By Amy Cates
: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Listen closely, and you will hear the collective sighs of kids who really just want a vacation
. But you are the parent planning a family trip, and you are on a quest for the elusive “excused absence” from school.
: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Or maybe you just want to add educational value to the family vacation, even if you’re setting out for a theme park during the school year.
: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Done right, even the most touristy destinations – such as Orlando, Fla. – can be educational, without stopping at historic landmarks or every “former home of ...” along the way.
: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Don’t think of an educational vacation as such. Instead, work to incorporate opportunities that already exist into your itinerary.
“Take a Look; It’s in a Book!”
Theme parks are generally based on characters and plots from movies, cartoons or children’s literature. Take a closer look, and you’ll find dozens of ways to turn an amusement ride at a theme park into a reading adventure.
: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">At Universal Orlando
in Orlando, Fla.(407-363-8000; www.universalstudios.com), for example, Curious George comes to life in the form of an interactive water play area, “Curious George Goes to Town.” A few steps away, kids can meet PBS children’s television characters Barney, Baby Bop and BJ every day, following the stage musical, “A Day in the Park With Barney.”
Next door, at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Seuss Landing honors beloved Dr. Seuss stories, such as The Cat in the Hat and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, with amusement rides and costumed characters sporadically roaming throughout the Landing. It’s fun, but it’s also a chance to tie in children’s literature. Include children’s books related to these themes in your kids’ backpacks for the long car ride to and from a theme park. And be sure to talk with your kids about the books!
Take a Guided Tour
Check out each park’s education department. For an additional charge and advance reservations, many parks offer a behind-the-scenes look at park operations through either an education or public relations department.
Sea World in Orlando (407-351-3600; www.SeaWorld.org), already a slam-dunk as an educational field trip, transforms a vacation into a learning adventure with a strong menu of guided tours. Depending on your kids’ interests, you can choose from the Polar Expedition, Animal Rescue, Predators and Let’s Talk Training. All tours give participants a backstage view, and the day-long Adventure Express tour allows guests to feed dolphins, sea lions and rays and provides premium seating at two select shows, along with other perks.
While the Visitor Complex at Kennedy Space Center (321-449-4444; www.KennedySpaceCenter.com), just 40 miles east of Orlando, is easily self-guided, the bus tour tells the NASA story far more effectively than a parent with binoculars and a penchant for reading every inscribed plaque. The bus tour also offers limited access to such restricted areas as shuttle launch pads and the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building).
Consult Your Host Hotel
Many hotels are recognizing that families combine business with leisure, and even with school. Orlando’s Holiday Inn Family Suites (407-387-KIDS; www.hifamilysuites.com) has put together “Edu-Va-Cation Programs” especially for homeschoolers, a partnership that showcases SeaWorld Adventure Camps, Orlando Science Center (407-514-2000; www.osc.org ) and Gatorland (407-855-5496; www.gatorland.com). Family friendly hotels like Holiday Inn Family Suites can guide you to nearby destinations that do double-duty.
Catch a Movie
Many parks and museums offer IMAX movies that seemingly grab audience members by the shoulders and get them excited about the subject at hand. At sites like Kennedy Space Center, IMAX movies are like thrill rides with an added dimension. Kennedy offers the only back-to-back twin IMAX theaters in the world, and after watching “Space Station” in 3-D, even the most skeptical young guest can’t wait to explore the Visitor Complex and meet the astronauts.
Wander off the Beaten Path
It’s where you’re likely to come across some unexpected surprises. WonderWorks (407-351-8800; www.wonderworksonline.com ), for example, sits in the middle of Orlando’s convention district, but markets itself as a nighttime destination. Think of it as an air-conditioned amusement park and science museum. The premise: A tornado lifted a research laboratory from an uncharted island in the Bermuda Triangle and slammed it upside down at Pointe Orlando. Disguised as an entertainment destination, WonderWorks features more than 100 hands-on science exhibits, including a hurricane hole, bridge of fire and simulated earthquake, all with sophisticated graphic and audio presentation techniques.
Check Destination Web Sites
If you want free, worthwhile activities that correlate with the sites you’ll see, the parks’ Web sites offer reams of printable fact sheets, word searches and (from Sea World) songs about sea mammals.
Amy Cates is a Birmingham freelance writer and mother of four.
From Birmingham Family Times, a United Parenting Publication, September 2003.