Behind the Scenes: Lessons for The Front and Back of the House-Part II

by Jeff Kober, contributing writer

Behind the Scenes Lessons for The Front and Back of the House-Part II  

Last week we described many of the backstage locations that make up the entire Disney experience. Today we’re going to discuss what lessons can be learned about how we should separate the front from the back of the house operation for our customers. Here are the lessons learned:   

To Preserve The Guest Experience

Isn't this why the Utilidor was created? After all, no one liked the idea at Disneyland that a jungle cruise skipper had to go from the dressing area behind Tomorrowland and then cross Main Street in order to get to Adventureland. The idea was let's preserve the guest experience by letting them cross under the park through the Utilidor.  

Likewise, there is a great deal of activity that needs to go onstage. For instance, you move a lot of product to stores in Adventureland, Frontierland, and Liberty Square. So much product, that it can't be brought in overnight. Those stores sit in the middle of the park. The only way you can access these stores are through the themed areas of the park or from underneath. So a Utilidor made sense.  

The problem was, building a Utilidor was an expensive idea. Therefore, when Epcot was built, the Utilidor concept was very limited to supporting functions in the Communicore area of the park. Yes, there is a Utilidor at Epcot. And it's not well utilized. In fact, at 2 a.m., it can be a fairly lonely, if not creepy place to be.  

Rather, much of what happens backstage occurs around the perimeter of Epcot. And buses are utilized to take cast members from one location to another.  

Disney's Animal Kingdom utilizes the same concept, but without any Utilidor. And Disney's Hollywood Studios? Well, that's a different story. Because the idea here is to replicate an authentic studio, seeing people walking in a Star Tours outfit in front of an Indiana Jones adventure is supposed to make the experienced more real. That said, there are places the guests never see. Especially among those are locker and dining locations for Cast Members to get away from the guest.  

In short, this is not about Utilidors. It is about Disney's commitment to preserve the guest experience. And since immersive theming is a big part of the show, it's important that you separate onstage from backstage.  

To Get A Break

Let's face it-any employee needs space away from the customer-and that's no less true at Walt Disney World. Backstage facilities offer a place to get away from being "best of show." That means that such a facility needs to be away from the customers, so that employees can "let their hair down." Traditionally, that means an outdoor and an indoor location. Often those who work outdoors want to take a break inside. And those who are inside all of the time want to get out into the sunshine.   

I mention this because of what I observe when I go to Wal-Mart or Target. In many, if not most locations, you find a break area right in front of the store where customers cross by to enter. What possessed them to go in that direction is beyond me. I don't want to see people kicking back. I want to see them busy serving my needs. I don't pretend that they don't need a break, I just find it peculiar that they don't place that location somewhere where the employees aren't in eyesight of the customers. I can't believe it's much of a break for them to have everyone passing by them.  

For that matter, any time you see an employee standing in front of a store or place of business on the phone or smoking a cigarette or talking on a cell phone, you have created a poor image of what your operation is all about. It's a poor first impression and is often what contributes to the clutter and litter found in front of the store.  

By the way, not all employees work in a "customer" location. Some, like call center reps, are on the phone with customers. For some, the customers they serve may be internal rather than external. But they need a break as well. They need a time and place to go and "vent" or "let out some steam" or simply "get away." This typically requires providing them that time and physical space apart.  

To Provide Offices

It's a business, after all. Someplace, you have to locate computers and files. Trust me when I tell you that they are all over. Initially my first desk was upstairs at the palace in Italy at Epcot. Later it was a few blocks from Sea World, way outside of the Disney property.  

There is little space that hasn't been utilized as an office space backstage at Disney World. And when they can't find office space, you'll find it either in the form of mobile units or even formal office buildings like the Sun Trust building or Team Disney. While Walt didn't want to spend money on offices. And while he not only emphasized, but modeled, the importance of being out with the customer, there is still a need for the business of the operation to be handled. And that business should be kept largely away from the customer.  

To Centralize Command

Just like any show, you have to have some kind of stage management. In the early days of The Magic Kingdom that took the form of DACS (Digital Animation Control System). Now known as Engineering Central, it's a centralized location roughly underneath Peter Pan's Flight from where parades, attraction, music, lighting and so forth could be managed. The same concept was employed since the opening of Epcot You probably remember the Astuter Computer Revue by Sperry. This allowed guests to see how Disney ran the entire Epcot operation. Since then, computers have become much smaller and decentralized.  

What many didn't know is that Walt Disney World, for many years, has run a command center in the event of hurricanes of other major catastrophes. Located in a plain facility dedicated largely to telecommunications, this room looked like some war room in the event of nuclear annihilation. From here the leadership of the organization can run the run the operation of the entire resort, while monitoring incoming storms and maintaining contact with the outside world. Believe me when I say that visiting this was one of those wow's few ever got to see. 

To Prepare and Test The Guest Experience

Backstage areas offer places where you can test the guest experience onstage without letting the general public see it. Here are some examples:  

When the highly stylized look of The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin was being designed, planners were concerned about what the large tropical motif would look like in the bright Florida sun. Therefore, they painted a sample of what that would look like on the back of show buildings at Epcot. For years after the hotels were opened, you would see these leftover renderings standing 40-50 feet high.  

Step backstage by the parade building at The Magic Kingdom and you see a wide array of pavers and concrete finishings. Some look themed to Main Street. While others look themed to Tomorrowland and Adventureland. Having a location away from the guests to test the look and feel of these walkways helps designers to make right choices in creating the finished product.  

Likewise, step inside the Cast Services building at Epcot and what you will find is a strange assortment of carpets. Many textile retailers, promise carpeting with life time warranties, but whether they live up to it is determined here where Cast Members can walk over it day in and day out. It tells the operations team as to which carpets will take the kind of wear made possible by millions of guests.  

One of the most unique places to test the guest experience was behind Disney's Caribbean Beach resort. During the busy years in the 1990s of creating new Disney hotels, complete room mockups were created to allow designers to completely visualize the Guest experience. Everything, down to the linen and the towels were laid out in these rooms. And stories are told of executives including Michael Eisner who would stay the night in these rooms to test them out.  

To Ready the Show

Cinderella Castle. Originally, it had been thought to be a possible apartment for Roy, but he died before such could be created. Then it served as a location for operators when guests dialed for Walt Disney World. It was very close to becoming an apartment again during the 25th anniversary. The plans for placing an apartment or guest suite in Cinderella castle have been on the books for many years. The stumbling block was often the fact that the park is not a quiet, sweet haven at night. It's busy. There are trucks in the street. There are men and women hosing walkways or mowing lawns. There is construction that only happens at night. The decision to finally let someone stay the night in the castle requires someone act as concierge and not let them wander out and about. It also requires limiting the guest view when they are in the suite. The same requirement is made in the new Disneyland suite above Pirates of the Caribbean where a concierge is required to stay the night in an adjacent office.  

There is much that happens between operating hours. Let me share one of my favorite experiences. The night before the 25th Walt Disney World rededication I came in with a film crew to shoot preparations for the event. At 3 a.m., I stood with a camera operator shooting the rehearsal for the re-enactment parade that was to follow the next morning. Main Street was lit up and we were the only ones on the sidewalk watching the rehearsal for the rededication. This rehearsal included a huge marching band, and more Disney characters than I have ever seen in one setting. Besides the director, they performed in front of my camera operator and myself, and no one else. It was magical. I will not soon forget that moment.  

Such moments occur all the time, though most involve maintenance and construction work. There is much that is done to ready the show, and that activity is carried out at night when guests are not around - or at least when they are asleep in the castle.  

All that said and done: You can't rehearse with the guests in the park. You have to provide a time where the park is readied for the next day or for a special upcoming event.  


In optimizing your organization, what is considered "public" in your business? What is considered "behind the scenes?" How do you separate these areas?  

What activities need to be done in public, but should be carried out before or after the customers or others have arrived?  

Are there are areas/activities your customers should never see.  They may be:

• Areas unsafe or dangerous to them.

• Areas that do not pertain to the customer experience.

• Certain operational activities being carried out away from their presence.

• Discussions that should not be held in front of the customers.

• Areas that permit employees time away from the customers and compliers to "let their hair down."  

Finally, remember that the back of the house should support the front of the house in delivering great service to the customer. Every part of the operation is important to the entire experience. And that is what helps create the magic in your business.