Disney's most popular characters are whistling while they work. The fun-loving gang can be seen and heard at their latest hangout - Mouse Gear, a new retail store in Walt Disney World's Epcot.

"The goal (of the store) was to incorporate the character piece," says Agnes David-Hoffman, art director for all of Walt Disney World's retail venues. "We call them the fabulous five: Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto."

The new store opened in October and is part of Epcot's Future World, which is the first area visitors encounter when they enter the theme park. Mouse Gear was created in place of the previous store, Centorium, which was approximately 13,000 sq. ft. In building Mouse Gear, the store was expanded to 19,000 sq. ft. It is now the largest retail store in any Walt Disney theme park.

In addition to its size, the store's interior design and theming make it a noteworthy part of Epcot. Mouse Gear is based around a factory theme, with Disney characters scattered about playing with gears, switches and other movable parts.

"The characters are in a creative think tank," says David-Hoffman. "The whole store is a fun, whimsical place that evokes theming."

In designing Mouse Gear, Walt Disney Imagineering wanted to make the characters a central element. The quintet shows up in several design elements, including some that are referred to as "hidden Mickeys."

Incorporating the characters into the mechanical theme was a way to bring Disney characters to the park while maintaining the principles of Epcot, David-Hoffman says. Though the characters make frequent appearances at other Disney parks, they aren't often seen at Epcot. In one area of Mouse Gear, called Character Connection, kids can take photographs with the live characters.

The stylized characters used in Mouse Gear add a sense of fun and adventure to the other Epcot themes the store conveys. "It has been an inspiration to introduce new concepts into the store that are (based on the themes of Epcot), such as discovery, invention and technology," David-Hoffman says.

In addition to portraying the ideals Epcot was founded on, the store promotes a new festivity at the park - the 15-month-long Walt Disney World Millennium Celebration. One room in the store is devoted exclusively to millennium merchandise.

"We wanted to create an environment that was not only in-line with the story we had created, but that would extend to the millennium event," David-Hoffman says. "That will go on as long as the millennium event, optimistically as long as there is a guest demand."

With its millennium merchandise and character themes, Mouse Gear is intended to reach a wide range of demographics. "A lot of our guests are aware that certain (Disney) parks are more appealing to certain age groups," David-Hoffman says. "In this case, we're trying to cater to everybody."

Mouse Gear is also the first Disney retail location to include certain high-tech features. For instance, the point-of-sale system features double-sided monitors with touch-screen technology. The monitors allow guests to view clips of Disney's millennium events while waiting in line at the cashwrap. An animated video used as the monitors' screen saver incorporates hologram technology.

Other features include a checkout area designed as one bank of registers, resembling the central processing system in a factory. A special effects soundtrack provides customized music that is synchronized with moving gears and animated characters.

"The room evokes a lot of energy, a lot of movement and production," David-Hoffman says. "This store is truly an extension of what Epcot is all about."

Contact: Hue Lien Healy, WDI Florida Communications, 200 Celebration Place, Celebration, FL 34747; (407) 566-4201.

In a high-tech world of cell phones, digital satellites and DVDs, one must wonder, what will they think of next? How about writing e-mail from a treadmill?

The innovative technology - along with all sorts of other equipment, activities and classes - is Crunch's solution to the boring exercise routine. The New York-based gym, which first opened its doors 10 years ago, now has 19 locations in the United States and one in Tokyo. Crunch is currently in the wake of a big expansion: It grew from one to eight gyms in its first nine years, and grew to 20 gyms in the past year. This year, however, the company will be taking a breather.

"We want to slow our growth this year while we concentrate on strengthening our infrastructure," says Andrew Moger, vice president of development. "In 2001 and beyond, our goal is to open 10 to 15 gyms a year."

Crunch's mission is to treat every customer the same, without making judgments. Excerpts from the mission statement read, "We at Crunch warmly welcome people from all walks of life regardless of shape, size, sex or ability. People don't have to feel flawless to feel at home at Crunch."

In addition to having its own branded merchandise - such as clothing, accessories, skin care, fitness videos, CDs and books - Crunch is known for its variety of exercise classes.

Programming at the gym includes action wrestling, gospel moves, firefighter training, yoga and recess. These classes offer innovative ways for people to exercise without getting bored. For instance, in firefighter training, working New York City firefighters teach activities similar to those performed while fighting fires. In recess, fitness enthusiasts can work out with schoolyard-inspired games.

"We have fitness classes with live music," Moger says. "For instance, we have an African drum band. Something else we've done differently from other gyms is the spinning (cycling) room. It is tiered like an amphitheater."

Along with a well-rounded class schedule, Crunch offers state-of-the-art fitness equipment, boxing rings and even a hypoxic room - a 9-by-9-foot deoxidized room designed to offer the physical and mental benefits of training at an altitude of 9,000 feet.

While the offerings vary at each Crunch location, they all have personal training and massage. Both the personal trainers and massage therapists are employed by the gym, which offers a range of scheduling options for customers.

"Our personal training program is a tremendous profit center for us," Moger says, adding that the massage therapy is a new aspect of the business. In addition to creating a more comprehensive training program for its employees, the company plans to expand its MIS department and add hardware and software in 2000.

The combination of fitness and computers is one Crunch expects will keep exercisers from getting bored. Its NetPulse stations allow guests to access the Internet from their exercise bikes. The stations are programmed in such a way that if users do not keep up with their pre-planned workouts, the computers will automatically shut down.

Crunch gyms range in size from 25,000 to 40,000 sq. ft., and have about 4,000 sq. ft. devoted to the retail and juice bar areas. The design is an urban, industrial look, made to feel like a New York nightclub.

While the gym area is designed to create energy and excitement among visitors, the locker and massage areas are more of a soothing oasis, Moger says. The massage area is stark white with cushioned walls, and plants in the waiting room.

"We have proprietary peek-a-boo showers," Moger says. "They have sandblasted glass on the shower stalls and face into the common gym space. You can see silhouettes of people showering."

Crunch's U.S. locations are in New York City; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Orange County, Calif.; Chicago; Miami; and Atlanta. When the company expands next year, it plans to open more gyms in Southern California, Miami, Chicago and San Francisco as well as Texas and the Pacific Northwest. Using existing sites as well as new construction, Crunch's gyms are anywhere from one to four levels. The retailer requires a strong storefront and streetfront presence for its signage.

"People are drawn to Crunch because of the energy," Moger says. "It's very young and cutting-edge, yet in a luxurious environment."

Contact: Andrew Moger, vice president of development, Crunch, 11 East 26th St., Fifth Floor, New York, NY 10010; (212) 993-0300.