At nearly 600 acres, Animal Kingdom is the largest theme park at Walt Disney World Resort. If you’re anything like me, I know what you’re thinking: that is a lot of walking! Luckily, included in all that acreage is a 30-minute show that will not only give your feet the rest they deserve, but also blow your mind as one of the most entertaining experiences you’ll ever have at a park: Festival of the Lion King.
The first time I caught the production, I had no idea what to expect. I was mostly going because I had always been a big fan of The Lion King — it was one of my favorite movies as a child — and I figured, if nothing else, I would enjoy Festival for that. Much to my delight, I was absolutely blown away upon my first viewing, and I’ve been equally blown away by every viewing since then. From the beloved, moving songs to the whimsical display of dancing and acrobatics, there’s just so much to take in and enjoy.
The fun starts right as you enter the theater, where each section of seating is represented by a different animal – you’re either with the warthogs, the giraffes, the elephants, or the lions. Once the audience is seated, some of the performers come out early to get the crowd pumped up. As an audience member, you’ll get to participate by making the sound of the animal whose section you’re sitting in. (Yes, that means if you’re in the giraffe section, you’ll have to figure out what one sounds like!)
In a fun touch, each performer has a Swahili name with a meaning that corresponds to his character: Kiume (“masculine and strong”), Nakawa (“good looking”), Kibibi (“princess”), and Zawadi (“the gift”). Besides sharing some witty banter, they also let you know why you’re here in the first place: for a grand celebration of Simba, the lion cub who became a king. Right on cue, Simba enters the theater in the form of a colossal puppet on a festive float, accompanied by other floats and puppets to represent the other sections of the audience. The elephant and giraffe puppets are lifelike and visually stunning — but my personal favorite is the warthog float, which features everyone’s favorite grub-eating glutton, Pumbaa.
From the moment the show begins to the final performance, you’ll be in awe. If you’re a fan of the movie — or its Broadway counterpart — you’ll love hearing renditions of the classic songs written by Elton John and Tim Rice. In addition to impressive vocals, the tunes are accompanied by detailed sets, costumes, puppets, and stunts. For example, Timon leads a hilarious performance of “Hakuna Matata” with the help of the mischievously acrobatic “Tumble Monkeys,” who always prove to be a crowd-pleaser.
The romantic routine of two aerial dancers as Nakawa and Kibibi performing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” is another highlight – if you’re a sucker for a good love story, you might even be a little misty-eyed by the end. For me, the best part of the show is when Kiume performs “Be Prepared,” Scar’s musical declaration of war against Mufasa. Beyond the incredible vocals, it’s the performance of a daring fire dancer that makes this portion of the show the most thrilling.
Lion King wraps up with an interactive performance of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” as the cast invites children from the audience to join them on stage. Each child gets her own instrument to play as she dances along with the performers. If you’re watching with little ones, be sure to send them down during this part — it makes for great memories and photos! Afterward, the whole cast returns for a rousing medley of the show’s songs, capping off with a rendition of “Circle of Life” as the Tumble Monkeys flip, the aerial dancers soar, and the fire dancer brings the thrills. Each time I see this portion of the show, I’m floored by the vocals of Zawadi. I guarantee you’ll be on your feet for a standing ovation by the end!
From the incredible performances and storytelling to the audience participation, Festival of the Lion King is guaranteed to be a show that you won’t soon forget. Personally, I rarely miss it when I make a trip to Disney’s Animal Kingdom. If you’re planning to watch, just be sure to practice your giraffe impression in advance, so you can be prepared if you end up seated in that section.
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