There aren’t a lot of hotels where you can watch giraffes munch on leaves from the comfort of your balcony. Disney World’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is almost certainly the only one of them in central Florida.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge might be the best hotel at Disney World. It has all the amenities you expect from one of Disney’s deluxe resorts, with gorgeous theming, delicious restaurants, a spacious pool complex, and comfortable, well-appointed rooms. It also gets you early access to specific parks each day through the Extra Magic Hours promotion, and you can get a free bus ride from the airport to the resort on Disney’s Magical Express. And then it also has giraffes, gazelles, water buffaloes, and more, sometimes right outside your window, depending on what kind of room you book. It’s not that close to any of the theme parks—you’ll have to rely on Disney’s free buses or hire a car to get you there—but it’s so beautiful and has so much to do you might find yourself wanting to hang out here instead of hitting the parks.
There are two different parts of Animal Kingdom Lodge, and from here on out we’ll only be talking about one of them. The original lodge, built in 2001, is a traditional hotel known as Jambo House. That’s the hotel we’re referring to in this piece. A newer complex was built exclusively for Disney Vacation Club members in 2009; its name is Kidani Village, and consists entirely of apartment-style villas. It also has a view of the animals, along with a similar aesthetic, and it’s close enough to walk to Jambo House if you need to.
As with all hotels, what makes Jambo House special starts in the lobby. It has a towering central chamber that immediately overwhelms you with both its size and attention to detail. African flourishes dominate the design, which was inspired by trips to various sites in Africa. Wood of brown and amber hues predominate, flowering light installations evoke the shape and pattern of Zulu shields, and a bridge that, from a distance, looks like it’s made of rope hangs several floors above. The wall opposite the entrance is a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the savannah outside, which is home to both a variety of animals and walking trails for guests to explore. The roof above has the appearance of thatched wood, both inside and out. Joe Rohde, the globe-trotting Imagineer who headed up Disney’s Animal Kingdom, brought a similar verisimilitude to the design of the Lodge; it’s the only hotel at Disney World that feels utterly in sync with one of the parks. It’s like an outpost of Animal Kingdom that you can stay in overnight.
The attempt at authenticity extends to the art collection that can be seen throughout the hotel. Pieces by actual African artisans and craftspeople can be found almost anywhere art can go, from elevator lobbies to the long hallways that wind throughout the resort. Many guests probably won’t even notice much of this art as they hurry from their rooms to the restaurants or parks, but that commitment to realism is crucial to Animal Kingdom Lodge’s success.
It also extends to the restaurants, of which there are two in Jambo House. Both offer menus influenced by African cuisine, with just enough familiar American options to please children or the unadventurous. The ritzier of the two, Jiko, is one of the best restaurants anywhere at Disney World, with a lush ambiance and a variety of stellar dishes, including scallops spiced with Moroccon chermoula and feta, grilled boar tenderloins with South African mealie pap and chakalaka (the former’s a maize paste similar to grits, the latter is a vegetable relish), and Mauritian-style shrimp with a rougaille sauce and a lemon-sumac vinaigrette—and those are all just appetizers. The entrees range from a lamb shank prepared in the style of Morocco’s Mrouzia, to bison with a Ghana chocolate demi-glaze, to a seafood curry with lobster, calamari, shrimp and mussels prepared in the fashion of Cape Town’s Bo Kaap quarter. Jiko is pricey—entrees cost between $30 and $50—but if you’re looking for a unique dining experience that further immerses you in the hotel’s theme, it’s worth the price. It’s also delicious. (Jiko is offering a “Lion King Experience” prix fixe menu as of June 30, 2019, and it looks like an especially good deal.)
Boma, a buffet-style eatery that serves both breakfast and dinner, is a bit friendlier to families and their wallet. Although African spices, ingredients and methods are found throughout its menu, it’s a bit more accessible for those with more finicky tastes, with familiar dishes like roasted chicken and turkey, beef sirloin, and pork ribs available. If you want a more authentic taste of Africa you can order the bobotie, a spiced meat dish that’s beloved in South Africa, and floury West African fufu. You can’t go wrong with either restaurant, and should try to fit in both if your stay is long enough.
You can also enjoy a variety of appetizers while enjoying cocktails or African and domestic beers at Victoria Falls Lounge. This bar has comfortable seats and good drinks—the basics for a good watering hole—and an outdoor fire pit if you want to get away from the noise drifting up from the foyer that connects Boma and Jiko below. It’s not a fun, themed destination like Trader Sam’s, but it’s one of the more relaxing bars at Disney World.
Despite the great food, the beautiful design flourishes, the walking trail, and the massive pool with a 67-foot waterslide, the highlight of Animal Kingdom Lodge remains the rooms—at least if you’ve booked one with a savannah view. The room itself is comfortable and spacious, with the same kind of African-influenced decor found throughout the hotel; even if you don’t overlook the savannah, you won’t forget you’re at a deluxe resort whenever you’re in your room.
That savannah view can’t be understated, though. You can begin and end the day literally watching these glorious beasts go on about their daily business from the vantage of your own private balcony. They’re allowed to roam freely throughout the rambling savannah throughout the day, with none of the visible enclosures or restrictions that can make zoos upsetting. You can’t get down on the ground with them, but there aren’t a lot of places in America that give you the opportunity to observe these kinds of animals at your leisure over an extended period of time. The animals do move throughout the day, so there will almost always be times when none are visible from your room, but if you’re patient and check back regularly you’re almost guaranteed to see them.
It might seem weird that one of the best reasons to go to Disney World, a place you go to in part to meet college kids dressed in the costumes of life-sized cartoon animals, is to sit in your hotel room and watch real-life animals lazily mill about below you. The feeling you get when you wake up and look outside your window and see a giraffe just hanging out a few dozen yards away can’t be described, though. It’s worth the ample prices you have to pay to stay at Animal Kingdom Lodge, and that’s without even factoring in everything else that makes it such a great hotel. It may not be the very best place to stay at Disney World today, but it’s definitely a top contender.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.