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A chip off the old block? Not this new Disney sibling

Rock climbing as taught by members of the dance group Pilobolus. Gourmet cooking with Richard Stoltzman, popular jazz clarinetist and lesser-known cordon bleu baker. Lessons with members of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Ensemble as they choreograph a new routine.

If such experiences are the last thing you'd expect from a vacation in the artificial atmosphere of Walt Disney World, more surprises await tourists who check into the Disney Institute that opens next February.

Poetry readings. Socratic dialogues with Wall Street takeover artists like Bruce Wasserstein. Group harmonica lessons with jazz harpist John Cotton.

It's all part of a novel enclave that could become the most innovative imprint _ or most ignominious bust _ left by Walt Disney Co. chairman Michael Eisner at Disney World, his company's biggest collection of escapist theme parks.

"We live in an age where discovering new things is a lifetime priority," said Eisner. "The Disney Institute will be a resort with a creatively charged atmosphere, where you can engage your body, excite your mind, expand your horizons."

No, this is not another health spa with "I'm OK, you're OK" lectures from pop psychologists.

The model is a blend of Chautauqua, the century-old cultural retreat in upstate New York, self-help and celebrity cruise ship excursions and any of the dozens of resorts and dude ranches peddling self-improvement as a vacation elixir.

But Eisner, who personally helped shape the institute's business plan in a gestation process that took as long as dreaming up a new theme park, has come up with something that could boldly thrust Disney into new territory.

The Disney Institute is supposed to be a sort of backstage tour of the creative process.

Its small, intimate stages and recording-quality studios are supposed to offer more than the same old concert fare by artists.

Disney wants to show the tricks artists use to create. Jazz groups will be urged to stage rehearsals of works in progress, stage performers to try new material, speakers to bounce their latest brainstorm off an audience for the first time.

"We're not necessarily looking for celebrities. We're looking for extremely talented people, prominent figures who really enjoy people and interaction," said Richard Hutton, a former public TV executive who runs the institute. "We're trying to show creative artists as human beings who just have a different way of looking at things."

Disney has yet to sign any contracts with artists. But more than 100 well-known personalities have agreed in principle to appear.

Not all of them are from the popular entertainment world. Disney promises a parade of big-time architects, sports figures, interior designers, classical musicians, even financiers. Each will be challenged to do something educational with small groups of 15 guests who are supposed to come away with a sense of direct participation.

"Musicians always tell you their greatest performances are in rehearsal, where the creative process takes place," said Raymond T. Grant, the institute's program development manager. "We want our audience to share that moment of discovery."

Another vehicle, Disney figures, is to find well-known artists with passions for lesser-known hobbies that relate to their art. Four of the Pilobolus principals, for instance, are certified rock-climbing instructors who want to show how rock climbing connects to their stage performances.

All this is a tall order for Disney, an entertainment giant that is spreading its tentacles into the travel and tourism business. It is adding a Disney spin to successful ventures created by competitors: waterslides, cruise lines, resorts, world's fairs, film studio theme parks and, soon, zoological theme parks.

And vacationers will have to make a leap of faith to book reservations. They won't know the course leaders until they arrive. And each workshop is supposed to be a spontaneous experience that may or may not come off, a departure from Disney's traditional reliance on robots and tightly controlled actors to execute the exact same performance day after day.

Vacations at the 457-room institute won't be cheap. Starting at $761 for a three-night stay, the institute is priced comparably to the Grand Floridian Resort, Disney's priciest hotel. But guests will choose from 80 programs in nine different interest groups _ entertainment arts, sports and fitness, lifestyles, story arts, culinary arts, design arts, entertainment, youth and performing arts.

And the twice-a-day seminars will be followed by evening artists-in-residence performances. There will also be chances to rub elbows with artists beyond the workshops. Meals will be served in a dining hall where the talent will be encouraged but not required to take meals.

Booking talent promises to be a monumental challenge. Guest artists will be paid far less than they would get for a concert appearance. And Disney is giving them latitude to cancel on short notice. So Disney, which plans to augment the artists-in-residence with an in-house staff, runs the risk of turning off paying customers who don't see enough big names.

Disney pledges to keep appearances from becoming just another stop on a book promotion tour, the movie-plugging talk show circuit or a stage for live versions of infomercials geared to sell products.

As many as a third of the artists, however, will be figures who have also booked themselves on cruise-ship vacation packages for loyal fans.

Disney polled prospective guests' interests to develop a curriculum that fit in with vacations. That's how culinary arts, landscape design and gardening made the agenda.

But Disney added others such as storytelling arts, design arts, mapping family history and performance arts. And a slew of sporting and wilderness adventure workshops were created for children older than 10.

The institute also is geared to help fill a Disney World void: Families with older children are in short supply at Disney World parks.

Of course, marketing this new attraction poses problems. Explaining the institute to prospective vacationers takes so long that Disney set up a separate reservations system with specially trained operators.

"The institute requires a more-than-one-drink explanation," joked Grant, adding that getting the idea across to the artists hasn't been much easier.

"But once they understand the spirit, they're very enthusiastic. Many even wanted to know how many times a year they can come."

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