Saturday, August 30, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Behind Disney World's magic

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - This column is rated R.

It's restricted to those unafraid of traveling behind the scenes at Walt Disney World.

I'll try not to spoil too many fantasies. But Rae L'Heureux, our guide on a backstage tour of the Magic Kingdom, shamed me into cautioning readers about the secrets she revealed.

"You wouldn't want to destroy any young child's dreams with what you write, would you?" she asked.

Well, no.

Not that I ingested any scandalous journalist-only tidbits. The five-hour tour, which meanders through back lots, a private tunnel, and more otherwise off-limits spaces, is available to any visitor age 16 or older.

But just to be certain I don't shock any wide-eyed Disney devotee, let me toss out a test:

Mickey Mouse is a girl.

Sometimes.

L'Heureux, a Disney World cast member for 11 1/2 years, should know. "I was the man himself," she said.

But she continued (close your eyes, kids), "I can honestly say that I was also a hooker in the Magic Kingdom."

Come again? "Our parade floats are battery-powered, and they don't have enough oomph to get up the hill [from the float barn, which we toured] and into the parade route," L'Heureux explained. "You hook a towing device onto the floats to give them power. One of my responsibilities was to do the hooking."

Back to Mickey.

"You go to a character audition, and the first thing they do is measure your height," L'Heureux said. "You may be chipmunk height, mouse height or Goofy height. That determines what character you portray."

L'Heureux is chipmunk height, but close enough to don a Mickey costume in a pinch.

"If you are a girl at mouse height, you can be Mickey," she said. "If you're a boy at mouse height, you can be Minnie."

Weight, she said, is no longer a major issue except for Tinker Bell. "Tinker Bell flies, so there are safety concerns," L'Heureux explained. "She has to weigh between 95 pounds and 115 pounds."

Age isn't an obstacle, either: L'Heureux said that one Tinker Bell retired at 72.

Here's more inside perspective:

"Every time you see a character at Disney World, a backup is in close proximity," L'Heureux said. "Those costumes weigh about 40 pounds, and there is no air conditioning built in. The maximum time you are allowed to be in costume during summer is 20 minutes, except for parades. So after 20 minutes, a character goes behind the scenes, then reappears. But it's a different cast member."

Note the words "cast member." At Disney World, all 60,000 employees - from Mickey and Goofy to lighting technicians - are known as cast members.

One more anecdote about the world's most beloved mouse: Walt Disney's original name for the character was Mortimer. "But when he took the idea to his wife, Lillian, she said no," L'Heureux told us. "She suggested Mickey. Why? Because before Lillian met Walt, she dated a man named Mickey."

L'Heureux's tour, which costs $60 per person, plus park admission, provided other insights:

The names inscribed on windows along the Magic Kingdom's Main Street represent "our rolling credits," L'Heureux said. It's hardly a surprise to see windows dedicated to Walt and Roy Disney, but who is M.T. Lott? "Some windows are historical, others are hysterical," L'Heureux responded. "Disney World started with empty lots."

Look down as you walk and you'll see what appear to be repairs, or plugs, in the pavement. "But we know them as RFIDs, or radio frequency identification," L'Heureux said. "As parades approach, they send a message to start the music."

Almost every building, rock or other visible element is made of fiberglass and steel. There are no bricks in Cinderella's castle. And Disney artists use "forced perspective" - techniques that include designing three floors of windows for two floors of actual space - to make the castle and other buildings appear larger.

Attention to detail is remarkable. Trash bins are placed no more than 27 feet apart because a Disney test showed guests lost patience and discarded chewing-gum wrappers after walking that distance. Eyeglass prescriptions for statues of U.S. presidents in Liberty Square's Hall of Presidents are identical to those each chief executive used.

A 1.3-mile corridor beneath the park's surface facilitates movement of cast members and cargo. "We call it a tunnel, but that's not correct; it's at ground level," L'Heureux said. "Because it was built on swampland, the Magic Kingdom is 16 feet above the ground."

The tunnel includes an engineering control room, a costume center, and a hairdressing outlet with "Disney Grooming Guidelines" posted on walls. ("We have two kinds of wigs: synthetic wigs for humans, human wigs for synthetic people," L'Heureux said.)

There are no restaurants or shops in the corridor. "And contrary to rumor," L'Heureux said, "Walt Disney is not frozen here."


Disney World: Where to Start

The behind-the-scenes "Keys to the Kingdom" tour lasts about five hours. The cost is $60 plus park admission. A seven-hour "Backstage Magic" tour covers the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and MGM Studios. The cost is $199 per person, with park admission not required. Call 407-939-8687 for reservations. Call 407-824-4321 or access www.disneyworld.com for information.

Walt Disney World covers 40 square miles and includes four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios, Animal Kingdom), two water parks, two dining and entertainment complexes, six golf courses and two full-service spas.

Your first concession must be that you can't see and do it all during one vacation.

Even if you focus primarily on Epcot, be aware that you could easily spend a day meandering through the World Showcase, where expansive areas dedicated to 11 nations are connected by a 1.3-mile promenade surrounding a 40-acre lagoon. Epcot's Future World warrants another day to enjoy attractions that range from Mission Space (a spaceflight simulation ride) and Test Track (high-speed automobiles) to "living seas" exhibitions.

Hundreds of guidebooks and Web sites are dedicated to this central Florida landmark, but as a primary resource I suggest "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2007" (Wiley & Sons, $18.99). Author Bob Sehlinger, with Len Testa, recommends touring plans for each park, and the book's 818 pages cover almost every practical concern. (Sehlinger also devotes space to Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando.)

Valuable, too, is the just-released pocket-size "Zagat Walt Disney World Insider's Guide" (Zagat, $15.95), which uses travelers' input to rate attractions and restaurants.

A few tips based on my recent experience:

Determine your priorities and the amount of time you can spend before purchasing tickets: Disney World offers a dizzying array of admission options, starting with one-day, one-park tickets ($67 for ages 10 and older, $56 for ages 3-9) to weeklong deals that include entrance to all four parks plus lodging at one of Disney's 32 resorts (22 Disney-owned).

Park-hopper tickets provide the most flexibility, and the price gets cheaper as you add days; a four-day ticket with admission to all four parks is about $235 per person. Various "Magic Your Way" packages are detailed at www.disneyworld.com. For a thorough, independent analysis and price chart, consult "The Unofficial Guide."

Weigh lodging options. While budget motels in nearby Kissimmee tout cheaper rates, overnighting on site has significant advantages: Disney resort guests save money, time and hassles by using free monorails, shuttle boats and buses to and from parks; also, at least one park opens an hour early or stays open late for resort guests only.

If you stay on site, you'll likely pay $350 per night at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa or $300 at the attractive BoardWalk Inn, but the Pop Century Resort rents rooms for less than $100 during low-occupancy periods.

Save on transportation costs. Guests at hotels owned and operated by Disney can utilize Disney's Magical Express for free bus transportation and luggage transfers between Orlando International Airport and their hotel. This is a money-saver, plus you bypass baggage claim; you're given stickers to place on your bags before leaving home. But participants are cautioned not to expect suitcases to arrive in their rooms for up to four hours. Some guests avoid this delay by choosing not to apply the stickers, then they retrieve their bags upon arrival and carry them to the Magical Express airport check-in counter in Terminal B.

Budget for meals. Disney World includes more than 100 restaurants. You'll spend top dollar at Jiko - The Cooking Place within the Animal Kingdom, Victoria & Albert's at the Grand Floridian, or Wolfgang Puck Cafe's second-floor restaurant in Downtown Disney, but you'll likely savor a fabulous meal. Or you could snack all day in parks and feast on pizza or burgers at night. Some packages include dining.

Consider FASTPASS. This free system allows guests to bypass long lines at the most popular attractions. It works this way: You put your theme-park ticket into a machine and receive a FASTPASS ticket designating a one-hour time window when you can return and enter with little or no wait. The downside is that it requires two trips to an attraction; if the line is short, forget FASTPASS.

- Harry Shattuck

Harry Shattuck Houston Chronicle
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