Embraced By The Mouse

Everything you need to know about the Disney Institute can be found in its logo. It's topped with Disney, an emblem so familiar it strikes the eye not as the name of a man or an entertainment company but a fragment from the true cross of childhood. It is the essence of cartoons watched, of fuzzy pajamas worn, of bedtime stories that formed the foundations of consciousness. Just below comes Institute, graphically designed to tell a brand new Disney story. Note how the first 't' is smaller than the rest, its post slim and stiff, its crossbar tentative and feeble. The next 't' stands taller and reaches farther, while the final 't' is taller still, chest swollen with vigor, leg poised to spring, crossbar arched and extended like an airplane wing. Then, magically, the 't' takes flight. There he is - the 't' they've nicknamed Ted - soaring above and beyond the Institute, a joyful, fully-realized consonant liberated from the prison of words."And that," whispers Dave Novak, "that is you, right now." Novak, a clean-cut, boyish 40-year-old, is pointing to the logo all Disney Institute staff members wear on their plum tennis shirts, his index finger darting back to trace the story again. "See? You begin slowly, a little unsure, but you take a few chances, and by the time you're through you're flying on wings you never even knew you had!"On my first morning at the Disney Institute I'm still feeling a bit tentative myself, but my classmates in this Reclaiming Family Stories workshop are already leaning forward in their padded armchairs, gazing up at the figure soaring above Novak's heart and smiling ever so brightly. The four women and two men in this class are older than I am, wealthier, and much more liable to greet a warm Saturday morning in a bright madras shirt, bermuda shorts and elaborate gold jewelry. The stories of their lives, the "molecules of understanding" Novak has taught us to recognize and share during our two hours together, are about sons in little league and daughters cartwheeling across a gymnastics mat, about crimson sunsets over seaside vacation homes, about the pleasure of starting your own business and the bonding family ritual of polishing Grandma's silver on Thanksgiving. They are, like the vast majority of the guests at the Disney Institute this weekend, captains of the American mainstream, long accustomed to cruising through life with sails neatly trimmed and tillers held straight. Still, while the straight-arrow journey can deliver comfort and security, it's hard not to wonder what pleasures you've missed along the way. So here they are at the Disney Institute, looking to the soaring figure of Ted the T and yearning to see their own reflection.It's unexpected, but it shouldn't be surprising. After all, there are already so many spirit-questing books and TV shows, so many free-lance psychics and healers and dark-eyed mystics enrapturing the masses, why shouldn't there be a New Age theme park? And if there were a quasi-spiritual self-enhancement resort in Florida, shouldn't it be owned and operated by the Walt Disney company? Disney chief executive Michael Eisner certainly thinks so, so last February he opened the Disney Institute, a $35 million luxury retreat in the southeast corner of Disney World. And while this resort has the pools, golf course, spa and gourmet restaurant available in the other Disney properties, its main attraction is a vast array of educational workshops - experiential classes in such character-enhancing fields as gourmet cooking, athletics, art, storytelling and mid-life philosophy. "Mental stimulation" is how Eisner described the Institute's appeal. "A playground for mind and body," added Institute program director Richard Hutton. Neither of them talk much about the spiritual-slash-New Age overtones to the place, but the "Make Your Own Magic" slogan certainly implies one, while the Institute's slate of workshops teaching meditation, mid-life philosophy, intuitive skills and the transformative powers of creativity make it even more clear: Mickey, in his three-fingered, kid-gloved way, has embraced the light.Is the Mouse following his spirit guide, or the Invisible Hand of commerce? No matter what you might think at first, it's important to note that Ted the T's incredible adventure -- a tale of fear, risk and challenge that ends in triumph -- is a very traditional Disney story. And as I hear it told on the Institute's maiden weekend, surrounded by half a dozen suburban Americans whose faces are lit with delight and anticipation, the flight of Ted the T carries even larger implications. It's a parable for the New Age. A folk tale for the American Millennium. It is, I think, a bedtime story for a generation of baby boom babies toddling through the middle age of Aquarius. Can adults find true happiness in the Magic Kingdom, or just a mid-life crisis thrill ride?Walking into the Disney Institute's Welcome Center is like entering a cleric's home. The ceiling is arched and high. Chamber music drifts down from hidden speakers. The paintings on the wall show families reading books, creating their own handicrafts, arranging flowers and partaking of elegant fresh-fruit-and-vegetable buffets. Even the DI-logo t-shirts available for sale in the gift shop make bold, values-oriented declarations. The Journey Matters More Than The Destination. First Place Is A State Of Mind. And -- rather incongruously given the radically altered and chemically enhanced landscape just outside -- Environment Is First. Elsewhere the walls sing with quotes from Einstein, Keller and other sages, small nuggets of wisdom about open minds and open parachutes, about 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration, about how the people most worth listening to are the ones who say the least. The effect is subtle, but inescapable. Just beyond the trees the Pleasure Island discos may be throbbing with music. The Magic Kingdom may rise majestically in the night, lit by the nightly firework show. But the Disney Institute is about responsibility and values -- the theme park equivalent of the grown ups' table.Still, the Institute is a magical place, a vision of perfection wrought from whole cloth in the Florida scrub jungle. Designed to resemble a small Ohio town circa the 1950s, the Institute's campus is a little like a lot of places and a lot like nowhere at all. Each of its settings - the homey Welcome Center, the church-like Performance Center, the collegiate South Studio quad and the professional kitchens and production studios in the North Studios - are immaculately designed, elaborately executed evocations of what they're supposed to be, but you'd never mistake them for the real thing. No matter where you are on campus, you can't escape the feeling that you're standing in a movie set. You half expect someone with a clipboard to step out from behind the wall and tell you what to say.There are no dialogue coaches, but each set comes with enough distinct scenery, direction and supporting players to complete the cinematic effect. Generally, the Town Square setting is about culture: during the first weekend Billy Taylor's jazz trio is the star attraction at the Performance Center, while 'Airplane' director Jim Abrahams lights up the cinema with his 90-minute lecture on parody in film. The gymnasium setting follows a sports theme, of course, with a brand new ball awaiting hoopsters on the gymnasium's NBA-sized basketball court and a shorts-and-tennis-shirted trainer polishing the machinery in the vast, state-of-the-art Cybex weight room. The classroom set in the South Studios is collegiate, with airy, well-lit lecture halls and hands-on workrooms crowded with Power Macintoshes muscular enough to demonstrate the secrets of computer animation, cinematic music composition and digital, Forrest Gump-style special effects. Across the lake the North Studios are sleek and professional, with two gourmet-quality teaching kitchens, broadcast-equipped television and radio studios (the shows produced there are aired daily on three closed-circuit Disney networks), plus a photography studio, the soundstatge-quality makeup studio and the art studio. Even the restaurant comes with its own script: the dinner menu presented at the start of a meal is less a catalogue of options than a preview of coming attractions. The waiter simply brings servings of everything to your table, placing them on a spacious Lazy Susan you can twirl to your tummy's content.As Disney vice president and Institute program director Richard Hutton points out, the Disney Institute was designed to be a sort of grown-up person's fairyland. "It's a place for adults to rediscover their sense of wonder," he says. The idea first occurred to Michael Eisner in 1985, when visited the legendary Chautauqua Institute in southwest New York. Despite his career in lowbrow TV ("Happy Days," et.al) and then as chief of the world's best-known producer of kiddie movies and amusement parks, Eisner had come into adulthood as a literature student and had never really surrendered his high-minded ideals. After all, he had aesthetics enough to hire post-modern visionary Michael Graves to design hotels for Disney World. Thus, it's not terribly difficult to imagine how a trip to Chautauqua might get Eisner's brainpan spinning. And it did. Pounding out a memo to aide-de-camp Frank Wells, he sketched out a vision of a Disney resort that would appeal to broad-minded intellects such as himself. A meditative corner of Disney World where adults could not only relax and soothe their tattered souls, but nurture themselves by exploring the world's great books, music and philosophy.According to Hutton (A request to interview Eisner for this story was met with sharp, hollow laughter from the uber-Mouse's publicist, a response this journalist took to mean: no.) the Disney legacy not only gives the Institute a unique and wide-ranging curriculum, from story-telling to computer animation to topiary design to urban planning, but also taps into the company's decades-long relationship with the baby boom pocketbook. "Disney has always given them a quality experience," he says. "The Disney Institute offers a slightly different promise, but they know we'll deliver. To them Disney is synonymous with walking our talk."Of course, the DI story also has a complicated and not-often-told subtext that has to do with audience diversification and the inevitable changes in baby boom demands. Now that children of the boom children are growing into adults themselves, the strategic thinkers in the Magic Kingdom have taken aim at an older, stiffer segment of the market known, rather indelicately, as "post-families." "They've made an all-out campaign to draw in more adult couples," observes Jill Krutick, an analyst who tracks Disney for Smith-Barney. And while the adult nature of the Institute isn't a complete departure for the company, Krutick says, noting the various golf courses, resorts and bars in Disney World, it does extend its grasp to a more educated, more adventurous demographic. "It shows their dynamic nature. They're willing to change with the times and appeal to both mainstream and New Age types."And if outsiders might question the logic of having an entertainment complex known primarily for childrens' products extend its grasp into adult education and self-enhancement, Eisner never doubted the Disney heritage would be the resort's greatest strengths, not only because of its obvious name familiarity and the ongoing appeal of its products, but also because those products represent the workings of one particularly evolved and productive mind - the brain behind the man behind the mouse.Back in that first Reclaiming Family Stories session, David Novak begins the class by drawing our attention to the series of mounted photographs showing Walt Disney in his prime, loose-limbed in his boxy dark suit, waving his arms and puffing out his cheeks as he performed a sequence from 'Pinocchio' to a room full of animators. "Even then," Novak explains, "Walt knew something," Novak is standing next to the photos now, beaming up with filial pride as he digs his hands into his chino pockets and shakes his head with the simple brilliance of it all. "He knew that every project the company would ever work on -- movies, theme parks -- all begin with a few people sittin' around telling stories. Walt knew that 50 years ago, and it still makes all the difference."Throughout the institute that bears his name, the visage of Walt Disney hovers as omnipresently as L. Ron Hubbard in a Scientology shop. Along with the wall of the Reclaiming Family Stories classroom, he appears on video in the Imagineer It! class. Just outside the Seasons restaurant in the Welcome Center, he's in an altar-like display of photos and icons; a large, sepia-tone portrait from the '40s, surrounded by an assortment of smaller candids and hand-drawn sketches of his most famous creations. Everywhere I turned I was being led to aspire to Walt's art, his industry and his magic until I began to think of him as our own boddhisatva, a spiritual leader illuminated by a brilliance we could emulate, but never duplicate. "(Walt) wasn't the Buddha," says Louise Franklin-Sheehy, who directs the Institute's Lifestyles workshops. "But he was deeply enlightened. He was enormously creative and had the driving force. And if we can have a small part in awakening in people the creative genius that is theirs, we'll have done a great service to them." Sunday morning dawns clear and warm, and as I stroll across dew-sparked grass, lingering for a moment in the crisp light of the Institute's town square where the Performance Center's bell tower cuts a slim shadow in the morning sun, I realize it's a perfect morning to go to church. Not that I'm a church-going guy -- always a tough leap for a lapsed Jew -- but in this small town environment, surrounded by so many smiling Americans paired off into Ward-and-June-style couples all of whom seem to walk in perfect rhythm with one another, pausing to worship just seems like the appropriate thing to do. Which only makes it that much more perfect that my first class of the morning is the Spiritual Inquiry workshop, where I and 17 other Institute students will spend the next two hours reflecting on, as the course catalogue puts it, "the ways life's journey can take us beyond the practical and the material."In the minutes before the class begins the mood is buoyant, but muted. A few of us stand near the door examining the books arranged on the richly oiled walnut table -- a Koran, a Bible, a few tracts on Buddhism, Zen and Judaism. Just after the second hand passes the hour, our instructor Mickey Bright Griffin, stands and calls the roll. She is a prim, graceful woman whose long, white hair falls neatly down the back of her black turtleneck and whose knife-pleated khakis and burgundy loafers lend her an ageless schoolgirl quality. Still, she begins the session by passing out a list of mantras -- rama, abwoon, we always live in the light. Soon she's explaining how the observed particle theorem in quantum physics proves that the plants we pray for will grow faster than the ones we don't. She's playing tapes awash with brooding, meandering keyboards and explaining that meditation serves as a doorway to a spiritual realm where all beings connect in a way the rational mind cannot begin to comprehend. And although this is what you might call 'leading edge information,' or perhaps just plain nutty, depending on your commitment to rational, science-based thought, none of the affluent, upstanding Americans in the room stops smiling, or even blinks. When Griffin calls for a few moments of experimental meditation they clasp their thumbs and forefingers in a circle and bow their heads. Afterwards they rub their eyes and say that yes, they did feel momentarily transformed. And to this reporter, who has spent more than his share of time among ascendant New Agers, the combination of fresh-scrubbed Americana and beyond-the-mists-of-mysticism weirdness was just a bit overwhelming.After class I walked back toward the Welcome Center with Fred, a baby-faced, silver-haired insurance executive from Chicago. Earlier I'd noticed him during one of the meditation sessions, his eyes clenched tight behind his tortoiseshell specs, his head slumping into the starchiest collar I'd seen all weekend, and so I sidled up to him and asked how his meditation had gone. While we strolled back toward the Welcome Center after class he was only too happy to confirm a growing interest in drumming circles, men's discussion groups and other Iron Johnish pursuits. There is a divorce in his recent past, plus a couple of bitter teenagers to contend with. "I'm kind of looking for something else," he tells me. "I've worked long enough to know there's more to me than I can find at the office, so now I want to have some other experiences."Of course, Fred's not the only prosperous, mainstream American looking for the next horizon. In the conversations I have throughout the weekend I hear a number of variations on the same theme. Janet, a 42-year-old human resources specialist from Boston says corporate life "just wasn't fulfilling," so now she wants to work part-time as a consultant, and spend the rest of her time writing and lecturing on creativity. Richard, a 57-year-old marketer from Chicago says he and his wife realized they had spent all of their life together in the regimental pursuit of money and comfort. "That's all we knew about each other," he says. Now they're both hoping to cut some new facets into their ossified souls. Not everyone has been divorced or downsized into a crisis, but many of them are trying to scratch the same existential itch, that there is some greater fulfillment, or perhaps connection, that is eluding them.Louise Franklin-Sheehy, program manager for the Institute's lifestyles workshops, says her employer has always had an intuitive sense for her generation's needs. "Disney is paying attention to what's happening to people, particularly the aging boomers who are our primary market," she told me on the telephone one morning. "People who do the most minimal self-inquiry bump into that place that asks the prevailing question: Is this all there is? And more and more often, the response is 'no.' We realize there is a spirit within each of us that has been stymied, oppressed and unexplored, a spirit that wants to come free. I see it everywhere, and it's not New Age airy-fairy anymore."Call it self-actualization. Call it bliss, a state of grace, a vision or the zone. Transcendence takes a lot of forms in this world, and you can a lot of them glimmering in the Disney Institute. It's in the dreamy, flowing architecture that takes you from memory to fantasy to dreamworld and back again. It's in the spirit-nurturing aromatherapy massages in the spa, the mind-and-gut-busting meals in the border-hopping restaurant, and, most pointedly, in the vast array of classes pledging to "unlock your creative potential," to "recapture the delight of childhood," to "empower your life and work with new vigor and vitality," to help you "discover new experiences in mind and body relationship," or, for your average snow-topped, creaky-kneed boomer, "embrace the later years with the full confidence that the best is yet to come." As the Institute's logo takes pains to advertise, the rules of the universe no longer apply when you can Make Your Own Magic. Heaven is within our reach, and if you can believe in the transcendent possibilities of art, creativity, nature and flat-out self-indulgence, the Disney Institute can get you there from here.What the boomers get at the Disney Institute is merely a grown-up version of the same mystical, self-actualizing ideal Disney has advanced in the movies, on television, in theme parks and on the vast rainbow of other goods, services and experiences that products that have defined their lives: Think about our friend Fred in the meditation class, the buttoned-down insurance man with his eyes shut tight, muttering "Rama, rama, rama" to himself as he focuses all his thoughts on visualizing the spiritual plain. What we're seeing is a man wishing upon a star, counting on his dreams to take him very far. If there's an American institution that is less spiritually evolved than the Wall Street Journal it's hard to imagine what it might be. After all, the only light the nation's financial journal of record embraces is the one that lifts the stock prices marching in columns across its pages. So when the CEO of one of America's most successful entertainment companies declared he was expanding into the self-enhancement resort business, the news hit the Journal with a clatter. Beneath a mocking headline - 'Disney Plans Resort Where Goofy Can Get in Touch With His Inner Self' - reporter Eben Shapiro admired Disney's attempt to "cash in on the New Age movement," but went on to fret about the entertainment company's embrace of such alternative, even anti-capitalist lifeways. Eisner's announcement was "jarring," the story reported, because "the touchy-feely aspects" were "at odds with (Disney's) All-American image." All of which may have conformed to the conventional corporate wisdom of the hour, but still managed to miss several crucial historical and cultural points.First of all, touchy-feely mysticism is just as All-American as the U.S. Constitution, whose existence it predates on these shores by quite a few years. Indeed, the North American continent has been a destination for the world's gurus, visionaries and seekers since the late 17th century, when European renegades first set their sights on the New World. As the nation expanded into the wild, boundless frontier during the 18th and 19th the American belief in a higher power essentially merged with the belief in the power of the individual. The more you believed in yourself, the closer you came to God, and vice versa. Just as long as you believe, as long as you can summon the faith to spread your wings and step out into the void, you can do pretty much anything.Walt Disney was born into this optimistic, can-do society just after the turn of the 20th century, and although his family was by some accounts dysfunctional (The darkest, most-mean-spirited biography of them all, Marc Eliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince cites a boozy, ass-kicking father, some forced child labor and a few youthful cross-dressing episodes. The truth of these assertions is debatable, but even if it's all gospel it's still only a week's worth of lukewarm Ricki Lake.) Disney's artistic muse held on to the can-do spirit. Unlike most popular artists, however, Disney also tuned into the mystical side of the American spirit. He plundered the store of European myths and folktales, picking up on dark, haunting morality tales about innocent princesses, evil stepmothers and various other members of the imagination primeval, then rewrote them to reflect America's sunnier, self-actualizing values. Disney's Cinderella and Pinocchio may have come from sideshow-caliber families, but like the entrepreneur who brought them to the New World they had the guts and/or good fortune to Get Over It and find a new life as a princess in a non-dysfunctional relationship or a little boy with no strings attached. Disney's own stories played up the inherent morality of animals (Bambi) and indigenous persons (Custer's Last Stand), and when he branched into live-action wilderness films, (Nature's Half Acre and many others) Disney celebrated nature's transcendent possibilities as much as Thoreau ever did inWalden, only with cute bear cubs and tree-munching beavers standing in for Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Alcotts. Disney's influence reached new apogees with the arrival and growth of the baby boom generation, and as his pro-environment, pro-indigenous, pro-magic and pro-human potential message bombarded them from movie screen, daily and weekly television and from the paradise-on-earth he started constructing in Anaheim, the impressionable young boomers grew to know their bard simply as Uncle Walt.For the last few weeks I've been exchanging e-mails with Jamie O'Boyle, a former military officer who now observes popular culture with a Philadelphia-based think tank called Cultural Studies & Analysis. Years of studying Disney films and theme parks have allowed O'Boyle to not only supply the raw material for much of the last paragraph and some of the better parts of the preceding ones, but to also lend his insight on how the company's theme parks translate and amplify the traditional Disney ethos. Unlike the world's other theme parks, Disneyland and Disney World are designed as three-dimensional stories, using the brain's natural editing processes of memory, fantasy and preconception to concoct a super-vivid environment O'Boyle calls hyper-reality. By altering the scale of the buildings, by subtly manipulating color, texture, lighting and sound, Disney's faux frontier towns, Caribbean swamps and mountain environments appear just as real, sometimes even more real, than the part of the world they're meant to invoke. Imaginations thus engaged, visitors interact with their surroundings, casting themselves as the heroes in imagined action movies that climax with all the visceral fear, suspense and eventual triumph that a good, hair-raising thrill ride can provide. Thus, O'Boyle concludes, this makes Splash Mountain, the Tower of Terror and Snow White's Scary Adventure, among others, iterations of the same theme. "It's all about seeing past fear to the ultimate goal."The Flight of Ted the T echoes that same theme, of course, but while its surroundings are just as manipulated and manipulating as any environment in Disneyland, the Disney Institute setting reflects the cerebral nature of the experiences available therein by framing them with a soft, gauzy backdrop that is both progressive and nostalgic, both emotionally reassuring and intellectually inspiring. It allows you to take risks by placing you in an environment that feels immediately like home. Take, for instance, the Welcome Center. Viewed from the outside the sprawling, brick-red building seems barnlike. From the inside it's an airy, if somewhat matronly farmhouse, hung with decorative quilts and graced with the floating strains of string quartets. The floors are gleaming chestnut, the woodwork immaculately white, but hints of human life lie on every surface. The TV in the sitting area armoir is switched on to a cartoon video. The legs of the artificially antiqued endtables have careless (yet matching) paint splatters. Just outside the french doors the Performance Center reads like a small town church, replete with a slim (though bell-free) belltower. Walk past the open square with its bandshell (past the two sections of aluminum stadium seating) and the South Studio classrooms and the gymnasium come together around a grassy college quad. There's even a small (although state of the art) movie theater down the street, and the country club pro shop and swimming pool are just on the lee side of the Welcome Center. Every vista echoes a memory, although none of this stuff existed a year ago. Still, that little deja vu bell starts ringing and you can't help thinking, hey, I've been here before! If you've ever seen a movie, read a book or had a daydream set in a small town on the east coast in the middle of this century, you probably have. Sort of, but not really. Which is exactly how reality comes at the Disney Institute. The trick to designing a great Disney thrill ride, we are told at the front of the Imagineer It! workshop, is in learning how to drench people without actually getting them wet. This statement may have the puzzling ring of a Zen koan, but as 20 of us students settle into four small groups around kindergarten-style worktables and prepare to learn the ways of Disney-style creativity and problem-solving, we come to understand that this wet-but-dry riddle was actually confronted by the Imagineering crew when they were working the kinks out of the climactic fall at the end of the Splash Mountain water ride."Y'see, they knew they had to hit each log with exactly eight ounces of water." This is Jim, the chunky, 50ish instructor leading the class. Like all Disney Institute staffers he's wearing one of those plum DI insignia tennis shirts and immaculately ironed khaki trousers. He also has the Twinkle of Perpetual Fun I once thought was unique to summer camp counselors, but I now see beaming off everyone who collects a Disney paycheck. "See," he continues, "eight ounces of water is exactly how much water it takes to make a log full of people feel wet, without really soaking them. But first the flume was too steep, and so the test runs were coming up soaked. They changed the angle, but when that didn't work they changed the shape of the log. Now they had another problem -- the logs weren't getting wet enough. They didn't have time to redesign the flume or the log again, so what'd they do?" Jim pauses to let the suspense crest, then springs the answer: "Secret spray jets. The put 'em in right there at the bottom, so now you've got thousands of people flying down that ride every day thinking they're on the edge of calamity, that they're really gonna get soaked, right? But what they don't know is that unless those jets hit 'em with that eight ounces of water, they wouldn't get wet at all."In many ways the Institute's classes work exactly like the thrill rides in the rest of Disney World. Practically all of the classes have some hands-on experience worked into the proceedings, and in each case the educational task has been designed to yield the same feelings of doubt, suspense and then, ultimately, triumph. For instance, I never thought I could actually perform computer animation -- after all, my ineptitude as a visual artist is rivaled only by my inability to comprehend high-tech computer programs. And yet the Macintosh software in the Computer Animation workshop is so idiot-proof it took only 45 minutes of lackluster effort for me to make my cartoon character walk, jump and even fly for 20 vaguely satanic seconds. I have a tape of myself reading the news and introducing songs on WALT-radio, and any time I feel like reclaiming a family story I can reach into my drawer and pull out the little slips of paper I scribbled names, dates and titles upon during one of David Novak's storytelling exercises. Like any decent movie, the action in those classes had a distinct beginning, middle and end. You came away clutching evidence of your new mastery -- a tape, a computer print-out, the taste of a meal you made yourself -- but even the hard evidence didn't amount to much in the colder light of the real (non-Disney) world. In retrospect it seems like virtual reality -- virtual revelation, really -- and it just doesn't make that large a deposit in the memory bank.The intellectual and spiritual lowpoint of my weekend comes during the Creativity workshop on Saturday afternoon. This class has a large contingent of advertising executives from Dallas, several of whom parade through the door in Cowboys t-shirts and smelling, as my mother would occasionally assert to me late on a high school Saturday night, like a goddamned brewery. Meanwhile the guest lecturer leading the class -- a flowery woman in a flowery purple skirt -- is apparently drunk on some flowery psychotropic that causes her to not only write but also recite at length her own melodramatic verses about lovers who trust the ticking of time and about special moments that bless our eyes with clear, bright skies. When the readings are (mercifully) complete and the reminder that her work will be sold after class has been accomplished, we move to a corporate-style deconstruction of creativity, separating certain life elements into a flip-chart list of what is GOOD for creative thought and what is BAD. This discussion proceeds predictably, if not exactly painlessly, but when Ms. Flowers scrawls 'pain and misery' into the BAD list my hand darts into the air. Well gee, I posit, given what we know about the lives of Van Gogh, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Plath and many other significant creators of music, art and literature during this century, couldn't we also argue that pain and misery are in fact as crucial to the artist as the sand that inflames the oyster into making a pearl? Silence. Then a Dallas Cowboy t-shirt chimes in. "Hell, I thought it was the drugs!" Hoo-wa. None of this is new, or even particularly helpful information.Echoing through the Disney world my complaints sounded particularly churlish. I suppose if I were less judgmental I could have a frank and useful exchange of creative ideas with anyone, even beery weisenheimers in Super Bowl t-shirts. But then, it's hard to take flight if you don't keep your eyes on the skies. Just ask Billy Taylor, who concluded the question-and-answer segment of his performance with a massive, yet elegantly rendered diss of the flaccid jazz/pop crafted by the Kenny G's of the world, ("I don't know what it is," he said with a smile. "But it's not the repertoire." He uses this last word interchangeably with the word "jazz," and gives its last syllable just the right French twist, making it rhyme with 'law' rather than 'bar.') then concluded his show with a cartwheeling piece of bop that left me, only a few feet away in the fourth row, feeling high enough to look Ted the T right into his beady little consonant-eyes. Ted the T is on the wing, and while thousands may come to the Disney Institute to learn the secret of his flight, one person who seems absolutely confident he has found it works here every day. I'm talking about Jim, the Imagineering teacher. Like many people he worked hard for many years, and although successful -- collecting and running a handful of small companies -- he came to realize that he had nothing to believe in. Fortunately, he lived in Orlando and inspiration was close at hand. "I sold my companies," he tells us, "and told my family I was going to go work at Disney World. They thought I was nuts, but I went down and applied the next day." Now Jim says he's got the best job in the world, teaching the philosophy of a company he truly believes in. The way Jim describes it, he was called to Disney the same way some people are called to the monastic life. He took his vows, donned the habit and gave himself completely to a community that not only gives him physical sustenance, but also a grander context for his life. Some people meditate or seek shamanic trances or hope for just the right near-death experience to open their eyes, but when Jim rises in the morning, slips into his plum tennis shirt and sees the Disney name above his heart he knows that his life means something."I'll tell you what I really love about this place," he continues, eyes drifting toward the distance. "Walt always said the company was bigger than he ever was, and he was right. Now everyone who works here, from Mr. Eisner on down, know this company is bigger than they are. Everyone would lay down their jobs in a minute if they think it would help the company. What matters is being a part of this place. All anyone wants is to have a shot at leaving their mark."Jim's is a very American dream, spangled with the same longing and spirit that has long animated our nation. That this vitality is now expended on building log rides for a civilization that yearns for thrills but can't bear to get wet tells, I think, an interesting story about American life in the late 20th century. Walt always knew our lives boiled down to stories. But sometimes you don't learn anything until you get wet.

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