Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Disney Education

My wife and I just spent a week at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. No, we didn't take kids or grand kids with us -- we don't have any, and besides in our view they would spoil our fun.

We have visited WDW many times since it was opened in 1971, usually every five years or so.  Any more often is an overdose, similar to going to Las Vegas too often.  Both places offer escapist fantasy of the highest order, best enjoyed after a break to re-center and re-ground your sensibilities.

It is important to distinguish between Walt Disney World (WDW) in Florida and Disneyland in California.  Disneyland was Walt's first theme park, a ground-breaking concept that opened in 1955 and almost immediately outgrew its available space.  WDW in contrast consists of a vast tract of 47 square miles in central Florida, with four widely spaced theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, EPCOT, and Animal Kingdom),  two water parks, 23 on-site themed resort hotels (excluding eight more that are on-site, but not owned by the Walt Disney Company),  a campground, two spas and physical fitness centers, five golf courses, and other recreational and entertainment venues in an area known as Downtown Disney.  If you stay on site, as we choose to do, you are immersed in the whole Disney experience 24/7.  Mickey and friends are everywhere, including on the soap in your bathroom;  everything is neat and tidy; everyone is polite, friendly, and happy.  As I said, escapist fantasy of the highest order.  Sadly, Walt Disney died at 65 from lung cancer, five years before his dream opened in 1971.  His older brother Roy delayed retirement to oversee the initial development of WDW and then died a few months after the opening. 

Our visit was at the end of April, a time we thought would be less crowded because it was after most school spring breaks and before summer vacations.  We reasoned that most parents are concerned with their children's education and wouldn't take them out of school just to visit a theme park. This is also a time when central Florida weather is still moderate.  Our other visits have been in the fall, around Christmas, and during the summer, and so we were looking forward to our first springtime visit.

We were right about the weather --  most days were clear and the temperature was pleasant.  And the crowds weren't as bad as they can be in the peak summer months.

But we were dead wrong about the numbers of school-age kids.  Besides quite a few families with one or more children there were many, many groups of junior high and high school kids from all parts of the country, apparently on field trips or senior outings.  And there were thousands of teenage girls who were participating in the annual World Championship Cheerleading competitions being held at EPCOT.  When the cheerleaders weren't competing they were roaming the parks in packs of 10 to 20 giggling and jiggling "nubile nymphettes," as I called them. Needless to say, this altered the "Magical" atmosphere considerably.

The presence of so many kids whose schools were still weeks away from summer break raised questions in our minds about the commitment of the kids as students, the educational priorities of their parents, and the values of the sponsoring organizations (maybe including Disney Corp.).  I'm sure there are all kinds of practical justifications for these children to miss school in order to visit WDW;  parents cannot always control the timing of their vacations from work;  it's easier for organizations to schedule venues at WDW during this time of year;  travel arrangements are cheaper and more plentiful now than in the summer.  It is also true that not all "education" takes place in a classroom and indeed there are a number educational aspects to be found in WDW. 

These justifications seem reasonable but I think they may be problematic in several ways.  First, though visiting WDW can be educational in some ways, that is true no matter when it occurs.  On the other hand certain important educational experiences are closely tied to a classroom --  for example, I've never seen anything in WDW that would substitute for a skillful explanation of algebraic expansion or the laboratory experience of working through an analytical chemistry problem.  Second, the absence of large numbers of students poses significant logistical problems for teachers and schools, both in altering the classroom structure that is supportive of learning and in placing additional demands on teachers to help students make up work they have missed. Third, when parents and organizations endorse school absence they convey to young people that education is less important than entertainment and enjoyment.  I'm afraid this is a general trend in our society today, and I don't believe it serves us well in the global community.  As my wife and I have traveled around the world we have seen many developing countries investing heavily in education and  infrastructure. The support for educational institutions and teachers is striking.  Just the opposite seems to be the case in the U.S., as illustrated by recent budget cuts to schools and universities and salary freezes and reductions for teachers.

Maybe I'm making too much of this.  Or maybe I just received my very own Disney Education.


An additional resource on Disney can be found at  This web site was created by a group of my students as a class project some years ago.

Here are a couple of quotes about Disney you may find interesting:

When Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, called Disney a "genius as a creator of folklore" and said his "sympathetic attitude toward life has helped our children develop a clean and cheerful view of humanity, with all its frailties and possibilities for good."

Prof. William Lyon Phelps of Yale said of Mr. Disney: "He has accomplished something that has defied all the efforts and experiments of the laboratories in zoology and biology. He has given animals souls."


PaddleDoc said...

Never been to WDW, but have made several visit to DisneyLand. Some were better than others. Here's a view of WDW I read several years ago that is good for perspective: Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World, The Project on Disney. I agree with you about making education a priority and WDW seems unlikely to provide much of a substitute!

Richard Sherman said...

Actually, when it first opened EPCOT was fairly educational, with lots of interactive learning experiences. We've noticed that over the years these have gone away, replaced by either retail venues or by pure entertainment sites. To the extent that Disney reflects changes in our culture, I'd say this is a more general trend......

Coleen Hanna said...

I've been to WDW once, with my granddaughter. I had a wonderful time, but only because my granddaughter was with me. I became ill, went to the onsite clinic, and was misdiagnosed. It was several days before I received proper treatment back home. I think I've had enough of Disney! As far as children's education, I've felt for a long time that as a country, we are toast! I hope I am wrong.

izza said...

I think Epcot,Florida Theme Parks or WDW, was not only built to be educational but to bring pleasure to people visiting.

Richard Sherman said...

Izza -- I agree EPCOT was built to be educational, and to some extent it still is -- The Land and The Seas pavilions, for example offer some informative opportunities.

However, EPCOT was ground zero for the cheerleading competition, and my impression was that the last thing these girls had on their minds was learning more about the latest hydroponic techniques.