Can a theme park be educational? We had our doubts…until being schooled by Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Usually fans of the latest and greatest headliner attractions (read about how to tour any Disney theme park attraction in 15 minutes or less), my school-aged sons and I spent our latest visit touring the park from a less thrill-seeking perspective, exploring the many environmental, zoological, and cultural exhibits. And yes, we learned a thing or two.
Animal Kingdom is an easy-to-navigate park, and the nice thing about its educational attractions is how naturally they’re weaved into the fabric of the various ‘lands’. It’s easily possible for a family to ride the big attractions and take in the less flashy details that give the park that extra depth. All you need to know is where to look (and what not to overlook):
The Oasis and Discovery Island:
I know, I know…everyone’s in a hurry to get into the park, and no one (including myself, usually) wants to stop to look at the many animal and plant species in the Oasis Exhibit and Discovery Island Trails. But we’re so glad we did! Shady and cool, the Oasis area is so well landscaped that you think you’ve stepped into another world of flora and fauna. And the Discovery Island Trails are an animal-lover’s Tom Sawyer Island: their caves, bridges and towering trees harbor exotic animals at every turn. The boys loved ‘discovering’ new animal enclosures as they ran from trail to trail.
Tip: If you want this area practically to yourself, skip it in the morning and come back mid-day, when the steady stream of traffic into the park has waned.
In DinoLand, kids will want to ride Dinosaur and play in the Boneyard, but directly adjacent is the (too well) hidden Cretaceous Trail. A short walk through a primeval forest, the Cretaceous Trail is dotted with fossilized bones and living plant and animal species that have survived the prehistoric era and continued to flourish today.
Go ahead, race to Expedition Everest and grab FastPASSes. Then return to walk the Maharajah Jungle Trek, a short walk through honeysuckle and jasmine (I love how lush Animal Kingdom is!) to see Asian tigers, a Komodo Dragon, over 50 species of birds. Nearby is Flights of Wonder, a 25 minute show that provides a much-needed break from exploring the park. You’ll learn about over 20 more species of birds, many of which are birds of prey, and it’s funny to boot (so very young ones will still be entertained).
Of course you’ve got Kilimanjaro Safaris in Africa, which, although meant to entertain, really is quite educational and definitely worth your time. We grabbed FastPASSes for it and waited in the sanctuary of the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail. Spanning about 1/4 of a mile, this paved trail takes you through both animal viewing areas and exhibits detailing information about their habitats, natural predators, and more. You’ll see gorillas, hippos, a colony of mole rats, and more. At each station, experts are available to answer questions, and hands-on activities are available.
Tip:If kids are paying attention, they’ll be alerted to interactive exhibits by Kids’ Discovery Club signs.
Rafiki’s Planet Watch:
Right outside the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, families can board the Wildlife Express Train to Conservation Station, our seven-year-old animal-lover’s favorite place in Animal Kingdom. At Conservation Station, kids can see an animal surgery in-progress on video monitors in the animal hospital, learn how the Animal Kingdom animals are cared for on a daily basis, and see all kinds of reptile and amphibian wildlife. Best of all, it’s all indoors, so you get a little break from the sun.
Outside the Conservation Station, little kids will like the Affection Section petting zoo, and older kids will like spying the tiny primates called cotton-top tamarins along the Habitat Habit! walkway. There’s a lot of literature along this stretch on exhibit boards as you walk, spreading awareness of a number of animal and habitat-related issues we face in urban and suburban areas.
Throughout Animal Kingdom park, take a moment to duck into the many buildings and look around at the architecture and themes. In both Asia and Africa, visitors are treated with cultural experiences and performances. Bang on some drums outside a shop in Africa, or eat spring rolls in Asia. Yes, it’s all commercialized Disney, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a thing or two!
What hidden educational opportunities have you found in Animal Kingdom? What do your school-aged kids like best?