Animal Kingdom is, by far, my favorite theme park in Florida. If you are one of the thousands of folks that will visit Central Florida this year and if you are a photographer, then this is one of the places you DON”T want to miss. The stars of this park are in a beautifully natural 500 acre preserve that make this place a joy for the photographer. Fortunately (for me) I’m a local, so I’ve been able to visit it a number of times. Even better (for you) is that this article was written to share the photo tips that I’ve learned the hard way over the years.
Cost? Well, no one ever said Disney was cheap…tickets are $89 and you will end up paying for some incidentals as well. However, I’ve paid a lot more and gotten a lot fewer good shots in other places. Not only that, but at the end of the day I was actually smiling…for lack of a better word, there is a unique ‘vibe’ at Animal Kingdom that I don’t get at the other area parks.
Here are my photo tips for Disney’s Animal Kingdom
- Be at the park at opening (usually 9am), in fact be there at least 20 minutes early, they sometimes open the gates before 9am. The animals are the most active in the morning…they have a tendency to find shady spots to relax in as the day goes on and temperatures rise.
- The park opens at 8am one or two days a week for people that are staying at a Disney hotel. If you are traveling to Orlando, I’d make sure that your hotel qualifies and schedule your trip to Animal Kingdom on one of the early days.
- You will need a 300mm or longer lens for many of your shots. A zoom is an excellent choice here because of the varying focal lengths you will need.
- Don’t bother with a tripod. Few of the animals stay still long enough for a tripod to be helpful.
- Like any wildlife photography, you need a camera that can take a lot of shots quickly and has a buffer big enough to store them. When you are on the Kilimanjaro Safari, for example, you don’t have much time to take your shots…your best bet is to focus on your subject, hold down the shutter and take as many shots as you can.
- Unlike the other Disney parks, Animal Kingdom has a lot of trees and the canopy reduces the heat, just the same, this is Florida and you want a good hat, comfortable clothes and sunscreen.
- You do a lot of walking…all of it on concrete, so keep that in mind when you decide what shoes and how much equipment to bring with you. You can bring a backpack into the park (it will be searched) but don’t load it up too heavy.
Here are some hints to help you once you are in the Park:
The Safari consists of an open air vehicle which drives around a series of wildlife areas. You sit on a bench seat as the driver provides a running monologue about the numerous animals you see (hippos, Lions, leopards, giraffes, etc). The vehicle rarely stops and will not deviate from the “set” track, so you have to take your shots quickly and don’t expect the driver to stop so you can get the perfect shot. Just keep shooting! I’ve never timed it, but it is about a ten minute trip.
- Make this your first stop when you get to Animal Kingdom. If you are there when they open the gates at 9am, you will see people actually running to get to the Safari first (I kid you not!). Get a map ahead of time and know which direction to go when you get into the park at opening (It is in the “Africa” section of the park). Here is a link for a map of the park: http://www.wdwinfo.com/maps/ak.htm
- When you get to the front of the line where you board the vehicle, try your best to get on one of the ends of the bench seat (personally, I think the LEFT side is the best for photography). The benches hold 3-5 folks.
- Set your camera to shutter priority and select 1/320 or faster…this will help freeze the shots even though the vehicle is bouncing around.
- You might have to set your ISO to a higher setting than normal in order to shoot at this higher shutter speed.
- If your lens has Vibration Reduction, use it.
- Use a 300mm or longer lens, you will need that reach.
- GO ON THE SAFARI MULTIPLE TIMES!!! Although the safari is on a set track, your photos will be different EVERY time..even if it has only been 20 minutes since your last one.
- As soon as you finish one safari, go get a FAST PASS for your next one (you can get a FastPass at automated kiosks near the entry of the Kilmanjaro Safari…just look for the signs).
- Your FastPass appointment will be in about an hour, so you can go hit another area in the meantime. I’ve gone 4 times in a single day and each trip was unique (as were the photos). For example, the shot above of the three Cheetahs was the only time I saw them awake on the day I was there…although it was my third safari of the day.
Pangani Forest Trail
- When the Kilimanjaro Safari is over, you exit right at the entrance of the Pangani Forest trail. Personally, I think this is even better than the Safari.
- The trail takes you by two separate gorilla areas. They are most active in the morning and since you are not on a ride, you can spend as much time here as you want.
- One gorilla enclosure is on the west side of the trail, the other is on the east…so you can photograph all day since you will always have good sun for one side or the other.
- There is a viewing area behind a large glass wall when you first get to the gorilla area. Lighting is a bit dim and you have to be careful of reflections, but if you are patient (or simply stop by a few different times the day you are there) you may get the chance to photo a gorilla family (including their three year old) from less than 10′! This is the only place I’ve ever been able to get a full frame gorilla head shot…an incredible experience.
- I have had vastly different experiences with the gorillas during the same day. It is never the same twice. If you just spend 20 minutes here you are cheating yourself. I’ve photographed here a dozen times and each time I thought I’d seen and photographed it all…and every time I was wrong!
- Again, a 300mm lens will help you get close.
- For you birders, there is a large walk-thru aviary featuring birds from Africa including some gorgeous Taveta Golden Weavers.
- This area is heavily shaded but you can get good shots all day
- The smaller birds may require 1/500 or faster shutter speed to totally avoid motion blur.
- There is also an underwater hippo viewing area as well as monkey exhibits.
- I usually spend longer on the Pangani Trail that the rest of the park combined. It is a ‘target rich environment’!
Maharajah Jungle Trek
- This should be your next stop after the Pangani Trail…it is located in ‘Asia’.
- Similar to the Pangani Trail, the Maharajah Trek is a trail that leads you by different animal environments.
- The main attraction are the tigers.
- The tigers sleep about 20 hours a day (seriously). So you have to have a strategy to catch them active.
- If you are here on one of our rare chilly days, you have an excellent chance of seeing them moving around to keep warm.
- They are very active at feeding times. Ask the Cast Members (Disney employees) when that is.
- They also tend to move around first thing in the morning and late toward the end of the day before the park closes.
- Other exhibits include Komodo dragons and giant fruit bats.
- The Avairy is a great location for close up shots of exotic Asian birds.
- This is toward the entrance of the park…just look for the giant “Tree of Life”
- There are a number of short trails on Discovery island that have Galapagos tortoises, monkeys and porcupines.
- This area is much smaller and less productive than the ones listed above.
- I’d suggest hitting this area on your way OUT of the park.
- This is at the very entrance of the park.
- The exhibits here have giant anteaters, boar and other animals
- Like Discovery Island, this area is a series of small trails with small animal exhibits.
- Make this your last stop.
Rafiki’s Plant Watch & Camp Minnie-Mickey
- Not a lot for photographers at these locations.
- If you need a break from the heat (or your spouse is sick of 5 straight hours of photography), go to the Finding Nemo show in DinoLand. Honestly, it is Broadway quality and not just for kids.
- Plan on at least a half day for your photo shoot at Animal Kingdom and if you become fascinated by the gorillas (like I did) you can keep your camera busy until the park closes.
- There is also a 3 hour Wild Africa Trek available for an additional $189. I’m thinking this might be like a private version of the Kilimanjaro Safari, I’m going to do some more research and see if it is worth the cost for a photographer. If so, I’ll let you know how it turns out.
Hope you find these photo tips helpful, feel free to let me know your thoughts and share your learnings about this great photo location!