Behind the Scenes at Disney World: The Backstage Magic Tour

| May 2, 2011

Over Spring Break I took about eight hours out of my trip to Walt Disney World to go on the Backstage Magic Tour. This tour took us behind the scenes of all four theme parks plus two important areas outside the parks: Central Shops and the Horticulture (plants and flowers) area. For me the highlights were going into the tunnel “Utilidor” system under the Magic Kingdom park and seeing the Central Shops work area. Overall this is an amazing tour.

Be forewarned that this tour is a bit like looking behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz or like being dazzled by a master magician and then finding out how he does some of his tricks. You do get to see a little of how Disney creates its special brand of magic. It is possible it could spoil some of the magic for you!

Mickey anchors his Jammin’ Jungle Parade

As with any Disney tour that takes you backstage, very few photos are allowed on this tour. I have a few stock photos below from the Disney website press area, and several of my own taken in approved locations.

I have been going to Disney parks for over 40 years and just went on my first tour last year at Disneyland Resort. This tour was my first at Disney World.

Aside from approaching this tour as a lifelong Disney fan and blog writer, I had a secondary purpose on this tour, which was to learn more about Disney as a company. By day I work for a technical software company and both Disney World and Disneyland are among our customers. One recent application of our software, for example, was on the air conditioning system design at the new Contemporary Hotel Disney Vacation Club project. Disney is successful on so many levels – among which is creating community with customers. I was interested in better understanding all of this and did get several business ideas while on this tour.

Like any Disney tour they do change things from time to time. Be aware if you go on this tour it may not contain all the same specific elements that we experienced.

  

Epcot

We met outside Epcot at 8:45 am. There were about 30 people on my tour, and we had two guides: Walt and Cyndi. Throughout the day we usually split into two groups with half going with each guide. Disney provided wireless headsets for each guest so we could hear the tour guides. After brief introductions we headed out on a tour bus. Our first stop was the American Adventure at Epcot’s World Showcase.

We entered through a backstage entrance on the bus and pulled up behind the American Adventure Theater building. As one would expect, the backstage area looked very industrial. No need to hide pipes, old equipment, industrial building, or anything like that. This is a part of Disney World that day guests will never see. There were a few places that were painted and make to look ready for guests, and Cyndi explained that these were areas visible today or at some time in the past to guests at local Boardwalk hotels nearly a mile away in some cases. Since guests could potentially see this backstage area albeit from far away, it was made more presentable. This included paint and faux windows on just the upper 1/3 of some buildings but not the lower portion.

Inside the American Adventure building we got to watch the standard morning test run of the American Adventure attraction from just behind the stage. Here we watched the audio animatronic Mark Twain and Ben Franklin host the show as their characters rose and fell on hydraulic lifts. We watched the movie portions of the show from the back of the screen, and could see how the projectors worked along with the show control systems. As it was just after 9:00 am at this point and World Showcase does not open until 11:00 am, there were no guests in the audience yet. If there were they wouldn’t have been able to see us anyway, because we were behind and under the stage.

We then walked around and onto the “show area” in front of American Adventure building. At the passageway into the show area there is a mirror to communicate to cast members that they are going onstage and to make sure they are “show ready”.

As it was still just 9:30 am at this time, no guests were in the World Showcase show area. Here we could see utility vehicles moving around like bees buzzing around a beehive, doing gardening work, cleaning and preparing the area for the 11:00 am arrival of guests. Cyndi talked about the size and placement of the American Adventure building, and some of the design elements used to disguise the size of this five story building to make it look like a three story building to guests. I was not aware that when Epcot was first built the American Adventure Pavilion was planned to be located at the entrance to World Showcase between (where else?) the Canada and Mexico Pavilions – and not where it is now at the far back.

One of those details that Disney is famous for shows up on the clock at the top of the American Adventure building. The clock has Roman Numerals as many do, but the number “4” is written as “IIII” rather than the more common “IV” seen today. That is to make the clock consistent with Roman Numeral usage during colonial times to match with the theming there.

  

WDW Central Shops

We boarded our bus again and then were taken out of the Epcot backstage area, out onto the main roads of Disney World, and then around the perimeter of the Magic Kingdom park to WDW Central Shops. This area is just outside the Magic Kingdom back behind where the old Toontown Fair was located. This industrial area has many similarities to others I have been in during my professional career. There were tools, assembly areas, fixtures, painting areas, and a high bay area to allow work on larger fixtures. The building itself was probably 200 yards (200 meters) long and 100 yards (100 meters) deep.

Where this was different from other buildings I have seen was the objects that one could see. The list included:

There were yellow cabinets which held items (I believe paints) for various park rides with each cabinet having a ride name listed on the outside.

Like many such industrial buildings, safety was a prominent element in Central Shops. Many safety signs were displayed along with the most recent time an accident had occurred in the building.

A photo of Central Shops from Disney’s online press area (courtesy of Disney). We did not see this Nemo character but did see the items listed above.

  

Magic Kingdom

We left Central Shops and traveled back around the Magic Kingdom perimeter and then into the backstage area just outside of Main Street. We took a quick personal break by stepping into the show area (and past another mirror) and came into the park just next to the Plaza restaurant – where coincidentally I had just dined the evening before. By this time it was roughly 11 am and there were many guests in the park by then. After our break, we left the show area again to go backstage and into the Magic Kingdom’s storied Utilidor system.

The Utilidor is a system of tunnels underneath Magic Kingdom that allows Cast Members to move around without having to walk onstage with guests. For example, the tunnels allow Toy Story’s Woody to pop up in Frontierland without having to be seen walking through a theme clash in Tomorrowland. According to Cyndi there are 1.7 miles (2.5 km) of tunnels under Magic Kingdom. The map on the wall showed there was a roughly circular perimeter tunnel around the park, with a few spokes that went outwards, and then a major crossing tunnel that ran from the perimeter tunnel straight through the park under Cinderella’s castle and re-connecting to the perimeter tunnel somewhere in the Fantasyland area.

We spent roughly 30 minutes in the tunnels and received an explanation of how they worked. Numerous utility vehicles (presumably battery powered in this enclosed space) traveled around the tunnels to move products around the park. Merchandise, food items, etc., were all moving about. Also visible were long runs of utility piping for the various operations in the park. One of the pipes was an 18 inch (0.5 meter) vacuum system that moves trash collected up above to a collection point behind Splash Mountain at 66 miles per hour (100 km per hour). I believe Cyndi called it the AVAC system.

Music was playing in the tunnels and guess what type of music it was? Wrong! Not Disney music at all. Cast Members hear Disney music all day when they are onstage and are not forced to listen to Disney music backstage. The music came from a local Orlando radio station.

There were maps and signs in the Utilidors directing you which way to go to get to Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and all the other places around Magic Kingdom. The map showed dozens of stairway access points from the tunnels and into the park.

The tunnel walls were painted with two tones. A light color above and maroon down below. Maroon is the color used on the walls when you are under Main Street. We did not get to go to other tunnel areas but we were told the walls are green under Adventureland, Pink under Fantasyland and purple under Tomorrowland.

  

Lunch at Whispering Canyon

At around noon we left Magic Kingdom and bussed over to Wilderness Lodge where we had lunch at Whispering Canyon and were served the standard fair of ribs, chicken, beans, cornbread, and lots of corny jokes from the staff.

  

Disney Hollywood Studios

With lunch finished we re-boarded our bus and traveled along the Disney World roads over to the backstage area at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Our first stop was in WDW Costuming. This is the costume production area you see on the Backlot Tram Tour when the tram takes you through a tunnel and you can see people working on various costumes and fabrics. In fact while we were in the costuming area I noticed two different trams come through. Here costumes are designed and produced for WDW and the fleet of Disney Cruise Line ships along with some work supporting other Disney parks around the world. For example, we saw a costume used for one of the acrobatic monkeys that perform in Festival of the Lion King.

There was a lot of discussion on what goes into making the princess dresses. I really never paid much attention before to how the princess dresses are designed to support their story. For example, Ariel’s dress looks like it has fish scales and a small tail on it to support her mermaid past.

Did you know that Mickey Mouse has something like 150 different costumes?

A photo of the tour stop at WDW Costuming from Disney’s online press area (courtesy of Disney). The tour group here in Disney’s photo is a lot younger and better dressed than ours!

After costuming we were bussed over to the Tower of Terror. We came back into the show area here at the Cast Member entrance near the Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster ride entrance to make another personal stop, then it was under the Tower of Terror and into their maintenance bay. One of the elevator vehicles was in the bay. Apparently all the elevator ride vehicles have wheels underneath to facilitate them moving around. Walt told us that if a ride vehicle has a problem the Cast Members can replace it with a new vehicle in four minutes.

Each Tower of Terror vehicle is fitted with sensors so Cast Members can tell if anyone has managed to remove themselves from the seat belt systems. Numerous cameras watch guests at all times. All of this is part of their safety program for the ride. The cables which pull the vehicles up and down (yes, the vehicles do not really free fall – a cable is there to pull the vehicles down) are replaced every ten months regardless of condition.

A photo of the tour stop at Tower of Terror from Disney’s online press area (courtesy of Disney).

  

Animal Kingdom

After Hollywood Studios it was back on the bus and over to the Animal Kingdom. We entered the backstage area here by bus and were guided into the building which houses the Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade show vehicles. We walked past all the vehicles (all battery powered and with solid, non-inflatable tires to avoid flats) and the lightweight show elements which are human powered by Cast Members. Here I noticed a detail I never saw before – birds on the neck of the human powered giraffe. This detail made me smile as it captured a reality I saw in Africa last year – parasite eating birds on the necks of wild giraffes.

Unlike the parades at Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios, the sound system for the Jungle Parade travels with the vehicles – a true mobile sound system. There are detectors for the show vehicle locations that communicate to somewhere near the Tree of Life and keep everything synchronized based on vehicle locations.

For those who have seen not seen it, the Jammin’ Jungle Parade is highly interactive for park guests with performers freely going up to guests to engage them. Each parade includes 24 guests chosen at random in the park that day. Safety elements for show performers include considerations for those on stilts should they fall – knee and elbow pads under their costumes, and bike helmets under their head costuming.

Most of the Jammin’ Jungle Parade performers are in costume for a long time – which can be quite uncomfortable especially on hot Orlando days. Such performers are paid extra for the discomfort they have to endure.

Cyndi talked about some of the operational aspects of the Animal Kingdom park, such as the use of only paper straws for drinks and no lids for drinks – to make it safer should one of these items end up in a wildlife area and potentially cause the animals harm.

The animals in the Harambe Game reserve savannah are trained to come in each night to pens by use of sounds and treats. Similarly to get them out in the morning they have different sounds and treats. As many know, “Pride Rock” in the lion section is cooled in the summer months and heated in the winter months to attract lions and keep them closer to the safari vehicles so they can be more easily seen.

Animal Kingdom is the largest Disney park in the world at 500 acres in size (0.8 square miles, 2 square km), and because of that bicycles are provided to Cast Members so they can get around more easily and quickly. Apparently they are called “DAKcycles” by Cast Members. We saw Cast Members riding DAKcycles and cycle parking areas outside the parade building.

A photo of the tour at the  Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade show storage area from Disney’s online press area (courtesy of Disney).

  

Horticulture

After we saw the Animal Kingdom backstage area we were taken just outside of the park to the horticulture area where the many seasonal plants and flowers for all the parks are grown and maintained. Here there were rows and rows of ground color plants, hanging plants, etc., all being kept ready for special times of the year like Christmas holiday season. We were allowed to take photos in this area and I have included several below.

There are also “understudy” plants and trees for the various parks. For example, while we were visiting over Spring Break the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival was happening. Many of the plants and flowers, not to mention the 150 topiaries, came from this horticulture area. However, what would happen if one of the flower displays at Epcot was somehow damaged or had watering problems and in some way became imperfect? What would replace it? The horticulture area keeps identical flower configurations created at the same time as those placed into service at Epcot so that if Disney has to change out the flowers they are at the same stage of growth – and will look the same. There are also understudies for the oak trees around the Liberty Belle boarding area should one of the trees be damaged. We saw two mature oak trees in the horticulture area that are stand-ins for trees near the Liberty Belle.

Understudy flower arrangements for Epcot at the horticulture area

Understudy oak trees for Magic Kingdom’s Liberty Belle area

Tour guide Cyndi discussing the rows and rows of flowers and plants

An unfinished Mickey Mouse topiary with blue water tubing and a mulch like substance that provide nutrients to the topiary plants

A closer look at the above topiary blue water tubing

A lion and lioness topiary

  

Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade at Animal Kingdom

Our final stop was a trip back into Animal Kingdom backstage where we were taken through yet another Cast Member entrance to the park (with a “show ready” mirror) to see all of the elements discussed throughout the day come together in the parade.  After the parade the tour bus took us back to Epcot, where we began our day eight hours earlier.

Mickey’s vehicle anchors the Parade

Another Disney detail with the leak in Donald’s boat!

Our tour group with tour guide Cyndi in the foreground as we waited to leave after seeing the Jammin’ Jungle Parade

Details

You can book the Backstage Magic Tour and other tours through the Disney website. Some tour bookings require you to call to make a reservation. This tour booking can all be completed online. Guests must be at least 16 years-old and show ID. The cost is $224 per person and you can get a discount with a Disney Visa credit card (which I used), an Annual Pass, or if you are a DVC member.

Summary

This tour lived up to its billing as a true behind the scenes tour at Disney World. If you want to do something different on your next visit to the World or are just a huge Disney fan, I give this tour a thumbs up for its breadth and detail.


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Category: Disney World

About the Author ()

I live in Colorado and have four sons in college and high school. By day I am a mechanical engineer. I have visited the Disney resorts in Paris and Tokyo. I grew up near Disneyland and started going there before I can remember.

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