Disney World, 2024

Day One: Animal Kingdom

Two weeks ago I went to Walt Disney World with my sister. It was my first time visiting in 15 years— or in one particular case, 23 years. This ramble is far too long for one page, so I'm going to write up each park. Let’s get into it!

The last time I visited Animal Kingdom was in 2001, and I was so underwhelmed I never came back. I was definitely in the “Animal Kingdom is just a glorified zoo” camp, because in ‘01 that’s basically what it was. Kilimanjaro Safaris was cool, but us North Texans have the Fort Worth Zoo, the Dallas Zoo, and Fossil Rim if we want to see animals. Kali River Rapids was neat, but we’ve got water rides back home with Hurricane Harbor and NRH2O. What was left to justify the ticket, the Dinosaur ride? Camp Minnie Mickey? Please. So yeah, my next two visits to Walt Disney World in 2007 and 2009, I ignored the fourth park altogether with no regrets.

But my sister’s favorite ride in all of theme-parkdom is Expedition Everest, and on her 2021 honeymoon trip she had become very smitten with the new Pandora section of the park, so Animal Kingdom wound up on our must-go list. So I went!

Well, 2001 Animal Kingdom was kind of dullsville, but 2024 Animal Kingdom is considerably better. But you probably knew that if you’re a Disney World regular. Pandora really is impressive, even though I’ve not seen Avatar. I don’t really think it matters though; I mean, I can’t really tell you much about the big mech standing outside the Windtraders gift shop or any info about The Mighty Ikran, but it was all pretty cool nonetheless.

Speaking of really cool, it was in the low 50s the morning my sister and I got to Animal Kingdom. When I think of Disney World and Orlando in general, my instant first thought is visiting for the very first time in June 1997 and dealing with the heat and humidity. But walking around seeing my own breath, and seeing all the attendees in coats and hats was a very surreal experience. I loved it.

But let's talk rides!

Avatar Flight of Passage - We didn’t “rope drop” but we got there early enough to get an Individual Lightning Lane and basically waltz onto the ride. I had a vague idea of what the ride was about: you wear 3D glasses and look at a screen as a big dragon takes you around a virtual world. It’s basically like Soarin’, right? Then we got to all the signs warning anyone with motion sickness or a fear of heights to leave. Then we went past the Cast Member who also told us to step aside if we have motion sickness, or a fear of heights. Then we got to one last Cast Member who gave us our 3D glasses and let us know where the exit was if we wanted to back out now if we’re prone to motion sickness or a fear of heights.

I am prone to motion sickness, and the closer we got to the ride entrance, the more anxious I got. But I paid my stupid Lightning Lane money to be there, so I decided to suck it up and go through with it. This turned out to be the correct decision, but SHEESH Flight of Passage is by far the ride that messed me up the most this entire trip, and I entirely blame the glasses. I don’t know if the lenses were messed up or what, but the 3D glasses I was given had a weird double-image effect, making the ride extremely disorienting.

A piece of promotional art from Avatar Flight of Passage. Two blue humanoid cat creatures ride on the backs of two large dragon animals. On either side they are flanked by flocks of bird-like animals. beneath them is a lush forest and waterfall. This picture has been superimposed upon itself to give it a double image.
Sivako ("rise to the challenge" in the Na'vi language) of not trying to throw up after watching five minutes of this.

Flight of Passage seems very cool. Unfortunately I found myself being unable to fully enjoy it because my poor Avatar was seeing double. There were times when the double-vision effect was pretty minimal, and when that was the case I didn’t really have an issue. But the rest of the time I found myself having to close my eyes to keep from feeling queasy. I’d love to go on the ride again with better glasses. I mean, it’s gotta be the glasses’ fault, right? I’ve been on dozens of 3D rides with glasses, and I’ve never come across the weird double-vision issue.

Avatar Flight of Passage: 5/10, for now.

Side note about Genie+: The concept of paying for an all-day Fastpass for each person really irks me. But the concept of paying per person for a single ride’s one-time use Fastpass, is straight-up gross. And yet, I bought the Individual Lightning Lane for Flight of Passage, making me a participant in this gross system. So what does that make me, some kinda chump who complains and still goes along with it anyway? Someone who knows time is limited and will play Disney’s fucked up little game to save a few hours of standing in line? Both, I guess. I don’t know. Just know I’m not happy about it.

Na’vi River Journey - After Flight of Passage I was in a funky state and kind of just wanted to have a drink of water, so my sister and I started to leave Pandora for another section of the park. I asked my sister if there was anything else in Pandora worth seeing, and she shrugged and said “nothing, unless you want to see that ride with that crazy shaman animatronic.”

I very much did want to see that crazy shaman! Even though I haven’t though much about Animal Kingdom since 2001, I remember all the hype and foofaraw about the multi-million dollar hyper-realistic shaman animatronic. So we waited in a 50-ish minute line to go on the Na’vi River Journey.

Is the Na’vi River Journey worth waiting in line for 50 minutes? Not particularly. It’s neat, it’s slow, it’s chill. Weird jellyfish bounce around. Strange beasts on screens wander through the forest. And at the end a very, very impressive animatronic sings and wiggles its arms at you. Honestly it was perfect ride for me at the moment, to chill out and listen to forest sounds after getting fucked up on Flight of Passage. But it’s not a ride I have any particular urge to go on again. Cool shaman, though.

Na’vi River Journey: 6/10. Rainforest vibes aren’t worth a 30+ minute wait.

Dinosaur - Look man, if you weren’t at Animal Kingdom in the first few years, you have no idea. This was my favorite ride at the park, mostly by default. As I mentioned earlier, safari rides and rapid rides could be found elsewhere, but in 2001 Dinosaur was the only ride that felt like I could only experience it at Animal Kingdom. And as much as I enjoyed ragging on Animal Kingdom in the past for being a vastly inferior park, I had a weird twinge of sadness when I saw Dinosaur only had a 10 minute wait. Here it was, the former Hot Shit of Animal Kingdom, with a wait time that says "eh, yeah, I guess we could go on that". Give Dinosaur some respect! Sure, it’s showing its age compared to the Avatar rides. None of the dinosaur animatronics in here are nearly as impressive as that shaman. And sure, the CGI of Aladar wandering the halls at the end of the ride is pretty dated. But it’s still a decent ride.

Dinosaur - 7/10. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Dinosaur, but the ride felt like it could use some TLC.

A piece of promotional art from Avatar Flight of Passage. Two blue humanoid cat creatures ride on the backs of two large dragon animals. On either side they are flanked by flocks of bird-like animals. beneath them is a lush forest and waterfall. This picture has been superimposed upon itself to give it a double image.
"Welcome to McDonald's!" is a 23-year running joke with my sister that I don't really have time to explain, just know that it was in my head a lot on the Dinosaur ride.

Expedition Everest - So. Okay. I am a big boo-boo baby. I can admit this about myself. I don’t typically do rollercoasters. I haven’t been to Six Flags since nineteen ninety three because in my eyes that park is entirely coasters, and I’m just not interested. But this is my sister’s number one ride with a bullet, she told me she really wanted to ride with me and I told her I would go on it. And then we got to Animal Kingdom and I started to dread my promise. And then we got to the ride and the dread built and built. But I told her and myself that I was going to ride the Yeti ride and damn it, I meant it!

But before that, I think Expedition Everest has the best ride queue of all of Animal Kingdom, and possibly the best queue of all the rides we went on while at WDW. I really enjoyed the Yeti museum, and the statuary/shrine prior to that was also really neat.
EDIT: Apparently the Flight of Passage queue is really cool as well, but we took the Lightning Lane entrance which bypassed all of that. Ah well!

The ride itself is truly something else. I’ve been sitting here watching my cursor blink trying to describe the “WOOMPH” feeling in my chest when the train starts going backwards and how it feels like all the air has been shoved out of my lungs, causing me to panic for half a second. I hated it. I loved it. Believe it or not, I actually went on Everest twice. Apparently I looked pretty shaken up when we got off the ride the first time, but a few hours later we both went back on in the single rider line. My sister couldn’t really believe I wanted to ride it again, but here’s the thing: On the first ride, I had my eyes closed through most of the ride like the big baby I truly am! I wanted to see the yeti animatronic, even though I know it’s infamously not as good as it used to be. And honestly? I’d love to go on it again. Great ride. I am still a big big big baby when it comes to coasters, but I’ve warmed up to Expedition Everest in a big way.

Expedition Everest - 10/10, even if I am way too afraid to look out at the horizon on the big ascent.

It’s Tough to Be a Bug! - Another opening-day attraction that I was kind of meh about in 2001. When it comes to “Disney 3D shows that also spray shit at you”, I’m really more of a Honey, I Shrunk the Audience and MuppetVision 3D fan. It didn’t help that we were seated in the front row, which made of the 3D not look great. But Bug has one thing that Honey and Muppets don’t have: the ability to terrorize children. I mean, the scurrying mice effect in Honey always got some great shrieks from the audience, but when the black widows descend and every child under 7 goes completely ballistic…

Typing all that out, I feel kind of bad laughing at scared kids. Would I like it if someone laughed at my photo from Expedition Everest where I look like I’m in a complete panic? But damn it all, I can’t help it. These slowly-descending spider animatronics don’t get anywhere near the audience, but the screams really help sell it. Watch a ride-through with a silent audience, and the effect completely falls apart. Also, that Hopper animatronic? Surprisingly great. I don’t remember it being that good, maybe it got an upgrade somewhere along the way. It’s not Na’vi Shaman good, but it’s still respectable. I know they announced a Zootopia attraction will be replacing It’s Tough to Be A Bug sometime in the near future; it’ll be a shame to see that Hopper animatronic go. And those musical parody posters in the lobby. Good stuff.

It’s Tough to Be a Bug! - 6/10, how did Hopper get footage old sci-fi movies anyway?

Other non-ride misc:

  • I am a big dummy and forgot to charge my Polaroid the night before, meaning I didn’t have my camera with me on Day 1. Bummer! I’m still not entirely used to the i-Type Polaroids not having a battery in the film pack.

  • The pin-trading boards were out in full force. On my last two visits, the way to trade pins was with Cast Members wearing lanyards. This has since been replaced by large Mickey head-shaped felt boards. On the one hand, I love this because it allows me to closely inspect a board without feeling like I’m ogling a Cast Member. On the other hand, nearly every CM used to wear a lanyard, and there’s only so many boards in the park, so the amount of potential trading sites has gone waaaaaay down. I guess it’s kind of a moot point anyway, seeing as how modern pin trading at the parks is kind of broken: so many people buy scrappers and fakes for cheap on Amazon, so these pin boards are completely saturated with undesirable stuff.

  • I was totally “that guy” and ordered food from a restaurant five minutes before closing. I had no idea they were closing up when I placed the mobile order. I’m so sorry, Pizzafari staff. I never want to be that guy.

  • At the risk of sounding too much like a complete dork, our first ten minutes in the park really had a spellbinding effect on me that I wasn’t expecting. We got in, Cast Members are smiling, off in the distance a line is beginning to form to meet Meeko from Pocahontas, the background music is going wild, the Tree of Life is cresting over a slight hill, and then Russell and Dug from Up sailed by on a boat. Fuck. Don’t get me wrong, the rest of my trip was also amazing, but walking into a Disney park for the first time in 15 years… I dunno man, it really grabbed me.

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