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Cynics called it the boldest gesture ever made by the image-conscious Princess Diana: On Aug. 24 she swept Prince William, 11, and Prince Harry, 8, off to Florida to begin a 10-day vacation guaranteed to attract every newshound in North America. With Fleet Street camped out in Orlando, she would have the opportunity not only to take her sons on an unforgettable outing to Disney World but also to demonstrate that she—and not Prince Charles—was the boys' more dedicated parent.

Two hours after their British Airways flight landed in Orlando at 3 p.m., Diana and her party were shrieking down Splash Mountain, which reportedly had been closed to other visitors. Accompanied by close friends Kate Menzies, 32, and Catherine Soames, 35, plus Soames' son Harry, 9, and three detectives, Diana and the boys hit Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and took the Jungle Cruise before returning to the pricey Grand Floridian hotel. The next day, the group was spotted at the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park, where they thrilled to the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular.

Not surprisingly, security was watertight. Orange County deputy sheriffs accompanied Di's convoy of unmarked cars and vans from the airport, and at Disney World the Princess was whisked around in a motorcade through a series of hidden tunnels designed for VIPs. (Queues, of course, were not a problem: Di's group went to the head of the line at each attraction.) A liaison from the State Department was in attendance, and security staff disguised as Disney characters tailed them in the park. (According to one report, there had been a plan to have Di's party adopt their own disguises—Chip and Dale for the princes—but it was discarded.)

Teeming with plainclothes security guards, the Grand Floridian was besieged by tourists and British reporters. "It's a madhouse," said one bellman. None of the rabble got near Di's fifth-floor, $1,450-a-night Presidential Suite (with its marble floors and pool view), which was accessible only by private elevator. "They're on vacation," explained a Disney source, "and they want peace and quiet."

Why was the trip so important? For one thing, Di's estranged husband had scored his own coup just the week before. On holiday with his sons at Balmoral, Charles, who normally shuns photo ops, made a valiant attempt to counteract his image as a distant father by allowing an ITV documentary crew to shoot him fishing with his sons on the banks of Scotland's Loch Muick. Smiling and laughing, the three shared a royal male-bonding moment that (thanks to still photographers given permission to snap the same scene) made it into the next day's papers. Said the Daily Express: "These pictures record the most intimate scenes between Charles and his sons for years—showing him as an affection-ale father, rather than the austere man so often depicted."

Nine months after their parents' separation, princes William and Harry are in the midst of a royal public relations tug-of-war. On one side is their mother—a needy soul with a genius for manipulating the press. On the other is Prince Charles—scandal-plagued but apparently bent on revamping his image. Ricocheting between two very different worlds, William and Harry live one week with hugs, kisses and trips to McDonald's, and the next with pomp, circumstance and a carefully nurtured sense of duty.

At the same time, the young princes are learning to cope with the irony of their new? position. Gone are the bitter arguments and the furious silences between their parents—these days they see Charles at High-grove and Diana at Kensington Palace, and the twain seldom meet. But while the boys now enjoy a kind of peace, they also must learn to live with the fallout from their parents' split: School friends know" about Squidgy and Camillagate, and editorial writers regularly urge Charles to step aside and allow William to take the throne. The princes' family life is examined in excruciating detail, but—though they will inherit untold wealth and unmatched social status—no one can say what the future holds for them.

This summer also has brought renewed reports about Diana's emotional frailty. "She is feeling depressed and disgruntled—she's getting very thin again and not eating very much," says one Palace insider. On Aug. 2 the princes were at her side when Diana furiously scolded a photographer who had snapped the three after a showing of Jurassic Park. Darling past startled passersby in London's Leicester Square, she stood inches from the offender and screamed, "You make my life hell!" Unhappy about losing her sons to Charles for an 18-day vacation, the stressed-out Princess flew to Bali on Aug. 14 for a five-day idyll—hiding away at two luxury Amanresorts, including one to which the Duchess of York had retreated after her separation.

Slipping out of London without attracting the attention of a single reporter, Diana was accompanied by Rosa Monckton, 39, managing director of Tiffany & Co. in London, Lucia Flecha de Lima, 52, wife of Brazil's ambassador to Great Britain, and bodyguard Det. Sgt. Carol Quirk. Her stay in Bali—said to have been planned with the aid of millionaire Adrian Zeeha, head of the company that owns the resorts—was remarkably private: Not one picture of her was snapped at either hideaway. Di was a "guest of the hotel," first at Amanusa, a deluxe thatched-roof refuge where lesser mortals pay up to $700 a night, and later at Amanwana, a retreat in the tropical forest on the island of Moyo. Her presence caused barely a ripple, perhaps because celebrities including David Bowie, Yoko Ono and Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall are a familiar sight at the faultlessly discreet establishments.

When Diana returned to London, of course, her problems had not gone away. By all accounts she now realizes that she has lost status since her separation and that establishing a new life will not be easy. In the year that ended this June, she carried out 288 engagements, compared with 389 the previous year. "She's being given very minor duties," said Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke's Peerage. "There is no doubt that she has been pushed sideways."

Although the Queen is reportedly determined to keep her on a light rein, Diana seems intent on proving that she is her own woman. According to tabloid reports, the Princess has been instructed to keep her children away from the paparazzi. On Aug. 4, however, when the rest of the family was celebrating the Queen Mum's 93rd birthday al Clarence House, she took the little princes to the go-cart course at Buckmore Park in Kent. In full view of photographers, she made a point of cuddling them every lime they came off the track.

How is the family strife affecting Wills and Harry? By all accounts, William, who lives with the burden of being Charles's heir, has felt the pain most acutely. Once an extrovert, he has become noticeably quieter in the past 18 months. "He's a bit of a mummy's boy—I think he has taken a lot of the guilt for his parents' separation, which is what preadolescents do," says Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine and author of Royal Children. "He would feel that somehow it was his fault, whereas Harry is a happy-go-lucky little chap and bounces along."

Even when the Waleses were still under the same roof, it often fell to William to comfort his mother when she was distraught. By one account, when a sobbing Di locked herself in a bathroom in their Kensington Palace quarters in March 1992, he pushed tissues under the door, saying, "I hate to see you sad." He also reportedly told one friend that he wanted to be "a policeman" in order to "look after my mother." In Royal Children Seward observes, "William tried to become what is known in psychological terms as a 'controller'—a little child, burdened with his family's distress, trying manfully to carry all the problems on his own shoulders."

As sensitive as he may be, William also has inherited some of Charles's hypercorrectness: Last year, Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, described him as "a very self-possessed, intelligent and mature boy, and quite shy. He is quite formal and stiff, sounding older than his years when he answers the phone."

Loath to have his picture taken, William apparently fell surrounded last March when photographers set upon him on a ski trip to Austria. He was walking with Di and Harry in the town of Lech when paparazzi crowded around, shouting and jostling them until Inspector Ken Wharfe came to their defense. "If you look at pictures recently, William is really scowling," says Seward. "He has obviously taken against photographers."

By contrast, second son Harry is "a mischievous imp," as Earl Spencer put it, who shows fewer signs of distress. Bold on the ski slopes and a terror on the go-cart track, he loves plants and animals (as Charles does) and worships his older brother. He also seems to have a healthy interest in pranks; as his mother once said affectionately, "Harry's the naughty one—just like me."

In the midst of the turmoil, William and Harry undoubtedly have taken comfort in the constants. Both are boarders at Ludgrove School in Berkshire, where they are carefully sheltered from the outside world. Newspapers are scarce and TV viewing is strictly limited. The school's 190-odd pupils follow an unvarying routine. Awakened by a matron at 7:15 a.m., they wash in a communal bathroom and have breakfast in the oak-paneled dining room. Later they work on lessons in French, geography, history and other subjects. After soccer or swimming, they may watch selected TV shows in the library. Lights are switched off at 8 p.m., and anyone caught listening to his Walkman after hours is reported to the headmaster.

While they receive no special treatment in the classroom, William (who wears a transmitter that he can set off in case of emergency) and Harry are attended by a rotating crew of Royal Protection Squad bodyguards. Sgt. Graham Craker sleeps next to William's spartan dorm room; before breakfast, William sometimes steals into his quarters to watch TV and peruse the papers. So close is the bond between the boys and their minders that Charles sometimes tries to enforce a bit of distance. A few years ago, he forbade Sgt. David Sharp to attend Harry's birthday party, causing both sons to erupt in tears.

If nothing else, the Prince's parenting is utterly different from Diana's. Raised among the Windsors, who lavish affection on dogs and horses rather than children, he rarely touches his sons in public. Diana kits them out in jeans and baseball caps, but on weekends with Dad, they often dress in suits or landed-gentry tweed jackets. When Charles and the boys boarded a train for Scotland on Aug. 16, The Sun noted, "The young princes looked awkward and uncomfortable in stiff, old-fashioned [clothes]. Glum William and Harry...walked three paces behind their dad in total silence. They were a far cry from the boisterous boys who giggle happily when they are out with Princess Di."

But while Charles may insist on decorum in public, his supporters claim that the boys enjoy their private time with him, particularly in the country. Although they often spend weekends with him at his Gloucestershire home, Highgrove, "the children [also] love Balmoral," says Seward. "They go fishing, riding—their ponies are taken up there—and grouse-shooting with their father." (Aware of Charles's rural advantage, Diana is said to be eyeing a house on the grounds of Althorp, her brother's estate in Northhamptonshire.)

At Highgrove (which best chum Camilla Parker Bowles apparently avoids when the princes are in residence), Charles keeps the boys on a strict routine. "They have breakfast at a quarter to 8 every day because that is how his life has always been," says Seward. "It would be a cooked nursery breakfast, and Charles would have it with them."

Although Diana has kept nanny Olga Powell, Charles recently brought in Mabel Anderson, 69, who worked for the Queen when he was in the nursery 45 years ago, to help when the boys are with him. Says Seward: "He won't have any contact between Diana's household and his because he doesn't want any back-stabbing, gossip or spying."

Teaching the boys their roles as royals, of course, is chiefly Charles's responsibility. The two have had good manners drilled into them since they were small, and William was opening doors for ladies and addressing men as "sir" before he went to school. Although Diana has said that the two won't be pushed into public appearances, soldier-mad Harry apparently enjoyed his debut as a working royal on July 29, when he visited the Light Dragoons regiment in Germany with his mother.

Aside from Charles, the boys look to male role models including cousin David Linley, 31, who loves fast cars and motorbikes. Earl Spencer allows the two to use lea trays to toboggan down the stairs at Althorp, and Peter Phillips, the 15-year-old son of Princess Anne, helps Harry with his riding.

A wide circle of family friends also lake an interest in William and Harry. Ex-Formula 1 driver Jackie Slew-art escorted Harry around the Silver-stone track this summer while Charles was al a polo match and Diana was in Zimbabwe, and ex-King Constantine of Greece (William's godfather) threw a cowboys-and-Indians bash for his birthday last year.

With any luck, the boys' extended family will help offset the effects of the war between the Waleses. Palace watchers predict that, as time goes on, Diana will be more marginalized and William, in particular, will be drawn more and more into the Windsors' orbit. Says one insider: "They have to be extremely careful—the Queen doesn't want to upset Diana, because she is the mother of the heir to the throne. They're doing it very slowly and quietly."

In a few years, William will be old enough to join family conferences about the business of the monarchy. Already he has demonstrated his ability to handle public speaking: At a recent party at Kensington Palace in honor of a servant, he had the savoir faire to deliver a fluent speech, complete with a few jokes. How will the boy who would be King feel about Diana when he is old enough to make choices? "I am not aware of any undue influence being put on William, but I suppose the whole tone of things would be to make him support the monarchy, not his mother," says one veteran Palace watcher. "It will be made clear to him that the monarchy is everything."

MICHELLE GREEN
MARGARET WRIGHT, TERRY SMITH and HELEN GIBSON in London

  • Contributors:
  • Margaret Wright,
  • Terry Smith,
  • Helen Gibson.