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Behind the Backstage Tours at Disney

by Cheryl Pendry, Guest Columnist and PassPorter Message Board Guide

Where in the World can you pet a rhino, visit a VIP area, and go underneath the Magic Kingdom to see the famous utilidors? On one of the many backstage tours now offered by Walt Disney World.

So far, we have taken four backstage tours at Disney World and plan to take more in the future. They offer a unique view of a place we all feel so familiar with, yet after every tour behind the scenes you will view the parks in a completely different light.

How many of you, who haven't yet taken a backstage tour, can honestly say that in all your visits you noticed the writing in the windows along Main Street and that you know what it represents? Or did you realize that the plants you were admiring in many of the countries of the World Showcase are species which are native to that particular pavilion?

One of the beauties of Disney is that the Imagineers plan almost everything, yet most guests just don't see it even though it's right in front of them. This is where the backstage tours come in, opening up your eyes to the smallest of details.

Our fascination with the backstage tours began on our Christmas 2002 trip. We had already enquired about them during our trip two years earlier, but with only days left of our vacation, we had been unable to get a reservation at such late notice. This is something worth bearing in mind, as the number of tours offered each week is limited and their availability is now more widely advertised than ever. Places do fill up in advance and it's possible to book many months ahead. For our May trip, we booked our tours four months beforehand and there have been reports of people already booking tours for trips this December.

The more popular tours, such as Keys to the Kingdom, are usually offered more than once a day but others, such as the Wild by Design tour at Animal Kingdom, are only available a couple of days a week. If you're particularly interested in a certain tour it's worth checking whether you'll be able to fit it into your schedule, before your days become filled with other magical plans.

But for those who might not instantly know which tour they want to take, how do you decide which one to take first? It's worth considering going for a tour based in your favorite park, as it will give you a completely different perspective of it and will help you to appreciate it even more.

That was the method we adopted when selecting our first tour. Our favorite park is Epcot, which immediately reduced the number of options available. I suggested that perhaps we should concentrate on Future World, as we felt that there was more to learn here and it would be a fun experience particularly as reports we had read suggested that we would be taken on some of the rides.

So what can you expect from a backstage tour? Each is unique but they do have some things in common. Let me first dispel a myth. Before setting off on our first tour I had read that they involved a lot of walking and left many people exhausted the next day, so I carefully scheduled our tour with nothing planned for the afternoon and flexible plans for the following day, just in case.

I was pleasantly surprised as we moved around Future World. There were regular restroom breaks and we were given plenty of opportunities to stop and sit down in the shade. On a number of occasions the nearest water fountain was also pointed out to us, in case we needed a drink. Neither of us felt exhausted at any point during the tour or afterwards and that experience has continued through our other tours. While we are certainly not super-fit, we do manage to get around Disney during our vacation but we don't exercise a great deal at other times of the year, so I would expect most people to find the pace of the tours suited to their needs.

Only on one occasion were we kept constantly on our feet and that, I have to admit, was partially our fault. Our guide had told us that we could stop as often as we liked for comfort breaks but we failed to take her up on her offer, assuming that breaks would be built in. We won't make that mistake again in the future!

On some of the tours, such as Keys to the Kingdom and Undiscovered Future World, you will be able to experience some of the park's attractions, but the ones selected do change from time to time so there's no guarantee it will include your favorite. Keys to the Kingdom has featured the likes of the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Jungle Cruise in the past, while in Undiscovered Future World, guests have been able to sample Test Track and Universe of Energy.

Some of the tours offered are completely "onstage", but even then Disney can always throw in a surprise. When I booked one particular tour, the Cast Member kept repeating that there would be no visits behind the scenes, which I was perfectly happy with. Imagine my surprise when, at the end of the tour, our guide then took us backstage at Canada, so we were right in front of the building that now houses Soarin'!

Of course for most people who take the tours the unique selling point of them is the experiences I mentioned earlier, like seeing the VIP area at the Living Seas in Undiscovered Future World, going into the utilidors in Keys to the Kingdom or petting a rhino on the Backstage Safari tour. Disney is careful to state that they cannot always promise such experiences, perhaps with the exception of the visit to the utilidors (which is now an integral part of the Keys tour and is the main reason why kids under sixteen are not allowed to take part).

For many people though, their concern is that a peek behind the scenes may destroy the magic of what's provided onstage. In our experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Admittedly it's not a very magical feeling to pass through a "Cast Members Only" door straight into a car park with no Disney theming at all. There is no transition. Suddenly and abruptly you're back in the real world with a bump, but while in that real world, you will see magic of a different kind -- the Cast Members going about their everyday jobs of creating magic for their guests and you will learn how they all work together to achieve that. After all, team at Disney means "together everyone achieves magic."

Backstage tours are not cheap. The four we have taken so far have ranged in price from $49 to $65 per person. Some have included food, while others haven't, but all have given us unique experiences and perspectives on the various parks. They have all surpassed our expectations and have provided us with so many fascinating facts that we now appreciate the magic that goes into creating Disney parks and Disney attractions all the more.

[You can get more information on backstage tours on pages 244-246 of PassPorter's Walt Disney World, where all tours with a "backstage peek" are clearly identified. Book your tour by calling 407-WDW-TOUR up to 180 days in advance.]

This article appeared in our July 22, 2004 newsletter -- subscribe to our popular newsletter today for free!

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Updated 08/21/07 

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