Festival of the Lion King

Festival of the Lion King

Today, we are covering our first ride since I returned from my most recent trip to Walt Disney World and I have so much to share, I don’t know where to start!  Over the next few weeks we will be covering a Backstage Pass ride, a newer ride in Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and spend some time exploring the great character experiences in the park.  Today we are spending some time in Disney’s Animal Kingdom with one of the best shows in Walt Disney World.  It seems like every vacation I take, I always leave the Animal Kingdom wishing we had more time to spend there.  Some describe this as a half-day park, meaning there isn’t enough to do or see to take up the whole day.  Well, I couldn’t disagree more!  As you will see today there is more than enough entertainment to be found, starting with the Festival of the Lion King!  It’s time for our know before you go essential facts.

  • There is no height requirement
  • The fright factor is 0 out of 5
  • Fastpass + is available
  • Guests may remain in a wheelchair/ECV
  • Assistive listening and handheld captioning are available
  • The show is currently performed 8 times per day
  • The show is 28 minutes long
  • The theater will hold up to 1,500 guests
  • It opened on April 22, 1998, and was relocated and reopened on June 1, 2014
  • Festival of the Lion King is located in the Harambe Theater in the Africa section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom

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Jambo!  That’s Swahili for hello.  So, Jambo and welcome to the Festival of the Lion King!  If you love the movie, get ready for an unforgettable experience in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  This show is a true celebration that comes to life through the music of The Lion King, colorful dancers, talented singers, acrobats, huge audio-animatronics, and costumed characters.  In fact, this show is full of so much movement and jubilee, it can be hard to put into words.  However, that has never stopped us before and it won’t keep us from trying today.  I believe the best way to describe Festival of the Lion King is to go back in time to learn how the show began.

If you are a Disney fan, then chances are you are a fan of the 1994 film The Lion King.  This animated feature was a smash hit thanks to its incredible score, voice talent, gorgeous animation, and emotional story.  The film did so well that it earned two Academy Awards, one for Best Original Score and another for Best Original Song.  It also took home the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture- Musical or Comedy.  Other awards followed and a new Disney franchise was born.  In the years since its release, The Lion King has gone on to inspire a full Broadway Musical, two more movies, and two television series.  More important to our podcast, the movie also inspired a parade at Disneyland.

In June of 1994, the California theme park unveiled a full parade entitled The Lion King Celebration.  This parade told the story of Simba, the main character from The Lion King.  The festive celebration included huge floats, dancers, performers on stilts, and of course many characters from the movie.   Like the movie, it was an instant hit and so popular that it ran at Disneyland for the next 3 years.  It was around that time that a new Disney theme park was being Imagineered around the many of the same principles found in The Lion King Celebration parade!

So, the Disney Imagineers decided to take a good thing and make it even better.  The parade at Disneyland came to the end of its run 1997, but 4 of the floats and many of the costumes used in the parade were shipped to Walt Disney World.  Rather than just recreate the parade in Florida, they decided to give it a semi-permanent home in the new park: Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  They created an octagonal theater where visitors could come, sit down, and watch the parade come to them.

However, the show would be much more than just the parade floats.  Singers, dancers, acrobats, and new songs were added to accompany the 4 floats.  Soon the script was written, the routines perfected, and the entire crew was ready to celebrate their festival for the park’s opening day.  On April 22, 1998, The Festival of the Lion King made its debut as visitors got their first look at Walt Disney World’s fourth theme park.  Like the movie and parade that came before, the show was a big hit and audiences loved seeing one of their favorite stories come to life in such a unique way.

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With its popularity, the show’s venue was upgraded in 2003.  The theater went from open air to being completely enclosed, complete with air conditioning.  It seemed pride rock had finally found a permanent home.  Well, at least for the next 10 years.  Then came the announcement of Pandora- The World of Avatar.  Disney’s Animal Kingdom was getting a major expansion and that meant The Festival of the Lion King had to go hunting for a new home.  The show was closed on January 5, 2014, but not for long.  Disney told fans, “Hakuna Matata,” which of course means no worries.  Even two decades after the movie, they knew audiences were still feeling the love for the Lion King, so a brand new theater was constructed in the expanding Africa section of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  On June 1, 2014, The Festival of the Lion King re-opened its doors in its new home, the Harambe Theater.

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That is the history of the show.  It began as a parade celebrating the characters and songs from the movie and grew into a full production with Broadway level talent.  Just what can you expect from the accomplished cast?  Well, the short answer is a party!  For the long answer, let’s talk about some of the exciting details you can look forward to.

After making your way through the queue and into the large theater you will be directed to one of four sections of bleacher-style seating.  In the center of the theater is a large open area that will soon transform into a vibrant stage for the show to come.  If you can get a seat in one of the first couple of rows you will have an unobstructed view of the action.  If not, you may want to take your little ones up to the fifth row or higher so they can have a better angle to view the performers.

When all visitors have found their seats, the stage is lit, the music begins, and your four hosts for the show walk out into the center of the room.  The two women are dressed head to toe in bright yellow and purple, while the two men sport some great headdresses.  Together they look like they have stepped straight out of Africa and are ready for a grand celebration.  Kiume is the first host to speak and he does so in a booming deep voice.  He welcomes the audience and tells them they are a band of singers that travel with Simba.  Kiume is the leader of the group and his name is Swahili for masculine and strong, very appropriate.  Next to him is Nakawa, meaning good looking.  He is a young strapping guy with a big smile on his face.   Next they introduce the lovely Kibbi, meaning princess, and finally the graceful Zawadi, meaning the gift.

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Each of the four singers claims one of the four sections of the audience as their own and you learn that for the rest of the show you will represent one of four animals.  You could be the Lion, the Giraffe, the Elephant, or the Warthog.  Each animal has its own sound and one member of the audience is pulled from each section to help demonstrate what sound their section should make.  Watching an audience member attempt their best elephant noise can be pretty funny.  If are lucky enough to be represent your section this will be a memory your family will cherish for years to come!  Of course, most of us know what sound a lion, an elephant, or even a warthog makes.  However, I’m betting you aren’t too familiar with the sound of a giraffe.  Well, I won’t spoil it for you here, you will have to go watch the show to find out what our long necked friends sound like.  After some practice from the entire audience, the theater is ready to make some noise to welcome Simba and his friends.  The four animal sounds combine to create a loud roar, followed by silence as everyone waits in anticipation for the Lion King to emerge.

The lights are dimmed allowing you to focus your ears on the sound of the wind gently rushing through the African savannah.  Next, the sounds of the jungle slowly come to life and drums begin beating in the background.  More animals join the chorus and the drumbeat quickens as the excitement builds.  Kiume says, “It is time” and next the theater is filled with the glorious sound of the Circle of Life!

 

The time has come to introduce the Lion King himself.  Simba’s voice can be heard overhead as he welcomes you to a very special day of celebration.  Next, the curtains between each section of audience is pulled back and a host of dancers dressed as different animals hop, skip, and run out onto the stage.  Behind them the four floats make their way out into the theater.  Timon makes his grand entrance on the giraffe float, but is quickly saddened when his float doesn’t stop at center stage.   He is just a part of the grand show and not the lone star as he might think.  His buddy Pumba comes out next on his own float which is followed by a group of bright yellow tumbling monkeys.  Next, the float featuring a giant elephant joins the elephant section and finally the majestic King Simba floats into the theater atop pride rock.  All of the characters are larger than life and a real treat to take in.  Along with the four floats an elevated stage hiding a trampoline is rolled into the center of the theater.  When they are done singing “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” the entire theater is full of floats, dancers, singers, and animals.  No matter where you are sitting, there is something to draw your attention from one spot in the room to another for the remainder of the show.  You may even have a performer dressed like a monkey make his way into the stands to give you an inquisitive once over.

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After the parade of characters is set, the first showcase begins as the yellow monkey acrobats begin bouncing off the trampoline and flying through the air.  They fling themselves from the high bar, rings, and trapeze.  My favorite part here is how they do familiar gymnastics feats with the playfulness of real monkeys.  Nothing about their movement looks human as their arms swing around the ground, their backs are hunched over, and they leap from spot to spot.  They make very demanding stunts look fun as they climb over one another and summersault through the air.  Fittingly, they do all of this is done to an upbeat version of Hakuna Matata.

After the monkeys have their moment in the spotlight they exit the stage and the theater goes dark.  In a flash the mood shifts from light hearted fun to something dark and sinister.

Kiume performs Scar’s evil song of delight and is accompanied by an incredible fire dancer.  At center stage the fire dancer twirls his torch with fire flaming from both ends.  The highly skilled artist paints the dark room with orange light in a whirlwind of movement.  My favorite part comes when he lays on his back and sits the flames on his bare feet for several seconds.  He puts on a most impressive display, even shooting the flames from his mouth before the number is over.  When he finished all I could say was WOW!

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The fun doesn’t stop there though and the emotional range of The Lion King is put on display next as two aerial acrobats take the stage.  These two are dressed like birds and indeed take flight as the male swings the female high into the air.  Her beautiful blue feathers spin in tight circles while Nakawa and Zawada sing a duet of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”  This section of the show is peaceful, graceful, and a good contrast to the other performances.

After this the audience is brought into the action to sing a rousing version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”  At this point the whole theater is alive with the sound of voices young and old.  Finally, a medley of all the show’s songs are sung before a final reprise of the Circle of Life concludes the celebration.

The 30 minute show really is a brilliant adaptation of the best features from the movie.  There is so much to see and hear during the performance that an audience of all ages will find this a fun experience.  I always leave this show with a little skip in my step and a few songs buzzing through my head.  When it comes to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I believe this is a can’t-miss adventure.  So, let’s talk about when to see the show.

You can make a Fastpass + reservation for the Festival of the Lion King.  Whether or not this is the best use of your Fastpass + depends on the time of year you are visiting.  If you are traveling in peak season, summer or holidays, then I do recommend obtaining a Fastpass +.  During these busier periods you may find yourself waiting in the Standby Queue for 30 minutes only to find you don’t make it into the show.  When that happens you will be in line for an additional 30 minutes, and while most of the queue is covered, this won’t be the most pleasant way to spend an hour of your day.  A Fastpass + allows you to enter the theater before any of the Standby guests.  Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean a front row seat, but you should have a better view than if you opt for the Standby queue.  If obtaining the best seat possible is your mission, be sure to enter the Fastpass + queue at the beginning of your time window.  For example, you may have a Fastpass + for the 3:00 pm show.  In this case your time window will say 2:30 pm – 2:50 pm.  You can enter the Fastpass + queue at any point in this 20 minute window but the later you wait the longer the line will be.  Keep this in mind as you plan your day and decide when to arrive at the Harambe Theater.

If you want to save your 3 Fastpass + selections for other rides, then I suggest going to the first or last showing of the day.  These two times are usually the least crowded and your best chance to get a good seat in the theater while waiting in the Standby line.

Regardless of which route you go, I do recommend timing this in conjunction with Kilimanjaro Safaris.  I prefer to ride the safari first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon.  So, you could plan to watch the Festival of the Lion King either right after a morning safari or right before an evening safari.

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There are also some great dining options in this area of the park now including the character buffet Tusker House and the new quick service Harambe Market.  You can also take in the Pangani Forest Trail or take the train back to Rafiki’s Planet Watch.  Sounds like a lot going on huh?  See I told you this was more than a half day park!  Just exploring Africa offers hours of fun.  You can discover all kinds of animals here, see an incredible show, and enjoy a great lunch or dinner.  In fact, that is exactly what we did on our last trip.  Of course, we did experience the 3 hour backstage Wild Africa Trek as well.  How was that experience?  Well, I’m glad you asked!  Next week we are staying put in Africa and I will be taking you on our first Backstage Pass as we explore this real life animal adventure!

With that I guess we should say goodbye for now.  I hope you have enjoyed learning about the Festival of the Lion King with me.  I also hope I was able to give you a small vision of how festive this show is.  Be sure and check it out next time you are in the park!

 

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