The ride originally begins as a two-week safari aboard Simba 1 through the Harambe Wildlife Reserve in Harambe, East Africa. It is 800km2 of natural terrain, including Ituri forest, wetlands of the Safi River valley and the open bush country of the Serengeti Savanna. During most of the ride people view the common African animals including elephants, giraffe, antelopes, gazelles, crocodiles, monkeys, hippos, lions, cheetahs, rhinos, zebras, crocodiles, storks, pelicans, flamingos and okapis. The tour guide points out animals and provides entertainment. During the journey, the driver is in radio contact with reserve warden Wilson Matua, who is flying over the reserve on his daily routine. It all takes a turn when poachers are spotted in the reserve, and it's up to Simba 1 and the guests, with support from the air and other rangers, to stop them.
Kilimanjaro Safaris typically operates until sundown. However, during the holiday season of 1998, the safaris were continued at night and dubbed Kilimanjaro Night Safaris. Though many animals were asleep, or unable to be seen at night, the attraction had a completely different script and storyline. This "new" attraction featured additional animal sounds, reflectors hidden in the foliage to resemble animals' eyes, and an actual African dance group, who performed around a bonfire in the area normally occupied by the attraction's elephants. Kilimanjaro Night Safaris only ran during that initial holiday season. After this time, it was deemed that the additional costs, plus the fact that animal visibility was poor (eliciting many Guest complaints), made Night Safaris unfeasible to continue regularly. Cast members can still switch the voice tracks on the trucks to hear the nighttime version of Wilson and Miss Jobson, however it is not considered part of the current Safari storyline.
In 2004, much of the savanna's drainage system had to be replaced. The attraction remained open during the rehab, with green tarps covering the construction sites to keep the animals out.
In 2007-8, work began to extend the trucks with an extra row of seating, allowing the trucks more capacity. Though not all the trucks have the extra row, it is known they will be finished by 2009. Also, the safari script/story, along with the Wilson/Jobson story has significantly changed. There is less of a story about "Little Red", and more about the animals in the Reserve and the need to find a lost elephant at the end.
The ride originally featured a cast member in the role of a gun-toting reserve warden who captured the poachers and saved Big Red and Little Red. This element of the attraction was eventually eliminated. During Cast Previews of Disney's Animal Kingdom, there was a "Dark Ending" in which the safari vehicle encountered the slaughtered corpse of Big Red. This scene proved too shocking for families and children, and thus was eventually changed to give the attraction a happier ending.
On August 15, 2015, at the D23 Expo, an expansion known as Sunset Kilimanjaro Safaris, was announced, extending the operating hours of the attraction, as well as adding new landscapes, and two new species of animals, including African wild dogs and hyenas.
- Okapi (Okapia johnstoni)
- Greater kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros)
- White-faced tree duck (Dendrocygna viduata)
- Northern pintail duck (Anas acuta)
- Nyala (Tragelaphus angasii)
- Sable antelope (Hippotragus niger)
- Greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)
- White-bearded wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus)
- Pink-backed pelican (Pelecanus rufescens)
- Bontebok (Damaliscus pygargus)
- Eland (Taurotragus oryx)
- Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis)
- Yellow-billed duck (Anas undulata)
- Thomson's gazelle (Eudorcas thomsonii)
- Yellow-billed stork (Mycteria ibis)
- Ankole Cattle (Bos taurus africanus)
- Mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx)
- Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca)
- Scimitar-horned oryx (Oryx dammah)
- Red-billed duck (Anas erythrorhyncha)
- Helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris)
- White-breasted cormorant
- Stanley crane (Grus paradisea)
- Bongo (Tragelaphus eurycerus)
- Impala (Aepyceros melampus)
- Mhorr gazelle
- Yellow-backed duiker
- Saddle-billed stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis)
- Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis)
- White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum)
- Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius)
- Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus)
- Reticulated giraffe
- Masai giraffe
- Plains zebra (Equus quagga)
- Warthog (Phacochoerus africanus)
- Ostrich (Struthio camelus)
- Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
- African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana)
- Lion (Panthera leo)
- Addax (Addax nasomaculatus)
- African wild dog (Lycaon pictus)
- Spotted hyena
- Nigerian goat
- Tuesday, July 13, 2004 is known as "Black Tuesday". The final waterfall scene became overfilled due to a drainage block. When many of the trucks went through, it short-circuited the microphone and "puck" system. After a two-hour closing to figure out how to resolve the issue, it re-opened with trucks maintaining a driver, and another cast member standing in the first passenger seating row talking to the guests. Cast members from throughout the park were asked to help if they had knowledge of the animals/safari. Though it created some havoc, it is a story told by and to all cast members of the attraction.
- February 10, 2008, a fire broke out in the engine compartment of one of the ride vehicles.
- The attraction features custom-built GMC trucks riding washed-out, rutted roads and a tilting bridge. The roadbed is actually constructed of dark brown-colored concrete embedded with permanent tire ruts.
- The flamingo island is a huge Hidden Mickey.
- Between each ecosystem includes both chain road sensors and bars to prevent animals from venturing between sections. The vehicles drive directly on these obstacles.
- The entire Magic Kingdom park could fit comfortably inside of this single attraction.
- The music snippet that is heard when driving past the elephant area is called "Hapa Duniani" and is performed by the vocal group, "African Dawn."
- The lions in Kilimanjaro Safaris originally were from an Oregon zoo and had a hard time adjusting to Florida's heat. The animals would often retreat from visitor's view to a shaded area. To counter this problem, Imagineers installed air-conditioning systems around the lion's promontory, thus giving visitors a better chance of seeing the kings of the savannah.
- On the African savanna, acacia trees appear to be the mainstay of the landscape. Kilimanjaro Safaris, however, is pulling a switcha-roo on its residents by carefully trimming Florida's native southern live oaks to mimic flat-topped acacias. Disney claims the giraffes don't mind on the substitutes.
- When you pass the lions on Kilmanjaro Safaris don't worry about being in harms way. Hidden from visitor's view, an 18-foot-deep, 21-foot-wide moat separates the lions from other animals and the rides vehicle path.