By Patricia Hall, Fairfax Family Fun
This trip was inspired by my visit to the 2017 Disney Social Media Moms Celebration
Okay, let’s be honest… no one is going to Disney strictly for education. Whether you’re all about the rides, the shows, the character meets, or the overall “Disney magic,” chances are good that your visit to Walt Disney World is purely for fun. But who’s to say you can’t also learn a little along the way? Anytime you travel with kids – especially if you have taken them out of school to do so – is a good time to continue to stress the importance of learning. Walt Disney World (WDW) is not a museum or a historic site (though it does have more artifacts than you’d imagine, and it is historic), but still it offers a good number of educational opportunities. In short, is Disney World educational? Yes.
We recently visited all four WDW parks – The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios – and took advantage of the many opportunities to learn from exhibits, hands-on activities, shows, and special programs. In all, we can honestly say that our fourth-grader learned about various topics including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); nature, wildlife, and the care of animals; the creative process and special effects in filmmaking; American history; international cultures; and history.
And when I say learning, I’m not making a stretch – I am talking about actual education, such as touring a greenhouse and hearing about hydroponics (how to grow plants without soil), or learning about conservation. See what we learned at each park and how you can keep your children’s education going even while on vacation (Tip: have your kids write about these experiences at the end of a trip to prepare a special report for school!).
A visit to Animal Kingdom provides many fun ways to learn about animals, nature, and the world. Here you’ll find many opportunities about science, nature, and culture through exhibits and hands-on activities.
- Kilimanjaro Safari Ride: This open-air safari ride takes guests through the 110-acre Harambe Wildlife Reserve. While you wait in line, you watch a video that discusses conservation efforts and the problems that wild animals face in Africa from poaching and loss of habitat because of deforestation. On the ride itself, you’ll see a good variety of animals native to Africa. The day we visited, we saw hippos, lions, warthogs, African wild dogs, antelopes, okapis, rhinos, zebras, and wildebeests, though there are many other kinds you might spot during your visit. There are also some performers as you exit the safari ride who are happy to show you something new – you might even try your hand at making rhythms on the African drums!
- Petting zoo and trails: See animals up close and at your own pace through the outdoor exhibits and petting zoo. Throughout the park there are trails where you can see and learn about animals including gorillas, hippos, and more. At Affection Station, the petting zoo, kids can brush, feed, and learn about the care of goats, sheep, and other domesticated farm animals.
- Conservation Station: This indoor facility has interactive exhibits that explain how Disney promotes conservation awareness and takes care of the animals at the park. Here you can see some animals, learn about how their meals are prepared, and hear about the work of scientists from around the world. You can even look through a large window into a veterinary treatment room.
- Wilderness Explorers program: Don’t miss the chance to do some hands-on activities through this free program. Does the name “Wilderness Explorer” ring a bell? Yup, it’s from “Up!” Just like Russel and Dug from the Disney Pixar film Up!, you can earn badges and go on adventures. Kids get a booklet and choose the activities they want to do, such as animal track identification. Disney cast members (park employees) help by making short demonstrations and answering questions. Participants can earn up to 30 badges.
- Flights of Wonder show: This short show in an amphitheater is all about our feathered friends: free-flying exotic birds, including hawks, owls, parrots, cranes, cockatoos, and macaws. Each animal is briefly introduced, and some get to display their talents. We learned about where each animal lives and its natural behaviors and even saw some flying overhead so we could see their wingspans. Some of these are huge animals and it’s an amazing sight to see! (Tip: sit in the middle, near the back, and you’ll get an up-close view… you may even get to have an animal fly right above you!)
Out of all the Disney parks, Epcot probably has the most varied educational opportunities. It’s a fun place to learn about science and social studies. How so? Epcot is really like two parks in one, with the World Showcase highlighting international cultures and Future World teaching about science and technology. Between the two, your kids can learn about social studies, science, engineering, communications, health, architecture, and art.
- World Showcase – Pavilions: This area of Epcot provides a glimpse at the cultures of 11 countries, with “pavilions” for Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Morocco, Japan, United States, Italy, Germany, China, Norway, and Mexico. Just walking through these areas you’ll see architecture traditional of the countries, along with native icons (such as totem poles in Canada). You also will get to sample authentic foods and see shows that highlight each culture. To keep the authenticity of the represented countries, Disney staffs these pavilions mostly with citizens of each nation, so your children can hear first-hand about a culture from someone who has grown up in it.
- World Showcase – Galleries: Some pavilions have galleries that highlight the art, culture, and history of the country. In Mexico, see Mexican folk art, watch wood carvings be hand-painted, or even buy your own spirit animal. At the American Adventure Pavilion, hear the stories of American leaders and key events such as the Boston Tea Party, the Civil War, and the Great Depression. In the Norway pavilion, experience “the folk behind the frost” to see how the culture of the country influenced Disney’s animated success “Frozen.” These are just a handful of examples; there are more in Morocco, Japan, and other pavilions.
- Future World – Spaceship Earth: On the Spaceship Earth ride, we learned about ancient civilizations’ contributions (for example, Egyptians: papyrus, Phoenicians: the alphabet, Greeks: mathematics) and modern technology and communications. In a span of minutes, you see the great progress we have made, from hieroglyphics to computer language. As the ride winds down, you have a chance to imagine and design your future on touch screens right in your car. When you exit, you can see your world brought to life. You also can do 3D games and activities related to medicine, safety, and energy.
- Future World – Test Track: At Test Track, we learned about automotive design and engineering, and got to see the results: Before you go on this fast-paced ride, you design your own car, then test it in a simulation vehicle to gauge capability, efficiency, power, and responsiveness. Our son, for example, quickly learned that it’s hard to make a very powerful vehicle while still conserving resources.
- Future World – Soarin’: Here is your chance to travel around the world: Using a 180-degree, 80-foot IMAX projection dome and aerially captured footage, you sit in special seats that really make you feel as though you are flying around the world in a hang glider. In a short amount of time, you will see mountains, pyramids, the Great Wall of China, and more – and can use these images to generate discussions afterward about world geography and history.
- Future World – Mission: Space: This intense attraction lets you experience authentic NASA-style training as you ride a shuttle simulator. Before you board, you learn about the roles of each crew member — navigator, pilot, commander or engineer – and then you experience what astronauts do when they train. We opted NOT to do the Mission: Space but even that decision was a good educational opportunity. We had read that some people have gotten very sick on it, so we discussed gravity, how the centrifuge ride goes up to 2.5G, astronaut training, and how the intensity of the ride might make us lightheaded if we went on an empty stomach.
- Future World – Animal attractions: Learn about conservation through the Circle of Life film, visit an aquarium, and more: Epcot has a surprising number of animal attractions! At SeaBase, you can find several ocean-themed exhibits, plus a 5.7-million-gallon Caribbean Coral Reef Aquarium with more than 4,000 sea creatures representing over 60 species. There are a couple of Finding Nemo-themed attractions and plenty of opportunities to ask questions.
- Future World – ImagineWorks: After the Journey Into Imagination with Figment attraction, visit ImagineWorks, a “what if” lab where kids can do neat activities such as creating a symphony of sound by jumping on squares or recording images to play back in super-slow motion.
- Future World – Living with the Land: It seems like a gentle boat ride, but it’s a floating classroom: Living with the Land is a neat exhibit where you see many plants and learn about gardening, where food comes from, hydroponics (growing plants without soil), and how Disney grows some of its own food in this greenhouse.
Sure, Hollywood Studios is a lot of fun, and with the Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roll Coaster and attractions such as Star Wars Land, it has some of the most exciting entertainment at Walt Disney World. But as far as real education goes, this is the one theme park where that’s going to be a stretch. Still, don’t overlook the opportunities to learn. At this park, you can certainly learn about technology and art.
- Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular: This popular attraction is both a show and a “behind-the-scenes” look at a Hollywood movie set. Recreating scenes from the beloved Indiana Jones movie, we learned about special effects, tricks, and tools involved in making an action film. The audience watches stunts happen right on the stage, and while it’s all very entertaining and fun to watch, it’s also the most educational experience in the park, we thought. At various points, a director talks about things such as the difference between stunt doubles and stunt actors, how moviemakers maintain safety during dangerous scenes, and the many people involved in a production.
- Star Wars Launch Bay Theatre: Take the time to watch a short film here: we got a behind-the-scenes look at how a new generation of filmmakers keeps the Star Wars storyline going. It’s a good look at the craft of movie-making, showcasing the creativity, teamwork, and technology involved from the people who bring art and science together through film.
Magic Kingdom is another park that’s going to be light on the educational aspect, but if you look closely, you’ll find some learning opportunities. Walt Disney World’s original park is mostly a place for rides and character meet-and-greets, but it does offer some lessons in history and technology, with light references to literature and culture.
- Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress: This trip through time celebrates the evolution of technology throughout the 20th century. For example, we saw what a house looked like during the 1920s and the modern conveniences of the era, and we learned how automatic dishwashers and televisions were life-changing in the 1940s. Going through this ride with a young child puts in perspective how much things change over time and how technology has impacted our society.
- Tom Sawyer Island: If your children have already started reading Mark Twain’s books, a visit to this section of the park will help them better visualize early America and experience some of the places referenced in the stories.
- The Hall of Presidents: Modeled after Independence Hall in Philadelphia, this attraction is a lesson in American history, featuring all 44 past presidents. (Note: the attraction is currently closed for refurbishment.)
- It’s a Small World: Sure, it’s a simple ride, and of course now you have “the song” stuck in your head, but there’s a reason why It’s a Small World endures: it’s a cute attraction that for some young kids serves as an introduction to the language, settings, and folkloric outfits of people from all over the world.
So now you know: you can use WDW as your vacation classroom, with lessons in science, technology, language, culture, nature, health, history, art, and more. How have you made your visit to Disney World educational? Share your ideas and tips in the comments below!
Disclosure: I was invited to attend the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration in February 2017 at Walt Disney World Resort and on the Disney Cruise Line ship Wonder. The event included accommodations, a three-night cruise, family tickets to all four WDW parks all at significant discounts, plus special perks, invitations to exclusive events, and some complimentary items. Any opinions are entirely my own. We paid for our own transportation, the registration fee, and some other items. I was not asked to write posts by Disney or other sponsors for this event. As always, the opinions expressed here are my own.
All photos (c) P. Hall