Backstage Magic

For Christmas 2014, my girlfriend surprised me with a reservation for Walt Disney World’s “Backstage Magic” tour. It’s a tour that takes guests behind the scenes and backstage at all four Disney themeparks, into places where even most Cast Members have never been. This tour had been on my “to do” list, pretty much ever since I’d heard of it, nearly a decade earlier. To say that I was excited for this tour is an understatement of epic proportions.

Our tour was scheduled for January 9th, 2015 at 9am. We arrived at Epcot bright and early, around 8:15am. There were several other guests already at the tour meeting location outside Guest Relations. As we were waiting for our tour guides to arrive, more and more guests appeared. I initially thought that there must be more than one tour meeting here, but nope, they were all on our tour. Nearly 40 guests total. However, on several parts of our tour, we’d be divided into two groups, so the tour didn’t feel overly crowded.

Our two tour guides arrived around 8:45am and handed out our identification badges for the day. Seeing as how about 90% of the day was spent in backstage areas, no photography was allowed. Therefore, this is the only picture I have to offer you from our tour:

Our pass to go backstage throughout the day

Our pass to go backstage throughout the day

Once everyone had been checked in and were wearing our badges, we left the tour meeting area for a last minute bathroom break. Then, it was on to our bus, where we met our driver Natasha, who would be with us throughout the day taking us all over WDW. On each seat we found our listening device and a pair of safety glasses. I’ve taken a few other Disney tours that used these listening devices, and the biggest problem was that the ear pieces they gave us for them either didn’t work or were just painful. For this tour, however, we were told that we were free to bring our own earphones if we’d like. That was a very nice change.

Natasha drove our bus from the Epcot guest parking lot out and around to the Epcot cast parking lot. Interestingly, every time we entered a cast member only parking lot, our bus had to be stopped for a Disney security CM to come on and do a brief bag check. As the bus drove through the backstage areas, we got to see how absurdly close Mexico and Test Track actually are to each other. Then we took note of how much land is actually behind each World Showcase pavilion, showing us that there actually is room for up to three more pavilions, should Disney ever decided to build another. The bus parked behind the American Adventure and we got out. Half of the listening devices on the bus had been set to one channel, the other half to another. Each guide spoke on one channel or the other. This is how our big group of forty was divided into two.

Tour guide Pieter took our half of the group through the gates onto what would shortly become “onstage” once World Showcase opened at 11am. As it was not yet open, this was still considered backstage, with CMs in golf carts and other utility vehicles driving around getting last minute details all set for the guests. While we were standing in front of the American Adventure, Pieter talked about the use of forced perspective in this pavilion. Unlike most uses, this time forced perspective is used to make something look smaller than it really is. The building itself has to be 5 stories tall to accommodate the mechanisms for the stage show. However, the building is meant to represent colonial times, where buildings were typically not more than 3 stories. There are several tricks used on the building’s façade to trick our eyes into thinking it’s only a 3 story building. Next time you’re there, have your group stand about 20-30 feet in front of the building, and then send your tallest member walking toward the door to the right of the Liberty Inn. As he walks toward the door, he’s going to seem to keep shrinking, because that door is actually much taller than a regular door, as part of the forced perspective. It was a very cool effect.

Next we were taken backstage through a cast member only door near the newly built bathrooms on the right of the pavilion. As we walk the length of the building, we see that the theming (in this case, the brickwork that appears to make up the building) only lasts as long as it needs to. That is, only until any guest standing on stage is no longer able to see it. From then on, it’s just a generic brownish building. Now we put on our safety glasses and enter the building from this back door. As we go in, I suddenly realize we’re standing *behind* the screen. And right in front of me is this gigantic “tray” that contains all of the audio animatronics. And to even our guide’s surprise, there is a test show in progress!! We got to see how the mechanism runs, and just why this whole thing has to be in a building that’s 5 stories tall. I wish I could adequately describe just how cool this was. I had never known how and where all the animatronics for the show are stored when it’s not their turn on stage, but here it was laid out right in front of me. I’ll do my best to describe it, so skip the next paragraph if you don’t want the “spoiler”.

Picture an elevator shaft lying horizontally. The shaft starts underneath the audience and extends the full length of the building, all the way to behind the stage and screen that the audience is watching. Within the shaft is one very long elevator that is divided into a bunch of segments. When the show starts, the segment that is currently underneath the stage rises up out of the elevator and the audio animatronics appear to the guest to “pop up” onto the stage. When their scene is over, they lower back into their segment, and the “elevator” slides horizontally away from the guests toward the backstage. A new segment is now under the stage, and the animatronics in that segment “pop up” onto the stage. The whole process repeats until the very end of the show, when the final segment (containing Twain & Franklin waving at the audience) is under the stage. When the show ends, the entire elevator slides back into place underneath the audience. The front row of audience seats are actually at about the 3rd floor of the 5 story building. If some nutcase were to try to dive “onto” the stage, he’d actually fall about 25-30 feet before hitting the ground.

Seeing that mechanism work, learning how the show takes place, and actually *being there* while it was in progress, is something I did not expect. It was by far the highlight of the tour for me, possibly the highlight of any backstage or “behind the scenes” thing I’ve ever seen at Disney. Absolutely amazing. Once we got to see the end of the show and the mechanism reset, we exited the building and met up with the other half of our group. They had done this in reverse, seeing the mechanisms first and learning about the forced perspective and theming second. We all boarded the bus and prepared for our next destination.

The bus left Epcot and made our way to West Buena Vista Dr, and then took a right onto Western Way. I was very confused, as to my knowledge the only thing down this road was the on ramp to route 429. But then we made a left onto a small side street, called Bear Island Rd. What was in here? Why the Disney horticulture nursery, apparently! I had no idea we’d be stopping here at all. Here is where the majority of plants, shrubs, trees, flowers, hedges, and topiaries are grown and created for placement throughout all of Walt Disney World. As we entered, the guides pointed out an Elephant topiary. This was one of the few “natural” topiaries – meaning that it’s a regular bush that was carved into the shape. There are so few because they literally take years to grow. When we got off the bus, we saw a few of the wire frame topiaries. These used to be the primary form used on property, but they still took months to grow. Then we walked into a large greenhouse FILLED with the final kind of topiary. These are the ones that are frames or molds packed with a moss substance, with the flower and plants grown on the moss.

All of the topiaries in this huge building are ones the cast members are creating for the 2015 Flower & Garden Festival at Epcot. There were cast members working on several of them – either adjusting the frames or working on the irrigation systems (which is embedded into the wire frames), or trimming the plants themselves. It was seriously amazing to see. We saw topiaries that are life sized, to ones that are significantly larger than life. There was one of Goofy, for example, that was being built/grown in three parts. His head alone was a good 6 feet tall. Our guides told us that this is one of their favorite parts of the tour, because they really never know what they’re going to see here, as it’s constantly changing based on what the cast needs to work on at that moment. They also gave us a lot of additional information about the process, how they have “backup” trees and plants for pretty much everything, ready to go, in case some tree is hit by lightning or something one night, they’ll be able to dig it out and replace it for the next day.

The group was led back through the greenhouse a second time for another look at everything, and then reboarded the bus. It drove around the rest of the nursery (the place is huge – if you want to see it on Google Maps, the coordinates are 28.370605, -81.591739). We saw trees and shrubs and vines and hanging plants and pretty much any other form of plant or flower you can imagine. Everything in Disney, whether it’s planted out in one of the theme parks or hanging in one of the deluxe resorts, was grown there. Really fascinating to see.

The bus then went in a back entrance to Animal Kingdom (where we had another stop for another bag check). As we drove along the back of the park, we saw that the road we were on had a fence on either side. On the left is a smaller fence, designed to keep the Animal Kingdom’s resident animals in the park. On the right is a much larger, much more impressive looking fence, designed to keep Florida’s natural wildlife *out*. We arrived at a parking lot behind the Animal Kingdom, near where the Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade floats are still stored. You know that super-obvious cellphone tower near AK that’s themed to kinda-sorta look like a tree if you don’t pay too much attention? Well from this vantage point, we could see that that tree theming extends only as far down the tower as it needs to. As soon as there are no sight lines from anywhere accessible to guests, it’s just a plain brown cellphone tower. I found that kinda amusing to see.

Our guides took us onstage into the park, and over toward the Kilimanjaro Safaris queue entrance. We were met by one of the Cast Members who gives the Wild Africa Trek tours. She told us a little bit about herself, and how she got to the role she’s in now (she majored in Early Childhood Education, and her first job at Disney was in Food & Beverage). She then talked to us for about 5 minutes about the Wild Africa Trek. To be honest, this was probably the least exciting part of our day. It felt like a commercial break, interrupting our tour to try to sell us on another tour we could take later. Maybe I only felt that way because I have in fact taken Wild Africa Trek before, however. Maybe if I hadn’t, this all would have been really interesting and exciting for me? I’m not sure, it just felt like this part was kinda tacked-on to our tour to give us an excuse to say we hit all four parks.

The CM did actually start talking about something else, when prompted with questions from the guests. She told us how the research done there at Animal Kingdom had led to an actual impact on wild elephants in the real Africa. The collars we see on some of AK’s elephants are recording the vocalizations and communications within the herd. With those collars, researchers were able to find that certain sounds indicate the elephants are warning each other of danger nearby. And one of those dangers they warn about are bees. With that knowledge, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund started a program in Africa whereby farmers set up beehives along the perimeter of their farms. This created a natural barrier for the elephants, who steered clear of the bees and no longer trampled the farmers’ crops, greatly reducing the number of elephants that would be killed by farmers protecting their livelihood. That was a really fascinating series of events, and I was glad to learn about it.

After a bathroom break, it was on to our third park of the day, Disney’s Hollywood Studios. However, at no time did we ever go on stage at Studios, we were backstage the whole time. Our first stop was at the costuming department. When you used to take the Backlot tour and go through that tunnel, you could see windows into the costuming building, usually with some cast members working away. We got to go inside that building and be led all around it. When we first walked in, the receptionist made an announcement on the public address system: “May I have your attention please. We have two Backstage Magic groups touring the facility.” Our tour guide explained that there may be people trying on clothes and therefore not fully dressed, so they need to be made aware that members of the public will soon be wandering around the building.

Our tour guide told us that this building is responsible for all the specialty outfits we see throughout Walt Disney World. Not regular cast member uniforms like the Guest Relations costume or the Spaceship Earth attraction operator costumes (those are all farmed out to a mass-production facility), but costumes that there are likely to be “25 or less” needed. This facility handles things like character outfits, princess dresses, parade and show performer costumes, that sort of thing. We got to see the different departments within costuming that work together, from the design phase, to the templating, to the assembly, even down to the individual sewers and seamstresses. One of the cooler parts was learning that when a new costume is designed, before making a full sized production proof, they make one that’s half-sized, to make sure the outfit is going to look right. Before this step, it’s only ever seen in one’s imagination, or on paper, or on a computer screen. So rather than potentially waste all the expensive material it would take to make a full size outfit, just to find it has some glaring flaw, they make one that’s half sized first, that can be inspected and examined. We got to see three of these half-size dresses in the lobby of the building, for Belle, Cinderella, and Ariel, and even one of Beast’s outfits.

Along the way, we got to talk with one of the Costuming managers who was working at a big long table with lots of yellow material on it. He showed us a print out that kind of looked like a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces rounded but still odd oblong shapes. This was the result of a computer taking all the parts of a costume that would need to be cut from the sheet of material, and finding out the best way of cutting all the pieces out to result in the least amount of wasted material. (Think of when you’re wrapping multiple presents, and trying to figure out where to cut each piece so as to minimize the wasted scraps of paper. This machine does all that, resulting in almost all the material used). We eventually learned that the costume being cut and assembled was for Winnie the Pooh, which elicited a collective “awwwwww” from our tour group. 🙂

We completed our tour of costuming and got back on the bus. We stayed in the backstage area of DHS, as the bus drove over to the back of Tower of Terror. Now the whole group entered this back door to the attraction, where we found ourselves in a small room that didn’t have too much more than a single ride vehicle. To be honest, I’m not sure what this room is for, maybe a maintenance area of some kind? In any event, the guide described how the ride mechanism operates, how the vehicles exit the load shaft and drive along the little guide wire embedded into the floor. He pointed out that the elevators are not in free fall at any point, they are actually *pulled* downwards within the shaft. We also learned about the triple redundancy safety systems that are in place to prevent any “falling elevator” accidents. Finally the guide pointed out the control panel that the Cast Member looks at after we’ve boarded. It has lights corresponding to every seat in the vehicle, which light up if and only if the weight sensor detects a guest and the seatbelt is securely locked. The reason the CM has us raise our hands as a final check? Because some guests were holding the seatbelt very loose but still connected, so they could experience hang time (and risk injuring themselves and everyone else). But the seatbelts were made to retract when they’re not being actively held, so by getting us all to raise our hands, the CM can ensure that we are not holding the seatbelt loose, that it’s retracted as much as possible.

Back on the bus yet again, and by now many of our stomachs are rumbling. The bus drove us from DHS over to Wilderness Lodge, where we walked straight into Whispering Canyon Café, to tables that had already been set up for us. There was a brief moment of confusion as apparently we had one more person than the restaurant staff had been expecting (or someone miscounted), but in the end it was settled by our two tour guides sharing the head of one of the long tables. I think in total our group took up six different tables. Our servers were very entertaining, really getting very into character. There were three different special diets at my table – a vegan, a lactose-intolerant, and a strawberry allergy. All the meals for both the standard diets and the special diets came out very quickly after we were seated, and I’d say everyone enjoyed the food. The standard diet folks were all given the all-you-can-eat skillet, which we could have asked for more of, but I didn’t see any table actually deplete the initial serving, so I don’t think any replenishments were required. We did have some issues when it came to desserts, unfortunately. The standard dessert was brought out, but the three special diets all took a long time to come out. So much so that our tour guide was telling everyone to get ready to leave before the three of them had even been served their desserts. They did arrive eventually, of course, but I think all three felt a little rushed, like they were responsible for holding up the group. For his part, the tour guide did apologize profusely when he realized there’d been an issue.

After another bathroom break, we boarded the bus to head to our next destination, behind the Magic Kingdom. We drove around past the Contemporary, so that Space Mountain was on our left. We saw where both the monorails and the steamtrains get serviced (in the inappropriately named “roundhouse”). We pulled into the lot of a building called “Central Shops”. This is where WDW’s props are taken to be serviced, refurbished, or just touched up. It was another instance of the tour guides not knowing what we’d see, much like the nursery earlier, because what’s there changes constantly. We were given a walkthrough tour of the entire facility, where we saw different cast members working on things like Tomorrowland Speedway cars, Flying Carpets, a clamshell from either Nemo or Little Mermaid, and Kilimanjaro Safaris truck. The coolest part for me, at least, was that we saw the giant Polar Bear audio animatronic from Maelstrom. It is currently being disassembled (presumably, to be used for spare parts, or possibly to get a new skin to be repurposed in the Frozen attraction?). As such, we knew it was the polar bear only by its head and face. Every other part had been stripped of the skin, so we got to see all the inner workings of the animatronic exposed. When asked, our tour guides confirmed that every attraction has more ride vehicles than it needs, for this specific reason, that they are constantly rotating vehicles out of service to be brought here to Central Shops, to be repainted, touched up, given a tune up, etc.

We got back on the bus, and it took us over to our final destination, the Magic Kingdom. We were dropped off at the regular on-stage bus stops, and we walked over toward the front gate. Our guide then told us we were going to do something we should never ever do – enter the park through the exit. 😛 Once we passed the tapstiles, he talked briefly about the layout and design of the park, how it was constructed specifically to remove you from the real world. You can’t see any part of the real world from the park – no roads, no cars, no highways, etc. It’s all about that anticipation of seeing the castle. And they drag that anticipation out as long as possible, as you can’t even see it once you’ve passed the main entrance, due to the train station blocking your view. He then gave us the movie/show analogy, where the train station serves as the opening curtain, and we immediately see posters for “coming attractions”, and then followed by popcorn carts. Finally, we got to Main Street USA, where we were instructed to look down that long street and take it in, see how long the street looks and how big the castle appears.

As we walked down the street, we stopped a few times to take note of some of the windows on Main St, which of course represent the opening credits of this “movie” we’ve walked into. He specifically pointed out Roy O and Walt’s windows, of course, but also a few of the others, including Yale Gracy and Wathel Rogers. He also pointed out some of the features that add to the forced perspective. For example, as you walk toward the castle, the porches jutting out from the second story of the buildings all jut out just a little further. And the façades of the buildings are all a little closer together. These both contribute to forcing your eyes to follow sight lines that lead directly to the castle, making the street look longer than it really is. Another interesting effect of the forced perspective is that it works the other direction when you’re leaving the park. At the end of the day, you make your way back to Main Street and look toward the train station, and the forced perspective convinces your brain that the street is shorter than it really is, giving you a little boost of “oh, that’s not too far, I’m almost there, at the exit”.

Once we reached the end of the street, we stopped off to the side toward Casey’s Corner and walked over to the bathrooms by First Aid. This is our last bathroom break of the day. When everyone had done their business, we walked backstage behind the Cast Members Only doors. We’re behind the scenes once again. We walked only a few feet before our guide had us look at this big plain building in front of us. He pointed out the two ends of the building, which are both themed because they’re visible onstage. As we looked from one end of this building to the other, the guide shocked us all by pointing out, “That’s it. That’s Main St USA. That’s the entirety of Main Street.” We were all blown away. We all know about forced perspective, and how it tricks our brains. But knowing it apparently does *nothing* to cancel out its effects. Seeing the length of Main St from that perspective, just one long-ish brown building, was nothing short of amazing. I wish like crazy we could have taken pictures, because I’d love to show it to you. Main Street is SO MUCH shorter than we think it is!!

After collectively picking up our jaws, the guide led us into another door that immediately led to a staircase. Here is is folks, the legendary “tunnels.” Of course, they’re not actually tunnels at all. They are simply the first floor of the Magic Kingdom. They were built first, and then paved over, and the Magic Kingdom attractions, shops, restaurants, etc were all built on top of them. When we got down to these “utilidors” (“utility corridors”), our guide showed us a map of the tunnel system side by side with an aerial view of the park, so that we can see exactly where different access points in the tunnels lead to various points onstage. It really is a brilliant layout and design, and it’s a privilege to be able to see.

As our guide walked around the central circle of the tunnels, he pointed out various different rooms such as breakrooms, employee cafeterias, pin lanyard replenishment, and more. We stopped in front of a big display case that had features from Disney Parks past, present, and future. At this point, our guide was talking largely about the Cinderella Castle suite, and how it’s the world’s most lavishly decorated prison cell. See, when it is awarded or won, the guests are actually locked into it over night, because they can’t be allowed out into the park while 3rd shift is there doing their thing. That would be distinctly un-magical. However, while he was talking, I was more focused on one of the displays in the “future” part. Specifically, it was the “Iron Man Experience”, apparently coming soon to Hong Kong Disneyland. Has this previously been announced? If so, I hadn’t heard of it (but then, I suppose, how often do I read up on HKDL news?). Either way, it was very cool to see more Marvel coming to the Disney parks!

We made a complete circle of the tunnel system and came back up stairs at the same door we’d entered them in the first place. Our guide was a bit rushed because we had to get back to Town Square to watch the parade, which was currently circling the Hub. In fact, just before we made it back to the on-stage doors, we saw Ulf, the mime from Tangled, being led backstage by a character attendant. Apparently something had happened on the parade route, and he had to be taken off the parade. I don’t know what it was, but we did hear the CM ask him “So are you okay in there, or is it something else?” And we actually heard the Cast Member in the Ulf costume reply “No, I’m fine, it’s just the <something to do with batteries>”. We couldn’t quite make out what he said the problem was, but it was pretty interesting to actually hear a “fur” character performer speak from within the suit. That was a first for me.

We got back onstage and made our way (somewhat hurriedly) down Main St back to Town Square, and got there just before the parade did. We had a pretty good view of the parade from here, though it wasn’t a reserved section or anything (which, admittedly was a little disappointing. The way the guide was talking about getting us to our spot in time, I kinda assumed we had reserved viewing). Regardless, it’s still a great parade, and we enjoyed watching it. One really cool thing I noticed is that all the performers continue their routine well after their float has gone past the gates to the backstage area. Obviously, they have to keep going because we guests can still see them from onstage, even though they’re backstage. But this leads to odd looking moments, like the princesses waving at blank buildings, fully aware they’re waving at literally no one. 🙂

Our guide led us back out of the park, and back over to the bus for one final ride. Anyone who wanted to stay at the Magic Kingdom at this point was allowed to, or else the bus would take us back to the Epcot parking lot. My girlfriend and I stayed on, as we’d parked at Epcot in the morning. When we got back to Epcot, our guides thanked us for our time, and gave us super cool Backstage Magic pins. I don’t know about anyone else, but mine will never ever be traded!!

All in all, it was a fantastic time, and an amazing tour. I saw parts of Walt Disney World that I didn’t know existed, parts that I didn’t even think to wonder about before. But if I had to name the top one thing I learned about Disney from taking this tour, it’s this: There are FAR more people who have a part in creating the “magic” for us, than most people will ever know about. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of cast members who go to work every day, who will never be seen by a guest. All those people in costuming, the maintenance engineers at American Adventure, the cast members pruning and working on the topiaries at the nursery, the painters and repair techs at Central Shops, and so many more. No guest will ever see them. They will never be onstage. But Walt Disney World simply would not work without them. If anything, this tour served only to *increase* my already sky-high appreciation and affection for Walt Disney World (and come to think of it, all of the theme parks in Florida). If you want to see an up close view of just how much effort goes into creating what you enjoy on your next vacation, the Backstage Magic Tour is for you!

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2 Responses to Backstage Magic

  1. Kim Underwood says:

    Hi, Paul!

    Thank you so much for this incredibly detailed and interesting information. I couldn’t put it down and now I’m late for an appointment but well worth it! I’m do glad you enjoyed your gift from a girlfriend who obviously gets you. I can’t wait for my DD8 to get out of school so she can read it. She’s really into the behind the scenes stuff while still loving all the magic.

    Thanks again,

  2. Iris says:

    Very well-written, my love! You remembered all the details so well! I enjoyed re-living our day through this post. I’m very glad that you enjoyed this tour and got to see what happens behind the scenes at WDW.

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