This past weekend, I was lucky enough to be able to take the Backstage Magic Tour at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fl. I work in production at our church, and we took a trip to learn from the best, Disney! The majority of our trip was spent in Gainesville, Fl, but on Monday, we headed out to Disney. We left our hotel at 6:00am and arrived to EPCOT Center at 8:15am. As soon as we got there, I got that feeling. You know, the one where you are home? My wife and I often talk about retiring in Orlando and getting jobs working at Disney World. Her dream job? Be a face character. Mine? Drumming for the jazz band inside of the Grand Floridian. You can always dream, right?
When we walked up to guest relations one of our tour guides, Monica, immediately spotted our group of eight and said, “You must be the last of our group!” Now honestly, I had no idea what to expect. We didn’t know if we would be the only group on the tour, or if there would be other groups. In fact, there was about twenty two other people on our tour, mostly made up of older couples on vacation. This was a bit odd to me. I assumed that there would be other business type groups there to learn from the Disney Institute like we were there to do, but most of these people were there on vacation just wanting a little more magic.
As soon as they checked our government issued ID’s and passed out our Backstage Magic badges, we were off to load up on the Mears bus. They handed us radio packs and ear pieces so we could hear our guide well all throughout the tour without having to be in a tight circle around one person yelling out facts while people whisper to their neighbor, “What did she say?” They also passed out safety goggles that we would be required to wear in some of the places we would visit. Then, we drove out of EPCOT Center and around to the back entrance, backstage behind the World Showcase. It was interesting to see the countries from their backsides. When you are in the park, you imagine the buildings looking the same all the way around, but it’s not so. Once the buildings are out of eyesight of in-park visitors, they all just look like regular warehouse buildings. Nothing fancy.
We entered on the side where Mexico starts, and drove all the way around to America. Once we unloaded off of the bus, we entered the backstage area of American Adventure. The amount of audio/video and technical gear that was backstage in order to run the show was astounding. All of the animatronics are attached to a huge chassis that moves throughout the auditorium during the show to make it happen. This chassis that it moved on was about the size of two tractor-trailer beds, and was completely silent when it moved. It was amazing! We also got to see one of the faces of Thomas Jefferson and the real hair wigs that they use on the animatronics. This attraction and the Hall of Presidents in Magic Kingdom are the only two in all of WDW that use real hair on their animatronics. It crazy how real they look, and I have to admit it was borderline creepy seeing a very life-like head of a deceased president looking back at me.
We then moved outside to the front of the American pavilion and talked about the forced perspective they had to use in order to make the building not look as big as it actually is. The building is five stories tall to hold all of the show features, but from the front it looks as though it is only three stories. At this point, we were instructed that we were only allowed to take pictures on this trip when we could see “babies in strollers”, or in other owrds, only when we were out in the park when it was operational. The World Showcase doesn’t open until 11:00am, so there were work trucks out pressure washing and people getting it show ready. It was pretty weird seeing it with no guests.
After EPCOT, we loaded up the bus and headed to Hollywood studios. Once there, we arrived at the shops where they make all of the costumes for WDW. The amount of detail that goes into developing costumes for cast members and characters is out of this world. We even got to see a costume being made that had been commissioned by a third party. Someone had asked Disney to make a full, fur costume for a party they are having. I can’t even imagine how much that would cost! There is a part of the Studio Backlot Tour attraction in Hollywood Studios that passes by the costume shops where riders can see seamstresses working on costumes. While we were there, each time a tram rode by with park guests, cast members would cover up that costume that was being made for the third party. Super secret, and sort of strange all at the same time. We also got to see the new technology they are using to take cast member’s measurements for costumes. They are now using a computer that takes the measurements via lasers instead of using a typical tape measure.
After walking through there, we loaded up and drove around behind the Tower of Terror. We got to walk under the tower, and stand next to one of the ride cars. Then they told us the story of how Disney developed the ride, and how it has been through different phases of drops. It started out having only one drop. Then, it moved to phase two with two to three drops. They are now in phase four which allows a computer to randomly pick the drops, so technically, no two rides are ever the same. Also, a fun little fact. The small Tower of Terror model that is out on Disney property to advertise the ride has the number four on the tower, which changes to coincide with which phase of the ride they are currently in. Interesting!
The next place we visited was the Disney garden and nursery, where Disney grows everything from trees to plants to flowers. It was a pretty cool place, but nothing jaw dropping. They did, however, have a bunch of old topiaries that were dying off. We saw an old Pirates of the Caribbean Mickey Mouse, which got nicknamed Zombie Mickey by our group.
After this stop, we were off to lunch! If you know me, you know that meal times are a big favorite of mine, but it was especially awesome that day! We were scheduled to eat at the Whispering Canyon Café at the Wilderness Lodge. Although I have been to the Wilderness Lodge many times before, I have never actually stayed there. But we are booked there this coming September, so I was excited to get another look at it before our trip. Lunch was awesome! Since I had eaten there once before, I knew all of the little fun tricks about it. When it came time to order our drinks, I told our waitress I was soooooooo thirsty and wanted the biggest Coke Zero they had. She then proceeded to bring me a mason jar the size of my right leg. It was huge, and our group had some fun laughs about it. We were served the Canyon Skillet, which is served all-you-care-to-eat style and comes with smoked pork ribs, oven-roasted chicken, and pork sausage served with cowboy beans, corn on the cob, creamy coleslaw, mashed potatoes, and fresh-baked cornbread. Needless to say, we were all ready for a nap afterwards.
From the Wilderness Lodge we trekked over to The Animal Kingdom. We proceeded backstage to the big warehouse where they store all of the cars and puppets for Mickey’s Jamming Jungle Parade. It was pretty amazing. Did you know, the huge hand puppets that the cast members pull in this parade were made by the same person who made the puppets for the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Olympics? I didn’t either! Also, this parade is unlike the parades in the other parks when it comes to sound. In the other parks, speakers are located throughout the parade route. In The Animal Kingdom, they weren’t able to do that because of the nature and animals, so there are speakers hidden on each float covered in wire mesh that are triggered by sensors along the parade route as they go by. Pretty neat!
Next we proceeded to Central Shops, which is located right behind the Magic Kingdom. This building is where they refurbish all of the ride cars in WDW, paint buses, make name tags, test out prototypes…it was INCREDIBLE. We absolutely were not allowed to take any pictures in there. We saw the whole set of new Dumbo ride cars painted and ready to be installed on the second spinner, a complete car set for the new Goofini roller coaster still in plastic wrapping, a HUGE Ariel sculpture ready to be installed at the new Art of Animation hotel, and a statue of Beauty and the Beast dancing that was taller than me being painted for the new Fantasyland expansion.
Our final stop on our journey was, yes, The Magic Kingdom. As soon as we arrived we walked through the backstage area, through some secret doors, and right onto Main Street U.S.A as the 3:00pm parade was starting. They let us just be “guests” and observe the parade. It was so neat. After spending all morning seeing all of the work and detail that goes into all of the costumes and floats, learning how the floats work, learning about forced perspective and noticing it on the buildings of Main Street; it all just kind of culminated and was amazing. After watching the parade, we headed through another set of secret doors, down some steps, and suddenly, we were below Main Street. Some people call them tunnels, but to cast members they are known as the utilidors. In Florida you can’t dig too far underground because of the water table,spo they are actually on ground level and are the first “floor” of the Magic Kingdom. To alleviate many of the problems experienced in Disneyland, Walt decided that they would build “underground tunnels” that the staff could move around the park in, so guests would never see cast members “going to work”. It drove Walt nuts see a cast member in a Frontierland costume walking through Tomorrowland. It is pretty amazing under there. It’s like a small city.
After exiting the utilidors, we handed over our gear and goggles, and loaded up the buses to head back to EPCOT where we started our tour. Our group decided that even though we got to see some of the magic during the parade, we really wanted to go into a park to better observe the results of all of the work Disney does behind the scenes. We decided to purchase tickets to Magic Kingdom since it was having extra magic hours that night and would be open until 11:00pm. We rode rides, saw shows, and watched Wishes. It was a pretty amazing day. There were so many facts and knowledge to absorb, I have to admit that at the end of the day I felt a little mentally drained. Disney does everything with excellence in mind, which is a good model to follow in anything you do. If you ever get the chance, I would highly recommend taking the tour. It definitely exceeded my expectations. Now my wife wants to do it, so I’m sure I’ll be taking it again one day.
Below are some pictures from our time at the Magic Kingdom that night.
Thanks for reading along!