THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD, DISNEY WORLD THAT IS

by Pam Hobbs

It's a bit like discovering there is no Santa Claus, or that the Tooth Fairy is really your mother. Certainly I found it something of a let-down to meet Goofy trudging along with his head under his arm, and Pinnochio taking a coffee break. The sight of Tigger being fitted for a new suit seemed almost indecent. And those dazzling show girls you see out front ? Well, they don't look the same when you've watched them rehearse in tights and perspiration soaked headbands.

We had it all you know. The magic, the illusion, the chance to recapture childhood fantasies and re-live times when we truly believed. But it wasn't enough. We had to undo the package and peep inside. We had to know what makes the Wonderful World of Disney tick. Now, public pressure has resulted in tours, seminars and workshops that reveal the inner workings of Walt Disney World. Corporations send employees to study the Disney approach to people management. Teachers attend three days' Educator Seminars, and groups are escorted on 3 hours' tours which can be tailored to suit their particular interests. Some of these tours are designed for 15 or more people, others are offered to individuals who will join a group once they're here. For the purpose of this story I accompanied American architects on the Innovation in Action tour. Here's what we learned....

Our afternoon began in a classroom where a young man told us, with evangelistic zeal, how the remarkable Walter Elias Disney parlayed a cartoon mouse into a billion dollar industry. After bringing us animated cartoons in living technicolour, stereophonic sound and full-length movies, Walt wanted more audience participation in the fantasy. Disneyland in California fulfilled that dream, but further growth there was stunted by lack of space. So he started anew, quietly buying up 43 square miles of central Florida citrus groves for a bigger and better park. At this time, in addition to the Magic Kingdom which replicates Disneyland, Walt Disney World encompasses vacation resorts, golf courses, lakes, water parks, shopping centre and more theme parks.

Walt Disney World is in fact a self-contained municipality with its own city hall, mayor, police and fire departments and university. It is responsible for its own roads, water and flood control, environmental protection, and a transportation system which is surely the envy of every city planner. To the visitor, this model community seems to hum ffortlessly along with no more than a touch of a magic wand. A peek behind the scenes tells us differently.

Continuous experimentation, and implementation of imaginative new ideas have always pivoted Disney's success in the past. The World is no exception. To keep the magic in the Magic Kingdom, there is another world beneath it from which deliveries are made to shops and restaurants. You will never see a garbage truck in the Kingdom, or hear the rattle of trash cans outside your hotel window. Collected at 17 different locations, all garbage is sucked into a vaccuum system and whisked away at 100 km per hour to a central compactor. An energy system uses co-generation techniques by which waste heat from one operation provides energy for another. At the water treatment plant, where six million gallons are processed daily, we saw how water hyacinths are used to absorb nutrients, ultimately producing fertilizer and methane gas.

Following the talk and film presentation, we boarded busses for a tour behind the scenes. Our guide, Fred, puzzled some first-time visitors with use of Disney words such as imagineers, animatronics, utilidors, that have crept into everyday language here. He also explained that at WDW all employees are 'cast members', their outfits (even his business suit) are 'costumes' and cast members must consider themselves 'on stage' at all times. It works. The feeling of involvement, of being a part of a production, accounts for all those cheerful shop assistants, waitresses, ticket takers and the rest.

Disembarking at the tree nursery, we learn that over a million new annuals are planted around the World each year to ensure there are always plenty of blooms. And that trees are nurtured here, often for years, before going out into the World. Different methods of co-ercing shrubs around the shapes of Disney characters for the World's 72 topiary gardens are explored. Then it is on to the good stuff: backstage and below ground.

The World's back lot areas are as unglamorous as any industrial or warehouse district, but their contents are more interesting. The theatrical warehouse hols floats from seasonal parades, as well as those used nightly in summer's Main Street USA electrical parade. Here they are, impotent dragons and snails and fairy-tale people, waiting to spring to life with the flick of a switch. Outdoors storage and repair shops are stacked with the obsolete and damaged: a submarine, flying saucers, bits and pieces from the themed attractions, Main Street vehicles.

The most interesting segment of our tour takes us into the hidden world beneath the Magic Kingdom. (In reality it is on ground level, with the Magic Kingdom as its second story, although it doesn't look this way out front.) Here, in the vast network of corridors known as utilidors, we meet cast members relaxing away from the public eye. Walls along the one mile of footpaths are colour coded, and maps at intersections help newcomers find their way around. It's quite ingenius. In the Kingdom, cast members are never seen out of theme. It would simply spoil the magic to see Davy Crockett cutting across Fantasyland to reach Frontierland. Instead he will head, via the utilidors, for Frontierland's brown walls, take the stairs to the upper level and pop out 'on stage'. Actually, in the Kingdom you won't see any cast member doing anything but his or her job. On the backlot we saw characters returning from an afternoon parade, peeling off fur suits and hastening out of cumbersome heads and shoes in the 35deg.C summer heat. They were making for the staff cafeteria and lounges, and a well earned rest in the utilidor network.

The main wardrobe below stairs accommodates more than two million costumes, which are laundered or dry-cleaned in the world's own plants. Every cast member exchanges a used costume for a fresh one daily, and since they have 3 - 5 apiece may do so more often when necessary. Even the animatronic characters are inspected every morning to see if they need new clothes.

Wardrobe workshop resembles your average garment factory with twenty or so seamstresses at sewing machines, and designers pinning on new costumes. Today it is Tigger's turn, as a young girl concentrates on fitting the life-size tiger model with a military type suit.

"Smile, smile, smile. You're On Stage" Fred tells us as we follow him up the back stairs and through a door to the noise and gaiety of Fantasyland. Catering to the interests of our group, this particular tour ends with a walk along Main Street U.S.A. where unusual construction and architectural features are pointed out. By the time we're through we are believers one and all. I don't know that I can look Mickey in the eye next time I see him skipping up to a starry eyed tot. But my admiration for the imagineers and sells of dreams has soared to an all-time high.

IF YOU GO: Photography is prohibited behind the scenes, and obviously children are not allowed. For information on tours, go to www.disney.com and search for Convention Tours. (We were not on a convention but they accommodated us.)