Behind the Scenes at Disney World
Tour de Mouse

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."

We meander up Main, a gas-lamp ideal of small-townness. Matthew, speaking to us through the radio headsets we all wear, points out how the buildings' second floors are actually about one-eighth smaller in scale than the ground floors. It's an old movie trick known as forced perspective that makes the set look taller.

Disney's whole theme park concept was to put visitors inside a cinema experience, Matthew says. Every part of the park has its own constant soundtrack (all in the same key and on the same beat to make for smooth transitions), and there's always a popcorn smell wafting by the entrance. He points to the second-story windows. "And those are our opening credits."

Turns out those old-timey ersatz business names feature real people who helped build the park. You'll find Roy Disney above the confectioner's shop (Walt's brother and partner). And above the ice cream parlor at the far end, "Walter E. Disney -- Graduate School of Design & Master Planning."

Matthew ladles out cool factoids as we move about the park. For example, did you know there's a trash can in Disney every 30 to 50 paces because Walt himself reportedly handed out candy at Disneyland and then counted the number of steps before people would drop the wrapper?

Trash is a big deal in a place that moves a couple of Super Bowls' worth of people through every day. On our first backstage stop, a utility area behind Pirates of the Caribbean, Matthew points out a rubbish compactor the size of a four-unit apartment building. Remarkably, before the garbage is sucked here from around the park by a Swiss-built network of pneumatic tubes, it's sorted by hand to pull out recyclables and all the wallets and cameras people toss by accident. The combustibles are burned to generate a third of Disney's electricity.

To get backstage, we cross the steam-train railroad tracks, walk around a bend in the road and finally pass through a secluded gate. When we step over a bright yellow "sight line" on the road, Matthew declares us out of any possible view of guests in the park.

"Now, what do you really want to know?" Matthew asks.

Only now will he give us out-of-character answers to certain questions. That cable that stretches from the top of Cinderella's Castle? Inside the park, he'll only say it's where Cinderella hangs her laundry. But on this side of the sight line, he comes clean on the magic behind Tinkerbell's nightly "flight" from the castle. The performer in the Tink suit must weigh no more than 95 pounds; she wears nearly 70 pounds of harnesses and lights; she makes actors' equity wages plus hazard bonuses, and she gets paid for eight hours whether she flies or not.

"Tinkerbell is well taken care of," he says.

The park is open now and filling rapidly. But our group bypasses the long queue for the Jungle Cruise to step aboard a boat of our own. Matthew takes the microphone from the pilot and substitutes the usual corny spiel with some delicious state secrets. He points to a spot on the fuselage of a "downed" airplane where three small metal disks make a familiar mouselike shape. This is our first Hidden Mickey, one of dozens of such built-in winks scattered throughout Disney parks that devotees pursue with "Da Vinci Code" intensity. Matthew points out another an hour later during our private ride through the Haunted Mansion. (Okay, okay. It's on the dining room table, a dinner plate flanked by two saucers underneath the waltzing ghosts.)

Our capacity for this stuff is infinite. I've never seen such an attentive tour group, peppering Matthew with questions over lunch in a private part of the Columbia Harbour House restaurant, and finally in the super-secret underground tunnels that lace the Magic Kingdom.

If you're really lucky, you might see Goofy schlepping to his shift, head in hand. But mostly this is just a wide utility hallway filled with beeping carts and exposed plumbing (and a display of killer, never-published photos of Disney's construction phase). But by this time, we're so drunk with insider scoop, even the sewage pipes hold us rapt.

Backstage Safari, Animal Kingdom ($65, 4 hours)

Animal care is a daybreak affair, and the first shift is almost half over when we pass through an unobtrusive gate by Animal Kingdom's Rainforest Cafe. We board two vans and pass huge stretches of Florida pastureland now planted in willow, acacia, bamboo and other greens suited to exotic palettes. Food techs cut tons of it every morning before the sun comes up, and now, as we pull up to the massive elephant barns, a couple of pachyderms are happily tucking in to piles of the stuff.

A female munches away as our tour guide, Paul -- a retired biology teacher from Michigan -- recounts the challenges of elephant sex in cringing detail. Animal Kingdom is a fully accredited, state-of-the-art zoo, active in wildlife breeding programs around the world and clearly committed to top animal care. And its backstage tour, popular with critter lovers, is heavy on true-fact science.

But even in the nonpublic technical areas, the creative hand of Walt is obvious. Paul points out a lone, tall pine rising behind the employee commissary. "That's a Nextel tower," he says. "It was visible from a few spots within the park, so they turned it into a tree."

We drive slowly along the high earthen berm that encircles the park (more sightline management). An electric fence runs along one side of the lane (to keep out deer, mostly), and animal holding areas line the other. We see off-duty cheetahs, rhinos and giraffes taking the shade.

At the rhino barn, a keeper explains care and feeding, and we're allowed to stroke the thick hide of a young female white rhino as she scarfs alfalfa on the other side of the bars. Later, during a bathroom break in the administrative building, a keeper joins us for brownies with a breathtaking spectacled owl on her arm.

At the vet clinic, they're scraping a callus off a goat. And in the nutrition center, they're cutting up restaurant-quality fruits and vegetables and packing individual plastic bins with the next day's meal for more than 300 species. For the big cats, techs measure out horse meat at a separate station. For the littler carnivores -- reptiles and raptors -- a row of frozen dead rodents thaw on a counter, from bald newborn pinkies to full-grown white mi . . .

"We try not to use the M word," Paul says. "Mickey gets upset."

But the tour isn't all biology. Good old human smugness kicks in when Paul leads us into a private holding area within the park for the popular Kilimanjaro Safari (essentially, the ride through the zoo section of Animal Kingdom). Paul even invites us to twist the knife a bit, smiling and waving at those who have been waiting for more than an hour as we drive by.

Kilimanjaro Safari essentially realizes Walt's original vision for the Jungle Cruise, a fake tour featuring real animals. But it took decades to figure out ways to provide both proper habitat for the wildlife and guaranteed viewing for the visitors.

Paul starts pointing out tricks. The huge baobab tree is fiberglass, with a camera in its trunk. The hanging lantern is really a signal for the driver to hold position. And that pond crowded with leggy red birds?

"Take a closer look at the shape of Flamingo Island," Paul says. "It's a Hidden Mickey."

Epcot Seas Aqua Tour, Epcot ($100, 2 1/2 hours)

It's pretty hard to stand out from the crowd at Disney World. But try walking around in a neoprene wet suit, and watch the heads turn. About 10 of us march through the public areas of Epcot's Living Seas like a crew of astronauts. We file down curved corridors lined with people peering through fish-filled windows. Through a secure door, up some metal stairs, and we're in a cavernous space above the 203-foot-wide, 5.6-million-gallon tank. A crew of technicians hands out flippers and fits us for the mini air tanks that will allow us to swim face-down along the surface for up to half an hour. Certified divers can go to the bottom on a separate scuba tour. But anyone over 8 years old can suit up for this glorified snorkeling.

"When you're in the water," our guide, Amanda, instructs us as we line up on the metal grate at water's edge, "you will be part of the exhibit. People will take pictures of you. They will go nuts. You can wave, make hand gestures." She pauses.

"Just remember, there are some hand gestures we don't do at Disney."

The actual jump into the tank is just the climax of a two-hour prowl through one of the largest artificial marine environments in the world. The first hour takes us by manatee and dolphin tanks, into an ichthyological sickroom and past boxcar-size pumps that filter the water at the rate of 35,000 gallons a minute.

Halfway through, we take a break in a kind of diver's greenroom decorated like a seafood restaurant. We watch a video and get a briefing on the breathing equipment. Amanda assures us that the numerous sharks and rays and sea turtles will do no more than nudge us. "You'll be using the same platform as the feeders use, so they will definitely be interested when you get into the water."

She leads us to locker rooms, where we find fresh towels, hot showers and wet suits in our sizes waiting for us.

Up on the platform, we shoulder into the tanks and Amanda snaps our pictures just before we put on our masks. (After the swim, we'd find the printed pictures and a tour T-shirt waiting for us). A dive master runs through a few hand signals and warns us to stay away from the fence that separates the dolphins from the main tank (they can be aggressive if you get too close).

"In you go," he shouts, and I plunge headfirst into a sea turtle.

He's a massive old thing, twirling like a dancer as I right myself and get accustomed to the air regulator. We're nose to nose for a while. Soon we're joined by a spotted eagle ray, and then I'm engulfed by a shimmering school of jacks. The water is warm, salty and perfectly clear. The tank is huge, and I quickly lose sight of the other swimmers.

It's half an hour of such blisses with the fishes. There are 65 species of them. Below, the sharks cruise in restless circles. The spectacular coral towers -- absolutely fake -- rise in arching towers from the shell bottom. Behind the five-inch thick acrylic windows, I see shadowy forms, pointing and clicking . . . at me.

I wave and make Hidden Mickey shapes with my fingers, feeling oh-so-immersed in Disney's world.

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