This spring, my partner and I found Florida resident tickets to Disney World that let us explore all four parks (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Epcot), one day at a time. As a Disney newbie, I didn’t know what to expect aside from the general hype surrounding the experience, particularly the Magic Kingdom. We had a wonderful time at all four parks, but one park became the clear winner for us, though not for the rides, shows, or even the food.
The Wilderness Explorers program at Animal Kingdom stole our hearts (and minds) and we haven’t been able to stop talking about it since, despite visiting the park before any of the others. As I shared about the experience, I realized that many of the things that made it so great are the same things that make learning great in general.
Personalized (and Exciting!)
When we walked up to Wilderness Explorer Headquarters, we weren’t even sure if adults could participate in the program. We were happily greeted and inducted into the Wilderness Explorers organization with a pledge and handshake that proved to set the tone of the day. The program is a self-guided scavenger hunt with a wide variety of activities to complete around the park. At most stations, you interact with a troop leader who verifies you completed the activity and gives you your merit badge. These folks were outstanding at making their station relevant to whoever was visiting. They were easily able to transition from discussing the color or sound an animal makes with a child explorer to explaining some of the conservation efforts for that same animal to us. Plus, nearly every staff member we encountered assigned to this program was highly enthusiastic, making you want to learn more about their station, regardless of what it entailed.
The program was designed so that it could be completed across multiple visits, in any direction, and at whatever time of day. The types of activities were incredibly varied; some asked you to find information from a sign, others to engage with someone from another culture, still others had you learning something about the animal, culture, or exhibit nearby. More than once, I found myself outside of my comfort zone, being asked to engage with something new or in a way that I would never have chosen on my own, which stretched my brain in all the good ways.
Self-Paced and Self-Driven
While we chose to attack the task with a vengeance and complete every single badge, it was far more common for explorers to choose those badges that interested them, or that they happened to pass by as they explored the park. Because of the self-contained reward system, participants could easily decide how much reward was enough for them or how frequently they wanted to obtain another badge. Finding and completing the next badge was incredibly motivating, but we still were able to take the time to fully engage in the activity at each station (plus explore some of the parks features that weren’t part of the program). And if you weren’t interested in one or more of the badges, that was okay too, though the motivation of the sticker was enough to keep explorers trying new things.
Each activity was related to an exhibit, animal, or culture otherwise highlighted in the park. Some of the badges were even tasks you completed while waiting in line for a ride. By contextualizing each of the tasks, it was easy to explore further around each topic, based on what captured your attention. More than once, we found ourselves talking about new facts or knowledge we had learned long after we left that station. Plus, we realized that the program had us engaging in much more of what the park had to offer than if we had tried to see it all ourselves. There were many signs, exhibits, and people that we wouldn’t have given a second glance to if we had been merely traveling to the next ride.
While we didn’t set out to spend the day learning our way through Animal Kingdom, we had an absolute blast, and became Senior Wilderness Explorers – see?