Monday, September 06, 2010

Pulling Back The Curtain

Please Note: For those of you who do not want the magic of Disney World peeled back just a little, I suggest that you do not read this.

The 8:35am line for the opening of Epcot.

As an operator I'm continually interested in how other companies operate. Tours of restaurant kitchens, back works, manufacturing lines and all sorts of "this is how we do what we do" tours and visits interest me immensely. So, when I had the opportunity to get behind the scenes at Disney, I was all over it.

The Disney Institute offers a seven hour guided Backstage Magic tour that visits the major parks of Walt Disney World and gives you a flavor of how they do what they do. Spread over 27,000 acres and staffed with over 60,000 cast members, Disney is a fascinating study. I mean, how does Disney find and cultivate 60,000 excited, friendly, welcoming, inviting and accommodating people? From the bus drivers to the custodial staff to the hotel front desk to the ride operators - everyone at Disney is seemingly happy to see you and take care of whatever need is pressing on you at the moment.

Our group of 35 meets at 8:45am on a bright, sunny and intensely humid Central Florida morning in front of the guest services window at Epcot Center. After taking care of all the check-in details (and shoe check) we're handed our Backstage badges and told that cameras are forbidden in all areas backstage.

Disney creates magic and they're interested in defending that magic. They create a world where the guest is ensconced and we're about to break that barrier into the underbelly of Disney - a side of "The Show" that Disney would rather its' guests not see.

And I think that's understandable. While the side you see as a guest is spit-shined and polished, the backstage is anything but. It's utilitarian, spartan and decidedly low brow. There's no doubt your backstage and you even wonder if you're still in Disney World or perhaps some sort of industrial complex, like a power plant instead.

On the guest side, Disney spares no expense. Everything is immaculate. On the backstage side, Disney is a penny-pinching whore. Where you might expect to find lavish suites housing Mickey Mouse there are portable trailers and gravel walkways. This is because Disney himself believed that all money should go where the guest could see it - everything else was secondary.

The trailers also allow Disney to build as necessary without the extra expense of tearing down some cast buildings. Need to add another pavilion? Just move those trailers out of the way and begin building.

The tour starts off with a backstage look at the American Adventure Pavilion in Epcot. We're hustled out onto the street where portions are cordoned off and Disney cast members scurry about in pickup trucks and other vehicles setting things up and getting everything ready for the area opening at 11am. In the distance, I see a hoard of people on Segways on the Around The World At Epcot tour.

Our tour moves inside the pavilion where we get to see the inner workings of the animatronic show The American Adventure. Even this early in the morning, a tech crew is doing a run-through of the show to make sure it doesn't crash and burn. Scene cages filled with the icons of the show move about in computer-controlled order. Three shifts man this attraction around the clock with the first two doing most of the show and the nighttime third shift doing the heavy maintenance.

From there it's back on the bus and out to the Central Shops.

Central Shops is the place where most of the Disney Magic happens. All the Mickey Mouse's around the world are created here. Most of the rides are built here. It's essentially one-stop shopping for all of Walt Disney World's needs. Once upon a time, everything was built here but over the years, Disney has started bidding out it's work contracts and Central Shops competes for the work along with other companies in the region. The only work not bidded out are those considered to be proprietary to Disney, like Mickey Mouse.

As we tour around the shop I fantasize how cool it might be to be a fabrication house that catches Disney contracts. One week it's Splash Mountain cars, the next Space Mountain. Kinda neat, in my mind.

Throughout the day, our tour guides maintain the Disney party line. "Only one Mickey" is the main mantra and while they're upfront about not wanting to, willing to or allowed to divulge certain bits of information, I find our guide Wayne to be right on the edge of sharp with some of the others in the tour group. Wayne's been with disney since the late 80s and seems to be a corporate type by his borderline brashness that skates right along the outer edge of what seems to the the typical Cast Member happiness.

Regardless, Wayne knows his Disney and serves as a knowledgeable tour guide that's curt with the obviously Disney Fan ladies in our section. He was never cautious to display his displeasure anytime they asked a silly question or comment.

Like the rest of Disney, even the tours watch the details. The best detail were the transmitters and earpieces handed out to everyone. At first, I thought it might be a bit silly but as the day wore on, the brilliance was obvious. In any tour, the people towards the back of the group hear less than those in the front. I've always spent my tours jockeying for the front to get the most out of it. Not anymore.

With the earpieces, you're never removed from the action. I can meander along casually and slowly while absorbing other details of the tour while still listening to the chatter of our guide. If the area is noisy, no problem, the voice is still in my ear. It's brilliant and now so obvious.

Next stop: Magic Kingdom and the famous "Utilidors" - the fabled underground tunnels below Disney.

Like most of the parks, what may be a ten minute (or more) walk for the guest between sections of the park, can be a literal hop, skip and a jump away. At Epcot, it takes a guest about ten minutes to walk from Mexico to China. Backstage, Mexico is next door to China and only takes a few paces. In Magic Kingdom, a guest meanders down Main Street USA then hooks a right towards Tomorrowland and Space Mountain. Backstage, one simply crosses a parking lot and Space Mountain is right there.

As we pass through the wall separating The Show from Backstage, it's a funny transformation. As a guest, you almost would never notice these portals to the real world, but once you know they are there, it seems disappointing if you walked there as a guest. The portals are essentially "hidden in plain sight" and the difference between worlds is stark.

On the guest maps, the land to the right of Main Street is all forest. The far wall to the left of Tony's Restaurant looks solid but is really a false passageway. Dare to go beyond it and you're confronted with an asphalt parking lot, vehicles, buildings and cast members milling about or moving from one section of the park to another.

Around the corner from there are a set of glass double doors that lead you to the entrance of the "Utilidors", the underground tunnels that are actually the first floor of a two-floor "building" that is Magic Kingdom.

Down the concrete staircase and the tunnels are, well, unremarkable. They're much narrower than I imagined but about as utilitarian as I expected. In fact, they were nicer than I was expecting. Down here are passageways to most areas of the park, allowing Cast Members in uniform to arrive in their work areas without passing through other areas of the park and breaking the magic.

Evidently, Walt Disney once noticed a Cast Member wearing the uniform of one area, say Tomorrowland, walking through the wilderness of FrontierLand. Well, that looked out of place and didn't strike Walt very well, so when they build Magic Kingdom, he had them build these tunnels to alleviate that problem.

The tunnels stretch all around the park but we only saw the part under Main Street. Nearby are cafeterias and costume shops where the unlucky guest might see a headless Pluto walking around and raging in the most un-Disney-like language. We did not see this, but there would be nothing like seeing a 22 year old girl yelling "Fucking bullshit!!!" wearing Mickey's clothes and holding Mickey's head in her arms.

At least I'd hate for my nieces to see that.

More good reasons why they limit the tours to adults. Our trauma is less severe.

Lining some of the walls are photos of Disney World under construction. Fascinating and generally unavailable to the public. Also down here is the Cast Member Pin Store. Somewhere along the way, a cult of pin collectors has evolved with millions of pins being purchased and traded. Cast Members can obtain free pins here to wear and trade with guests.

Lining the ceilings of the tunnels are the waste tubes. Instead of hauling garbage into dumpsters around the park, where they can collect and start to smell, invading the guest spaces and ruining their experience, the trash is taken to several depots around the park where it is pneumatically blown through the tubes to a central trash station for removal. Every once in a while, there's a big WHOOOSH! as another load of trash is blown across the Magic Kingdom.

Another fascinating thing I discovered years ago about the tunnel system (while reading a Cast Member Handbook I had borrowed) is that during an emergency, the tunnels can accommodate everyone in the park. So, if a tornado or hurricane happens to blow through Magic Kingdom, everyone and their mother can go down into the tunnels for safety. Considering the size of the tunnels, you won't be comfortable, but at least you wouldn't have died at Disney.

Don't have the right shoes? Disney will take care of you.

Entering the backstage of Epcot.

Main Street USA in Magic Kingdom.

The land corporations established to purchase the land for Walt Disney World.

Sausage, ribs, chicken, corn, mashed potatoes and more for lunch.

Peach Cobbler.

Bathroom break at Hollywood Studios.

The Topiaries play.

The parade begins in Animal Kingdom.

"There is only one Mickey."

Holiday Services - 20,000 square feet of Christmas stuff.

Central Shops - Inside here all Mickeys are created worldwide.

Can you guess which ride this is?

Forbidden: the rear entrance to Magic Kingdom.

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