The words “Disney World” immediately prompt thoughts of Cinderella’s castle, photos with Goofy, and long lines for indoor rides—not exactly a paradigm of cultural awareness or incentive for global travel. But beyond the tribute to Mickey Mouse are countless opportunities to nurture wanderlust in future globe-trotters. Between wildlife encounters in Animal Kingdom, pavilions themed after 11 different countries in Epcot, and surprising lessons to learn at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios, there’s no shortage of inspiration for budding young travelers.
Go on a safari or jungle trek
Animal Kingdom is the place for children to discover a love of wildlife. Walking areas such as the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail and Maharajah Jungle Trek allow families to spend as much or as little time as they want observing real-life tigers, Komodo dragons, storks, kangaroos, and dozens of other species. Hatchling birders will want to catch the Winged Encounters show on Discovery Island, during which aviary experts show visitors six different types of macaws while describing their lifespans, the breeding program for endangered species, and other interesting facts.
Toddlers and other youngsters can let loose at The Boneyard, a dinosaur-themed playground with a dig area that might inspire an outing to see real fossils. Curious nature enthusiasts of all ages should also check out the Wilderness Explorers program, inspired by the Pixar film Up. The self-paced, park-wide scavenger hunt encourages participants to engage with their surroundings, teaching kids to be good global citizens with such activities as identifying wildlife in specific habitats, learning to spell in Hindi, and finding out about deforestation.
The most immersive experience included in park admission is the Kilimanjaro Safari, an 18-minute drive through the 110-acre Harambe Wildlife Reserve. Unlike most rides, there are no guide rails attached to the vehicle, resulting in a more free-form adventure. The expedition winds through multiple types of terrain that accommodate different species, such as hippos and flamingos in the wetlands, cheetahs and mandrills in the thick foliage, giraffes and wildebeest on plains, and lions on a veritable Pride Rock. Different animals can be spotted at different times of day, and the new night tour offers a peek into nocturnal behavior.
Those who crave more private interactions can book intimate tours for an additional fee. For instance, guided walks through Harambe Wildlife Reserve run $189 to $249 per person, depending on the guest’s age and the timing of the visit. This Wild Africa Trek lasts three hours—so about nine times as long as the Kilimanjaro Safari ride—and features an exciting walk across a rope bridge that hangs just 10 feet above the watering hole where the crocodiles spend most of their time. (Don’t worry, guests are latched to the bridge, so even if you slip, you won’t become lunch.) At the end of the tour, trekkers enjoy a snack with a sprawling view of the reserve before heading back to the rest of the park. Other specialties include the Up Close With Rhinos tour ($40 per person) that delves into the science of white rhinos and Caring for Giants ($30 per person), a behind-the-scenes look at how elephants are cared for on the Disney property.
Travel deeper . . . underwater
Before booking a fish-forward trip, test the waters with your kids at Epcot’s SeaBase. This attraction in Future World is home to the Caribbean Coral Reef Aquarium, which houses over 4,000 sea creatures in 5.7 million gallons of water. Pique the curiosity of little ones by boarding a “clamobile” on The Seas With Nemo & Friends ride, then peep at the turtles, fish, sharks, and rays from behind the glass at the aquarium. The Observation Deck, a circular room on the second floor of SeaBase, surrounds guests with a nearly 360-degree view of sea life, making you feel like you’re underwater while still on dry ground.
More adventurous visitors can snorkel inside the aquarium as part of the Aqua Tour ($150 per person). This is not your average snorkel outing: Participants are provided with a wetsuit, a floatation device to keep them bobbing on the surface, and an oxygen tank instead of a typical breathing tube. Snorkelers age eight and up spend 30 to 40 minutes swimming with sea turtles, rays, dozens of species of fish, and—gulp—sharks. Certified scuba divers get a more in-depth experience with DiveQuest, touring the manatee and dolphin conservation areas backstage and then dropping 25 feet down into the aquarium tank. The swim begins with a lap led by the master diver before participants are free to roam about as they please. Guests as young as age 10 are allowed to participate in Epcot DiveQuest ($180 per person).
Get a taste for worldwide exploration
The 11 pavilions at Epcot’s World Showcase present a chance to dabble in the cuisine and customs of as many countries. Staffed largely by college-age foreign exchange students, it’s very likely that the person selling you a baguette is actually from France, or that your wood-fired pizza is being cooked by someone who grew up in Italy. While the multicultural encounters here may pale in comparison to what you’d find on a trip to the actual country, Epcot offers a great jumping-off point for international travel, especially when it comes to young children.
Frozen fans will want to flock to Norway, where character meet-and-greets take place amid fairy-tale structures based on traditional Norwegian design. But for more immersive interactions, head to Mexico, where an indoor pavilion maintains a violet nightscape all day long. A large pyramid inspired by Chichen Itza towers over vendor kiosks that evoke marketplace vibes. The Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros is a slow boat ride that takes guests along on a search for Donald Duck while learning about Mexican history and customs. Adults will want to stop at the La Cava del Tequila to sample the extensive selection of Mexican tequilas and mezcals.
Morocco stands out among the rest of the World Showcase, largely because it’s the only pavilion that was commissioned (and continues to be sponsored) by the Moroccan government instead of by a corporation. King Hassan II even flew artisans to Orlando to work on mosaics, ensuring that the religious art adhered to Islamic traditions. Sample lemon chicken tagine and merguez sausage at Restaurant Marrakesh, then take your time ogling the interior of the Fez House, an intricately tiled building that guests can walk through at their leisure. In France, the biggest draw is the exquisite food. Whether you’re picking out house-made ice cream and sorbet at L’Artisan des Glaces, splurging on dinner at Monsieur Paul, or perusing carby goodness at Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie, there is no culinary disappointment to be had at this pavilion.
For surprisingly accurate shopping, go to Japan. Walking into Mitsukoshi Department Store feels like stumbling into a Don Quijote variety store in Tokyo. While there are gorgeous gardens and koi ponds outside, the authenticity here is found in the representation of Japan’s obsession with pop culture. Snack on Kabuki Cafe’s kakigori—Japanese shaved ice—and geek out over the Pokémon and Sailor Moon merch, then be sure to catch Taiko drummers in the afternoon and evening. You’ll be looking up flights to Japan soon after leaving this pavilion. For a little less pop and a little more culture, check out the 360-degree theater show at Reflections of China, and stick around for the impressive gymnastics of the Jeweled Dragon Acrobats. Over in Canada, tinier tots will adore the gushing waterfall and the Victoria Gardens that are hiding just beyond the mining path. This particular pavilion may not be as impressive for pre-teens, but younger children are the right age (and size) to appreciate the grandeur of the small-scale sights.
Experiment with basic travel etiquette
Rather than inspiring a trip based on a specific destination or activity, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge introduces kids to travel etiquette that applies no matter where they find themselves. “Inhabitants”—the term for staff at Galaxy’s Edge—are more dedicated to playing their parts than any other characters in Disney Parks, meaning they’ll extend a “Bright suns!” greeting without hesitation and strike up conversations about droids, credits, hyperspace travel—any number of things that aren’t part of a visitor’s daily life. Adapting to the local lingo is a big part of travel, and engaging with one’s surroundings helps with acclimation.
Minimal signage means asking inhabitants for directions and recommendations, as you should when looking for an authentic experience abroad. Unconventional food like “A Taste of Takodana” at Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo encourages young travelers to experiment with local offerings—the meal looks like a garden on a plate, consisting of “edible soil” with black bean hummus and veggies. Whether presented with larb in Thailand, escargot in Paris, poi in Hawaii, or otherworldly food in Star Wars land, it’s good for little ones to learn to embrace new and unfamiliar options.
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