ScoutingMarch-April 2000

Troop 73's 2,500-Mile Learning Adventure

By Jennie Hess

Scout Spirit Days—a special Walt Disney World program for earning merit badges—highlights a Massachusetts troop's dream trip to Florida.

At Fort Wilderness, animal care specialist Paul D'Ancicco introduces the Scouts of Troop 73 to a 13-foot-long python, which weighs 45 pounds.

Standing beneath a canopy of giant oaks and sycamores in the Magic Kingdom Theme Park at Florida's Walt Disney World Resort, physics teacher Evie Albano oozes enthusiasm as she talks about G-forces.

Her audience of Boy Scouts from Troop 73, Holliston, Mass., is transfixed as she explains the intense pull that accelerating gravity causes.

"At 5 G-forces your face starts squishing," says Albano, an instructor for the Disney Youth Education Series (Y.E.S.) program at Walt Disney World, as she pulls her cheek skin back toward her scalp. "You're drooling and highly adorable. And at 10 G-forces, you're..."

"Dead?" one Scout offers.

"Dead," assures Albano, "unless you're wearing the right equipment."

Theme-park scientists

Merit Badge

The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad's vertical 2.5 to 3 G-forces won't bring anyone close to drooling. But measuring G-forces while taking a spin on the popular Magic Kingdom roller coaster ride is a great way to learn a physics lesson.

Before the Scouts board the train, Albano shows them how to monitor G-forces during the ride with vertical and horizontal accelerometers. She also equips a half-dozen Scouts and leaders with nearly full cups of water with wrist attachments. (c)

"We are going to try to overcome inertia," Albano explains, with a quick demonstration of how to avoid spilling water by moving the cup in coordination with the ride's speed changes, sharp turns, and steep dives.

When the ride ends, however, most cups are empty. Only assistant Scoutmaster Don McWilliams has managed to (partially) overcome inertia, with about one-third of the water remaining in his cup.

Just say Y.E.S. to merit badges

The G-force experiment is part of the six-hour "Disney's World of Physics," one of several daylong sessions offered inside and behind the scenes of the Walt Disney World Theme Parks.

Instructor Dawn Nason helps (at left) Tim Patterson and David Coviello work on the Reptile and Amphibian Study merit badge.

Available subjects include art, science, and the humanities, and Scouts have opportunities to earn merit badges in Y.E.S. programs available at Disney's four Orlando theme parks. (See box below.)

For Troop 73, chartered to the Holliston First Congregational Church, the Magic Kingdom program was just one stop. Thanks to a variety of unit money-earning projects, the Scouts were able to make a 13-day trip. Altogether, they stayed nine days at the Walt Disney World Resort. In that time, they participated in seven Y.E.S. programs.

Twenty-seven Scouts made the trip, along with six assistant Scoutmasters and several families. To participate in programs, the troop divided into smaller groups, each led by a Disney instructor.

"The idea for the trip was that the boys would be able to see things they otherwise might never see, and it would provide an educational experience—something the boys will remember for the rest of their lives," said Scoutmaster Nick D'Agostino.

"We thought the trip would be a great opportunity to get to know the other kids better," added Mark Ahronian, father of 12-year-old David. (Ahronian; his wife, Linda; and 4-year-old daughter, Amber, joined the troop to make it a family vacation.)

Camp at Disney's Fort Wilderness

Matt Texeira, Matt Sarsfield, Tim Bowen, Mark Christensen, Mike Texeira, Pat Bowen, and David Ahronian pause for refreshment in Disney's Animal Kingdom.

The troop set up camp at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, their 19 tents neatly spaced in a thicket of pines. On four two-burner stoves and an open fire, they prepared meals of barbecued chicken and foil dinners of potatoes, carrots, burgers, and onions. They ate at picnic tables, mercifully shaded by a tarp that offered some relief during Florida's humid, 95-degree days.

But the heat hardly put a damper on an ambitious schedule that included an early-morning photo shoot at Cinderella Castle—with none other than Mickey Mouse himself in a Boy Scout uniform—and a flag ceremony with a Disney band, in front of crowds of tourists in the Magic Kingdom Town Square.

Most Scouts, however, cited the Space Mountain thrill-ride in the Magic Kingdom and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at the Disney-MGM Studios as the trip's "greatest hits."

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said senior patrol leader Tim Patterson, 15, adding that his favorite ride was the Space Mountain roller coaster, which takes place in darkness. "You lose some of your senses in the dark," he said. "The drops seem longer, and you seem to go much faster."

Eagle Scout and junior assistant Scoutmaster Ben D'Agostino, 17, agreed: "The roller coaster structure looked bigger [when the lights were on] than I had expected. And the ride did seem much faster with the lights off."

Unlocking mysteries

Merit Badge

The physics program gave the Scouts a behind-the-scenes look at how things work in the Magic Kingdom. They learned, for example, that the illusion of ghosts in The Haunted Mansion is created through projection, reflection, ultraviolet radiation, and other optical effects.

They explored the hydraulics and pneumatics of Disney's famous Audio-Animatronics technology and learned how sound and electromagnetism are used in the theme parks.

Their "Synergy in Science" session took place at Epcot, a theme park offering an abundance of science and technology programs. Standing beneath the immense geosphere, Spaceship Earth, the Scouts tried to determine why rain rolling off the giant globe's rounded sides doesn't soak everyone seeking shelter there.

Their theory: The sphere uses "rings" or "gutters" to grab the rain before it can douse the unsuspecting visitors below. And they were correct. Disney Imagineers—who created the attraction—built unseen gutters into Spaceship Earth, both to protect visitors and to reclaim rainwater for irrigating Disney's 30,000-acre property.

Fantastic voyages

Troop 73 gathers in front of Cinderella Castle to record a highlight moment of their epic journey to Walt Disney World.

In an air-conditioned auditorium, the Scouts enjoyed the 3-D movie and special effects of "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience." Then they conducted their own experiment in 3-D technology and learned about laser applications in Disney attractions.

At the high-tech simulation, "Body Wars," the troop took a "Fantastic-Voyage"-like ride inside the human body. Afterward, they saw how the 40-seat simulator they had just "traveled" in was actually a giant metal box on hydraulic lifts. It moved from three feet to 20 feet above the floor, tilting as much as 45 degrees.

On remote TV screens, the Scouts watched the next group of "passengers" being tossed and bounced on the ride that was created by director George Lucas, who created the Star Wars movies; Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame; and Walt Disney Imagineering.

"They look like they're dancing in their seats!" said 12-year-old James Hilton.

Wildlife habitat

Days later, in wildlife areas around Fort Wilderness, it was the Scouts who were squirming in their seats. In a lush habitat of birds, alligators, snakes, and quarter-ton Galapagos tortoises, they were face-to-face with a young Burmese python, wrapped around animal care specialist Paul D'Ancicco. Weighing 45 pounds and at 13 feet in length, the black, brown, and olive-patterned snake was intimidating indeed.

"They can eat something twice the size of their head," explained instructor Dawn Nason. "That's about like you eating a basketball."

The Scouts eventually overcame their uneasiness and expressed a willingness to pet the awesome reptile. As Nason offered more details, D'Ancicco showed each boy how to gently stroke the python.

"I always thought they'd be slimier," observed Scout Tim Patterson. "But he's really kind of dry."

The next creature on the reptile and amphibian agenda, a prehensile-tailed skink from the Solomon Islands, was less accommodating. It promptly urinated on Craig Pothier, 12, and the other Scouts erupted in laughter.

"Did you know that means you will have good luck for the rest of the day?" reassured Nason, who is education manager for Disney's Wilderness Adventures. Her department provides merit badge sessions in bird studies, reptiles, amphibians, and environmental science.

The boys divided into smaller groups for their merit badge work, moving among four stations to study characteristics, adaptations, and habits of the critters they had observed.

Badges earned

At one station in their merit badge workshop, Craig Pothier, at left, and Tim Bowen, Jeff Babitts, and Matt Texeira map out the habitats of various reptiles and amphibians.

By the end of their nine-day visit, the Scouts had passed most requirements for the Reptile and Amphibian Study merit badge. About half of the boys finished their Bird Study requirements. And in three sessions at the Disney-MGM Studios, they completed the Cinematography merit badge.

Back home in Holliston, Scoutmaster D'Agostino looked back on the summer's adventure.

"After a year of planning, I was glad everything went well, but sad that it was over so quickly," he said.

The Scouts of Troop 73 all returned to Holliston with a newfound kinship, he added.

"There is a bond from their experiences that will keep them close for years to come."

Freelance writer Jennie Hess lives in Orlando, Fla.

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