Disney parks have always had a bit of mystery to them, and that’s done on purpose. Using terminology from the concept of “putting on a show,” the areas that customers (called “guests”) can see are called “on stage” and anything that’s behind the scenes or areas that guests can’t otherwise see, is called “backstage.” For decades, only Disney employees (called “cast members” [CMs]) could go and see backstage or views that guests would never have access to, but over time, things (read: rules, adherence to same, and technology) have changed and, for better or for worse, guests can see stuff like this:
Note: Some of the following links and photos are of “backstage” Walt Disney World (WDW), which may include things that could “spoil the Disney magic.” Proceed with caution (or not at all) if you’d rather not see those kinds of scenes.
The backstage stuff that Disney has “allowed” to go out
These videos and photos are things that Disney knows about and has given approval for. There’s nothing here that you shouldn’t see (unless you don’t want to) 😉
The Utilidors on Television
As just a regular guest of WDW, the first time I remember seeing anything blatantly backstage was, unusually enough, on a PBS TV show in 1984. It was a series called In Search of Excellence and was about companies that focused on excellence by running their businesses well and treating both their customers and their employees as if they were royalty. WDW was one of the companies highlighted, and it included some fascinating backstage footage, including that of the Utilidors (the “tunnels” underneath the Magic Kingdom), and the broadcast was all sanctioned by Disney! I found the episode on YouTube a while back and was thrilled to see it again.
Behind The Scenes Tours
In the early 1990s, WDW started offering behind-the-scenes tours to guests. Planned by Disney Adult Discoveries and scheduled through what was then known as Disney University Seminar Productions (which would eventually become the now-defunct Disney Institute – its campus was where the Saratoga Springs Resort now is), tours were offered to groups of guests, usually convention attendees, where they could see the park through a different perspective and learn some of the inner workings of WDW. I went on the very first of these tours, Innovations In Action, in December 1993 and videotaped as much of the 3-hour tour as I could.
Singing in Candlelight Processional
Candlelight Processional began at Disneyland in 1955 and although the concept has evolved over the decades, the tradition continues to this day. It carried over to WDW during its inaugural holiday season in 1971 and, just like Disneyland’s version, continues annually.
Candlelight Processional runs at Epcot’s American Gardens Theater from the day after Thanksgiving through December 30th. Each day, three times a night, a celebrity narrator tells the story of Christmas, which is enhanced by music sung by the Voices of Liberty (Disney’s professional a cappella singing group), WDW Cast Members, and a 200-250ish voice mass choir comprised of several invited guest choirs from all across the country (and occasionally from outside the U.S.), along with live music played by a 50-piece orchestra.
Joe and I have sung as part of the guest choir almost annually since 2008. Here’s a taste of everything that happens at Candlelight Processional, including backstage, as a member of the guest choir.
The footage that maybe shouldn’t have gone out
Years ago, the only way to take a picture or video was if you had your camera and/or movie/video camera with you – and since those things were rather large for a long time, most people didn’t bring them everywhere. Nowadays almost everyone has a cell phone with them at all times and they can take photos and video at a moment’s notice. This makes the surreptitious taking of photos and videos at Disney a lot easier to do, both by guests and CMs. Stuff like this…
Rides with the lights on
If you’re on a Disney attraction that’s usually supposed to be dark (i.e. Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, etc.) and the lights are on, Disney considers it to be “backstage” and you’re not supposed to videotape the ride. As these videos show, that didn’t stop some people from taping their experiences.
Being escorted off a broken ride
Similarly, if you’re on an attraction at Disney and it breaks down, you sometimes have to be evacuated. Besides seeing the ride with the lights on, you may also get to see the backstage areas as you’re escorted out of the ride. You’re usually asked not to take pictures or videotape, but some people do anyway.
WDW’s private airport
In the 1970s and into the 1980s, there was a small airport on WDW property. It was mainly used for small, private planes, although the now-defunct Florida-based Shawnee Airlines offered scheduled passenger airline service from McCoy (now Orlando Int’l Airport/MCO) and Tampa International Airport (TPA) for a relatively short period of time (little more than a year).
The space, located southeast of Magic Kingdom, has a different function now, and although guests aren’t technically NOT allowed to visit, few do. Here’s some photos and video footage of it.
Abandoned Discovery Island
Between 1974 and 1999, Discovery Island was an island (duh!) that was open as a hard ticket attraction in WDW’s Bay Lake, located roughly between the Contemporary Resort Hotel and the Hoop Dee Doo Musical Revue at Fort Wilderness. The highlight of the island was that guests could observe its many species of animals and birds. It closed to guests shortly after Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened and, a few months later, was virtually abandoned after all the resident animals had been transferred to Animal Kingdom.
To this day, Discovery Island just sits there, languishing. Guests are never allowed to visit. The buildings and what they held on the day the island closed all still exist. An urban explorer visited a few years before the pandemic. Here’s what it looked like.
Fast forward to May, 2020, when WDW was still closed due to the pandemic. A man was caught camping on Discovery Island, calling it a “tropical paradise.” Here’s video of the manhunt, and more video of it, on the abandoned island, including what it looked like by mid-2020.
Abandoned River Country
The very first commercial water park in the world was River Country at WDW. It opened in the mid-1970s and was closed in 2001, after Disney had built 2 “bigger and better” water parks.
Disney let River Country languish and rot for years. Here’s what some urban explorers found when they went to visit several years ago.
Birds’ eye view
Not so much “backstage” as some amazing views of WDW from an angle people never see – directly above it. These were taken during the early days of the pandemic, when WDW was closed to visitors.
Backstage Haunted Mansion
Are you a Haunted Mansion fan? Here are some photos of the Disneyland version of the Mansion that most guests would never get to see.
Tinker Bell’s view
If you’ve ever wanted to know what happens backstage before Tinker Bell takes her flight from Cinderella Castle (and where she lands, too), check out this page.
View from atop Spaceship Earth
And finally, the following photos from the top of Spaceship Earth at Epcot are reproduced with permission of Jay L., who had official permission to share them (thank-you, Jay!). He says they were taken in 2015 when Theater C for Soarin’ was still being built. Again, these aren’t really “backstage” but are a view that guests would never, ever see otherwise.
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