After spending some time reassessing the situation at Magic Kingdom Park, we return to Disney’s Animal Kingdom to see what we can expect to find there this summer.
It’s 7:39am on the morning of Friday, July 17th, 2020. That’s six days after Disney’s Animal Kingdom reopened to the public and the day after Disney reallocated more Park Pass availability to Passholders. Even after the rearrangement, Disney’s Animal Kingdom was available to book with all ticket types on the day of my visit.
Currently, Animal Kingdom is open from 8am to 6pm every day from now until the end of October. Disney typically opens the toll plaza, where you’ll pay for parking or scan your annual pass, 30 minutes before official Park open. That’s 7:30am with the 8am open. Have your tickets/MagicBands ready because they may also scan them to verify you have Park Passes. Before 7:30am, you’ll likely find yourself lined up a little ways as you wait to park. Potentially, sitting in the comfort of your car, with it running, in air-conditioning, beats a prolonged wait out in front of the gate. That’s particularly true here in July with the morning humidity. It’s also a good opportunity to tweet out how plastic straws are ruining the world and deciding where you’d like to grab some fish for lunch.
Animal Kingdom is the first Park to open, with Magic Kingdom following at 9am, Hollywood Studios at 10am, and Epcot at 11am. That means the first buses that arrive at the Disney resorts will be dedicated to transporting guests to Animal Kingdom. Buses should begin arriving around 7am, putting you at Animal Kingdom between 7:15am and 7:25am. I’m arriving 15 minutes after that.
This is a picture from the other side of the temperature check station later in the afternoon, but it’s a better look at the two tents. You’ll simply approach and have your temperature checked via a handheld, infrared scanner. In all of my experiences across all four Walt Disney World theme parks, Disney Springs, and Universal for that matter, the process has been quick and painless. The only time I’ve waited more than two seconds was at Magic Kingdom, where I arrived before cast began checking temperatures. By the time you’re able to park at Disney’s Animal Kingdom or arrive on the bus, temperature check should be underway.
Bag check at Animal Kingdom is also the easiest of the four Parks.
Disney is using Evolv Technology Express scanners. There is no longer a cast member dedicated to riffling through your stuff. The only requirement is that, if applicable, you take your umbrella out and hold it in front of you as you pass through the contactless system. I walked right through with no wait and no trouble, despite having a backpack full of camera equipment, batteries, and the like.
Currently, the only other location that Disney has deployed these scanners is the International Gateway at Epcot. Eventually, the scanners should be set up at each of the theme park entrances. You can read more about the scanners on the company’s website here. For us, the news is good because it means we no longer have to wait in line for an inconsistent bag check experience. For Disney, investing in the system means reduced labor costs down the line. They’ll need a couple cast members to watch over the system, and check for any positive results, but the days of needing 25 bag checkers at Animal Kingdom’s entrance are over. It’s not a good time to need a job.
Less than a minute after arriving at the temperature check tent, I was on my way to the entrance.
Like the other Parks, Disney does not hold guests out in front of the entrance. At 7:40am, we’re free to head inside and to the attraction of our choice. You’ll note a variety of warning signs posted and hand sanitizer over on the right. The finger print scanner is covered up, so entry at Animal Kingdom is entirely contactless. It couldn’t be much more streamlined.
At 7:44am, I’m far from the first person to arrive.
But as we’ll see throughout the day, it’s not going to matter. At all.
The 8am opens are early enough that fewer people are naturally able to arrive in time for opening. Even without attendance caps in place, we always had significantly more luck touring when the Parks opened earlier. At the Tree of Life, we’ll take a left towards Pandora for Avatar – Flight of Passage.
Passing by Island Mercantile, which is closed at the moment. Discovery Trading Company on the other side is open.
Pizzafari also remains closed as far as reheating frozen pizzas is concerned. It’s a Relaxation Station, where you’ll be able to distance yourself and take off your mask later in the day.
While it will not be like this forever, it doesn’t really matter what time you arrive at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, or what you do once you get there. I’m basically going to walk right on Flight of Passage once it begins operating at 8am. But I’m also going to walk right on Flight of Passage when I head back over just before 2pm.
The average wait for Flight of Passage has dropped from around 140 minutes over the first ten weeks of the year to 15 minutes.
Theoretically, Flight of Passage’s line can be backed up to the bridge into the Land. These social distancing markers on the ground are for the Avatar ride. The entrance is nowhere in sight.
The ones on the left are for Na’vi River Journey and extend about the same distance.
I’ve rope dropped Pandora several dozen times since it opened. I would guess, more than anybody. Of those 50+ visits, I can only think of one other time where I’ve had an opportunity to stop and snap an HDR picture of the Hallelujah Mountains. The only other time I had seen so few people in the land in the morning was back when Disney was offering Extra Extra Magic Hours in September of last year. Nobody showed up for those with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge proving to be a dud out of the gate. Enter Rise of the Resistance in December, 2019 and you’ve got another ball game. The debut of Rise of the Resistance was just in time for Disney to end the Extra Extra Magic Hours period, when Disney probably needed it the most.
This is what rope drop to Pandora looked like as recently as early March of this year. It “feels” like a couple of years ago, but it was as recently as four months ago. To say that things have changed dramatically would be an understatement. A 90% drop in wait times is something that I don’t think even the most pessimistic of prognosticators would have predicted running up to the Park’s reopening. It wouldn’t have surprised me to see Flight of Passage posting 60ish minute waits most of the day with the attendance caps and limited capacity, but 20-minute peak waits, even on busier Saturdays, is a surprise.
I’ll follow the social-distancing markers towards the entrance to Flight. It’s basically the same path as before. After you cross the bridge into Pandora, you’ll take the first right. Then, you’ll take a left down here towards the ride’s entrance. With nobody else in the frame, it’s a significantly more pleasant experience.
This scene, from just about any morning prior to the extended closure, will return at some point in the future. The strange thing is that in a way, I’m looking forward to it. Not only is “just go to Animal Kingdom and do whatever you want” bad for business, but seeing people shoulder to shoulder, elbowing young children out of the way, means that we’ve effectively beaten this thing.
There aren’t a whole lot of other people around.
While Animal Kingdom has let us into the Park, the various attractions won’t begin operating until right at 8am. That’s a departure from what we saw at Magic Kingdom, where we were able to ride Seven Dwarfs Mine Train before the official 9am open.
One potentially nice thing is that we’ll have an opportunity to walk Flight of Passage’s full standby queue.
In the past, Disney would send us through the FastPass+ line early in the morning. That was in order to move through as many people as quickly as possible. The ramp up to FastPass+ is significantly shorter in distance than the full queue experience. This is the gate leading up to the FastPass+ line. It would still be utilized by those using Disability Access and rider swap.
We’re able to continue through the queue until we reach the first people waiting for the ride to begin operating.
That may still be some time.
Like what we saw at several queues at the other Parks, Disney has installed acrylic plastic barriers in certain parts of the queue.
But there aren’t a ton.
Some portions of the queue have barriers already built in, like we saw at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. That’s an example on the left, where steel-looking industrial sheeting more or less does the trick.
I ended up stopping just outside the laboratory portion of the queue at 7:58am.
About a minute later, we started moving forward. The first guests of the day began to board their banshees.
I would reiterate that I am not entirely sure why we see physical barriers in some places and not in others. We’re passing just as close to the same people as we were before, if not closer, with no plastic to save us. You might just hold up a straw for protection. It might be just as effective. Certainly, you can find an “MD” on Twitter who will agree with whatever stand you can come up with on just about anything. Such is life when there is no barrier to entry.
We bypassed the long way around the lab, but theoretically, I could be stopped here with another party just a foot away from me.
I’m sure there’s some rhyme or reason to the installations. Or it could just be that installing dividers in some areas wasn’t feasible due to the queue layout. Fire codes may come into play. Cost also comes to mind.
Hopefully wind turbulence is low. At least it’s just a simulation. Perhaps just like everything else we’re “experiencing.”
With my 7:40am arrival outside the main entrance, I was probably about a hundred people back from the front of the Flight of Passage line. The queue to the left was not yet in use. Again, we’re divided by acryllic through here, but not on the switchbacks on the other side.
Ahead, we have dividers, but only about a third of the way up the ramp.
Assuming that the budget is limited, it would make sense to install barriers where people are most likely to spend time. That’s likely closer to the front.
Within about two minutes, I was ready to head into the pre-show and get linked up with my lucky Avatar. We’ve got hand sanitizer dispensers outside each pre-show room.
The pre-show and loading procedures are modified slightly. The cast member who assigns you to your room will tell you where you’ll be seated. Historically, you would stand on these numbers throughout the pre-show experiences, which include two different pre-shows in two separate rooms. Now, those numbers will correspond to the seats that you eventually sit on. Until then, a cast member will assign you to a dot in one of the two pre-show rooms until it’s time to board.
Here I am enjoying the safety and solitude of my dot. If you think it’s a coincidence that my shoes match, it’s not.
For the sake of social distancing, you’ll find dots in both pre-show rooms with the door connecting the two rooms open.
Riders see just the second of the two pre-show videos, regardless of which dot and room the cast member assigns your party.
Dr. Ogden will introduce us to the, uh, Avatar program. The fact that the video Disney shows is largely about safety and what to expect on the ride makes sense. You can always watch both pre-shows on YouTube here should you feel nostalgic.
After that, we continue on to the ride. Skipping the first pre-show cuts down on the total experience time because we save about five minutes. We also don’t have to hear about Disney’s hard stance on what they identify generically as “bad mining practices.” You never know when fracking will offer a sponsorship.
Everything here is exactly as it was before, with the exception of the fact that there will be one seat left empty on both sides of your party.
From the perspective of enjoying attractions, physical distancing is positive in virtually every scenario. It’s much less disruptive when nobody is talking through the ride directly next to you. The one big change on the ride is that there are no water effects. I am not a big water effects guy under ordinary circumstances. I could do without getting sprayed in the face. But the light mist as your Avatar glides around waves and through water did add to the realism of the ride. If you’ve never experienced Flight of Passage before, then you may not even miss anything. Certainly, I’d prefer to wait two minutes and have to pour my own bottle of water over my head than wait two hours and have Disney spritz me lightly two times.
Hand sanitizer waits for us at the exit.
Physical distancing is a little trickier on the way out. Guests will be filing into the walkway on the ground floor from several theaters. Even if you try to keep your distance from the people ahead of you, somebody else may be moving quickly behind you. Within a minute or two, you’ll be back outside.
On the way out of the building, there was actually a cast member inviting guests to reenter the queue from just outside the indoor portion. I had never seen this before. That includes a couple of stupid early visits for Extra Extra Magic Hours last fall and some of the least crowded Disney After Hours events from 2018 and 2019. I thought it was a nice touch and is a testament to just how low crowds are here early in the morning. You’d save at least five minutes of walking and a few hundred steps by not having to cycle back around and all the way back up the queue. You’d still have an opportunity to see the full indoor portion of the queue a second time. That’s what you miss with FastPass+.
The Avatar likeness thing isn’t offered at the moment. I doubt anyone is too upset about that. Mine came out looking more like George Costanza than anything. It may be more of a fortune telling device than anything. A peek into my future.
Disney now offers a plush version of the shoulder banshee for $20. It’s similar to the Porg, Pascal, and other shoulder creatures that we’ve seen previously. They come with a magnet that you attach under your shirt on your shoulder, or wherever else you want, and then the banshee perches on that via however magnets work.
A socially-distant version of the regular plastic banshee adoption process is also available. I think I would prefer to carry something around that’s a little lighter and a little softer.
Pongu Pongu opens with the Park just in case you’re looking for an 8:30am beer. Ordinarily, I’d probably look to be slamming a couple shots of tequila at this point myself. With the complete lack of crowds, it’s hard not to enjoy yourself, even given the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the visit.
As I’ve mentioned throughout our coverage of the Park’s reopening, hyping low crowds and short waits “feels” more than a little tone deaf. Are low crowds pleasant? Absolutely. Are the circumstances surrounding those low crowds horrific? Absolutely. But what you see is the reality of the situation. Positive or negative. We’ll discuss the sustainability of Disney’s current operation as we run into more cast members than guests throughout our morning.
Things had not exactly picked up in Pandora during the 20 minutes it took to experience Flight of Passage. I’m looking past that ride’s entrance and towards Na’vi River Journey. The entrance to that is on the other side of the alien planet.
At 8:22am, Flight of Passage is still posting a 5-minute wait. Even if you arrived at the main entrance now, and crawled over here, you’d still basically walk right on.
While unlikely, it occurred to me that the tourists could be particularly confused and somehow were prioritizing River Journey instead.
Following the social-distancing markers, this did not appear to be the case:
There was literally nobody waiting to ride.
You’ll remember that River Journey is limited to one party per boat. You’ll have all eight possible seats to your group whether you’re a party of one or eight.
If your party is seven or eight people, you might consider splitting up into two parties of three or four. That would provide a more comfortable experience. You may also prefer to delight in the beauty together.
It’s slightly less awkward to take pictures behind you when there aren’t people in the back row looking straight back at you.
We’ll enjoy free reign:
I was a little surprised by our slow speed through the alien tunnel of love. We were basically boat-to-boat throughout the ride, when things are typically more spaced out. Considering demand this early was virtually zero, it didn’t seem to make a tremendous amount of sense that we’d be bumping into each other…literally.
I survived nonetheless, and made it through Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey at 8:33am. That’s with my 7:40am arrival and 8am open. It isn’t like I’ve been waiting around for a significant amount of time. With the walk over to Pandora taking about ten minutes, with some photo stops, my total wait for Flight of Passage was about 13 minutes. There is “literally” nobody coming this way. I could easily walk right back on Na’vi River Journey.
I would never do that. But I could. Prior to the extended Park closure earlier this year, Flight of Passage averaged a two-hour wait just 30 minutes into operation. It’ currently at ten minutes.
Next up, we’re actually going to stop by Starbucks for a little pick-me-up before moving on to Kilimanjaro Safaris. Ordinarily, we’d be in a much bigger hurry.