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On a weekday evening, Steven B. Davison stands in the driveway of what looks like your average industrial park. Making the scene slightly out of the ordinary are the contraptions parked in the driveway: A Lion King junglescape on wheels, a structure involving teacups and a blue caterpillar.
Six gymnasts in T-shirts and shorts do dance steps on stilts. They will be flowers. Nearby, a larger guy practices his set of steps. He will become the Queen of Hearts. The Alice in Wonderland-themed float he and the gymnasts are dancing around is part of Walt Disney’s Parade of Dreams, the 50th birthday extravaganza for which Davison is the creative director.
Fifty years ago this month―on July 17, 1955―Walt Disney, a movie producer who had gone deep into debt to make this day happen, stood in the California sun and announced, “To all who come to this happy place: Welcome.” The 28,000 guests (only 11,000 had been invited) who streamed into Disneyland that day found themselves experiencing something no one had experienced before. An amusement park, but not rickety or trash-strewn. A place where the Southern California gifts for popular entertainment and advanced engineering brilliantly merged. With Disneyland, Walt’s Imagineers―his favored term―created not just an attraction but an alternate universe.
In 2005, it’s hard to overstate all the ways Disneyland has changed the world―changed our notions of architecture, of entertainment, of what we want our lives to be. Only when you follow the backstage workings of this alternate universe do you understand what an accomplishment it was, and remains.
4 a.m. Indiana Jones Adventure. Tony Castillo walks the rope bridge stretching above the lake of lava. The lava does not emit its customary molten glow, but in the half-dark possesses a creepiness all its own.
“I got used to it pretty easily,” Castillo says of life on the night shift. He passes a cobra frozen midstrike and an equally frozen Indiana Jones, then steps back into the normal world: A garage where mechanics are working on computer-controlled Enhanced Motion Vehicles. In a few hours―after Castillo’s crew has gone home―the Jeep-like EMVs will shudder along the rope bridge over the now-glowing lava, dodging the cobra and scaring passengers.
“This is our most challenging area for landscape maintenance,” John Schrimsher says, nodding to the gardener weeding around a miniature castle. “Storybook Land's scale is 1 inch to 1 foot. A 3-inch weed here is like a 3-foot weed anywhere else.”
5 a.m. Storybook Land. The rising sun washes Storybook Land in light. But to Schrimsher, sunshine equals pressure. As horticulture operations manager, he’s in charge of everything from the Jungle Cruise’s bamboo to the resort’s 17,000 trees. His 100 gardeners must work between the park’s close and its opening―mostly in the dark.
Meanwhile, Schrimsher’s partner Sergio Quiroz is focusing on the park’s topiaries: the junipers and pyracantha that are tied and trimmed to resemble elephants and leaping dolphins. This work, too, must be done before the park opens. “The gardens are an important part of the show,” Schrimsher says. “But we don’t want to be the show.”
7 a.m. Main Street, U.S.A. Florida's Walt Disney World sits atop a tunnel system, but Disneyland does not. Every hamburger and hot dog bun must be brought in on surface roads before the park opens. This is why Main Street is now jammed with trucks. A recorded voice announces: “Support vehicles must be cleared for park opening. Thank you.”
9 a.m. Main Street, U.S.A. Visitors on Early Entry packages have already trickled into the park. But the main mob is massed at the south end of Main Street, awaiting “rope drop.” Security guard Laela Handy tells them, “Here we go.” There is a blast of trumpets. Handy untethers the rope, then steps up on the sidewalk as the crowd floods forward. “Don’t run,” parents shout to their kids. The kids run.
9:30 a.m. The Golden Horseshoe. For lovers of Disney lore, this is a shrine: Comic Wally Boag starred in the Golden Horseshoe Revue for three decades, twisting a few million balloon animals and inspiring Steve Martin (who worked at the park from age 12) to pursue comedy. Now Theme Park Stage Manager Madeline Cruz is leading Mickey’s Roll Call, where managers update each other on their sectors of the park. “It’s a Small World is down today,” one reports. “But Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride should reopen.” After roll call, Cruz will monitor the park on foot, continually in touch via radio and pager and BlackBerry. “I’ve been here 31 years,” she says. “I started working at the Hatmosphere, but it was called the Mod Hatter then. That’s how long ago it was.”
9:45 a.m. New Orleans Square. Disneyland doesn’t release figures, but park watchers estimate the annual attendance at 14 million. Strolling beneath the magnolias are scout troops, bands of Japanese tourists in Mickey Mouse ears, and, now, this couple: a seriously pale guy in a full-length leather coat and eye shadow, and his equally pale girlfriend in black taffeta and striped leggings, a teddy bear strapped to her back with a leather harness. You think, These goth people are mocking Disneyland. They are being ironic about Disneyland. No: They are studying their map and lining up for Pirates of the Caribbean, just like everyone else.
10 a.m. Tomorrowland. Disneyland is a city and, like every city, requires renewal. Tomorrowland’s newest attraction is under wraps: the updated Space Mountain, set to open this month. Its senior show producer is Chrissie Allen. “Redoing a classic attraction is a scary piece of business,’ Allen says. “When the original Space Mountain opened in 1977, the attraction looked inspired by the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Since then, we’ve had Alien, Blade Runner. What does ‘space’ mean today?” To find out, Allen and her crew hung around the park asking questions of visitors, and staged off-site focus groups. She recalls the Space Mountain advice of one teenage girl: “ ‘It’s dark,’ she said. ‘It’s fast. It’s unpredictable. Don’t mess it up.’ ”
What does Allen think of the new Space Mountain? “I think we’ve knocked it out of the park.”
11 a.m. Disneyland Fire House. Goofy and Dale―the wilder half of chipmunks Chip ’n Dale―greet a line of waiting kids. G. and D. are “rubberheads”―characters encased in their costumes― as opposed to “face characters” like Cinderella. G. and D. sign autographs and accept hugs. When one boy rolls up in a wheelchair, Goofy bends down to hug him. Walt Disney had his private apartment in the Fire House’s second story. If his spirit is peering down from there now, surely he is pleased.
Noon. The Enchanted Tiki Room. Opened in 1963, the Tiki Room is newly refurbished without being much changed. It still has singing mechanical birds. Why, then, is it so wonderful? Perhaps because it’s a reminder that Disneyland introduced an entire generation of Americans to the tropical and exotic. For that generation, it’s entirely possible to arrive at, say, a Costa Rican eco-resort and think, Well, it’s nice, but it’s no Tiki Room.
2 p.m. Sleeping Beauty Castle. Another autograph line: little girls having books signed by Disney Princesses―Snow White, Cinderella, and Belle. Many of the little girls are wearing newly purchased Disney princess costumes. In theory, the tiaras and pink tulle are the first steps down the slippery slope to Paris Hilton. Nevertheless, the girls are adorable.
8 p.m. Backstage. Back among the warehouses, Steven B. Davison’s parade performers―mainly Orange County high school and college gymnasts and actors―are still working on their steps. Inside a nearby rehearsal hall, director John Addis guides the actors who’ll play Alice and the Mad Hatter.
“Excellent,” he says after Alice muses, “Curiouser and curiouser.” But the Hatter is too restrained.
“Hatter,” Addis says. “Go further. I want you mad. I want you completely out there.” Davison says, “I tell the performers, ‘We dream it up―but you’re the ones who are going to bring it to life. You become the owners of the dream.’ ”
9 p.m. Fantasyland. Maybe the secret of Disneyland’s success is that it makes everyone who comes here an owner of the dream. At night the park’s magic grows more powerful. Sleeping Beauty Castle shimmers, the Matterhorn glows. Disneyland remains crowded until late. But, inevitably, you notice that more people are streaming down Main Street than are streaming in.
Back near the Fire House, Goofy and Dale―a different Goofy and Dale, surely―are still working the crowd. But it’s late. Goofy pulls Dale offstage, but he keeps coming back for an encore, like Bruce Springsteen telling Clarence Clemons they have to do one more song. Finally a recorded voice announces that Disneyland will be closing, and, waving wild goodbyes, G. and D. disappear.
Over at Indiana Jones Adventure, the “third shift” is about to begin again. John Schrimsher’s gardeners will be starting soon. For the rest of us, it’s time to pack up the kids, take off our mouse ears, and say goodnight.
POPULATION: 21,000 cast members (employees) in Disneyland Resort
ACREAGE: 85 acres open to the public (430 acres with Disney’s California Adventure, Downtown Disney, and the three resort hotels)
FOUNDED: July 17, 1955
AVERAGE JULY DAILY ATTENDANCE (UNOFFICIAL): 26,000
TOTAL ESTIMATED ATTENDANCE SINCE 1955: 500 million
TICKET PRICE, 1955: $1 (entrance only)
TICKET PRICE, 2005: $53 (includes all rides)