Harambe Nights has begun at Walt Disney World, bringing true nightlife to Disney’s Animal Kingdom for the first time. Taking place on Saturday evenings through August 9, Harambe Nights is an after-hours, separately-ticketed event that combines a lively street party with a seated indoor show based on “The Lion King.”
The event as a whole successfully adds an element that’s been missing from the park since its opening 16 years ago, allowing guests to enjoy its carefully crafted ambiance without feeling the need to gawk at animals or ride a roller coaster.
It costs $119 for adults and $79 for children to attend Harambe Nights, a price that can easily be justified provided that attendees take advantage of all the event’s offerings. With excellent food, an open bar, and an hour-long show, there’s a lot to appreciate during this special event.
It all begins with a welcome reception, scheduled to start at 7pm but really begins 30 minutes earlier than that. Included is a sampling of appetizers, face painting, a live band, and free flowing drinks, both alcoholic and non-alocholic.
This initial hour is a bit uncomfortable, with little seating available outside the new Festival of the Lion King theater in which the night’s show takes place. There are standing tables to eat off of, most of which are bathed in Florida’s hot sun. The appetizers range from well seasoned to greasy to bland. The best of the bunch is the Spicy Durban Chicken.
At the bars, in addition to beer, wine, and soda, Jungle Juice is served – a combination of rum and fruit juices that’s extra heavy on the alcohol. Attendees of drinking age definitely get their money’s worth here.
After an hour of socializing, guests move into the theater, handed “Lion Chow” on the way in – the equivalent of popcorn while watching a movie – consisting of pretzel chips, dried fruits, and candied pecans. It’s a nice treat to keep an appetite alive while the show unfolds.
The 60-minute show itself is called “The Lion King – Concert in the Wild” and is entirely different than the Festival of the Lion King that plays daily in the same theater. One of the four stadium-style seating areas is removed to make way for the stage during the Harambe Nights performance, adding seating on the floor for those who paid extra for the now sold-out premium seats. Everyone else shuffles into assigned sections based on wristbands given out when arriving to the park. The Zebra section is definitely the most desirable, facing straight ahead to the stage rather than off to the side.
The Concert in the Wild is a combination of life singing, dancing, storytelling, orchestral music, and a whole lot of movie clips. When the choir is singing and dancing, the show is highly entertaining, offering a unique interpretation of the music of “The Lion King.” The orchestra is fantastic too, nailing the score from the film in synch with accompanying movie clips.
Big fans of “The Lion King” will enjoy watching these clips and Disney clearly wants to pull emotional strings by including (1994 spoiler alert!) Mufasa’s death scene in its entirety.
But the movie clips run on way too long, consuming half the show while also drowning out the orchestra with sound effects and original dialogue. These portions would play better if Disney would simply mute the movie and invite the audience to enjoy and focus on the live musical performance.
Much like Epcot’s annual Candlelight Processional, a celebrity narrator is also featured in each presentation of the Concert in the Wild. On opening night it was Oscar-nominee Viola Davis (“The Help”) who was capable at reading the script, but added little in showmanship. She was frequently upstaged by the rest of the talented cast.
To Disney’s credit, there is an attempt made to get everyone to put away their various electronics and simply sit back and watch the show. The only hard restriction is no flash photography, but an introductory message encourages turning off phones, putting away cameras, and – most importantly – not blocking people’s views by holding up iPads and other massive tablets. That last suggestion brought loud cheers from the audience. Despite these attempts, two people next to me spent the entire show on their phones, scrolling through Facebook and writing text messages. It’s distracting in the darkened theater and highly discouraged.
Following the performance, the remainder of the night – another two hours – was filled with dancing in the streets of Harambe, character meet-and-greets, and a whole lot of simply delicious food.
The dishes across multiple buffet stations were simply delightful, easily the highlight of the entire evening. The bulk of the ticket price clearly goes into quality ingredients and expert preparation of these flavorful foods.
Among the best are the lamp chops, BBQ pork, assortment of breads and dips (borrowed from Sanaa’s menu), and the various cool fruit salads. But just about everything was enjoyable, with a range of offerings from the rather spicy to the not-at-all spicy – a little for everyone’s tastes.
There’s ample seating throughout the evening for dinner, both outdoors and inside the air conditioned Tusker House restaurant.
Some guests might even find themselves face-to-face with the celebrity narrator of the evening. Inside the Magic follower Torri Gariety met Viola Davis while waiting in line for food.
As African dance music plays via a live band and DJ, guests take to the street to dance the night away as fog fills the area. It’s a level of excitement and fun Disney’s Animal Kingdom has never really seen and definitely a sign of what’s yet to come.
On the way out, guests may notice a “kiss goodnight,” most obviously with a few former parade floats parked near the park’s exit. But a closer look at the Tree of Life reveals twinkling blue lights. While cast members say these twinkles are inspired by the stars Mufasa describes to Simba in “The Lion King,” it’s clear that this is a nod toward the future inclusion of “Avatar” in the park, which will feature plenty of glowing foliage.
Video: Lion King stars / Avatar tease on Tree of Life during Harambe Nights at Walt Disney World
Harambe Nights delivers on being an evening filled with plenty of different entertainment than guests of Disney’s Animal Kingdom are used to. Though the Concert in the Wild show is not the best part of the night, the entirety of the event is successful, particularly if attending with friends and/or family who can sit around, enjoy each other’s company over food, and party into the night.
It’s a chance to take a more casual approach to being in a theme park, particularly one that is largely seen as a half-day park. With more events like this coupled with the upcoming Rivers of Light lagoon show, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is on its way to becoming a hot spot and a must-see for Walt Disney World guests. It’s not quite there yet, but this is just one of many steps being taken to finally solidify its presence as a worthwhile fourth park.
Full Disclosure: I was invited by Disney to take part in Harambe Nights at no cost. This complementary evening did not influence the opinions expressed above, which are entirely my own.
More photos from Harambe Nights: