Could there be two more different resorts? The Animal Kingdom Lodge exudes warmth despite a soaring lobby. There are nooks and crannies everywhere that lend itself to quiet conversation. Fire pits beckon you to sit down and relax. And then there’s the savannah, peaceful, beautifully landscaped and staring the guests of honor: Giraffes, zebras, birds ankole cattle, eland and a number of other animals. The Contemporary is modern, some might say cold, but it’s the very vision of what Walt Disney and the Imagineers who carried on his legacy imagined the future to be when it opened in 1971 and for that reason, in many ways it’s the “most” Disney of all the resorts. It also sits on what is without a doubt the very best piece of real estate in all of Disney World: You can easily walk to the Magic Kingdom or take the monorail, which runs right through the hotel.
With two resorts so different, is it possible to compare the two? Which one would win in a showdown? Let’s look at a few key considerations.
Atmosphere: You’ve heard the complaints about the Contemporary: That’s is big sterile hulk of a building that looks like it houses a hospital or a government agency from the outside. That it’s cold and boring. That there’s very little theming. But these comments miss the point that I mentioned above, which is that the Contemporary is themost Disney of all Disney World hotels because it’s the very embodiment of what Disney designers, and Walt himself, imagined the future to be at the time. That belief in progress is everywhere in Walt Disney World and it’s echoed in the Contemporary, from the way it was built (each room in sections, then put in place like giant Lego blocks) right down to the fact that there’s an ideal mode of transportation running right thru it. Recent upgrades to the furnishings bring a more modern look to the rooms as well: Darker furniture, clean lines, sophisticated fixtures, and subtly color-blocked fabrics in earthy hues give the place the feel of an upscale European hotel.
If the Contemporary lacks theming, AKL is themed and then some. You can’t take in the attention to detail in one trip. Even before you enter the lobby you’re greeted with soft lights and music that sets an exotic mood. A few more steps takes you into the grand lobby full of comfy chairs, a fire pit, African artifacts, and expansive windows that offer you a view of the savannah. I’m impressed by how Animal Kingdom Lodge successfully appeals to families, but at the same time is romantic enough for couples, possibly the most romantic resort in all of Disney World. Like the Contemporary, rooms are decorated with muted earth tones and dark wood, but the furniture is ornate, as if carved by African artisans. You’ll catch subtle references to The Lion King, but the key here is that they are subtle: You’ll have to really look, which is half the fun. The bathrooms are roomy and modern. The lights . . . well the lights are way too low. In fact, you’ll be forgiven if you walk into the bathroom and immediately exclaim out loud: I’m gorgeous! The lighting is so flattering that I highly advise those of you who wear make-up in the parks to check out your look on the balcony before you go out in public, lest you risk looking like a clown.
Winner: I love the warmth of AKL. I don’t think there’s a resort on site where the Imagineers have transported the guest to another place so successfully.
The view: The Contemporary has three views: The parking lot, the lake, or the Magic Kingdom. At Animal Kingdom Lodge if you aren’t in a savannah view or a pool view room, you have a very good chance of having a parking lot view. If you’re lucky enough to have a sanvannah view, you may find yourself unable to tear yourself away from it long enough to enjoy the parks. Still, even on a bad day, the lake view from your balcony at the Contemporary is pretty impressive. And being able to watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks from your room? Well, we think that’s downright incredible.
Winner: It’s a tie. It all depends on what you like and how much time you plan on spending in the room.
Peace and Quiet: AKL is one of the most quiet resorts at Disney World, hands down. To get any quieter, you’d have to stay in one of the cabins at Ft. Wilderness. The great thing about AKL is that it’s cut off from the rest of Disney World. When I leave the parks at night, I prefer to stay in what most Disney fans call “the bubble,” which means I like to stay on site and keep that magic all around me. Still, I don’t necessarily want to be in the thick of things. I like feeling that my resort is quiet and calm. I like feeling like I’m off in my own little world. And that’s how AKL feels.
The Contemporary is a busy hotel. You’ll see it when you come in: There are comfy couches, but people don’t linger like they do at AKL. There’s a certain energy there that I love on shorter trips, but perhaps not for a longer trip, when those long days in the park start to get tiring and I really want to relax at night. I’ve never heard complaints about noise from the monorail, but Chef Mickey’s stays busy from early morning until night; if sleeping in is important, make sure you don’t get a room right above it.
Winner: Animal Kingdom Lodge
Pools and Landscaping: One of the pools at the Contemporary has a beach right next to it. The pools are sleek, simple and lovely, but not that different from what you’d find in any upscale hotel. The pools at AKL are a kid paradise: Zero-entry, slides, and at Kidani Village, a water play area that’s so large it’s registered as a water park.
AKL may be the best example of how talented Disney landscapers are. It’s simply beautiful and the buildings seem to flow naturally from the surrounding vegetation. If there’s one thing I’m disappointed by at the Contemporary, it’s the landscaping. While it’s an attractive resort, the landscaping is completely unremarkable. It feels like an afterthought and the plants, unfortunately, are few and far between.
Winner: If you have kids, Animal Kingdom Lodge pools are without doubt some of the best on property. No one likes the landscaping at the Contemporary, so there’s not much of a contest on this issue.
Food: Both resorts have some of the best food in Disney World. Each has a buffet, a moderately priced sit-down restaurant, and a signature restaurant. Flavors at the Contemporary tend to be more familiar than you’ll find at AKL: Think grilled pork loin with polenta at the former and tandori chicken or a seared maize pudding at the latter. All of these restaurants have something for everyone, but without question, you’ll find more exotic food at AKL.
Winner: The Contemporary, which appeals to the widest variety of palates. Plus, you can’t overlook the fact that all of the Contemporary’s restaurants are close to the rooms. AKL is a fairly spread out resort. Getting to Sanaa, for example, from Jambo House practically requires a bush guide and a passport. If you’re staying in Kidani Village, be prepared for quite a trek to the nearest counter service restaurant.
Location: If you mainly plan on visiting the Magic Kingdom or Epcot during your stay, you can’t get a better location than the Contemporary. This is especially true if you have young children who still need an afternoon nap; your cure for a case of the crankies in the Magic Kingdom is as simple as putting Jr. in his stroller and walking him back to your hotel. I’m a big fan of renting a car when I visit Disney World, but the Contemporary is so perfectly located, even I don’t think it’s necessary. Two of the four parks and the best restaurants in Disney World are just a short monorail ride away.
Animal Kingdom Lodge is located on the far western segement of the property. By car you’re about 10-15 minutes from everything, but by bus, you can probably estimate about 30 minutes (or longer, depending on wait times) from your resort to any one of the parks. That’s still not bad, but it’s not “hop on the monorail” fast either. I don’t mind Disney transportation. In fact, I think it works really well. But my time is important to me, so if I stay at AKL, I rent a car.
Winner: The Contemporary.
Price: Figure 20–40%$ less to stay at AKL, depending on the type of room view. Remember, the rooms are essentially the same size and have the same amenities; you’re paying a premium for location at the Contemporary. If saving money is a priority but you still want a deluxe hotel experience, consider renting a car and staying at AKL.
Verdict: Ultimately, if you disregard price, it comes down to atmosphere vs. location. For me, I want the warmth of AKL, the feeling that I’m cut off from the rest of the world even though I so close to it. For that reason, in a showdown between the two, I pick AKL as the overall winner.
Contemporary photo: Courtesy Walt Disney Company.
AKL Photo: Flickr/Stuck inCustoms. For more great photography of Disney World and other locations, see the Stuck in Customs travel blog.