And not a Mickey Mouse chef in sight

Gourmet food, fine wines, the most grown-up restaurants in America. Doesn't sound very Disney, does it? But the world grows old. What's more, no mouse goes to France and learns nothing. By Mary Dejevsky
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The Independent Online
Imagine: you are enjoying a peaceful dinner a deux in subdued lighting, overlooking a moonlit expanse of water. The food is upmarket South American with a Californian accent, lean and piquant ("nuevo latino" is apparently the term). The wine-list, biased towards South American vintages, offers also Spanish and American, by bottle and glass. The prices are not outrageous and the service (for the United States) is passably discreet.

So where are you? Well, you could be in Manhattan, San Francisco, perhaps Boston, or Miami Beach - the places Americans commonly associate with the finer things of life. But you are not. In fact, you are at Disney World in Florida - and there is not a pair of those infuriating Mickey Mouse ears in sight.

Nor are there any children, unless you count a fair-haired adolescent sitting with his parents at a nearby table. This is Disney for grown-ups, and it just may be the way of the future, not only for this branch of the Disney empire, but for other companies and concerns that have hitherto seen children and young families as their main market.

The Latin American restaurant is at the Coronado Springs resort - a massively brassy pile that is the newest addition to the Disney World complex near Orlando. But it is one of a series of recent ventures that add up, if not to a major shift in company policy, then to a significant diversification.

In the past year and a half, Disney world has quietly enticed some top chefs to its existing resort restaurants and opened several new ones. Remember the fuss about the lack of beer and wine at Euro Disney when that theme park first opened? Well, Disney now permits alcohol to be sold at its eateries and take-aways and at many shops within its Florida complex. The only exception is the Magic Kingdom itself, though (in the face of some opposition, it is said) alcohol is served even here at private parties held in the park after normal closing time.

For a country where - according to Thomas Belelieu, Disney World's head of table service and a leading force in its new emphasis on food and drink - "Prohibition killed a whole generation of drinkers" and where a good many counties in the southern and central United States are still "dry", this is a major - and largely unnoticed - policy change. So is the departure into gourmet dining, given the perception that eating at Disney entails fast-food, "kiddie food" and not much else.

Belelieu has started up a food and wine club (membership limited to Florida residents) based at Disney World. Three varieties of beer are now produced at a year-old small brewery within the complex, and executives pride themselves on the fact that one of the Disney restaurants, the California Grill, has won national plaudits, including second place in a television consumer programme's contest for "best restaurant in the United States". So much for hamburgers and 'shakes.

There are detectable changes in style, too: some of the souvenirs, clothing in particular, have become less brash, the motifs more spare - geared certainly to an older clientele with more refined tastes. "You would almost hardly tell that it was Disney," says Belelieu of some products.

Of course, Mickey and all his works are there for all to buy - and in many parts of the complex they are just as brash and pushily peddled as before. But it is almost possible to avoid the Mouse. At the Disney Institute, a mini-campus with a New England-style college block, planted in the further reaches of Disney World, he is almost invisible.

So far, the institute, which offers classes on a daily or weekly basis targeted at the over-35s, has not been an unalloyed success and still seems to be searching for its format. A senior institute official spoke of "challenges". But the thinking was to use the Florida facilities to the full and to attract a different, older, clientele, including pensioners.

The classes have their limits: cooking (dishes served in Disney restaurants), wine-tasting (ditto), landscaping (a la Disney gardeners), cartoon-drawing, etc. There are also courses for executives - including from British Airways - to learn the "Disney style" (that irrepressible smile and unflappability).

In another outreach of the park, a sparkling new sports complex has just opened, with international-standard facilities for a host of sports, from athletics to basketball, tennis, baseball and maybe even, in time, cricket. And next year, Disney enters the mini-cruise market with two Italian-built ships - the Magic and the Wonder, what else? - which will be "classless", but have "child-free" decks.

What all these developments point to is that the Disney theme parks, at least in the US, are in hot pursuit of the adult market. Adult, however, is a term to be used with care in the same sentence with a company that trades on "family values". In present American usage its connotations include "pornographic". The company is still smarting from the publicity of a boycott declared this spring by the Southern Baptists, the biggest Baptist grouping in the US, over its special days for gays and lesbians.

It has also faced protests from women's groups objecting to the message being sent to "our little girls" by the scanty clothing (two sea-shells to be precise) worn by the Little Mermaid. This, along with coyness about any change of commercial strategy, may explain why my initial requests for interviews to talk about "Disney for adults" received a frosty reception.

Part of the company's rationale for courting the - let's say - "older" market is straightforward and clear: demographic trends in the industrialised world - from where the vast majority of Disney World's visitors come - show ageing populations almost everywhere. In the US, moreover, economic might is also shifting to the group delicately termed "seniors". Several recent studies have shown that America's pensioners increasingly have more disposable income than young couples with children - a shift that is posing questions in the US about the benefits and tax advantages enjoyed by pensioners.

With Disney World celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, its international marketing manager, Tony Altobelli, says that the older generation, who remember visits as children, are not only bringing their own children, but choosing to come by themselves as "empty nesters".

Another aspect of the company's rationale is perhaps less obvious. When the Walt Disney Company announced its plans for Euro Disney (now Disneyland Paris), there were howls, especially from the French but from others as well, who warned of the risks of American "cultural imperialism". Not content with "dumbing down" America, they said, Disney was now starting on Europe.

Although Disneyland Paris has become Europe's most frequented tourist attraction, that attitude persists. And the company's proposal last year that the animated film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, might be projected in the precincts of the real Notre Dame did little to dispel it. What no one anticipated, however, was that Europe might have almost as great an influence on Disney as Disney had on Europe.

Now, there are nearly a dozen executives in key positions at Disney World in Florida who have come from the Paris operation. Food and wine aficionado, Thomas Belelieu, who is half-French, half-Hungarian, and a Disney-believer who thinks that the initial publicity for Euro Disney was quite wrongly conceived, is among them.

Company representatives and visitors alike venture two reasons for the reverse influence. One is the number of Disney World visitors from Europe and, increasingly, South America, whose tastes extend beyond hamburgers, Coke and cartoon characters. The other is the changing tastes of Americans, fostered partly by foreign travel, partly by the growing Hispanic influence at home, with its Latin emphasis on food, drink and pleasure, but partly also by the maturing of a generation with more disposable income and more selfishness than their forebears.

For them, it is not a matter only of giving the children a good time; they want a good time, too. Advancing in years, they also want the safety of an enclosed campus, like the Disney resorts, where they can escape the violence-ridden towns and cities where they live.

It is hardly coincidental that it would now be entirely possible to spend a holiday at Disney World, dividing your time between the charms of the real city of Orlando, your equally real resort pool, and critically acclaimed restaurants. The only time you need encounter those ears is on the bars of soap and (buy-able) coffee mugs in your room.

There will be those - and I have to admit (almost) to sharing their view - for whom even those ears will be too much: too much a reminder of that culturally simplistic, brashly commercial world that you have tried for so long to resist.

Which prompts a heretical thought. Is it time, perhaps - might there come a time - to dump the Mouse? If Disney wants those ABC1s with their expensive tastes and their money to match, is Mickey, who turns 70 next year, ripe for retirement? And if that were so, how many other American icons - Coca-Cola, the entire soft drink culture, the hamburger, the hotdog? - might be under threat from the new sophistication, too?.