As a Christmas present, my parents treated my brother and me to a pair of behind-the-scenes tours of the Walt Disney World parks: Keys to the Kingdom ($53 plus park admission), which tours the Magic Kingdom and provides some insight on the design decisions which went into building it, and Undiscovered Future World ($49 plus park admission), which tours Epcot and gives some history on the ‘edutainment’ attractions there.
Both were four-hour walking tours with a short break for lunch. The rules for the tours were fairly strict. Must bring photo ID. Cannot carry large backpacks. No cameras or recording devices. Fortunately, my notepad didn’t fit their definition of a ‘recording device,’ so as the tourguides led us through the parks, I wrote down just about everything they said. I took twenty-four pages of notes on the first tour and twenty-two pages of notes on the second.
Here’s what I learned.
(Disclaimer: Some of what I wrote down was stuff I already knew, but I decided to include it anyway. And I didn’t write down the tourguides’ exact wording, so everything I quote them as saying is actually just paraphrased. I can’t claim that any of the information below is my own, but if you make use of what I’ve written, please give me a little credit!)
We were told to meet in the small courtyard to the left of Town Hall at 9:15 so that the tour could begin at 9:30. My brother and I left my house in Celebration at 8:30, thinking that forty-five minutes was plenty of time to arrive and get into the park, but we hadn’t taken the huge holiday crowds into consideration, so we got there up at 9:30 on the nose.
There were fourteen of us on the tour, plus the tourguide. Her name was Lauren, and she was sharply dressed, wearing what looked like a cross between a schoolgirl uniform and a riding outfit: a plaid skirt to just above her knees, socks to just below them, a British riding cap, and a short riding crop in her hand which she’d wave in the air as she walked to help us find her through the crowds.
Sign-in consisted of us telling them what we wanted for lunch (which was included in the price of the tour), so that it would be ready for us when we reached the Harbor House. The menu listed a couple of sandwiches, a chicken strips basket, and a fish strips basket — nothing fancy, but lunch wasn’t something to waste time on today. I was also given a nametag and a bright yellow badge which read ‘GUEST KT3011.’
After we had gotten everything straightened out, Lauren brought us out in front of Town Hall. “Let’s get to know each other,” she said. “I want everybody to tell us your name, where you’re from, and your favorite Disney character.” Everyone else named Mickey, Donald, or Goofy. I said ‘Robin Hood!’ and everyone stared.
“Walt Disney World has more than one thousand costumed characters around the parks and resorts, and there are more than fifty-five thousand employees here at Walt Disney World alone,” she said as she guided us up Main Street. “The Magic Kingdom is designed like a movie. What’s the first thing you see when you go to see a movie? Well, it’s the curtain –” I guess she hasn’t been to see a movie since the fifties — “and that’s represented here by the train station in the front of the park. You have to go under the train station to see what’s inside the park, and as you emerge from the short tunnel underneath it, it’s like a movie curtain lifting ahead of you.
“What else do you see before the movie starts? The coming attractions. Those are represented by the posters in those short tunnels under the train station. There’s one for Splash Mountain, there’s one for Pirates, there’s one for the Haunted Mansion, like that. They’re designed to get you excited about what you’re going to see.
“And then before the movie rolls, you see the opening credits. These are represented by the names painted on the second-story windows along Main Street. The first credit you see is the producer: up on the right is the name of Roy O. Disney. He was the ‘money man’ behind everything you see here.”
She led us into a quiet alley (Center St.) off Main Street and had us sit at the tables there, out of the way of the traffic flow. “Everything Disney does is based on four Keys,” she said. “The first key is Safety. One example of Safety here is that there are lots of lightning rods around, because Florida gets a lot of thunderstorms. The lightning rods are disguised as flagpoles and weather vanes. You see all the American flags flying on all the flagpoles on the buildings along Main Street, and you may ask, aren’t flags supposed to be lowered at dusk every day? Well, we get around that because technically these are pennants, not flags.” (I couldn’t tell the difference; they looked like flags to me.) “Another example of Safety is that the curbs are a different color than the sidewalks here to help people notice them, because lots of guests are in a ‘vacation daze’ and would trip otherwise. And there are lots of ramps built into the sidewalks, and also the doors on all of the stores here are always open.
“The next key is Courtesy. As we say here, ‘your smile is part of your costume.’ And we call it a ‘costume,’ not a uniform. And our employees are called ‘cast members,’ and our customers are called ‘guests,’ and we refer to the areas of the park as ‘backstage’ and ‘onstage.’ And you may have noticed all the photographers along Main Street offering to take photos; they’ll use your own camera if you’d like.
“The third key is Efficiency. One example of this is the FastPass system, where you can get a ticket to get into a short line for a ride later in the day. Another example is our transportation system here at the parks: rather than having delivery trucks and carts going all through the onstage areas and interfering with the theming of each area, all the deliveries are done backstage, and we have a ‘utilidor’ system under the park to let castmembers reach their work areas quickly.
“And the final key is Show. One example, if you’ll listen, is the sound of the piano lesson from one of the windows above us here in the alleyway. Touch, smell, and taste are also all part of our Show. You’ll notice later when I bring you into the backstage areas that there is no Show backstage.
“Every Disney castmember has to go through a Traditions course to learn these four keys. So what I’m giving you today is effectively a mini-Traditions course, so you’re all honorary castmembers for the day.” (Good thing I didn’t have to cut my hair short!)
She led us out of the alley and further up Main Street. “You’ll see the name on that window up there is ‘M. T. Lott.’ That’s what Walt Disney World was before Walt began building here. He purchased the land through fake holding companies to keep his plans secret, and he was able to buy land for $180 per acre. But then a journalist for the Orlando Star figured out what was going on and broke the news, and suddenly the price jumped to $180,000 per acre. The Walt Disney World property is the size of San Francisco, twice the size of Manhattan Island, and covers 47 square miles. The Magic Kingdom itself is 107 acres large. Eventually Walt wanted to begin leaking news of his intentions for the area, so he began purchasing land under the fake name of ‘Ms. M. Mouse.’
“Up there you’ll see the name ‘Dr. Card Walker, Justice of the Peace.’ Card Walker was the only person who could get Roy and Walt to speak to each other after they had one of their loud arguments — hence, ‘peace.’ And up there are the names of Ron and Diane Miller and their ‘partners;’ Diane is Walt’s daughter and Ron became Disney CEO after he married her, and the ‘partners’ are Walt’s grandkids.
“On the last window is the name of Walt Disney, the director of this ‘movie.’ His name overlooks the castle so that he can see guests entering the park in the morning, and see their smiling faces as they leave at night.
“Look back towards the train station from here at the end of Main Street. It’s carefully made to give the illusion of being a short ways away, so that people leaving won’t feel like they have a long way to walk. But as you’re coming into the park, the castle is made to look like it’s a long trip away. This is an example of ‘forced perspective.’ More examples are the second- and third-story windows along Main Street; if you’ll notice, some buildings fit a third story into the same space that others use for only a second story. Those are all just facades, because you wouldn’t want to see someone working at a PC in one of those windows while you’re surrounded by 1920’s America.
“Another example of courtesy and efficiency is the Tip Board here at the end of Main Street, which tells you how long the wait is for various attractions. It’s updated every hour or so.
“The park areas all follow what’s known as the ‘right hand rule.’ In other words, people tend to walk on the right side of the street. So as you come into the park, you’ve got the Exposition Hall on the right where you can buy film, the bakery where you can buy a muffin, and then the themed lands are like the spokes coming out from a wheel hub. As you exit the park later, on your right is the Emporium where you can buy souvenir gifts and City Hall where you can buy tickets for another day at the park.
“The attractions at the park are evenly distributed between kiddie rides and more intense adult rides. The transitions between each themed land are gradual. For example, look at the Crystal Palace restaurant. The left side of it by Main Street is neat and trim, while the right side of it by Adventureland is jungle-y and has large awnings over the windows. Each land also has larger centerpieces to draw people in; Walt referred to these as ‘visual weenies,’ after the fact that he had a little dog that he could lead around by offering it bits of a hotdog. The Astro Orbiter, the carousel that you can see through the castle, the riverboat, the thick tropical trees, each of these is intended to draw you into an area.”
As she walked, she picked up bits of trash from the pavement and dropped them into trashcans.
We stopped at another set of tables inside Adventureland. Lauren told us the story of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, which Walt had created for Universal (not the same Universal as today) and lost after he asked the company for more artistic freedom. She told the tale of how Mortimer was created on the train trip back from NY to LA, and how Lillian Disney quickly renamed him Mickey. Steamboat Willie was the first Mickey cartoon and the first cartoon to use synchronized sound; Flowers and Trees was the first Silly Symphony (and people went to see it because it was billed as ‘Mickey Presents,’ and people felt like Mickey was telling them to go see it). Snow White was a ninety-minute cartoon done in Technicolor to which Disney bought the rights, and even though tickets were a nickel apiece and this was the middle of the Depression, it still grossed over $8 million. Then there was Fantasia, and Walt asked for theaters to install sprinklers in theaters so it could rain on cue and for ushers to carry incense through the aisles during the floral scenes (she didn’t say whether Walt got his way), but there was no princess or theme to it, so it wasn’t a success.
Then she went into the history of the parks. Walt wanted to make a place where adults and kids could play together, hence Disneyland; but wanted more control over the whole vacation experience (including being able to provide hotels), and that’s part of the inspiration behind Walt Disney World (which was originally supposed to be named just Disney World, but Roy added ‘Walt’ to the name after Walt’s death). She said that Walt had created four attractions for the 1964 World’s Fair, that later made it into the parks: Small World, the Skyway, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and the Carousel of Progress.
“December wasn’t a good month for the Disney family,” she said, noting that Walt, Roy, and Lillian all died in December.
I’d heard most of the Disney history before, which is why I didn’t take many notes here.
“Adventureland’s original name was ‘True Life Adventureland,'” Lauren said, as she led us towards the Jungle Cruise. She told us that she had been a Jungle Cruise host while she was in the College Program last year, so it’s her favorite ride. “A lot of University of Central Florida students go on the College Program,” she said, “and then they stay on at Disney and stop going to college, so UCF is known as ‘U Can’t Finish.'”
After a few words with the ride CM’s, Lauren got us past the long line and right onto a boat. “Don’t make eye contact with the people on the dock! They don’t like us since we cut past them!”
“The animation along the shores in the Jungle Cruise is run on sensors,” she pointed out, “that’s why the boats have to have plenty of space between them, or else we wouldn’t trip the sensors again after the guy in front of us.”
It was fun to ride the Jungle Cruise on this quasi-backstage tour. She mixed some classic JC jokes with some things she’d never be allowed to say in front of regular guests. “Y’know what kind of butterfly that is?” she asked, pointing to the huge one flapping its wings slowly. “Plasticus Mechanicus. And its wingspan can range from twelve inches all the way up to a whopping one foot!”
“The mist generated along the riverbanks helps to cool the plants during the summer. And in the winter, heaters are used to protect them.
“Anyone know what kind of snake that is? … Python? No … Anaconda? No … Plastic.
“Walt wanted real animals along the Jungle Cruise, but that wasn’t possible, so he used realistic-looking animatronics instead. See that silverback ape over there? The fur on its back used to be a brownish red, but then after several Imagineers did research for the Animal Kingdom and realized that its fur ought to be silver instead, they came out here and changed it.
“All of the animatronics are run by pneumatics. Not hydraulics, because they don’t want hydraulic liquid to leak into the water and contaminate it. All of the waterways here at the Magic Kingdom (Jungle Cruise, Pirates, etc.) are connected, except Splash Mountain.
“That rock over there is sandstone, but most people take it for granite.
“The Jungle Cruise boats actually don’t run on a track. It’s a trough, and each boat has a tire under the front and the back to keep it in the trough. The water here is dyed to hide the trough and the animatronics. The dye is added behind the waterfall, so if you ever come through here and the water around the waterfall is all foamy, they just added more dye.
“See the adventurers climbing the pole to escape the rhino? Remember the face of the bottom-most guy. You’ll see it again later.” (It’s the groundskeeper near the end of Haunted Mansion.) “Lots of faces are reused on animatronics.
“See the tail of that crashed plane over there, the front of it is used as the Casablanca plane in the Great Movie Ride. No, that’s not the original plane from the movie.
“The attacking natives chant three things at you. The third, it’s kind of hard to hear, but they say ‘I love disco.’ The Imagineers who installed this ride back in the 70’s liked disco.”
As we went behind the waterfall: “Look, it’s the back side of water.” (She didn’t do my favorite joke, though, which is to say this this is Schweitzer Falls named after the famous African explorer Dr. Albert Falls.)
As we went into the ‘temple ruins’ cave, she pointed to something around the right and said “look, it’s Shirley, so this is Shirley’s Temple.” But I didn’t see what she was pointing at. As we left the cave she pointed us to a hidden Mickey on the left-side wall by the exit, but it was really hard to make out, since I think it was just the angles of the rock face.
“Cast members use rowboats to come out and scrub the animals in this ride every few days. The one-liners in the spiel are scripted, it’s a thirty-seven page spiel!
“Over to your left you’ll see our local headhunter. Sales are shrinking, so he’s offering a special: two of his heads for one of yours. Either way, you come out a head in the end.
“You may wonder why the people who run the boats are called ‘skippers’ instead of ‘captains.’ The reason is that captains go down with the boat, while skippers skip out at the first sign of danger.
“You’ve all been outstanding. Now I want to see you all out standing on the dock!”
We stood outside the Tiki Room so that Lauren could tap the thatched roof with her riding whip and show us that it’s made of metal, even though it really looks like realistic thatches. “Imagineers in the 1970’s didn’t know how to make a real thatched roof,” she said. “Real aborigines were brought in to make the ones used at Animal Kingdom.” She also told the story about how Walt’s inspiration for the Tiki Room and for animatronics in general came from a mechanical toy bird that he found one day, and which he gave to his Imagineers so they could figure out how it worked.
Backstage – Frontierland
She led us towards Big Thunder, then brought us to the left, through a gate. “No photos here while we’re backstage,” she reminded everyone. “Or else Tinkerbell will steal your film.” We went down the short paved road on which a yellow ‘sight line’ is painted to let parade performers know when they can be seen by guests, and then we headed towards the Production Center.
Two things were immediately noticeable. One was that it had suddenly become very quiet; the noise of the parks didn’t permeate back here. The other was the smell. “That big pipe up there is AVACS, the Automated Vacuum Assisted Collection System. That’s what we use to collect trash from all around the park. Ever notice that you never see people emptying out the trashcans? That’s because all the garbage gets sucked down that pipe there. Also notice that there aren’t any separate trash bins around the park for recycling; that’s because people would just put trash into the recycling bins. So we have people here who go through all of the park’s trash and pick out the stuff to be recycled. And then I’m told that once a year somebody has to climb through that big trash pipe and clean it out.” Yuck!
The Production Center is the staging area for the park’s day and night parades. There were no other people there that we could see, but the floats for Spectromagic were in the warehouse, and the floats for the snowglobe parade and the carriages for the Christmas parade were all out front. On the ground were costumes for Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Bullseye, two Brother Bear characters whose names I forget, and a few snowmen.
Lauren went into an explanation of how costume performers cope with the heat, how they have less time onstage and more time offstage on hotter days, and how there’s a water sprinkler system behind City Hall to cool down folks quickly after a parade. “The floats themselves are rated based on their driving difficulty on a scale of 1 to 3, plus a type 4 for ‘special’ floats.”
She told us that the snowglobe parade, aka “Share A Dream Come True,” cost $3 million to produce. “Rehearsals and test runs were done at night, after park closing. All of the enclosed snowglobes are air-conditioned. On the first daytime public performance of the parade, with lots of reporters all there to see it, the condensation on Mickey’s snowglobe was so bad that all you could see was his feet.”
She pointed out a bunch of ‘Hidden Walts’ on the parade floats: the silhouette of Walt’s head in profile. There’s one on a movie reel, and another beside the fishbowl on the Partners statue. But they weren’t as defined or as interesting as Hidden Mickeys.
“Each snowglobe has an emergency button by the foot of the character inside it,” Lauren said. “If the performer is in trouble, he can step on the button, and the float driver will call a parade manager to come walk alongside the float to see what’s the matter. If the performer didn’t mean to step on it, he holds his hands up to his mouth in an ‘oops’ gesture. If the performer is having some sort of trouble but thinks he can still make it to the end, he windmills his arms and then driver will try to hurry up and make fewer stops along the parade route. If the performer is having dire trouble and has to get out of there NOW, he gives a quick thumbs-down gesture and they’ll let him come down into the belly of the float, where guests can’t see him. That doesn’t happen often, though, because character performers are on diets so that they’re well-nourished and hydrated and up to the physical stress of wearing a costume in the Florida heat. Once a performer put a thermometer in the head of his costume, and checked it twenty minutes later when he came offstage and it read a hundred twenty degrees.”
She then led us across the pavement to the Splash Mountain reservoir, which she said is skimmed each night to collect the hats that people accidentally drop while they ride. We also passed a small tent where a pair of Jungle Cruise hippos are undergoing maintenance, but there wasn’t much else back there to see, other than some plain-looking warehouses and some forklifts and automobiles and lots of pipes, so we went back into the park.
Someone asked Lauren whether the park is ever closed due to crowds. “There are four phases of crowd levels,” she said. “Phase 1 means the park is open. 2 means there’s no parking, but people can get in by the monorails or busses. 3 means that only hotel guests are allowed in, and 4 means that the park is at capacity and no one else is allowed in. We reached phase 4 on Christmas day.”
As we came down the walkway away from Big Thunder, Lauren pointed us to what looked like a small bit of chewing gum embedded into the pavement. “You might be surprised, since there’s no chewing gum sold at the parks. That’s actually a RFID radio emitter. It helps synchronize the music from the parade floats as they pass by specific locations along their parade route.”
And with that, we wound through Adventureland into Liberty Square, and stopped at the Harbor House for lunch.
The Harbor House is a quiet place, especially the out-of-the-way spot upstairs. Our lunches were ready and waiting for us, and each seat had a namecard for us. My brother and I sat with our cute tourguide. I tried not to ask any stupid questions.
“The Harbor House is an idea which was brought here from Disneyland, after it was decided not to be built there,” she said. “It was originally supposed to be named the Columbia Harbor House after the Columbia sailing ship there.”
Inside our namecards was a souvenir for this tour: a gold-colored pin, in the shape of a key with mouse-ears, with ‘Keys to the Kingdom’ written on it. “Don’t trade that pin! You can only get it on this tour!” said Lauren.
“You might have noticed that the restroom is actually pretty far from our table. It’s at the other end of the restaurant, in fact. This is because we’re in the Liberty Square end of the restaurant, and it tries to be true to the theming of the colonial era by not having any indoor plumbing in Liberty Square. The other end of the restaurant where the restrooms are is in Fantasyland.”
There’s a huge ship’s wheel upstairs, with a plaque proclaiming it to be from the ‘Flying Dutchman.’ “The Flying Dutchman is the name of a ghost ship which is said to be forever at sea, never reaching a port. So that’s why the windows beside the Flying Dutchman’s wheel overlook the Haunted Mansion.”
After lunch, we rode the Haunted Mansion. We rode it like any other guests, because Lauren couldn’t quite climb into the Doom Buggies with all of us, much as I would have liked her to. But she did get us in past the line again by bringing us in through the exit and then off a side corridor through the Servants’ Quarters, which has a door and a bell for each of the servants (such as Madame Leota).
“Does anyone know the true story behind the Haunted Mansion?” Lauren asked. A few people offered a couple of suggestions, but she cut them off: “The true story is that it’s a retirement home for ghosts.” We laughed. “There are several stories going around, most of them about Master Gracey, Emily his wife-to-be who loved to play games with her fiance, and Madame Leota who was jealous and locked Emily into a chest in the attic after suggesting to her that it would be a good place for hide-and-seek. The head of Madame Leota in the crystal ball is actually the image of Leota Thomas, Disney Imagineer, while her voice is that of Eleanor Audley who also voices Maleficent in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and stepmother Lady Tremaine in ‘Cinderella.’ The small Emily figure at the end of the ride is voiced by the real Leota Thomas.”
She said that the dust in the ride is a hypoallergenic material brought in special for the ride, because real dust might bother peoples’ allergies. She also told us that the Hidden Mickey formed with three plates in the ballroom sequence isn’t actually supposed to be there: there’s a specific layout for how the plates are supposed to be arranged, and each plate has a Polaroid photo under it to show what its place setting is supposed to be, and managers come through occasionally and ‘undo’ the Hidden Mickey, but by the following morning someone’s always put the Mickey back again.
“The ‘stretch room’ in the beginning is different from the one at Disneyland. This one’s ceiling goes up, their floor goes down because it’s an elevator.” She told us to watch for the groundskeeper (the one with the dog) who has the face of the guy in the Jungle Cruise, and she also said there’s another Hidden Mickey in the crypt scene right before the opera singers, it’s a skeleton’s hand in the air.
So then we all rode the Haunted Mansion, and some of us recited the spiel along with Paul Frees in the beginning, and I missed the skeleton-hand Hidden Mickey, and we all met up in the courtyard afterwards.
As we left the Haunted Mansion, she said: “Notice the chesspieces on top of the mansion? You’ll notice that every piece is there, except for the knight. That’s because it’s always night *inside* the Haunted Mansion.”
Lauren pointed out several small touches along the buildings in Liberty Square. “The symbol on that wall of four hands holding each other, that meant back in colonial times that you had firefighters’ insurance, so you’d be willing to pay if the firefighters risked themselves to save you. The rifle in this window means that a minuteman lives here. The colonial doll in this window means it’s the bedroom of a child. If you’ll notice a cobblestone path winding down the center of the red concrete pavement, that’s supposed to represent the ‘canal system’ of pavements back in colonial times, because people would just toss their waste out their windows into their streets and you’d have to walk between it.
“The figures in the Hall of Presidents are made to be as realistic as possible. It has FDR’s real leg braces, and all of the eyeglasses are of the correct prescription for the President wearing them. Each figure has real human hair. When Bill Clinton’s figure was put in, Hillary Clinton came to approve it, and said that the figure had too much grey in his hair and made them fix it. There’s an eagle symbol in the Hall of Presidents carpet: normally during peacetime the eagle is supposed to face the olive branch in its left claw for peace, and in wartime it faces the arrows in its right claw for war, but the eagle on the carpet here always faces peace, so during wartime it’s covered up with a rug.”
[I later found out that the idea of the eagle’s head turning in wartime is a myth. Snopes has an article on it.]
She explained that the animatronics are all run on pneumatics. “Sometimes even after they’re turned off, it takes a while for the air to work its way out of the system. Once a cleaning lady was cleaning up in there and Abe stood up.”
“The Liberty Tree has thirteen lanterns on it, one for each of the original colonies. The Liberty Bell replica here was made from the original Liberty Bell mold.”
Backstage – Town Square
As we made our way back to Town Square, we talked a little bit about the park’s Christmas celebration a few days earlier. “There were a lot of complaints from people who were unhappy because they came here to meet Regis! They said the show was advertised as being live! Yeah, it was live when the film crews taped it!”
She let us through a door by the bathrooms behind Casey’s (at the end of Main Street), and suddenly we were in another paved lot, between the back of the Emporium and the Jungle Cruise. She brought up up a flight of stairs into the ‘Tourguide Hallway,’ in which hung several pictures of the park’s history and a few small displays.
One of the pictures was of Town Hall while this park was still being built. Where the clock should have been, instead there was a sign reading ‘Remember Opening October 1971.’ “Roy saw that workers kept glancing at the clock and stopping their work ten or fifteen minutes before their shift was done,” Lauren said. “So he demanded that the clock be covered up with that sign to remind people what they were working towards.”
She spent some time talking about costuming. “Each castmember has three costumes for each area they work in. On any given day, they’ll be wearing one costume, another will be hanging in the wardrobe department, and the third will be in the wash. So, as we say, ‘one on your back, one on the rack, and one in the sack.’ The lint from all that laundry is used to make the resort pillows soft.” (Yes, that last was a joke.)
“Your nametag is part of your costume, you have to wear one at all times. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be YOUR nametag. If you lose it or leave it at home, you can pick a new name from a bin full of spare nametags.”
She talked about people working many different positions. “I have three different positions, so I have a total of nine costumes,” she said. “Each piece of each costume is identified by a barcode, and Wardrobe is like a great big Walmart where I go in and pick out what I need in my size, and they scan the barcodes at checkout so they know what I have.” She lifted up her skirt and I passed out from excitement could see the barcode tag sewn into the hem.
“Some people will play any one of several different costumed characters on any given day. I know one person who would often play either Chip or Dale. One day she was signing an autograph for a kid, and she signed ‘Chip,’ but then she looked up and saw Chip standing nearby, so she quickly added ‘is not as cool as Dale.'”
She then led us down a flight of stairs, past a sign reading ‘Warning: This Area Contains Asbestos,’ and into a plain concrete tunnel lit with bright fluorescent lamps.
“This is the tunnel,” she said, as several members of our party gazed upon the concrete walls with hushed awe. “Is it everything you expected?
“This area is called the Utilidor. Short for ‘utility corridor.’ Notice that there’s ‘real music’ from a radio station piped into here; it’s not Disney music, it’s nice to the people down here.” There were huge pipes and electrical conduits above our heads. “Every now and then there’s a loud noise when the trash suck system works. But as you can see, there’s not a whole lot going on down here. It’s been compared to a hospital basement or a navy ship.”
She explained that the Utilidors let costumed castmembers travel into and out of the park without being seen in the wrong land; like, you wouldn’t want to see people in Tomorrowland costumes wander through Main Street. “These tunnels are actually on the first floor. The rest of the park is technically on the second story. That’s because you can’t build basements in Florida, due to the high water table. All of the area around these corridors was filled in with dirt from the lagoon as it was being dug. There are no tunnels like these at the other parks. At the Disney/MGM Studios there’s no problem with people being seen outside their areas, ‘cos it IS a studio, and that’s expected.”
She brought us by a large map on the wall and showed us how the different areas of the Utilidors are color-coded. The map itself was very old; it still listed Mr. Toad and 20K Leagues! “You’ll notice from this that the 20-Thousand Leagues lagoon is directly over the wardrobe area and the castmember locker room. That’s why the lagoon hasn’t been able to be drained and used for anything else, because that would require that the wardrobe and lockers be closed off for a while. But since people are now using Cast Zooming, where they’re allowed to bring some costumes home with them and get ready before they show up for work, we might be able to close wardrobe for a while and renovate the lagoon.”
In general the tunnels really did look like a hospital basement. The paint was kinda faded and chipped, there were lots of merchandise crates piled along the walls, there were a couple of doors leading to small offices and breakrooms. Obviously this wasn’t the sort of place that anyone saw much point in making pretty; it was perfectly utilitarian. “There’s a cafeteria named the Mousketeria at one end of the tunnels,” Lauren said, “and it’s even got a Subway in it.”
The tunnels weren’t all that busy. A few times a small electric vehicle buzzed past, and once we saw someone in the distance carting off Piglet’s head, but otherwise there really wasn’t a whole lot to see.
So we came back upstairs behind the other side of Main Street.
Backstage – Main Street
We stood in a parking lot behind the side of Main Street that has the confectionary and the bakery. A building nearby had a sign which raid ‘MO-3 Magic Kingdom Resorts Landscape.’ A marquee over a door read ‘The Walt Disney Story Theater.’ “That theater is used for movies and training, and this parking lot is sometimes used for castmember parties. Like, there was a special screening of Haunted Mansion here when it came out. But I was working, so I didn’t get to go.”
Lauren pointed out the small landing platform where Tinkerbell ends her flight down the cable from the castle, during the nighttime fireworks show. “Tinkerbell only works a one-and-a-half hour shift, but she gets pair for eight hours plus hazard pay. She carries two battery packs for the lights on her, plus a rope on her back in case she stops before the end of her wire — that way she can throw the rope down to people on the ground who can pull her the rest of the way. The auditions for Tinkerbell are very tough. They don’t ever let a guy be Tinkerbell, in case a guest watches with binoculars. If somebody passes all the auditions, they harness her to a crane and dangle her high up in the air for a while to make sure she can hold the Tinkerbell pose up there.
“The castle is one hundred eighty-nine feet tall. Can anyone guess how many bricks are in it?” None, I said, and earned a few more stares. “That’s right, none. It’s made entirely of fiberglass.”
And that did it for the tour. Lauren let us out through the castmember entrance by the haberdashery, thanked us all for coming, took back the GUEST badges, and wished us well.
My brother and I spent the rest of the day at the park, and had a great time. We rode the PeopleMover, and got to see the work lights on inside Space Mountain for a moment as we went through it; we tried to see Timekeeper but he was going through the motions without making any sound so they closed it for repairs and sent us out of the theater; we rode the railroad around the park; we slipped out for dinner at the Kona Cafe at the Polynesian report and he declared it one of his favorite restaurants ever; we returned to the Magic Kingdom and caught a brass band performing right in front of the train station; then we camped out in the dining area between Main Street and Tomorrowland and had okay seats to watch Spectromagic go by and terrific seats to see the fireworks afterwards.
And then, since the park was so crowded, the castmembers led people through a backstage area to get out of the park — the same backstage area we finished our tour with that afternoon! D’oh!
I’ll continue with the Epcot tour later.