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It's a spa world after all

No one can have as many stupid reasons to fear a massage as I did.

When you're spun into the world from the middle-class Midwest, you go armed with all kinds of worthless advice: Don't sell a used car to a friend or family member. Don't let anyone borrow your comb. Don't pay anyone to touch you unless it's a medical emergency.

My recurring nightmare was that during a cigarette break with massage co-workers, the woman who had worked on me would interrupt the usual chat to say, "That guy I just did made my skin crawl."

Overcoming powerful, ingrained paranoia is the chosen battle of Niki Bryan, owner of the Grand Floridian Spa & Health Club at Disney World. The spa is designed to be a five-star complement to Disney World's best hotel. In a middle-class vacation haven such as Disney World, Bryan and staff have to massage the idea into the tense and timid that paying to relax is a good deal.

I wasn't so sure.

I turned myself in, and a half-hour before my appointment I was led to the "gentlemen's lounge." You fall fast into the program, sipping ginger peach tea as you change into the Disney-issue shorts, robe and shower slippers.

Even if you're still nervous, you relax quickly when your licensed massage therapist arrives to take you to a treatment room. New-age music is lilting, and the taste of sweet tea is on your tongue. Wearing a robe and slippers, you're being led down a carpeted hallway by a smiling therapist. (Yes! This is the mental asylum I've always dreamed about.)

I started with a mustard hydrobath (50 minutes, $60). I thought it would be bizarre, exotic and possibly involve yellow French's. I slid into a tub imported from France and was sprayed with 70 jets of water laced with powdered English mustard seeds and oils of eucalyptus, rosemary, wintergreen and thyme. The mix is meant to detox the body and combat fatigue.

The wet trunks come off in the next little room before the Swedish massage (25 minutes, $40). Naked. Not a problem. Once flat on the table, a towel covering the buns, you ring a bell and the massage therapist enters.

The young woman massaging me answered all my dumb questions and loosened muscles until I thought I could levitate: Yes, she can tell by tightened muscles who the real Type-A headcases are. No, you can't have too much fat burying muscle to benefit from a massage. "Just the touching can be relaxing," she said.

Next was a Dibitron Facial (50 minutes, $90). This Disney Spa promotes itself as unique, and this is one of the reasons. The computerized Dibitron mask uses mild, electrical stimulation to tone the skin. It was created in Italy to reduce stress. (Stress? Italy?) Though the Hannibal Lecter-like mask makes your face feel incredibly clean after a treatment, the better part is the fingers-on-the-face massage that follows. You hit a dreamy state about the time your temples untighten.

If an afternoon at the Disney Spa doesn't relax and revitalize you, your stress problems require a lawyer or a new identity.

Spa veterans will find plenty of options: Swedish, sports, reflexology, shiatsu and head, shoulder and back massages. (Treatment times run from 25 to 80 minutes, $40 to $110.)

There are seven different facial treatments (30 to 50 minutes, $50 to $90) along with as many water therapy baths, including mustard and marine algae (50 minutes, $60).

Manicures (40 minutes, $35) and pedicures (50 minutes, $45) are available, along with package combinations of all the services. (All spa treatments have an 18 percent service charge added to the price.)

Before putting together the treatments that would be offered at Disney, Deborah Evans, the spa's executive director, toured spas throughout Europe.

"Our culture is one of the few that is shy about self-care," she says. "I spent a month in Germany and went to a lot of spas. To go have a (spa) bath, it's like brushing their teeth. They do it for preventive care and health maintenance. In Japan and India it's part of the lifestyle."

Another new wrinkle at the Disney spa is that kids are welcome. My First Manicure is youth-priced (40 minutes, $35), and there is also My First Pedicure (25 minutes, $20) and My First Facial (30 minutes, $50).

The invitation to kids, along with rooms where a parent and child can have simultaneous treatments, are ways to make spa visits as routine here as they are in other parts of the world.

Spa owner Bryan, an Orlando native from a citrus and cattle family, used to take her daughters to the Breakers in Palm Beach for mother/daughter etiquette weekends. At about 8 years old, it was time to learn about fine dining.

"We created this from those Palm Beach weekends," she says of the spa's willingness to attract children. The lesson is that parents can bring their children to learn about spas usually at about 10 years old.

Or 45.

And Niki Bryan's right about not raising massage-phobic kids.

My 10-year-old had a Swedish massage (25 minutes, $40) recently and left saying he'd rather go back to the spa than buy a new video game. (A boy Italy could be proud of.) The wife? She said no way. She, too, was raised in a middle-class family in the Midwest, and she wouldn't let you use her comb either.

If you go

For more information, call the Grand Floridian Spa & Health Club at Disney World, (407) 824-2332.