Hi. My name's Paul and I'm a tour junkie. (Hi, Paul!)
Sad but true, folks. Some people have insatiable addictions to alcohol, drugs, or Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. My insatiable addiction is for taking guided tours. Given the money and the opportunity, I'll happily take any guided tour of a Disney theme park - never mind that I probably know the theme park I'm visiting like the back of my hand, or even that I've taken that same tour before. (How many times have I taken the Fab Tour now, Michelle?) I enjoy having the chance to walk around and learn the stories behind the Disney parks; reading about the parks' history or about how an attraction is "imagineered" is always fun, but it adds something to the experience to be able to see what's being discussed right in front of you.
Last January, I was on vacation at Walt Disney World with my fiancée. I was having fun visiting the parks, but I wasn't going to be satisfied with just riding the attractions and seeing the shows. Nope, I knew Walt Disney World offered a variety of behind the scenes tours, and I was determined to take at least one. But which one? Keys to the Kingdom? Nope, done that. The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains?
I love trains almost as much as Walt did, but that starts at 7 a.m. -- I'm on vacation here. Behind the Seeds? My fiancée, AKA the green thumb extraordinaire, loves that one, but I wasn't sure. Then I saw the listing on the Internet.
Backstage Magic. A full day behind the scenes at three of the Disney theme parks. Ooh, that sounds intriguing -- we have a winner. Let's see, it costs ... $199 per person?!? Ouch. Well, at least it included lunch. I called up the WDW Reservations line, even though I'd been told that you had to book this tour months in advance, and there'd be no way I could get on this tour on such short notice...
I got two slots on the tour for the following Wednesday. Folks, there are some definite advantages to visiting WDW during the slow season.
The adventure began just outside the entrance to Epcot, where our group of about 10 people met Bobbi, a retired schoolteacher who became a Disney Institute instructor and tour guide. Bobbi introduced herself and had everyone in the group do the same, then handed out our ID buttons - a picture of Mickey going "thru the mirror" to see what was on the other side (kinda like what we were doing!).
Once the administrative stuff was done, our group entered Epcot -- but didn't go very far. We went to a gate right next to Spaceship Earth, where Bobbi demonstrated the difference between "onstage " and "backstage" by having us look at the ground. In the on-stage area we were in, the ground was painted red, symbolizing the "red carpet" treatment that Disney guests receive when they enter the parks. We walked through a door in the gate and looked at the ground again - it was still red, which had a couple of if wondering if Bobbi was pulling a fast one on us. Not so; since the area immediately behind the gate is visible to the public when the gate is fully open, it's an onstage area, hence the pavement was still red. Once we walked away from the gate, the ground went from red to black; now that we were officially backstage, it was time to start exploring the magic.
We took a quick walk and boarded a waiting Disney Cruise Line bus, which would be the transportation for our tour, then the bus drove on an access road behind The Living Seas, The Land, and the Imagination pavilions. I was surprised by all the open space behind the Future World pavilions - I've been in the guest areas of Epcot and driven on the access roads outside, and you'd never know from looking at either that there was that much space back there! A short drive later, and we were behind a large, rectangular building, which turned out to be the back of the American Adventure pavilion.
Entering through the back door of the pavilion, we found ourselves looking at a very large structure that looked like a giant cage full of Audio-Animatronic figures. This "cage" is home to most of the AA scenes you see in The American Adventure (except for the Rosie the Riveter scene, which is lowered to the stage); the "cage" moves forward and backward under the auditorium and the scene to be played rises up onto the stage when it's in the proper position.
Bobbi asked us to take a closer look into the cage at the AA figures. As it happened, Thomas Jefferson was being worked on by a couple of Imagineers, so we got to see him undressed! It's not as kinky as it sounds, folks. Under their clothes, AA figures have a clear plastic shell in the rough shape of a human body; and under the shell are the actual pneumatics that move the figure.
Bobbi told us about the figures used in the show. She mentioned as the years have passed, the figures have become more and more sophisticated and the movements have been more and more refined. For example, Susan B. Anthony's movements have become less exaggerated (and thus more lifelike); Mark Twain has gotten better at smoking his cigars! Bobbi asked us how we thought the AA figures "spoke" during the show - the voices don't come from the figures themselves, and we couldn't see any speakers on the sets. The secret is that there are speakers on the sets - they're just disguised as props such as cabinets or boxes. Needless to say, making a speaker look like a cabinet can be a pretty good trick!
Bobbi directed our attention to a large area above and behind the "cage". This area is where the slide and film projectors that show the scenes not involving the AAs are located, as is the lighting that creates the "sunset" effect you see at the end of the show. The film, slides, and "sunset" are rear-projected onto the screens lowered onto the stage instead of over the heads of the audience.
I was amazed by the sheer size of The American Adventure's backstage area; it's easily as large as the lobby and the seating area, and it's full of equipment - the "cage", the projectors and lighting effects, and all of the computers that run the figures. As big as the show building appears to be from the guests' view, there's a lot more that you don't see.
As fascinating as The American Adventure's backstage area was, it was time to move on. We hopped back on the bus, and as the bus drove down the access road to Future World, Bobbi showed us a video about... um, well to be honest, I don't know what the video was about, because I was too busy looking out the window at what Epcot looked like backstage. I'm sure the video was nice. The bus stopped behind the Wonders of Life pavilion, and the group was ushered into a small foyer; the foyer contained a monitor showing the seating area of a Body Wars vehicle. This was the point where Bobbi told us she'd normally let us watch the guests on Body Wars get knocked around by the attraction, but as it happened there was nobody riding. Ah, well, that's what happens when you go to WDW in the slow season.
Bobbi told us a little about the simulator technology used on Body Wars, explaining that the technology was developed from the flight simulators used to train military and commercial pilots; and motion of the vehicles is combined with a back-projected film shown on the front "window" of the vehicle. Once her explanation was done, Bobbi opened another set of doors and led us through a heavy curtain - put up to keep light from the foyer and outside from entering the simulator room and letting the guests have a look at the vehicles as they board - and into a Plexiglas cubicle. Once the boarding of the vehicle was complete, some of the lights of the simulator room were turned on and we watched one of the ride vehicles go through its ride cycle. Folks, if you think that the vehicles move around a lot during the show, you have no idea. That sucker looks even more violent when you're watching it from outside that it feels when you're riding it! This demonstration probably convinced several members of our tour group members never to ride Body Wars again!
Leaving Body Wars, it was time to get back on the bus and drive over to a nearby group of one-story buildings and trailers gaily decorated with lots of graphics representing the countries in the World Showcase. These buildings are Epcot's main employee area; the trailers are the cast library and education center, used by Epcot's international cast members. We entered the main building through a side corridor, also decorated with a series of murals done by Epcot cast members in tribute to their various work departments. We soon arrived at the central corridor, which was abuzz with cast members rushing between the locker rooms, break rooms, and the shuttles to the various pavilions. Bobbi told us more about what was going on in the various rooms off the main corridor; the rooms included break rooms, interactive learning (computer) centers, and scheduling offices.
After a brief explanation of the cast member scheduling system (which I won't bore you with), Bobbi walked us into the cast locker room. That's "locker room", not "locker rooms;" it's one large room with lots of rows of lockers. Before you get carried away with visions of scantily clad cast members, you should know that the locker rooms are intended for cast members' storage of their personal effects only; there are gender-separated changing rooms off the main room for changing into costumes. In fact, there are signs posted all over reminding the cast members NOT to change clothes in the locker room!
Bobbi walked the group into the adjoining costume issue room. The room looked like a giant supermarket stocked with nothing but clothes -- right down to the checkout stands manned by costuming cast members. Bobbi explained that when a cast member needs a costume, he or she goes to the appropriate rack (don't ask me how they find the right one among all of the racks in there!), picks up whatever costume items they need in the appropriate sizes, then head for the checkout counter, where the scanner reads the cast member's ID barcode and the barcode on each item. Cast members go through this every day, with two exceptions. If you're a cast member on the "Fast Track" program, you get several days' worth of costumes and check them out all at once, then take them home or put them in your locker and trade them in for clean ones when they've all been used. If you're a cast member with an unusual figure, the costuming department gets your measurements, makes up special costumes for you, and places them on a special rack (at which point you hope that someone else doesn't come in and take them before you do).
Bobbi told us about cast member appearance and behavior standards and explained that how these standards are in place because Disney considers the cast to be an important part in setting the stage for the theme park "show." This brought an objection from a person on the tour, because she remembered seeing a "Wendy" face character at the Magic Kingdom that seemed to be acting very rude toward the guests; Bobbi argued that Wendy may have just have been "in character", but asked to get information about where and when the person saw this, so she could pass it on and make sure that other guests' experiences wouldn't be ruined as this person's experience had been.
We walked through the rest of the Epcot costuming building on our way back to the bus. One place we passed by and peeked into but didn't get to enter was the "wig room", where the beauticians prepare the various wigs worn by the face characters (yes, folks, it's not their real hair -- sorry to disappoint you); apparently, at one time, the wig rooms were on the backstage tours, but after a high muckety-muck read a description of the "wig room" and the "head room" (where the beauticians prepare the character heads) on the Internet and had a fit about how the "show" was destroyed, the wig room visits ended. (Well, folks, if a lot of what I tell you about is no longer on itinerary of the Backstage Magic tour when you take the tour, you know who to blame!)
From Epcot Costuming, we proceeded to the Disney -MGM Studios. We briefly stopped at the gate, where a WDW security officer boarded the bus and checked IDs -- the only time any guard did so at any of the parks. Now, I understand why they have to do this - guest security and all that - but why we were only checked at the entrance to the Studios? Anyway, once we cleared security, we were dropped off at the Creative Costuming building. Creative Costuming is the place where all costumes used at WDW are designed and all the parade and character costumes are made (the parks have their own costuming departments where regular cast costumes are made and maintained). The first thing we had to do was to wait to be announced on the building PA system by the receptionist -- not for security reasons or to hide anything, but to keep us from walking in on anybody who was improperly dressed while being fitted for a costume!
Once we got the OK, we visited the cubicles of one of the cast costume designers, who explained to us about how the design process for cast costumes worked. At least I think she did; I was too busy looking at the walls of the room, which were full of sketches of the various costumes these folks had designed for the attractions and parades. I was having a great time trying to guess which costumes went with which shows! Somebody should seriously consider putting a book of these sketches together for sale.
Our next stop was the office of the parade costume designers. They told us a little about how the process for designing parade costumes worked and showed the group a doll-sized model of a ball gown they were working on. Well, half of a ball gown, anyway. Parade costume designers create miniature models of half of the costume so they can see what it'll look like when it's done; they only make half because the other half is pretty much going to look like the half that they're modeling. Just because there's only half a costume, don't think that it isn't a faithful representation of the finished costume - the models are accurate down to every last detail you'll see in the parades. The designers told us that they keep copies of all the patterns for the costumes they create, although these days the patterns are created and stored on computer instead of on paper; this makes costume patterns easier to find and easier to modify to fit the dimensions of a new performer.
Now that we'd heard about the design process, it was time to have a look at the production of the costumes. Anyone who's been on the Backlot Tram Tour at the Studios would probably recognize the production area, since it's one of the places you get to peek into on the tour; the difference is that while the folks on the Backlot Tram Tour got to look in on the room for about a minute, on the Backstage Magic tour, you get to spend some time finding out what exactly all those people are doing! The production area was a large room with a dozen or more seamstresses hard at work at individual tables. The room also contained what looked like a cross between a drafting table and an air hockey machine with a piece of fabric on it. This is the computer controlled cutting table, which can take the patterns stored on the computers and accurately cut the pattern in a matter of seconds using a cutting blade on a mobile arm. As to why it looks like an air hockey table, it kind of works like one in reverse; when fabric is placed on the table, a vacuum is created underneath that ensures the fabric is flat enough to ensure the most accurate cut. The table was pretty impressive, and it works really well, but if I worked there, I wouldn't put my fingers anywhere near that thing! As for putting the costume together, there's no fancy computer -controlled system for that -- just a plain old-fashioned (but extremely talented) seamstress on a sewing machine.
From Creative Costuming, we took the bus to the other side of the Studios (have you figured out that you shouldn't take this tour is you don't like bus rides?), where we had lunch at Mama Melrose's. Lunch was four or five items from the menu served family-style to the group; I loved this idea -- it encourages you to talk to your fellow tour group members as well as sample several of the items from the restaurant. This is something that Disneyland might want to consider for tours that include lunch - after the tour, I was ready to go back to Mama Melrose's and try everything that I sampled again! Once lunch was done, Bobbi took us through a door at the back of the restaurant - and we immediately found ourselves on the service road backstage. I've been to Mama Melrose's a couple of times before, and I never would have suspected that there was a road ten feet away from back of the dining room!
Back on the bus again, we left the Studios and headed for the Magic Kingdom. Bobbi showed another video about the creation of Walt Disney World, featuring footage from Walt's "Project Florida" film and film of construction of the parks. We entered the MK behind Frontierland and got to see the rear of the show buildings for Splash Mountain; if it weren't for the swimming pool-like tank of water behind the building, you wouldn't suspect that the attraction was on the other side! Nearby were the parade barn and the service canal, which was our next stop.
Once we were off the bus, we had a look at the Electrical Water Pageant barges, which were moored in the service canal. They're not quite as impressive in daylight and up close as they are at night on the Seven Seas Lagoon - they're basically pontoon floats with speakers and a tall chain link fence on them, and strung on the fence are the same kind of Christmas lights you probably have strung on your house during the holidays. Bobbi told us the story of how the Electrical Water Pageant came to be. The show was created not long after the Magic Kingdom opened and was intended as a temporary show to keep resort guests entertained until something better could be come up with. Well, it's been thirty years, and a lot of people would argue that they couldn't come up with anything better to put on the lagoon!
From there, Bobbi led the group into the parade barn. Our first stop was the performers practice studio, where the performers in the parades practice their moves on hardwood floors and in front of full-length mirrors. Something about this set up seems to inspire people to dance; five minutes in this room and I was trying to tap dance as Bobbi explained how the room was used! (If you've never seen me tap dance, consider yourself lucky.)
After leaving the practice studio, we passed the storage racks for the SpectroMagic costumes - which unlike the Electrical Water Pageant barges were pretty impressive even with the lights off! - and entered the main section of the barn, where the parade units are stored. We were able to take a look at the SpectroMagic floats from a distance, then Bobbi let us have a look inside the SpectroMagic Ursula float, so we could have a look at the driving controls of a typical parade unit. If you drive the Ursula float. you'd better be friends with whoever plays Ursula's top half, because the performer is basically standing on the driver's shoulder for the entire parade! The material the SpectroMagic floats are made of does allow for a little bit of a view out, but not much. My understanding is that there's equipment in the vehicle that allows the driver to know where exactly he is on the route and lets the system that controls the music know the same thing. Either way, a parade float driver is not a job for the claustrophobic!
We left the fully enclosed section of the parade barn, which is home to the SpectroMagic floats, and went into a section of the barn covered only by a roof; this is where the units of the Share A Dream Come True Parade are parked. For those of you that have always wondered, yes, the snowglobes on the floats are air conditioned, although Bobbi mentioned that even with the AC it can get pretty hot in there. The performers basically have to crawl into the snowglobe from the inside of the float. In the tradition of the "hidden Mickeys" all over WDW, each float in the Share A Dream Come True Parade floats has a "hidden Walt"! Some of the "hidden Walts" are pretty obvious, others are less so. Sorry, but I'm not telling where they are - I'm going to leave it up to you to try and find them!
After leaving the parade barn, (Say it with me, folks) we got back on the bus again and left the MK and headed for an area behind the park. There are a number of buildings behind the Magic Kingdom; these buildings provide many of the support functions for all four parks. We left the bus at Central Shops, a cavernous building that's home to just about anyone who does construction or maintenance on anythingin the parks; you name the building or repair specialty, they probably do it at Central Shops.
After getting a pair of safety goggles (which are required to enter the building), we went up to two balconies and got a bird's eye view of the metalworking and electrical shops.
Did you ever take shop class in high school? Imagine that the entire student body of your high school took shop all at once in the same building and you'll have a pretty good idea what the metalworking and electrical shops looked like from the balcony. I had a pretty good time trying to guess what everyone was working on; some of the stuff was obvious, like the guy who was working on a trash can, but some of things they were working on I'd never be able to identify. Guess I should have paid more attention in shop class.
From the balconies, the group went to a large central corridor; this was the work area for the larger equipment, such as ride vehicles. I saw a lot of vehicles from many different rides being worked on there - from Splash Mountain logs to Space Mountain rockets - but the things that held my attention the most were the ride vehicles being assembled for the (then still under construction) Mission: Space. As folks who have ridden the attraction can attest, the ride vehicles are cramped; if you think they look small on the inside, you should see them on the outside - they look like 4-person coffins. (Gee, there's an image you want on your mind as you ride for the first time.)
A little farther down the corridor was the Wood Shop, where we got to see a naked carousel horse! The horse in question was from Cinderella's Golden Carrousel, and it had been stripped down to the bare wood; even bereft of even a drop of paint, it was absolutely beautiful -- you've never really appreciated the craftsmanship that went into creating these horses until you've seen one in this state. The shop worker, with obvious pride in his work (if I could do that kind of woodwork, I'd be proud, too), told us all about what he was doing. The horses on the Golden Carrousel are traded out regularly and are refurbished by the shop workers; stripping the horses down the bare wood doesn't happen as often, but it was still done. If you ever hear someone telling you that all the Carrousel horses are just cheap copies made of Fiberglas, don't you believe it; many of the horses on the Golden Carrousel are reproductions, but many others are the genuine article, and they deserve to be considered works of art. How often do you get to ride a work of art?
After a walk through the Fiberglas shop, where a couple of boats were being refurbished, we entered "Alligator Alley," the shop for repair and construction of Audio-Animatronic figures. Bobbi explained the shop's unusual name; in the early years of WDW, there was an incident where one non-Audio- Animatronic alligator wandered into Central Shops and temporarily took up residence until he was "convinced" that he might be happier back in the swamp! Fortunately, Alligator Alley's current residents are a little less frightening (although many people who have ridden "it's a small world" may disagree).
Bobbi brought the group over to a display featuring two AA figures -- a seriously de-feathered Tiki Bird, representing the earliest versions of Audio-Animatronic figures, and Bonnie Appetit, formerly of Epcot's "Kitchen Kabaret," fitted with an arm that was too big for her petite figure but was otherwise none the worse for wear. Bobbi explained how the movements of AA figures are controlled by pneumatic lines and computer tapes, then gave a lucky volunteer (me) the opportunity to demonstrate how the pneumatics controlled the movements of the figures by having the volunteer press valves on a pneumatic control manifold. Press one valve, and the Tiki Bird's beak opened; press another and Bonnie's right arm moved to the right, press a third valve and it moved to the left, and so on. I can imagine how many lines it must take to control the Auctioneer!
On our way out of Alligator Alley, we saw the AA testing bench, with a row of figures from "it's a small world" being tested. The figures were going through endurance tests in preparation for installation; this consists of repeating each motion the figure can do 10,000 times to ensure it won't fail after it's installed on the attraction. And if you're one of those people that think these figures are creepy on the attraction, try watching them for several minutes doing the same movement over and over again. Heck, I like "it's a small world", and after a couple of minutes, they were freaking me out! Don't ask me how the people who work in Alligator Alley can be in there with those figures without taking a baseball bat to them at the end of the day.
Leaving Alligator and Central Shops, our group walked across the street and into what appeared to be another nondescript warehouse. As soon as we walked in, we traveled back in time to Christmas! No time travel was involved in this feat; it turned out that the building we'd entered was the Holiday Shop, where all of the Christmas decorations for the Walt Disney World Resort, Vero Beach Resort, and the Disney Cruise Line are created, maintained, and stored.
Bobbi took us over to a small stand in from of the Holiday Shop administrative office and showed us a few examples of the many decorations that the shop is responsible for, then explained a little about how Disney Christmas decorations are made, lighted, and installed. Like everything else at the Disney parks, Christmas decorations are themed to the place where they'll be located; the materials used, the colors used and even the lights used are selected to fit in with the theme. For example, if a decoration is being made for Animal Kingdom Lodge, the decoration will be made of wood and other natural materials; the lights on the decoration will normally be yellow and brown. Unlike your Christmas trees and lights at home, most WDW Christmas trees and wreaths have their decorative elements permanently attached and are stored intact after the holidays; with the number of decorations the Holiday Shop is responsible for, it'd be too labor-intensive to take things completely apart and put them back together every year!
Our group walked around the warehouse and looked at rows and rows of shelves full of Christmas trees, wreaths, and garlands; all the items on the shelves were wrapped up in plastic and labeled with a code indicating the park or resort where they would be placed. I had a fun time trying to figure out the codes!
A lot of shelves were still empty, even though it was late January, confirming my suspicions that Disney was stretching out the time they took to remove the holiday decorations from the resorts. (For those of you that have never seen the transformation, the Disney parks and resorts normally put up Christmas decorations practically overnight in the theme parks and within a few days in the resorts; the decorations come down almost immediately in the parks and used to come down almost as quickly everywhere else -it certainly never used to take more than a month to take everything down!)
We walked into a room adjoining the warehouse full of workbenches; each workbench had lots of decorations on them. This was the repair and production facility, where new decorations are made and decorations coming back from the parks and resorts are repaired after they're removed. Bobbi told us that decoration creation and repair is a year-round job. If you always wanted to live Christmas every day of the year and you make your own Christmas decorations, WDW may have the perfect job for you! (I know that I'll never be working here. Last year, I was given the opportunity to make my own "Mickey Mouse wreath" at Disneyland, and poor Mickey came out with the droopiest ears you've ever seen.)
Now that we'd had one last chance to get in a little Christmas, we got back on the bus and left Central Shops for the Magic Kingdom. We passed the Monorail/ Railroad barn, where maintenance is done on the trains, and the Transportation area, where everything else on wheels that travels around the resort is maintained. The bus entered the MK at a gate near Space Mountain and stopped at a backstage area behind Town Square. Bobbi took the group through a door and down a flight of stairs into the Utilidors, the network of corridors under the MK used to provide support for the park. I could see how someone could get lost pretty easily down there - all the Utilidors looked pretty much the same to me. Bobbi pointed out how the cast members managed to find their way down there; the Utilidors have color schemes and logos placed to allow cast members to tell what part of the park they're under at any given time.
We briefly walked through the Utilidors serving Main Street and Adventureland, then came out on-stage near Tony's Town Square Cafe, so we could watch the Share a Dream Come True Parade and "see how everything we've seen comes together", as Bobbi put it. I must admit that this is the only part of the tour that disappointed me. Don't get me wrong -- I love the parade, but I would have rather spent the time seeing more of the Utilidors or the MK backstage areas. A couple of years ago, on my first trip to WDW, I went on the Keys to the Kingdom tour and got to see the main entrance to the Utilidors, the door to the room housing the DACS computer system (that's the system that runs the attractions), and the main cast areas. Apparently, most of this was dropped from the backstage tours due to security concerns after 9/11.
That's a real shame. I'd be more than willing to go through a thorough security check to see more!
After the parade was done, Bobbi walked our group up Main Street and pointed out some of the windows on the second stories of the buildings. The names on the windows are the Magic Kingdom's "credits", paying tribute to the people who created WDW and kept it going. The professions of the folks listed on the windows are in-jokes reflecting their backgrounds, hobbies, or roles in WDW's development (for example, Card Walker, President of the Company in the 1970s, is listed on his window as a psychologist - guess he had to counsel a few people who were having some issues!) Once we arrived at the Plaza, Bobbi took a few questions from the group, then took us backstage again and got us on the bus back to Epcot. On the way back, Bobbi handed each of us a gift - a pin of Mickey going "thru the mirror," with the words "Backstage Magic" written in reverse! (Nice touch.)
The Backstage Magic Tour is a great overview of how Disney makes everything that you see in the parks happen; it's a long tour - more than six hours - and it's not cheap, but it's as close as a person can get to seeing "the magic behind the magic" without getting a job with the Mouse! The guides are very personable and very knowledgeable - I think I found my new dream job. (Disney, if you're ever hiring, I'm available...) It's not perfect, of course. It's an official Disney tour, so you're not going to get to see and hear about everything that goes on behind the scenes -- but see, after taking the tour, you to have to take one of Jim's tours and get the rest of the story! (I solemnly swear that Jim had nothing to do with that plug.) The tour also doesn't include a visit to Disney's Animal Kingdom; I'm told that the American Zoological Association has some sort of requirement that prevents DAK from being part of the tour, but there is a separate backstage tour available. Overall, though, it's a great tour. On your next visit to WDW, take a day and see for yourself if the view from behind the scenes isn't as fascinating as the view from on-stage.