Here is an excerpt from my own Fall 1996 trip report. It describes my own experience on the "Innovation Tour." It was offered through Disney University by the Disney Vacation Club when I took it. You can now enjoy either an expanded or contracted version of it by booking the "Backstage Magic" or "Keys to the Kingdom" tours, respectively.
This was, by far, our busiest day of the trip so far. This morning, after we got up, showered and dressed, and got Allan ready to go, Barb and I abandoned Mom and Dad and the baby and took off to Old Key West Resort's Community Hall to meet our party for the Innovations in Action Tour. The tour is coordinated by the Disney Vacation Club for members and their guests and is a Disney University behind-the-scenes tour that includes a walk in the Utilidor (underground passages) under the Magic Kingdom, the plant nursery and tree farm, and other facilities. The cost is steep ($60) but we've all wanted to see this stuff for so long.
When we first started planning this trip together with Mom and Dad, we all wanted to go on the tour. Unfortunately, children under 16 are not allowed on the tour, so we couldn't take Allan when he arrived so unexpectedly. Our solution was to schedule Mom and Dad for the only day we knew the tour was running (Which was last Wednesday... and why Mom and Dad ditched us that morning) and we hoped we'd be able to catch another tour later in the trip. As it turned out, today was the day.
Only thirteen people were signed up for the tour and only eight actually showed up. We left Community Hall at 9:00am and headed for our bus that was assigned to us for the day. Tom, our tour guide, gave us a brief narrative about Walt Disney and his innovative ideas as we drove to our first destination. He mentioned such things as the first animated film with sound (Steamboat Willie), the first animated film with color (Flowers and Trees), the first animated film using the multi-plane camera (The Old Mill) and the first full-length animated feature film (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).
Our first stop on the tour was the new laundry facility. Opened in 1995, this facility now does all of the bedroom laundry for all of the Disney-owned resorts on property. Just a year earlier, a facility had been built to handle all of the All Star Resort capacity, but with the opening of the new facility, the All Star Laundry now handles all restaurant and food service laundry for all of the Disney-owned restaurants in the parks and at the resorts. A third laundry facility, actually the original one, now launders only cast member costumes.
The facility has an incoming material truck dock. The laundry is then hand sorted by a crew of CMs into towels, sheets, and pillow cases. We didn't see washcloths or hand towels, but I would imagine they are handled at this facility as well. The sorted material is placed in a beige-colored monorail hamper which conveys it to the washers. Once the laundry is placed in the hampers, it is not touched by human hands again until after the folding process has been completed. The German-made washing machines perform the washing task in fourteen chambers. The laundry is moved through the washer with an auger-like arrangement. A minimum of detergent and bleach is used to minimize environmental effects. Bacterial killing agents are also employed. The cleaned laundry is automatically placed in white-colored monorail hampers for moving to the dryers (for towels) or iron/dryers (for sheets and pillow whites). The laundry is then conveyed to folding machines where the final finishing is completed. The laundry facility runs two eight-hour shifts on seven days and is currently running at about 75% capacity (I assume of those two shifts). The old facility was barely able to keep up with a seven-day, twenty-four hour operation.
During our walk through the facility, I asked Tom what the life expectancy of a towel at the Walt Disney World Resort was. He said that most towels are retired after less than ninety days of use.
From the laundry area, we reentered our bus and drove toward the South Service Area of Walt Disney World. Along the way, Tom described the water management that was designed into Walt Disney World property back in the 1960's. Before Walt Disney World opened in 1971, 59 miles of water management canals were dug. Since then, it's not been necessary to add any additional canals. The canals operate with a French-designd balanced water gate that opens automatically, without power, when water levels reach critical heights in the show areas. For example, it is important to maintain relatively constant water levels on the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake so that water transportation is unaffected. The water management system performs that assignment.
The South Service Area contains three major components: water treatment, waste treatment and recycling, and the horticulture department's tree farm. First, the water treatment facility is located there. Sewage from all of the resorts and parks is piped to the facility for treatment. The resulting "gray" water is 90% pure, sufficiently so to drink. However, the "gray" water is not used for human consumption, but is used instead to irrigate the many landscaped areas of Walt Disney World.
The solid wastes are squeezed to reduce water content as much as possible. Then, it is composted in a managed process with wood chips added to further reduce moisture content. Air is pumped into the piles of compost to expedite the breakdown of the material. The compost, when sufficiently "cooked", is used to fertilize all areas of the property.
We also drove by the recycling facility also. This facility is a sorting and compacting plant which sells the material to outside concerns for actual reuse. The facility, once a liability to the company, now produces about $100,000 per month in additional revenue for Walt Disney World.
Barb's favorite part of the tour was next...the horticultural area. We stopped smack in the middle of the topiary area. Three different kinds of topiaries are produced, maintained, and used at Walt Disney World. First, topiary is made by growing plants in a re-bar frame and triming the plant as it grows to take the shape of the frame. The frames themselves are made by the central fabrication facility at the North Service Area. This process often takes up to ten years for a showable topiary, but the resulting plant is very durable and can be shown for many, many years. The second kind of topiary is simply shaping trees or shrubs without any kind of frame. An example is the shaped plant material in Future World at Epcot. Instead of taking on the shape of a character, these topiaries are more simple, geometric shapings that provide interest in a planned landscape. The third topiary type is the stuffed topiary. In this case, a frame is used...but instead of growing a plant and shaping it, the frame is instead stuffed with spagnum moss and ground-cover plants are planted on the surface of the moss to grow. Such topiaries can be made showable in just six weeks or less, but require constant maintenance and watering. Even so, they are only usable for a small fraction of the time of the grown topiaries. Needless to say, Barb became a shutterbug at this stop. One other interesting note...while we were at the topiary area, Tom pointed out a huge berm and fence system...the border of the new Animal Kingdom park.
A driving tour of the North Service Area was next on the docket. We saw the central fabrication shops, which currently produce all of the walk-around character heads for all of Disney's parks around the world for two reasons. First, the capacity and expertise are in Florida. Second, by producing the heads in one location, the appearance of the characters remain consistent from park to park. We also saw alot of pieces of rides. I saw the front end of a monorail, a Peter Pan galleon, bits and pieces of several Grand Prix cars, and so on.
Next, we drove by the dry dock area where the Richard F. Irvine had just rehabed. Apparently, the boat was only scheduled to be painted, but alot of dry rot and other problems were discovered that had to be dealt with as well. Now, one of the Magic Kingdom transportation boats was in dry-dock. It turns out that this is the same service area off of Bay Lake that I'd seen from my water sprite earlier in the trip.
The ride and attraction planning building was nearby. Tom didn't have much to say about this...apparently the Imagineering department's East coast facility.
Right around the corner is the vehicle maintenance building where Walt Disney World's (Tom said) over 18,000 vehicles, including 163 buses, are maintained. The buses, by the way, are given complete brake replacements every 20,000 miles. Not a bad idea the way some of these Walt Disney World drivers stop on a dime...or at least try to. The Monorail "roundhouse" was just beyond the vehicle maintenance building. That's where Walt Disney World's 12 monorail trains are serviced. By the way, earlier in the tour, Tom had mentioned that the cost of monorail track is now estimated at about $3 million per mile, not including stations and rolling stock. It's no wonder that Walt Disney World is slow to add additional lines.
Our next stop was the production facility where the parade floats and other materials are stored and maintained. The first thing we saw there was the water pageant barges. The images conveyed on the barges are only two dimensional, but the water pageant was the forerunner of the Main Street Electrical Parade / Spectromagic concept which gives the pageant a nice historical perspective.
Then we walked inside the float storage building and were able to look inside Spectromagic's Ursula float (pretty tight in there, since two folks have to be inside...the Ursula character and the driver.) We were also able to see many of the floats up close. The "Remember the Magic" parade floats were scattered about outside the building. Apparently they are not as delicate as the Spectromagic floats.
Tom described a little bit about how parades operate at WDW. The parade music and other effects (turning lighting on and off, for example) are always zoned throughout the parade route. That is, the people that are near any given float hear the music that is associated with that float while people in other zones hear the music associated with the float that is in their area. This is controlled via "pucks" that are embedded in the parade route pavement and electronic pick-up devices within the floats that allow the floats to "know where they are" on the route. Wireless radio permits the floats to communicate their positions to the parade control center down below in the Utilidor.
One last comment here...we were able to see the Splash Mountain and Pirates of the Carribean attraction buildings from the backside here. I was surprised at how small they looked...very large, of course, but alot smaller than I guess I thought they'd be.
Finally, we loaded up on the bus again to ride to our last destination...the Utilidor. The Utilidor is actually built on the ground level. It's 16 feet high, and includes all of the main utility runs for compressed air, water (hot and cold), power, communications, garbage collection, and so on for the Magic Kingdom. The support shops for wardrobe, wigs, costumes, and other support activities are located down here, too.
Over the years, I've read glowing reports about the wild success of the Utilidor. Urban planners are thrilled with the idea, the Walt Disney Company boasts of it's existance, and the advantages of having the Utilidor are really plain to most anyone. So, I asked Tom why the Utilidor wasn't repeated at any of the more recent Disney theme parks. The only answer that Tom could muster is that the cost must be prohibitive. I guess that explains why cities don't have Utilidors either.
Only two internal combustion engine vehicles are permitted in the Utilidor. First, ambulances are allowed (in the case of emergency, of course). Second, a Brinks truck shows up at the cash office to haul away Disney's haul. Tom joked that the Brinks truck came in every ten minutes or so...at least I thought it was a joke. Maybe not.
We walked through the wardrobe department. Service windows exist for each of the themed areas. If you're a cast member that works in Tomorrowland, you pick up and drop off your costume at the Tomorrowland window and so on. Three costumes and at least two wigs (if needed) are maintained for each cast member. Currently, Walt Disney World handles all of the washing and maintenance of costumes, but plans are in the works to allow some CMs to do their own.
We spent alot of time in the wig department. A couple of wig makers showed us how wigs are produced and maintained for both "face" character CMs and also audio-animatronic figures (as in the Hall of Presidents). Wigs can cost up to $3000 or more depending on it's materials and complexity. Human hair is used on some wigs, but most are artificial fibers.
One other stop was the central control facility where the audio and animatronic controls for all of the Magic Kingdom's attractions are located and operated. We weren't allowed to enter the room, but clearly the facility is mostly digital now (it used to be all analog in the old days) and looks pretty much like a computer room in any office or manufacturing facility.
After that, we walked out of the Utilidor by Tinker Bell's Treasures. We walked from there to the corner of town square with Tom pointing out several items of interest along the way.
With that, we walked back to the bus, behind Tony's Town Square Cafe. The bus dropped us off at the front entrance to the Magic Kingdom...and the tour was all over just like that. The three and a half hours flew right by.