Mickey Mouse and Cinderella’s Castle are top attractions at Florida’s Walt Disney World

Magic
A rare peek backstage at the world’s best-known theme park
By RoBeRt KieneR 2
readersdigest.com 00/09
All photos by gene duncAn

Behind the

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As the colorful figure of Mickey Mouse scurries by, daisy duck, donald’s long-suffering girlfriend, waddles down the corridor ahead of me. everywhere I look, I see familiar disney characters, from goofy to pluto, to a blonde-wigged Alice in Wonderland.
it’s mid-morning and I’m exploring the super-secret “utilidors,” the nine-acre network of tunnels, and service areas hidden beneath much of the world’s best-known theme park, Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Few outsiders ever see this “nerve center” which is strictly off limits to park guests. Employees, or “cast members” use these approximately 12-feet high by 15-feet wide gray-painted utilidors to travel through, or beneath, the park out of view of the guests. As my guide explains, “A cast member dressed as a cowboy walking through Tomorrowland would spoil the magic.” Magic. it is a word i will hear through4

out the week as Disney lifts its veil (somewhat) and allows me to disclose (some of) its long-guarded secrets. As we speak, I watch Daisy Duck make a few last-minute adjustments to her yellow and blue dress before she climbs a hidden stairway that leads to the park above. There, she inspects herself again in a full-length mirror emblazoned with a slogan that exhorts cast members to “Go above and beyond!” Satisfied, she opens a secret door and waddles “onstage” into a sea of smiling children on Main Street USA. For Daisy Duck it’s the beginning of just another day at work. For me it’s my first visit to a Disney theme park. It’s easy to be cynical about Disney World. Yes, it is an artificial world, but that is the whole point—to escape reality for a while. Also, who can honestly dislike a place with beautifully manicured gardens, a miraculous absence of litter, and a staff who almost fall over themselves to ensure you have a good time.

Mickey and Donald chat at day’s end as the street cleaner does his job.

i arrange to meet Alex Wright, a vet-

eran senior designer “Imagineer,” at 7.a.m., two hours before the park opens. That’s the “rope-drop” in Disney-speak. Wright, a blue-eyed, lean six-footer, has worked at Disney for nearly 20 years and likes to describe
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himself as “40 years old, going on 12.” He and hundreds of other Disney Imagineers are responsible for designing, maintaining and planning every detail of the attractions. As we stand at the bottom of Main Street USA, the iconic entrance to Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Wright explains the first time he visited Disney World was on his eighth birthday. “I was hooked. I knew then and there that one

day I’d be working here,” he says with a smile as broad as Mickey’s. Although there are no visitors in the park, only cast members sweeping the street and prepping the storefronts, upbeat, ragtime music is being piped out of hidden speakers. “Even cast members need to get in the mood,” explains Wright. As I soon learn, psychology is an important element of design at Disney. 5

BeSt Foot FoRWARD the “Mayor” and Cinderella consult their mirrors, while imagineer Alex Wright (top left) reviews his checklist. everything’s got to be perfect for “the Mouse,” shown here hitching a ride through the utilidors.

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“Our aim is to get our guests to suspend reality,” says Wright as he and I walk through the turnstiles into the park. “We want them to feel like they are entering a massive theater, building in a sense of excitement and expectation.” Imagineers purposely designed a low-ceilinged entrance to the park so guests emerge suddenly into “the Show.” Their senses are immediately bombarded with the smell of popcorn, the sound of music and the sights of Main Street. Sure enough, as soon as I get my first sight of Main Street I feel a sense of excitement and a feeling of, well, anticipation. “Walt Disney wanted Main Street to embody a simpler, less frenetic time,” says Wright. Disney instructed his Imagineers to base their designs on his childhood hometown, or at least how he remembered it. “He wanted the design to be comfortable and nostalgic.” To accomplish that, Imagineers used a technique they refer to as “heightened reality.” “Our designs may not be strictly historically accurate but they are created to evoke an emotional response,” says Wright. For example, all of the “Eastern Seaboard Victorian”-style buildings on 850-foot-long Main Street are built with floors that get 80 percent smaller, the higher they go. This design technique Disney borrowed from theatrical set designers, called “forced perspective,” makes the buildings seem more intimate, more inviting. Another technique is to make each row of stones (actually, fiberglass8

resin composite) successively smaller to give the illusion that the castle is much taller than it actually is. As an example, Wright points to the Cinderella Castle at the heart of the Magic Kingdom.

With the park empty, it’s easy to see the lengths Walt Disney and his Imagineers went to get everything right. Take the trash barrels, for example. Says Wright, “Walt gave away free candy to guests at Disneyland and watched how far they would walk before they dropped the wrappers. That’s why our trash barrels are placed around 30 feet apart.” No visitor is ever more than 30 or so yards away from a restroom. Scents from bakeries and other shops float through vents onto Main Street USA. Discreetly hidden speakers pipe carefully chosen computer-controlled background music that rises and falls depending on crowd noise. When Disney researchers discovered that over 90 percent of visitors walk on the right side of Main Street USA as they come in, they located most food shops on the right and souvenir shops on the left. That way visitors can visit a restaurant, ice cream shop or bakery as they enter and can pick up a souvenir on the way out. Even garbage is handled differently here. Trash is dumped into a park-wide compressed-air system that shoots it through hidden pipes. All cast members, including the resort’s CEO, are
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expected to pick up any trash they see on the ground (he does actually do it!). A team of vacuum-wielding cleaners follows every parade sucking up confetti. Cast members have strict appearance regulations. Piercings and tattoos and mustaches must be out of sight. Backstage, smiley-face posters exhort cast members to “project a positive energy and image!” If someone asks a cast member, “What time is the three o’clock parade?” (the most-asked question in the park), cast members are taught to treat the inquiry as an opportunity to make contact. They learn that the guest is really asking, “Where is the best place to see the parade” or “Is the parade worth waiting for?” As Wright explains, “We hire for attitude more than ability. You can’t teach great attitude.”

Guests who invariably rush down

Main Street USA, lured by the Cinderella Castle, miss some of the park’s most endearing details. I pop into the General Store and pick up an old-fashioned, wall-mounted crank telephone on the back wall and eavesdrop on a (recorded) conversation between the upstairs resident and her daughter. It’s one of the unpublicized hidden extras that Wright and his Imagineers love to scatter like Easter eggs throughout the park. “We don’t publicize a lot of these things because we want to give people ‘permission to explore’ the park,” says Wright. Another treat for super-observant

visitors are the hundreds of “Hidden Mickeys that Imagineers have secreted throughout Walt Disney World. Although these started out as an inside joke among the Imagineers, these silhouettes of Mickey Mouse’s head and ears have caught on with the public. They are hidden throughout the park, in everything from mosaics to radiator grates to a maharajah’s fresco in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. “More Easter eggs,” says Wright. “Look up at the shop’s secondstory windows,” says Wright as we tour Main Street. Each pays tributes to the “stars” who created this resort. “We think of them as the credits in our movie,” says Wright. Fittingly, the first window, the Railroad Office, is emblazoned with “Walter Disney, Chief Engineer. Keeping Dreams on Track.” Further down the street “M.T. Lott Real Estate Investments,” honors the pseudonymous companies that Disney created in the 1960s to secretly buy up the 40 square miles that comprise Walt Disney World Resort.

After exploring the on-stage portion

of the park, I have finally gained permission to see the back-stage “holy of holies,” the seldom-visited home of Engineering Central. Using a secret door, whose location I have sworn not to disclose (well, let’s just say if you’re shopping for a Mickey Mouse cap and you’re near Cinderella’s Castle…), I duck behind a shop display wall, open an unmarked door and descend into a utilidor. Twenty feet below the park, I wind 9

my way through the fluorescent-lit utilidors past the cast member’s cafeteria, the “Mousekateria,” a bank, a ping-pong room and a costume/ wig room, until I am greeted by Don Partin, Walt Disney World’s senior engineering services manager. “Few outsiders get in here,” says Partin as he shows me the computer room, 100 square feet crammed with miles of cable and banks of high-tech gear that control everything from a ghost screaming in The Haunted Mansion to President Barack Obama’s audioanimatronic recorded speech in The Hall of Presidents. Partin tells me that just before I arrived his team received a radio message from the call center informing them, “The PhilharMagic is 101 for a show stop.” “In other words, for some reason the performance stopped at our 3-D theater,” explains Partin. “We sent over a technician and he discovered that a child in the audience has jumped out of his seat, triggered a safety security sensor, and the show stopped just as the curtain was about to close. Happens on occasion.” Partin’s department also controls the audio output for all the background music for the park’s different sectors, everything from Dixieland Jazz for Main Street USA to the Davy Crockett theme for Frontierland. It also controls most of the individual attractions’ music. When I ask Partin how he keeps from going insane after listening to “It’s a Small World” for the millionth time, he smiles and hands me a pair of earphones. “The 10

only time we hear anything here is when we check to see if it’s okay.” I plug my earphone cable into a console and hear the sound of a thousand bats. At another I hear the sound of an earthquake. “They are both from Thunder Mountain,” says Partin. “Sounds good. Everything there is 102 (operational).”

Back at park level, I’m standing with Alex Wright at the end of Main Street USA. It’s just after the 9 a.m. rope drop and thousands of visitors are pouring in . The music is cranked up full blast. High-energy street performers are singing and dancing. A horse-drawn carriage, filled with camera-toting visitors, clops by. “This is what it’s all about,” says Wright with a huge smile on his face. “This is the SHOW!” It’s impossible, even for the most cynical, not to smile as we see wideeyed little girls dressed as fairy princesses, little boys as pirates and everyone from teenagers to senior citizens wearing Mickey and Minnie Mouse hats, and big, big grins. As a Disney street performer offers two little girls souvenir pins, her mother sees me standing nearby and asks, “Excuse me, what time is the three o’clock parade?” Without hesitating I say, “You should get to Main Street at about 2:30 for the best viewing spot. Don’t miss it. You’ll love it.”

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