Plus the Magic welcomes back guest author Amy Simpson Swiss to learn more about the newest immersive experience at DAK...
During our last family vacation, we arrived at Animal
Kingdom to discover this near the bridge crossing onto Discovery Island:
A very enthusiastic and friendly Wilderness Explorer,
dressed just like Russell from the movie UP, invited us over to join the
adventure. He was handing out Wilderness
Explorer Handbooks to every kid who wanted to participate. Each handbook contained a map, as well as
pages for 30 different Badges to earn. There are Explorer Stations set up all around the park where families
can stop and earn the badges by speaking to a naturalist, doing some hands on
activities, observing animals, and learning things about the animals and places
found around the Animal Kingdom.
To be honest, I was more than a little hesitant. Our
vacation included only one day at Animal Kingdom and I had a mission: beat the
crowds while making a beeline to Expedition Everest, stopping at Dinosaur of
course, with Kali River Rapids towards the end of the day, squeezing it all in
around our lunch reservation at Tusker House….we had to find DeVine, stop at a
Bugs Life, do some pin trading, see some animals….well, you get the point. We had a lot to do and not enough time. So, my first impulse was to think that the
Wilderness Explorers experience might derail my timetable and would not be
worth the time and effort considering our short stay.
I WAS WRONG. Very,
very, wrong. If you have children of any age, YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY DO THIS!
The program is absolutely amazing. It is very well thought out, and has aspects that appeal to all ages and interests. The littlest kids are very much excited about the handbook and earning
the badges, and checking off each stop along the way is a big thrill. This was
absolutely perfect for my 7 year old. Older kids may find the handbook a little
too “young” for them, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be interested in the
wilderness stations. They can participate
and listen and learn even if they are too cool for the handbook. My 10 year old declined the handbook at first
but wound up captivated by the program and we went back to get a handbook
halfway through the day. I found the naturalists to be very well educated and
informed and they were willing to answer questions at any level. My 12 year
old, probably on the outer edge of the age range this program is geared to,
tagged along and “assisted” her siblings with the badge requirements, interacting
with the naturalists and learning some new things along the way as well.
The badges in the book can be completed in any order, which
is a huge plus. Some of the experiences
at other parks require you to go to certain places in a particular order, which
can take you off track if you have a plan for the day already in mind. Here,
you can stop at any badge station which happens to be on the way to wherever
you were already headed -there are stations all over the park.
There were badges on a wide variety of subjects. Whether your kids are into animals, insects,
conservation, hiking, dinosaurs, or culture, there are plenty of badges that
will interest them.
There is no pressure at all to complete all 30 badges – you
can do as many or as few as will conveniently fit into your day. Of course there is usually one child who is
hyper-focused on completing ALL the badges, but the program handles this
problem nicely. Explorers can earn “Explorer Rankings” for completing as few as
5 badges, and the handbook specifically encourages explorers to bring back the
book on their next trip –whenever that may be – to continue earning badges.
At the stop below, Explorers learned about how animals
communicate. Another stop nearby
explained how currency is different all over the world, and the Explorers
learned about currency conversion rates – in a very fun way.
Another stop, pictured below, was my favorite. We learned a lot about the siamang apes who
live in this area near the Kali River Rapids. My children were fascinated and spent an extraordinary amount of time
with this naturalist, using her binoculars to observe the apes, and asking lots
of great questions. It was incredibly
satisfying for me to watch this, and to know that even in the midst of the
craziness of one of the busiest theme parks on earth, their minds were
being opened and inspired, and they were no longer in a rush to get to the next
big thing. Amazingly, their attention
spans seemed to stretch before my eyes!
The Wilderness Explorers program added tremendously to
the overall experience at this park. It
is a wonderful counterbalance to the general level of technology and
stimulation found on any Disney vacation.
The stations provided a way for my tired, revved-up kids to take a
breather, stimulate their brains, learn something, and still have fun. Since the stations are generally off to the
side of the path, and not crowded, the whole family had a chance to stop, touch,
feel, and interact - all while resting our over-stimulated senses.
At the end of the day I felt humbled that I considered
passing this up in my rush to get to the next ride.
Wilderness Explorers is definitely a must-do!
Have you had a chance to check out the Wilderness Explorer's experience at Animal Kingdom? What do you think about it? Share your thoughts with us in the comments...