Much more than the Lion King: Review of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge
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When staying at Walt Disney World, you have the luxury of choice when it comes to lodging options. On Disney World property, you can pick from a couple of dozen resorts, not to mention the array of off-site options. Each of the Disney World resorts has its own theme, and one of the most spectacular and unique themes can be found at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge.
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This African-themed lodge is nearest to the Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park, but you don’t have to leave the hotel’s grounds to enjoy the animals roaming the safari. They are viewable from the lobby, the hallways and even many of the rooms. Paying extra for a better view (especially considering how much a trip to Disney World can cost), is rarely worth it in the realm of family travel, but at Animal Kingdom Lodge, a savanna-view upgrade is absolutely worth consideration.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge opened in 2001 but was expanded a few years later to include a few hundred Disney Vacation Club villas, giving the resort a variety of accommodation types to meet the needs of families of different shapes and sizes. Now, the rooms have undergone a recent renovation, to the extent that an update to this review (originally completed in late 2018), was in order after a March 2020 stay.
Animal Kingdom Lodge is considered a Disney Deluxe Resort (along with iconic properties such as Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort). This means that your stay probably won’t be inexpensive, but the investment in a 24/7 magical Disney Resort experience is worth it. Thankfully, there are also some ways to save big on your stay.
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You can book Walt Disney World Resort hotels using some types of points (such Citi ThankYou points). For our late-2018 stay, we paid cash by booking directly with Disney via targeted bounce-back offers that allow you to save up to 35% or so by booking a return trip — sometimes while you are still on a current trip.
Rack rates for entry-level rooms at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge usually range from about $300 to $500 per night, but Disney sales and discounts can drop that price to under $300 per night certain times of the year.
A great way save money at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is to rent Disney Vacation Club points. Not only does this spare you from the daily parking fee, but, as outlined here, you can pretty easily save 50% on the retail price of the stay at Animal Kingdom Lodge by renting points. There are trade-offs (such as the lack of daily housekeeping), but turning a $2,000 multi-night stay into a $1,000 stay may be worth making your own bed.
The main reason you might want to avoid a stay at Animal Kingdom Lodge is its location. On our stay, we found it to be the most remote of all of the Walt Disney World Resorts, and it could have easily taken us 45 minutes to get to the Magic Kingdom from the lodge door to door. None of the Disney World parks were within walking distance of this resort, and only the Animal Kingdom was relatively nearby.
I mean, we were still on Disney property, so nothing was terribly far away. However, unlike when staying on the monorail at the Contemporary, nothing was especially close, either. If you stay at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, expect to rely heavily on the Disney bus system, your own rental car or the (magical but pricey) Disney Minnie Vans.
Disney World didn’t have an elite status program or anything that got us guaranteed early check-in (or late checkout), so I always assumed that the room wouldn’t be ready until the stated time. In this case, it often means 3 p.m. check-in for the traditional hotel rooms in the lodge and 4 p.m. for the deluxe villa-style accommodations you would probably be renting with Disney Vacation Club points.
We arrived at the lodge a little before 1 p.m. and fully expected to wait a few hours for a room, but it was ready for us upon arrival.
On other Disney trips, we have loved the added convenience of a Disney Club-level room for ready-to-eat breakfast, upgraded service and included simple dinners and evening snacks, but none were available for booking on our dates online, since we booked pretty close to our travel dates. So I inquired at check-in if a Club Level upgrade was possible. The good news was that it was available, but at a staggering charge of $400 additional per day. We politely (and quickly) passed on that option. Had the upgrade been $150 per day or less, our family would have likely said yes.
At check-in, we were also given an itinerary of the on-site entertainment and cultural activities, of which there were many — more than I’ve seen at any other Disney Resort.
There were two separate villages at Animal Kingdom Lodge: the original Jambo House and the Kidani Village that was added later and made up of DVC villas. We spent the entirety of this stay in the Jambo House and were assigned a savanna-view room on the second level, about as far down the hallway away from the lobby and pool as possible.
The lobby was on the third level, which meant taking an elevator down to the second level. This resort is massive, with well over 1,000 rooms and villas, so expect to do some walking. We brought the stroller into the resort simply because the walk to the room in the evenings with a tired 3-year-old was very far.
Our room was around 350 square feet with two queen beds, a small table, TV and, most importantly, a balcony with a view of the zebras and giraffes and more.
The view of the animals was the star of the room and the primary reason to stay at this resort. My tween was totally overwhelmed with happiness watching the animals from the room.
If you love the idea of waking up to drink coffee and view animals on the savanna from your private balcony, then book the room with a view. We watched the animals for hours. These were real animals, not animatronics, so they roamed different parts of the savanna at different times of the day and weren’t always visible from our room.
Other than the view, the room was totally fine for a Disney property, but not over-the-top spectacular. We appreciated the two queen beds (instead of the doubles found in some Disney rooms) and the African theme was carried throughout, though in 2020 the carpeting, mock-mosquito netting and some of the older decor have been thankfully retired.
The bathroom has a double vanity separate from the shower area. We did have issues with both the toilet and phone during our 2018 stay, as both required maintenance. At the time, this made calling down for our $33-per-day car valet impossible, but service was very efficient even without the call-ahead option. These issues did not repeat on the 2020 stay.
Food and beverage
Animal Kingdom Lodge had some of the best dining available at Disney World. Many of the restaurants have an African theme, which I personally consider great news, but your experience traveling with more narrow eaters may vary.
Boma — Flavors of Africa is the breakfast and dinner restaurant located in Jambo.
It’s an all-you-care-to-eat restaurant, and while there were no characters here (unlike at many similar Disney restaurants), it simply doesn’t need them. The food and surroundings stood alone quite nicely.
For breakfast, there were both African and traditional American favorites: corned-beef hash, sweet plantains, goat-cheese scrambled eggs, bread pudding, bacon and even Simba waffles.
The house juice, coffee and service were also well above average at this pricey but delicious restaurant. Breakfast for two adults and two kids rang in around $100, so expect dinner to be more than that.
For a less expensive on-site dining option, there was Mara, just out back off the Jambo lobby. Mara had hot items such as fried eggs, ham-and-cheese sandwiches and Mickey waffles, cheeseburgers and flatbread, as well as grab-and-go drinks, snacks and muffins.
On a longer stay, or if you just really like tea, coffee or soda, you may want to spend $19.99 for the refillable mug that you could fill up in this grab-and-go restaurant. You could also pick up a bottle of wine for some animal watching on your patio.
For a nice dinner, there’s Jiko — The Cooking Place and Sanaa. While I’ve still yet to try Sanaa, I had appetizers and a wine tasting at Jiko on my most recent visit to Animal Kingdom Lodge. I was able to walk in to an open seat at the bar shortly after the restaurant opened for the evening and from the service to the food itself, the experience was fantastic.
The $19 ‘Tour of Africa’ appetizer recommended by the server included sausage, honeyed goat cheese, pimento spread, house-made hummus, Egyptian fatir bread and more. It was — worth it.
The wine tasting, consisting of three South African wines, was also quite a lot of fun. Jiko has a couple of different wine tastings you can choose from, depending on what you’d like to try.
I’ve also tried out room service at Animal Kingdom Lodge, ordering two kid meals for the littles and two glasses of wine for the bigs. After a long day in the parks, it was fantastic to have dinner and drinks appear at our room.
The animals are king of the jungle at Animal Kingdom Lodge, but the resort had much more going on than “just” a savanna.
First, let’s talk about the African drumming that was going on when we walked in for our 2018 stay. It set the tone, and the women who were drumming were excellent at getting the kids involved in making music. We encountered the drumming around the resort multiple times per day on our stay.
Other free activities available on site during our stay were African face painting, talks with a savanna guide, access to African cultural experts, wildlife-themed games, the Primal Parade, night-vision animal viewing, cookie decorating and a daily culinary tour that allowed you to tour and sample food from the on-site restaurants. Again, these activities are all free. My biggest regret from this trip was that we didn’t have more downtime at the resort to try out all of the available tours, talks and other options.
On-site amenities included one of the largest pools at a Disney World resort, on the Jambo portion of the resort. There was also a pool with small waterslides and a kids play area on the Kidani side of the village, though we didn’t make it over there during our stay.
The Jambo pool had a zero-entry section, a medium-sized waterslide and attentive Disney lifeguards.
If your family was in search of some drier fun, there was a nearby playground to burn off steam while you waited for dinner, since they will text you when your table is ready.
A few steps away from the playground was a spot to enjoy on-site flamingos.
There was also an above-average arcade and Simba’s Activity Center. This spot used to be known as Simba’s Clubhouse, a kids club that provided childcare. In 2018 it became an activity center where children need parental supervision, but can play and make African-themed crafts for a small fee.
Like at all Disney Resorts, staying at Animal Kingdom Lodge provides included access to the Magical Express Bus to and from the Orlando airport, as well as complimentary bus transportation around the Walt Disney World Resort.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is not a cartoon version of Africa. It’s not “The Lion King” and “Hakuna Matata” at every turn — you’ll actually find those rooms at Disney’s Art of Animation. This is a breathtakingly detailed property that is a joy to inhabit for a few days. The amount of real African art, the emphasis on knowledgeable cultural guides and local experts, and the way that they engage guests in learning about a place many have never seen is nothing short of impressive.
While renting Disney Vacation Club points or hunting for deals can make this one of the more affordable Disney Deluxe Resorts, it will still be an investment in the experience of staying here, so make time to actually enjoy the unique on-site amenities, meals and resources. Choosing this resort means you are isolating yourself from much of Disney World, since no park is within walking distance. But if a taste of African culture, watching animals on the savannah and learning a thing or two on your vacation sounds good, then Animal Kingdom Lodge should be the site of your next Disney World vacation.
Read on to learn more about maximizing your time, points and money at Disney World:
- TPG ultimate guide to Walt Disney World
- Hotel review: Disney’s Contemporary Resort
- Hotel review: Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort
- The best points hotels near Disney World
- The 10 best Disney thrill rides around the world
- How to use points for Disney tickets
- Disney World without kids: 10 ways to enjoy an adult trip to Disney
- How to ride every Disney World ride in one day
- How to eat healthy at Disney World
- Best $69 you can spend at Disney World
Featured image by author.
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