LIKE ALL GREAT CEO'S, DISNEY CHAIRMAN Michael Eisner wants to control everything in the world; what sets him apart is his conviction that this is for the world's own good. So he could not fail to be impressed when his wife brought him to the Chautauqua Institution, which has been improving upper-middle-class minds with lectures, concerts and sermons each summer for more than a century. Here by a lake in upstate New York was a resort with affluent demographics, a return-visit rate of 80 percent and an infrastructure consisting mostly of lecture halls and trees. If it weren't a nonprofit foundation, Eisner realized, it would be a gold mine.
A decade later, the world can see the fruits of Eisner's inspiration: the Disney Institute, which opened this month as the latest addition to Disney's ever-evolving empire of themed resorts in Orlando, Fla. The Disney Institute is an education-themed resort, a Disneyland of the mind. It has no glad-handing Goofys lurching down its paths, no robot hippos lurking in plastic-fronded wallows. Retired couples and young families stroll among the pine-shaded cottages, the porticoed studios and halls, seeking sustenance for the intellect and spirit in programs such as . . . let's see: In-Depth Golf, Hydra-Quench Body Glow, Disney Character Drawing, Lunch and Learn, Topiary Creations. There are performances and workshops every night by guest artists; perhaps the best-known so far was the composer Morton Gould (who, regrettably, died in his sleep there last week, the night before he was to conduct a concert by the U.S. Military Academy Band). The Disney Institute, says Disney vice president Richard Hutton, "was inspired by Chautauqua but meant to be quintessentially Disney."
And it is! The programs at the Disney Institute are to education what the French pavilion in the EPCOT theme park is to France-- a self-contained simulacrum for those who can't be bothered to seek out the real thing. Hutton, a former journalist and public-television producer, headed a team that spent three years developing more than 500 potential programs, then discarding all but about 125 of them. Chautauqua standbys such as religion, philosophy and ancient history weren't even considered, but Healthy Cooking, Computer Animation, Better Home Videos, Self-Defense Aerobics and Couples Only (". . . learn to recapture that spark of passion with lively and fun ways to add spice to your partnership") made the cut. There are no semesters, sequences or prerequisites (except in a few technical areas); guests can come any time and choose whatever interests them. Disney expects most to stay three or four nights and take one or two programs each day. Three-night packages start at $349. Teenagers have their own "youth" programs, but the Disney theme parks are all nearby, so no one is in danger of burning out from an excess of scholarship. To be precise, the institute is designed to impart what Hutton calls "a sense of wonder," rather than a lot of useful information. Halfway through a two-hour session on salads last week, the class was preparing to tackle a basic vinaigrette. The first hour's project was an "infused raspberry-thyme vinegar," whose recipe calls for pouring vinegar over raspberries and thyme.
Yet Disney's high standards are everywhere in evidence--in the fully equipped individual workstations for cooking classes, the rock-climbing wall modeled from an actual section of authentic California mountainside, the state-of-the-art sand in the sand-sculpting pit. The instructors are all experts in their fields. Sand sculpture is taught by Mark Mason, who finished first in the 1993 world sand-sculpting championships in British Columbia. All are schooled in Disney's trademark cheerfulness and optimism. "You guys," says Paul Naas, a professional animator running a program in how to talk like a cartoon character, "are asking great questions."
The whole project, after all, like everything else at Disney World, is conceived as a show. The institute even adheres to the Disney convention that any employee who comes into contact with a guest is a "cast member." And if you, the guest, can regard it all as a performance, so much the better. The waiter who carefully announces "I'm going to the kitchen now, and I'm going to get your appetizers and put them right down on this lazy susan here," isn't treating you like a moron, he's saying his lines. When the computer momentarily loses a reservation, the cast member at the desk acts concerned, then apologetic, then cheerful as she offers to compensate the guest by waiving the price of his programs. They're actually included in the room price anyway, but these days, it's nice to have someone even act like she cares about you.
And, oddly, even the guests seem to take on predestined roles: the sullen adolescent who mutters "stuff" when the ice-breaking cast member asks what he's been doing so far; the exhibitionist housewife who pretends to be embarrassed to step up to a microphone and talk like a cartoon dog, but volunteers to go first "to get it over with"; the elderly couple diligently practicing the 15-step protocol for drawing Mickey Mouse, and tenderly complimenting one another on the outcome. "Everyone here believes anyone can draw," Naas says earnestly. Most of us know we really can't draw, but it's nice to be in a place where people act otherwise. Most people don't get to take vacations in France, either, but Disney has convinced them it's almost the same thing to eat crepes in Orlando. No wonder it's taking over the world.