15 Amazing Things You Never Knew About Disney’s Secret Underground Tunnels
Not all of the magic happens aboveground, folks.
Disney World is one of the world’s most carefully designed and well-known destinations on the planet. Each year, a reported 52 million people visit its four theme parks—Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, EPCOT, and Hollywood Studios—for a taste of family-friendly wonder. During the high season, there are just shy of 75,000 employees. With so many people coming and going, it might be a bit of a surprise to learn that Disney World is home to so many secrets.
Chief among these is a series of vast, interconnected tunnels right below the park’s surface, where a surprising amount of action happens. These tunnels, known officially as utilidors (a term coined by Walt Disney himself), are home to a treasure trove of secrets that only a handful of people—and, uh, talking mice—are privy to. Read on to join the club. And for more secrets this magical world is holding, check out the 20 Secrets Disney Employees Don’t Want You to Know.
Walt Disney personally came up with the idea.
As the story goes, Walt Disney was displeased when, while wandering around Disneyland in Anaheim, California, he saw a Frontierland cowboy walking through Tomorrowland. Disney was a perfectionist, and was steadfastly determined to maintain the magic of each world without having anything puncture the stories each offered. So, when creating his next park, he decided that something should be implemented to protect the illusions—ergo, the tunnel system. And to see how Disney parks change in the modern era, here’s Why Seats Are Mysteriously Disappearing from Disney Theme Parks.
There are 392,040 square feet of tunnels at Disney World.
When construction began on Disney World in Orlando, the first thing built were the sub-level tunnels—specifically, 392,040 square feet of them—upon which the rest of the park was built. Having this system in place was so important to Disney that he ensured they were in place before anything else. And for more magical facts you may not have known, check out 30 Disney Facts That Will Give You a Child-like Sense of Wonder.
They’re not technically underground.
While the tunnels are commonly referred to as “underground,” they’re actually at ground level, with the rest of the park that the average guest experiences when visiting set on a second floor. “Cast members” (a term used for all the workers at Disney World) use strategically placed staircases throughout the park to descend down into the tunnels and move unseen to other parts of the park.
Everything is controlled from within the tunnels.
Sometimes referred to as the “nerve center” of the park, much of what allows the park to function and makes it magical—lighting systems, security and power systems, music, parades, and more—are controlled from within the tunnels. All of it is located just under Cinderella’s Castle.
They once housed 1.2 million costumes.
The utilidors were once home to the “Character Zoo”—the massive storage area for Disney World’s 1.2 million costumes. That changed in 2005, when the costumes outgrew their space and were moved to a huge building located in the staff parking lot. But the tunnels still contain a Character Zoo where many key costumes (including Mickey’s) are stored. And if you want to know more about all the Disney characters, check out these 20 Amazing Facts About Disney’s Most Iconic Characters.
There’s a hidden employees-only café.
Since it might not look great for Pluto to just pop his head off in the middle of the park to chomp down on a sandwich, the tunnel system allows costumed characters to enjoy their meals without potentially traumatizing any kids. As Cory Doctorow (author of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom) describes: “Burgers, pizza, sandwiches, and amazing omelets are available for a fraction of the cost of the park prices.”
There’s a major storage space called the “Glow Room.”
While it may sound like a niche hideaway in Ibiza or Tulum, the “Glow Room” is actually just the spot under Adventureland where the park stores all its carts that sell swords, necklaces, bracelets, and other souvenirs.
Most of the food is prepared in the tunnels.
The utilidors include food preparation kitchens where chefs prep the churros, turkey legs, and many other guest favorites. This helps the park avoid needing prep kitchens taking up valuable real estate that could be used for rides or other attractions.
Tons (literally) of garbage is processed in the tunnels.
There’s a reason that Main Street doesn’t look like the trash-strewn avenues of New York City: The park utilizes a Swedish-designed Automated Vacuum-Assisted Collection garbage-disposal system, composed of massive pneumatic tubes. Connecting to most parts of the park, the tubes shoot bags of trash at 60 miles per hour to a central-processing area located behind Splash Mountain. As the Chicago Tribune explains, “If the system gets plugged up, cast members simply drop a rock down the chute and, at 60 m.p.h., it clears the clog right out.”
Vast amounts of cash move through the tunnels.
It’s not just the unpleasant refuse of the park that moves through these hidden tunnels. The armored vehicles that hoover up the huge amounts of cash collected throughout the park use these tunnels to transport their valuable cargo, ensuring they are secure and out of sight of any nefarious villains who might try to rob Mickey.
Employees can visit the private salon.
The utilidors also include a salon, Kingdom Kutters, where cast members can get a hair trim during their break (for a reasonable $15). And get this: it even has a Yelp page! (One review; three stars.)
But, while Kingdom Kutters might sound like a nice convenience, it’s there more to ensure that employees maintain that “Disney Look” (as the company puts it, “your appearance reflects our worldwide reputation for guest service and show quality”). Should someone show up looking scruffy, he or she needn’t home to get up to standard.
The tunnels were part of the original EPCOT design.
Disney was something of a utopian and had envisioned EPCOT (the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow”) as an idealized community that would show the rest of the world how people could live together without the unpleasant problems of the city. Underground tunnels were originally expected to be part of that, helping alleviate traffic and pollution. In the end, they were used under the Magic Kingdom (and, again, not technically “underground”). Still, today, a 700-foot-long, U-shaped tunnel remains under EPCOT.
They’re home to a command center that reduces lines.
The Disney Operational Command Center lives in the heart of the tunnels. With a slew of video screens, digital park maps, and all kinds of other high-tech tools, the center is focused on one challenge in particular: Reducing line length.
As the New York Times reports, the sophisticated monitoring system allows the park’s employees to take fast action if they see congestion at a given ride: “If Pirates of the Caribbean, the ride that sends people on a spirited voyage through the Spanish Main, suddenly blinks from green to yellow, the center might respond by alerting managers to launch more boats. Another option involves dispatching Captain Jack Sparrow or Goofy or one of their pals to the queue to entertain people as they wait.”
The line-monitoring center is all about maximizing profits.
Of course, this Command Center was not just installed in order to help guests have more fun at the park. Less time spent in line can mean more time spent at shops and restaurants—and more money spent, too. “If we can also increase the average number of shop or restaurant visits, that’s a huge win for us,” Phil Holmes, vice president of the Magic Kingdom, told the Times.
Guests can tour them.
Though most guests won’t get a chance to see the sub-level action happening at Disney World, die-hard fans can get a peek if they sign up for a Keys to the Kingdom tour—a five-hour, behind-the-scenes exploration of the park, including a visit to the utilidors. It will set you back $99, but can you really put a price on seeing how the magic happens? And for more insider information, check out the 35 Astonishing Facts About Disney World Only Insiders Know.
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