Florida Travel

Disney’s Animal Kingdom to explore its after-dark side

Opening April 22, "Rivers of Light" will be nighttime show combining live performances, floating lanterns, water screens and swirling animal imagery.
Opening April 22, "Rivers of Light" will be nighttime show combining live performances, floating lanterns, water screens and swirling animal imagery. Disney Parks

For years, nighttime meant bedtime at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The youngest of Walt Disney World’s four theme parks — it opened in 1998 — has long had the earliest closing time.

Now, attractions set to debut next month are designed to give the park new life after dark and reasons to linger.

“Now, we get to do a lot of what we do in the day and we bring it into the night with a pretty unique twist,” said Djuan Rivers, Disney’s vice president for Animal Kingdom.

Beginning the evening of April 22 — the park’s birthday and Earth Day — guests can see an elaborate, original production called “Rivers of Light.” They can also experience the Kilimanjaro Safaris with a sunset effect and admire an enlivened Tree of Life. There will be entertainment and parties added to the Harambe Village and Discovery Island areas as well.

The first of the “Rivers of Light” showings will be after sunset nightly, Rivers said, so Animal Kingdom’s closing time will shift later. Existing attractions such as the Expedition Everest roller coaster and Kali River Rapids will operate into the evening.

The additions should help fight Animal Kingdom’s reputation as a “half-day park,” said John Saccheri, a video blogger for his theme-park site, BigFatPanda.com. Folks with limited vacation time sometimes see the park as a lesser value, he said.

The additions should help fight Animal Kingdom’s reputation as a “half-day park.”

“There’s like four major things happening,” Saccheri said of the additions. “I think each of which, on its own, would be a good reason to stay in the park.”

The original thinking behind Animal Kingdom, which opened in 1998, was that it would be a “park of discovery,” said Kevin Yee, who has written books about Disney theme parks.

“They wanted people wandering around and discovering things rather than running from ride to ride,” Yee said. “I think, by and large, that effort to change the theme-park culture didn’t work — because visitors just want the rides.”

Workers are constructing two seating areas overlooking the waterway for “Rivers of Light,” an original story told using water screens, animal spirits, floating lanterns, lighting effects and live performers.

“They are billing this as an epic, spectacular show,” Saccheri said. “They’ve been saying epic and spectacular so much that it’s my hope that they have the confidence in their testing that it really is going to be something beautiful.”

“Rivers of Light” eventually will have FastPass and dining-package options. It won’t have fireworks that could disrupt the animal population of Animal Kingdom, Rivers said.

The park’s Animal Programs staff “worked closely with all our entertainment partners to ensure that this is something that’s going to be compatible with our environment and we have nothing to worry about,” he said.

The animals of Kilimanjaro Safari will be visible after dark, Rivers said.

“There’s a lot of nocturnal activity that you’ll see that’s pretty amazing,” he said.

There’s a lot of nocturnal activity that you’ll [on Kilimanjaro Safari] see that’s pretty amazing.

Djuan Rivers, Disney’s vice president for Animal Kingdom

Near the center of the park, the Tree of Life will twinkle — and slowly put on a show — through what Disney calls “magic fireflies.” It will enhance, through projections, the creatures carved into the tree’s trunk.

“It’s going to awaken in a way that’s going to be subtle, very unpredictable,” he said. “It’s going to surprise you; it’s going to delight you.”

The park’s after-dark atmosphere will feel authentic and new, Rivers said, and that should inspire repeat visitors.

“They will see things in the daytime, and they’ll want to come back at night because they’ll going to see things a little differently,” he said.

Saccheri has been in the park at night for a special event. “I remember thinking ‘This is a really gorgeous park at night’ — just the avenues and the little streets with the rocks and the roughness and the foliage,” he said. “It just felt so beautiful and different at night.”

Although the park closed as early as 5 p.m. this year, it has stayed open until 9 p.m. during peak seasons in the past, Rivers said.

“We just haven’t operated at night for very long periods of time every single night,” he said. “Although it’s a new experience, we have operated the park at night, and now we’re going to do it more consistently with a lot more product for guests to enjoy.”

Animal Kingdom will have even more for visitors to take in after it opens Pandora – The World of Avatar next year.

Yee isn’t sure the 2016 additions will hold the attention of visitors for long.

“They’re filling the gap in before the gap even exists,” he said. “My prediction is that we’re actually going to see in 2016 an initial flurry of interest in the new stuff just because it’s new. But I don’t think we’re going to see a deep penetration of people staying into the evening the way we’ll see after Pandora is open.”