Festival of the Lion King review

Nostalgia plays a big part in my love for Disney. I have been going to Walt Disney World since I was a child, and every year since then, I can’t help but want to go over and over again.

Going to the parks as a kid has shaped me into who I am today: a whimsical, imagination loving person that always tries to see the world as half full.  One of the shows that has inspired me the most has got to be the Festival of the Lion King (FOLK) in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  In this review, I’m going to give you a brief history of the show, what you can expect to experience once you enter this unique theater, how you can best plan to see the performance with limited waiting, and overall my thoughts on this long-running production.

History of the Show

In 1994, The Lion King made it’s debut on the big screen and audiences everywhere went nuts for it. The film made over nine million dollars, making it the highest grossing animated film of it’s time. Similar to how Frozen influences The Walt Disney Company today, suddenly The Lion King was advertised everywhere the Mickey Mouse symbol was shown. You could see Simba dolls in toy stores, soundtracks stacked up ready to be heard on CD players around the world, parades in Disney parks, and live stage adaptations.

Many people around the world know the Broadway production by the same name. It premiered in October 1997 and was directed by Julie Taymor. She envisioned the beloved characters with puppets and masks, influenced by African Culture. It was a still is a big hit.

However, before that there was a parade called The Lion King Celebration in Disneyland that served as inspiration for the Festival of the Lion King. The parade ran from 1994 through 1997 to promote the release of the movie, but once it closed, Imagineers had another use for some of its floats. Disney usually makes a point to reuse their sets and floats from past parades (you can notice this when watching the Halloween and Christmas parades in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom).

When Animal Kingdom park was opening in 1998, Imagineers wanted to put on a show in one section of the park called Camp Minnie-Mickey. Although it was meant to be a temporary show, it still runs today as one of the most popular shows in the Disney parks.

To make way for Pandora – The World of Avatar, Camp Minnie-Mickey was set to close in early 2014. However, this did not mean that Disney had to close this crowd pleasing spectacle.

Yes they had to move it, but where? It seemed like Africa in Disney’s Animal Kingdom park was the perfect spot for the show all along. It’s new arena would be dubbed the Harambe Theater, opening in June of 2014. Similarly to the old theater, it was performed in-the-round with the audience seating on all four sides of the stage instead of the traditional one. It featured a state of the arc theatre with better rehearsal facilities and larger audience seating area, holding 1500 people (the other theater held about 1375). It was a great move for everyone involved—audience member and performer alike.

Show Overview

The show begins with four singers coming into the arena to greet the audience. They introduce themselves with names that have Africa-Swahili meanings: Kiume, the leader, meaning strong and manly, Zawadi meaning the gift, Nakawa meaning good looking, and Kibibi meaning the princess, who can be sweet and impatient.

These performers are then very interactive with the audience. They mention that since they will soon be joined by animals, they must teach the audience to greet them—like animals! So they split the audience into four groups: the elephants, the giraffes, the warthogs, and the lions.

The performers pick four people out of the audience to demonstrate each animal and how it sounds (I bet you’re wondering how a giraffe sounds). Once everyone knows how each of the animals sounds, they come together to simultaneously snort or roar, welcoming the animals to the arena. Not too soon afterward, more performers come on stage dressed in elaborate animal print costumes, dancing to the famous song to open the movie, “The Circle of Life.”

Then in an instant, the animal floats start riding into their separate sections as “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” starts to play. We even see some familiar faces among the animals. In the warthog section, we see Timon and Pumbaa ruling their own float. Simba comes in last, officiating the start of the festival as king.

Taking over the show, Timon sings his favorite song, “Hakuna Matata,” and introduces a new act he’s been working on with the Tumble Monkeys. These performers are skilled in acrobatics and gymnastics, swinging from “uneven bars” and “still rings” above the audience.

That is just one of the exciting jaw dropping moments in the show, but it doesn’t stop there. Kiume comes back onstage wearing black, creating a chill in the air as he sings the villain song, “Be Prepared.” This introduces the next event in the festival which is the fire dancer that uses a torch to twirl flames around him and through the air rapidly. He even places the torch on his feet and tastes them with his tongue, which is incredible to see at any age.

“Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is performed by Kibibi and Nakawa, creating a romantic setting where two performers dressed like birds are suspended through the air, creating the illusion that they are flying. It is a beautiful sight to witness, but as they float down, Zawadi gives a powerhouse performance of the reprise of “The Circle of Life,” uniting everyone in the ensemble to join her on stage. After her performance, Simba calls everyone, including the audience, to join in on the celebration.

While singing “The Lion Sings Tonight,” cast members grab children from their seats to parade around the arena. One child even gets blown a kiss from Timon, telling them that they had done a good job joining in. In the finale, the cast sings a montage of everything they performed during the festival.

As the show ends, the cast leaves the arena, and the audience’s applause subsides, Timon takes over the mic and screams “Get Out!”, rushing everyone out of the theatre. Although I always find this moment hilarious, I wish the floats stayed around for a longer moment at the end of the show so guests can take a quick picture with them.

One critique of the show is that I wish there were more opportunities to meet the cast. I understand as a performer that it would be tiring to do anything requiring additional energy after a show, but I wish that, at least after one show a day, the cast did a meet and greet. I did hear that on special occasions this is possible, so hopefully one day you and I will get the chance to be a part of one.

The Festival of the Lion King length is approximately 30 minutes long.

Production Quality

As a whole, this show was fantastically produced. The lighting sets the mood for every song seamlessly. The fact there is no set, except platforms and floats to stand on, presents the show like the festival it was meant to be, freeing everyone in the audience to join in on the fun.

There are about 136 costumes in the show, consisting skin tight animal print clothing and African inspired garb. The performers in the show are Broadway quality. They auditioned in cities such as Orlando, Atlanta, and New York City. I had even auditioned in the Big Apple for the show through the Disney World Auditions website, and I plan to again in the near future.

One of the only issues I have with the production quality is that there is hardly any live music. There might be some drums being hit here and there, but the show is sung over an instrumental track. Disney usually runs their shows in this way, but I believe this show would be five times better if there was live music, and that’s saying something!

It would give the singers in the show more freedom to express themselves and make new choices every show. There is a reason why live theatre is exciting, not every show is the same and anything can happen.

Influence in Other Disney Parks

We talked about the Broadway show being a big success, but lets look at other stage adaptions for The Lion King. In 2004, Disneyland Paris opened The Legend of the Lion King, located in the Tomorrowland section of the park. The show was heavily influenced from The Festival of the Lion King and the Broadway production.

The show is not much of a festival, but a film shoot. In this show, Timon is directing a production of the story as a surprise for his friend Simba, with Pumbaa as the assistant director of course. The show features different costumes, choreography, and arrangement of music, but it still has that essence that its a celebration of music from the movie. Another cool factor about this play was the use of puppets.

Instead of the use of animatronics like in the Animal Kingdom production, puppets from the late Magic Kingdom show of the same name is used to make the animated characters come to life. It’s nice to see that Disney never gave up on reusing their props to create something new! The attraction did close in 2009 because of low attendance, but from what I could tell, it looked like an amazing production that Disney put together.

In Hong Kong Disneyland, there is another show influenced by FOLK called…The Festival of the Lion King! Yes, it does have the same name, but like the one that was in Paris, it is not the same exact show. This production has it’s own twist on it while still being festival full of puppets and parade-like floats.

The show is still located in the parks Adventureland section in the “Theater in the Wild.” Also like the Disneyland Paris version, the show is featured in English, but there are Chinese subtitles being projected on screens in the background for Mainland Chinese visitors.

Instead of the use of the four performers like in the Floridian show, Rafiki played by a female performer presents the festival to Simba. Another way that the show is translated is through two performers dressed as monkeys. They translate Rafiki’s lines into Cantonese.

Festival of the Lion King Show Times & Length

If you are planning on going to see this show, there are some things you should know. As mentioned earlier, the show runs for about 30 minutes. 

Here are the Festival of the Lion King’s show times (although, although it can vary a bit by day and season):

  • 10 a.m.
  • 11 a.m.
  • Noon
  • 1 p.m.
  • 2 p.m.
  • 3 p.m.
  • 4 p.m.
  • 5 p.m.
  • 6 p.m.

You should definitely plan your day accordingly in order to see which shows works best for you. For guests who use wheelchairs or motioned scooters (ECVs), you will be able to remain in your chair, which will in turn allow your party to sit close to the action playing in the arena. For more information for guests with disabilities, you can contact Animal Kingdom’s Guest Relations.

I wouldn’t worry about sitting closer to the performers though, you should be able to see the show well from anywhere you sit. Depending on where you want to sit in the theatre, and how busy show attendance is, you should arrive at the theater’s entrance 35-45 minutes before the show.

If you don’t want to spend a lot of time waiting in line, you can get a Fastpass+ for a select performance to guarantee that you have a seat, which you definitely want. This is a show that, if you haven’t seen it already, will influence you in the best way for the rest of your life. This show will definitely put a smile on your face and a groove in your step. Seeing that you never know when a show will close at Disney, you need to catch this before it’s gone!

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