All photos by Alex Westcott.
Our last holiday look of the season approaches its conclusion just as the Christmas decorations come down at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and things return to normal. With Pandora opening a few years ago, Animal Kingdom has become more of a “mature” Park, with praise for Avatar – Flight of Passage continuing to prop up attendance and drive enough interest to make the Park relevant. Interest should only increase if the sequels ever make their way into or out of the editing room.
At the moment, there’s certainly less to fill a day at the Park with Finding Nemo the Musical, Festival of the Lion King, and Rivers of Light either dark or under what is likely some amount of “re-imagining.” If you were planning on seeing all three unavailable shows, that’s about three hours cut from your itinerary. On one hand, not being able to see one of your favorites doesn’t “feel” particularly positive, but it should make itinerary planning easier as you don’t have to try to base your day around making specific showtimes at theaters across the Park. With Park Hopping reinstituted, it also makes it easier to continue the day at Epcot or another Park where you can take things a little easier after what might be a bit of a hectic morning trying to get to Flight of Passage and other priorities.
Festival of the Lion King, one of Disney’s highest-rated shows, is most likely to come back first, potentially with fewer performers on the ground. I’m not sure Finding Nemo the Musical will be recognizable when a show reopens in the Theater in the Wild, either under the same name or as a different property/show altogether. It’s both expensive to put on and the whole underwater dentist thing may not resonate with guests the same way it did five or ten years ago, even after a successful sequel. “How would you like to watch a show about misplacing your underwater child for 45 minutes” isn’t the solidest pitch, but they certainly made it work since its debut in 2006. This is the same company that sent out Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage for nine thousand years, so things may eventually return exactly as they were. It’s been about ten months since the theme park closures of March 2020, which you would think would be enough time to rework shows and scripts if Disney were actively working on them. Even adding new jokes to old shows would go a long way to making them re-watchable for returning guests. They’re probably not nearing the pace of Stephen King writing “Cujo,” but we can hope.
Potential changes also go back to Disney’s balancing act between marketing to guests who are planning that once-in-a-lifetime, blowout trip, while at the same time locking in tens of thousands of other guests to come back yearly for 70+ years through Disney Vacation Club (DVC) contracts.
On the resort front, since June 2012, Disney added bungalows and converted regular cash rooms to DVC Studios at the Polynesian Village Resort. The DVC Villas at the Grand Floridian opened in 2013 as a separate tower. Disney converted a wing of regular rooms at Wilderness Lodge to Copper Creek DVC in 2017, and then added the standalone Riviera DVC Resort in 2019. The only other resort on the docket, other than the cubbies coming to the incredibly-limited Star Wars Hotel, is “Reflections,” another potential DVC resort that may or may not be built. So in other words, we haven’t seen a new Disney-operated cash resort since Art of Animation opened in phases back in 2012, or almost nine years ago. And even that hotel is largely full of “family suites” that run $400+ a night. If that sounds like a lot, I would try to figure out a way to really like “The Little Mermaid” and the color blue.
For now, we’ll enjoy a look around.
On the cavalcade front, you could probably argue that Animal Kingdom’s setup is both the least convenient to see and least disruptive to guest flow as the characters glide along the water in their various flotillas.
The flotillas continue to make a circle around the area closest to Africa and then return the same way they departed underneath the bridge that connects DinoLand and Asia. Anyone who was able to stay awake during Rivers of Light is familiar with that entrance and exit. Once it becomes safe/cost-effective to run the nighttime spectaculars again, it will be interesting to see what, if anything, Disney decides to do with the space previously occupied by Rivers of Light and the massive theater that they built for a single show that is now out of commission.
As far as the floating characters, you basically just need to find an area near the water to watch them.
You might grab a beverage or snack from Thirsty River Bar and Trek Snacks to the left of Everest and sit inside the old Rivers of Light theater, which is open and massive. If you want to commit to potentially spending some more money, the view from the outdoor seating area at Nomad Lounge is also a great viewing location. Any of the seating along the water behind the Tree of Life also works nicely, as does the view from behind Drinkwallah across from Yak & Yeti. The only location that would require a purchase is Nomad Lounge, though I’m sure you wouldn’t be the first person to order a round of tap waters before leaving because “meat” just sounds a little too out there.
New characters come out every 20 minutes or so as they have to make the long journey through the waterways of Harambe before returning back to DinoLand.
That’s art if I’ve ever seen it.
Animal Kingdom sees bigger jumps in wait times on holidays and holiday weeks, likely as people pick it after Park Passes fill for at least Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom. Epcot can still absorb people fairly well, but even that’s less true these days with the number of performances and attractions that are currently unavailable.
Here’s the wait time chart for this past Saturday, which is in the middle of the Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend:
The 36-minute average isn’t all that bad compared to a lot of weekend dates. The Park’s Saturday average over the last 14 weeks is actually just about exactly 36 minutes. But a lot of those previous Saturday waits came with Disney only loading half the rows on Everest and leaving an empty seat between parties on Flight of Passage, among other recent operational changes. Now that every row is filled at Everest, and capacity is virtually doubled at the roller coaster, you can expect waits to come down as more people are able to ride per cycle.
In other words, the wait times may be similar now to what they were six weeks ago, but there are now far more people in the Park to fill those additional seats and increase waits to those previous levels.
Here’s our too-long chart of Everest wait times since November 1st to see if we can identify a point where waits fell off:
Around December 10th is when the Studios began loading every row on Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster and Slinky Dog Dash, despite not making any modifications to the vehicles. I’ve highlighted that date in blue above. The same is true at Everest, where Disney has somehow deemed that the height of the seats makes it safe to ride now, while it either wasn’t before November or people would rather wait 20 minutes than 40 and take their chances. Most of the safety and security protocols are an act to make you “feel” more comfortable, while basically doing nothing to actually keep you safe. Every once in a while they do find something.
Not that any of the various arms of the Walt Disney Company typically know what any of the others are doing, it seems like making a concerted effort to increase capacity at virtually no cost to the company would be ideal heading into the busy holiday season and into the New Year. Park Hopping is now back on the table beginning at 2pm most days. To be able to allow guests to Hop without concern that their next Park will be “at capacity,” is a vital part of the system. After all, if you could never hop to the Studios, which routinely runs out of Park Passes to begin the day, Disney would be issuing a lot of refunds for that add-on.
Looking at December 10th in the chart above, the 17-minute average for the day was the lowest realized since a day before this chart even starts on November 1st. You’d probably have to go back to late September to find a wait that low. I’ve color-coded the chart, probably mostly correctly, with wait times of 25 minutes or below as “green.” Waits between 25 and 35 minutes are in yellow, and then anything above that comes in red. Prior to December 10th, we saw ten green days out of 39, or 25.6%. It looks like 15 days came in yellow, or 38.4%. And 14 days were red, or 35.9%. That means that about 75% of dates between November 1st and December 9th saw an average wait of 35+ minutes.
From December 10th until now, 20 days came in green, with average waits of 25 minutes or less. That’s 52.5% of the time with average waits under 25 minutes, or more than twice as many days with waits that short. Sixteen dates are yellow, or 40.5%. That’s in line with the 38.4% of days we saw before December 10th. Of course, dates after December 10th include Christmas and New Year’s, which remain some of the busiest days of the year, while dates before then included Thanksgiving and Veterans Day. But since December 10th, only two dates are coded red with an average of 36+ minutes, or 5.2%. That’s a drop of more than 30% since Disney would have begun loading every row, which “feels” significant, and a pretty clear indication that capacity did increase around that time.
Here’s a two-column chart showing the average wait for Everest before and after December 10th:
Obviously, the dates after December 10th include the busy holiday season, in addition to some less popular days in January. The same could be said for the days before with Thanksgiving Week proving popular, and other dates less so. But it certainly looks like we’ve seen a reduction in waits by about 28%.
Our best “control” attraction at Animal Kingdom is probably Na’vi River Journey, where they’ve only loaded one group per boat since the Park reopened. Since it’s possible that waits have simply dropped at Animal Kingdom overall, we’ll take a look at the averages there to see if there’s a similar drop.
Here’s the two-column chart of River Journey’s overall average waits on the same dates we used for Everest:
While waits declined at Everest by 28%, given new loading procedures and increased capacity, they went up at River Journey during the same dates, where no such capacity increase occurred. There, we see an 8.7-minute increase, up to 57.5 minutes, which isn’t far off from the ~70ish minute average of the first couple months of 2020. The 17% increase in waits over the last 2.5 months or so makes sense given the overall Park’s capacity increase that Disney already announced and our estimation that Park Pass allocation has quietly increased again. The increase in waits where capacity hasn’t changed certainly seem to support that.
Back to the “real world,” Kali River Rapids is down for its annual refurbishment, with the expectation that it will reopen when temperatures are higher beginning the first week of April. “I can’t wait.” Nope, can’t say it with a straight face.
We’ll take a walk through Maharajah Jungle Trek instead:
Maharajah is always a pleasant walk and a smart way to get away from the crowds on busier days. The aviary can get a little congested depending on the size of the fowl walking around, but that’s about the only congestion point.
While most stage shows remain dark, “Feathered Friends in Flight” continues to take the place of the old UP! A Great Bird Adventure show:
The ~25ish minute show is generally received better by older kids and adults with a renewed focus on the natural wonders of flight rather than focusing on someone dressed up like a dog who says the exact same fourteen lines whether the chickens are rummaging about appropriately or the stage is on fire and about to collapse around us. Hearing Dug exclaim, “These canaries sure are hairy!” as the façade comes crashing down in a pile of smoke and debris is hopefully more of a 2020 thing than a 2021 thing.
Probably not entirely coincidentally, we exited the theater to another flotilla passing under the bridge over to Discovery Island.
We’ll take some time to enjoy the area outside the theater and over to Africa before heading towards Kilimanjaro Safaris:
40 minutes for Safaris is still a little on the high side. We’ll enjoy some more of Animal Kingdom’s atmosphere and hope waits drop a bit in the near-term so we have an opportunity to ride. I’m guessing we’ll figure out a way to board.