Walt Disney World’s “Keys To The Kingdom” Tour Review
For the last several years, I have been on a quest for knowledge about Walt Disney World. I honestly can’t get enough of it. I’ve read everything I can get my hands on, and I still feel that there is more to learn with each new read. When I was in Orlando last week, I had the opportunity to take the “Keys to the Kingdom” tour at the Magic Kingdom with my younger brother.
Walt Disney World’s website brands the Keys to the Kingdom tour as “an in-depth, 5-hour look at the most iconic theme park at Walt Disney World Resort.” The highlights included “uncovering the hidden secrets of classic attractions at Magic Kingdom park,” “discovering little-known facts, trivia and other exciting tidbits about the park,” and one of the main selling points, access to the “Utilidoor” system underneath the Magic Kingdom. Honestly, I had no idea exactly what to expect, but I knew it would be exciting.
We got to the Transportation and Ticket Center a little bit before 8:00am, and took a monorail over to the Magic Kingdom. Because we were taking the 8:30am tour, we were able to enter the park early and stand on Main Street U.S.A. before the park opened at 9:00am. It was cool to take photos of a relatively empty Main Street. When we checked-in for the tour at City Hall, we were given a name tag and a receiver so that we could hear our guide throughout the tour. We also pre-selected our lunch, which would be served at the Columbia Harbor House restaurant.
Just after 8:30, our group of 20 was met by our tour guide, Byron. Byron started his career at Walt Disney World as a Disney College Program Intern in 2012. Originally, he was working in the “back of the house” at the Columbia Harbor House restaurant, but soon after he started, his supervisor realized that he “really liked to talk,” and was reassigned to “Front of the House,” taking guest’s orders and “bell ringing” — encouraging people to dine at the Columbia Harbor House. After he graduated from college, Byron worked his professional internship in the Guest Relations department at the Magic Kingdom, and still works in guest relations as well as giving the “Keys to the Kingdom” tour.
Byron started the tour by asking the group what we thought “Keys to the Kingdom” really meant. He told us that not only would we be “receiving the keys that unlocked the secrets of the Magic Kingdom,” but we would also be talking a lot about the four “keys” of customer service for the Walt Disney Company — Safety, Courtesy, Show, and Efficiency — topics that he would continue to reference throughout the tour. Unfortunately, we were unable to take photos on the tour, so any photos you see here will have been pulled from the internet.
(NOTE: THIS MESSAGE IS A SPOILER ALERT. THE FOLLOWING INFORMATION IS FROM A “BEHIND-THE-SCENES” TOUR. THEY DID NOT LET CHILDREN UNDER 16 TAKE THIS TOUR IN AN EFFORT TO PRESERVE “DISNEY MAGIC.” IF YOU FEEL THE SAME WAY, STOP READING)
To borrow a line from an old Disneyland VHS tape, our tour started by “walking right down the middle of Main Street U.S.A.” As we walked, Byron was telling us that a day at the Magic Kingdom was meant to feel like a production. As you enter the park, underneath the train station, there are posters for the “coming attractions,” much like you’d see in a theater. There is a popcorn vendor at the park entrance that is open from park open to well after the park closes. The sidewalks are tinted red, because Disney is “rolling out the red carpet.” Employees in uniform are instead “members of the cast” in “costume.” The windows on Main Street U.S.A. serve as both the opening credits in the morning (start of the film), as well as the end of the day. It’s really a great metaphor.
Byron pointed out several key windows along Main Street U.S.A. The first window on the right hand side of Main Street U.S.A. is for Roy Disney, the “producer.” Key Disney personnel and Imagineers are represented on several windows. There is a window for the fake corporations that Walt Disney used to obtain the 27 square miles of land that Walt Disney World currently sits on. Finally, the last window on Main Street, above the Ice Cream Parlor and facing Cinderella’s Castle is for Walt Disney himself, the “director” of the picture. It is interesting to note that the window mentions “Graduate School of Design and Master Planning,” but Walt Disney did not attend college, instead only receiving honorary degrees.
On top of many of the buildings on Main Street U.S.A. are what appear to be American flags, but they are actually classified as “pennants” as each flag is missing a stripe or a star, therefore, they are not technically “real” American flags, and instead disguise lightning rods.
From Main Street U.S.A, we took a left and headed toward Adventureland. We learned about how Disney wanted to fully immerse guests into each individual land’s experience. From a particular spot on the path to Adventureland from the central hub, if you turn around, there is a tree blocking the view of Cinderella’s Castle, and a tree blocking the view of Tomorrowland. On the Main Street side of the Crystal Palace Restaurant walkway, the area is neatly manicured, while on the Adventureland side, the plants are overgrown, and there are awnings over the windows. The music subtly changes from the Main Street Music to the Adventureland drums. Byron told us that the kiosks and stores in Adventureland stocked bug spray and sunglasses, and sold more of those items than anywhere in Disneyland, just because of the perceived environment. There are so many subtle details in the park that even a seasoned Disney veteran like myself would never realize.
The tour headed toward the exit of the Jungle Cruise, where we boarded our own private boat. Instead of the scripted spiel with corny joke after corny joke from a Jungle Cruise skipper, Byron guided the tour and provided us with some great behind the scenes fact about the classic Disney attraction. The Jungle Cruise is one of my favorite attractions, and many of the things Byron told us were previously unknown to me. Just a few examples:
-There is a hidden Mickey on the Spider’s back inside the temple, as well as a hidden Minnie in the rock formations.
photo:imagineeringdisney.com (Note: this photo is from the Haunted Mansion, but the same spiders are used on Jungle Cruise)
-Trader Sam wears a red and white striped tunic in a nod to the original Jungle Cruise boat canopies.
-Much like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the waterfall (Schweitzer Falls/The Backside of Water) churns and mixes the water soluble dye that gives the Jungle Cruise its murky greenish brown water color. The dye is actually red in color.
After the Jungle Cruise, Byron took us by the Enchanted Tiki Room and told us two great stories about the attraction. First, Walt’s wife, Lillian, gave the first version of the attraction a “thumbs down,” because in her eyes, the birds were doing all of this singing, but there was nothing to simulate breathing. After several tries, it was decided that a Cashmere material would be best to give the birds the realistic appearance of expanding and compressing chests. One of my favorite facts that I learned was about the Tiki Room Show Building itself. It’s the largest lightning rod in the Magic Kingdom, and the thatch roof is actually individual strips of aluminium.
We made our way backstage to the parade staging area behind Splash Mountain and the Pirates of the Caribbean Show Building. The rides are in two separate lands, but the backstage areas are less than 100 yards apart. It was here that we got the opportunity to ask Byron some “backstage” questions for the first time. He told about what it meant to be a “friend of” a character, which in reality, means you play that character. He told us what happened at the park on 9/11, one of three times in its history that Disney World was closed early. (The other two were Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and Hurricane Charley in 2004). Byron was an open book, while still holding true to Disney values, and never truly “breaking” his character.
En route to lunch, we walked from Frontierland to Liberty Square. Byron made a point to show us the yellowed cobblestone pathway in the center of the pathway, which was meant to simulate the sewage that people in that time period would dump from chamber pots into the street. Another interesting fact about Liberty Square, going back to immersing guests in the experience, is that the only restrooms in the land are located in the restaurants (and that is only due to health code regulations.) Even at that point, the restrooms are so far back that they are technically part of Fantasyland (Columbia Harbor House) and Frontierland (Liberty Tree Tavern). We had lunch waiting for us in the Columbia Harbor House. I’m not a big fish eater, but the fried fish was good. It was good to sit down and have a bit of a rest. It was here that we received our commemorative gift from the tour, a pin shaped like a Key, that had “Keys to the Kingdom” on it. A nice touch.
Byron took us to the extended queue for Haunted Mansion and told us a lot about the “Haunted Mansion,” which he noted was his favorite attraction in the park. We learned that famed Disney Imagineer Marc Davis left his signature on the facade of the Haunted Mansion by placing chess pieces in the spires of the building. The only piece missing is the Knight. There is a knight inside the mansion, however. Davis was known as the “Master of Whimsy,” and worked on the ride with fellow imagineer Claude Coats. Coats wanted the ride to be dark and scary, and Davis wanted it to be lighthearted. As a result, the ride was divided into two halves, with Coats designing the first half, and Davis designing the second half. The ride is divided in the notable ballroom scene.
We had our own “stretching room” in the attraction, and Byron pointed out a hidden Jack Skellington on the face of Master Gracey’s portrait. Unlike it’s counterpart attraction at Disneyland, the Walt Disney World stretching room doesn’t involve an elevator, and instead is just a clever trick on the eyes. Byron also told us about two special voices in the attraction, one of which is Paul Frees, who voices the “ghost host.” Frees is also the voice for the Pillsbury Doughboy.
In the graveyard scene, Thurl Ravenscroft, also the voice of the Grinch and Tony The Tiger, is one of the main voices singing the ride’s signature tune, “Grim, Grinning Ghosts.” Ravenscroft’s face is in the attraction as well, as the broken bust in the graveyard.
It was time for what many people came on the tour to see. Yes, the Magic Kingdom park is on the “second floor,” built on a series of underground tunnels known as utilidors. We entered through a backstage area near Casey’s Corner restaurant. The utilidoors have offices, an employee cafeteria (the Mousketeria), locker rooms, and supply rooms. Much like the rest of the backstage areas at the Magic Kingdom, the utilidoors are pretty non-descript, and reminded me of a school hallway, only with the ceiling exposed. A mix of contemporary, current music — I believe it was the XM Radio station “The Blend” — played over a loudspeaker. Byron noted that it was a way to keep cast members sane, instead of hearing the same Disney music all day. (Almost on cue, the radio transitioned from the Backstreet Boys to Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go,” and it took a lot for me not to break out laughing.) We were in the utilidoors for about thirty minutes.
By that time, the five hours were up, and it was time for the tour to end. Byron answered a few more questions backstage, including a question about the removal of Maelstrom at Epcot in favor of Frozen. He was able to spin it in a way that talked about the traffic it would bring to the park, and how popular Anna and Elsa were when they were first brought to the Princess Fairy Tale Hall at Magic Kingdom. While I don’t necessarily agree with the decision, it was interesting to hear Byron’s perspective.
In closing, the “Keys to the Kingdom” tour was an amazing way to experience the Magic Kingdom, especially for seasoned park guests like me. I learned more in 5 hours than I had in years of reading and research. There is so much more that I didn’t even include in this review. For the whole story, be sure to take this tour the next time you go to Walt Disney World. You’ll never think of the Magic Kingdom the same way again.
The Keys to the Kingdom Tour is $79.00 and does not include park admission. For more information, please click here.