The best time to go to Walt Disney World is during the off-season, when crowds are at their lowest. Of course, this usually means taking the kids out of school. We're fortunate that my son attends a school that views every travel opportunity as a learning experience, but he's still had to produce some evidence of that learning. Most people think of Walt Disney World as a big amusement park, only valuable for it's entertainment, or, at best, “edutainment” value, but there are some truly educational experiences.
When I was researching this post, I found a handful of homeschool-related articles about illustrating things learned at home in the parks. Leaving aside the questionable idea that any child will be thinking about physics while riding Space Mountain, I wanted to look for educational experiences that did not require a lot of advance research. Of course, any of these ideas can be supplemented by additional reading and research, but most of the ideas I've listed here can provide sufficient information to produce a short report.
Written Report or Journal
My son has done two kinds of school projects in the parks, a written journal and a digital report. For the journal he chose a Smash Book and Project LIfe journaling cards. I kept a stack of journaling cards with us everywhere we went so that he could journal whenever we had downtime. It was a good way to keep him occupied in line or while waiting for our food to come in a restaurant. We also kept a small notebook to jot down a simple chronology of our trip and updated it each evening.
Naturally, I took lots of photos of our trip, but my son also took photos, so that the project (and my scrapbooks) would reflect his own visual perspective.
For this 4th grade project, my son's teachers wanted him to capture some of the things he experienced, so he wrote about the attractions, the food and the magic. Of course, this approach could easily be used to capture a more specific subject and could be tailored up or down depending on age.
For more ideas on using a Smash Book to capture Disney memories, check out Episode 32: Involving Kids in Capturing Magic.
Digital Report or Video
My son's school uses a lot of technology. In 2nd grade, he was introduced to an iOS app called StoryKit. This app allows the student to capture photos, sound and words in an interactive report. When we went to Walt Disney World for a long trip in January 2011, my son's class was learning about the basic needs of people — food, clothing, shelter — and how geography, climate and culture shape those needs. While we were in Epcot's World Showcase, we happened upon an exhibit in Morocco showcasing Moroccan clothing and adornment that highlighted these themes. My son was able to take pictures and even capture the sounds of the Moroccan pavilion to accompany his report.
Other apps that can be used to capture information and create school reports include:
- Evernote – my go-to app for capturing everything,
- Animoto – an easy app for creating video slide shows,
- Story Creator – an app similar to StoryKit available for both iOS and Android.
Make sure that the app you select allows the final output to be shared as a file or via email. StoryKit, for example, allows you to share your project via email, however the sound feature is not enabled in this format.
The most educational land in Magic Kingdom is historical Liberty Square, home of The Hall of Presidents, but also colonial architecture and details from the American 1700s. While many people think of the Hall of Presidents as a good place to take a nap in the air conditioning, if you're looking for a genuine learning experience, this is it. This attraction starts with a historical film and then turns to Audio-Animatronic presidents delivering famous speeches.
Before you enter the theater take a look at the presidential portraits, First Lady dresses and other presidential memorabilia in the atrium.
Before you leave Liberty Square take note of the historical details, including a replica stocks, the Liberty Tree and the Liberty Bell.
After tackling Liberty Square, however, I quickly ran out of educational ideas in the Magic Kingdom. When you think of Magic Kingdom you immediately think of the fantasy elements. Trying to find attractions with factual information was a challenge. Much as I love Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress, I wouldn't really consider it very educational, at least not without a lot of outside research. Then I realized I was overthinking it – Magic Kingdom is about fantasy and fiction, the perfect place to discuss literature and illustrate book reports. Of course, young children might read their favorite Disney fairy tales but there is plenty of quality literature for older students represented in the parks as well, including:
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Mark Twain) – Tom Sawyer Island is a walk-through attraction in Frontierland. The attraction starts with a raft trip to the island, and includes a trek through Harper's Mill, Injun Joe's Cave, and Fort Langhorn. Besides being heavy on details from the book, this is a great place for kids to burn off some energy, climbing and exploring the various paths.
- The Swiss Family Robinson (Jonathan David Wyss) – Disney's Swiss Family Treehouse is a replica of the Robinson's home in the book.
- The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh (A.A. Milne) – The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh includes not only scenes from the book, but also pages with the actual book text. The ride is slow so if you have a fast camera you should be able to take pictures of some of the scenes. You can also take photos in the extended queue before the ride.
- Peter Pan (J.M. Barrie) – Peter Pan's Flight is a ride that highlights scenes from this classic tale.
- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll) – The Mad Tea Party is a spinning teacup ride, but look around the attraction and surrounding area for more details from the book. You can also find Alice and the White Rabbit meeting in this area.
For more book ideas check out Alison's post, Booking' It in the Parks.
One extra Magic Kingdom educational experience that's worth noting is Disney's The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains tour. This 3-hour tour starts before the park opens and gives guests a peek into the history of these trains, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to keep the steam engines running. The tour is $54 per person. Valid park admission required.
Disney's Hollywood Studios
Disney's Hollywood Studios used to be more educational, back when it was a working studio. In the years since, Disney stripped out pieces of the Studio Backlot Tour to make space for new attractions. Now they've shut this entire attraction down completely. Still, even without the film history, there remain several educational attractions related to the history of Disney and animation.
On our last big trip we visited Walt Disney: One Man's Dream. Truthfully, we debated whether this attraction was worth visiting right up to the point where we were standing outside the building, but we were all really glad that we did. It turned out to be a really fascinating look into the history of Walt Disney, Disney films and the Disney parks. The attraction includes a 15-minute film about Walt Disney and a museum of over 400 artifacts. My son (then 10) was particularly fascinated by the early Audio-Animatronics and film technology. My favorite was the scale model of New Fantasyland (which had just opened the week we visited).
Other educational opportunities can be found in Animation Courtyard. This area houses:
- The Magic of Disney Animation – a short film about the animation process and character development, starring Mushu from Mulan,
- Animation Station – interactive exhibits, including The Sound Stage, You're a Character and Digital Ink and Paint,
- Animation Gallery – an exhibit of animation cels, movie props and awards, and
- Animation Academy.
We did Animation Academy last November for my son's birthday. This is an actual drawing class with a Disney-trained artist. My son loves to draw, but the lesson is accessible to anyone regardless of your artistic skill level. It also produces a wonderful souvenir. Classes generally run every 30 minutes; check the Times Guide for the exact schedule. Note – even on a slow day this activity can fill up. When we got there the line was already pretty long and we didn't want to wait for the next class, so only part of our party made it in. If this is a must-do, allow plenty of time.
It's very easy to get caught up in the excitement of Mickey Mouse or the thrill of Space Mountain, but with a little thought and planning there are definitely educational experiences, even in the Most Magical Place on Earth. My son even had his first map-reading experiences in Magic Kingdom. Playing Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, exploring A Pirate's Adventure or even just navigating with the park map can be a true learning experience. Stay tuned for my next post where I cover Epcot, Animal Kingdom and some educational opportunities outside of the parks.