Home » 10 Hidden Areas of Walt Disney World Revealed by a Former Cast Member

    10 Hidden Areas of Walt Disney World Revealed by a Former Cast Member

    Kilimanjaro Safaris Smoking Area

    When I was first hired at Walt Disney World, I was stunned by the sheer size of the operation. At 40 square miles, the property is roughly twice as big as Manhattan, or about the same size as San Francisco. While vast swaths are still undeveloped (and a third of the property never will be, as it is set aside for conservation), the complex houses four theme parks, dozens of resort hotels, a campground, two entertainment destinations (Downtown Disney/Disney Springs and the Boardwalk), and a mind-boggling array of recreational options.

    It takes more than 66,000 cast members to keep Walt Disney World running. As you might suspect, it also takes vast support services and behind the scenes magic. Like any city its size, Walt Disney World has a strong infrastructure. Here are 10 backstage areas that you might never have realized existed, but are absolutely essential to the resort’s success.

    1. Smoking areas

    Kilimanjaro Safaris Smoking Area

    Despite Walt Disney World’s continued crackdown on guest smoking, shrinking and removing smoking areas at seemingly lightning speed, the truth is that a vast number of cast members smoke. Perhaps it’s the stress of the job, maybe it’s because so many hail from countries that do not have the same cultural taboo, or it could be because industries such as entertainment and food service have higher than average smoking rates. Regardless, if you choose to smoke as a Disney cast member, it is not hard to find a place to do it. And some of them are hidden just outside of guest view.

    A great example is the Kilimanjaro Safaris smoking area, of which sharp-eyed guests on the Wildlife Express Train to Rafiki’s Planet Watch can actually catch a glimpse.

    2. Disney government and secret cities

    Reedy Creek Fire Department

    Walt Disney was no dummy. He learned valuable lessons from Disneyland, and he was determined to make his next project even better. Yet he chose to locate the Florida Project on swampland in the middle of nowhere. With the nearest power lines 15 miles away, the two counties whose borders the property saddled were not interested in paying the costs of developing the land. So Walt cut a highly unorthodox deal with the state of Florida, and the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID) was born.

    As a special taxing district, RCID took sole responsibility for developing the property. Its creation also gave Disney the ability to bypass most of the normal permitting processes and rush projects through to completion—a power that came in very handy when Disney decided to beat Universal to the punch by opening its own movie park a year ahead of Universal Orlando.

    Walt Disney EPCOT

    Yet state lawmakers were concerned about giving a for profit company too much autonomous control. Disney needed voters and council representatives from at least two cities to handle the decisions that are typically managed at the city and county levels. At that time, Walt’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) was planned to include a massive residential area, so the idea of people living and voting at Walt Disney World was far from outlandish. The company quickly founded two tiny company towns, or neatly kept mobile home parks to be more accurate, and stocked them with employees of Walt Disney World or RCID.

    Although EPCOT was significantly scaled down to become a theme park (EPCOT Center) and the plan for wide-scale residential living scrapped, the two towns were an integral and legal part of Disney’s governmental structure. So they were allowed to remain, effectively frozen in time. Today, their combined population is just 44. Each family owns its own mobile home, but pays Disney $75 per month in lot rent.

    Lake Buena Vista

    The towns, known as Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, are hidden in plain sight—not marked on any public guide map, and located on property that is technically backstage. Residents do get one major benefit, though. They have access to a gated, private fireworks viewing spot on the shores of Bay Lake.

    Much less secret are the other places where Disney cast members can live—the apartment complexes used for the Disney College Program and the Disney International Program. Each year, thousands of college students and international cultural representatives head to Walt Disney World to spend a few months to a year Living, Learning, and Earning. They work front-line jobs around the complex, take classes if desired, and live in apartments that hold two to eight people. It’s a great way for students to develop independence, learn to get along with a diverse group of roommates and coworkers, and gain job experience from a highly renowned employer.

    3. Costuming and Cast Zooming

    Textile Services Image via TRSA.org

    For most of Walt Disney World’s existence, every costumed cast member (on-stage, front line employee) was required to use the company’s vast laundry system. You would check out one costume at a time, then turn it in for a clean one at the end of your shift. In the early 2000s, a cost-cutting measure known as Cast Zooming was implemented, allowing front-line cast members who are not in the Entertainment department to check out three costumes at a time and take them home to wash if desired. However, many cast members still prefer to let Disney do the laundry.

    Either way, try to imagine the vast costume warehouses required to outfit so many people. From hundreds of Mickey and Minnie outfits to the $1000 apiece Tower of Terror bellhop uniforms, costuming is a very busy department. In fact, the entire costuming system holds more than 1.8 million individual wardrobe pieces, with an estimated 13,000 new items created each year.

    All that laundry must be washed or dry cleaned, except for the pieces taken home under the Cast Zooming initiative. Fortunately, Walt Disney World has four state of the art laundry facilities with automated sorting, separating, and folding capacities. Even the costume racks are automated, with front-line costume department cast members punching codes into computers to have the massive racks bring around just the right costume for each person.

    4. The tunnels


    Officially known as the utilidors, the sprawling tunnel network beneath the Magic Kingdom may be Disney’s worst kept secret of all time. As the story goes, Walt was walking through Disneyland one day when he saw a Frontierland cowboy making his way through Tomorrowland. Recognizing that as “bad show,” (something that guests would immediately recognize as out of place), he vowed to do something about it in his next park by giving his cast members another route to work.

    Walt was never one to do anything halfway, and so the idea for the utilidors was born. Of course, if you know anything about Florida geology, you also know that the water table is extremely high. So digging tunnels would be impossible. Instead, the Disney “tunnels” are actually built at ground level. The company took more than seven million cubic yards of earth from the excavation of the manmade Seven Seas Lagoon and used it to build up the park above.

    This, in turn, allowed Disney to create an excellent bit of showmanship. When you enter the Magic Kingdom early in the day, you are presumably well rested and eager to start your adventure. Throw in a bit of forced perspective to make Cinderella’s Castle appear closer than it is, and most guests never even realize they are actually climbing a hill as they make their way into the park. In the evening, when you are presumably tired and ready to go to bed, you are going downhill as you leave the park. Unfortunately, if you depart by monorail, you then have to climb a steep ramp…but no system is perfect, right?

    Utilidor map

    The utilidors house a seemingly endless number of support services, from break rooms to offices. Deliveries are made there, cooking kitchens are housed there, and the Magic Kingdom’s Cash Control center is located there. The tunnels are color coded, making it easy to figure out where you are in the park, but they really aren’t much to look at visually. If you want to see them for yourself, just sign up for a backstage tour—as long as you are over the age of 16. Disney does not allow younger guests into the tunnels for fear of ruining the magic.

    For cost reasons, though it seems endlessly practical, the utilidor system was not repeated in the other parks. Epcot has a very small tunnel that connects the two halves of Innoventions, though during my time there it seemed to be used mostly for storage. Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom have no tunnels at all. Those parks use backstage perimeter roads to transport people and products to different lands.

    5. The cafeterias          

    Pizza Image - Jeff Christiansen, Flickr

    It’s no secret that food is expensive at the Walt Disney World parks and resorts. It’s not cheap for cast members either, but it is significantly less than guests pay. In addition, cast members are not allowed to purchase or consume anything on stage, in front of guests (except for water from a bottle in a Disney-issued holder). As you might have guessed, cast member dining options are everywhere. Some are little more than snack stands, while others are huge cafeterias with a wide variety of options. Cast members are also allowed to pack lunches from home, and microwaves and refrigerators are plentiful in break rooms.

    6. The bad animals

    AKL Zebra Image - Micha L. Rieser, Wikimedia Commons

    You know all those cute animals you can sit and enjoy from a communal porch or your savannah view guest room at Animal Kingdom Lodge? What you might not know is that many of them used to live at Kilimanjaro Safaris. Animals that act out, perhaps by finding a way to cross the hidden barriers that separate different sections of the attraction, are often moved to the Lodge preserve. They live out their days with the same medical care and attention that they received at the attraction, but are much more isolated from both other types of animals and park guests.

    Incidentally, both at the Lodge and throughout the park, animals are never required to remain in guest view. Food treats and toys are given as encouragement, but they are free to retreat backstage whenever they choose. Most of the time, though, they’re out there. They are just experts at camouflaging themselves, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t find them right away. Give yourself a few moments to take a harder look.

    7. Backstage transportation

    Disney Bus Image - Manop, Wikimedia Commons

    All four parks are ringed by backstage perimeter roads that make it easy for delivery trucks, cast members’ personal vehicles, company golf carts, and other traffic to get to where it needs to be. Some attractions, such as Kilimanjaro Safaris, even use the perimeter roads to get back and forth between the attraction vehicle parking lot and the actual attraction. Those trucks are capped at eight miles per hour while in the attraction, but they can go a whopping 20 miles per hour on the perimeter road—assuming you drive just right over a hidden underground puck. Otherwise, it’s a long, slow, and embarrassing drive for you!

    Different parks and resorts have different ways of moving cast members around backstage, which are generally buses or golf carts. But at Animal Kingdom, cast members are encouraged to get a workout by hopping on one of the company-owned bicycles! There are bike racks everywhere, and all you have to do is grab one and go. It makes perfect sense, especially given the vast size of the park, but newbies often do a double take in the morning, when the perimeter road resembles a bike race between people in the traditional dress of many different nations.

    8. Rehearsal facilities and late night practices

    Parades often rehearse late

    Walt Disney World is known worldwide for the tremendously high quality of its entertainment, from parades to stage shows to character interactions. But as anyone with even a passing knowledge of the theater is aware, mounting a major professional production takes a great deal of rehearsal. How and where do cast members rehearse, when the parks are open long hours 365 days per year?

    The answer lies hidden in a plethora of rehearsal studios nestled around the property. From dance routines to high-energy stunts, Disney provides plenty of room for cast members to safely learn and rehearse their moves.

    For parades, however, there is simply not enough room to rehearse indoors. Likewise, some shows can only be rehearsed to a certain point inside a rehearsal facility. At some point it becomes critical for both the performers and the technicians to practice in the actual location in which the show will be held. Coordinating these on-site rehearsals often means late nights for the entertainment department, since they typically practice after the parks close for the day.

    9. Central Shops

    Although outsourcing has become more common in recent years, Disney continues to fabricate the majority of its own items, from trash cans to ride vehicles. It also handles its own refurbishments. This is all managed from a massive facility behind the Magic Kingdom known as Central Shops. Specialty departments, such as painting and maintenance services, are housed under the Central Shops umbrella and operate out of its enormous warehouse. 

    10. The Disney tree farm

    Have you ever wondered where Walt Disney World gets its stunning array of plant life? While the displays at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival are impossible to ignore, take a good look around the next time you are in the parks on an average day. Even without factoring in the festival, there is no denying that Disney horticulturists are hard at work every day of the year.

    The Walt Disney World tree farm is where trees and plants from every corner of the globe are carefully tended and adapted to the Florida climate. Some are pruned into elaborate topiaries, while others are used for shade or planted as part of the immersive theming for which Disney has long been known. Some plants and trees can take as long as three years to fully adapt to life in Florida!

    Go backstage yourself


    In many ways, Walt Disney World is its own city, supporting a vast population. All the services you might expect, from hairdressers to a medical clinic, are readily available to cast members. It would be impossible to expound on all of these services in any great detail, but I hope that the above named departments have helped you wrap your head around just what a vast empire the resort truly is. Keeping it operational each and every day requires a monumental and highly choreographed behind the scenes dance that most guests never get to see.

    If you want to learn more, though, Disney offers a wide range of backstage tours. Some focus on a single aspect of one park, such as Dolphins in Depth or The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains. Others provide a more general overview of a park, such as Disney’s Keys to the Kingdom. Still others are seasonal, such as Disney’s Yuletide Fantasy. But if you want the ultimate behind the scenes experience, consider signing up for the Backstage Magic tour. This day-long marathon visits all four theme parks, delving deeply into the overall processes and techniques that make Walt Disney World what it is today.

    Have you been backstage at Walt Disney World? Do you have any favorite areas or hidden secrets? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!