It's time to admit that Walt Disney (DIS -3.22%) knows what it's doing with its Animal Kingdom theme park in Florida. I've been critical of Disney World's fourth theme park in the past.
I penned a scathing essay on the park that went viral a decade ago. I went on to downplay the addition of the park's Everest-themed coaster addition in 2006, and a year later I was telling The Hollywood Reporter that this was a "broken" enterprise. "A half-day park at a full-day price."
I was initially hopeful that the springtime expansion of the park into a full-day destination this year would do the trick, but after the signature lakefront show was delayed and its temporary replacement failed to impress I had my doubts.
However, after several visits to the park over the past month I've changed my tune. Animal Kingdom is starting to come into its own, and that's a good thing for Disney shareholders. Disney's theme parks and resorts accounted for 31% of its revenue and 21% of its segment operating profit last year, a distant second to its media networks division. However, with the subscription declines at its cable properties and the way we consume television being disrupted there's going to be a lot riding on the theme parks in the future. Let's go over a few of the ways that Disney's Animal Kingdom is ready to run with the baton.
1. Animal Kingdom is the only park to earn its price hike
Disney World's shift to on-demand pricing is making one-day tickets 18% more expensive than they were last summer. It's a historic increase, but not all of the four Florida parks have earned the $17 to $20 increase in single-day admissions. The original Magic Kingdom is essentially the same attraction that it was a year ago, and Disney's Hollywood Studios is a shell of what it used to be after shuttering several attractions to make room for new diversions that are years away from reality.
Epcot is a richer experience as the only Disney World park to add actual rides this year, but the real value creator is Animal Kingdom. It has added enough nighttime experiences to warrant boosting the park's closing time from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. since Memorial Day weekend. The park closed as early 5 p.m. and no later than 7 p.m. for day guests last July. It's the only park to receive a significant boost to its operating calendar, far more than the 18% price hike.
2. The tree awakenings are breathtaking
The centerpiece of Animal Kingdom -- the Tree of Life -- has new lighting at night. It's breathtaking, and hundreds if not thousands of guests now park themselves in front of the tree as projected animals spring to life on the faux bark. Several times a night the tree comes to life with a montage of musical clips from Disney's deep vault of animal-related animated classics.
Mosquitos and other winged beasts will be biting. It's the downside to keeping the park open past dusk, and it might weigh on today's Zika virus-conscious mindset. However, it makes the park's most striking landmark even more remarkable.
3. Rides at night are new experiences
The star attraction of the nighttime tweaks is Kilimanjaro Safari jeep ride. The reserve is stocked with some nocturnal animals, but I've already dismissed it as disappointing. The simulated sunset and moon lighting offer poor visibility with fewer animals to see than during the daytime treks.
However, the same can't be said about the rest of the park's ride offerings. Animal Kingdom's shortcoming when it comes to comfort -- too many outdoor rides when the afternoon temperatures are blazing -- become advantages at night. The Kali River Rapids rafting attraction and the park's two coasters are more enjoyable at night, at least through Florida's unforgiving summers.
4. The entertainment is lively and everywhere
One of the more understated additions to the nightly festivities is the ramping up of entertainers. There are live bands and dance parties scattered through the park. It's a welcome break from the trend of scaling back on live performers at the other parks in recent months.
The entertainment is deliciously unpredictable. I did a double take a few nights ago when I heard one of the musical ensembles playing the theme to The X-Files. A few minutes later the same band was cranking out Banda Blanca's "Sopa de Caracol" -- as if going from creepy show theme music to a slamming Honduran dance track was par for the course.
There are still pockets of serenity in the park. That will always be the charm of Animal Kingdom. However, things can get festive for guests wanting that extra layer of liveliness.
5. Foodies just want to have fun
Animal Kingdom has sorely lacked table-service eateries, but that's vital now that later closing hours fuel high-margin dinner opportunities. It's to that end that Disney opened the high-end Tiffins and adjacent Nomad Lounge. Wagyu strip loin, grilled octopus, and pan-seared duck breast aren't your typical theme park fare, even at Disney World's finer in-park restaurants. The specialty cocktails are equally exotic.
The steep price points that top out at $53 are also high, perhaps explaining why it was mostly empty when my wife and I stopped by for a late dinner last week. The meal was enjoyable, but the real gem could be the Nomad Lounge, quickly emerging as my favorite escape from the theme park grind.
Tiffins and Nomad Lounge are lightly populated now because they are at the dead-end of a path that will eventually lead to the Avatar-themed expansion. It's walled-up now, but it's debut next year will be the final piece in transforming Animal Kingdom from a half-day park to one that will perhaps take a couple of days to truly explore.
It took 18 years for Disney to get Animal Kingdom right. The next 18 years will be even more exciting for park goers -- and Disney stock investors.