It was a day in late spring. I was riding in a stroller, occupied with some character figurines in my lap. There was energy in the atmosphere I remember to this day, a sense of excitement amidst the crowds of people around me and music wafting through the air. We eventually rounded a street corner and instantly my three year-old fantasies became tangible. The towering castle in the distance beamed with flags flapping atop turrets, an open portcullis gate, and enormous stone foundations. My senses rushed with such joyous fervor I couldn’t help but reach out toward the castle, audibly identifying it as Cinderella’s when asked to whom it belonged.
And so began my lifelong love affair with the Walt Disney Company’s theme parks. The same image I encountered at the end of Magic Kingdom’s Main Street USA in 1996 still captivates me and millions of guests who trickle into the park on a yearly basis. Disney’s Parks and Resorts Division is home to the company’s greatest number of employees, boasting vacation destinations across the world. The Walt Disney World Resort, located in Orlando, Florida, is the largest single site employer in the United States encompassing four theme parks, two water parks, and twenty-eight resorts. It is the most visited vacation destination on the planet.
More commonly known as Disney World today, the Walt Disney World Resort celebrates its 45th anniversary this fall. Walt Disney desired to expand upon his success of Disneyland in Anaheim, California (debuting in July 1955). He began work on the “Florida Project” in the early 1960s. Walt envisioned a community of tomorrow with futuristic, technological advances. An enormous construction venture ensued on newly purchased land outside of Orlando. On October 1st, 1971, the resort opened to the public with televised, star-studded opening ceremonies later in the month. Walt unfortunately did not live to see the project’s completion; his brother Roy subsequently dedicated the property in Walt’s honor.
Beyond the famous attractions and large crowds of all ages (just look around – immediately you will see Disney appeals to every generation), I am fascinated how many learning opportunities exist in the parks each time I visit. If one takes their time delving deep into the vast knowledge contained within, countless instances of fascinating education result. Walt’s interest in learning still exists through his company’s innovative approaches to travel and entertainment. The following are just a sample of educational opportunities scattered throughout Walt Disney World.
The intricate frescoes inside the walls of Cinderella’s Castle harken to artwork in countless European cathedrals and fortresses. The architecture in Fantasyland alone makes one feel as if they are walking through alpine villages. The forty-four American presidents moving and conversing inside Magic Kingdom’s Hall of Presidents calls for multiple double-takes. Listening to the narration aboard the Walt Disney World Railroad throw riders back to when railroads were new commodities and how they raced across the country.
The American Adventure, located in Epcot’s America Pavilion, fabulously tells the story of the United States with Audio-Animatronic Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain narrating. Les Halles Boulangerie & Patisserie is a culinary-lover’s dream (I race inside for my favorite, the perfect crème brulee). Taking in the extraordinary films on enormous screens highlighting Canada, France, and China are Epcot musts. Also, teaching guests about agricultural innovation at home and abroad by displaying various techniques is the focus of Living with the Land.
The Great Movie Ride, housed in the replicated Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood Studios, is a fantastic chance to expose younger generations to quintessential motion pictures of legendary Hollywood and the movie industry’s evolution. (This attraction was recently refurbished with Turner Classic Movies’ Robert Osborne at the helm.) Also, Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream educates visitors on Walt’s vision, creativity, quest for success, and lifelong passion of learning (the fifteen-minute film hosted by Julie Andrews is particularly superb).
Animal Kingdom’s Pangani Exploration Trail and Maharajah Jungle Trek teach guests about lifestyles of hippopotamuses, gorillas, tigers, exotic birds, and reptiles. Rafiki’s Planet Watch highlights Animal Kingdom’s conservation efforts. And the Kilimanjaro Safari is not to be missed for the nature enthusiast, scientist, and animal lover alike.
Disney’s resorts also promote educational experiences across the generations. Learn about life on the savanna through the animals, artwork, and food at the thatch-roofed Animal Kingdom Lodge. Observe exotic plants and island culture wandering through the Polynesian’s tropical oasis. The spectacular exposed-beam architecture of Wilderness Lodge is reminiscent of historic national park lodges in the American West. You can explore Cajun New Orleans and the storied antebellum South at Port Orleans. Resorts offer a plethora of programs reflecting the culture on which each property is based. Check with individual front desks for weekly programs and events.
The experiences I have gained from privileged, frequent visits to Disney destinations are unrivaled. Walt Disney World in particular has provided me a number of life skills I now claim. Through Disney, I learned how to accomplish travel components at an early age – how to navigate airports and transportation systems, how to acquire reservations via telephone and online, how to book hotel stays, how to keep track of travel documents, and how to independently explore. I’ve gained knowledge in positively handling customers, consumers, and the public largely from observing Disney park employees (Disney’s customer service is difficult to surpass). My love of learning has roots in experiencing Disney’s attractions highlighting the arts, languages, sciences, and history. The opportunities to travel in Disney fashion have shaped my outlook on traveling in general and crafted my adventurous desire to experience the world.
Walt Disney World’s official website is the recommended place to browse information on theme parks, resorts, dining reservations, special fall offers and more – disneyworld.disney.go.com. Making reservations and asking questions can be accomplished online or by calling 407-939-5277, speaking to helpful Disney travel representatives. Disney’s Magical Express, a free coach bus transportation service available to resort guests, is based at Orlando International Airport. Head toward the main terminal’s Ground Transportation area on side B for boarding (and peek inside the Disney Store along the way!).
Disney has acquired the reputation of being a sole output for entertainment. But underneath the famous pixie dust and fantasies, Walt Disney’s vision lives on through educational outlets in his company. His quote, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths”, stands as a testament to this vision of today. Consider some learning apart from being entertained on your next visit to a Disney park – your mind will be simultaneously stimulated and thrilled!
*For West Virginia travelers: Walt Disney World is accessed best through flights from Charleston’s Yeager Airport to Orlando International Airport, with one typical layover in between. Flights are also available to Orlando Sanford International Airport, with different options of transportation to and from the Disney parks.