Orlando was not on my radar for travel. Heck, I went there once in high school for a national dance competition and it wasn’t that memorable. However, I happened to get the opportunity to present at an International law enforcement conference being held there this October. Since I am the parent of a first grader, we couldn’t pass up this opportunity to show her what Disney is like on the other side of the country. We are regulars at Disneyland & California Adventure and decided that we would make the most of our trip to the swamp lands of Florida.
It was a conscious choice to only go to one park and experience something different than the candy- coated traditional Disney. Animal Kingdom ensured at least a little cultural exposure and some fast-paced rides, while pairing our stay with the incredible accommodations at Animal Kingdom Lodge.
For you Californians, or those who have visited Downtown Disney, Animal Kingdom Lodge is the African version of the Grand Californian Hotel at the Disneyland Resort. It has the most awe-worthy lobby, tall as the eye can see, with dark woods and an intricate wall of windows facing out to the “sahara.” A bridge even hovers overhead, connecting the two sides of the hotel. The outdoor space really is the magic center space of the hotel and Disney does it right. It contains over 30 species of animals roaming in the middle of a semi-circle that the hotel curls around. You can stroll along paths & watch the animals before you stop to roast a marshmallow for a s’more or two!
We booked a basic room “facing the sahara” & ended up on the tail end of the half circle with not much of a view of the open pasture space, but the first morning brought a welcomed sight. You see, much of the feeding occurred near our room so the animals seemed to gather there quite early. And since we were still on California time, we were up with the sunrise having our own little Lion King moment when the sun broke over the tree line. Nothing like sipping your coffee while watching a baby giraffe follow her mama around.
Both parents and kiddo were happy with the food choices, as well as activities available when we were in the hotel for the night. Unfortunately, the pool was being renovated, but honestly we didn’t have the time to spend by the pool before we moved hotels for my conference; we only stayed here for two nights. The first night we had reservations at the Lodge’s premier restaurant, Jiko- The Cooking Place and dined on some fantastic flatbread, cheese plates, and main dishes like braised short ribs. The cocktails were so good, that we ordered more the next night when our daughter was attending a dance party in the lobby! We ended up eating at The Mara for breakfasts and a late dinner the second night.
The lobby was a place to stop by each day to see what cultural experience they had on display. Learning about various animals and traditions captured our daughter’s attention with just the right amount of interaction and magic. Much of the staff was from various regions in Africa and were happy to share their cultural traditions with us.
Disney has really got it down pat in Orlando. From the Magic Bands (bracelets that can open your hotel room, pay for your food and get you through the FastPass lines) to delivering your luggage straight to your hotel from room the airport (Can I have this magic thing happen everywhere?). Animal Kingdom Lodge was a way to experience the perfection Disney is known for without feeling saturated in red bows and cotton candy.
I’d stay here again in a heartbeat…IF I ever have to go to Orlando again.