Disney Bucket List: Backstage Magic Tour
All Annual Passholders and Disney Vacation Club Members have one: A Disney Bucket List: Disney Parks related activities you dream of checking off before you... kick the bucket. I don't know if I've ever sat down and formally written out my list. I know it includes seeing every Disney park around the world (not holding my breath there), having a progressive dinner at the chef's table at Victoria and Albert's, being parade Grand Marshall... let's be honest it's a VERY long list. Several of these items I might never logistically or financially accomplish. But I've ALWAYS wanted to check out some of Disney's special tours. You've seen them: the small group of people clustered around a CM in plaid with the little ear pieces in, learning all about this bit of Disney magic or that ride. I ALMOST popped for one for my husband's birthday last year, but switched to a nice lunch instead. Because let's be honest: the tours aren't cheap either (most of them). One in particular that caught my eye but seemed really high up the list of "I won't be able to afford this unless they have a blowout sale" was the Backstage Magic Tour. Get to go in Cast Member only areas? See the inner workings of the resort? OMG THIS SOUNDS SO COOL.
So a couple weeks ago when Disney reached out to me and offered me a chance to check out the tour? BE STILL MY HEART. There might have been squealing involved. Perhaps a shriek or two. *So, yes, I experienced the tour gratis. I was not required to write this in exchange, and all opinions expressed here are still my own.*
Bright and early I optimistically packed my camera bag (in vain, in vain...) and hit the road. The Backstage Magic tour has a whopping 7 hour itinerary, and check in would begin at 8:15 a.m. We got our badges, and right away were handed out gentle but firm instructions that absolutely NO photos were to be taken backstage. Period. Ever. So I'm afraid, my dear readers, I'm going to have to paint some pictures with words for you all. Ok, and a couple of pictures that I PROMISE were ok'd.
No photos? No taking notes on our cell phones to try and sneak photos? We were all handed a handy dandy "Adventures by Disney" notebook and pen to take all the notes we could possibly want. Y'all... my handwriting, in its disuse, has gone from sloppy to something quite atrocious. Lucky for you, I can still read it. Most of it. But then, I don't want to tell you EVERYTHING I learned on the tour, just enough to make you curious enough to want to know more, right? Still, I'm not too worried about "spoilers." The itinerary is changed up frequently, and the specific information you get is largely dictated by the facilitators you happen to have. For example, one of our facilitators geeked out hard for the Central Shops and used to work attractions inside the parks, so a lot of the insight we got came from that knowledge base. Still, some of the things I learned were so interesting I just have to share.
We were first led to our buses backstage and introduced to our two tour "facilitators" (guide was not a word that was used). Imagine my surprise when they were in simple black pants and purple polos, rather than the ubiquitous plaid I'd seen throughout the parks. We were driven around the perimeter road for epcot. Fascinating thing I learned right off the bat: Disney has a massive library of "colors" used in its parks. 32 thousand in paint alone. "D" colors are made and used by Disney exclusively for their projects.
First stop: the American Adventure in the World Showcase, one of the opening attractions for Epcot. I was also that obnoxious student in front who kept raising my hand and chiming in whenever the facilitators asked a question. Hey, can I help it if I know what "Disney look" is? Or what Epcot stands for?
We were taken down into the maintenance pit for the show, where we learned about how Disney engineered the fascinating set piece changing machine for this show (that allows them to cover 300 years of history in 30 minutes). Our timing was perfect, as we first got to see an engineer kick off a test from backstage, and then got to make our way up to the theater while the show was running to see the pieces in action.
Next stop: Costuming. Where I took dozens of pages of notes, wanted to TOUCH AND PHOTOGRAPH EVERYTHING (but did not), frequently screamed internally as I recognized items and sketches, and so on. In truth we were probably only there an hour, but if we'd gone nowhere else this would have been worth the cost of admission for me.
From the first minute you enter the lobby, there are models of the princess and princess costumes from the retired Celebrate A Dream Come True parade (cue internal screaming). So, confession time: our amazing facilitators talked about all kinds of things that I'm sure were super fascinating and awesome but I got so wrapped up in geeking out over LITERALLY EVERYTHING that I missed a LOT of what they had to say. I mean... how can I be expected to pay attention when I'm walking by retired costumes from the Great Movie Ride (yes, the Wicked Witch of the West!) or seeing Dr. Strange's coat get embroidered? And then they walked us into the main cutting and sewing room (see photo above) and that's when all pretense at me paying attention was G-O-N-E. Seriously, how can I focus when Aurora's Dream Along Dress is perched on a table right in front of me? When Santa's coat is being hemmed to my left? When there's a roll of fabric in front of me with a note that says "Ariel's Waistband, cut 1/4 yd.? With Daisy's Holiday Friendship Faire finale hat on my right? Rack after rack, my brain would snapshot and classify the costume. Then they actually let us touch a couple of retired pieces (some spectromagic costumes, Jack Skellington's coat). The costume assistants, who mostly work on accessories, were working on the Friendship Faire Holiday equity dancer's headpieces. When I mentioned I was working on one for my daughter, she even let me get a closer look. Y'all if I ever go missing, it's because I've stowed away in creative costuming and I'm never leaving.
I managed to get my wits about me again for the last stop of the building: the original storyteller costumes for Rivers of Light. The detail is spectacular, but we learned something I found fascinating: almost all of the costumes Disney makes are machine washable. It makes sense, but when you see the level of detail on these outfits, it's awe inspiring.
Reluctantly, I was dragged away from Creative Costuming and we visited one of Disney's Laundry facilities on steroids. On the way we found out that when costumes or linens are deemed no longer acceptable for use, once a year the costuming team will take the fabric and make it into costumes for teddy bears at children's hospitals, while linens and less fancy fabrics get turned into beds for dogs at local shelters. There goes Disney pulling on my heartstrings again.
We visited the hotel laundry facility (one that services ALL the resorts). I'll admit, this was the least exciting of the stops on the tour for me; it didn't help that it had to follow Creative Costuming. Also laundry... not necessarily a topic I find the most riveting. BUT here are some fun things I learned: Disney does not use fitted sheets, because they don't work with the folding machines; this one facility processes 2.5 million pounds of laundry a week; it takes less than an hour from the time a dirty linen enters the facility for it to be washed, dried, folded, and ready to be shipped back out. Backstage, there are FOUR languages that all signage is written in (resort wide, not just this facility). They are the four languages most commonly spoken by Disney CMs, but CAN YOU GUESS WHAT THEY ARE?? (I would not have). English, Spanish, Haitian-creole, and Vietnamese. ALSO what's the lost item that most commonly shows up in the linens at the hotel facility resort? Their own television remotes.
Lunch is provided as part of the fee for the tour. Ours was at Whispering Canyon inside the Wilderness Lodge (we were told that's not necessarily the case, that there are a number of places where lunch MIGHT take place for these tours). I'd eaten there once before with the family (on Christmas morning, actually). It's an all you'd care to eat family style of mostly barbecue-type fare.
Our next stop and runner-up for my favorite was Central Shops behind the Magic Kingdom. This is the facility where basically everything in the parks that's not a costume, whether it's a ride vehicle, prop, or animatronic, is made. The moment we entered, we were greeted by an engineer performing brain surgery on a Jungle Cruise elephant. Again, I started to get distracted by all the cool STUFF all around me: a boat from Peter Pan's Flight, a car from Space Mountain. Our facilitator went into great detail at explaining HOW the maintenance and refurbishment process works for all ride vehicles. Fun Fact: Splash Mountain is the attraction that requires THE most maintenance on property. We got to walk through the molding facility (oh, hi country bears!). We stopped by audio animatronics and got to take our photo with an extra special visitor: the Maelstrom Bear. We miss you!!! :(
DID YOU KNOW the 2nd oldest attraction at the parks is Prince Charming's Carousel? It's celebrating it's 100th birthday this year. It was originally the Liberty Carousel in New Jersey, but it was purchased, repainted/outfitted, and brought here to the Magic Kingdom (if you look closely at a lot of the carvings, they are very patriotic!). We also got to learn about the history of audio animatronics in the parks and their evolution to where they are today.
Our last stop was to head into the Magic Kingdom to check out the famous UTILIDOR. The Utilidor is the underground passageways the Magic Kingdom is built on top of that facilitate the movement of items and persons within the park without them drawing attention to themselves (for theming's sake, a CM in a Space Mountain uniform would look strange strolling through Main Street). It's named the "utilidor" mostly because it facilitated the utilities of the parks: it has no ceilings and allows direct access to all the pipework and cables and such. We saw the smellitizers on the walls (originally introduced to Magic Kingdom because none of the baked good were actually baked on site). If I had to choose just one word for our brief trip in the utilidor, it would have to be "surreal." The Festival of Fantasy Parade and just finished, so while our facilitator would be gesturing toward maps and talking about their trash system, Belle would stroll by in her robe, sipping a coke. Alice & Hatter waved as they dashed past. Main Street Confectionery workers pulled bags out of lockers and strolled past holding cell phones (things you just will not ever see in the parks). Like I said: surreal.
Now here we were, almost 3 pm, back on the bus to Epcot. The day went by so quickly.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It's hard for me to really say "was it worth it" since I didn't actually have to shell out for the tour. $275 is a LOT of money. A meal is included along with all gratuities, but what's conspicuously NOT included is admission to the parks. Granted, most people after 7 hours on their feet would probably be reasonably done and not want to necessarily go running around a theme park. With that said, I don't think I'd recommend this tour for the casual park-goer. In other words, you're coming to Disney for vacation for the first time in years or ever, should you do this tour? I don't think so. One, I believe you must be at least 12 years old to go on this tour, but also, most of the information that's covered? I don't know how much it would be appreciated by someone who didn't already KNOW the parks. Would you geek out over learning how a Splash Mountain ride vehicle gets refurb'd if you'd never ridden it? Maybe. But in the end I'd say the people who would most appreciate it are the types of people who have Disney Bucket Lists: AP's and DVC members. People who know the surface of the parks so well, that learning a bit about what goes on to make it all happen in the places you AREN'T allowed to go as a non-CM, is riveting. The price tag is still a pretty hefty one, BUT Disney often runs specials/discounts on tours for AP's and such (they were offering a 50% deal for a while there), so if this tour sounds like it's something you'd be into, keep an eye on the sales and go for it. Again, your tour will not necessarily be my tour (that would only happen if you happened to have both the same itinerary AND the same facilitators), but mine was pretty darn awesome.