Explore Epcot's
Explore Epcot's "Gardens of the World" on a tour led by one of the experts who maintains them.
Copyright The Walt Disney Company

Behind the Scenes at Disney World

Explore Epcot's
Explore Epcot's "Gardens of the World," on a tour led by one of the experts who maintains them.
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 18, 2006

Let's just get this out of the way: They're chipper even when nobody's looking.

If you go on a behind-the-scenes tour of Walt Disney World in the hopes of catching one of those happy cast members with his smile down -- spitting on the break-room floor, maybe, or being mean to some kittens -- you'll be disappointed. Disney's Cult of Cheerfulness survives even in the no-go zones.

Otherwise, this little-publicized series of backstage tours may offer the most mind-blowing Disney experience you've had since your first wide-eyed walk down Main Street. At least, that's what I thought when:

· I went from staring through the glass of Epcot's 5.6-million-gallon Living Seas exhibit to actually diving into the thing, sharks and all.

· That giant portcullis opened in the back lot of Animal Kingdom and a couple of African elephants lumbered out for our personal viewing.

· Our private boat through the venerable Jungle Cruise revealed stagecraft secrets such as the hidden heaters used to warm the tropical plants and the actual words uttered by the animatronic cannibal ("I love disco," believe it or not).

And that doesn't even count such sworn-to-secrecy dish as how they keep the Safari Adventure lions on that viewing rock (air conditioning), what employees really think of certain daily performances ("Cinderellabration, the Loudest Show on Earth") and just who that is in the Mickey costume (a petite woman, most likely).

Did you even know you could peek behind the curtains at Disney World? They do almost nothing to promote these stunning backstage ops. But in fact, any civilian willing to pony up $12 to $199 can ogle a bit of what goes on within one of the most painstakingly designed, constructed and managed patches of all human civilization.

There are 17 backstage tours in all, from a 45-minute glimpse at Epcot's vast greenhouses to a seven-hour walkaround at three separate parks. Most are offered only on certain weekdays, none allows cameras in the backstage areas, and only a few allow children under 16.

I sampled three tours during a four-day visit last month. Here's a report from behind the ears.

Keys to the Kingdom, Magic Kingdom ($58, 4 hours)

At 8:15 a.m., 45 minutes before opening, the Magic Kingdom is dew-covered and utterly empty, a miraculous sight for anyone used to its wall-to-wall norms. We gather in the Tour Garden by City Hall, and waiting cast members check us in and give us ID badges and water bottles. It's almost an hour before the gates will fly open and the morning running of the bulls pours up Main Street.

"The bulls are probably safer," says our sweetly acerbic guide, Matthew. "They don't have strollers."

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