When most parents hear the word "Disney", they think of Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear, movie theaters and kiddie rides. But the sprawling theme parks of Walt Disney World offer some behind-the-scenes learning opportunities (particularly for restless teenagers) that can add some educational oomph to Orlando.
Animal Kingdom This African-themed wild animal park offers two special tours. “Wild by Design” (minimum age 14) takes groups behind the scenes of how this swampy, featureless section of Central Florida was designed and built from the ground up to represent a little bit of Africa, complete with several ecosystems and an artwork-filled village. “Backstage Safari” (minimum age 16) focuses on animal care with visits to the Nutrition Center and veterinary hospital. Those staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge resort can participate in other animal-related programs, including looking across the 33-acre savannah and seeing the animals after dark with special night vision binoculars. Click here for more information.
Epcot With its futuristic and international focus, there are a lot of unique things to explore in this park. For young ichthyologists, there’s “DiveQuest” (minimum age 10 and SCUBA certified,) a dive tour of the 6-million-gallon Epcot indoor aquarium. “Dolphins in Depth” (minimum age 13) is a dolphin education/encounter in waist-deep water, and “Seas Aqua Tour” is also in the water at the aquarium (minimum age 8, no certificates/qualifications needed.) For those who like to play in the dirt, “Gardens of the World” (minimum age 16) helps budding gardeners learn landscaping from Disney horticulturists, and “Behind the Seeds” (all ages) reveals Disney gardening/plant secrets. Click here for more information.
Disney-MGM Studios If you've got deep pockets and a chunk of time on your hands, consider this tour. A peek at elaborate special effects and theater production techniques, you'll go behind the scenes on a “Backstage Magic” pass (minimum age 16.) The trip actually begins in Epcot, but includes Disney-MGM Studios and the Magic Kingdom, plus lunch in one of the park restaurants. It's a long and expensive journey: 7 hours and $200 per person, but for kids with an interest in how all those incredible effects happen, this provides a nice birds-eye view. (Note: this park will change its name to Disney Hollywood Studios in January 2008.) Click here for more information.
Magic Kingdom The “Magic of Steam Trains” (min. age 10) offers a detailed look at the park’s steam train transportation operation, and children as young as 3 can play in the “Family Magic Tour” interactive scavenger hunt.Click here for more information.
It's important to note that all these extra tours and experiences aren't free-- you'll pay above and beyond the price of park admission. But if your family has “seen it all” on previous WDW trips, or simply wants something a little different, one of these educational alternatives might be just the thing.