The Story Behind the Walt Disney World Casting Center

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

For me, one of the joys of the Walt Disney World Resort is that you don't have to go into the theme parks to have a wonderful experience. Without paying a penny, I can visit the various resorts and other buildings on Walt Disney World Resort property and be entertained by Disney storytelling.

Several weeks ago, I talked about Entertainment Architecture and today I am going to discuss an example that is open to the public and is probably a location that few visitors include on their list of sites to see: the Walt Disney World Casting Center.

The original Walt Disney World Casting Center was hidden behind the Magic Kingdom and it was joked that if you could actually find the Casting Center, then you were automatically hired. Of course, that was just a joke because when the Magic Kingdom opened there was a 30-to-1 ratio. On average, for every 30 people who applied for a job, only one was hired because the requirements were so high to be a cast member.

When Michael Eisner became Chairman of the Disney Company in the mid-1980s, he had plans to drastically expand the Walt Disney World property that eventually resulted in the opening of two more theme parks, two water parks, an expanded shopping area including nightclubs and of course, additional resorts.

It just seemed to make sense to have a Casting Center that was visible and easily accessible in order to employ the thousands of cast members needed to work in these locations. Eisner also felt this would be another opportunity to utilize Entertainment Architecture and offered that opportunity to architect Robert Stern.

Robert A. M. Stern is also the architect for Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resorts, Disney's BoardWalk and along with architect Jaquelin Robertson, was the master planner and designer of several buildings for the town of Celebration (near Walt Disney World).

Stern has been responsible for the Maxx International Headquarters Building in the Netherlands to the Grand Harbor at Vero Beach. Both structures won the American Institute of Architecture award. He taught at Columbia, served on the Disney Board of Directors, wrote books, and even hosted a public television series.

His design philosophy is to take work from the past and re-interpret it for a modern audience. "Architecture is a dialog with the past carried on in the present with an eye toward the future," claimed Stern when asked to explain his "interpretation rather than innovation" approach.

When confronted with the challenge of creating a Walt Disney World Casting Center, he selected as his inspiration the Doge's Palace in Venice, Italy, since it called to mind the fanciful castles associated with Disney as well as portraying a sense of authority and power. He began work on the project in 1987 and the Casting Center opened in 1989.

For reference, the Disney Imagineers constructed a re-creation of the Doge's Palace in the Italian Pavilion in World Showcase at Epcot. The re-creation even includes the infamous "Bridge of Sighs" that connects the interrogation rooms in the Doge's Palace to the old prisons. The name comes from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice out the window before being taken down to their cells. That famous bridge is referenced twice in the Walt Disney World Casting Center as I will reveal when I discuss its design.

"You have to remember that Disney is a dream world rooted in a dream view of life and of architectural history," stated Stern.

The Casting Center faces the busy I-4 freeway taking guests to the theme parks, and acts as whimsical billboard to attract employment applicants. Originally, it was extremely distinctive from other buildings along I-4 and immediately identifiable as Disney.

The building is approximately 61,000 square feet. The entrance is right across the street from Downtown Disney so that it would be easy to locate for potential new hires. Since Disney is a "show," it is casting for roles and not just hiring employees for a job so that is why it is called a Casting Center.

Originally the entrance was lined with Italian cypress trees (just like the ones in the rear of the Italian pavilion) to add to the story, but they have recently been eliminated to make the building even more visible.

The diamond patterns on the outside of the building hark back to the pattern found on the Italian harlequin, as well as being exaggerated references to the same triangular pattern on the exterior of the real Doge's Palace. A Disney urban legend that is partly based in truth is that the design pattern echoes the diamond shape of Argyle socks that Walt Disney supposedly loved to wear. Reinforcing this legend is a painting of Walt inside the building, where he is shown wearing Argyle socks in the same color and pattern as this exterior building pattern.

The canopy awning and turrets and crenellation (notches) seem to resemble the traditional Disney castles. However, here is a secret: that airplane-wing like canopy was actually taken from drawings of Tomorrowland.

The Mickey Mouse head-shaped cut-outs along the top of the building also identify the building as Disney. They also serve a more practical purpose. They are scuppers, so when the rain comes, the water on the room drains through them. Scuppers are very common on ships to eliminate excess water on the decks.

Everyone who comes to the building gets a smile from the bronze doorknobs. They are re-creations of the famous doorknob in Disney's animated version of Alice in Wonderland. The doorknob is truly a Disney character, since he does not exist in Lewis Carroll's original story. He is there to help relieve the anxiety of someone coming to apply for a job.

The building is designed to move potential applicants seamlessly to the location where they will apply. A short walk leads to a small oval rotunda surrounded by 12 gold leaf-covered statues of Disney characters on pillars just as you might find sculptures on pillars in an Italian palace. They are also placed there to make applicants less fearful and to remind them of Disney magic.

At this point, the only way you can turn is to the left, to ascend a ramp 150 feet long. Clever people have noticed that on the outside of the building, Stern has painted an exaggerated "Bridge of Sighs" on the side of the building to match that interior ramp. High above the ramp is an actual "Bridge of Sighs" crossing over the ramp to Professional Casting.

Stern intended the icons to bring to mind the process of being judged rather than the process of being sent to prison, although some cast members may debate that interpretation.

As you walk up the ramp, there are paintings on either side that once again mimic the murals that would be found in an Italian villa. However, the paintings on the side of the building facing the real world and paralleling I-4 depict unhappiness and road hazards. Even Mickey Mouse is getting a ticket from a police officer.

The paintings on the side of the building facing Walt Disney World property and your potential future depict the Disney characters enjoying themselves tremendously at the parks, and even a smiling Walt Disney looking out on his dream that he never lived to see finished.

In addition to these murals, a potential applicant will also notice cracks on the wall and under the bridge. A sign of Disney neglect? No, just another example of Disney storytelling.

During the Renaissance, newly wealthy Italian families wanted to make their estates look old and ancestral, and so utilized the effect of trompe l'oeil (fooling the eye) of painting cracks to create the illusion of looking antique.

From a distance these cracks look amazingly real, but if you touch them you will find they are flush with the wall. This imperfection is also designed to make the applicant feel more comfortable that not every thing is perfect.

The vaulted ceiling and natural lighting also provides relaxation through a sense of "openness." And looking up, you can see Peter Pan flying toward Neverland, or in this case, a central receiving desk to guide you to the proper location.

Although you probably already know you are at the proper location, there is a scale model of Cinderella Castle drawing you in to the waiting area just as the similar castle in the Magic Kingdom draws you into the theme park.

The Walt Disney World Casting Center is just another example of Disney storytelling through architecture. While its primary function, especially today, is to attract potential job applicants, Disney has never restricted guests from taking pictures of the building or even taking pictures inside of the building before reaching the central receiving desk area.

It's a wonderful hidden treasure where a guest can spend a few minutes before crossing the street to spend lots and lots of money at the World of Disney store.