How new lighting on the savannah gave Animal Kingdom nightlife

Projections of nature scenes appear to dramatically emanate from within the Tree of Life, one of the new features of Disney's Animal Kingdom at night.
Projections of nature scenes appear to dramatically emanate from within the Tree of Life, one of the new features of Disney's Animal Kingdom at night. Disney Parks

For years, Walt Disney World talked about keeping Animal Kingdom open late into the evening. But the theme of the park is animal conservation, and lighting up its sprawling savannah at night with an unnatural brightness conflicts with the concept of the park as a sanctuary.

The technology for subtle, realistic nighttime illumination of the park’s popular Kilimanjaro Safari didn’t exist, said Joe Rohde, an executive with Disney Imagineering, a creative team known for its attention to the smallest of details and its aversion to giving the public a glimpse of anything that is incomplete or less than perfect.

The right lighting “had to be possible to pull it all together” without disturbing the animals, Rohde said.

But the safari — a truck tour of a wild-looking habitat populated with dozens of animal species, from hippos to cheetahs to giraffes — was key.

“The soul, the heart of the park is the animals,” Djuan Rivers, vice president of Animal Kingdom, said. “The Kilimanjaro Safari is the No. 1-rated attraction.”

The soul, the heart of the park is the animals.

Djuan Rivers, vice president of Animal Kingdom

Meanwhile, Disney began developing plans for Pandora: the World of Avatar, based on the movie “Avatar,” at Animal Kingdom. The land, set to open in 2017, will include a bioluminescent forest like the one in the movie — a forest with organisms like fungus that glow in the dark. The setting will be different in daylight from at night, Rivers said.

“The intention is for guests to experience it both day and night,” he said. “When you walk down a path in the night, it will feel very different. Because of the bioluminescence that is happening, you will experience Pandora from a very different standpoint. The attractions will be the same, but the land is what will be different.”

Finally, the evolution of LED lighting made possible what the park needed. Along the safari route, Disney installed a permanent sunset — a screen that glows deep orange behind trees — and lighting that resembles moonlight.

The creative teams and producers planned new shows, street parties and other events to beef up the park’s nightlife. During Memorial Day weekend, after-dark hours debuted as a permanent feature at Animal Kingdom, which until then had the shortest hours of the resort’s four parks.

At almost 500 acres, Animal Kingdom is the largest Disney theme park in the world

The result? The park has a different ambiance at night that emphasizes its exotic character and feels a little more adult oriented — but not to the exclusion of children. It has a party atmosphere and music fills the night — African music here, a Caribbean beat over there, songs from “The Jungle Book” coming from the Discovery River Theater. Everything — from Expedition Everest to the Kali River Rapids to foot paths — is dimly lit. Signs can be hard to see or read, and it’s easier to get lost than it is in daylight.

“It was about creating a nighttime experience that fit the Animal Kingdom,” said Laura Offerdahl, an event producer at Disney World. “It’s not about big fireworks. There is definitely a different feel to the Animal Kingdom. It’s a very organic feel.”

The Tree of Life, which stands near the center of the park and has become its symbol, now has an after-dark show that is projected on its enormous trunk with its collage of animal carvings. On a weeknight in June, as people were leaving the park, most stopped to watch the show, drowsy kids on parents’ shoulders.

The Kali River rafts are best just as dusk falls, when there is still enough light to see, and it’s warm and muggy enough that getting wet (it’s inevitable) isn’t chilling. “Mommy, Mommy, we got soaked,” one young girl cried out as the raft she rode with her dad and sisters passed under a bridge where her mother stood, taking photos. 

The night safari has mixed results. “It’s so freaky,” says a passenger. Even with the lighting, it’s hard to make out animals that aren’t close to the road. But those that are in sight tend to be more active.

Rhinos graze along the road, and giraffes, which need only a few hours of sleep, are not shy. Lions prowl atop rock outcroppings in their enclosure, and on one visit, seemed to stalk our truck from the opposite side of a deep canyon. The new African painted dogs, added because they are nocturnal, race around their enclosure.

Elsewhere we saw mostly silhouettes — hippos in the pool, squawking flamingos, African elephants. The guides talk about poaching and how the public can help.  

“The animals act very different at night. The cats are very active; they are nocturnal animals. At night, you can see animals act the way they do in nature,” Rivers said.

“Rivers of Light” was meant to be the signature entertainment of Animal Kingdom after dark. But it was pulled from the schedule just a few weeks before it was to debut.

The Discovery River Theater, a waterfront amphitheater, was built as a showcase for “Rivers of Light,” a water show that was to include lantern boats, fountains, story tellers, spirit guides, scenes projected on screens of water, music and other special effects.

The new show was meant to be the signature entertainment of Animal Kingdom after dark. But it was not ready, and it was pulled from the schedule just a few weeks before it was to debut April 22. “You want it to be a beautiful, perfect thing when it’s open. … We don’t sell junk,” Rohde told reporters in April.

That show has been delayed indefinitely, and “The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic,” a song-and-dance show showcasing the culture of India and inspired by the “The Jungle Book” movie, was quickly choreographed to replace Rivers of Light.

The public has been slow to take advantage of the late hours, and on that late-June weeknight, there was no line for Kilimanjaro Safari or the Kali River rafts; even the wait for the Expedition Everest roller coaster was only 10 minutes.

Here are my three favorite things to do in Animal Kingdom at night:

▪ Ride Expedition Everest. If you like this roller coaster’s thrills in daylight, you’ll like them even more at night. Parts of the ride, including the backwards part, are in total darkness. Also, as you climb the initial steep stretch, look to the right between gaps in the toothy rocks and you’ll see the new Discovery River Theater, lit up for “The Jungle Book” production and shimmering like jewels.

▪ Eat dinner at Tiffins, a new upscale restaurant on Discovery Island. The food is inspired by the cuisines of Africa and Asia. It’s gourmet quality and priced accordingly. I had an appetizer of grilled octopus with saffron aioli ($16) and a main course of lamb chops with greens, lentil stew and tomato jam ($41). The lentil stew was bland and the greens were tough but the octopus was spectacular and the lamb excellent. (I did not identify myself as a reporter.) There is a selection of signature cocktails and wines by the glass or bottle. The dining rooms double as art galleries.

▪ Check out the street parties in Harambe Market and Discovery Island. With live music and dancing in the street, they’re a nice break as the sun goes down and the air cools — as much as it cools on a summer night. Harambe Wildlife Parti is set to African rhythms and has a drum circle, soccer players, dancers and acrobats. Discovery Island Carnivale is a Latin-themed dance party with stilt walkers that celebrates the wonder of nature.

Marjie Lambert: 305-376-4939, @marjielambert