Today, we welcome @MealTrip back to Disney Food Blog with an in-depth look — and some incredible photos! — of the opening night performance of Harambe Nights!
We enjoyed our first experience with this new hard ticket event at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom when we brought you a sneak peek from a media event recently. Now that the performance — which includes the new show The Lion King –A Concert in the Wild, a Welcome Reception, and a Street Party afterwards — is open to the public, we wanted to bring you another look at the event.
Let’s see what works — and what still needs a little work.
Harambe Nights at Disney’s Animal Kingdom
I made my way to the event location in plenty of time to check out the area for Harambe Nights before many of the guests arrived, and the set up is quite well done.
Festively-capped Cast Members greet guests of the event at the front gate of Animal Kingdom.
Here’s a close up of the Harambe Nights sign.
Let’s head in and take a look around.
As you enter the area, don’t forget to grab a program right after you check in and receive your wristband. The program contains information about merchandise, food, and the show.
It also gives you a handy schedule so you know just how the evening will unfold.
Here’s the view as I arrived. The streets of the new Harambe Theater District are set up and ready to go before the party.
And here’s the area after 1,000 people are let in!
There are numerous beverage and food stations set up throughout the area. Here’s an example of one of the beverage stations. And yes — that’s Jungle Juice!
The Welcoming Party menu is somewhat light, and everything food and drink-wise is repeated at all stations, so if you’ve found one, you’ve found them all.
The self-serve hot “appetizer” stations are well-looked after by Cast Members, and if you feel the line is too long when you walk up to one, just hang back and wait a few minutes. The crowds tend to ebb and flow, and there’s plenty of time to visit the food tables multiple times without standing in a long line.
Also throughout the area, there are numerous information stations, staffed by Cast Members from various regions in Africa. These are not merchandise locations, they’re more like little educational carts that give you a chance to speak with someone from Africa.
The stations are decorated with some really interesting art pieces. Be sure to chat with the Cast Members and take a look around. It’s definitely worth your time.
There was a three piece band playing, and the live music added to the atmosphere.
Honestly, I enjoyed the Welcome Reception just as much, if not more than, the After Party. There was plenty of time to try everything and enjoy a drink or two. Standing tables were set up everywhere, but there were no seats available at the Welcome Reception.
And speaking of food, it’s time to take a closer look at some of the offerings.
The Pickled Fennel Paneer Cheese was refreshing. You’re not really going to pick up much of the character of the paneer in the mix but it is still a decent prepared salad. Paneer is a mild cheese that’s hard to get to know in many respects.
I don’t know how African these Safari Cheeseburger Rolls are, but they were really good.
Spicy Durban Chicken is another familiar favorite. The flavor here was good, but the chicken was a bit dry, as chicken can sometimes get when it’s kept warm.
I went back for seconds of the Pickled Fennel Paneer Cheese and Safari Cheeseburger Rolls. It was a great combination.
The cool little wooden triangle plates are a very nice touch and did an admirable job of holding everything. I wouldn’t mind seeing these plates at the Epcot Food and Wine Festival later this year.
In addition to the very popular Jungle Juice (available with and without rum), there were a few wines available that you expect to see when hosting an African party for a thousand people. Later, we’d see the same wines repeated for dinner.
The Wolftrap, a blend of Syrah, Mourvedre, and Viognier, was a good option for guests who favor an easy-drinking red wine.
Fans of white wine could enjoy a glass or two of MAN Chenin Blanc, a light and refreshing option for a muggy Summer Florida evening.
There were also a few domestic and imported beers. Some of the more interesting choices included St. George and the ever-present Tusker Lager.
But really, when you have Jungle Juice with rum, do you need anything else?
The theater district was getting more crowded as show time approached.
As dusk started to fall, the band stopped playing, and everyone was directed to the “animal sign entrance” that corresponded to the animal on their wristbands.
Guests should receive a tube of Lion Chow, a snack mix flavored with exotic spices, on your way into the show. However, these were just left out in the open at the very beginning of the event… and there weren’t enough to go around once the theater started loading. Hopefully, they’ll fix that.
Are you a zebra or a giraffe?
Let’s head in for a look around at the new venue and some highlights from the show.
The Lion King — Concert in the Wild
This, unfortunately, is where my enjoyment of the Harambe Nights experience started to unravel a bit. the “General Seating” area ($120) is in the raised bleachers at both sides of the theater (in the back of this picture) and the “Premium Seating” ($135) is a flat, non-elevated area, in the front and center of the non-elevated stage. The theater has effectively been cut in half by a curtain for this special show, so it’s more like a traditional stage area, and not a concert in the round.
Here’s my view from the premium seats while standing…
…And my view from the premium seats while seated. You can just sort of make out the top of the drummer’s head in between the two polo shirted gentlemen, and the celebrity narrator would end up being located right in the middle of the young lady’s arms in front of me.
I’m convinced that the only premium benefit you receive for the extra $15 dollars is the beautifully carved seat-backs that the “general” bleacher type seats did not have.
While this isn’t a beautiful shot, it shows you an interesting perspective. I’ve drawn an arrow to where my seat was, but I couldn’t help but notice that the first two rows of the premium section were actually Cast Members, and semi-well-dressed management, along with a few Disney ambassadors, all of which were wearing name tags. So presumably, they were “working”. The other two front rows of premium seating were reserved for family and friends of the guest narrator and show performers.
So if you were thinking your premium ticket would get you front-row seats, well, maybe yes and maybe no. You’ll have to cut your appetizer reception time short, and stand at your assigned theater entrance line early. There are only about 8 front row seats on either side of the premium area that are not reserved. The premium area looks like it holds about 300 guests.
While I don’t know if this will be the arrangement for all of the shows (it was opening night after all), I feel those front two rows of Cast Members and management had no business being in the front row of an area that I paid extra to be in.
In order to see any of the show, I had to abandon my premium seating, and head for the hills — or the top of the bleacher seats anyway. From there, I did manage to “see” some of the show. I use the word “see” in quotations deliberately, because I could actually only “hear” the smallest fraction of the performance.
The top four or five rows of the “Cheetah” section had to endure one of the loudest HVAC breakdowns that I’ve ever experienced. It was as if one of the blades of an air compressor had become unaligned and was constantly hitting, metal-on-metal, over and over and over again, several times per second…for 55 ever-loving minutes.
During quiet moments of the show, guest all around me were looking up, looking down, looking back, pushing on walls and curtains, half wanting to figure out what the noise was, and half hoping that someone…ANYONE… would notice that all 50 or 60 guests along the top four rows were being adversely affected by a facilities break-down.
It’s not as if someone didn’t notice. Two name-tag clad, nicely dressed Cast Members were sitting right next to me, and were also looking around and wondering what the sound was. In fact, after the show, one said to me, “That was a little annoying wasn’t it?”
Well yes, actually it was annoying and I’m still a bit awestruck that two presumable “managers” seem to have forgotten that, while they’re wearing those name tags, it is THEIR responsibility to ensure that all guests around them are taken care of and are having a good experience. Shut the a/c unit off. It’s night, there’s only a half-hour of show to go, the building has several a/c units… just shut that one off… investigate… text someone… call someone… move the guests… do SOMETHING. If you’re just going to sit there and watch the show, then take your name tag off.
In some ways though, all of this really didn’t matter, because as exceptional as the choir is, as talented as the musicians in the mini-orchestra are, as athletic and graceful as the dancers are, half of the 55 minute show is, sadly, just cartoon clips from The Lion King. And I’ve seen those before. I have the DVD. Even now as I reflect on the evening, I feel that we really only got to see and hear the smallest fraction of the talent that was assembled in the room that evening.
The orchestra was actually playing the whole time, but they were constrained by meeting the cue points of tightly timed video clips. So what’s the point of having an orchestra? Just use a soundtrack; half the show is a video anyway. The subtle inflections that make African choirs so interesting were lost to inadequate audio mixing in the expanse of the massive space. The powerful dancers were limited to a dance floor area far too small to embrace movements reflective of the expanse that is Africa. In fact, I’ve seen Broadway-style performance spaces on cruise ships that are larger than the area afforded these “Concert in the Wild” dancers.
And that’s really too bad, because they all are amazingly talented. While I have not seen The Lion King on Broadway, I have seen the touring production of the show, and this 55 minute piece does not even come close to the touring show quality. Not by a long shot. It’s not the performers’ fault — they were ALL great. It’s the show itself that is very disappointing. In fact, in many ways, I’m still wondering if a modified and more musical and choir-rich version of the daytime show would have had more impact. There certainly is more costuming and pageantry in the daytime version of the show, and there are established high and low impact moments that all flow together and complement one another.
Haramabe Nights Street Party — The After Party
After the show, there is still just a bit of twilight left in the air as guests are encouraged to walk out of the theater district area and into the main Harambe courtyard. This space stretches from the Harambe bridge, including the Tamu-Tamu area, all the way down to the entrance of Kilimanjaro Safaris.
There were many hot food and dessert stations set up throughout the venue, and in the case of opening night (it was sprinkling a bit), Tusker House was also open for seating and for picking up food and beverages. (Only event food items were being offered in Tusker House, and not the normal Tusker House menu.)
Food-wise, there were basically three hot food stations and one dessert station that were duplicated in many different areas.
At first, it seemed initially that there would be ample small tables and chairs for everyone.
However, the many areas filled up quickly, and I began to see something vaguely familiar about this situation.
Yes, it’s the old Epcot Food and Wine Festival “find anything flat and eat off of it” experience.
These clever folks found a light pole, while later in the evening, I myself partook in the “over a garbage can” experience for one of my courses with another lovely couple from Sarasota.
Tusker House seating filled up quickly as well.
Outside, a large version of the reception band entertained guest while several characters posed for pictures with guests (including characters from The Lion King, and others, including a traditionally-clad Mickey and Minnie).
Stiltwalkers were also out in full-force, interacting with guests, as were a legion of PhotoPass photographers, dutifully attempting to capture every moment of the action. In fact, there were so many PhotoPass photographers underfoot, I felt a little like an elephant visiting a hamster farm. There were multiple occasions where there were so many roaming characters, dancing guests, PhotoPass photographers, and Disney management staff, I didn’t feel like I could turn around without being in someone’s way.
While guests partied on, I was interested in checking out the After Party Food Spread. I’ll show you some of the highlights.
In addition to hot foods, there was a Breads and Salads Station inside Tusker House (that’s the only place I found it anyway) that also offered Mac and Cheese, Chicken Legs, etc. There were also prepared salads like Roasted Beetroot Salad, Vegetable Samosas, and a couple of breads and dips.
Here’s my plate from the Seared Lamb and Corvina Filet Station.
I heard good things about most of the items from different guests throughout the evening. While one thought the Seared Lamb Chop was good, I found mine to be a bit more on the oily (and possibly excess cooking fluid) side. I found a station where the Corvina with Curry was just refreshed, and it was delicious, but others found the texture to be unappealing and dried out. This is pretty typical though; feeding 1,000 guests at the same time from warmer tables can be challenging from a quality perspective.
Some of the items were prepared right there and handed to you in pre-portioned dishes. Examples include Butter Chicken Thigh and Vegetarian Legume Wat, and the Peri BBQ Pork with Eggplant Tikka and Masala Curry.
Having it “dished to order” though didn’t really help with the “dried-out kept too long in a warmer tray” nature of the meats. I’m very familiar with the Butter Chicken at Sanaa. While the sauce in this dish was spot-on, the chicken was dry and overcooked, not at all like when you order it at Sanaa.
On the dessert station, the Chai Cream with Zebra Stripes was quite good, and different than what you might think they are, just by looking at them.
For a lighter dessert, guests could choose Melon with Minted Lime Yogurt Dip.
Here’s my assembled dessert plate, along with another glass of Jungle Juice.
Even though they didn’t really start moving guests out of the area until 10:30ish, I noticed that many guests had started leaving before 10:00pm. It’s hard to know what to make of that, but it’s not something you see at similarly priced events during the Food and Wine Festival, for example. People tend to linger a bit more when the event is over, because you just don’t want it to end.
There was some sort of “sparkling blue light” effect surrounding the Tree of Life as you exited the event space and made your way out of the park. But it was, quite frankly, completely unremarkable, barely noticeable, and not even worthy of a snapshot. It reminded me of the sad, last little Christmas tree that you might find at your local convenience store at 11pm on Christmas Eve, where a single string of silver-blue lights being powered by failing AA batteries have the entire tree blinking on and off at the same time… this was just not the iconic “kiss goodnight” we’ve come to expect from Disney, and would have been better left turned off. So instead, I’ll leave you with this lovely parting view.
As much as I love the food and environment at Sanaa, Tusker House and Animal Kingdom, and as much as I was looking forward to Harambe Nights, I can only muster up a 5 on a scale from 1 to 10. While I never encountered anything horrible, there was also nothing that really stood out as being a “wow” moment.
Even with the exceptional performers, it fell a little flat. It was too cartoon clip-heavy, and about 10 minutes too long for my taste. And while the food was all good, there was nothing exceptional there, either. I have had some variation of most of these dishes at other Disney restaurants or Epcot Food and Wine Festival over the years, and they’ve all been better at those spots. Many of the items were overcooked. But also, for $120 per person, I don’t want to share a garbage can with two other folks in lieu of a table.
And so, if the show doesn’t really stand-out, and it’s also not really a foodie event… I’m not sure I could or would actually recommend the event to anyone except those with a really strong love for all things Lion King. With all things being equal, I have to evaluate based on cost. If this were an $80 event, I’d feel better about the evening. As it stands, $120 seems too high, and $134 definitely seems too high.
Even so, I’m not sorry that I went. It was fun and it’s always nice getting little taste of African cuisine, but at the same time, I could have had three nice dinners at Sanaa for the same cost.
For those looking for a little goodie bag at the event close (aka Party for the Senses style), there really isn’t one. Your only take aways will be the tube of Lion Chow and your event program, so hold on to those!
(The napkin and fabric board in the photo are not part of your take-aways. They just made for a nicer pic.)
Does Harambe Nights seem like a fun evening to you? Let us know in comments if you plan to check out this special event!