Spoiler alert: from historic moments to revamped rides, there are a lot of fascinating factoids and behind-the-scenes secrets at America’s Disney Parks.
Sorry, mouse fans: if you’ve ever been to a Disney Park, chances are you missed a lot.
“Disneyland was designed so that you really couldn’t see everything in a single visit,” says Paula Sigman Lowery, a consulting historian for the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. She points to Walt Disney’s signature love of arcane embellishment, first in his animation (in Pinocchio, just try to catch all the details of the background paintings in Geppetto’s workshop) and later in his groundbreaking California theme park.
The business names painted in the windows of Disneyland’s buildings are a perfect example. “Imagineer Harper Goff designed the Jungle Cruise’s African Queen–style boats,” explains Lowery. “He also played banjo in the Firehouse Five Plus Two, a Dixieland jazz band comprised of Disney animators and artists. So his window in Adventureland advertises banjo lessons.”
Disney acolytes live for those minutiae and hat tips to those in the know, fueling a brand loyalty that’s the envy of businesses around the world. Disney Parks have parlayed this emotional connection into an uninterrupted reign as America’s best family getaways and most-visited tourist attractions since 1955.
Today, in addition to all the Easter eggs Walt and his Imagineers baked into their attraction designs, the parks have also accumulated almost six decades of hidden history that’s waiting to be discovered by eagle-eyed guests—provided they know where to look.
Have you seen Disney’s nuclear power plant? Did you watch one of the biggest scandals in American politics unfold at a Disney resort? Ever have a sense of déjà vu when riding a ride? Spoilers ahead: you may never enjoy Disney the same way again.
How many of these secrets did you know?
Hidden at the top of the 147-foot mountain of Disneyland’s first roller coaster, the circa 1959 Matterhorn Bobsleds, is something more surprising than a roaring, fur-covered beast: a single-hoop basketball court for use by park employees on their breaks. It was created by vote to fill the extra space in the snowcapped icon, as the coaster makes us of only the bottom two-thirds of the peak.
A Kinder Dumbo
Timothy Q. Mouse, who presides over Dumbo the Flying Elephant (Magic Kingdom and Disneyland), once brandished a training whip to make the elephants soar. Times changed, and the whip was quietly replaced with a “magic feather.” One of the original Dumbo “flying elephant” vehicles is on display at the Smithsonian.
Meow vs. Mouse
As any urban dweller can tell you, mice are a fact of life—especially at Disneyland, a theme park built in the center of Anaheim, CA, where every day brings spills of all sorts that critters love. To help curb the problem, Disney takes a barn cat approach and “employs” hundreds of collarless, free-roaming mousers that they feed during the day (and spay and neuter) then let loose at night. It’s a fun irony that Mickey’s greatest natural enemy is given the keys to the Kingdom after dark.
Raiders of the Lost Iguanodon
The largest and most complicated audio-animatronic ever assembled is the 22-foot-tall Yeti inside Expedition Everest (Disney’s Animal Kingdom)—and it doesn’t work. When the ride opened in 2006, it lunged menacingly at every passing train, but its systems couldn’t sustain the intensity, and it had to be turned off. Now its design-failure immobilization is concealed with a strobe-light effect, spurring some guests to nickname it “Disco Yeti.”
Walt’s the Password?
Although it may be more of an open secret at this point, mum’s the word on a mostly off-limits speakeasy-esque private dinner club called Club 33, hidden in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. (Tokyo Disneyland also has one but not the Magic Kingdom.) To find it, look for a gray-green door near the Blue Bayou restaurant with a mirrored plaque that reads “33”—but don’t bother pushing the button for entry unless you have a reservation. (There’s purportedly an 18-year waiting list and $10,000 initiation fee.) Inside, celebrities and business VIPs can grab dinner and a Big Easy–inspired cocktail, the only such place within Disneyland itself where alcohol is allowed.
Each president in the Hall of Presidents (Magic Kingdom) wears clothing made using the techniques of his era. For example, if there were no sewing machines in his time—we’re looking at you, Georgie boy—then his suit is hand-stitched.
For rock ’n’ roll fans, Walt Disney World may not actually be the most magical place on earth: The Beatles officially broke up at Disney’s Polynesian Resort. While on vacation there on December 29, 1974, John Lennon signed the papers that made their dissolution legal.
Repurposed Film Props
The organ in the ballroom scene of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion is the actual one played by Captain Nemo (James Mason) in 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea—albeit with a different configuration of the pipes.
Want to upload that vacation video to YouTube? Don’t be bummed if Disney asks you to take it down. As in most privately owned theme parks, everything in Disney—characters, rides, and architecture, down to every mouse-eared design detail—is the company’s intellectual property. Disney hasn’t flexed that legal muscle yet, but as a spokesperson seemed to suggest in this story on Daily Finance, it could. It’s just one reason that the movie Escape from Tomorrow, shot guerilla style at Walt Disney World, was such a gamble; the filmmakers even have a cheeky “lawsuit-free” ticker on their website.
Cinderella Castle Trickery
Cinderella Castle feels more imposing than it actually is thanks to the use of forced perspective and a barely perceptible incline. The fiberglass structure (not stone; Disney got special permission from the government for that building-code exemption too) is built higher than the rest of the park.
It’s Not All Imagineered
The gas lamps along Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. are 19th-century artifacts, not reproductions. “Disneyland used to have a costumed lamplighter who lit the lamps at dusk,” says Lowery. “When the energy crisis hit in the 1970s, the gas lamps were turned off.” Out of nostalgia, the lamps were later re-lit. Lowery believes they originally illuminated Baltimore’s streets.
Splash Mountain Sings
Why does the cast of audio-animatronic characters on Disneyland’s Splash Mountain look so different from the cast in Orlando and Tokyo? Economizing. Many of its creatures, including singing geese, frogs, and foxes, were repurposed from America Sings, a robotic musical revue in Tomorrowland that was dismantled in 1988.
The second face in the quintet of singing busts—the one with his head broken off—in the graveyard of the Haunted Mansion (Magic Kingdom and Disneyland) is Thurl Ravenscroft, who was better known as the voice of Frosted Flakes’ Tony the Tiger (“They’re grrreat!”). Ravenscroft was a favored Disney company player; his voice is also heard on Pirates of the Caribbean, Country Bear Jamboree, and in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room.
But Was He a Disney Fan?
On November 17, 1973, President Richard Nixon delivered his infamous “I’m not a crook” speech to a convention of Associated Press editors in the ballroom of Disney’s Contemporary Resort (Walt Disney World).
Chew Chew Cho Cho
The steam engines of the Disneyland Railroad run on old French fry oil. After a few days’ use in kitchens throughout the park, waste oil is stored in tanks and then shipped off-site to be converted to a biodiesel the trains can run on. Every time guests order fries, they’re helping to meet the five locomotives’ appetite for 200,000 gallons of fuel a year. Bonus: the smokestacks smell a bit like lunch.
Boy Scouts of the Caribbean
When Pirates of the Caribbean (Disneyland and Magic Kingdom) was built in 1967, randy pirates chased the women in mechanized circles during the pillage scene—perceived by some as threateningly sexist. Eventually the critiques were addressed in a few different ways across the parks. Gender roles got switched (women now chase the looting pirates away) as did motivations (hungry pirates look like they’re chasing women for the pies they’re holding) for a more family-friendly rendition of the murderous scalawags.
The Reality Beneath the Magic
Because the Magic Kingdom is built on sodden ground, it needed a firmer foundation—technically most of the park is actually the roof of a two-story building that conceals the utilidor, a warren of service corridors. It’s wide enough to admit vehicles and holds wardrobe, break rooms, and the Digital Animation Control System (DACS) that serves as the nerve center for the park’s effects, from the currents of the flume rides to the soundtrack of the Haunted Mansion. Some 30 hidden stairwells and elevators connect it with the “upstairs” of the park.
Christmas in the House of 2000
An unbilled Jean Shepherd, the narrator and author of the stories that became the holiday movie classic A Christmas Story, voices the Father (“John”) in the current 1994 incarnation of Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress (Magic Kingdom). Yep—Dad is Ralphie, all grown up.
City Planning Innovations
In 1971, when Walt Disney World opened, its systems were revolutionary and progressive. The resort was the first place to install an all-electronic telephone system, and it routed all unsightly cables underground. It was also the first place in Florida to institute a 911 emergency system. Generator heat warms water, hot water runoff is used for cooking, wastewater is reclaimed for plants and lawns, and sludge becomes fertilizer. Trash was sucked away at 60 mph in Swedish AVAC pneumatic tubes, originally to a special incinerator that emitted no soot, only steam. (In the 1980s, Disney decided landfills were cheaper.)
Looks Are Frequently Deceiving
Although the Polynesian-style roof of Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room (Magic Kingdom) looks like straw, it was actually built with shredded aluminum, which holds up to the elements better.
Behind-the-Scenes: Parade Technology
The floats in Disney’s signature parades stay on track and in sync with the help of quarter-sized sensors embedded in the pavement.
Droids Meet Jones
Hidden among the hieroglyphs in the Indiana Jones scene of the Great Movie Ride at Hollywood Studios is a tribute to his creator, George Lucas. Look to the right, above the crate, and you’ll see images of two more of his creations: C-3PO fixing R2-D2 with a screwdriver.
Could the nuclear future that Walt Disney World’s Carousel of Progress shows become a Florida reality? Maybe—if Disney ever decides to act on some of the extraordinary concessions it won from the state government before construction began in May of 1967. As reported by the Orlando Sentinel, the resort is actually its own independently governed municipality called the Reedy Creek Improvement District, giving it the right to form a school district, implement a criminal justice system, and issue tax-free bonds for infrastructure projects ranging from parking structures (as it did in 2013) to airports and yes, even a nuclear-power plant.
Cribbing a page from airlines’ standard operating procedure about flight times, posted wait times for rides are intentional lies. According to a Walt Disney World cast member on a seven-hour Backstage Magic tour, management overestimates by five or 10 minutes so that guests are "pushed" at different areas while also coming away from rides with a warm impression of exceeded expectations.
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