The Disney Institute puts a new spin on "school," as guests dabble in animation, play deejay for a day, and climb a rock wall named Norman.
Attending dedication-week activities at the Disney Institute near Orlando last spring, a Detroit engineer decided to shed his buttondown demeanor and get goofy. He and his wife signed up for classes in how to prepare romantic dinners for two, perform stand-up comedy routines, and provide voices for animated characters. "We wanted to do out-of-the-ordinary things," he explains of their seven-day adventure in self-discoveryland. "Now we know how to cook red snapper, tell jokes, and talk like munchkins."
Learning-Walt's way-has never been more fun. Institute guests attend as many programs as they choose, suffer no penalty for skipping class or ducking out early for golf, and aren't bothered by homework, detention, or tests. All courses are electives, and the teaching method is strictly handson. Wannabe broadcasters man the mike at the Disney News Network; prospective mountain climbers scale a 26-foot rock wall that the staff has nicknamed "Norman"; and clipperswielding gardeners gingerly buzz bushes into topiary treasures. Instructors insist they are more like coaches than teachers, and one "coach" confesses that she and her colleagues toss a dollar into the kitty whenever they slip and say "class" rather than "workshop."
"This is adult education in a relaxed setting," says Dr. John Gray, best-selling author of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. As one of more than 200 artists-inresidence who will pop in to lead seminars this year, Gray is enthusiastic about the spin-off benefits of Disney's newest vacation venture. "Nothing is more potent at killing relationships than ruts and routines," explains the marriage expert. "Couples should get out of the house, go someplace beautiful, and do something different."
A "term" at the lush, 58-acre Institute is just what the doctor ordered. After booking their reservations, guests design individual programs based on offerings from eight core categories (culinary arts, design arts, entertainment arts, environment, lifestyles, performing arts, story arts, and sports and fitness). On any given day, they may opt to create sand sculptures, shoot home videos, cook with herbs, canoe a wilderness swamp, or explore their family trees. Flexibility prevails, and students drop, add, and switch classes as they lose inhibitions and gain a sense of adventure. Groups are small-15 students to one instructor is typical-and all equipment is provided. Computers are loaded with the latest animation software, cameras are pricey and new, and the culinary program boasts enough fine cookware to equip 125 dream kitchens.
"It's smart fun," says Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who traces the Institute idea to a vacation he and his wife spent at New York's …