One of the best gifts I ever got was this year, when a group of friends chipped in to get my the backstage magic tour. Back in February I had gone on a Disney trip with a group of 8 people, and one of my friends told me about it and said it was a combined thank you gift for organizing the trip and 30th birthday gift. We organized it for my August trip and I attended on Friday, August 10th.
I had done several backstage tours before with Disney – Behind the Seeds, Wild Africa Trek, Caring for Giants, and Walking in Walt’s Footsteps at Disneyland. All of them were interesting and informative, but this one was chock full of fascinating information I didn’t know and behind the scenes glimpses. Almost all of the tour happened “offstage.” This meant no taking photos, but they gave you a link to some photos our guide took along the way.
I arrived in Epcot and checked in around 8:30am. Our tour was scheduled to start at 9, and our guide Mindi showed up around 8:45. She introduced herself, told us she used to work in entertainment at Disney and was now in guest relations, and took some photos of us to kick things off. We had a very small group that day, only 7 people. She mentioned that tour can get up to 30, so it was really nice to have a more intimate feel. Also funny enough everyone was from the Philadelphia area except for one person from London!
I brought a notebook and wrote so much down so I would remember it – they might have made fun of me a little bit! But it means I have a ton of information to share with you. If you don’t want “spoilers” in case you do this tour I wouldn’t read too much, but I also think they switch it up and exactly what you learn will vary based on your guide, so if you’re as curious to learn more about Disney as I am I think you’ll enjoy what I have to share in this post!
Behind the Scenes of an Attraction
The first thing we did was board a bus, which was our private transportation for the whole day. We would get to go behind the scenes of one attraction, which turned out to be the American Adventure. They started by bringing us into the World Showcase and talking a bit about the attraction, and then going into the lobby and looking at some of the architecture. The American Adventure needed to be a 5 story buiding to house the attraction, but because they didn’t build anything 5 stories in colonial times they do a lot of tricks with perspective to make it look like a 3 story building instead. Inside she showed us how the A/C vents are hidden so it’s not obvious, since air conditioning is something they wouldn’t have either.
Then we truly went behind the scenes of this attraction by going into the area underneath it. The show’s stage has no actual floor, so the scenes can rise up from the bottom and then shift over and be replaced by another scene. Some of the scenes are actually stored in the seats under the audience. They also use a rear projection system because a front one would create shadows from the audio animatronics.
She talked a lot about audio animatronics here, telling us that they use medical grade glass eyeballs and teeth in them. They had a display of an animatronic head of Mark Twain without his hair that we were able to touch. She told us how a lot of their animatronics have the same face mold but then they make them look different by adding hair, etc. The new redhead from Pirates of the Caribbean actually has the same face as the mom from Carousel of Progress! And the animatronics’ costumes have to be washed regularly as they can collect a lot of dust and other things. Because of this most of the seams are velcro or zippers, because it would be hard to dress an uncooperative animatronic!
We got back onto the bus and our next stop was creative costuming. It was hard to know we couldn’t take pictures in here because seeing all of these costumes up close was stunning! Creative costuming is where all of the costumes are designed and some are made there, though some are outsourced to other locations to actually make.
There were tons of cool things to see. They had a wall of every button used on a costume that was labeled, as well as every patch for cast member costumes. In an area of cubicles there were all of the animatronics in their costumes from The Great Movie ride on display on a back wall – pretty cool to still see them there! And while we saw lots of cast members working, one thing that I loved to see was that they play a cardio workout video several times a day to get people up and moving. So we walked into one room and everyone was marching and doing stretches. It’s awesome that Disney encourages this with their staff members and has such a focus on healthy living.
The primary performers in a show and equity performers all have costumes that are made specifically to their measurements. Some costumes take a lot of time to make. The original costumes for the performers in Rivers of Light took almost 8 months!
What happens to a costume after a show is over? If it’s in good condition and is something that can be used again, they will put it into storage. If it’s in good condition but not likely to be useful in the future, and not something overtly Disney, they donate it to a local non-profit theater group called Penguin Point that focuses on high school kids. Costumes in poor condition are shredded and disposed of.
We also got to hold and touch several costumes, including Jack Skellington’s jacket, Minnie’s circus dress, Goofy’s flight jacket, a Friendship Faire tunic, and several other pieces. We held a skirt made for the Luau at the Polynesian that’s made of shells and was SO heavy – I can’t imagine how they dance in those.
Our next stop was called “Texiles”, which is basically the laundry facility. Howe interesting can laundry be? Very interesting, it turns out! There are big bags of laundry and linens that ride along a track on the ceiling – think the doors in Monsters Inc. Each bag is RFID tagged by its contents so it knows where to go. They go through several steps, but one of the coolest things to see was the towel folding machine. You know how nice all of your towels look? It takes two seconds in a machine to fold it perfectly and spit it out into a pile.
It’s a good thing they have all of these machines, because Disney goes through a TON of laundry. The facility we were in was just for towels and linens at the resorts, but they also have all of the costumes to wash and anything else that might need to be cleaned. They clean 1 million towels a week and have 2,400,000 pounds of linens sorted per week. Mindi told us that the amount of laundry that gets done in 16 hours here by the machines would take 72 YEARS to do in your home with one regular washing machine working continuously. That’s so much laundry!
Another nice thing that Disney does – when they come across linens and towels that aren’t up to the “Disney standard,” but as still in very good condition, they donate them to homeless shelters.
Lunch was included as part of the tour, and we were taken to Whispering Canyon Cafe. Our server was an older woman named MT, who had clearly been there for a long time. I actually remembered her from our lunch here in January 2017. She was hilarious – they may have toned down the antics here, but she hasn’t. She had us laughing the whole time.
We started with delicious cornbread. Then a bunch of dishes were brought out family style and we could take as much as we wanted. It was the “skillet” meal, and it had pulled pork, chicken, ribs, sausage, mashed potatoes, and corn. Finally dessert was a large skillet of strawberry and peach cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream. It was all good buy the corn bread, mashed potatoes, and cobbler were really excellent and the highlights of the meal for me.
They also asked before the tour started if anyone had an allergies or food requirements. The one member of our party who did was brought her own skillet with the items that she could eat, so know that if you have dietary restrictions Disney will take good care of you.
Up next on the tour was Central Shops, which is where they work on and repair various parts of an attraction. First a ride arrives and it is completely dismantled. Then each piece is inspected. It is then repaired, replaced, fabricated, painted, etc. – whatever needs to happen. They reassembled it and it is then tested, approved, and returned. They also do basic maintenance in the parks, such as small paint jobs.
It was basically a huge warehouse with lots of different areas and stuff everywhere. The first thing we saw when we walked in was “rejected” carousel horses, meaning they needed to be repainted or fixed to be up to Disney standards. We also across pieces of track from Everest, a triceratops from Triceratops Spin, and an elephant from the Jungle Cruise. Some things they have “extras” of so the attraction doesn’t have to go down, like the track pieces and the ride vehicles. Others are one of a kind so if they are being fixed they just aren’t in the attraction, like the elephant.
We learned more about audio animatronics here, including the types of skins they use. Plasticol is tough and durable, and used for items that will be outside. Silicone is softer and better for animatronics that need to be lifelike and will be indoors, like most humans. Hot melt is the third option they use, which is kind of in between the other two. It’s best for animatronics that will be inside but don’t have a ton of movement. We saw the polar bear animatronic that used to be in Maelstrom, as well as a tiki bird that I got to push the button to make it start moving!
Some fun facts: some of the Dwarves in the cabin at the end of Mine Train are the original ones from Snow White’s Scary Adventures. The navi animatronic in Navi River Journey is the most complex so far, with 70 rotars in her face alone which need to be maintained/replaced every three weeks. The Festival of Fantasy dragon is still in repair from the fire about a month ago. They are not only repairing it aesthically but also researching to make sure it doesn’t catch fire again. Apparently a smaller version was made for Disneyland Paris with a different fire system, so they are looking to adapt that. She will be back in the parade eventually, but no word on when.
Utilidors in Magic Kingdom
One of the things that people always want to do is visit the famous tunnels, called utilidors, under the Magic Kingdom. These were made for cast members to get from place to place without disrupting the themeing of each land. Walt didn’t want to see a Cowboy walking through Tomorrowland to get to Frontierland like in Disneyland, so when he made the plans for the Florida park he came up with this idea.
The Utilidors are actually on the “first level” of the Magic Kingdom, and the attractions and area that you know would be like the “second floor.” You can’t really build basements or anything underground in Florida because of the swamp like land.
I know a lot of people hype up the idea of walking around the Magic Kingdom, but at the end of the day they really just are an area people use to get around. They have break rooms and things like that but we didn’t really see any of that. We didn’t see any characters walking around with their heads off. We did see Snow White walk by with her makeup and hair done but carrying her costume – our guide said the characters are more likely to get dressed right by their area and not just walk around the corridors in their costumes. A Dapper Dan did come up to us in his costume and start chatting with us though! He was supposed to be doing a show but it was cancelled due to the rain, so he was just hanging out for a bit.
The walls in the hallway are color coordinated to the land they’re under – so in Tomorrowland they have purple walls (on the bottom half), Main Street USA has a maroon color, etc. There are televisions with upcoming information and important things to know. Things like the park hours, times of the show, etc. The walls are also decorated with lots of cool Disney memorabilia. There were displays of pins going back to the early 2000’s, photos of how the castle looked at different points in its history, and plenty of photos and pictures of Walt. Looking through some of that was a really moving experience.
Construction and Rumors
While our guide didn’t reveal anything truly unknown, she did basically confirm a lot of rumors that have been floating around. A new nighttime show at Epcot is definitely happening. New countries are almost definitely coming to the World Showcase, though she couldn’t say which ones. And Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will apparently have some incredible animatronics. They said if you thought the Navi in Pandora was impressive, Star Wars will be even more amazing than that.
We saw the construction behind Epcot for the new Ratatouille ride and the gondola system. While there’s no word on when the gondolas will be completed, it should be a quick project because they bought all of the parts pre-made and just have to assemble them rather than actually build from scratch.
While in Central Shops she told us that a new style of car will be coming to Test Track. It sounds like it will basically be the same, still seating 6, but look a bit different. That was something I hadn’t heard about yet.
The Backstage Magic tour is pricey, but if you’re a huge Disney fan and into learning about these sorts of things and being behind the scenes I thought it was totally worth it. It’s $275 per person for a 7 hour, full day tour that includes lunch. It’s offered every weekday at 9am. If it’s something you’ve heard about before, or just something that you’re learning about from this post but it interests you, I’d say it’s well worth it and you should book it now!
What do you think of the Backstage Magic tour? Is this something you’d be interested in doing?