In Part 1 of this post, I discussed different types of school reports and suggested ideas for learning in Magic Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios. Today, we're talking about the more obvious parks for educational opportunities, Epcot and Disney's Animal Kingdom, and some less obvious options outside the parks.
The most overlooked learning resource in Disney is the Cast Members. In Epcot's World Showcase, Cast Members hail from the country that they are representing and are happy to talk about their home. In Disney's Animal Kingdom, the Cast Members handling the animals are specialists trained in the care and feeding of their animals. Keep your eyes peeled at various animal viewing stations too; the Cast Members stationed there are knowledgeable about the animals and trained to answer any questions you might have.
Epcot – World Showcase
When you think of education at Walt Disney World, most people immediately think of Epcot. Some families think Epcot is boring, so it must be educational, right? Or is it really just a lot of “edutainment”? Truthfully, Epcot is my family's favorite park, and we particularly love World Showcase. We spend more time there than any other place in Walt Disney World.
When thinking about school report options in World Showcase, I realized that there were two ways to approach the topics. One would be a comparative report on a subject between two or more countries. Every World Showcase pavilion represents its country with unique food, architecture, entertainment and clothing.
Come to Epcot during a special event, such as the Epcot Flower & Garden Festival, Epcot International Food & Wine Festival or Holidays Around the World, and you have even more comparative options.
Also, don't forget to stop at the Kidcot Fun Stops in each country. Besides stamping your passport, Cast Members will often teach you to speak and write in their language, and of course, they'll be happy to answer questions.
An alternative to the comparative report would be a more in-depth report on a single country or subject. Not every country has educational attractions or exhibits, but the following is a selection of the some of the most informative ones.
When my son had to do a report in 3rd grade on the basic needs of people, we knew the Moroccan Pavilion would be perfect. The Pavilion includes the Gallery of Arts and History (the current exhibit is “Moroccan Style: The Art of Personal Adornment”, a display of traditional clothing, jewelry, makeup and henna tattoos). Combined with pictures of Moroccan architecture and a recording of the music played in the pavilion, he had a relevant and informative report to share with his class.
You can see more about my son's report in Part 1 of this post.
The China Pavilion has a stunning 360 film, Reflections of China, but for more detailed report information check out the exhibit of historical artifacts in the House of the Whispering Willows. The highlight of the exhibit is “Tomb Warriors: Guardian Spirirts of Ancient China”, the one-third-scale reproductions of the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang. 197 of these statues were buried with the emperor in 209-210 BC. Notice the unique facial features and expression of each statue. The original statues were also painted in bright colors, though time and the elements have weathered them to their original clay. Look for the one painted warrior in the exhibit. Other artifacts in this exhibit include 2000-year-old tomb sculptures and replicas of imperial horses and chariots.
In the Japan Pavilion you'll find a wide array of food, culture and entertainment. The Bijutsu-kan Gallery houses the exhibit “Spirited Beasts: From Ancient Stories to Anime Stars”. This exhibit shows how today's popular characters have their roots in traditional Japanese folklore. Also be sure to stop by the Kidcot Fun Stop in the Japan Pavilion, where kids can learn origami, the art of Japanese paper folding.
American Adventure Pavilion
The educational highlight of the American Adventure Pavilion is, of course, The American Adventure, a 30-minute show of American history. The show is hosted by Ben Franklin and Mark Twain and includes 35 Audio-Animatronics figures, historical film and music. Inside the theater check out the statues lining the walls. These statues display famous Americans to personify ideals such as Individualism, Innovation, and Independence. In the theater lobby, you'll find the Hall of Flags exhibit, a display of the different flags throughout U.S. history.
The Norway Pavilion was best known for Maelstrom, a fun attraction set in the Norwegian mythos, which will now be replaced by a Frozen-themed attraction. For a more educational experience in Norway, however, visit the Stave Church Gallery a display of traditional Norwegian artifacts including clothing, instruments and folk art.
Of course, these exhibits and performances may change, so always check before you go. The Stave Church Gallery, for example, recently changed to include information about the making of the movie Frozen.
Epcot – Future World
While World Showcase covers art, culture and history, the attractions in Epcot Future World give you a lot of options for a science report.
The Seas with Nemo and Friends Pavilion
The Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion offers a number of educational opportunities for kids of all ages. After the ride (or you can bypass the ride by entering the gift shop), younger kids can enter the educational play area, Bruce's Shark World. Here kids can learn about sharks and other sea life.
Of course, the highlight of this pavilion is 5.7-million-gallon saltwater aquarium, housing more than 200 species of sea life. Fish feedings run at 10:00am and 3:30pm and a Cast Member will be available at that time to talk about the sea life and answer questions. Don't miss the Observation Deck upstairs; this circular room is in the middle of the aquarium.
This pavilion also houses a working manatee rehabilitation center. Presentations are provided throughout the day by marine mammal researchers. Check the daily activities schedule outside the Observation Deck.
For a more in-depth learning experience, Disney offers three behind-the-scenes tours in this pavilion.
- Dolphins in Depth – This 3-hour experience is a chance to meet Disney's dolphins up close and is run by expert trainers and researchers. This activity is limited to no more than 8 guests, age 13 and older, per day. Cost is $199.
- Epcot DiveQuest – This tour is a scuba experience in the Caribbean Coral Reef, Epcot's giant saltwater aquarium. This is your chance to see sea turtles, fish, dolphins, rays and sharks up close. The experience lasts 3 hours with about 40 minutes spent on the actual dive. The experience also includes a backstage tour of the the infrastructure that supports this manmade reef. Guests must be at least 10 years of age and SCUBA-certified. Cost is $175.
- Epcot Seas Aqua Tour – This is a 2.5 hour snorkeling experience, great for guests that are not SCUBA-certified. The experience includes a backstage tour of the infrastructure that supports the reef, an educational video presentation and 30 minutes of snorkeling. Guests must be at least 8 years of age. Cost is $140.
The Land Pavilion
The Land Pavilion also offers an educational experience, focusing on agriculture and eco-diversity. Truthfully, I remember going to Epcot with a youth group, as a teenager, riding Living with the Land, and thinking how incredibly boring it was, but you can't deny that it's educational. Living with the Land is a ride through four greenhouses and a fish farm, highlighting innovative growing techniques, high-yield crops and diverse ecosystems.
For a more in-depth learning experience on this subject, check out Behind the Seeds, a behind-the-scenes tour of the facilities. Unlike some of the other tours, Disney has made this one very kid-friendly and there is no minimum age requirement. Kids are even given a vial of lady bugs to release into the greenhouse. Cost is $16 per child and $20 per adult.
If you're paying attention, Spaceship Earth can definitely be educational for older kids. This ride is a lesson in the history of communications from cave drawings to the personal computer. Unfortunately, the educational opportunities are limited to the ride itself. The activities of Project Tomorrow are fun, but they're more entertaining than educational and not directly related to the communication theme.
INNOVENTIONS East and West pavilions house a variety of interactive exhibits, simulations and games. Some are more entertaining than educational (I do love The Great Piggy Bank Adventure!), but a few of the exhibits are both.
- Where's the Fire? – For younger kids, this interactive exhibit focuses on fire safety.
- StormStruck – This show and exhibit teaches about weather and storm safety.
- Take a Nanooze Break – This interactive exhibit teaches about nanotechnology and is appropriate for all ages.
Exhibits at INNOVENTIONS change more frequently than other attractions, so check before you go.
Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival
If you visit Walt Disney World during April and May, the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival is a special event that provides even more learning opportunities. The Festival includes exhibits and presentations of flower and garden techniques. You'll find learning opportunities for kids and adults of all ages. I highly recommend the Butterfly House and the English Tea Garden Tour. For more information check out my post, Capturing Magic at the Flower & Garden Festival.
Disney's Animal Kingdom
It would be impossible to list all of the learning opportunities in Disney's Animal Kingdom. Animal exhibits and interactions are placed all around the park and knowledgeable Cast Members are always there to answer questions. I will highlight some of the standing exhibits, but keep your eyes peeled for animal feedings and close-up interactions. In particular, when you enter the park, spend some time walking the Discovery Island Trails that circle the Tree of Life. Most people race through this area on their way to more popular attractions but this area houses a wide variety of plants, birds and small animals.
Rafiki's Planet Watch
For a guaranteed educational experience, take the Wildlife Express Train to Rafiki's Planet Watch. This area houses a variety of eductional opportunities for all ages.
- Affection Section – a petting zoo with goats, sheep, donkeys, cows and pigs.
- Conservation Station – an animal care facility, including a working veterinary clinic and interactive exhibits. This area often includes live animal encounters.
- Habitat Habit! – an outdoor trail with lessons about conservation and featuring cotton-top tamarin monkeys.
I highly recommend going to Rafiki's Planet Watch in the morning. We usually hit the park at rope drop, head straight to Kilimanjaro Safaris and then jump on the train to Rafiki's Planet Watch. This gives us the best chance to catch a live veterinary procedure, which generally occur between [9:30] and [11:00]. Most days the procedures are regularly-scheduled check-ups on the various small animals, but this is a working facility and emergency procedures could happen at any time.
Keep in mind that between the round trip train ride and all of the exhibits, you can easily spend a couple hours at Rafiki's Planet Watch.
As always, don't be afraid to ask your guide questions. Cast Members are extremely knowledgeable about the plants and animals on the tour.
Maharajah Jungle Trek and Pangani Forest Exploration Trail
Maharajah Jungle Trek and Pangani Forest Exploration Trail are self-guided tours through Southeast Asia and Africa respectively. These trails highlight plants and animals representative of their locations. As you wander the trails you can read about the various wildlife. Cast Members are also available. Maharajah Jungle Trek also includes an aviary. Pick up a laminated card and see how many birds you can identify.
Flights of Wonder and Winged Encounters – The Kingdom Takes Flight
For more information about birds, check out Flights of Wonder. This entertaining show highlights the natural behaviors of at least 20 exotic birds. The show includes audience participation, and after the show, you'll have the opportunity to take pictures of some of the birds up close. Our family loves this show, and although the basic script doesn't change, the bird behaviors do. On one trip the trainers invited audience members to stick around after the show to watch them put some new birds through their paces. That was very instructive. Check the Times Guide for show times.
Disney recently introduced a new bird show, Winged Encounters – The Kingdom Takes Flight. This show releases birds, including six shades of macaw, to fly around the Tree of Life and descend into Discovery Island. Up-close encounters about macaw behaviors and conservation efforts are also available.
For more in-depth experiences, Disney offers several tours at Animal Kingdom.
- Wild Africa Trek – This 3-hour tour takes you through the Safi River Valley and the African savannah and brings you up close to many of the animals that you can see from Kilimanjaro Safaris. Guests must be at least 8 years of age. Cost varies by season but generally ranges between $180 and $249 per person. My family took this tour shortly after it opened. You can read more about our experience in Capturing Magic on the Wild Africa Trek.
- Wild By Design – This 3-hour walking tour is about the planning and design that was required to transform Florida wetlands into Disney's Animal Kingdom park. Guests must be at least 14 years of age. Cost is $60.
- Backstage Safari – This 3-hour tour covers the backstage animal care facilities, including the Animal Nutrition Center, animal-housing area, Animal Programs Administration building and the veterinary hospital. The tour also includes a ride on Kilimanjaro Safaris. Guests must be at least 16 years of age. Cost is $72.
Disney's Resorts are known for their gorgeous scenery and detailed theming, but they can also provide some free learning opportunities that don't require a park ticket.
Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge and Villas
I mentioned above what a valuable learning resource Cast Members can be. Nowhere is that more true than Animal Kingdom Lodge. Here you will find both animal specialists and cast members knowledgeable about the history and culture of Africa throughout the resort, all ready to talk to you and answer any questions you may have. Explore the four African savannas filled with mammals and birds or investigate the large collection of African art. Check the resort activities schedule for animal feedings, kids activities and cultural presentations.
Disney's Wilderness Lodge
If geology is your subject, you'll want to check out Disney's Wilderness Lodge. This resort is themed after the American Northwest, and includes a 120-foot geyser that spouts every hour on the hour from 7:00am to 10:00pm. Inside, the massive fireplace is a scale representation of the geologic layers of the Grand Canyon. On each floor you can read about the layers and view rocks and fossils from each era.
Disney Youth Education Series
If you really want to go all out for a learning experience in the park, consider the Disney Youth Education Series. This program is best known for providing classes to home school groups, but some of the classes are also offered on an individual basis. The program is available year-round for students from elementary to high school, and includes classes in science, environmental studies, liberal arts and leadership.
A visit to Walt Disney World is certainly an entertaining and magical experience, but just because it's fun doesn't mean you and your kids can't also learn something while you're there. Have your children done school reports at Disney? We're always looking for new ideas. Share your experiences here.