To be honest, when we took the kids for a vacation at Disney World, we were focused on the fun aspect. That the trip might have an educational bent was the last thing on our minds, but there really were a surprising number of teaching situations that crept into the days. Of course, most things have to be taken with a grain of salt, but even with allowances for artistic license, I think we actually learned a few things while having fun.
Epcot was a treasure trove of cultural discovery. While the kids have been exposed to many different cultures, much of that has come through media. Actually seeing replicas of different building styles, food and manners of dress side by side at the various national pavilions really helped them to gain more of an appreciation for the diversity in the world. Being able to stop at each pavilion and have their name written in the native script was kind of cool too. It wasn’t lost on me that I could sample beers of the world as we wandered through the pavilions (you have to stay hydrated somehow). Until we’d been there for a day, I didn’t realize that Epcot was also home to a very impressive salt water aquarium and once we discovered it, we spent a fair bit of time there investigating the various species exhibits. The Living With The Land Attraction was also very interesting and the idea of turning greenhouses that grow produce to supply park restaurants into a ride was stroke of genius. Mind you, I found that the more “educational” an attraction was, like Living With The Land or Spaceship Earth, the shorter the lineup (so obviously not everyone thinks the same way I do), but that was fine by me.
Does watching Indiana Jones movie stunts recreated on a fake sound stage, complete with fight scenes and explosions count as educational? I think so. It’s good for kids to see how the sequences that look so real in movies are carefully choreographed. We also really enjoyed Disney’s Animal Kingdom. From walking trails to the Kilimanjaro Safari ride, there was plenty of ecological information to take in. All of it may have been simulated in one way or another, but it’s still a welcome break from being passively entertained. The Conservation Station, in particular, was fascinating and offered an inside view on conservation efforts as well as well as information about different animal species. Staff are on hand to explain everything from what food the various species in the park are fed to pointing out when animals will be brought into the open-for-viewing examination room to undergo medical treatment. An animal handler was on duty when we visited as well, showing off an owl to a group of appreciative kids. Other than the occasional appearance by a costumed Disney Character, the Conservation Station could well have been located within a zoo or science center. Of course, if the mood to practice some engineering skills arose, there were always the building stations at the Lego Store in Downtown Disney. Actually, this was the first time I saw the Lego architectural series in person. The kits (including the Frank Lloyd Wright Fallingwater model) were impressive in their detail, although physically smaller than I’d imagined.
The piéce de resistance in this Disney World educational adventure was the Magic Kingdom ride operator who ended our session with a quick motivational speech about how we should enjoy the rest of our day, because he would be driving the same circular route every ten minutes and doing the same schtick over, and over, and over, all day, every day. He capped this off with a hearty “So, stay in school!”
There are plenty of other examples throughout the Disney World parks: the Hall of Presidents, the Carousel of Progress and the Universe of Energy to name just a few. All in all, this leaning toward offering up snippets of edutainment goes a long way toward giving a Disney visit a much different vibe than a typical amusement park, and I really think it helps to keep kids engaged instead of zoning into the “oh yay, it’s another ride…” mentality.