself.

When considering what to do on arrival day or after a lazy resort breakfast in the middle of your trip, Animal Kingdom may be just the ticket, especially when it’s open until 7pm or 8pm.  Obviously, a late arrival isn’t as doable with a 5pm or 6pm close, but those are becoming increasingly rare.  But I don’t think there are too many theme park experiences more relaxing than Animal Kingdom after dark.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

marshallj February 12, 2013 at 11:02 am

<3 as always 5*

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Jon February 12, 2013 at 11:42 am

Thanks for the tips here … “as long as you’re in the queue, you’re riding” … maybe a good time to get some photos then in some of the more interesting queues. Definitely going to be thinking about hanging around at park close too to get some photos with minimal crowds.

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bill February 12, 2013 at 12:35 pm

AK in the evening is sublime, no people, so no lines, unusual play between the light and dark, and there is a lot of dark. The Safari at dusk and Everest at night; Everest over and over at night. The night time experience is not to be missed, it is just fantastic. Unfortunately, it is not going to happen in the summer. We have gone to the last week of Food and Wine the past two years so as to catch Osbornes while wining and found ourselves in AK late a couple of times.
Is it just me, but that scene of Dinoland felt straight out of “Something Wicked This Way Comes”.

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Annie February 12, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Are you psychic? I was just planning our arrival day and thinking we would play at the resort, ride around the monorail, etc, but now I think this is worth adding a day to our park tickets, as we weren’t planning on AK otherwise for this short trip. Sunset will be an hour after park closing that day, but maybe we’ll schedule dinner at TH so we can at least walk through the lit-up park. Any comments on animal sightings in the afternoon vs early morning on the safari as well as the trails?

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Ali February 12, 2013 at 1:08 pm

What fab piccies Josh :)

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ZeroMyHero February 12, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Great info! I recently discovered AK will be open until 7 during our next trip. Every other time we’ve visited it has closed at 5. Knowing we’ll practically have the park to ourselves is awesome.

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Sarah February 12, 2013 at 1:33 pm

We did this back in 2010, when they had evening EMH, not necessarily just a late closing. It was a great night. We arrived in time for the parade, saw FotLK, had dinner and headed to Dinoland, did ITTBAB and rode EE 2x with no wait. Also got lots of nighttime pictures.

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Todd February 12, 2013 at 2:22 pm

We will be at WDW the 2nd week of March. March 8th – March 16th. AK will be open until 8pm every night we are there, but with Crowd Levels of 8 or 9, is this still a valid plan? Do you think the park will be as empty as you are seeing after the parade?

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melinda February 12, 2013 at 2:40 pm

AK is our favorite park to visit at night, the lighting is so worth it. Wished you hadn’t told everyone our secret.

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tanya February 12, 2013 at 2:50 pm

This is perfect. Already planning this and now I see its a great idea. Yak & Yeti after the last safari or before the last safari…. Decisions decisions. Beautiful!!

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Melissa February 12, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Ok late June is my target AK day. Last time I did this park is 2009 in June and it was SO FREAKING HOT I steered clear of it in 2010, 2011 and 2012. My daughter, 14, really wants to do Dino, Nemo Show and EE. I have a very good rope drop schedule made up – thanks to you – but now this has me thinking……If I did a 4 pm arrival (or earlier for Nemo show) – would the crowds be pretty thin even in late June? Thanks!

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Lee February 12, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Todd, I will be there the same week (2nd week of March) and was wondering the same thing. We weren’t planning on going to AK, but if it looks like this that week, I may have to change my plans!

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RebeccaMcK February 12, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Great post. I hope you’ll put this one somewhere in the right margin, for touring tips for Animal Kingdom.

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Kathy February 12, 2013 at 5:19 pm

This sounds wonderful. Too bad the park closes at 5 when we goin a few weeks.

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Amanda February 12, 2013 at 5:34 pm

LOVE This! I miss late night EMH at Animal Kingdom just for the ability to stay late. Such a beautiful park.

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Brian Noble February 12, 2013 at 6:08 pm

“Everest is even better in the dark.”

Hate. Pure hate. Punchable hate.

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sonja February 12, 2013 at 8:52 pm

We always do this! It was great on NYE too!

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jennie February 12, 2013 at 9:08 pm

Are the photopass photographers available during the nighttime hours? What about for ride pics, like Everest? Thanks :)

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Jimmy (formerly James) N February 13, 2013 at 4:34 am

We’ve done this a couple times on our last two trips and it’s fabulous. We are almost to the point of not even going to Animal Kingdom when it opens anymore and just going a few times in the evening.

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Stacey February 13, 2013 at 6:06 am

excellent post…wondering the same thing Melissa is, is this still an option with the high summer crowds?

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pam931 February 13, 2013 at 7:30 am

One thing about June-August is that sunset in central Florida is after 8pm, so more difficult to get that full-on after dark experience. Josh will have to chime in on changes in park hours but for now AK closes at 7pm every night in July, for example.

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shannon f February 13, 2013 at 8:31 am

I miss nighttime EMH at AK. It was the best. You had the park all to yourself. I can remember them running KRR and us not having to even get off and reboard. We literally had 20 mins of photo time with Mickey and Minney in their safari outfits. We had plenty of time to get that perfect shot.

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Denise25 February 13, 2013 at 9:16 am

We went last year during Easter Week, our arrival day, and arrived around 5:30 p.m. or so. It worked out really well, crowds were thinning out, and we rode everything we wanted to ride. We came back another morning at RD, and it was fun to compare the differences in the safari animals from morning to evening.

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Jana February 13, 2013 at 10:04 am

AK at night is our favorite! We did a pm EMH once and knew how much fun it is, so I was very happy with the later closing times around MLK weekend. We did a late arrival during our trip the end of last month and it was a blast. We spent the last 45 minutes riding EE again and again until I couldn’t take it anymore and my 10 year old rode the last 3 times by herself, up to the very last minute of park hours. We then took a very leisurely stroll out of the park, stopping for PP photos and shopping. Love it!

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Kevin February 13, 2013 at 12:58 pm

We went on a night they closed at 9 during the last week of January. The problem is that we have a 4-year old. so no Primeval Whirl, no Dinosaur, no Everest, Kali was being refurbished, and all the animals went away shortly after 5. So that left us with a lovely park with Triceratops spin and a few characters to meet. It’s not nearly as interesting as the other 3 parks after dark with a kid.

We did have a lovely dinner at Flame Tree BBQ 15 minutes before they closed,

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Ginger February 13, 2013 at 5:47 pm

Awesome! I’ve been trying to get my family to do late AK and now have ammunition, thanks! Any difference in how active animals are (or aren’t) during late evening safari?

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Becky A February 14, 2013 at 6:31 am

Definitely want to try this next week just to see the park in the dark. Trying to figure out how to fit it in to a quick three day visit!

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KennythePirate February 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Josh,
Where’s the world famous DJ Anaan late night Animal Kingdom spectacular? It’s Bollywood at it’s best and draws HUGE crowds. I was expecting a full report man!
KtP

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Terri -back home is So. Cal February 16, 2013 at 8:54 am

Thanks Josh. Great photos! Makes me wish I was there. :(

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Abby February 19, 2013 at 7:06 pm

AK after dark is one of the finest experiences I have had with my child, and I have to thank this site for suggesting it. We did it last fall, it was delightful. :)

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