It’s not surprising that a lot goes into running a theme park, and that couldn’t be more true than for Disney. From Disneyland’s classic rides and sights like The Haunted Mansion and Sleeping Beauty Castle to flashy, new attractions at Walt Disney World like Flight of Passage in Animal Kingdom, it takes a massive effort just to turn the lights on and get guests through the gates at Disney’s six American theme parks and two waterparks. That’s no secret. However, there are a lot of things going on behind the scenes that Disney would rather its guests and fans didn’t know.
Of course they don’t want you to know what Mickey Mouse looks like without his head on or what exactly it looks like backstage, but there are 25 less obvious things that make the park run smoothly every day that you may not even think about.
Did you ever wonder why the flags on Main Street don’t lower to half-mast, why it smells vaguely of saltwater when you walk by Pirates of the Caribbean, or why the raccoon at Splash Mountain looks so familiar from your childhood? Well, wonder no more — check out these 25 park secrets that Disney doesn’t want you to know.
Main Street U.S.A. may seem all-American, but look really closely at the “American” flags throughout the Disney parks. They’re all missing a stripe or star, so they’re not really American flags. Is it a mistake? Nope! Because each flag is fake, Disney doesn’t have to follow American flag regulations, such as flying flags at half-mast during certain situations.
Did you ever wonder why there’s a mythical dragon on the logo for Disney’s Animal Kingdom? Originally, the plans for the park consisted of three themed areas: animals that exist, animals that are extinct, and animals that never existed. While live animals and dinosaurs made it to Animal Kingdom, the third themed area, titled Beastly Kingdom, never came to fruition. The area was supposed to feature unicorns, dragons, and a dark ride based on the Disney film Fantasia. Imaginary animals are now represented at Animal Kingdom through the yeti on Expedition: Everest and the Avatar-themed land Pandora.
Ride through the Pirates of the Caribbean and really look at the different animatronics. If you pay attention, you’ll see the same five or six pirates over and over again, just with different hair, skin color, makeup, and outfits. Other animatronic designs have been used over again. The father and daughter from Carousel of Progress make an appearance in Spaceship Earth, and their faithful pup Rover also appears in Pirates. Several presidents from the Hall of Presidents also have taken on various roles in Spaceship Earth. Look closer at that monk. He looks an awful lot like John Adams, don’t you think?
You may find yourself crossing paths with a feline friend at Disneyland, and no, it’s not Minnie’s beloved cat Figaro. When Walt Disney decided that there should be a walkthrough attraction inside Sleeping Beauty Castle, he and the Disney Imagineers found the building full of flea-ridden feral cats. At first, they decided to adopt them all out to Disney cast members, until they realized the cats could help keep any rodent problems in the sprawling park in check. Stay around the park around dusk, and you may spot these cats.
You may dream of spending a night in Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom, but it’s not so easy to book this very exclusive hotel room. The Cinderella Castle Suite, which opened in 2006, is used just for contest winners and high-profile celebrity guests. Tom Cruise, Mariah Carey, and Kevin Jonas are reported to have stayed there.
The Magic Kingdom may seem like it’s at ground level, but when you’re strolling down Main Street, U.S.A., you’re actually on the second story of the theme park. The story goes that Walt Disney once saw a cowboy from Frontierland walking through the futuristic Tomorrowland, and he vowed to never have that happen again. Thus, underneath the Magic Kingdom is a utilidor system used by cast members to get from one of Magic Kingdom’s six lands to another without being seen.
Ever wonder what Epcot stands for? It’s the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. Before he passed away in 1966, Walt Disney’s original plan for the East Coast expansion called “The Florida Project” was to create a utopian city for about 20,000 residents. Epcot would have been a testing bed for city planning, technology, and community. However, after Walt died, the idea of the Disney Company founding a city without his guidance was too much. Thus, the permanent World’s Fair concept of Epcot as we know it today was born with Future World and the World Showcase, with some of the best restaurants at Disney. You can still see Walt’s plans for his community of tomorrow on the Magic Kingdom’s PeopleMover, where the original model is on display.
Those castles and buildings on Main Street sure look larger than life, don’t they? Well, they’re actually quite petite. Disney Imagineers are big fans of forced perspective, which is a way of tricking your eyes into seeing something as bigger and taller than it actually is. This technique is used all throughout Disney parks, from the windows on Main Street to the centerpiece castles to the Tower of Terror.
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There are over 20,000 different paint colors used throughout the Disney parks, but only one color is so dull that your eyes will gloss right over it. It’s called “Go Away Green,” and it’s a nondescript shade that can be best described as light gray mixed with hunter green. It’s used on small construction sites, tall buildings in the background, and most famously on the door leading in to Club 33 at Disneyland. It doesn’t make something invisible, but it sure makes an item easy to ignore.
If you still want to be fully immersed in the spooks and splendors of The Haunted Mansion, then click away! Not afraid of spoilers? Good. The Haunted Mansion may seem like it’s full of eyes that follow you through a room and ghosts that dance and disappear, but it’s all just an illusion. For instance, the famous ballroom dining scene with dozens of ghosts dining and dancing isn’t a projection. It’s actually a large-scale version of an old funhouse technique called “Pepper’s ghost.” The sight trick requires two rooms: one that people can see into and a second that is hidden. A sheet of Plexiglass is set in the main room at an angle that reflects the view of the hidden room towards the audience, showing real animatronic figures in a ghostly light.
Nothing says classic small town America quite like the sound of a clip-clopping horse, and Disney knows that. The horses that walk down Main Street have special horseshoes with a polyurethane coating. Not only does it give them better traction as they walk, but it also makes them sound louder.
Colonial America may have had a lot of charms to it, but one particular charm was missing: plumbing. To make Liberty Square in the Magic Kingdom as authentic as possible, designers didn’t install any bathrooms in the land except in the restaurants like Columbia Harbour House and Liberty Tree Tavern (where it’s legally required). The nearest bathrooms to The Haunted Mansion and Hall of Presidents are the Rapunzel-themed restrooms in New Fantasyland.
One of the most iconic Disneyland legends is that deep in the “attic” of the Matterhorn, there’s a secret basketball court for cast members. While a lot of Disney legends are fake, this one is actually true. However, calling this breakroom a basketball court is a bit of an overstatement. It’s really just a basketball hoop, backboard, and floor markings. But it’s nowhere near regulation size.
Superstar Limo at Disney’s California Adventure is almost universally considered to be among the worst Disney park attractions of all time, if not the worst. So you’d think it would have been totally scrapped, right? Wrong. Superstar Limo closed in 2002, but it largely lives on in Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue. The track layout and cars are the same, and the CDA agents in the ride are just repainted celebrity figures from the now-defunct dark ride.
Mike & Sulley to the Rescue is more the rule than the exception at Disney. Audio animatronics and other ride props are constantly reused at Disney theme parks. Do the animals on the boat at the end of Splash Mountain at Disneyland look familiar? They’re old friends from America Sings. Star Tours also features birds from this old attraction, stripped of their feathers and beaks. The Three Caballeros from Gran Fiesta Tour are also reused animatronics from the old fan-favorite show the Mickey Mouse Revue.
Edward Russell / Wikimedia Commons
When attractions are closed down, they’re not always stripped for parts. Sometimes they stay standing but are kept out of view from guests. Closed Disney attractions from your childhood such as Body Wars and Cranium Command at Epcot are still perfectly intact; they’re just backstage. Other shut-down rides are far more visible, such as the notorious Rocket Rods in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland. The speedy ride’s defunct track still looms over the entire area.
The Haunted Mansion may be full of ghosts, but there’s at least one real skeleton in Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. When the attraction was being built, none of the bones Imagineers developed looked realistic enough. So they hit up the UCLA Medical Center for some, shall we say, authentic bones. Over the years, most of the skeletons have been replaced with fakes and given a proper burial, but according to urban legend, a few real bones remain in the attraction to this day.
When you walk down Main Street and smell freshly baked cookies or catch the scent of seawater by Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s not your imagination. Disney has “Smellitizers” all around the resort to enhance the guest experience. It’s not just limited to the parks, either. The resort hotel lobbies are also pumped full of scents to bring you back home.
Coreyjune12 / Wikimedia Commons
Walt Disney World has two major waterparks on property, Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. But before those parks existed, there was Disney’s River Country. From 1976 to 2001, this old-fashioned swimming hole-themed waterpark delighted guests, but the opening of Typhoon Lagoon in 1989 and Blizzard Beach in 1995 made this smaller, quainter park far less popular. Its permanent closure was announced in 2005, but most of the attractions remain standing to this day. Disney is rumored to be building a new resort where River Country once stood, with an expected opening date of 2021.
River Country isn’t the only abandoned Disney park. Just across the way, there’s Discovery Island. This attraction was a bit of a precursor to Animal Kingdom — it was a zoological park where guests could observe wildlife such as eagles, tortoises, cranes, lemurs, and the last known dusky seaside sparrow. Though this park closed in 1999, all of the attractions and buildings on the island remain standing and untouched. You can get a great glimpse of this abandoned park by taking a boat from Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, Contemporary Resort, or Fort Wilderness to the Magic Kingdom.
Walk past the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and you’re likely to hear a bunch of blood-curdling screams. And while some of those screams are from real guests on this terrifying drop ride, others are canned screams playing through speakers surrounding the attraction. Similarly, it seems like those boats on Splash Mountain really make a big impact when they reach the bottom of the hill, but Disney built in some cannons at the end of the drop to make the splash in this ride seem, well, splashier.
No Disney vacation is complete without a ride on Space Mountain or Peter Pan’s Flight, but are you really willing to wait 80 minutes to ride? Well, you may not actually have to. Disney will often inflate estimated wait times to increase guest satisfaction. You see, 50 minutes really cruise by when you expected to wait an hour. This happens more frequently and more dramatically as the parks are getting ready to close.
The colored concrete at the Magic Kingdom may seem like a fun way to distinguish one land from another, but the walkways actually correlate to the areas around them because a study run by Kodak and Disney showed that colored concrete led to more vibrant photographs. Not every shot in the park can be as Instagrammable as the Purple Wall, but they’re darn close.
A picture in front of the Partners Statue at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom is a must-have photo for any guest. It shows Walt Disney holding hands with Mickey Mouse, with his hand raised as if to tell his creation “Look at what we’ve done.” While fans of Disney love this statue, Walt himself probably would have hated it. According to Disney historian Jim Korkis, the Disney family was very much against a recreation of Walt in the park. He told sculptor Blaine Gibson that “statues are for dead people.” Even after his death, it took a lot of convincing to get Lillian Disney and the rest of the family on board for this tribute.
You may think Walt Disney World is in Orlando, but the resort actually has its own small government, the Reedy Creek Improvement District. After a slew of businesses sprung up around Disneyland when that park opened, Walt Disney wanted to avoid a similar problem with his second American park, so he petitioned the Florida government to have control over the land surrounding what is now Walt Disney World. The area has only a few dozen residents, all Disney employees, and Disney contracts fire, law, and traffic protection for its city. It may sound complicated, but it’s just one of those Disney park secrets that keeps the magic alive.
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