It's easy to take the Mickey out of anything Disney. On this side of the Atlantic, it's always open season on the Mouse. So I'll admit right from the start that I love Disney World. I love the way everything works perfectly, I love the organisation and the cleanliness, I love the way they have thought of everything so you don't have to think of anything and,most of all, I love the feeling that nothing bad could ever happen in the Land of Walt.
And if, after a few days at Disney, one gets the urge to undermine the cheeriness of the relentlessly upbeat staff, it is worth remembering that it would be so much worse if they were surly and unhelpful.
Whatever you think of the Disney philosophy, it is impossible to deny the technical quality of their enterprises, and that applies, too, to the Disney Institute, one of the newest ventures to open in the 45 square mile Walt Disney World empire in Florida.
If Disney's theme parks are for children of all ages, the Disney Institute is aimed primarily at adults. There isn't a mouse in sight (except in the computer animation classes), and its two slogans, "Make your own magic" and "You won't believe what you can do", suggest what this grand experiment in edutainment is all about.
The things you won't believe you can do include rock climbing and canoeing, drawing cartoons, baking cordon bleu chocolate confections, creating topiary, acting in a film, or imagining a new Disney attraction or story. People usually sign up for three nights or more - although you can also come as a day visitor - and take a range of one-off hands-on classes, use the luxury spa and fitness centre, collaborate with artists-in-residence, hear lectures from well-known speakers, go to a movie, and attend evening musical performances. All without leaving the 57-acre lake-side site.
The thing I still don't believe I can do is draw cartoons. This being the home of Disney, it seemed apt to take some animation classes - despite my serious lack of artistic ability.
In the animation sampler class, a Disney animator named Paul showed us how cartoons are developed, what sort of work and thinking is entailed, and the timescale they often work under at Disney. Peter Pan, for instance,was begun in the 1930s, but not released until 1955. The Little Mermaid, started around the same time, came out in 1989.
But the most startling piece of information was that Salvador Dali worked
at Disney Studios during the 1940s, on
an extension of Fantasia. The great moustachioed one was, however, not a great collaborator, and only 17 seconds of film was made. "It's interesting to think what might have happened," said Paul.
He himself became an animator because he was "one of those guys who never stopped watching cartoons". He also loved drawing.
"In animation we are always creating another world every time we create a film," he told the class. Voices are recorded first, because the dialogue suggests how the pictures will look. A forlorn character will walk differently from a buoyant one. And the reward for all the detailed work? "When I first get to see it move is the pay-off for me."
Computer animation is used much less than most people would imagine. It just isn't sophisticated enough to bring out the quirks and irregularities in characters' movements.
During Paul's talk and demonstrations, we were expected to colour in a cartoon cell. Our character was a repulsive little chap called Squash McStretch, and all we had to do was paint in the outlines drawn on a piece of clear celluloid. It should have been easy; everyone else had nice, thick, even colour. My cell was certainly the worst.
We had been told that the flesh tone is created by using equal parts of red, yellow and blue. I duly mixed up my paints, and decided there was no reason why this character shouldn't be black. Meanwhile, the black woman sitting next to me managed a perfect "flesh" tone.
I didn't do much better in the classical animation workshop class. Guests were drawing frames for a Unicef children's rights advert which shows a very simple character called Julie skipping merrily along. We were given drawings one, three and five, and taught how to draw the filler frames in between which make the motion look smoother, but don't have to be as perfect. We learned how to follow the arc of a swinging arm and skipping leg, and measure the half-way point for our drawings. But even when I tried to trace poor Julie's face, it came out stiff and wrong. Fortunately,skilled artists were on hand to guide and fix.
The thing about the Disney Institute is that everyone must succeed, and they must do it within the space of the class - in this case, two hours. While I gained an insight into how cartoons are made, I can't claim a sense of personal accomplishment. But then, other classes might have been more fulfilling for a non-drawer like me: healthy cooking, perhaps, or Dance! Dance! Dance! or Imagineer It - learning how Disney engineers come up with their ideas for animatronic rides and characterisations.
The principle of universal success worked amazingly well in my tennis class. Run by tennis guru Peter Burwash's company, the class contained four students at radically different levels: Deena, a high-powered New York executive, Pete, a retired businessman and Joanne, a powerful Birmingham schoolgirl who seemed destined for Wimbledon. She had come to Disney exclusively for the tennis. Oh, and me, an absolute beginner keen to play. Bill, the pro, was well-organised, cheerful, and encouraging but realistic. He managed to conduct this motley class so that everyone learned at his or her own level. It left me feeling that I would enjoy playing more tennis. And it was wonderful to be running around in the Florida sun.
The Disney Institute expects to attract the sophisticated, and mostly over-40 audience exemplified by three-quarters of my tennis class. No one walks around the grounds dressed up as Goofy or Donald Duck, there are no displays of fireworks, no rides and no jolly music. Perhaps it is not surprising that, while the institute, set up only last year, seems to be catching on, its youth programme and camp for 7 to 17-year-olds, is less popular.
Before I went, Disney's public relations staff told me to expect a collegiate atmosphere, with friendly meals with the cast members (as all Disney staff are called), but I was glad that I'd brought a friend. The institute's flexibility, with people arriving and leaving when they choose,and no continuum in the classes you take, means you are likely to be on your own for meals and spare time, unless you are very gregarious.
On the other hand, there is plenty to do in addition to the classes. The artist-in-residence programme, for instance, invites guests to take part in whatever the artists decide to do. It may be dancing with the Pilobolus troupe or working on a composition with jazz musician James Cotton . Other recent artists - a term used loosely - have included poet Nikki Giovanni, Dick Ebersol, president of NBC sports, Microsoft boffin Nathan Myrhvold, film director Martin Scorsese and songwriter Randy Newman. Not the sort of squeaky clean fare you'd expect from Disney.
The spa has state-of-the-art fitness equipment and a full range of health and beauty treatments. My friend and I had massages, and should not have been surprised that, like everything in Disney's world, they were perfect.
In all, I took five classes in two days - probably one too many. The one I squeezed in was on time management, run by Franklin Quest Co., and a major selling device for its products. As I sat in the darkened, air-conditioned room, listening to Jim, the instructor, talking about setting priorities, I realised what mine were: out I went into the fresh air and sunshine, and had a swim in one of the delightful pools.
* Prices at the Disney Institute begin at $499 (#163;306) plus tax, based on double occupancy for three nights in low season, and includes accommodation, Disney Institute programmes and evening entertainment and a one-day ticket to any one of the Walt Disney World theme parks (such as the Magic Kingdom and MGM Studios). The Day Visitor programme costs $79
* Information from travel agents or The Disney Institute, PO Box 10150, Lake Buena Vista, Florida 32830-0150, USA. http:www.disneyinstitute.com