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Disney World’s deepest secrets

Disney characters Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse walk through the Sleeping Beauty Castle in Hong Kong's Disneyland Park

Through the keyhole: A tour at Disneyland Florida allows a very brief glimpse behind the scenes

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.

 

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