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The 5 Missteps That Led to Walt Disney World's Most Ambitious Failure

2. Despite positive reviews, it was a “Disneyland of the mind”

Where some saw an educational experience, others saw a fantasy. In his review, Jerry Adler of Newsweek called the Institute a “Disneyland of the mind.” At first glance, you might think he was referring to the wonderful intellectual stimulation guests received at Eisner's pet project. In reality, he was suggesting something far more cynical – that the Disney Institute wasn't particularly interested in teaching guests anything meaningful, but rather selling them on the illusion that they were doing so.

And lest you think Adler was being overly negative, then-Disney Travel Company President Randy Garfield essentially confirmed that sentiment to the Sun Sentinel:

"Our goal at Disney is to make fantasies real," says Randy Garfield, president of the Walt Disney Travel Company. "Each of our cast members plays a role in fulfilling the dreams and expectations of our guests."

Adler equated those fantasies to a performance: one in which the cast members acted as though the guest was quickly learning a new skill, and the guests pretended they didn't really know the truth. “Most of us know we really can't draw,” he wrote. “But it's nice to be in a place where people act otherwise.”

1. The Disney Institute is (technically) still around today

Image: Disney

Shortly after the Institute opened, it became clear that guests weren't as enamored with the idea of an education vacation as Eisner was. The programs were quickly scaled back and resources were diverted elsewhere on the Disney property. In 2002, after just six years of operation, the Disney Institute closed due to total lack of interest.

But despite its failure, relics from the failed experiment still remain at Walt Disney World.

While much of the Disney Institute's accommodations and facilities were torn down, some were put through an extensive refurbishment and reopened in 2004 as Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa. Even the name “Disney Institute” lives on as a professional development program Disney offers to this day.

Michael Eisner's dream of a year-round Chautauqua Institution was probably a bit far-fetched. Guests were flocking to the Orlando resort because of the incredible creativity shown within its theme parks, not for a designer-brand correspondence course. But there's something to be learned from the scope of what Eisner was trying to do. The Disney Institute was a failure, yes, but it was an ambitious failure – the kind of thing Disney would never even attempt today.

In 2002, Eisner opted to tear his own project down and replace it with a hotel -- swapping a risky, outside-the-box idea for an assured moneymaker. When you stop to think about it, there's something poetic in that: the only person who really learned something from the Disney Institute was Eisner. Unfortunately, what he learned was the ability to second-guess himself.

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There are 9 comments.

I was totally fascinated by the idea of the Disney Institute. But I tried to wait until my two boys were older. Then it disappeared.

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I actually miss the Institute and the old townhouses that overlooked Downtown Disney. It was a perfect vantage point to watch fireworks from your very own patio every night. It had a very charming old town feeling to it. Saratoga Spring pales in comparison.

I got to attend some classes on a visit to Walt Disney World, it was two baking classes, probably the best I have ever taken in my life, however it was near the end, just before the institute closed. So would have gone back after that for sure, they told me their would be special events but they never had them.

I got to attend the Institute twice. I loved it. I had so much fun taking make up, cooking, wine tasting and other classes. Sorry it didnt last.

I was on the Opening Team at DI. I was an usher for the evening performances, I was only part-time. It was a great facility, but just couldn't compete with the parks. But, I did some classes and my family and I attended a lot of the shows/perfomances. I got to meet many famous people including John Lassiter, Andy Garcia, Mario Cuomo, Neil McCoy, Mel Torme, John Landis, Nicolette Larson, The USA Olympic Basketball Team, and many more. It was great while it lasted, and I have a lot of memorabilia and schedules from the first few years.

I was on the opening team at the Institute - I was an instructor on the Environmental Design area. I taught classes in drawing, faux finishing and Disney Architecture. As a professional artist/designer I went on teach classes in Disney Imagineering, Computer Aided Home Design, Home Party Planning (which I did with the Culinary team) and even Canoeing. It was a blast and a bunch of really wonderful creative people who built that space. The Instructors took what they taught seriously. Yes, the guests were not artists or most likely ever going to become chefs, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be exposed to it all. And that was the beauty of the Institute.

The problem stemmed really from the marketing department - they had no idea what Eisner's vision was, but the professional instructors did. They never came to us to help them.

A key to understanding the downfall can be seen in the institute store. When we opened it sold some logo merch, but mostly it was books or tools from the classes. And it did not carry any plush. The only Mickey seen in there was on a Cross pen or on the classic watch. However the marketing department insisted that there needs to be more characters - and eventually the place looked like the Emporium on Main Street. It was sad.

I am now a Professor of Graphic Design at CalPoly Pomona. The institute taught me how much I enjoyed sharing knowledge of design. Soon after I was left Disney (being one of the last Instructors go) I went back to school to get my MFA and have been teaching since I graduated.

I took a few classes at the Disney Institute and I loved it. I still have the pin. I took computer animation and topiary. Maybe the courses were fantasy as in you had the chance to learn something you always wanted to do, and yes, we did learn. I can create my own topiary for my yard and I learned that computer animation is fascinating, but I prefer drawing free hand. It was right about the time that the institute closed that Michael Eisner's grand plans disintegrated into the bottom line, which was one of the reasons he was ousted. Unfortunately, the following regimes have followed that philosophy instead of following Walt's.

Too bad this isn't still around. I'd be so interested today.

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