Walt Disney World Touring Plans: Animal Kingdom updated with Genie+

Please note: Walt Disney World operations continue to be in a state of flux. For recommendations about visiting Walt Disney World right now please visit WDW Prep School.

Although a visit to Walt Disney World is a vacation, it’s like no other vacation you’ve ever taken. Considering the expense, the last thing you want to do is spend your days waiting in lines. Having a solid touring plan for each park is a must. That way you can prioritize your “must sees” and get the most bang for your buck.

That said, if you are someone who likes to go with the flow and be more casual about planning, Disney’s new free Genie tool will help. Or you can use the excellent TouringPlans system which costs $18 for full features for a year. In essence for either system you put in your “to do” list and it optimizes your plans based on walking, wait times, and real time crowds. I seriously cannot endorse TouringPlans enough and wouldn’t go on a Walt Disney World trip without it. Their app’s wait time accuracy is unmatched, whereas Disney’s free wait time system is often wrong.

Generally, avoid lines means arriving at the parks early. Being there at park opening aka “rope drop” allows you to squeeze in some top attractions before lines build. Conversely, you can usually get on some high demand rides with minimal wait very late in the day right before closing, or during fireworks presentations. These tactics are tried and true regardless of what system is currently in place for Disney park guests. Please note that many parks open upwards of 45 minutes ahead of the posted time, and if you stay on property you can enjoy an additional half hour early entry to any park each day. That means an even more early arrival (I know, groan).

Animal Kingdom is probably my least favorite park. And that’s not to say it’s bad – it isn’t. It’s just an entirely different sort of experience. The highlights here are live animals, not rides. And the lush vegetation makes the park the hottest of the four. It also can make it extremely confusing to navigate. I’ve gotten lost in the park more times than I can count.

There are only a few attractions that garner a long wait here. They are:

  • Kilimanjaro Safaris
  • Expedition Everest
  • Avatar Flight of Passage
  • Na’vi River Journey
  • Dinosaur

In my opinion you have two options at rope drope. One option is to head directly back to Kilamanjaro Safaris, which is a great idea since being one of the first vehicles through in the day pretty much gaurantees a very close animal encounter. On last visit we were stopped for quite a while because a giraffe was blocking the way. So fun.

The second option is to head directly to the Pandora area and ride either Avatar Flight of Passage or Na’vi River Journey. This was very new at last visit and I was unable to ride Flight of Passage as a result. The Na’vi River Journey was a very cool spectacle.

Included in the $15 per person per day Genie+ System is:

  • Celebration of the Festival of the Lion King
  • DINOSAUR
  • Feathered Friends in Flight!
  • It’s Tough to Be a Bug!
  • Kali River Rapids
  • Kilimanjaro Safaris
  • Naʻvi River Journey
  • The Animation Experience

The two top tier attractions not included in the pass, but instead will have a one off fee are:

  • Avatar: Flight of Passage
  • Expedition Everest

My initial reaction is to spring for the surge pricing on Avatar: Flight of Passage, and take your chances with the rest. It’s also noteworthy to mention that Expedition Everest offers a single rider line, which if you are willing to ride alone can significantly shorten your wait time on this ride.

One thing that’s nice about Animal Kingdom is that it is more at your own pace. Much of what do here is seeing the animals themselves. I would advise seeing what you can early or later in the day. At peak heat the animals are smartly napping. Don’t forget about the excellent shows here as well.

Full attraction roundup:

  • Kilamanjaro Safaris – Go out in an open air animal safari in a Jeep. Best done in the morning when animals are most active.
  • Gorilla Walk
  • Bird Walk
  • Tiger Walk
  • Na’Vi River Journey – boat ride through Pandora at night
  • Avatar: Flight of Passage – mild thrill ride
  • Take time to explore the interactive features of Pandora – touch the plants.
  • Expedition Everest
  • Kali River Rapids
  • Triceratops Spin – Circular flying dinosaur
  • It’s Tough to Be a Bug – 4D show with 3D glasses in the Tree of Life
  • If you have time: Rafiki’s Planet Watch – barnyard petting zoo – train to it and back – easily an hour long excursion

Shows:

  • The Lion King – Amazing musical production – do not miss. Shoot for a later in the day show.
  • Nemo the Musical – Closed. To be replaced with a new Nemo themed show.
  • Feathered Friends in Flight – A fun bird show (birds often flight overhead)

Adding Magical Experiences: Character Meals at Walt Disney World

Please note: That as of writing character meals are being offered in a limited capacity and are not running in a “normal” fashion. This post is created to help future visitors make informed planning decisions.

One of the best upgraded experiences you can have at Walt Disney World resorts are Character Meals, and no, they aren’t just for kids! Adults enjoy them too. Why would you want to have a character meal?

  1. Save time. Waiting in line for character meet and greets eats up valuable park time. With character dining, the characters come to you! They rotate around the room to each table while you dine. Talk about convenient!
  2. Certain characters can only be experienced via meals.
  3. Character meals are available outside the parks and even at select off property locations, making it a great activity on a non-park day.
  4. Character dining food is consistently good. Meals offered via character experiences are truly great, with some food only accessible via character meal. And who doesn’t like Mickey waffles?

I’m only going to highlight a few of my favorites here. For a great overview and the most up to date information about all Character Meals visit this comprehensive listing at the Disney Food Blog.

Breakfast

Breakfast has the most available options by far when it comes to character dining. We have done three breakfast options – ‘Ohana at the Polynesian Resort, the Cape May Cafe at the Beach Club, and Trattoria al Forno in the Boardwalk. Note that none of these places are inside the parks! That’s by design. Why waste precious morning park time eating, when you can get on most rides?

Each experience was entirely different and unique.

Ohana as the name suggests offers a Hawaiian experience with delicious exotic fruits. Characters you encounter include Lilo, Stitch, Mickey and Pluto. We chose this breakfast because we wanted an excuse to go to the Polynesian, and had heard of the fantastic food. This is a pricier restaurant and thus breakfast was a more reasonable option for us. Unfortunately, recent reports are that the service and especially food quality have slipped here. I hope they improve soon. The food here is served as much as you wish to your table.

The breakfast buffet available at the Cape May Cafe was much more classic in nature including the legendary Mickey waffles. Characters that join you there (complete with adorable beach gear) are the classic characters Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Daisy Duck and Donald Duck. We probably had the most character encounter time at this location with multiple visits by each one.

The Bon Voyage Breakfast at Trattoria al Forno was just starting to be offered at our last visit, and the quality of service and food was spotty. The food offerings which were more brunch in nature, were interesting and different from the norm. It was a prix fixe meal with a few options.The reason we chose this meal is because the characters present are Rapunzel and Flynn Ryder and Ariel and Eric. Flynn was an especially fun encounter. I’m not sure we would go running back, but I would definitely give it another chance considering they have a few years of experience now under their belt.

I would be remiss without mentioning the two most popular character breakfast options Chef Mickey’s at Disney’s Contemporary Resort featuring Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald and Pluto, and Cinderella’s Royal Table in the Magic Kingdom featuring Ariel, Belle, Princess Aurora, Jasmine, Snow White and of course Cinderella. Both offer more classic breakfast fare. I have not been to either but I hear Chef Mickey’s can be a bit loud.

Before the shutdown, Disney was beginning to offer some early morning breakfast package options that included early access to the parks or even a no wait access to certain rides. Depending on the price this could be a good value. If memory serves venues included Crystal Palace and Be Our Guest Restaurant in Magic Kingdom, Garden Grill and Akershus House in EPCOT, Tusker House in Animal Kingdom and Hollywood and Vine in Hollywood Studios. Tusker House especially has historically been a sort of “hack” to access Animal Kingdom early before opening. Same for Be Our Guest in Magic Kingdom. Something to watch for when character meals fully return.

Lunch

For lunch we’ve done two character meals Akershus House and Tusker House.

Akershus House in Norway Pavilion in EPCOT offers Norwegian food for lunch (they also have a breakfast buffet with more standard fare). Because of this, it’s less popular for lunch, but my adventurous eater didn’t mind one bit. Lots of seafood offerings. This location features what I call Princess Palooza including Snow White, Cinderella, Belle, Princess Aurora, Ariel, Mary Poppins, and Jasmine. Eating in this unique location was a delight for my then four year old and she participated in a restaurant mini parade in her dress with the princesses. Really good memories. We chose a late lunch slot which worked for a great mid-day break in the air conditioning, and if memory serves lead right into a long toddler nap while we pushed her in the stroller around World Showcase. Win!

We’ve eaten at Tusker House in the Animal Kingdom twice, and I would eat there again. The first time we did, we were childless, but the food, along with priority Lion King seating, enticed us. We were not disappointed. It’s a buffet featuring amazing dishes from the African continent. The second time we went with our daughter and it was just as good as we remembered. That time we got River of Light show priority seating. Both times we were visited by Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Goofy, Mickey Mouse, and Minnie Mouse in their safari gear.

The only other truly noteworthy lunch character experience is the Garden Grill in EPCOT featuring Chip and Dale, Mickey and Pluto. Chip and Dale I hear are especially a hoot. I also hear good things about the food which is served family style to your table. But the coolest thing about this location is that the restaurant itself rotates! You are on the move, slowly, and can enjoy different views of the Living with the Land attraction. It’s on my to do list for sure.

Dinner

We have never done character dinner for a few reasons namely cost, but also this leads into another prime park time, and thus not a great option. Much of what is offered for dinner is similar to what is offered for lunch, just more expensive. One notable exception is the Happily Ever After Dinner at 1900 Park Fare which is supposed to be amazing. Excellent buffet offering featuring Cinderella, Prince Charming, Lady Tremaine (the Wicked Stepmother), Anastasia and Drizella (Cinderella’s Stepsisters). The villain component is what is most appealing here and makes for a great experience. It’s on my bucket list.

Another unique character offering for dinner is Storybook Dining at Artist Point with Snow White at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. Dopey, Grumpy and the Evil Queen also make an appearance.

As you can see, no matter what character or cuisine you like, there is something for everyone in character dining. I’d recommend at least one character dining experience each visit. Enjoy!

Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

On October 2, 2021 the Magic Kingdom celebrated 50 years of operation. Walt Disney World Resorts are incorporating special offerings, events and attractions as part of the celebration. Some seem to be regular updates that just coincided with the anniversary, and others seem anniversary specific. In any event, these special offerings will be available on a rolling basis throughout the celebration slated to last 18 months. I will update this post on new offerings and related developments.

50th Anniversary Glow Ups

The iconic symbols of each park – the castle in the Magic Kingdom, the ball in EPCOT, the Tower of Terror in Hollywood Studios, and the Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom – all are getting a 50th Anniversary overlay including light projections Disney is calling Beacons of Magic. In some instances, the transformation was more dramatic like with the castle which got a new color paint, and ribbons added to the spires. The ball in EPCOT is especially beautiful with an enhanced LED light display. I call it a win.

There is also a smattering of decoration here and there throughout the parks like retro posters in the tunnels at Magic Kingdom.

New Shows

The Magic Kingdom and EPCOT both launched brand new end of day shows with music, pyrotechnics and light projections. Magic Kingdom’s is entitled Enchantment and features original music. The castle serves as the centerpiece for projections. In EPCOT it’s HarmoniUS which uses a barge system to display LEDs and fountains. Images portray an international vibe with signature Disney branding and original music.

Animal Kingdom launched KiteTails, a new daytime offering in the lagoon. However, this show at writing has been plagued with errors to an almost comical proportions and may be short lived.

Outside the parks in Disney Springs, Cirque Du Soleil’s new show, Drawn to Life, will make it’s debut in November 2021. I saw the last show there, and am looking forward to seeing this new one.

New Rides

The much anticipated Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure in EPCOT’s France Pavilion opened as part of the 50th celebration on October 2, 2021. Because it is an in demand experience, Disney World is currently operating it with a virtual queue. In it riders occupy a vehicle that looks like a mouse and experience the world from a mouse’s point of view.

Signature Song

The 50th Anniversary has a signature theme song which is featured prominently throughout the parks including in shows and cavalcades.

Statues

There are 50 golden character statues that have been placed among all four parks. These statues are rumored to have an interactive, augmented reality sort of element to them that work with premium MagicBands and apps. This interactive component has not launched yet.

Food

Of course there’s a food element. Throughout Magic Kingdom some classic dishes from 1971 have been brought back for an encore. There also are some signature cocktails honoring rides past. Mostly, however, the 50th Anniversary theming has been added to desserts in decoration. There are more than 150 different new food offerings in all.

Merchandise

There has been a ton of new merchandise launched for the 50th Anniversary including pins, ornaments, apparel, toys and sippers. At the moment, these items are the hottest ticket in town. However, I anticipate after a few months go by these items will be readily available.

Characters

Mickey and Minnie and the gang of course have special outfits on for the occasion. You can meet Mickey in his new digs at Hollywood Studios.

Step One: Time of Year

Choosing the time of year you want to go to Disney World should be your very first step in planning. Disney World hosts a variety of seasonal events throughout the year that are included with admission, as well as special premium ticketed events. If you are someone who has been to the parks before, it may benefit you to go during another time of year to gain a different experience. Whenever you decide to go, know there is no way you will be able to fit in all the things you want to do, but good planning will help you make the most of your experience.

Winter

Starting with the beginning of the year, you are likely to see the least amount of crowds, but as a result you are also likely to see many attractions closed for refurbishment. This is the slowest time of the year in the parks and Disney takes full advantage of this doing annual maintenance and more. Now 2022 may be a little different considering that the parks had an unprecedented longtime shutdown in 2020/2021, but unless you are someone who frequents the parks a lot and doesn’t mind missing a few key attractions, I would not recommend visiting during this time.

Spring

The next season is spring, which features the fantastic Flower and Garden Festival at EPCOT. There are all sorts of presentations, a walk through butterfly tent, and beautiful topiaries. In addition, there are extra food and wine experiences throughout EPCOT featuring all sorts of sweet and savory treats. We have attended and it was a great time to visit with lower crowds, pleasant weather and excellent food offerings. Probably my favorite time to visit the parks.

Summer

The summer season is when most people visit the parks and thus it is hot and crowded. Growing up this is the only time available for my family to go, so this is when we went. You may be in the same boat. If so, planning is going to be absolutely critical for you to be able to squeeze in the experiences you want. Managing the heat and staying hydrated is critical to a good experience as well. Fortunately, the parks offer plenty of opportunity to cool off in the air conditioning.

Fall

Fall is close second as best time to visit in my mind. You have cooler weather and fewer crowds. EPCOT’s Food and Wine Festival, the sister festival to the spring festival, is occurring with great culinary features. If you are a fan of Halloween, you’ll enjoy the extra fall decorations that show up in September. There is a special, extra ticketed, after hours Halloween themed celebration. Just a fun time in the parks.

Holiday

The holiday season at Disney World Parks is just magical, and it’s why I want to visit again during this time. At the beginning of November, the Halloween decorations go away and by the second week of November it’s fully Christmas mode at the parks. It’s truly spectacular with extra lights, trees and more providing a festive atmosphere. The holidays like Thanksgiving week and Christmas week are notoriously some of the busiest days of the year in the parks, but if you plan it right you can enjoy low crowds and all the holiday features. This time of year also has an after hours special ticketed event.

I hope that gives you a decent idea of what each season is like at Disney World and helps you decide when is the right time to go for your family.

Disney Planning: Step by Step

When planning a trip to the most magical place on earth, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Here I walk you step by step through the process.

  1. The very first thing to decide is when you want to go. That may seem simple, but crowd sizes, special events and change in rate seasons can make or break your visit. All things considered, my favorite times to visit is in April and November. Both are slower seasons, and offer special events that are included in admission.Crowd calendars can help you gauge crowds. I use this excellent crowd calendar from WDW Prep School.
  2. Once you decide when you are going you need to figure out where to stay. Do you want to stay on or off property? Check out my post on the pros and cons of each. And check out my post on how to find the best deals on hotels
  3. Next you need to figure out how you are getting there – flying or driving? Read more about these options here.
  4. You’ll also need tickets of course, the whole reason for your trip. You can buy them direct from Disney, but there are many other options which can save you a few dollars.
  5. Then you will want to decide on food options. Do you want to do the dining plan? Or you can opt to be more frugal. Character dining should also be considered here, so you save time in the parks doing attractions rather than waiting in line to see a princess. Dining reservations can be made 180 days in advance.
  6. Then you will need to choose which days you are going to which parks and what attractions you want to see – that’s the fun stuff! I know the idea of planning this much sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But, Touring Plans makes it easy. The website allows you to make plans for each day, and using their optimization it will automatically create the best plan for your day. They have plug and play plans for all sorts of visitors including ones for adults and others with families with small children. Using their customized plans hand in hand with their lines app, which is more accurate than even Disney’s, I have never waited in line for more than 20 minutes. And it allowed us to pull our last minute trip together without any stress. I really cannot say enough about it. The premium access is $18 well spent.
  7. Add extra magic. If you can do a little something extra I would plan for it. Whether it’s a cake for a special occasion, a visit to the Bibidi Bobidi Boutique, or a special fireworks dessert party, these little upgrades will make your trip even more memorable.

Following these steps will ensure you have a well planned trip to Walt Disney World.