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This theme park where the lion is king, but the imagination reigns as undisputed queen, opened its doors in 1998. More than 1,700 animals (with more than 250 different species represented) roam freely in natural habitats. Rides like the Kilimanjaro Safaris combine a Serengeti-inspired plain with the added adventure of joining in a "chase to capture poachers."
An enormous park -- about five times bigger than the Magic Kingdom -- Animal Kingdom has five main sections in a roughly circular layout. Discovery Island with the 14-story Tree of Life icon is at its center, and going clockwise, Camp Minnie-Mickey (with Disney characters and live shows), Africa (with the Kilimanjaro Safaris as the top draw), Asia (with the Maharajah Trek and Kali River Rapids as the most popular attractions) and DinoLand U.S.A. (with the rollercoaster Dinosaur as the main ride). The entire park has a strong conservation message, as in Rafiki's Planet Watch, a research and education hub where guests learn about endangered wildlife and programs to save threatened species. Here are 10 ways to make the most of your visit:
1. The Animal Kingdom Park opens earlier than other Disney Parks, at 8 a.m.. As soon as you enter, head for the Africa section to pick up a FastPass (at certain attractions, it allows you to enter during a designated time without waiting in long lines) at Kilimanjaro Safaris. While you wait for your time to return to the attraction, enjoy a quick breakfast of fresh-baked treats and an espresso (under $10 per person) at Kusafiri Coffee Shop & Bakery located inside Tusker House Restaurant in Harambe Village in the Africa section of the park. Or skip breakfast and head for the Dinosaur coaster, where you'll time-travel to the Cretaceous Period and encounter a 16-ft. iguanadon and a fierce, horned carnotaurus.
2. Take in the Kilimanjaro Safaris, located near the Tusker House -- early morning is an excellent time to take in this ride, as animals are more active early in the day (and also at sunset). Midday and early afternoon they may be hiding under a tree to escape the heat.
3. The Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, located next to the Kilimanjaro Safaris and accessible at the end of the ride, is a self-guided walk with such not-to-be-missed highlights as the hippo exhibit with a windowed underwater area to see the hippos swimming and the lush gorilla area of the park. From here, take in the third of Africa's attractions, Rafiki's Planet Watch, the park's conservation headquarters.
4. Enjoy lunch at Tusker House in Harambe Village in the Africa section of the park, themed to a safari orientation center. Try the rotisserie chicken cooked in a 16-ft. "wall of flames." Other choices include roasted vegetable sandwiches served with tabbouleh and grilled chicken salad served in a bread bowl. Prices are in the $5-$10 range. Another option is the smoked beef brisket or pulled pork with a spicy, mustard-based sauce at the Flame Tree Barbecue in the Discovery Island section of the park. Prices of all items are under $10.
5. Burn off some calories as you take in the Maharajah Trek, a hike through a jungle to see Komodo dragons and Bengal tigers. Then cool off in the Kali River Rapids, an exciting -and wet!-- ride in 12-passenger rafts, both in the Asia section of the park. And on your way out (there are fewer lines in the mid- to late afternoon) take in It's Tough To Be A Bug, a 3-D movie with in-theater special effects that looks at life from the viewpoint of insects (but, yikes, if you are afraid of spiders and roaches, stay away!).
6. Take in the Festival of the Lion King, the best stage show in the park, and among the top five in all Disney World parks. This 20-minute presentation includes music and characters from the Disney animated movie of the same name, wonderful costumes, a parade of performers and great dancing and acrobatic numbers.
7. Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade is featured daily, but double-check your map (free at the entrance to the park) for the exact time during your visit. It's a whimsical safari with Disney characters, stilt-walkers and fanciful animal puppets.
8. Do your souvenir shopping at Island Mercantile in the Discovery Island section. It stays open a half hour after the park closes and is located near the exit so you don't have to lug packages too long.
9. Call (407) WDW-DINE for reservations at Boma-Flavors of Africa (a buffet-style restaurant with "global fusion" cuisine and decor inspired by an African marketplace) or at Jiko-The Cooking Place (table service and cuisine with an African accent), both located in the Animal Kingdom Lodge. If you are not staying at the lodge, a dinner reservation is the only way to get past the guardgate and into the hotel, which is an attraction in itself, evoking images of a thatched-roofed game lodge in southern Africa. Look around the high-ceilinged lobby decorated with colorful African artwork, shields and other artifacts. Shop for Africa-themed gifts at Zawadi Marketplace. Take in the big mud fireplace and above all, enjoy the four-story observation window with views of the hotel's 33-acre African-style savannah with giraffes, gazelles, zebras and other animals. Be sure to sample the South African wines at one of two watering holes in the Animal Kingdom Lodge: Victoria Falls, a mezzanine-level lounge next to a waterfall or the Capetown Lounge and Wine Bar, next to Jiko-the Cooking Place.
10. To continue the exotic theme well into the evening, head for the Adventurer's Club at Pleasure Island, Disney World's nightclub and restaurant complex in Downtown Disney. This club is inspired by 19th century adventurers' clubs packed with souvenirs of journeys to faraway places. Bartenders can work magic: your stool may slowly sink into the floor; and storytellers entertain next to a haunted organ. Admission to Pleasure Island is $21.
As your visit ends, you might feel as Walt Disney himself, who once said, "I have learned from the animal world. And what everyone will learn who studies it is a renewed sense of kinship with the earth and all its inhabitants."