6 Hidden Sides of Disneyland Only Employees Get to See
Earlier this year, Cracked took you behind the scenes of Disney World with a firsthand account from a costumed cast member. Our source talked about drunken escapades at Epcot and the trials of being Mickey Mouse, but they didn't speak for the huge mass of Disney park employees who are stuck sweeping up drink lids and selling T-shirts without the self-esteem boost of being dressed up like a beloved cartoon character.
We recently sat down with a Disneyland employee working on the less glamorous side of the Magic Kingdom, and we learned that working at the Happiest Place on Earth is a lot like being in high school, that there is such a thing as Disney Jail, and that geese are freaking assholes.
The Streets Are Built to Hack Your Brain
After a few weeks working at Disneyland, I started to realize these parks were built by actual wizards. Or at least street magicians, considering the whole thing is built on misdirection. For example, a big part of the old imagineer's jobs were to make a relatively small park seem like a whole world, and they did that by subtly tweaking your perspective, like the world's biggest Magic Eye.
Here's Main Street, which is designed to appear long and winding, so that when you first enter Disneyland, the park seems impossibly massive with tons to explore:
"Help, I've been trapped here since 1984, and I can't find my way out!"
Note how distant the castle seems from the entrance to Main Street? Look at how tiny it is, all the way down there! That seems like a pretty healthy walk, doesn't it? Now here's the exact same stretch of Main Street, viewed from the opposite direction -- the building at the center of the picture is the entrance to the park:
"Oh, there it is."
Well shit, it's right there! We'll be home in no time! The street is the same length in both pictures, but thanks to the magic of forced perspective, it sure doesn't look that way. Basically when you walk in, the buildings down the street aren't smaller due to distance; they're physically smaller so as to appear farther away (the second and third floors of the shops aren't actually tall enough for a person to stand up in).
The pathways for visitors also pull the same trick -- when you're out and about as a visitor, it can take more than 15 minutes to walk from Frontierland to Fantasyland. But for us employees moving around backstage, that same long journey is maybe 10 steps, and it isn't because we're wearing magic boots.
You can try pixie dust, but you never know when the next random drug test will be.
We also have a huge group of cast members called Guest Control, which are professional people herders who are trained to move crowds from point A to point B without the people even realizing that they're being directed. Their tricks are incredibly simple yet amazingly effective -- they do things like set up vending carts to create ersatz avenues to guide people where we want them after a show ends. It's like a trail of bread crumbs, leading guests away from the show to make room for a new group.
For example, at the end of "Fantasmic!" (a special nighttime-only light show), we set up a trail of glow carts (moveable stores that sell glow-in-the-dark toys) and every kid leaving that show wants Mickey's light-up sword or whatever. The carts are carefully spaced out, so that when one cart starts to get crowded, there's always another cart slightly farther away with no wait at all, full of pretty glowy things that are impossible to miss. This string of carts gradually guides visitors out towards one of the exits, both to help us empty the park out for closing time and to ensure that Disney makes as much money as possible in the process.
Children Try to Cripple You for No Reason
I wound up in the Disney ER twice last week for being hit in the groin really hard. I thought I was going to throw up. That is not uncommon. For some reason, working retail in certain sections of a Disney park turns your crotch into a bludgeoning magnet for feet, hands, and plastic swords.
Those Mickey Mouse ears are like ram's horns.
One time, while I was picking up trash, a child decided to summit my back like the Matterhorn, and he did it in a way that instantly aged my spine about 30 years. I had to spend the rest of the night in the medical office until my shift was over.
Years ago, I worked near the Indiana Jones ride, which meant I had to spend all day dressed as a generic adventurer, complete with a fake gun, a whip, and a plastic sword. This basically meant that all of the psyched-up children pouring out of the Indiana Jones experience, ready to murder random thugs just like their favorite archaeologist, spotted me and saw a worthy adversary. In other words, I frequently got challenged to fights by 9-year-olds, and it was literally my job to say "yes."
"Show no mercy, for you shall receive none!"
My bloodiest battle came when a gang of 30 kids rushed our store and raided the toy sword bin. Now they were pumped up from the ride and armed. So this tiny army rushed me and my partner. We drew our swords and fought back, because that is what Disney requires of us. But there were just too many of them, and since we couldn't exactly scream to their parents, "HELP! YOUR ARMY OF LATCHKEY BRATS IS GOING TO MURDER US," we pretty much had no choice but to stand there getting pummeled until their parents finally noticed and called them off. My arms were covered in cuts and bruises and blood soaked my costume shirt, and my partner was so bruised he looked more like Zombie Horse Whisperer than Indiana Jones.
There's (Naked) Disney Crime
The worst Disneyland guests are teenagers. Consequently, Graduation Nights, when the park fills with surging oceans of high school seniors, are the absolute pit of hell. We try to cordon the teens off into California Adventure, so we can separate them from the sober guests. We also have the option to turn whole chunks of the park into makeshift detention centers if necessary, sort of like a more whimsical version of that movie The Siege.
You'd be surprised how easy it is to implement fascism when the authorities have perma-smiles.
But when you've got a bunch of recent graduates all getting hammered and taking Molly at the Mad Tea Party, things are going to get out of hand. One time, a kid wearing a neon Snuggie decided he had to free his naked form from that kush prison. As soon as he found an area that was relatively free of cast members, he tore that Snuggie loose and started running flappingly through the park. If nothing else, this job has taught me that "be naked at Disneyland" is on a surprising number of bucket lists.
While that admittedly isn't great (Disneyland is a place full of kids, and no kid needs to see some drunken asshole's Tower of Terror swinging chaotically around while he gets chased by a team of cast members), things occasionally get considerably uglier than that. Recently, a guy got into an argument with his wife while hammered and decided the proper response would be to turn towards the nearest line and start punching people. Thankfully a Disney Gang was nearby (there are totally gangs at Disney parks; they're sort of like a cross between the Hells Angels and adults who spend way too much money on Disney memorabilia), and a few of them intervened after he'd hit like, 15 to 20 people. They managed to subdue him long enough for cast members to show up, put a pretty face on the whole disastrous situation, and drag Captain Booze Fist off to Disney Jail.
"Put your trust in the Lord, because your ass belongs to me, hu-ha!"
Oh yeah, Disney Jail totally exists, too. It's the happiest jail on earth, but that's still not a place you want to end up. Imagine being locked up, underground, in a room with bars on the windows and The Lion King playing on an endless loop. If you're underage, we call your parents. If you're old enough to know better, we call your family to pick you up. Generally speaking, winding up in Disney jail means we're kicking you out of the park, sometimes permanently. Any Disney felon gets all of his or her passes revoked, and we do our best to make sure you never, ever get an annual pass ever again. So think twice before you try to assault a group of random people while waiting in line for Pirates of the Caribbean.
And if you're surprised to find that a Disney park has its own jail, well ...
The Parks Are Hiding a Small, Secret City
You may have heard about the extensive underground tunnels buried beneath Disney theme parks, for employees to quickly move around without having to cut through huge throngs of tourists. Believe it or not, Disneyland also has an entire city hidden above ground as well. This "backstage" hidden city disguises a full pharmacy for cast members, and even a couple of medical centers staffed by registered nurses, ready to treat cast members injured by overexcited children (see "smashed repeatedly in the crotch", above). Disneyland also has a bank just for cast members, and a warehouse full of slightly damaged merchandise called Company D. Outside of buying groceries and sending your kids to school, there's nothing you'd ever need to do that you can't do on the clock at Disneyland, hidden in plain sight from thousands of vacationing people.
Where do they put all of this stuff? Well, take a look at Main Street again:
Seen here on Purge Day.
See all those seemingly fake buildings? They're more than just decorative facades -- those are actual functioning structures, because Disney doesn't believe in wasting space. Whenever you see some whimsical building that doesn't appear to have any use, or seems much larger than the tiny store taking up the bottom floor, it's because you're not seeing everything. That shop selling giant lollipops on the bottom floor of a huge, faux brownstone could be sharing a wall with the Happiest E.R. on Earth, and you, as a guest, would never know.
Fake buildings also provide the space for all the many warehouses that keep our stores stocked. When one of the costumed characters damages their fake head, they grab a new one out of one of these secret store rooms that looks more-or-less like the place where the government stashed the Ark of the Covenant.
Nope, nothing creepy about seeing shelves upon shelves of disembodied heads,
belonging to beloved characters, all soullessly staring at you.
There Are Tons of Surprisingly Dangerous Animals
Backstage at Disneyland is like its own ecosystem. There are so many stray cats. We have no idea where they all came from. The popular rumor is that a bunch of cats were brought in back in the 70s to kill mice, and now we have five generations of cat families running around because nobody ever bothered to bring the cats out of deep cover, sort of like Donnie Brasco.
Or maybe the cats are following the No. 1 rule of Disney: never break character.
Then there are the ducks and the geese! At any given moment, we are swarmed with waterfowl, and like the cats, nobody has any idea how they all got here. We have entire family lines of ducks that have never known life outside of Disneyland. The guests just assume they're part of some show or are otherwise here on purpose, and happily feed them scraps of food like they're part of the Magic Kingdom experience.
If a cat gets onstage, we've got to keep them from getting close to the guests for obvious reasons -- getting clawed by a stray cat at Disneyland is a good way to get some kind of terrible infection and a great way to get Disney in a shitload of trouble. But believe it or not, the geese are the real threats. If you've never been around geese, they're kind of dangerous. They're extremely territorial, they hiss, they bite, and they will chase you while hissing at you and biting you. But like I said, most guests just assume the geese are supposed to be there, and by extension, they must be totally safe as far as wild animals go. So they'll let their kids run around with the geese and try to pet them, completely oblivious to the fact that these birds (which are the same size as some of the kids trying to pet them) will totally bite the shit out of a person for absolutely no reason.
An animal blessed with the gift of flight chooses to fight a predator on the ground. Zero fucks given.
It's our job to keep the geese away from the guests while maintaining a friendly smile so nobody knows how much danger they're in. I'll usually say something like, "Listen folks, these are dangerous creatures, please give them some space!" in my best imitation of a jungle tour guide. The guests think it's a joke, even though I'm absolutely not kidding. Geese are fucking terrible.
There Is Lots of (Often Sexual) Tension
Cast members at the park spend all day working together in close, sweaty proximity, which, like any other job, leads to a whole lot of naked peer reviewing. However, employee relationships at Disney are actually way more common and problematic than the standard intercubicle sex at, say, GEICO. It's actually more like high school, only here nobody gets beat up for wearing a Donald Duck T-shirt.
Asking to see Shrek might get you thrown into the trunk of a car and dumped in the middle of nowhere.
A huge chunk of cast members are entertainers of some sort, meaning they were hired because they happen to have the faces and bodies of gorgeous cartoon royalty. They don't wear any masks; they just stroll around the park dressed up like Aladdin or Ariel or whoever and let their perfectly sculpted faces complete the illusion. These "face" characters are essentially like the popular kids in high school. Right below them are the characters in full mascot-head costumes -- Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, etc. Basically, the people not quite attractive enough to be at the very top, but still popular enough that everyone knows who they are (you can read a former Jack Sparrow going into more detail about the whole hierarchy here). At the bottom of the ladder you have everyone else -- all the ride operators, popcorn vendors, and ticket takers. Like every other hierarchy on Earth, the folks at the bottom are kind of pissed to be there.
Work at Disneyland long enough, and you'll see Aladdin cheating on Sleeping Beauty with Snow White, or Jack Sparrow two-timing Belle with Rapunzel. And it's not just unusually entertaining gossip -- the managers have to be aware of it, because maybe there's a Jasmine and an Aladdin who can't be scheduled to work together because they have serious beef. These people are difficult to replace, too -- how many actual human beings do you know that look like Pocahontas or Prince Charming? So instead of firing anyone, they'll swap in Pocahontas for a few hours if Jasmine has a meltdown, while Aladdin makes up some excuse for the kids to explain where Jasmine went. Then tomorrow it's a different Aladdin and a different Jasmine, most likely with an entirely different set of personality conflicts.
"OK, so Jasmine can't work with Prince Eric, and Elsa can't work with ... shit, get the flow chart out again."
Meanwhile, most of the normal workers have to take their breaks in an incredibly crowded break room that is so small, it routinely fills up to the point of forcing some of us to stand around outside in a filthy alley with all of the smokers. It's literally right next to a dumpster. The costumed cast members, however, get a palatial break room teeming with multiple televisions and snacks. On one particularly cold and miserable day, Chip and Dale ran out into our smoker's grotto where Chip, clearly furious, ripped off his mascot head and threw it on the ground, shouting "FUCK GOOFY!" in a very un-Disney tone of voice. As it turns out, the bosses had let Goofy take his break five minutes before Chip and his ever-present associate Dale.
This story of "suffering" didn't do much to endear Chip to us, because he delivered his tale of woe to a group of shivering people crowded around a bunch of shitty benches, one of whom was inevitably going to be tasked with delivering him a new cartoon head to replace the one he'd just thrown into the wet pavement.
But you know who does treat us pretty well? Freaking Disney.
And I'm definitely not saying this just because they might be listening to us right now.
The company takes a lot of abuse in popular culture. Between the Simpsons joking about animatronics taking out the entire park, the constant assertion that Walt Disney is an eternal Nazi frozen in cryostasis beneath Cinderella's castle, or comments on the undeniable racism of the It's a Small World ride, it's understandable that I started my Disney career with a pretty negative attitude towards the company's ethics. But as far as I can tell, they really try to do right by their employees.
As a reward for fending off vicious geese and being stabbed in the groin by children, they throw us impromptu parties and celebrations pretty regularly, just to keep our morale up. They'll have cast appreciation days, where they bring in huge food trucks to serve us all free meals (they even provide a Thanksgiving Feast for everyone who has to work on the holiday). And while most theme park employees don't get any kind of retirement plan, Disney announced they were providing us with a 401K out of the blue. There's a reason turnover is low at these parks, even if the job means the occasional tantrum from a man dressed as a giant chipmunk.
"It's a little late to have any dignity now."
Robert Evans's first book A Brief History of Vice is available for pre-order now. It's filled with guides to recreating ancient drug-fueled debauchery!
For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Horror Movie Scenes I Lived Inside a Real Apocalyptic Cult. And then check out 20 R-Rated Versions of Classic Disney Movies.