The Walt Disney World Resort is packed with activities. From the thrills and excitement of four spectacular theme parks, to world class golfing, to a romantic fireworks cruise, Disney offers enough variety to keep even the most active families entertained for months.
Once you have seen the parks a few times, the question often arises, how did they do that? Disney Imagineering is well-known for testing limits, stretching reality, and forging new ground. For many years, the question of “how” was a carefully guarded secret. Eventually the decision was made to expose Disney magic to the masses. Although you will not get to see the ideas that are still on the drawing board, Disney now offers the chance to go behind the scenes at a variety of attractions and shows, to understand the process of creating the show.
The Backstage Magic Tour is Disney’s most comprehensive overview. This tour covers the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney-MGM Studios. It is a full seven-hour day, and includes a family-style lunch at Mama Melrose in Disney-MGM Studios. Tickets are pricey, but separate theme park admission is not required. Be sure to inquire about applicable discounts if you are an Annual Passholder, Disney Vacation Club Member, Cast Member, or Disney Visa Card holder. Reservations are absolutely essential, and Disney recommends making reservations at least two months in advance. However, cancellations do occur, so you may be able to get a last-minute reservation.
Tour details vary from day to day depending on the day’s scheduled events, maintenance, and so forth. However, the basics generally remain the same. The tour normally meets at 8:45 am at the Guest Relations office outside of Epcot’s main entrance. Group size is extremely limited, which allows for a good deal of personalized interaction with your guide. The guides are handpicked from the best of Disney’s VIP tour guides, and are quite experienced and knowledgeable.
Your tour will visit a mix of onstage and backstage locations. In order to preserve the magic for children, all tour participants must be age 16 or over. If you are the type of person who wants to preserve the fantasy unspoiled, then this tour is not for you. However, if you like to know how things work, then you will find the tour absolutely fascinating. No pictures are permitted in any backstage area, and Disney reserves the right to confiscate your camera or even remove you from the tour. You are also strictly required to remain with your guide at all times, and may not venture into any unauthorized areas. Please be respectful of these rules.
One of your early tour stops is usually the American Adventure pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase. Depending on regularly scheduled maintenance of animatronics, be ready for some surprises. On my tour, I was able to see Benjamin Franklin with no pants! The level of detail on the animatronics is astounding, and it is equally amazing to see the complicated inner workings that allow the figures to move and speak. You will also get to see the massive machines that rotate the sets.
The next major stop has historically been Body Wars, located in the Wonders of Life pavilion. However, this attraction operates seasonally, so another stop may be substituted on the day of your visit. This stop allows you to see the motion simulators from the outside. You will witness a full run of the ride, and watch in amazement as you realize just how much movement is truly involved, as well as the level of safety precautions that must be undertaken.
Other stops you will likely make are at Costume Central and the Scenic Workshops. In both places, your guide in conjunction with a Cast Member from that department will explain a bit of the process that goes into designing the show. From fabrics to paint colors, every bit of detail is carefully researched to develop the perfect blend of historical accuracy and real-world durability. Costume Central may bring your first jarring glimpse of reality, as Princesses arrive in sweatpants and T-shirts to pick up their dresses.
Lunch is served at midday at Mama Melrose in Disney-MGM Studios. Your guide will join you, and this is a great time to ask questions. Lunch is served family-style, and your group is normally seated in a private room. A Streetmosphere character may join your group, adding hilarity to the occasion.
In the afternoon, your group will go onstage at the Magic Kingdom to see the parade, before heading to the most anticipated portion of the tour—the Utilidors. This series of tunnels, located deep below the ground of the Magic Kingdom, is the stuff of many legends. Prior to the commencement of this tour, no guest was ever allowed inside. The Utilidor system provides Cast Members with a means to travel between sections of the park without being seen by guests. This is an important part of preserving the show, as it ensures that a Cast Member in futuristic Tomorrowland garb will not suddenly appear in the Old West setting of Frontierland.
The Utlidors also serve as the backstage home for Cast Members. A Cast Member cafeteria, break rooms, another branch of Costuming, locker rooms, and shops are just a few of the Cast Member service areas you will encounter. This is also where you are likely to see your next jarring glimpse of reality—furry, huggable characters walking around with their heads under their arms! Keep in mind that this is the Cast Members’ area to relax, as well to attend to business, so respect their space and do not try to detain them. Most are friendly and will greet you warmly, but may have several errands to attend to on a short break, so they will not have time to talk.
You will also visit Parade Central, where the parade floats are housed, as well as Control Central. Control Central is quite interesting, as you will be shown the computer system that controls the entire parade. The sheer number of automated tasks taking place during every parade cycle is astonishing, and it is also amazing to see the number of computer technicians who monitor the systems.
Your tour will combine walking and motor coach transportation. The buses are hired from an outside company specifically for the tours, and the bus drivers are excellent. The driver truly forms a team with your guide. The tour is fully handicapped accessible, but please call ahead to make arrangements if you use an ECV or oversized electric wheelchair. You may need a bus with kneeling capabilities rather than a lift, as some chairs do not fit on the standard lifts. Discuss the situation with the Cast Member who takes your reservation, and you can be accommodated.
The Backstage Magic tour is NOT recommended for first time visitors. It is important to experience the magic as it was intended, before venturing behind the scenes. However, if you have visited the parks a few times and are yearning to know more, the Backstage Magic tour offers a comprehensive overview of the process of creating the magic. The tour is highly recommended.