Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a zoological theme park that opened at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida on Earth Day in 1998. The park is themed around nature and animals, and it is also literally a zoo, in that it features real wild life, which makes Disney’s Animal Kingdom the most-visited zoo in the world, plus the second-most visited park in Walt Disney World after the Magic Kingdom.

The park was the brain child of Imagineer Joe Rohde, who had previously been hired by Disney in 1980 to help develop Epcot before helping design Fantasyland’s refurbishment at Disneyland as well as the Captain EO film and the Adventurers Club which first opened at Pleasure Island in 1989. Rohde pitched the idea of an animal-themed park to Disney CEO Michael Eisner shortly after Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) opened in 1989 and construction for the park was announced in 1995, with Imagineers travelling to Africa and Asia for inspiration on what to make the park look and feel like. The plant life and architecture was lifted straight from foreign countries and the animals were taken care of by professional zookeepers. Animal Kingdom’s highly anticipated and heavily publicized grand opening finally came on April 22, 1998.

The theme park is currently divided into seven main areas: The Oasis, Discovery Island, Africa, Rafiki’s Planet Watch, Dinoland U.S.A., Asia and Pandora – The World of Avatar. I will be exploring these seven areas over the course of three different blogs.

The Oasis serves as the theme park’s starting point and is the equivalent to the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street U.S.A., only instead of train stations and barbershop quartets you will see a lot of trees and animal exhibits, although you can also stop to get a Mai Tai at the jungle-themed Rainforest Cafe before making your way down the path to the next area, which is Animal Kingdom’s main hub, Discovery Island.

Discovery Island is the home of Animal Kingdom’s most iconic attraction the Tree of Life, a 145-foot sculpture of a baobab tree featuring 325 carvings of different animal species both existing and extinct. You name an animal, chances are you’ll see it on the Tree of Life.

You can explore the sights of this area on the Discovery Island Trails. In addition to exploring this trail on foot you used to be able to go on a Jungle Cruise-like riverboat ride across Discovery River, but that lasted a year because that boat ride was more ordinary transportation than attraction, which made guests less obligated to ride it since every area in Animal Kingdom can be reached by foot. The boat used to dock in the Asia-themed area of the park but that location is used as a meet and greet for Baloo and King Louie from The Jungle Book now.

The 9-minute-long 3D show It’s Tough to Be a Bug! based on the 1998 Pixar film A Bug’s Life (and the first Disney park attraction in history to be based on a Pixar film) made its debut on Discovery Island within the Tree of Life (which, yes, houses a theater). Flik (Dave Foley) hosts the show while he tries to convince the audience that bugs are our friends, and in addition to 3D, the show implemented a number of audio-animatronics and special effects.

Other forms of entertainment include Tree of Life Awakenings, a projection mapping show that made its debut in 2016 and is made up of several nighttime presentations themed around such natural elements as flowers, winter time, the northern lights, playful deer and of course wildlife-focused Disney films like Bambi, The Jungle Book, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Tarzan, Dinosaur and Brother Bear as well as Finding Nemo and Avatar. In the past you could also see Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade on the path to Africa, and the March of the ARTimals, a more stylized representation of wildlife via a parade of floats.

The Africa area of Animal Kingdom, which is set in the fictional African city of Harambe, features an attraction called the Kilimanjaro Safaris, which is meant to resemble a trek through the East African savanna and actually fulfills an earlier dream that Walt Disney himself had for Disneyland’s Adventureland area which ultimately proved unfeasible in the fifties: the inclusion of real animals. Living, breathing animals that can be seen on this safari include elephants, rhinos, cheetahs, hippos, lions, giraffes and crocodiles (all obviously kept a safe distance away from park guests).

Africa is also home to the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail which you can explore on foot to learn about these animals with help from research students, the Wild Africa Trek which is a simulated tour from Harambe to the Serengeti that gets guests even closer to the wildlife via animal exhibits, and the Wildlife Express Train which takes guests on a ride to a whole other area of Animal Kingdom called Rafiki’s Planet Watch.

Kind of an area within an area, Rafiki’s Planet Watch, the only area of Animal Kingdom not connected directly to Discovery Island, is home to such attractions as the wildlife exhibit trail Habitat Habit!, as well as a petting zoo known as the Affection Section that features goats, sheep, cattle, pigs, donkeys and alpacas, and the Conservation Station which showcases the effects of conservation in protecting exotic species and their natural habitats, featuring areas like a Nutrition Center, a Science Center, a Veterinary Treatment Room and the Amphibian, Reptile and Invertebrate Windows which display creepy crawly creatures like tarantulas and scorpions. There used to be more attractions here in the past, including Song of the Rainforest which taught guests about conservation’s effects on ecosystems hosted by Grandmother Willow from Pocahontas, Shelly’s Theater hosted by an animatronic mermaid named Shelly who taught guests about the importance of ocean conservation, and the Wishing Watering Hole where you could donate to conservationists via the drop of a coin.

The Conservation Station is also home to the Animation Experience, a drawing class that opened at Rafiki’s Planet Watch in 2019 in which professional artists teach guests how to draw various popular Disney animals. This attraction is a version of several Disney park animation academies that began in 1989 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and can now be seen at Disney California Adventure, Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland and Shanghai Disneyland with one planned for Epcot in 2024.

In my next article we’ll go back in time to the prehistoric age and meet Aladar the Iguanodon as we go on a tour of Dinoland U.S.A.