We love Disney. An entire world devoted to the stuff of fantasy is something that grabbed a hold of us when we were kids and has never let us go. Now that we’re grown, we may know in our heads that it’s really some college student playing Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, or that Space Mountain is neither in space nor a mountain.
But still, we maintain a little bit of that sense of make-believe, where a small corner of our brain — the part that still knows the words to “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo” or cries at “Bambi” — holds on to the fantasy and refuses to let it go. To us, Disney represents a whole new world, and we darned sure don’t want to see it in a new realistic point of view.
So why, then, do we love hearing about all of Disney’s dirty laundry? Admit it, it’s so cool hearing about the shenanigans by the actors playing Disney characters. Or the details of how the various Disney rides work. We all love secrets, and Disney’s real-life secrets are almost as enticing as its fantasy world.
Insiders reveal behind-the-scenes facts about Disney. It’s a world of fantasy — and secrets! (Photo: iStock)
“It’s like why people are so curious about how a magician does his tricks; it’s so enchanting and captivating, you have to know what the secret is,” says David Koenig, author of five books about Disney’s famous theme parks, including Mouse Tales: A Behind-The-Ears Look at Disneyland, Realityland: True-Life Adventures at Walt Disney World and his most recent book, The People v. Disneyland: How Lawsuits & Lawyers Transformed the Magic.
Disney’s fantasy world is so pristine, it’s kinda fun to look for the seams. “Disney puts on such a great show and it’s so secretive about its inner workings and dirty laundry,” Koenig tells Yahoo Travel. “Everything is so perfect on stage in their show. Real life is not that way. You know there has to be more.”
There is — much more. Life at Disney can get messy and slightly disturbing. So Yahoo Travel talked to some Koenig and other Disneyland insiders to get some secrets Disney does not want you to know.
“You really can ‘see dead people’ at the Haunted Mansion,” says Disney historian and secret spiller David Koenig. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Some People Try to Use a Disney Theme Park as a Makeshift Cemetery
It’s a problem you probably won’t hear Disney talking about too often. But because so many children of all ages love Disney, when they die it’s not unheard of for grieving relatives to try to make a Disney theme park their loved one’s final resting place. Koenig tells of one couple who tried to do just that. “It was a family whose child loved the Haunted Mansion,” he says. “It was an ill child who passed away. So they were determined to leave a little bit of their child in the Haunted Mansion."
Problem was, this was during the post-9/11 anthrax scare. "There were secret cameras all through that ride,” says Koenig, “so [security] detected someone throwing a powdery substance into the graveyard scene.” Koenig says park officials shut down the ride, evacuated everyone and brought in bio experts in full hazmat gear to check out the scene. “There are weird things going on in the Haunted Mansion when the hazmat crews are going in,” says Koenig. The hazmat team quickly determined the powdery substance was human remains.
That wasn’t a totally isolated incident. “It certainly had happened a couple of times before and a couple of time since [that incident],” says Koenig. “And the ironic thing is the folks who work the rides say the Haunted Mansion is so well ventilated that any remains you leave behind are probably going to end up in the air conditioning system anyway."
Because of that, and because Disney doesn’t allow such park burials, it’s probably best to lay your loved one to rest somewhere else.
Like other stars, Winnie-the-Pooh has had to deal with a scandalous lawsuit. (Photo: AP)
The Characters Sometimes Get Sued
Who would sue Winnie-the-Pooh? Or the Donald Duck? Yes, those beloved characters have actually been dragged into courtrooms, victims of our overly-litigious society.
In 2008, a woman sued Disney because she felt that an employee dressed up as Donald Duck had behaved inappropriately at Epcot (the lawsuit was settled). And then there was Tigger, who had multiple allegations against him in 2004. (It was a bad year for Tigger.)
In another case in the early 1980s, a performer playing Winnie-the-Pooh at Disneyland was accused of slapping a young girl. During the trial, the performer actually delivered part of his case in costume.
"After a recess, he came back out in the costume, skipping, doing a little dance, throwing kisses to everyone,” says Koenig. “As soon as the opposing attorney saw the costume skip out, he basically did a faceplant. Like, ‘Oh gosh, we’re cooked now.’”
Yes, they were. The Winnie-the-Pooh performer testified his costume had stumps for arms that would have been unable to hit anyone in the head. He said that when he noticed the girl behind him about to hit him, he quickly turned around and must have made contact with the costume’s ears.
“It was a jury trial but it deliberated very, very quickly,” says Koenig. Winnie-the-Pooh emerged victorious, of course. Fortunately, he did not countersue his accusers for attorney fees and honey.
Smiles can quickly turn to tears. (Photo: iStock)
It Ain’t Always the Happiest Place on Earth
Stressed out by misbehaving and/or frightened kids, the expense of the average day at a Disney park, the pressure of the trip that got them there, the sheer crowds, and those constant repeats of that infernal song, “It’s a Small World,” visitors sometimes just lose it. Disney staffers can tell you: Disney can be ground zero for family disputes.
“You’re talking about a long day, especially if it’s been a really busy day,” says Pellman. “Sometimes you would witness things, people getting really upset with each other. Domestic situations. And you kind of keep an eye out and maybe call security to make sure that nothing bad happened to anybody.”
The greenery at the Storybook Land canal isn’t all on land. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Why the Waterways are So Green
If you’ve traversed the Disneyland waterways like the Rivers of America, the Storybook Land canals or the Jungle Cruise river, you noticed the water is colored green. Is that some kind of special effect or, worse, a sign that the water is really, really dirty? Nope, it’s just an effort to preserve some Disney magic; Koenig says the water is dyed green intentionally.
“In the days of Walt Disney, he wanted you to believe you were on an 19th century steamship or paddle wheeler,” explains Koenig, “that these were actual real free-floating boats. Not that they were riding on a track. By dyeing the water green you can’t see the track.”
As an added bonus, the green water also keeps you from seeing the junk that ends up… um, “Under the Sea."
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"Once every couple of years they’ll drain these rivers to do maintenance and clear out all the things that have been dropped in there,” Koenig says. “They’ve found some amazing things: wheelchairs, mechanized scooters, trash cans, hundreds of cameras, large strollers — anything you could imagine they would find at the bottom of these rivers."
So far, though, no singing crabs.
Is the performer burning up in this Goofy costume? (Photo: Getty Images)
The Costumes are Hot
Sometimes it seems Disney would rather you forget there are real people inside the costumes of the classic characters you see delighting kids in the park; thinking too hard about that fact kind of messes with the fantasy. But it’s hard to think about that on a hot day when you see Mickey walking around in full Mouse gear and you say to yourself, "Man, it must be hot in that thing.”
It is: Koenig says during the summer, the inside of the character costumes can top 130 degrees, especially back in the 1960s when performers started donning these costumes in parks. “[The costumes] were very uncomfortable, very cumbersome, very heavy and, especially in the summer, very hot,” he explains about costumes back then. “And because you had performers who had to go out and dance and run around in the sun for 30 or 40 minutes at a time, Koenig says things got bad. "You’d have characters fainting out in public view.”
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So Koenig says the park’s made some changes, including experimenting with a variety of inside-the-fur air conditioning systems. “Over the years, they changed the rules and the costumes so that the costumes are a little better ventilated than they were in the early years,” he says. “And if it’s really hot, [performers] may only have to go out for 10 or 20 minutes."
That’s a good thing, because watching Minnie Mouse collapse in front of a group of horrified children isn’t the best thing for Disney’s hard-earned fantasy aura.
Looks like fun now… (Photo: iStock)
People Get Sick (Really Sick)
Lots of junk food. Lots of children with weak little stomachs. And lots of rides that take you up, drop you down and spin you around. Disney theme parks have all that in abundance, so you know what often comes next. And so do the poor guys who have to clean up the park.
Ken Pellman and Lynn Barron are two former longtime members of the Disneyland custodial staff. They host a podcast devoted to Disneyland history called ”The Sweep Spot“ and have written a book, Cleaning the Kingdom: Insider Tales of Keeping Walt’s Dream Spotless. They tell Yahoo Travel that cleaning up vomit from someone, often a child, who got a little too shaken up during a ride was an icky part of the job.
"It’s something we just got used to,” says Pellman.
But sometimes, it just got crazy. Barron remembers one day when things got particularly messy, thanks to Rocket Rods — a high-speed ride that used to be featured at Disneyland’s Tomorrowland. “I was working a 10-hour shift,” he recalls. “I would get calls on the radio to respond to — we call them 'Code Vs’ for vomit. I had 36 cleanups in one day!” They say two or three was typical for a day, but 36 was certainly memorable. “It made me wonder if there’s some sort of food poisoning going on,” Barron says.
Some daring adventurers might actually be attracted to Rocket Rods because of this story. Unfortunately, the ride is no longer operating. The current Disneyland custodial staff is likely grateful.
This river of fire used to run afoul of the local fowl (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Very Gruesome Duck Tales
The nightly “Fantasmic!” show on the Rivers of America is a big highlight. “As part of the show, they basically set the river on fire,” says Koenig. “They have this giant, fire-breathing dragon from 'Sleeping Beauty.’ It roars fire and it’s as if the river catches on fire.”
But when “Fantasmic!” debuted at Disneyland in the early 1990s, it had an unfortunate and decidedly kid-unfriendly effect to which one of Disney’s biggest stars certainly would have objected. “What they quickly discovered when they first had the show was that the ducks that liked to hang out on the river were being cooked."
Fortunately for the ducks, Disney made a slight change to the show. "Now what they do is, not long before the fire shows up, they have this sort of bubbling water effect that makes the water really turbulent and it scares away all the ducks,” says Koenig. “People think it’s for the atmosphere — like the moment’s getting tense and something interesting is going to happen. But really, it’s to save the lives of the ducks.” So Donald can rest easily!
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