Welcome to “Thrifty Theme Park Adventures!” As an ardent theme park lover, I understand that fun-filled theme park adventures can sometimes strain your wallet. That’s why I’ve created this column to help you navigate exhilarating theme park lands without burning a hole in your pocket. Each column will unravel a world of budget-friendly secrets, free activities, and innovative spending strategies specifically tailored for different theme parks around the globe. Read a new “Thrifty Theme Park Adventures” every other Thursday. The goal is to make every penny count while ensuring your theme park experience is as enchanting and unforgettable as ever. ~ Samantha
The fourth theme park at Disney World is Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which combines traditional Disney attractions with a huge array of animal life.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom first opened on Earth Day (very on theme) on April 22, 1998. Unlike the other Disney parks, Animal Kingdom was created to help promote animal conservation, which Walt Disney felt very passionately about.
While this park contains all the attractions you would expect at a Disney park, like cool rides and excellent food, this park is also considered a zoo because visitors will have many opportunities to view animals like lions, giraffes, elephants, gorillas, hippopotamuses, exotic birds, and so, so much more.
Like the other Disney theme parks, Animal Kingdom will cost you a pretty penny for admission, and there will additional costs for food, souvenirs, and certain experiences, including horseback riding and privately guided expeditions.
But you don’t have to give up more money to experience the wildlife at the Animal Kingdom. There are tons of free and exciting things to do just beyond the iconic baobab tree.
Let’s (kangaroo) jump right into some of the best free things to do and see the next time you (monkey) swing on by Disney’s Animal Kingdom!
Roaming with the Wild: The Kilimanjaro Safari Experience
This attraction is a true animal lover’s paradise, allowing you to enter the animals’ environment where cages do not bind them.
Make your way to Africa inside Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park and join Kilimanjaro Safaris.
You will be seated in an open-air vehicle and taken on a guided tour of the Harambe Wildlife Reserve, which has over one hundred acres of open space for wild animals to roam free. Their habitats include places like plains, wetlands, and forests, so the environments are just as diverse as the wildlife.
Prepare to be in awe of how close you can get to lounging lions, bathing hippos, and muddy rhinos. Your expert tour guide will help you spot the shy animals as you go, so keep your eyes peeled and cameras ready for a once-in-a-lifetime shot of your favorite creatures.
Wander at Will: Tailor-Made Trails of the Animal Kingdom
While the Safari is practically a must-do while visiting the Animal Kingdom, some people may not have the time or patience to sit through an almost twenty-minute tour. Anyone traveling with wiggly kids can attest to that!
Fortunately, two excellent self-guided tours allow you to see stunning animals and magnificent foliage at your own pace.
The first is the Maharajah Jungle Trek located in Asia in the Animal Kingdom Theme Park. Take your time and explore the winding paths through the jungle where you will encounter gibbons, Komodo dragons, over fifty species of wild birds, and the always majestic Asian tigers.
Save a spot in your schedule to also take a tour of the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail located in Africa in the Animal Kingdom, where you’ll wander through the Pangani Forest and encounter a troop of lowland gorillas thriving on the grassy hills.
If seeing these intelligent and gentle creatures isn’t enough, be on the lookout for the roaming zebra or meerkats popping their heads out.
There is no rush when checking out the Maharajah Jungle Trek or the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail, so feel free to stop, enjoy the scenery, learn more about these impressive animals, snap pictures, and make memories with your loved ones.
Beyond the Park Gates: See the Animals Without a Park Ticket
This one doesn’t even require you to buy a ticket to the park but promises views of some incredible animals nonetheless. Head over to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, which is just a hop, skip, and jump from Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Unlike the other Disney hotels, this one is home to several exotic animals that live on the grounds just outside of the hotel.
When you arrive at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, ask the Resort Front Desk for a hotel map. You will notice pawprints on the map. These pawprints represent viewing areas called “Savanna Overlooks,” where you can check out different animals.
There are over two hundred animals located throughout the four Savannas. You’ll see giraffes, impalas, and gazelles living peacefully amongst each other in one Savanna, while you’ll nab some great photos of zebras, wildebeests, and pelicans in another.
It’s truly an animal lover’s dream, as you can nearly guarantee seeing animals no matter what time of day you choose to visit.
Drawn to the Wild: Animating Nature’s Marvels
Calling all professional and aspiring artists; this next one is for you!
Over at Rafiki’s Planet Watch is The Animation Experience at the Conservation Station, where you can learn how to draw real-life animals using the signature Disney animation style. This twenty-five-minute class is open to anyone of any skill level who is interested in learning how to draw their favorite Disney characters.
What’s wonderful about this drawing attraction is that each class teaches you how to illustrate a different Disney character, so you can go multiple times and it’s always new and exciting. Plus, you’ll wind up with a collection of drawings as souvenirs.
This art class taught by real Disney animators is completely free, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the ultimate Disney fan. Make sure to pencil it in!
Nature’s Meet and Greet: Embrace the Wild’s Gentle Side
Seeing all of the beautiful animals in the Animal Kingdom can make any animal enthusiast wish to get close to their favorite animals and give them a little pet.
While you can’t cuddle the crocodiles or hug the hippos, there is a place inside the Animal Kingdom where you can pet the animals without losing a finger. It’s called the Affection Section, located in Rafiki’s Planet Watch, and it allows visitors of all ages to interact with the animals up close and personal.
The sheep and goats are particularly friendly, as they’re known to cross over roped-off sections to get some scratches from guests. Don’t worry, though, there are plenty of areas of the Affection Section where no barricades keep you from the animals.
You’ll find plenty of shady areas inside, where you and your new furry friend can sit together as you brush their fur and admire their cuteness.
Aside from the sheep and goats, who will try relentlessly to hog your attention, there are llamas, donkeys, and cows, all of whom will approach the fences and wait for some friendly pets.
Make sure to catch the Wildlife Express Train to Affection Section before 4:30 PM, as the animals have an early bedtime.
The Lion King: Celebrate the Circle of Life
As one of the longest-running shows on Broadway, the theater production of The Lion King is one that needs to be seen to be truly appreciated. The sets, costumes, dancing, music, and storytelling are top-tier.
But some of us can’t just pop over to Times Square and see this amazing show. Not to mention the price of even the worst seat in the theater will run you several hundred dollars.
Over at the Animal Kingdom, you can see a Broadway-level production of The Lion King without paying a single cent. The talent is stacked in this live performance of one of Disney’s most admired films. There’s singing, dancing, and even stilt-walking that will have your jaw on the floor as you follow the story of Simba on his journey to becoming the king.
Audio-animatronic and costumed characters bring all your favorites, like Simba, Nala, Timon, and Pumba, to life before your very eyes.
This popular show queues throughout the day, so make sure to check the My Disney Experience app or speak with a cast member at the Harambe Theatre about showtimes and availability.
Breath of Life: Nightime Awakening of the Tree of Life
When night falls in the Animal Kingdom, not all of the animals go to sleep. In fact, some unlikely creatures are just waking up.
At the center of Discovery Island resides the towering baobab tree, which has over three hundred animals carved into its massive trunk.
During the day, you can get up close and spot the animals, but at night, the animals really spring to life. Using light projection, color, and music, the carved animals will become animated and start moving around the tree.
You’ll see twinkling fireflies, a friendly fox, flying birds, and more, which tell a story of the beauty of nature and how all living creatures are connected.
Unlike the fireworks displays in the other Disney parks, this light show takes place every ten minutes as soon as the sun sets, so there’s no need to worry about reserving the best spot for the show. You’ll have several chances to catch it before exiting the park.
This one will absolutely delight everyone in the family.
See Ya’ Later Alligator
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park is a dream come true for those who adore animals and nature.
There are all the usual elements of Disney you’ve come to know and love, while stunning wildlife adds a unique flair that inspires and educates the public regarding animal conservation.
There are plenty of amazing things to do inside the park, many of which won’t cost you any extra bucks.
Check out the best free things to do at the Animal Kingdom Theme Park, and you’ll be sure to have a roaring good time!
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Tree of Life Awakening
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Feature image – Kent Phillips, Photographer ©Disney