A family friend (and former boss) is starting to plan their first vacation to Disney World. School and work schedules mean that they'll only have 4 days in the parks and one of her first questions was how much time should she spend in each park. Of course it's a subjective question and depends greatly on who is going and how long you plan to be in the parks but I figured I would break down our preferences and why they are our preferences in the hopes that it helps you. The park that most people think of as the easiest to get through quickly is Animal Kingdom and for the most part I agree but the tricky thing about Animal Kingdom is that it's the first park to close each day (with the exception of when one of the other parks is having a special event in the evening like Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party). Animal Kingdom will close as early as 5pm especially in the fall and winter.
The first thing we do if we think we'll only have a day in Animal Kingdom is try and go on a day that has a morning extra magic hour at Animal Kingdom.
*Extra magic hours are extra park hours available ONLY to guests staying at an official Disney-owned Resort. One park per day will EITHER open an hour early or stay open up to three hours late.
Generally speaking we avoid morning extra magic hours because A-we're not morning people-none of us. Not. At. All. and B-the park which has extra magic hours (either morning or evening) is usually the busiest throughout the day. So, if we do use extra magic hours, it's night time extra magic hours and we will often not go to that park during the day but rather spend our day elsewhere and then hop over (got to love those park hopper tickets) to the park with the evening extra magic hours just as it is closing to the general public.
The reason we go to Animal Kingdom on an extra magic hour morning is simple. The safari. The animals are fed early in the day and so they are much more active AND the lines are almost non-existent...especially if you arrive just as the park is opening and go straight back to the safari. The last time we did this we ended up stopped THREE times because of animals in the road. We got to see a couple rhinos apparently fighting over who got to eat first. Good times.
Something else we do on an Animal Kingdom day is book a breakfast at the Tusker House for Donald's Safari Breakfast...it takes time not eating at the resort before going to the parks so I don't often recommend it when time is limited but we do it because it's one of very few places where you are guaranteed to find Daisy...our son has been in love with Daisy for YEARS!
(his reaction the first time he had to say goodbye to Daisy)
Moving on, after the extra magic hour safari (and possibly breakfast with Donald), we usually head to the back of the park, pick up fast passes (if available) for Kali River Rapids (you will get soaked!-but it's a blast). Kali has one of the shortest height requirements at Disney World-just 38". Once we have either ridden, picked up fast passes or both (because if it doesn't have a line to start with, it will!-especially later in the afternoon) we move onto Expedition Everest.
Expedition Everest is Animal Kingdom's big roller coaster. It's still fairly easy for us to get on because neither of our kids is big enough to go on it yet (44" minimum requirement). Until the boy is big enough, Joshua and I have to take turns going alone while the other waits with the kids so we just use the single rider line option. You (most likely) won't get to sit in the very front seat if you go through the single rider line...unless you luck out like I did once. The single rider entrance is to the right of both the main stand by and fastpass lines. Also tucked in the corner is a train car so if you're larger and concerned about not fitting into the seat, you can test it out on the side without the fear of embarrassment of finding out you don't fit after waiting in line.
(that's me in the second row on the left...another upside to not being able to ride together is that Joshua and I can take each other's pics coming down the mountain)
The other big ride type of attraction we like to do while at Animal Kingdom is Dinosaur. It can be and often is very frightening for small children as it's in the dark and you're being chased by dinosaurs. It's jarring and jerky but it's also one of my personal favorite rides. There's a great gift shop outside Dinosaur (as with most of the big attractions at Disney-they're not fools...they will do all they can to get your money) where parents of smaller children can wait for the rest of their party. Dinosaur has a 40" height requirement (the boy will be going on it for the first time this fall!).
(in line to ride Dinosaur)
Animal Kingdom has a couple shows that are must dos in addition to the rides I already mentioned. It's Tough To Be A Bug is a great 3D attraction that we love to do whenever we have the time (just know that they use a machine that blows various scents in the theater to go with the show-including a certain stink bug scent and if you have bad asthma, you may have a problem). The best advice when it comes to attraction wait times I can tell you is to get a Disney World wait time app. Verizon is the only company with an official Disney wait time app but there's dozens out there. We have Verizon so I can't speak for anything but the official app which is simply called "Disney Parks" and has an icon of the Mickey Sorcerer hat and has always been accurate for us. The other show isn't a "just fit it in when you have time" sort of show. The Finding Nemo Musical will take a chunk of your time away. It's a 45 minute show and you'll need to find the theater about 30 minutes early in order to have a good seat. For these reasons, we didn't do the Nemo Show until about three ago and now it's a must do. It's Broadway caliber with excellent acting and brilliant design. Go see it!!!
The only thing I would absolutely say to avoid when your on a tight schedule is Rafiki's Planet Watch. It doesn't come close to making out must do list anyway (again, just our opinions) but in order to get to it, you have to take the Wildlife Express Train and it can be a challenge if you have a stroller (must be left or folded-Disney's rental strollers do not fold...go HERE to see my recommendations for strollers and a bunch of other infant/small children tips at Disney World). The trains come every 5-10 minutes and once the train stops, you have to walk about 5 more minutes (thus one of the MANY reasons I'm not a fan of the Disney rental strollers) to get to Rafiki's Planet Watch. It can eat up time in a day like none other. I know people who love it but unless you or your kids are DETERMINED to go, I'd say skip it.
There's other fun things to do at Animal Kingdom...like the Flights of Wonder show (we're not even "bird" people but we love it), the Pagani Forest Trail, Festival of the Lion King Show, face painting and other fair/carnival-type fun in Dinoland and half a dozen others that are great but just don't make our must do list when we're on a tight schedule.
No matter how tight your schedule is, keep your eyes open for the infamous DeVine...she's, well, divine.