No Mickey, no Minnie. Is someone totally Goofy? What's going on here at Walt Disney World?
Blame it on Disney mastermind Michael Eisner and his never-ending quest to draw vacationers to this one-time orange grove southwest of Orlando, now, along with its older sister in California, the "Happiest Place on Earth."His latest (as far as we know) brainstorm, the Disney Institute, will open Feb. 9 as a first-class resort where adults and families with older children - minimum age 10 - can pursue a wide range of activities and interests. They'll get hands-on experience and, at the same time, stimulate their minds.
The institute, Eisner says, will be "a resort with a creatively charged atmosphere where you can engage your body, excite your mind and expand your horizons."
Eisner's idea stems in part from having attended classes and events each summer for several years at the long-established Chautauqua Institution on Lake Erie in western New York.
It's also based on travel surveys that, according to Disney, show Americans prefer more "active" leisure time, shorter vacations, more participatory travel experiences and all-inclusive packaging.
Disney Institute guests will choose from 80 programs offered each day in entertainment arts, performing arts, sports and fitness, culinary arts, design arts, environment, lifestyles and story arts.
In addition, an artists-in-residence program will feature musicians, dancers, chefs, writers, filmmakers, athletes and others.
Notables scheduled to participate include actors Andy Garcia and Theodore Bikel; director / screenwriter Jim Abrahams; basketball star Bill Walton; decathlon Olympic golf medalist Bruce Jenner; Arizona Wildcats basketball coach Lute Olson; movie critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert; blues artist James Cotton; jazz pianist Billy Taylor; composer Morton Gould; and architect Robert A. M. Stern.
There will be no sign of Mickey Mouse - or any of the other Disney characters - unless it's one of the computer creations a guest comes up with in the animation studios.
"You're not coming here to go to a theme park," says spokesman Bob Mervine. "There's a Disney shop (Dabblers) but they're not selling plush Mickeys or mouse ears."
Mervine says a lot of institute guests, however, are booking pre-or post- Disney World vacations. And certain institute packages include a one-day / one-park Walt Disney World Theme Park pass.
"A lot are not first-time Walt Disney World guests," he says. "They've done Disney. This will provide a reason to come back. It also will appeal to `intenders' - those who need something to motivate them to come to Walt Disney World."
Guests can do as much or as little as they wish in any area they choose. Programs will be offered on a three-, four- or seven-night basis, and participants can drop out or change courses if they find they're not interested.
They can choose topics a la carte or as a package from a particular program area.
"It's a new concept for Disney and within the industry," Mervine says. "It takes the elements of a cruise, spa, dude ranch, tennis / golf vacation and combines them."
The campus-like setting, adjacent to the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course, is designed to resemble a middle-American town of the 1940s-'60s, with buildings organized around a "town green" that fronts Buena Vista Lagoon. The institute is close to the Disney Village Marketplace and Pleasure Island. Accommodations (457 guest rooms) are in renovated bungalows / townhouses once part of the Disney Village Resorts.
Dining rooms are named after the seasons, and food is served family-style. Meals can be part of the package or optional.
In addition to the 18-hole golf course, facilities include 28 program studios; a broadcast-quality performance hall; outdoor amphitheater; a 415- seat state-of-the-art cinema with stage; closed-circuit TV and radio stations; a 38,000-square-foot sports and fitness center with full-service spa; six swimming pools; clay tennis courts; an NBA-size basketball court; 26- foot rock climbing wall; youth center; and teaching garden and potting shed.
Mervine expects animation courses to be one of the big draws, as well as cooking and wine classes, how to produce better home videos, TV and radio production, re-designing your home's interior, designing gardens, antique treasure hunting, and fitness programs.
Programs of particular interest for children 10-17 include a three-night "primitive camping" adventure into the Florida wetlands; sand sculpture; sports and fitness programs, including rock climbing; improving campus yearbook and newspaper photos; teen-produced radio and TV shows; storytelling programs; scavenger hunts; and computer dabbling.
Youth Central is a teen hangout with video games, magazines, books, music videos, dancing, swimming pool and refrigerator with snacks. At night, it will include dances, movies, improvisational acting and murder-mystery events.
Each of the programs has an instructor / guest ratio of about one to 15. Disney expects 500-600 guests at any one time during the institute's first year, and the numbers could go up to 1,100-1,200 after the institute gets going.
"It's a niche in our market that's not being served," Mervine says. "Guests will walk away from here with something more than a sun tan."
IF YOU GO
The Disney Institute is offering a premiere season package from its opening Feb. 9 through May 18. Rates for a minimum three-night stay start at $349 per person, double occupancy. That includes accommodations; all programs except private golf or tennis lessons, green fees and individual spa treatments; baggage handling; gratuities; and a one-day visit to one Walt Disney World theme park. The package, subject to space availability, must be booked by March 15.
An optional meal plan and additional nights also are available. In addition, guests selecting the meal plan may choose the upgraded World Choice Plan for an additional $24 per person per day, which gives unlimited access to all eight Disney theme parks and a choice of dining options from more than 60 Walt Disney World Resort restaurants.
For reservations, contact your travel agent or the Disney Institute, 800-496-6337.
(Mim Swartz is travel editor of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver.)