First published on the MailOnline on 7th January 2014
There are thousands of rumours about Walt Disney World, Florida, many without foundation. There are tales of the park being filled with feral cats at night to keep the rodents down, or the one about wild alligators inhabiting Splash Mountain. However, my favourite rumour happens to be true.
Visitors to the park might be surprised to know that there is a whole other world beneath their feet. Under the Magic Kingdom, a network of closely guarded tunnels known as the ‘utilidors’ (utility corridors) are packed with offices, cafeterias and a wardrobe department (including an impressive 136 costumes for Mickey alone). There’s even a resident hairdresser.
Walt Disney himself came up with the idea for this subterranean world after he had completed Disneyland in California and was upset to see a cowboy crossing the sci-fi-themed Tomorrowland to reach his post at Frontierland. He felt it spoilt the authenticity of the park, but realised that because the California site was relatively small, there wasn’t much to be done.
Instead he decided his next park would be bigger and better, and bought an enormous slice of land in Florida (the existing theme park is already the size of San Francisco, with room to expand it twice over) to tunnel beneath.
Swampy conditions made this impossible, so he built upwards instead – and so the ‘tunnels’ were created at ground level (using eight million cubic yards of earth excavated from the man-made lake Seven Seas Lagoon), while the park itself was built on the second and third floors – with a barely noticeable incline!
If you’re over 16 and stump up a pricey $79 (£48) you can take a behind the scenes tour which culminates with a visit to this underground labyrinth. The Keys to the Kingdom Tour is a lengthy five hours, including a walking tour of the Magic Kingdom, three rides (which vary) and a brief trip into one small section of the utilidors. If I’m totally honest, it’s a bit like an interactive advert for Disney. For five hours.
There are lots of facts that I found a little tedious (for example, the colour of bins, how water on the rides is treated, landscaping anecdotes) and plenty of heavily-scripted tales about Walt and his brother Roy. There are nuggets of interesting info though, including one story about how the character of ‘Tinkerbell’ can be played by either a man or a woman as long as they’re short in height and light in weight. it’s a rare glimpse behind the iron curtains of Disney secrecy.
Actually seeing the utilidors, the part of the tour that had really piqued my interest, was left until right at the end. Would we catch the actor playing Mickey without his head on? Of course not. Instead we’re taken to a tiny section of corridor which seems to be mostly office space, with a surprising amount of detritus piled up against the walls – ageing water-coolers, broken fax machines, and so on. There is concrete as far as the eye can see, and strange, echoing acoustics.
There’s a map on the wall which shows the layout of the tunnels – spreading out from Cinderella’s Castle into a wheel encompassing the Magic Kingdom. Each section is colour-coded to stop staff getting lost, but it apparently takes a while to get used to them – it’s not such a Small World after all.
It all feels a bit Downton Abbey, with the ‘downstairs’ section hidden from view, despite being a hive of activity. Here is where the staggering 285,000lbs of daily clothes washing takes place; where much of the food sold in the Magic Kingdom is prepared and cooked; where delivery trucks drop off supplies for the park; and where a special vacuum system sucks up all of the park’s rubbish – it’s why you’ll never see an empty crisp packet or crumpled can en route to visit Cinderella.
Moments of excitement come when employees on golf buggies come trundling down the corridors. Other than that, it’s more upbeat stories of the park and its founder, which involves looking at plenty of framed photos of Walt.
Ever the intrepid reporter, I spend my time trying to slope further down the corridor than strictly allowed, and poking my head around doors into rooms full of people on computers –not one of them dressed as Princess Jasmine.
It’s then I start to wonder what I was expecting from the tour. Did I expect to see a hidden side to one of the world’s most controlled brands? And would I have actually wanted to? After all, if you get too close to Tinkerbell, you might just discover a short, bald man. Sometimes perhaps it’s best to be happy with the illusion.
The tunnels highlight what sets Disney apart – the astounding attention to detail and amount of money thrown at any problem. Whether you’re a fan of the company or not, you can’t fail to be impressed at the level of effort that has gone in to keeping the experience ‘magical’, while all the nuts and bolts are carefully hidden away. The problem with the tour is that they are still reluctant to give away too much of the nitty gritty (or to even give photos for this article).
It seems that even for a company willing to manufacture everything from sticking plasters, to cruises and even entire housing complexes based around their famous mouse, the one thing Disney isn’t quite ready to sell is its secrets.
When I was younger, I always wanted to find out the method behind conjuring tricks. The trouble was, what I hoped was ‘magic’, always turned out to be a carefully planned illusion – the result of a magician spending hours and hours making his craft look effortless.
The Disney tunnels reveal the glamorous tricks which happen above our heads, in the Magic Kingdom, and while on the one hand the tour spoilt the illusion, I couldn’t help but leave with more respect for the efforts of the magician.