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Disney World's Animal Kingdom Finally Grows Up Tonight

By Rick Munarriz - May 27, 2016 at 9:07AM

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Disney World's fourth theme park finally lives up to its all-day promise.

Image source: Disney.

Walt Disney's (DIS -1.52%) Animal Kingdom has been an adult for more than a month, but tonight it gets to stay up late and party like a grown up. Disney World's third most visited theme park closes at 11pm tonight, allowing guests to partake in new nighttime experiences.

Tonight is the debut of post-sunset treks through its Kilimanjaro Safari attraction, complete with the addition of a few nocturnal animals. The Tree of Life centerpiece will glow with projections of animal spirits. Two new party areas will feature music and festive interactions. A new high-end restaurant -- Tiffins -- opens.

The Jungle Book: Alive with Magic debuts tomorrow, a temporary riverfront show that gives the theme park giant time to fix the technical snags that have delayed the once ballyhooed Rivers of Light extravaganza. 

Rivers of Light was supposed to be the star among the new attractions being introduced this weekend, and all of these nighttime festivities were originally slated to open on April 22. That was Earth Day, the day that theme park turned 18. It was legally an adult then, but now it gets to act like one. It's also just the beginning.

Just wait until next year

Animal Kingdom has had to shake the stigma that it's a "half day park" for years, and closing at 6pm the way it did yesterday doesn't make it easy. All of Disney's other parks routinely close well into the night. Animal Kingdom has operated largely on banking hours on most days. 

This weekend's additions and the eventual premiere of Rivers of Light will help draw guests and keep them around longer. That's a pretty big deal when one considers how lucrative higher-priced dinners are at Disney's eateries. 

The enhancements won't end this weekend. A 12-acre Avatar-themed land opens next year, complete with floating mountains and bioluminescent plants. Unlike this weekend's offerings, Pandora will introduce two new rides. There's a family friendly boat ride and a more thrilling flying banshee attraction. 

Animal Kingdom was holding up well even in its early bird state. Attendance rose 5% to 10.9 million according to industry tracker Themed Entertainment Association, making it the country's fourth most visited theme park. Yes, Disney owns the other three. It also makes it the world's sixth most visited theme park. And yes, Disney owns or is affiliated with all six. 

The challenge until now has been keeping guests around after the unforgiving summer sun and afternoon thunderstorms kick in. Families fleeing to the exit early in the afternoon are a common sight at the 18-year-old attraction. Whether it's a lack of rides or a lack of guests that appreciate the park's richly detailed themed touches, Disney's leaving money on the table by letting guests bail early. This weekend changes that, retaining and drawing guests when the weather is typically more kind.

Disney shareholders will love the new Animal Kingdom. Disney has pushed through aggressive hikes in annual pass and single-day ticket prices, and we're seeing operating income grow even faster than revenue for Disney's theme parks division. Guests expect more when they're paying more, and at least one of Disney's gated attractions is living up to its end of that bargain starting tonight.

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