Can Your Disney Family Vacation Be An Educational Opportunity?

by Adrienne Krock, staff writer
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We regularly solicit feedback for Panel topic and like last time, one parent’s feedback inspired this week’s topic: Can you justify a Disney vacation for education purposes?

MousePlanet columnist Chris Barry, his wife Diane, 11-year-old Samantha, and twin 8-year-olds, Casey and Alex, live on Long Island and are all major Disney and Walt Disney World fans. Chris writes:

Let me clarify a few things right off the bat. I am a teacher. I don’t, however, teach a mainstream subject. I teach an elective course that the kids love to take. That said, regardless of what I teach, I’ve been in the education biz for 15 years now, half of which I’ve also been dealing with my own children’s education. So I can see this question from both sides. Let me also state that I’ve pulled my own kids out of school for a couple of trips and have no problem with parents doing so, as long as they’re confident in their child’s ability to catch up.

Now, after all that has been said, do I think that your kids can learn things at Disney? Absolutely. Do I think that you can justify an entire Disney vacation for educational purposes? Not so absolutely.

One has to concede that the overall purpose of a trip to the Walt Disney World Resort is to have fun and to spend quality magical time together as a family. I think it’s crucial for a kid to have fun and to have a break from learning, especially in this day and age where we seem to be over-scheduling our kids to the point of exhaustion. A getaway is essential for them and for every family. And what better place is there to get away from it all than a Disney resort.

It’s been my experience, though, that pushing the educational aspects at a child while they’re in a place like Walt Disney World isn’t going to get you such great results. Don’t drag them through Innoventions and make them check out all of the exhibits if they’d rather head to Test Track or Soarin’. You’re much better off letting them investigate and discover the learning experiences that can be had at places like Epcot and Disney's Animal Kingdom for themselves. My 12-year-old daughter is a prime example of this. At just about every age she has always liked to wander around with us on Discovery Island in Animal Kingdom and read all of the signs giving you facts about the animals and their habitats. In the Seas with Nemo & Friends, she can usually be found at one of those computer terminals answering questions or reading the facts on the walls in Bruce’s Shark Tank. She learns whenever we’re there and I’d rather let her take the time and discover these things on her own rather then force her to look at them. Kids will surprise you every time. They’ll gravitate toward these things if you let them. Her younger brothers have begun to follow her example as well.

The same can be said for the countries of Epcot's World Showcase. We always take the time to wander through the pavilions and soak up some knowledge while doing so. The important thing is not to make it seem like an educational trip. Disney does this very well, especially in a place like Epcot where there really is something to learn around every corner. You can’t help but have fun while you’re learning things.

So, can you justify a trip to Disney as educational? There are certainly plenty of things to learn and discover while you’re there but I wouldn’t want to completely justify it as an educational trip. My kids have certainly learned things as have my wife and I while we’re there. But, there has to be escape time on a vacation. Escaping the learning environment that they’re in almost all year long is very important to a kid and believe me it’s twice as important to me as a teacher. So, don’t think of it as a learning destination, but if you and the kids happen to learn a few things while you’re there, then the place is certainly working for you, isn’t it?

Chris, also known as GusMan, is always planning his next family trip to WDW and loves to help others plan their trips, as well through sharing his experiences. Chris writes:

The Walt Disney World Resort is not only a place of family entertainment, but, in some ways, I think there is a certain amount of teachable moments to be had as well. This sort of edutainment can be especially found in places such as Epcot and Animal Kingdom parks. But if the question is related to cross-breeding the vacation with education for the specific purpose of augmenting the classroom environment, I think it all depends on what you want to accomplish.

Take Epcot for example: Not only do you have World Showcase, which can be a great way to see different exhibits that represent different countries, but you can experience their people, culture, and food as well. Walking over to Future World, you can learn different things via the interactive attractions in the two pavilions for Innoventions. My kids get a kick out of different activities such as The Great Piggy Bank Adventure, which explains the importance of saving money, as well as different activities related to recycling including the ability to make their own paper. I think that Innoventions is one of the best areas where you actually learn about different topics while having fun—and possibly not know the difference.

Disney's Animal Kingdom, while not really a zoo, has its hidden learning gems, as well. There are many different activities to learn more about animal care and the environment. At the same time, you can even get a chance to see exotic animals in authentic recreations of their natural habitat. Even the different countries that are represented around the park closely resemble their real-world counterparts. You might be in Central Florida, but the signs on the wall tell you otherwise. Sure, you go for a ride on Expedition Everest, but you would not be bored if you stay to see Flights of Wonder, as well.

Sure, the different things mentioned have educational value. But would you be able to really use a WDW vacation as an educational experience? To answer this question, I polled the family and got their opinions:

My daughter said:

  • There have been times where she was able to use what she learned at Epcot about different countries in a history class.
  • There are attractions that are educational and you just don’t know it until you apply it in real life. For example, you can learn about communications at Spaceship Earth.
  • The interaction with the different cast members at Animal Kingdom beats any interaction she ever had at the local zoo.

My wife said:

  • While there are chances to learn through doing, you may not get the whole story. Consider it only a taste of what you can learn.
  • Sometimes you get too rushed to really see the educational possibilities, yet alone having to try to point out the different information to the kids.
  • To some, even the thought of learning something while on vacation ruins the mood.

As for me, I think of Disney first as entertainment and if I am able to teach something to my kids at the same time, it is a bonus. However, my personal opinion is that these experiences are not a replacement for proper classroom instruction. The information provided is simply not enough to fully understand all aspects of the different learning opportunities. However, I do feel that the different experiences have the potential to inspire guests of all ages to seek out additional information regarding their personal topics of interest. My hope is that when I see my kids take interest in something educational at the parks, I take note so I can help them explore more when we get home.

As for those who are educators, I do think that a tour of WDW, targeting certain subject matter, can be a real benefit to their classrooms back home. Disney has ways of being able to convey certain information in ways that anyone can understand. Sometimes, this is through direct contact experience, while other times may involve different teaching techniques. In this case, I can see where a trip to Disney could end up being a research trip.

Overall, I don’t think there is one solid answer. Each person will get out of the parks what they put into them. For some, it will be all about the fun and magic. Some might learn something that they will use for the rest of their lives. Regardless of your family’s situation, you may go back home with more in your brain than when you left.

Mary Kraemer is an avid Disney fan and travel consultant with CruisingCo/MouseEarVacations who loves to travel with her husband and children to Disney destinations as often as possible. Mary writes:

This parenting panel topic is so timely for me right now because as I write this I am about to depart on a trip to Walt Disney World with my daughters to participate in the Princess Half Marathon. And it is directly related to educational purposes because my younger daughter is basing a large project on the experience.

Essentially, she decided to train for a half marathon and track her training and progress as her project, building stamina and endurance, adding speed to her workouts, and then going for a goal of 13.1 miles. Our trip is the culmination of months of hard work on her part, and she will give a formal presentation on her project about a month after we return from this trip.

Although this is possibly my family’s most clear-cut example of justifying a Disney trip for educational purposes, but I think our trip to Disneyland Paris several years ago also was an extremely educational visit. It was my kids’ first experience with international travel, with flights from San Francisco to London, and then taking the high-speed Eurostar from London to Disneyland Paris. They learned about entirely different cultures, the need to be able to navigate between locations using the subway and railway systems; patience while we encountered delays, crowded subway cars, hauling luggage; and enjoying some familiar experiences in a different way (Capt. Rex in Star Tours speaking French was one of the highlights!)

I absolutely think that going on a Disney cruise is an amazing educational experience, especially for itineraries such as Europe and Alaska. The locations that the ships visit, giving guests time to have new experiences in wonderful locations rich in history or natural splendor, is a tremendous educational opportunity. The places that children (and adults) visit in the European ports of call are so significant for culture, history, and art. The Alaska itinerary is filled with the beauty of the unspoiled wilderness of North America, teeming with wildlife and astonishing sights such as glaciers.

Mary added this information:

Not only can you justify a Disney trip for educational purposes, you can create one specifically for educational purposes!

About a year ago, I was at California Adventure and met some cast members who were setting up a project for the YES (Youth Education Series) program. I was absolutely intrigued because the project being set up was obviously a physics-related activity with balls and ramps. I had a chance to talk with the cast members a little bit about the programs, and I would love to experience them myself—as would my kids!

These programs are designed for elementary, middle-, and high-school students. There is curriculum in Leadership & Careers, Arts & Humanities, Physical Sciences, and Natural Sciences. Obviously, Disney has a lot to show students in each of these categories!

I spent some time exploring the website for the YES programs(link), and there are a number of options, including millennium cultures, where kids can participate in an interactive study of people and places around the world at the World Showcase in Epcot; ocean conservation and marine habitat challenges at the Seas with Nemo & Friends, also in Epcot; how kinetic energy and speed are used to create attractions, at Disney California Adventure; performance and team-building activities of improvisation; and, of course, the art of animation, just to name a few.

YES programs are available at the Walt Disney World resort for groups of 10 or more students; at Disneyland, groups need to have at least 15 students to participate.

It's your turn—keep the discussion flowing!

Visit the Parenting on the Parks section of our MousePad discussion board, and share your opinions about this topic or many others (link), or send your suggestions via e-mail (link). Reader-submitted tips might be used in a future article, and you might be selected to participate in an upcoming panel discussion!

Comments

  1. By cstephens

    We were recently at Animal Kingdom, and as we were walking out, we could hear the family walking just behind us, and the daughter (I didn't turn around to look at them, but judging by her voice and what she was saying, I'd guess she was in the 9 year old or so range) was talking about a particular animal she'd seen that day - I forget which one exactly - and how she wanted to learn more about it, so she couldn't wait to find books and look it up on the internet. That was nice to hear. I think Animal Kingdom is particularly well suited for that kind of educational experience.

  2. By Chewyswimmer

    I am a 7th grade Math and Science Teacher. Every Chance I get, I try to fit something from Disney into my classes. This year I decided to introduce the Animal Unit with a video. Now, I did not take the video, but I did capture it from youtube. The Video was of the Kilimanjaro Safari. We watched the safari as a class since we can not go to the zoo for a field trip. The kids absolutely loved it. I use my pictures in a virtual field trip from Animal Kingdom. In technology class, we talk about the improvement of technology from old fashion roller coasters to more modern and I love showing the kids Expedition Everest or Big Thunder and we "Ride it" in class as a culmination of our discussion. I have also used rollercoaster videos for physics and momentum lessons.

    Epcot and AK clearly are more educational, however, I have used a cartoon from Chip and Dale in my math class. It is called "Just to Scale" and I use that when we are building scale model houses that the students design. I know it is not from the parks, however it is Disney, and it is used for education.

    Taking kids out of school for a Disney trip is a bit different of an Issue. One that I had to deal with this year. It all depends on the child. Making a trip educational to supplement the time out of school will most likely not stick unless the 'rents are trained teachers. tapping into that trip is the key for the education unless you can make it a photo, video, or research project.

  3. By adriennek

    For me I think there's a difference between "Educational Experience" or "Educational Moments" and "Educational Opportunities."

    There are many Educational Moments or Experiences to be had at Disney theme parks. Some may come more naturally than others, for example at Epcot or Animal Kingdom or even Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

    But for those moments to become educational opportunities, I think they need to be formalized to the next step. Looking at classic lesson plan formats, the experiences are there but taking them to the next step where the students process the information, demonstrate or practice what they learned and the knowledge can be assessed - these pieces are not automatic.

    That does not mean that the children will not learn so much from a Disney vacation, but to be an "educational opportunity" I think these experiences need to be followed up somehow.

    We did take our children out of school for our trip to Walt Disney World, with the blessing of their teachers (and three Independent Study Contracts.) One teacher assigned a journal to my son but all she instructed him to do was to "Write every day." I had a journal I'd created with prompts designed for him to really reflect on his day and evaluate it. It was designed to help my boys really "appreciate" their experiences, not necessarily as an educational tool - but the side effect was a more educational experience that became an opportunity which his teacher endorsed.

    It's possible but not without supplementing the experiences with concrete reinforcement.

    Adrienne

  4. By 3Princesses1Prince

    I was just thinking about this the other day. We will be taking a 2 week trip to WDW this fall and my 2 oldest will be taken out of school. My oldest will be in 5th grade GATE and her teacher will most likely give her some sort of project for the trip. I want to get some ideas ahead of time in case she asks for some suggestions. Also, I'll have a 1st grader and I think we will do a Flat Stanley project. This is typically something our district covers in 1st grade (though a little later in the year), but I can always read her the story before we go. I also found someone that created a Flat Mickey project with quests to complete in Epcot so I may add that into the mix. I think Disney CAN be educational if you let the kids lead with their interests and make it fun.

  5. By mom22gls

    The game rules may change a lot, though, when the kid hits middle school. In elementary school, especially in first or second grade, just writing in a journal, or making up a project is probably fine, but in seventh grade, it's not going to fly, no matter how "educational" it is. A family vacation day would be an "unexcused" as opposed to "illegal" absence, but they don't get to make up the work they miss in class, and there is a lot more work than there was in elementary school. The work is also quite specific; the response would likely, and reasonably be, and this relates to her pre-Algebra curriculum, how? My seventh grader was really anxious when we deliberately took off one day, and then had a weather related delay and missed a second day of school. My husband even lied and said she was sick the second day, so she could make up the work (a lie actually encouraged by the school secretary). As soon as we got home, she rushed to work on a project she had due that week, and she was relieved when she got her grades, and they had not suffered. I don't think I'd take her out again,unless it was a unique and once-in-a -lifetime travel experience, and, for us, as much as we enjoy our Disney vacations, they don't fall into that category. I would also worry about the cumulative impact of all other absences, during the school year-in sixth grade, my daughter got sick right before the first day of school, and spent the first month of the school year battling a whopping case of walking pneumonia, and resultant asthma. After missing a good part of September to illness, some days out of school, some days not fully "there" when in school, it would have been a real issue, if, say, I had planned to take her out for a week in October, for a vacation planned months previously. The same would apply if the vacation was for any time during that school year-all the absences count. Now, we just suck it up and go when it's hot, to avoid all the hassle.

  6. By 3Princesses1Prince

    Quote Originally Posted by mom22gls View Post
    The game rules may change a lot, though, when the kid hits middle school. In elementary school, especially in first or second grade, just writing in a journal, or making up a project is probably fine, but in seventh grade, it's not going to fly, no matter how "educational" it is. A family vacation day would be an "unexcused" as opposed to "illegal" absence, but they don't get to make up the work they miss in class, and there is a lot more work than there was in elementary school. The work is also quite specific; the response would likely, and reasonably be, and this relates to her pre-Algebra curriculum, how? My seventh grader was really anxious when we deliberately took off one day, and then had a weather related delay and missed a second day of school. My husband even lied and said she was sick the second day, so she could make up the work (a lie actually encouraged by the school secretary). As soon as we got home, she rushed to work on a project she had due that week, and she was relieved when she got her grades, and they had not suffered. I don't think I'd take her out again,unless it was a unique and once-in-a -lifetime travel experience, and, for us, as much as we enjoy our Disney vacations, they don't fall into that category. I would also worry about the cumulative impact of all other absences, during the school year-in sixth grade, my daughter got sick right before the first day of school, and spent the first month of the school year battling a whopping case of walking pneumonia, and resultant asthma. After missing a good part of September to illness, some days out of school, some days not fully "there" when in school, it would have been a real issue, if, say, I had planned to take her out for a week in October, for a vacation planned months previously. The same would apply if the vacation was for any time during that school year-all the absences count. Now, we just suck it up and go when it's hot, to avoid all the hassle.

    Which is one reason I was really pushing for the WDW trip THIS year. After that my oldest will be in middle school and I know taking her out will be a lot harder. Our district allows us to put the kids on Independent Study during extended absences. We get all their work ahead of time and its due when they return to school. It can be for extended illnesses or trips or extenuating family circumstances. I fully expect that she'll have to make up any math chapters she misses...but luckily her mom is a math geek.

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