One day when Walt Disney was looking at one of the many Disneyland park pictures mailed to him by happy visitors, thanking him for what he’d created something about the picture bothered him. The family was all smiles and very lovely, but they were in Fantasyland, and walking behind them was a cowboy who belonged in Frontierland.
Walt Disney, ever the showman, was concerned the illusion of Disneyland was being broken. Cast members – as employees are called – had to walk from their locker rooms to the areas of the park where they were assigned, and sometimes that required that cowboys walk through lands where cowboys shouldn’t be found. So when Disney started designing what became Walt Disney World, he came up with a solution, build an underground system of tunnels connecting all parts of the park – the utilidors.
As part of the Disney Institute experience, my group of nearly 50 Cox School of Business graduate students was given a tour of a section of the utilidor beneath Mainstreet USA, where we got a rare peek at the underground workings that make Walt Disney World possible.
No pictures were allowed in the utilidors, or any other backstage area at Walt Disney World, but I’ll do my best to describe what we found.
To reach the utilidors, our group passed through a “cast members only” gate down an alley off Mainstreet USA – the main thoroughfare through which you enter Walt Disney World that resembles a turn-of-the-century small town USA. That gate led us to a backstage road that ran behind Mainstreet USA. Along this road there was a door that led to a stairwell and an elevator, which took us to the utilidors underneath.
Before I describe the utilidors, let me clarify. They may be located underneath the Magic Kingdom, but they’re not technically underground. Florida is so flat that the water table is three feet down. When Walt Disney World was created, instead of digging down into the earth, where tunnels would constantly flood, the utilidors were built at ground level and then the earth was built up around them. The Walt Disney World we all see and know is technically the second floor of Walt Disney World, with the utilidors servings as the true first floor buried underneath.
The resort-ringed lake in front of Walt Disney World is a man-made construction, dug up during this process when dirt was needed to bury the utilidor system.
After stepping off the elevator and into the utilidors proper, we entered a cement corridor that felt something like a friendlier bond villain hideout. The gray, cement hallways were wide enough for two golf carts to pass by each other, but not much larger than that. The lower portion of the walls in this section were painted maroon. We were told that the hallway beneath each land is painted a different color to make it easier for cast members to tell where they are. At every hallway intersection there would be a map of the utilidors and signs pointing to the various lands. The utilidors are built in a generally circular shape, with long hallways crossing vertically and horizontally across the center.
Along the hallways are pictures from Walt Disney World’s history, like early construction photos, including one of Walt Disney himself on the property before his death; he didn’t live to see Walt Disney World’s opening. You’ll also see pictures of cast members being recognized for exemplary performance, cast member’s personal lockers, and pallets of foods or merchandise waiting to be moved from point A to B.
The utilidors weren’t terribly busy when we were there. Golf carts occasionally passed as did cast members, including one person on a bike. We peeked into cast member break rooms. We also saw the newsletters and pamphlets that kept cast members abreast of park’s latest developments, such as various rides closures and the times of all parades and shows – basically a pocket-sized guide to every question a guest might ask when cast members are on stage.
Leaving the utilidors we had a new appreciation for what it takes to make a large operation appear to function so seamlessly to guests upstairs. At Walt Disney World, what guests see as magic is actually the result of incredible pre-planning and hard work.