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September 24, 2009

Backstage Magic Tour

Backstage Magic Tour
by Krystal Thomas


I am a Disney Geek. I admit it freely and proudly. So for this last trip down to my home away from home, Walt Disney World, I wanted to take one of the behind the scenes tours. I had not taken any tour at Walt Disney World since I was a kid. I had once toured World Showcase and Discovery Island through the Disney Institute but I had not taken a tour in years. So, as a combined birthday/graduation gift, my parents gave me the Backstage Magic Tour. This tour is actually still run through the Disney Institute. Bet you thought that wasn't around anymore - it focuses more on teaching businesses now, helping them discover the "Disney" way of doing business.

It was an absolutely beautiful day when I arrived at our meeting place, outside Epcot's Guest Relations promptly at 8:45 a.m. Our tour group was fairly large -- 28 of us -- but we had two tour guides, one coordinator and our own personal transportation. Carmen and Cyndi arrived with Fran, who coordinated our whole day and made sure we didn't take any location by surprise. Fran was only there for this period in the morning as we got organized. Carmen checked each person in individually. You need to have valid photo ID on you for this process. She also took this time to ask where everyone is from and learn a little about why you were taking the tour. She also had us think of our ideal job at Walt Disney World.

Meanwhile, Cyndi was giving us our name badges which made us honorary cast members for the tour and allowed us to follow them through the doors marked "cast members only." Fran also handed out our personal "pal" for the day - each person on the tour was given a headset so everyone could easily hear both Carmen and Cyndi. These were really great; I never had a hard time hearing either of them throughout the tour no matter how far away from them I was.

Once everyone was checked in, badged and wired for sound, Carmen and Cyndi took the time to introduce themselves and how they'd come to work for the Disney Institute. They also told us what our agenda was for the day and what time we should return to Epcot. They made sure no one had early dinner plans in case we ran long and they also asked if anyone was celebrating anything special. I did say I was there to celebrate my graduation from graduate school and was congratulated heartily by everyone. We then headed to the bus. The Institute partners with Mears Shuttle for their transportation. We had a large Mears Coach to ourselves. There was also chilled water available for us on the bus the entire day.

As we made our way to our first stop, Carmen went around and had the groups on the tour introduce themselves and what their ideal jobs would be. We had some fun ones, a young man with his father on the tour said he wanted to be Prince Charming, others mentioned with transportation host, greens worker, and costume designer. Throughout the day, Carmen and Cyndi then made an effort to mention these jobs as we found them. If your interest wasn't going to be on the tour, they talked about what they knew on the bus. As I am getting my degree to be an Archivist, that is what I am most interested in with the Walt Disney Company. Carmen told me about meeting David Smith when he came to visit the Institute a few years ago and everything she knew about the Disney Archives. As we were doing this, we were driving into the backstage area of Epcot. As we crossed into the backstage area, a security guard did need to board the bus to check bags. This happened every time we entered a new park.

Our first stop backstage at Epcot was the American Adventure. Cyndi walked us around to the front of the building and showed all the tricks the Imagineers were using to make us think the building is only three stories high. In actuality, the guests see almost five stories from the front of the building. Also, she pointed out the details on the building, which places it in the 1700s. Next time you walk through, look at the clock face on the tower and pay attention to the Roman Numerals. We then walked around to the back and saw just how huge this building really is. It is seven stories high in the back with a second building added on to hold the rear projector system, as Carmen called it, "the biggest afterthought ever". We then went into the building and saw the scene changer, the massive machine that holds the 37 audio-animatronic scenes in the American Adventure. Did you know the same computer that launches the space shuttles controls the show? It was truly amazing to have such an up-close look at this attraction and each part of the show is explained in detail.

After we left the American Adventure, we drove around to the Epcot Cast Center. You enter through a hallway that has been painted with murals by the different cast member teams at Epcot. It was amazing some of the special effects they included; one by the safety team had a motion detector so that Figment speaks to you when you walk by. We were then at the "crossroads" of the center. To the left were the Cast Cafeteria, company store and professional development offices. To the right were the lockers for the Cast Members. We walked this way to visit the Wardrobe for the "operational" costumes for the park. The size of this facility was incredible and it was only for one park! We then walked through the small sewing shop at Epcot that can do minor repairs to costumes. Here was one of my favorite "thrills." This building is where the princesses put on their make-up and wigs. It is also one of the reasons why no one under the age of 16 can take the tour. As my tour guide mentioned, kids would not take well to seeing the "best friend of Snow White" with her Capri sweat pants on and cell phone to her ear. It does sort of add a new element to the magic. I liked it though; it was like watching the cast of a huge stage show get ready for their performance.

After this, we got back onto the bus and headed to Disney's Hollywood Studios. On our way there, Carmen told us the story of the Tower of Terror Attraction and explained how the Florida version is different from its counterparts around the world. We then got off the bus and went into the shop next to the Tower of Terror and had a ride vehicle explained to us - all the safety features and how the ride actually works. We also saw them putting new sensors into the backs of the ride's seats. Apparently some guests were putting bags and boxes behind their backs so their safety belts would have a lot of slack during the drops. The new sensors will be able to tell that a human back is firmly against the seat back. After we saw the ride vehicle, we took the bus around to the backlot area and had a tour of the creative costuming building. Here we spoke to Larissa, one of the costumers on the lot. She showed how the patterns are designed using the computer and how designer's version is realized through the pattern and the fabric chosen. She took the pieces out she was currently working on either designing or fixing. We were able to see a part of Snow White's outfit from SpectroMagic, which is extremely heavy (poor girl!) and it was only the bodice part of the outfit. Larissa also took off the inside layer of protection so we could see all the wires and grommets keeping the lights in place on the costume. Larissa has also put together some neat exhibits on the walls of the office for the tour groups that come through. She even had some of the costumes and art from the Tapestry of Dreams parade on display. After we spoke with Larissa, we walked through the workshop. At this time, they were working on lots of the flying bird costume from Festival of the Lion King, and costumes from the Beauty and the Beast stage show at Hollywood Studios. After this stop, it was time for lunch.

We ate at the Whispering Canyon Café at the Wilderness Lodge. I had not eaten here before -- it was quite the experience. The moment our group walked into the restaurant, every server started yelling how they had been waiting for us and what had taken us so long? Our group was set up in a back area of the restaurant and waited on by two "sisters," the cute one and the fluffy one. They were constantly yelling back and forth at each other and at us. It was a lot of fun as they took our drink orders and we got settled in. Lunch came out shortly after our drinks. Big platters full of chicken, BBQ ribs, pork sausage, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and pork and beans were served family style. Each table had two platters to themselves and they were refilled as many times as we asked for it. There was also corn bread and cole slaw on the table. Our drinks were also refilled constantly. Once everyone was stuffed, they brought our dessert and coffee. It was peach and strawberry cobbler with vanilla bean ice cream - so good. Once everyone was pretty much done, the sisters got back in front of us to say goodbye and asked if anyone had their master's degree - they'd been tipped off about me though luckily I was stuck in the corner booth and I escaped having to sing with them in front of everybody. I thought the atmosphere of the restaurant was a lot of fun and our table enjoyed watching the kids ride their stick ponies around the restaurant and join in the singing a couple of times throughout the meal.

Once lunch was over, we did a quick walking tour through the Wilderness Lodge lobby as Carmen pointed out some of the details in the lodge including a few hidden Mickeys in the fireplaces. We then were back on the bus and headed out to the North Service Area, the location of Central Shops and one of the Textile Service locations. For me, walking through the Central Shops was very neat. Here is where they built and maintain many of the vehicles, furniture and audio-animatronics on property. It is also the location of the Character Shop, the only place in the world where the faces of the character costumes can be made so that Mickey looks the same in Florida as he does in Tokyo. As we walked the floor of Central Shops, we saw lots of ride vehicles from Dumbo, Rock 'N Roller Coaster, Spaceship Earth, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Triceratops Spin, Splash Mountain and Space Mountain. We also saw some of Cinderella's Carousel horses being repaired and repainted as well as new "skins" for the hippos at the Jungle Cruise. It was here we also got to "play" with some audio-animatronics. Bonnie Appétit and a bird from the Enchanted Tiki Room are set up for tour guests to try them out. We also got to speak to an "audio-animatronics" doctor here who spoke about what was making the audio-animatronic work and some of the challenges they often face.

Our next stop was just down the road at Textile Services, otherwise known as the laundry. The one in the North Service Area is primarily responsible for the costumes on property; two other laundries deal with all the linen from the resorts and the linens from the restaurants. This stop made me appreciate the amount of work that goes into a simple thing like doing the laundry for a resort the size of Walt Disney World. They have an intense operation; mostly computer driven but the clothes are hand sorted, hung and streamed separately. From here we went to our last stop on the tour, the Magic Kingdom. This was one of the few times we were on stage for any length of time. Because we were there close to the 3PM parade, we had little time to discuss the window on Main Street USA though Carmen did point out Roy's window, the M.T. Lott window and Walt's window over the Ice Cream Parlor.

Once we did that, we walked back down Main Street, went backstage again and down into the Utilidors. Another Disney Geek dream come true; say all you want about how they are just glorified underground tunnels, it was cool. We were back out of the Utilidors and out on Main Street just in time to watch the parade as it finished. We watched from in front of the firehouse so we had the dancers right in front of us and even had them ask how we liked our tour before they started their dance to finish up the parade. After this, we waked back to the bus and headed back to Epcot for the end of the tour. We made it back right at 4PM, making it exactly seven hours from the start. As we left, Carmen and Cyndi handed our special pins for us and wished us well and were also happy to answer any last questions you'd thought up on the way back to Epcot.

I loved the tour and I am so glad I got to get this very unique and exclusive view of how the magic is created behind the scenes. Cyndi and Carmen were very friendly and informative. If you asked something they didn't know, they often had the answer once we got back to the bus between the two of them. Because of the size of our group, we often were split into two smaller groups, which let you get to know your tour guide, and they get to know you and point out things they think you'll like. There was very little opportunity for photos on the tour as you spend most of the day backstage. Even when we were in front of the American Adventure, because World Showcase was not yet open, we were still "backstage". I am unsure about how wheelchair friendly the tour is however; we took a lot of stairs and the bus was not wheelchair accessible. I imagine this would be different if needed and perhaps even where the tour stops would be tweaked a little. Also, bathroom breaks are well planned throughout the day.

Backstage Magic definitely gave me a greater appreciation for the work that goes into running WDW and I can understand why guests under 16 are not allowed. The tour lets you see how the magic is done which some guests on my tour did mention ruined a little of Walt Disney World for them. Not for me, it made me love it more. As Carmen said, "it takes a lot of work to make it magical" but the idea is the guest should never know that. Backstage Magic gives you a glimpse into how that magic is created and maintained every day, 365 days of the year. Whether you are a Disney beginner or have an annual pass, this is a tour that is well worth the time and money.

About the author: Krystal Thomas, 24 years old, has been going to the Disney parks since she was 18 months old. She currently lives in Baldwinsville, NY and recently received her Masters degree in Archives and Records Management from the University of Michigan. Her father is Picture This! photo blogger Scott Thomas.

September 27, 2009

D23 Expo - One Fan's Perspective

Hi everyone. I am Mari May and I am writing my very first blog to tell you about my experience at D23. I live 25 minutes from Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure and I am a frequent flyer at both parks. D23 was a Dream. When I look throught my pictures, go through my swag or look throught the guide book, a bit of menalcholy sets in. I miss D23 already! Enjoy my thoughts and pictures of D23.

Oh, D23, what will you be like? For a few weeks my anticipation had grown until I was ready to explode. My excitement was difficult to contain.

Finally, Thursday, September 10 had arrived. After rising about 05:30am, I made my way to the Convention Center, parked and was in line by 06:45am. So were a ton of other people!

The doors opened a bit early and the process for receiving our wristbands was a snap. Then, guide book and pre-printed, well gone over schedule in hand, off to the main floor. First stop, the ever present Disney queue for the Dream Store. MUST get pins! This was one of the under-whelming parts. Lots of merchandise that can be purchased in the park, D23 items, beautiful artwork and items from Disney on Broadway. Then, behind curtain #1, another queue for the cash (or credit card) registers. All in all, not a terrible experience.

D23 Expo

The two main venues I wanted to see had lines so long that hope of getting in was quickly abandoned. So, I wandered around the convention floor looking at the different vendors' wares.

D23 Expo

Everything was there from furniture to scrap booking to makeup, pins and artwork, and of course, travel agents and books. MouseFanTravel.com's booth was my respite..friendly faces in a sea of humanity.

I was able to attend 2 seminars that afternoon - Beauty and the Beast panel and the ABC's of Disney. On the last seminar they made us turn in our cell phones, cameras and Blackberrys. Both were fantastic seminars"Paige O'Hara is so sweet"definitely Belle! As for the ABC's of Disney, the excitement was very palpable and the energy and excitement flooded the room! What a great feeling! Unfortunately I had to leave early, but I left feeling satisfied and excited and looking forward to Day 2!

Day 2, Sept 11.

After personally saying my own remembrance of that day 8 yrs ago, this seasoned explorer of Day 1 was off again to the Expo, food and water in my bag. The food prices are a bit expensive. Budgeting for 'stuff' not food! Oh yes, and comfortable, sensible shoes.

First stop was DCL seminar. Thankfully my friends found me or I never would have seen the presentation!

D23 Expo

What exciting news was revealed. Alaska 2011 complete with a nice, warm scarf for all who attended.

D23 Expo

Even tho I had my sessions pre-decided, those choices went out the window after walking around a bit and lots of walking was done. Disney Movie Magic was phenomenal. Again the confiscated all electronics. It was rather a zoo to retrieve them afterwards, but Disney did the best they could.

I must say one of my favorite sessions was the Evolution of Mickey with Dave Pacheco and Andreas Deja.

D23 Expo

After an interesting presentation on 1920's Mickey to today's' Mouse. Dave donned a Mickey costume, complete with Ears, and break-away red shorts! He was the model for Andreas' sketches.

D23 Expo

D23 Expo

Both of these men were very funny, comfortable and were so engaging. Dave was in many poses for Andreas and was moving constantly. Oh the laughter! It was just delightful. An early day for me again".darn"family beckons. Next year, they are just going to be on their own!!!

Day 3, Sept 12.

Here early again today, I must see the Disneynature presentation. Oh my goodness. It was better than I ever imagined. How these cameramen (and women) capture the essence of these animals is spectacular. The future presentations of Disneynature are formidable and challenging and I am so looking forward to viewing them. Jaw-dropping, oohs and ahhhs..

D23 Expo

I then attended the Snow White panel and screening. Marge Champion, the model for Snow White, was among the panelists. What a great lady and very funny, too.

D23 Expo

D23 Expo

I spent time in the Walt Disney Archives seeing the costumes and accessories used in making the different Disney productions.

Then again, I wandered about the arena and somehow managed to see things I had missed, getting autographs of artists, it was so wonderful to meet these clever and creative people, and talking with so many people from around the world. What a nice time for me!

The Disney Corporate Responsibility Pavilion was great. We made blankets, planted seeds, painted pictures and bagged after school snacks for the kids. Very nice. There was also an area to drop off canned goods and the cast members were making a castle of the items. What a nice touch, to be able to do something for others while having so much fun.

Day 4, September 13.

I have many sessions again marked, but I just can't do them all. Between the unending queues for some sessions and over-lapping times, it is just not possible to see all of my choices. So, new choices were made! After the long queues on Thursday I did bring a crossword puzzle book to the other 3 days. I must say, I finished quite a few pages in that book, especially waiting in line for Disney and Pixar presentation.

D23 Expo

Between this and the showing of the Tinker Bell movie, I wandered the floor of the arena, speaking with different vendors, which was fun, taking pictures, (I found my dream bedroom décor), making an autograph book at a scrap booking vendor's booth, I checked out the new toys and decided just to sit and people watch for a while.

I wandered around 'Celebration', up and coming events and attractions at the parks, especially Disney Hong Kong. Photo ops abound not just with Disney characters, but with pieces of Disney history, Wall-E, the snail from Electrical parade, Lucky the dinosaur just to name a few. It was much too much fun! And the imagineers who come up with these concepts, brilliant.

When it came time for the Tinker Bell movie, I thought the line would be quite long. Not so. The Disney Theatre was not full, much to my surprise. The movie was fantastic, the animations was great, the colors were vivid and the message of the movie was timeless - take care with your friends, we all need them.

I did meet new friends, enjoyed my friends I knew and had a great time. I had very ambivalent feelings about the last day. I was glad it was over as I was very tired, but sorry it was over because it was so much fun.

Looking back on those four days, I ran the gamut of emotions - joy, excitement, wonder, disappointment, tears.

There were highs - seeing Johnny Depp, Miley Cyrus, Travoltas, Dave Pacheco, Disneynature, DCL and of course, TinkerBell.

And there were lows - some how I thought there might have been more vendors and oh those interminable lines. I think Disney was caught unaware of how popular some of the presentations would be. Larger rooms are needed for next year. And the schedules, great ideas, presentations, but some could be presented more than once (and some were). There were many disappointed and disgruntled people turned away from great sessions in much too small of rooms.

Am I sorry I went? Absolutely not! I am ready to do it all over again. Unfortunately I'll need to wait for a year to do it again. But, I'll return with knowledge and preparations I didn't have this year and I'm certain I'll enjoy it just as much if not more.

Now watch, since I feel I am so prepared, Disney will change everything and I'll be back to square one!

September 28, 2009

Town Square Exposition Hall - Magic Kingdom

Town Square Exposition Hall


Emily Owens Pickle


One of the greatest characteristics of Disney is an immense sense of vision. For me, it is the cause of the 'Disney waterworks' that Mike Scopa recently wrote about and the reason that walking down Main Street USA never seems to lose its luster; it keeps the magic of Disney fresh and emerging year after year for all loyal mice.

Recently while flipping through a family photo album I happened upon some pictures taken in a Steamboat Willie scene about fifteen years ago with my sisters. I couldn't for the life of me remember where these pictures could have been taken in Disney. They looked very Magic Kingdom-esque but I couldn't quite place them.

Then I had a head-smacking moment while reading All Ears! With the glitz and light of Main Street and the castle pulling you forward, it is sometimes easy to get lost in the big picture and overlook hidden gems. Main Street USA is designed as the opening credits of the Magic Kingdom Park and nothing here is a coincidence. Think about the 'movie posters' that line the tunnel as you enter the park, the design of the cast member outfits, and the smell of fresh popped corn as Main Street finally comes into your view. Doesn't this remind you of the beginning of a highly-anticipated feature presentation? Well of course that is exactly what it is! This vision and construction from Walt and his Imagineers is why we feel a part of the magic at Walt Disney World.

The 'room' I found in the pictures with my family is actually an exhibit within the Town Square Exposition Hall. The Hall is in fact one of the only full-size buildings on Main Street USA as part of the 'forced perspective design'. This optical illusion is the reason a modestly tall Cinderella Castle (189 ft) feels so large-as you move down Main Street, the buildings are actually getting smaller.

The next time our clan stepped into the Magic Kingdom I steered us towards Exposition Hall. Note that the Hall does not exist in the same form at Disneyland-at the Happiest Place on Earth this structure is named the 'Opera House'. We skipped the front entrance of the Hall, opting for the secondary entrance on the far right side, underneath the lattice walkway.

This attraction is sponsored by Kodak and in the gift shop you can purchase many film and camera related products and services. The Walt Disney World website also says 'Guests with digital cameras can download their images and other media information from a digital media card and burn these images onto a CD at this photo location.'" -- nice!

Being sponsored by Kodak, the Hall features display cases full of camera memorabilia and time points throughout American history.


As you move further into the Hall, you will find a small movie theater surrounded by photo opportunities. The theater plays continuous Disney classics that can be enjoyed in classic comfy-style.


The photo ops include Steamboat Willie, Toy Story, 101 Dalmatians, and Snow White scenes. These are fun for the reluctant and not so reluctant models.


A long and detailed timeline along the back wall of the theater presents Disney-history. This is a leftover from the time when the Exposition Hall was a showcase for upcoming Disney world parks and attractions.


From my limited research, the Hall has been host to many exhibits over the years pre-Kodak sponsorship. Once called the Gulf Hospitality House, the Exposition Hall has been a mini-Disney museum, venue for upcoming Disney parks and expansions, and more (see Lou Mongello's All Ears article for a great overview of the Hall's history).

Even if you decide not to venture into the theater, this small sitting area towards the back of the hall provides a cool and quiet moment for over-exerted mouseketeers.


So, if it is at all possible, tear your eyes away from the castle sometime and hang a right towards the Town Square Exposition Hall. And if you can, spend a few extra moments looking through the Disney timeline so that we never forget all of the laughter, memories, and magic started with a dream and mouse.

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About September 2009

This page contains all entries posted to All Ears® Guest Blog in September 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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