Disney World with a Toddler: Part 1 – The Animal Kingdom (lions and tigers and charging rhinos! Oh My!)

We began our Disney adventure at the Animal Kingdom. We actually spent our last day there too, but in the interest of time (and to avoid writing a 3,000 word post) I decided not to give you a blow by blow description of our days, but instead hit the highlights by describing our experiences with the attractions, entertainment, characters, and food, and end with some general tips. Hopefully this will give you a good idea of how our trip went without boring you to tears, as well as be a resource for any of you who are planning a trip to Disney World with little ones.
Let me preface this by saying we know many people (maybe yourself included) thought we were crazy for taking our sixteen month old to Disney World. I explained our reasoning in detail in this post, and let me tell you we were not disappointed. We all had a fantastic, perfectly magical time. Part of the reason was Baby Girl’s personality. She is very much a social butterfly, so instead of being overwhelmed by the crowds she behaved as though everyone was there to make friends with her, waving and smiling like the little princess she is, squealing and giggling at the older children who played peekaboo or made funny faces at her. She loved it.
So yeah, if you have a shy child or one that gets easily over-stimulated you will probably want to wait until they are older. But if your little one is anything like ours you will all have the time of your lives!
Sorry about that long introduction. On to the details! 🙂

Rides/Attractions

In all honesty there aren’t a whole lot of rides at Animal Kingdom, let alone ones that Baby Girl would enjoy. The real attractions are the animals, so if you approach this park like the most elaborate zoo you’ll ever visit you will have the right attitude to make the most of it. Here’s a list of what we enjoyed the most:
1. Kilimanjaro Safaris

We rode this ride first thing both days we spent at Animal Kingdom. We got up close and personal with giraffes, ostriches, elephants, antelope, lions and rhinos. Our second trip was the best, since we were within an arm’s reach of a giraffe, saw three lions posing on their rocks like they were trying out for The Lion King, and witnessed a confrontation between a mama and baby rhino and a male rhino that almost turned ugly (our guide said he’d never seen that before and then gunned it to get out of the area…exciting!)

2. The Maharaja Jungle Trek
This trail was in Asia and led you past several fascinating animals, including tigers and the hugest bats you will ever see!
3. Expedition Everest
This is a roller coaster so obviously C wasn’t tall enough to ride, but we used the child swap pass (stay tuned for an explanation) and the single rider line and both got to walk on the ride. It’s probably my favorite coaster at Disney world…you go backwards and are in the dark for parts, and it ends with a pretty chilling encounter with the abominable snowman!

4. Pangani Forest Exploration Trail
This path is very close to the Kilimanjaro Safari in Africa, and is a good follow-up to the safari. We saw different kinds of monkeys, gorillas, fish (it was supposed to be the underwater hippo viewing area, but all we saw were “ishies” which Baby Girl loved) and brilliantly colored birds.

5. The Affection Section
This is in Rafiki’s Planet Watch, which you get to by train ride (also fun for C) and is basically a petting zoo. You can’t actually go into the pens with the animals (apparently it’s too risky for the insurance companies) but you can reach through the ropes and pet them. Charlotte went crazy, saying “baa” and “moo” as soon as she saw the animals from her pictures books come to life!

We also watched a rehearsal for a program called “It all started with a mouse” which featured various animals like a pig, parrot, domestic rat, opossum and snake, and ended with some time to interact with them.

C was entranced with petting the snake. Sorry Baby Girl, that is not a pet that would be welcome in our house.
C was a bit young for the other section that featured lots of rides, Dino World, so we just kind of walked through but didn’t ride anything.

Shows/Entertainment
1.  The Festival of the Lion King

Baby Girl loved this! The show was full of bright and interesting costumes, larger than life animals, acrobatics, dancing, singing, drums, and fire! It was lots of fun, especially since we could clap, dance, and sing along (sorry people around me, but can you really listen to Hakuna Matat and not join in?)

2. Finding Nemo, the Musical

Another big hit with the little one, since it was full of “ishies” and music. Chris and I loved it too…it is very well done, and makes me wish they had made a full-length musical out of the movie. Maybe Finding Dory…C wasn’t scared of the sharks (she’s too young to know what they are) but if your little ones flinch at the sight of big teeth you might want to sit farther back from the stage.

3. Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade

This parade goes in a circle so we decided to find a spot near the end (located conveniently next to the Baby Care center…the very best place to change diapers and have some down time if needed). We got to see a bit of the beginning, then hung out in the air conditioned store behind us as it made its way through the park and back around to where we were sitting (we actually got spots on a bench, which shows how empty the park was). C loved seeing all her favorite characters on their own floats (this parade features the classic Disney characters like Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald, Daisy, etc.) and got a high five from King Louie (Jungle Book)

and either Chip or Dale (I can never tell them apart). It’s a small parade, but the route is really narrow so it’s a good way to get close but not too close to the characters, if your kiddos are skittish about a face to face encounter.

Characters
1. Pooh and Tigger
These guys hang out at Discovery Island. You go down a trail and then meet them in a covered but open sided building. We met them on our last day, in it was a great way to end our trip. We were warned that C may react to the giant characters with terror, but I think we hit it at a just the right age. She was old enough to recognize the characters but young enough that she didn’t know to be scared. Instead she treated them like larger than life stuffed animals, or really big versions of our dog Elphie, patting them, touching their noses and ears, giving them kisses and leaning in so they could give her kisses. By the end of the trip she didn’t even want me to hold her when we met the characters, she just ran right up to them and gave them hugs. It melted my heart, and completely charmed both the characters and the photographers, who spent lots more time with her than some of the other children who cringed away and clung to their mamas. When we met Pooh (for the second time) she acted like she could just hang out with him all day, and the photographer said she was welcome to since she was giving such great poses. 🙂

I guess we didn’t meet any other characters there. There were more meet and greets at Camp Minnie-Mickey, but since we did a character meal at this park we didn’t feel the need to wait in line again. Speaking of which…

Food
1. Tusker House
This was a buffet and character meal. I had made reservations as soon as we booked our trip, which is really the only way to go. Our reservation was for 11:30, which was perfect (I wish I had made all our lunch reservations a little earlier, FYI). We started by meeting Donald Duck, which was C’s very first character encounter. I’m not sure she really recognized him when we were up close, though she was fascinated with his bill, but after our turn was over she kept waving at him and saying “Dond!” Next we were seated and told to get food while we waited for the rest of the characters to make their way around the table. It didn’t take too long (in fact our waiter went and got Chris as he was waiting in line so he wouldn’t miss Daisy) and was a wonderful way to meet the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse characters, which are the ones Baby Girl is most familiar with. We met Goofy, Daisy, and finally Mickey!


C definitely recognized Mickey Mouse, and they had several adorable minutes interacting, giving and getting kisses, hugs, high fives and head pats.

Mickey finally left, backing away from our table slowly while motioning Baby Girl to “call” or “text” him. It was obviously Mickey loved her as much as she loves him! Hope Minnie doesn’t get too jealous… 🙂

A note on character meals. While they are a fun way to meet characters without waiting in line, if the meal is a buffet you end up scrambling back and forth to get food to keep the little one happy while trying not to be away from your table for too long in case you miss someone. It was fun, but not at all a relaxing dining experience. You still have to wait in between characters, and sometimes it takes a long time to meet everyone. Don’t make the same mistake I did and schedule it too close to naptime, and unless you’re doing free dining be prepared to feel like you didn’t really get your money’s worth of the food. It is an expensive splurge, so I would save it for meeting your child’s very favorite characters if you can.

2. Restaurantusaurous
This is where we ate our last day. It was your typical fast food fare, though I didn’t feel like they had a very good selection for C. No mac and cheese anyway (which is what she ate the most). We ended up getting her corndog nuggets, which she didn’t eat. Which was a bummer, since we had to pay for her meal. We had free dining, but kids under 3 are supposed to eat free so we didn’t get a meal plan for C. Unfortunately several of the restaurants still charged us for a kid’s meal, so I’m not really sure how it was supposed to work. In hindsight we should have just ordered her sides of grapes and apples and she would have been fine with that and a few bites off our plates. Oh well.

3. Ice cream stand
With the dining plan you get a snack each day, and here we spent those on ice cream cones from the stand just down from where we were waiting for the parade. It was the perfect treat (we got cookies and cream in a waffle cone, so yummy!) and a great value, because it was huge! Warning, the stand closes during and after the parade, so be sure and get your ice cream before then!

General Tips
1. Bring rain gear
The first day was very hot and sunny, but the last day was overcast and we did get some rain as we were waiting to greet Pooh and Tigger. Chris had his rain jacket and I used an umbrella. C was in her stroller and the shade cover kept her dry. Lots of people wore ponchos, but we decided rain jackets and umbrellas were much easier. A friend recommended we get a rain cover for our stroller too, which we did and were very thankful for since it poured on us at Hollywood Studios.

2. Caves are good for napping
We had planned to take Little Britches back to the hotel each day to nap, but after one disastrous attempt (we tried putting her down the first day after we arrived and she refused to sleep, so we got on the boat to go to Downtown Disney for dinner. She promptly crashed in her stroller 30 seconds into the boat ride and slept for an hour and a half) we decided to try having her nap in the stroller. It worked great. We found a cave towards the front of the park to hang out in both days while she slept. It was perfect, except for the second day when a child decided to throw a screaming fit right next to C’s stroller.

3. Use the baby care center
I mentioned it before, but this place is a lifesaver for people with little ones. There’s a big room with changing tables (much nicer than the changing area in a crowded, noisy restroom), a place with small tables and chairs, and even a private restroom for parents to use. It’s fully stocked with diapers, food, formula, wipes, etc. (to purchase of course) just in case you forgot something. It was a quiet, cool place to take a welcome break from the heat and crowds.

Animal Kingdom doesn’t offer quite the same Disney experience you might be expecting, but it is still a very fun place with lots to offer. I highly recommend it, especially if your kiddo loves animals (and what toddler doesn’t?)
Next post: Magic Kingdom!
For Hollywood Studios click here
For Epcot, click here 


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