A Strange Ride Through Disney Theme Parks

Who Combs the Talking Robots' Hair? Where Does the Magic Kingdom Greet Real Kings?


May 4, 2005 — If you're not tall enough to ride Space Mountain, you're probably not ready for this tour of some of the strangest corners of Disney.

Fifty years ago, Walt Disney gambled $17 million on Disneyland — the world's first theme park. Up to that point, amusement parks were largely roadside carnivals and state fairs. Other amusement park operators laughed, dismissing Disney as a Hollywood filmmaker dabbling in a business he didn't understand.

But the Anaheim, Calif., attraction drew 28,000 people on opening day, 1 million people within six months and more than 250 million in its first three decades.

Last year an estimated 169 million people in America — and 252 million worldwide — strapped themselves into thrill rides like Space Mountain. Disney accounts for eight of the world's top 10 most-visited theme parks.

To mark the 50th anniversary, Disney on Thursday kicks off "The Happiest Celebration on Earth" with a massive launch of new attractions and a complete makeover for some old favorites. The 289 dolls that sing "it's a small world" even have a new wardrobe.

And if you're no longer thrilled by Disney's audio-animatrons — the talking robots that seem to have a place in every exhibit — how about a 9-foot-tall, 450-pound, free-roaming robot dinosaur named Lucky that will be getting up close and personal with guests at Disney's Animal Kingdom? Time magazine dubbed Lucky one of 2004's top inventions.

Among the coming attractions: Expedition Everest, a 20-story mountain roller coaster bigger than Disney's most famous manmade mound, Space Mountain.

I never imagined myself as a "Happiest Celebration" kind of guy, yet I found my cynical self headed down to Disney World in Orlando, Fla., for the big event. After all, Disney is the parent company of ABC News, so I'm a member of the Disney family.

But although I'm a "cast member" (as Disney refers to all employees, no matter which division they work for), I wanted to look at the other side of Disney. I wanted to explore secrets of the Magic Kingdom that few people know about — or talk about.

Many of the Disney urban legends that have been written about so many times are false. After his death, Walt Disney's body was not cryogenically stored. It was cremated. The hearse at the Disneyland Haunted House did not carry Mormon leader Brigham Young, although it did come to the park via Utah.

Still, there are nuggets of strangeness in the House of Mouse. There's a secret spot in Disneyland — created by Walt himself — where you can actually get a stiff drink. Everything — from how male park employees wear their mustaches to the funky things that happen to garbage — is just a little different at the happiest place on Earth.

So, here's a little look into the stranger side of Disney, a view you probably won't get from Cinderella's Castle.

Disneyland's Most Secret Attraction: The longest line at Disneyland is for an attraction that isn't on the map — and most visitors never get to see it. But if you've got $9,500 and the five-year waiting list doesn't scare you off, you can join Mickey Mouse's ultra-exclusive club, the secret spot where the Magic Kingdom welcomes real kings.

Somewhere near Pirates of the Caribbean, in the heart of New Orleans Square, is the hidden doorbell to Club 33, a members-only restaurant reminiscent of a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Here, Elton John might come in and tickle the keys of an antique harpsichord. Since its opening, Club 33 has reportedly welcomed King Hussein of Jordan, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, President Reagan, Cher and Michael Jackson.

When Walt Disney made plans for the club in the early 1960s, he intended Club 33 to entertain corporate sponsors and address special adults-only events. Decorated in a 19th century French style, it remains the only place in the park where you can sip a single-malt scotch with your meal.

Club 33's kitchen was supposed to be shared by a secret apartment for the Disney family, but Walt passed away in 1965, two years before the hideaway was completed.

Nowadays, the list of 450 paying members is strictly confidential, although each member gets fancy matchbooks inscribed with his or her name — consider it the most expensive souvenir that you won't see at a Disney gift shop.

Magic Kingdom's Garbage Really Sucks: One of Disney's fastest rides is not for humans. Trash from all around Florida's Magic Kingdom gets sucked through an immense series of tunnels at speeds of 60 mph — the same speed the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster travels. Disney World was an early pioneer of citywide vacuuming systems — with suction portals tucked away on street corners — a technology now used in parts of Hong Kong; Stockholm, Sweden; and Barcelona, Spain.

Mouseketeers Not Encouraged to Grow Whiskers: Abe Lincoln always had a spot in Disney's Hall of Presidents, but if he wanted a job at Disneyland, he'd have to shave. Up until 2000, men who worked at Disney parks were forbidden to have any facial hair — even though Walt Disney himself sported a mustache. Park historians say the strict dress code emerged in the early days, when amusement parks had dubious reputations, and Disney was trying to set his park apart from the rest.

Women were only allowed to start wearing eye shadow and eyeliner in 1994. Nowadays, the policy is relaxed. Mustaches must be neatly trimmed and grown on vacations. Beards, goatees and shaggy sideburns, however, are still not permitted.

Hair Care for Dummies: You can comb President Bush's hair every day and he'll never complain — at least if you're one of the 11 hairdressers Disney World employs to style its army of audio-animatrons. The talking robots cast as commanders in chief at the Hall of Presidents get their wigs styled daily. The scurvy dogs at Pirates of the Caribbean are haunted by lost treasure, not bad-hair days.

Flying Toupees on Space Mountain: When Disney World closes for the day and the lights go on, just about everything imaginable has been found on the floors of Space Mountain. Don't be embarrassed to claim your lost sunglasses and wayward toupee. It's happened before. Go to central Lost and Found. You'll be happy to know that the spare change you had in your pocket will be donated to charity.

No Pants, No Problem for Donald Duck: Reports have circulated over the years that Donald Duck was banned in Finland because he frolics freely in a sailor's hat and no trousers. At a time when speculation as to the sexual orientation of SpongeBob SquarePants has generated headlines, casting Donald as a dirty bird almost makes sense. But it's untrue.

Donald has never been banned. A news report got blown out of proportion in 1977, when the Finnish capital of Helsinki, stricken with a tight budget, had to discontinue the purchase of Donald Duck comic strips for city youth centers. International media somehow construed it to mean that Donald was banned from school libraries, simply because he shows his tailfeathers.