What Disney World Can Teach Us About Museum-based Learning, Part 1

Last year when I returned from on a one-week family trip to Disney World, I brought back more than just a bag full of Mickey-shaped chocolates. I was inspired by the myriad ways the Park designers had created games, activity guides and more to augment and enhance the visitor experience. I shared my experience with my colleagues (and tested their patience, I imagine, on more than one occasion) but, looking back, much of our work has been influenced by those seven short days. In this post I want to highlight how that trip has influenced our programs in the past year (while my next post will reflect on things I learned from my most recent trip).
Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom
what Disney did…
Last year I was particularly take by both Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom (SoTMK) and Animal Kingdom’s Wilderness Explorers. SoTMK is a game played throughout the streets and alleys of Disney’s main park, the Magic Kingdom, using Pokemon-style collectible cards featuring over 70 Disney film heroes. Players use a card key at select locations to unlock a “portal” – a video screen – to present the visitor the next segment of the story and allow the player to use their hero cards to fight Disney movie villains. From an outsider’s perspective, players wait in line to watch videos in shop windows who then, after about a minute of video watching, hold cards up in the air before moving on. At the time I was amazed at the seamless way Disney had hidden the technology (in the cards and the video kiosks) to create an intuitive, location-specific, collectible card game.
what we did…
Now, a year later, SoTMK is no small source of inspiration for our upcoming MicroRangers game, which invites Museum visitors to experience the Museum at the microscopic scale and protect our microbiomes. There is much different between the two games, which is appropriate – Disney is brand-oriented while we, as a natural history museum, are collections-based. In other words, Disney is more interested in asking visitors to help Disney’s Pocahontas fight evil settlers while we’re more interested in sharing authentic Native American artifacts. But I look forward to learning what SoTMK fans think about MicroRangers once we launch it later this year.

SoTMK promotional poster.

MicroRanger players trig the AR video.


Wilderness Explorers
what Disney did…
Traditional print activity guides aren’t dead, particularly for families. While often maligned as restaurant place mats to distract children before the arrival of their meal, families desire scaffolding to support and guide their children to connect with content within cultural and civic institutions, like museums, zoos and, yes, even Disney World. Wilderness Explorers – inspired by the movie Up – invites children to join the Explorers then, using their print guide, complete missions throughout Disney’s Animal Kingdom (which my kids called the Disney Museum of Natural History). To get the badges – stickers within their booklet – children need to interact with Wilderness Guides (college students studying content-related fields) who are well trained to ask processing questions to help budding Explorers better understand both the animal kingdom and world cultures. Last year my kids loved both the Guide and the Park; this year my children did not use the guide – and were totally bored by the park. It was a remarkable testament to how effectively the Guide had engaged my children a year earlier and helped them to draw deeper meaning from the Park.
what we did…
In the past year we’ve developed two projects that studied guides from not just Disney but also from museums like the Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of the American Indian and others, like the New York State Parks Department. One project integrates a traditional print guide, a children’s story and a digital component that brings the child’s print art to life (through an augmented reality, interactive animation), with each section focusing on a different cultural treasure within our Hall of Northwest Coast Indians (like a puffin mask, a button blanket, and our famous hanging-from-the-ceiling canoe). When we launched the youth component of the development process we invited Nadine Kocanjer, who leads the Wilderness Explorer program at Animal Kingdom, to speak via Skype with the students. Currently called Dreams of the Haida Child, it currently just finished its first prototype phase. The second project, in the midst of its own prototyping period, is called CSN: Crime Scene Neanderthal. Focused on Neanderthal content within both our Hall of Human Origins and its Sackler Lab for Comparative Genomics and Human Origins, CSN is letting us explore what happens when we combine a traditional print guide with integrated mobile activities and live facilitators. While Dreams is heavy on the stand-alone print activities, the CNS co-developers within the youth program moved much of the activities into the Lab and the mobile app, with the print guide playing more of a supporting player role.

A new crop of Wilderness Explorers.

A new crop of Neanderthal Detectives.

Next post I’ll review some highlights from my trip to Disney this year.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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2 Responses to What Disney World Can Teach Us About Museum-based Learning, Part 1

  1. rik says:

    Always good to steal from the best! Disney hires the best experience designers in the world. I also find their parks inspiring and thought-provoking for my museum.

  2. I once did a visitor services training for education staff that used some ideas from Disney. I think the museum world needs to learn more from other models in all areas of work.

    Also glad to see that you experimented with paper as well as technology. So important to provide both for different types of learners. Looking forward to your next post!

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