Who can ever forget their child's shouts of delight when Mickey or Minnie or Donald or Goofy come into view? It's part of the magic of Disney World.
Mickey and Minnie and Donald and Goofy – and their friends – are all over the four parks. But they're actually just a small part of the workforce that makes this place magical.
Disney World employs 62,000 people. And the majority of them never dons a Mickey costume, or perform in a Cinderella show. Most of these people make their contributions behind the scenes, helping to make, as the Disney folks say, your dreams come true.
Disney's special "Backstage Magic" tour gives you the chance to see what they do, and where they do it, as well as the chance to visit all four parks in one day.
Guides will take you on a seven-hour tour, including bus transportation and lunch, that brings the Disney magic alive in a very personal way.
At EPCOT, for example, you can stand in front of the American Adventure building and learn how Disney uses "Forced Perspective" to make buildings look larger or smaller. This building – made with 110,000 Georgia-red-clay bricks – appears to be five stories tall. But it's really only three. Inside the building, you'll learn that the show has 319 audio-animatronic figures, which move around on 79 tracks.
In the Magic Kingdom, you'll visit the Creative Costuming Department to see audio-animatronic figures being assembled and gradually coming to life, as well as the small bungalows of former Mousketeers Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. Scattered about are some of the 3,000 costumes (and 40,000 rhinestones) used for Disney On Parade, along with workers in the Patterning, Tailoring, Sewing, and Cutting teams.
In the Hollywood Studios park, you'll learn how Disney "Imagineers" put the "terror" in Tower of Terror. Here, you can see the electronic grids managing the 4,000-pound vehicle that slings riders down 13 stories – at 1.15 times the speed of gravity!
At the Animal Kingdom, guests walk through a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes in a long storehouse of floats and vehicles, many of them up to 25 feet high and 30 feet long. There are vehicles for jungle safaris, fire engines for Disney characters, alligator floats, Minnie and Mickey floats, old-riverboat floats and, of course, plenty of castles.
At the Disney nursery, you'll walk through a greenhouse filled with some of the 10,000 hanging baskets that staff members make each year. Here also are topiary Disney garden characters, made of grass, palm fiber and reindeer moss¸ in all stages of construction.
One of the most fascinating stops on the Backstage Magic tour is the Central Shops. This is where Disney's self-proclaimed "Can-Do People" assemble and maintain the audio-animatronic figures – along with all the parks' props, machines, attractions, and monorails. There's a Metal Shop, Wood Shop, Paint Shop and other assembly and maintenance areas, all spaced among huge hippos, alligators and boats from a range of attractions in various stages of construction or repair.
There's a zebra in mid-construction, with the frame intact and a skin being put on. Boats from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride are being refurbished. Race cars and tea cups ("Beauty and the Beast") are being painted, along with a 1917 carousel with 90 horses. And there are seven audio-animatronic dwarfs being attended to like royalty.
The "Backstage Magic" tour is capped by a trip through Disney's "Underground City" in the Magic Kingdom. (In truth, it's not really underground. This is Florida, folks, where the high water table precludes building underground so the "Underground City" is on ground-level, even if it is covered it with a layer of earth.) This is headquarters for much of the parks' distribution network, including food, and maintenance operations, such as one of the world's most advanced trash-disposal systems, through which trash moves at 60 miles an hour.
But, to employees, it's much, much more. There's a barber shop, beauty salon, gym (with a personal trainer), fast-food outlets, training and development classrooms, administrative offices such as Revenue & Currency Control operations, an ice cream parlor, a newsstand, a cosmetology shop, banking services, even rec rooms with pool tables and big-screen TVs.
No need to worry about lunch on this tour, by the way. It was provided – tons of barbecued beef, pork, chicken, cornbread, vegetables, and the best fruit cobbler you've ever tasted – at Disney's Wilderness Lodge hotel.
You'll come away from the tour with some incredible stories about Walt Disney and how he put this place together. For example, wanting to keep his plans a secret and prices down in the early 60s, he started buying land in Orlando using fictitious names and fictitious companies, one of them being the name now painted on an upstairs window on Main Street – M.T. Lott. (Say it fast, and you'll get it!)
And you'll learn that trash cans in the Magic Kingdom are placed exactly 27 feet apart, as far as it takes for someone to unwrap a piece of candy and put it into his mouth.
The "Backstage Magic" tour is aptly named. It's an up-close-and-personal look into the nuts-and-bolts operations of the world's greatest attraction.
DISNEY'S BACKSTAGE MAGIC TOUR
(407) WDW-TOUR or (407) 939-8687
Steve Winston (www.stevewinston.com) has written/contributed to 17 books, and his articles have appeared in major media all over the world.