This article was co-authored by Amy Ziese.
The theme parks, water parks and resorts at Walt Disney World are packed full of an extraordinary number of little details.
With the exception of Universal, which has taken similar care in the creation of its various Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter, no other theme park operator lavishes so much time, attention and money on elements that many guests will never even notice. John Wardley, the legendary designer who created classic attractions such as Nemesis at Alton Towers, once remarked that the theming budget for the UK park's $27 million The Smiler roller coaster "wouldn't have covered the decoration of one of Disney's post-ride shops". He wasn’t exaggerating.
We’ve picked out some of the best “hidden secrets” at Walt Disney World in a previous series of articles. These have proven to be very popular, but Amy’s articles about other (not necessarily hidden) details in the parks and resorts have been seen by a much smaller audience.
To try to change that, we’ve collated many of them into this detailed list, which we hope will encourage you to stop and take a closer look at your surroundings the next time you visit.
1. The raised sidewalks (Frontierland, Magic Kingdom)
Though it may seem like a strange detail, you’ll notice that all the buildings in Frontierland have a wooden sidewalk running in front of them. This is a historically accurate feature that would be consistent with buildings in the old west. Though the Magic Kingdom features clean red roads, the authentic west would have had dusty streets. The raised wooden sidewalks were designed to keep boots and skirts clean and away from the dirt of the roads.
2. The notice board across from the Boneyard (Dinoland USA, Disney's Animal Kingdom)
If you want an in-depth look at the storyline behind Dinoland USA, the notice board across from the Boneyard is a must-see spot. This board contains everything from a map of the area complete with notations from the point of view of the grad students at the Dino Institute (who are studying in the area), to a welcome letter from the resident professors.
As you’re examining the map in the upper right corner, take a good look at the location where you’ll now find Dinosaur. This attraction still has its original moniker on this map: Countdown to Extinction. The ride’s name was changed after the Dinosaur movie came out, to capitalize on the silver screen success. (As a side note, another little nod to the ride’s original name exists in the loading area where you’ll see “CTX” on the wall.)
Don’t miss the little notes between grad students. You can get a great feel for the relationships going on by reading these little messages. Every now and then you’ll even see that professors have to step in and mediate to keep things professional.
3. The sagging shutters (Liberty Square, Magic Kingdom)
The shutters in Liberty Square sag. Why? At the time of the Revolutionary War, colonists melted down hinges sold to them by the British to make shot for their weapons. Leather hinges were used in their place, resulting in the sagging shutters. Disney's "leather" hinges, ironically, are made of metal.
4. The chimneys (United Kingdom Pavilion, Epcot)
The pavilions in Epcot's World Showcase are great examples of Disney's commitment to great theming. As an example, look closely at the ornate chimneys in the United Kingdom Pavilion. They were painted with blackened soot to give the impression that they are still working.
5. The landscaping (Disney's Animal Kingdom)
Most guests breeze past the various plants at Disney's Animal Kingdom without giving them a second thought. Yet more than 4 million trees, plants, shrubs, vines, grasses and more from every continent on Earth (except Antarctica) were planted during the construction of the park.
A great example is the area surrounding the Forbidden Mountain, which hosts the Expedition Everest roller coaster. To recreate the lowlands surrounding Mount Everest, more than 900 bamboo plants, 10 species of trees and 110 species of shrubs were planted.
6. The trash cans
Disney is fanatical about ensuring that its parks are kept clean and tidy. That means that every single one of its theme parks features dozens of trash cans, all carefully-spaced to ensure that guests will never be more than a short walk away from one. Cast Members are instructed not to walk past stray bits of litter without scooping them up and dropping them into a nearby bin.
All those trash cans, though, could end up looking pretty ugly and out-of-place. After all, do trash cans really belong in the Wild West (Frontierland), the jungle (Adventureland) or the future (Tomorrowland)? Any standard-issue garbage receptacle would destroy the theming of those areas.
Instead, Disney goes out of its way to ensure that its trash cans not only fit into the theme of an area, but even add to it. Take, for example, the trash can above, located on Hollywood Boulevard at Disney's Hollywood Studios, emblazoned with the image of Grauman's Chinese Theater and imploring visitors to the "city" to dispose of their trash properly.
There are whole websites dedicated to documenting Disney's trash cans. The company has even turned them into a line of merchandise, with trash can-themed salt and pepper shakers going on sale at Walt Disney World's Marketplace Co Op in 2014.
7. The original Liberty Bell casting (Liberty Square, Magic Kingdom)
The Liberty Bell featured prominently in the center of Liberty Square was cast from the same mold used to create the original. The ensures that the size and shape of the bell are absolutely identical to the historic Liberty Bell. A court of flags surrounds the bell, with one flag for each of the original 13 colonies.
8. A real hotel? (Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Disney's Hollywood Studios)
From the front of the Hollywood Tower Hotel (which houses the Tower of Terror), you can see a window with a light in it. This is just a dummy room to add to the impression that this is (or was) a real, working hotel. In his autobiography, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner reveals that he suggested that the Hollywood Tower Hotel be an actual hotel, as well as hosting the Tower of Terror. This proved to be impractical.
9. Landscape of Flavors light fixtures (Disney's Art of Animation Resort)
The Landscape of Flavors is the food court at Art of Animation. It’s regularly praised for being one of the best quick service food courts on property. The atmosphere in the dining room is one of the most enjoyable parts of eating here. Don’t let the wall art draw your attention away from the ceiling. The dining room is separated into four areas, each themed around one of the movies featured at this resort.
In the Cars area, the light fixture features a blue sky criss-crossed by clouds in the shape of tire tracks. The Lion King dining room has a light fixture that looks like a tree canopy, as though you’re sitting in the jungle with Timon, Pumbaa, and Simba.
Head to the Finding Nemo section, and you’ll find that you’re predictably under the sea. This light fixture features a swirling school of fish.
Over in The Little Mermaid, you look up through Ariel’s grotto. Unlike the other light fixtures where the sides are simply a continuation of the image on the bottom, this one has a different look. Since the story of The Little Mermaid focuses on a girl torn between two worlds, the light, too, features her undersea home on the bottom, and the sea and sky along the sides.
10. Hidden Memorabilia (Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Disney's Hollywood Studios)
As the elevator rotates towards the exit, look out for some items of Twilight Zone memorabilia. Among these is Caesar, the creepy ventriloquist's dummy from the episode Caesar and Me. You can also see the slot machine from another episode, The Fever.
11. Larger than it appears (The American Adventure, Epcot)
The USA Pavilion is five stories tall, but enormous doors and windows are used to make it appear only three stories tall. The façade was created using 110,000 bricks handmade from Georgia red clay - each of which was aged to look authentic.
12. The ski lift with footwear provided (Blizzard Beach)
The ski lift at Blizzard Beach offers a fun and perfectly themed way for guests to get to the top of the mountain. Look closely and you’ll notice that the riders look a bit overdressed for the waterslide. The design of the lift chairs makes it look like each guest is wearing a pair of skis. Though the dangling skis aren’t really on your feet, they can make for some fun pictures if you can catch a shot of friends or family on the way up. It’s not often you’ll see skis and swimwear paired together, but silly contrasts like these are what Blizzard Beach is all about.
13. A unique address (Living with the Land, Epcot)
On the Living with the Land boat ride, check out the address on the mailbox in front of the farm house - it reflects the year that Epcot opened.
14. Signs of the ice gator (Blizzard Beach)
The mascot of Blizzard Beach is the Ice Gator. This happy Florida local loved the idea of having a chilly retreat where he could ski. Though this character loved this pastime, you can see evidence of his antics which indicate that he wasn’t as talented as he may have hoped. Signage warns of low flying gators. If you look closely beyond the sign, you’ll see that there’s a good reason for such warnings. Ski tracks are still evident in the melting snow on the roof. Opposite this, you’ll see where the Ice Gator landed – plummeting right through the wall of the gift shop across the street.
15. The entryway mural’s hidden delights (Conservation Station, Disney's Animal Kingdom)
The animal mural that you encounter when you first enter Conservation Station is stunning simply for the many beautiful animals featured in it. The really fun part of viewing this mural, however, comes in the form of over two dozen "hidden Mickeys". Disney officially recognizes 26 hidden Mickeys in this single painting. However, some guests have reported spotting up to 100. Take a few minutes and see how many you can find.
16. The towering totem poles (Disney's Wilderness Lodge)
The two massive totem poles in the Wilderness Lodge lobby are impossible to overlook, but you may miss the story if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Each totem pole is 55 feet tall and tells its own story. The Raven Pole tell the story of how Raven put the sun, moon, and stars in the sky. The Eagle Pole tells the story of Bear Chief who is undertaking the task of educating his nephew Bear Cub. Each character on the pole relates to a specific portion of the story. Stop by the concierge desk for a printout of the complete tale associated with each totem pole.
17. Cast signage (Muppet Courtyard, Disney's Hollywood Studios)
Every part of Walt Disney World has Cast Member-only doors that guests can’t enter. Don’t worry, most of them don’t lead to anything more exciting than a stock room or break room. What’s more interesting is the signage featured on these doors. While some are drab and to the point, others really get into the theming of the area. The signs in Muppet Courtyard are obviously the latter. All the Cast Member doors are marked by Pork Security for Muppet Labs Personnel Only.
18. Special details in the pavement (Fantasyland, Magic Kingdom)
Disney Imagineers always carry their theme through an environment from top to bottom, so you can catch a lot of great details by looking down. In Fantasyland, you’ll find peanuts littering the ground in Storybook Circus. In other parts of Fantasyland, marks from horseshoes lend an authentic touch to a kingdom where you’d expect these hooved friends to provide transportation through the streets.
19. The metallic foliage (Tomorrowland, Magic Kingdom)
The metal palm trees located close to Space Mountain in Tomorrowland are not just there for show. They fold up at night and open during the day, and are even used to collect solar energy.
20. A familiar beverage (Expedition Everest, Disney's Animal Kingdom)
Coca-Cola has spread across the world, and there's evidence of this in Expedition Everest. Nepalese coke bottles are visible thoughout the queue line.