I like peeking behind the curtain to see how things really work. I love taking train rides for example. They allow me to see into people’s back yards and observe how they really live behind the polished veneer that faces the road. One can learn a lot about someone from the junk that accumulates out back, out of sight.
My employer sent me to Orlando, Florida for a week of leadership development along with several of my coworkers. Sure, I would have preferred better timing, having just returned from vacation two days earlier, but at least I had enough advanced warning to make the necessary travel arrangements.
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I’m no stranger to Orlando and I thought I’d plumed the depths of just about every geo-oddity available during prior visits. This one presented a rather unique opportunity, however, and there was no way I would miss it. I was able to spend a week at the Disney Institute. I know, you’re thinking this had to be a boondoggle. Our coworkers left behind to mind the office in our absence thought the same thing. I’m sure the fine people at the Institute are well-aware of this perception. They worked us hard, from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm nonstop with only a short lunch break as a result. I can’t say enough good things about the folks at Disney, though. It was solid training.
Disney provides great entertainment that’s underpinned by a solid yet nearly invisible machine that makes it seem effortlessness. The Institute peeled back that curtain to focus on the attributes of their culture, workforce, leadership and logistics that contribute to their success. We spent a week studying their model to see how or where it could be applied to our employer.
I found the discussion fascinating and useful. Perhaps none of that interests you so let me get to the good stuff: the training included several field trips to backstage areas of Walt Disney World that are not open to the public, including locations at Epcot, the Magic Kingdom and a laundry facility the size of a football field that serves all of their hotels. Which one of those three locations doesn’t belong? It doesn’t matter. I enjoyed them all. The immense industrial scale of the laundry was a lot more mesmerizing than one can possibly imagine.
I’ll start with a little context. First, if you are a Disney aficionado you already know everything I’m about to reveal. You’ll probably role your eyes like I do when I have to listen to somebody who’s suddenly discovered their first decent beer. Come back later in the week for new material. Second, Disney uses show business terms for everything because that is their heritage. Thus, they refer to public spaces as "on-stage" and private spaces as "backstage" They asked that we not take photographs backstage to protect the privacy of their cast members because that’s where they relax away from the crowds. I can totally respect that. There are plenty of backstage photos available on various search engines if you’re that curious.
We learned about "Hidden Mickeys," These are images of Mickey Mouse that have been blended into the background in whimsical ways. It’s solely for fun. Often it’s the iconic three circle Mickey logo with the famous head and ears. They pointed out a specific instance worked into the façade of the casting office. The casting office is a public area where people go to be interviewed for jobs at Disney World, to hopefully become member of their cast. Notice also the painted diamond pattern. Apparently Walt Disney had a thing for argyle socks so the architects got a little creative and built that into the design too.
There are quite a number of people who track Hidden Mickeys as a hobby, creating detailed fan websites and entire books devoted to the subject. I’d probably have to add this to my vast collection of lists if I happened to live in Orlando. I can totally understand the obsession.
Our instructors made a special point concerning the sanctity of backstage Disney and their desire to keep it from public view so they don’t "spoil the magic." Children might get a tad bit disillusioned if they saw Cinderella half-dressed, chatting on her mobile phone while sipping a soda with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, or something like that. Right?
They did note the existence of a single place where the public goes backstage all the time but rarely realizes it. They said it was the only place so I’m sure if any Disney experts stumble upon this post they will correct me if I’m wrong.
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Designers built the loop of the Test Track attraction at Epcot into the backstage area due to space limitations, like a little Disney hernia. Not to worry, they banked the curve so that centrifugal force prevents riders from seeing anything backstage other than the center of the circle. The Test Track was built in partnership with General Motors so (surprise) the circle is filled with late model GM automobiles positioned as advertising.
Look southeast of the track towards the large rectangular building with the white roof. That is where Epcot workers check-in for work, get their costumes, grab a snack, get haircuts if they like, or take breaks away from guests. The large lot immediately to the east of Backstage Lane is where Epcot cast members park.
The Fine Line Between Backstage and On Stage
A stark contrast exists between on-stage and backstage. The public face contains the full force of Disney magic. Backstage however is surprisingly utilitarian with few frills. It doesn’t look much different than the back side of any shopping center or mall. Only a few steps keep the two worlds from colliding. I took this photograph from an on-stage public area at the Magic Kingdom. Guests stand at a kiosk on the left. A cast member is just about to arrive into public view on the right. Only a simple wooden walkway separates the two sides.
Tunnels Below the Magic Kingdom
The "Utilidor" tunnel system runs beneath the Magic Kingdom. It’s roughly octagonal with a line running down the middle to connect distant ends. Again, I couldn’t take any photographs although many people have apparently done so and have shared their images on the Internet. You’ll want to check out the link to see copies of the Utilidor maps that are posted at strategic points throughout the tunnels. We did most of our walking at the southern end by Main Street, U.S.A. (I think we used either Stairway #21 or #22). Also I believe the version of the map I’ve seen displayed most commonly on the web might be a little out of date. I distinctly recall a Mickey Mouse image on the version I saw posted in the Utilidor a few days ago.
Guests never see cast members in out-of-context locations, or bulk merchandise being delivered to shops, or garbage being carted out in large bins. That’s because everything moves under the Magic Kingdom via the Utilidor safely below street level. It’s quite industrial, all concrete and cinder block with conduit running along ceilings. It would be a bit creepy if it were empty. However it’s a veritable beehive of people in constant motion either by foot or electric cart. It’s not a place to mill about complacently in the middle of a corridor.
I called it a system of tunnels but that’s not entirely correct. Apparently the water table was too high for true tunnels. Designers built a foundation, constructed the Utilidor system atop that, filled the rest of the space in with dirt and raised the Magic Kingdom atop that. Thus, the Utilidor isn’t a basement so much as it’s actually the first floor. A bit of Disney stagecraft convinces guests that they are walking at true street level. They never notice the slight incline that delivers them to the "second floor" as they enter the park. To them it’s just another small hill.
Forced Perspective Architecture
Disney also uses stagecraft in their architectural designs. Again, this is a throwback to their heritage that they’ve carried forward. Movies and theatrical productions often use forced perspective in set designs to create optical illusions. Here is an example at the Magic Kingdom. I’ve circled a doorway on a spire at Cinderella’s Castle. It’s only about half of normal size. They’ve constructed the castle in such a way that it fools the eye into believing it’s considerably larger. Main Street employs similar tricks to make it appear much longer. Thus, when guests enter the foot of Main Street and peer towards the castle, they are amazed. These designs don’t happen by accident.
Our instructors didn’t dwell much on the Reedy Creek Improvement District, but they didn’t hide it either. We’ve touched on Reedy Creek on this blog before so I won’t go into much detail other than to note that the creation of Walt Disney World has a murky history intertwined with various conspiracy theories. The company is the local government, literally, via Reedy Creek. The only permanent residents are senior Disney employees in two small "towns" of just a few people, Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista. Up to a quarter million people flock to Disney World each day but less than fifty people can be counted as residents.
This creates some rather unique business advantages, including Disney’s ability to establish its own zoning and land use policies, issue tax-free bonds, and avoid meddling by local officials. Reedy Creek even inspected the elevators in the hotel where I was staying, as an example. Disney also has the ability to exercise police powers via Reedy Creek should it ever want to do that, however it defers this responsibility to the local county sheriff who operates a substation on the property. It wouldn’t look good from a public relations perspective, our handlers explained, if Disney started arresting its guests on the rare instances they become unruly.
What other corporation can say it has its own local government? I stumbled upon Reedy Creek’s not-so-secret headquarters and thinking of all of you, I had to take a photo.