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A Different Kind of Getaway: Disney Institute, Lake Buena Vista, Florida

by Della McSorley

Note: The Disney Institute closed to paying day guests but this article has a lot of good inofrmation about the Institute. Check by phone numbers at the bottom of this article for updated information.

The Disney Institute is not the usual "theme park" for which Disney is famous. In fact, it is not a theme park at all. Disney has departed from its core family type entertainment business and entered into the realm of fitness and education with classes designed to reach the older generations, specifically aging baby boomers and retirees. The Institute offers more than 60 programs in eight interest areas ranging from animation, culinary arts, rock climbing and wilderness exploration, to name only a few. According to Disney, if you can dream it, you can be it, at least for the duration of your vacation at the Disney Institute resort. All programs offered are "hands-on fun." In a TV production program, for example, guests are full participants. They write the scripts, run the cameras and, of course, star in the production.

There is no evidence of Mickey or Minnie Mouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, or any other Disney cartoon characters normally associated with Disney properties. Guests stay in bungalows and townhouses on this 75 acre, 457 room resort. A lake is located nearby and an outdoor pool is within easy walking distance as well. If you would like to learn while being entertained (I believe the word is "edutainment"), a vacation at Disney Institute may be just the "get away" for you.

The Disney Institute is located in Lake Buena Vista, Florida (Orlando). It is actually situated in the heart of the Walt Disney World Resort. The Institute is also adjacent to the Disney Village Marketplace shopping area, and Pleasure Island. The entrance is gated and guests will need to use their room key to access the property. It is quiet and private and has the feel of a small community in "Any Town, USA." The grounds are beautifully maintained and the Institute facilities are exceptionally clean and tastefully furnished.

We visited the Disney Institute without making reservations, and after explaining our "mission," which was to gather information for writing an article about the Disney Institute for publication on Sally's Place, he allowed us to access the property. Upon our arrival at the Welcome Center, we were warmly greeted by young Institute staff members who were friendly and eager to assist us in anyway they could. We were provided with packets of information concerning the Institute and were regaled verbally on the virtues of the Institute. We were invited to walk around and ask questions of any of the staff personnel. I must say, these Disney employees appear to enjoy being representatives for the Institute and are extremely knowledgeable. They have obviously been very well trained for their positions.

Our first stop after leaving our perky welcoming committee was the Season's Dining Room. Two central kitchens are surrounded by four distinctly different dining rooms with themes dedicated to spring, summer, fall and winter. The dining room(s) have a 464 seat dining capacity. Breakfast is served a la carte, with an assortment of fresh pastries, fresh fruit, eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, and other breakfast offerings.

We were impressed with the decor and the comfortable, homelike setting. The dining room was decorated with wicker furniture and lovely paintings which could be viewed from any seating area. A large mural which seemed to depict "early Florida" was actually a painting of the Institute facilities. The dining area in which we were seated and served is the "summer" room. After breakfast, we were invited to tour the other dining rooms. They were all beautiful, but I was particularly impressed with "fall." Pictures depicting homemade pies; Mason canning jars ready to be filled with pickles; crisp apples; the harvest of pumpkins, squash, and other winter vegetables; and country-style dining room furniture, gave this area a simple but elegant look. Just outside this dining room, which affords diners a spectacular view, there is a veranda which overlooks part of the golf course and a waterway complete with a water taxi leading to other Disney properties. According to our restaurant guide, this beautiful outdoor area will eventually house a bar and afternoon cafe. What a pleasant place to spend a few hours or a few days!

Although we were unable to stay for a full meal in the Season's Dining Room, I did manage to obtain copies of the dinner menus. The restaurant features cuisine with a different theme each night and along with the change in menu, the cast members (waiters and waitresses) costumes and table decorations change as well. For example, Monday night may feature California cuisine such as pan-fried chicken breast with olive oil and balsamic vinegar served over caramelized endive leaves. Tuesday night might be a Mediterranean theme with thyme-roasted loin of pork and grilled sausage over braised artichokes. Other menus and dinner themes are equally as appealing to the eye and to the taste as those previously mentioned. Dinner is served family style. Three appetizers and three main courses are delivered to each table so that diners may sample each delectable dish. Guests may order more of their preferred dishes if they wish.

Presiding over this first class restaurant with constantly changing menus is Executive Chef Philippe Wilhelm. He most recently served as executive chef of the Hotel New York at Disneyland Paris and trained in fine hotels and restaurants in Europe. He also served as sous chef at Windows of the World in New York City.

Continuing on our tour, we wandered into Dabbler's, the Disney Institute Store, which is located inside the Welcome Center building. There guests can buy the usual film, soda pop, beer, wine, snacks, and first-aid items. Also available, the inevitable T-shirts and other souvenir-type items. There is also a selection of specialty merchandise as well.

After satisfying our curiosity about the Institute store, we left the Welcome Center and made our way down the pathway to the Sports and Fitness Center and Spa. We were not sure if we would be allowed to come in and take a look but again we were warmly greeted by staff members and allowed to move freely throughout. This 38,000 square foot facility offers a full service spa including separate men's and women's showers and locker rooms as well as: aerobics rooms; indoor exercise pool; private spa treatment rooms; steam rooms; sauna and whirlpool; cardiovascular/fitness area; and an NBA regulation size basketball court. I was curious about the large movie screen located among all of the state of the art exercise equipment. This is the CYBEX Human Performance Center which provides guests with an opportunity to evaluate their health, lifestyle, fitness and sports skills.

For those guests who prefer to spend their time outdoors, the Institute provides lighted outdoor clay tennis courts; an 18-hole championship golf course; rock climbing wall; five outdoor swimming pools; and a multi-purpose outdoor sports field for team sports such as softball, football, and soccer. There is also a separate supervised youth center and the resort is designed to be accessible to those who are physically challenged, although some of the programs may not be appropriate for guests with certain disabilities or handicaps.

The Institute offers additional services such as bikes, golf carts and canoes which are available for rent. It also provides complimentary transportation to the Disney theme parks and the Disney Village Marketplace.

And, of course, the inevitable restrictions. Smoking is allowed in designated areas only. Upon request, however, and subject to availability, accommodations for guests who smoke will be provided. No pets are allowed except for those guests requiring disabled assistance dogs.

This Disney Resort also boasts entertainment facilities which include, in addition to the 28 program studios, a state-of-the-art cinema with seating for 400 guests; a broadcast quality performance center (an intimate indoor theater) which seats 225 guests; and an outdoor amphitheater on the green with seating for over 1,100 persons. The Institute offers performing arts or film activities every day created by both artists in residence and guest speakers. On the day we visited, Robert A.M. Stern, the creative force behind the architecture for Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts and several Disneyland Paris hotels, was scheduled to be the guest speaker. Also on the agenda that day, an evening of comedy and music, featuring comedian Bill Larkin. A few days prior to our visit, guests had been treated to the music of the Miami String Quartet in collaboration with noted flutist Nestor Torres showcasing the flute in a concert combining classical and Latin musical styles.

Since all programs currently offered at the Disney Institute can be personally designed for guests by any one of the Disney Institute vacation consultants, the following culinary arts programs can be mixed and matched for those guests with a particular interest in food and food preparation:

An average of eight culinary classes are offered each day. Cost for day guests is $49.00 per day. Pre-registration is required.

(Saturday, Tuesday/2 hours)
Guests are taught how to prepare and present themed buffets for a variety of occasions.
Culinary Techniques
(Monday, Wednesday, Friday/2 hours)
Guests will gain a working knowledge of basic cooking principles. Each session features a different technique and guests may choose to participate in one or all of these sessions.
From Field to Plate
(2 days: 3 hours each) Sunday, Wednesday
Disney suggests that guests take both days to fully experience this program which culminates with the creation of a healthy, delicious vegetarian fare.
Healthy Cooking
(Sunday, Thursday/2 hours)
Emphasis on menus (including desserts) featuring nutritious ingredients guests can use to make healthier meals.
Lunch and Learn
(Thursday/2 hours)
Each session features a detailed introduction to a selected culinary topic ranging from garden salads, paella, and tapas to grains, cooking with flowers, or foods of Provence. Sessions are innovative, displaying practical culinary techniques, and fresh ingredients are utilized to culminate in a freshly prepared lunch. Guests may choose to participate in one or all "lunch and learn" sessions.
Magic Kingdom Workshop
(Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday/2 hours)
Guests learn the techniques used in the creation of beautifully decorated bakery cakes.
Romantic Dinners
(Thursday/3 hours)
Meals designed for two. New methods of creating romantic settings through table artistry, music, wine selection and food presentation. Guests must be 21 years of age or older to participate.
Studio Bakery
(Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday/2 hours)
In these classes, guests learn the basic concepts and techniques of baking homemade favorites and may choose to participate in one or all "Studio Bakery" sessions.
Taste of the World
(Saturday, Tuesday, Friday/3 hours)
Features dishes of selected countries represented in the World Showcase at EPCOT Center. Guests may choose to participate in multiple "Taste of the World" sessions.
Wine, Wonders and Song
(Monday, Thursday/2 hours)
Guests can expect to expand their knowledge of wine and how to pair it with certain foods. Guests must be 21 years of age or older to participate.

For the chance to cram as many cooking classes as you can into your Institute stay and to get to do what the chef does instead of just watching; or to explore animation or spend an afternoon with the Disney News Network team as a camera person; or to participate in storytelling and home video, or just to relax by the pool, be prepared to spend a few dollars.

So, if you are unlike most tourists who wish to take a ride on Dumbo the Flying Elephant or shake hands with Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, or other cartoon characters, the Disney Institute may be a welcome change for you. Although this is not a place for in depth study, you will be introduced and exposed to new things.


The Disney Institute
1960 North Magnolia Way
Lake Buena Vista, Florida 32830-1000
Telephone: (407) 827-1100; Outside US (407) 827-4800
For Reservations Call: (800) 282-9282
For Reservations or More Information Call: (800) 496-6337
Fax: (407) 934-4101

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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