The Secret Origins of Hidden Mickeysby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Some Disney fans are obsessed with finding Hidden Mickeys, and there are books and websites devoted to documenting the tiniest details of these sightings. The Disney Company has never produced an official listing of Hidden Mickeys and, for many years, Walt Disney Imagineering would neither confirm nor deny the existence of this secretive detail.
I saw my first Hidden Mickey when I was a child visiting Disneyland. I recognized it immediately and had no doubt that it was an image of Mickey Mouse hidden in an attraction. When Disneyland opened in 1955, one of the more popular attractions in Tomorrowland was Rocket to the Moon. Guests entered a circular theater meant to represent the inside of a space rocket.
They could view their progress on two huge circular screens in the center of the theater, one overhead on the ceiling and one down below in the front of them. The attraction was updated to Flight to the Moon in 1967, and included the addition of a pre-show visit to Mission Control with Audio-Animatronics scientists like Tom Morrow. In 1975, the destination was changed to Mars.
The Flight to the Moon was also in Walt Disney World’s Tomorrowland in 1971 and later changed to Mars as the destination, as well. However, the Hidden Mickey that first appeared in Rocket to the Moon in 1955 never changed in any of these updates over the decades.
As the seat beneath me sunk and shook and I heard the roar of the rocket engines thrusting me into outer space, I gazed at the bottom screen and I saw my first Hidden Mickey. The image of the quickly diminishing spaceport, designed by Imagineer John Hench, who had just finished painting Mickey’s official 25th birthday portrait, had three circles that were clearly meant to amusingly suggest the iconic Mickey Mouse head outline and not Tomorrowland in Disneyland.
At the 6:08 mark on the following video, you can see it clearly.
For those who have been living in a cave on the moon for the last two decades, a Hidden Mickey is an image of Mickey Mouse “hidden” at a Disney venue like a theme park, a restaurant, or cruise ship. Most commonly, this is the tri-circled silhouette of Mickey’s head, but some Hidden Mickeys are much more clever. (My favorite is Mickey’s foot on a 1930s movie poster sticking out beneath the Public Enemy movie poster in the gangster scene of The Great Movie Ride at Disney Hollywood Studios.)
Today, there are a popular series of books documenting Hidden Mickeys at Disneyland, Walt Disney World and the Disney Cruise ships compiled by Steve Barrett. These books are so popular that they are among the very few books sold in the Disney theme parks that are not produced by Disney. I know Barrett, and he is a delightfully charming fellow who patiently puts up with me joking to him that something can’t be a Hidden Mickey because if Mickey’s image can be seen, then it isn’t truly hidden.
Besides the books and his own website, he also writes a continuing column about Hidden Mickeys in Celebrations magazine.
Barrett wrote his first Hidden Mickeys book in 2002, but had been interested in the subject since the 1990s.
“The first website I knew of that talked about Hidden Mickeys was put together by some college students at Stetson University. I remember studying their site,” he recalled.
With all the excitement surrounding Hidden Mickeys, Disney fans seem to have only a vague idea of how their existence was first revealed and how they became so widely known.
Actually, there are two people who should receive recognition for lighting the spark that has become an inferno of an obsession for many Disney fans: Disney enthusiast Arlen Miller and Disney Imagineer Dave Fisher.
In 1989, Miller was working at the Disney MGM Studios.
“I was volunteering to write articles for Eyes and Ears [the WDW weekly cast newspaper)]back in 1989,” Miller told me recently. “I had some WDI friends who would sometimes mention the Hidden Mickey in some of the attractions, but no one was supposed to know about it. Then one day I thought I would try to find them. I found all of them in Epcot and the Studios and decided to write about it with a co-writer. After our editor verified with WDI and printed our findings, I then heard from the Disney News magazine several months later and they interviewed me on the phone for 45 minutes.”
In the November 30, 1989, Eyes and Ears (Vol. 19, No 48), Arlen Miller and co-writer Bob Weir wrote an article titled “Hidden Disney”:
“Attention to detail is one quality that has greatly contributed to the success of our Theme Parks. With a careful eye, visitors will see intricate carvings, detailed hand painting, crafted ironwork, sculpted landscaping and many other special touches that all contribute to our ‘good show.’
“In addition to these rich, visible details are less visible Disney touches, references to and symbols of the history of the Walt Disney Company. For example, a shrewd observer walking down Main Street, U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom Park will notice the signs painted on the second floor windows of the shops, listing the names and fictional occupations of various luminaries in the Walt Disney Company’s past and present.
“Eagle-eyed Disney trivia buffs at Epcot Center will be rewarded with the discovery of hidden symbols of the stylized Mickey Mouse head—one large circle topped by two smaller ones. These cryptic symbols, designed into the attractions by Walt Disney Imagineers, are gems to observant cast members like area reporters Arlen Miller and Rob Weir. Arlen and Rob heard about some hidden bits of Disney detail in Future World at Epcot Center, confirmed them and searched for more. With the help of attractions hosts and hostesses, here’s what they found.”
The remainder of the article included detailed listings of Hidden Mickeys in Spaceship Earth, Horizons, World of Motion, Backstage Magic, The Land, Harvest Theater (the film Symbiosis), Norway and Wonders of Life (including a photo of the Body Wars mural with the infamous and unfortunately long gone “broccoli” Mickey).”
At the end of the article, the editor wrote: “Eyes and Ears contacted Marty Sklar, president of Walt Disney Imagineering, for comment on Arlen and Rob’s discoveries. ‘This is just one more reward for the true Disney fan—discovering these hidden details,’ Marty said. ‘It’s also part of the magic of creating the fun—you’ve got to have fun doing it, too.’”
“When they [Eyes and Ears] got our article,” Miller told me, “the editor had never heard of this before, so [they] phoned Imagineering to confirm it. By chance, they got connected directly to Marty Sklar. They read him the article over the phone and he acknowledged each of the examples we mentioned in the article. Finally, he asked how we knew about this stuff since it was supposed to be an Imagineering secret. I never gave up the names of my sources. I don’t know what Marty might have done to them.”
So the cat was out of the bag, at least for Walt Disney World cast members who would—from that point—start sharing some of these discoveries with park guests. The Epcot Outreach and Teacher Center in Communicore had several data lists that they would hand out, including an ever-changing and incomplete one of Hidden Mickeys. As Hidden Mickey hunters are well aware, not only are new Mickeys created but old Mickeys disappear, especially when an attraction is changed.
When the Epcot Outreach and Teacher Center closed, that list was taken over by Epcot Guest Relations, although it was clearly stated to guests that there was no “official list” approved by Imagineering. It was also stated at that time that even Imagineering had no idea how many deliberate Hidden Mickeys were out there in the parks since they never kept track.
After Disney News magazine interviewed Miller, they went to Imagineer David Fisher to write the article on Hidden Mickeys for their magazine.
Fisher began his Disney career in 1978 working with Disneyland custodial. By 1983, Fisher was sent to Japan to help Tokyo Disneyland set up their custodial operation. By 1984, Fisher was a writer at the Magic Kingdom Club that was involved with producing the Disney News. Fisher became a show writer at Imagineering in 1987 and continues in that position today.
It was this article written by Fisher that exposed the concept of Hidden Mickeys to the general public. Appearing in the December 1991 Disney News (Vol. 27, No. 1), Fisher wrote “The Secrets of Walt Disney World: Mickey, Mickey Everywhere”:
“So you think you know your Disney trivia, huh?” began the article. “When EPCOT Center opened at Walt Disney World in 1982, a conscious decision was made to give the new Theme Park a distinctly separate identity from the older, more familiar Magic Kingdom. One of the ways this was done was to purposely keep all references to the Disney characters out of the new Park. Consequently, Mickey and Donald were not available to shake hands and pose for pictures; no cuddly little Chips or Dales could be purchased in the shops; and those venerable old favorites, the Mickey Mouse ears, were nowhere to be found. However, despite the ban (which has since been rescinded), Mickey Mouse was still seen on three things in EPCOT Center. Name them.
“The short answer—the one that will win you bets with family and friends—is that Mickey appeared on name tags worn by Epcot Center Cast Members, on merchandise price tags, and on the manhole covers that dot the ground throughout the park.
“But those were only subtle-yet-obvious references to Mickey. Leave it to the devious denizens of Walt Disney Imagineering to work the familiar ears or silhouette into just about anything they could during those early, no-Mouse days of EPCOT Center.
“Tributes to Mickey Mouse do not begin and end in EPCOT Center. Disney’s forever-fresh-faced star is hidden in many places around Walt Disney World.”
Fisher went on to list 17 Hidden Mickeys at the Magic Kingdom Park, Epcot and Disney Hollywood Studios (including a Mickey Mouse cookie cutter in a basket in front of one of the worker droids at the original version of Star Tours). The article included eight color photos of various Hidden Mickeys. The next two issues featured letters from readers revealing the location of other Hidden Mickeys.
As then-chief of Walt Disney Attractions, Dick Nunis explained to new CEO Michael Eisner as they toured Epcot shortly after Eisner was hired, Epcot was designed to be “complementary” to the Magic Kingdom, not “competitive” with it. In addition, Epcot was to be an “adult” experience and it would be inappropriate to have Mickey and the gang in a location that served alcohol.
From someone I used to work with who was part of that tour (and still works at Walt Disney World so I am withholding his name at this time), Eisner “did one of those exaggerated reactions like from those Tex Avery cartoons and said, ‘That stops as of this minute!’ Eisner realized that Disney guests wanted to see the Disney characters walking around. Within two weeks, we had Farmer Mickey at The Land and Outer Space Mickey at Spaceship Earth and more.”
Fisher continued to write for Disney News, in particular articles that focused on Imagineering.
Years later, Fisher wrote (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) an article that began with an acknowledgement that it was he who revealed the existence of Hidden Mickeys, as well as a brief apology for his part in causing the craziness. Why was an apology necessary?
Seriously, some Imagineers were always upset that a private “inside” practice was shared with the guests. It was like a secret handshake from a very exclusive club being revealed to outsiders.
Imagineers were also deeply concerned that the guests’ fascination with finding Hidden Mickeys was taking them out of being immersed in the entire experience. In addition, the knowledge was generating a near hysteria of thinking any three circles were possible Hidden Mickeys, as long as they were on Disney property.
Imagineer Joe Rohde, in particular, has become a strong advocate to eliminate Hidden Mickeys. That was even though, once upon a time, Rohde tried to put a shrunken Mickey Mouse head on the back of the main room bar of the Adventurers Club at Pleasure Island as a Hidden Mickey, but it was discovered and removed a day before the club opened.
However, the patience of the Imagineers was tested even more when Disney Cast Members tried to create their own Hidden Mickeys. Either by putting together three plates together on the table in the banquet scene in the Haunted Mansion or hiding a plush Mickey Mouse doll in the window of the gangster scene in The Great Movie Ride. These enthusiastic cast members wanted to become part of the fun. No matter how many times Imagineers removed those cast member-created Hidden Mickeys when they were discovered, those Hidden Mickeys would always return again and again, sometimes forcing a disgruntled compromise.
Today, the popularity of Hidden Mickeys is so great that guests practically demand that new Hidden Mickeys be included in any new project. It is hard to believe that, for more than twenty years, Hidden Mickeys have been an “open secret." At Walt Disney World, Disney's Wilderness Lodge Resort has available at its check-in counter a Hidden Mickey scavenger hunt where families can decipher clues to locate the almost three-dozen Hidden Mickeys at the resort.
The Disney Company has no current plans to publish a book or organize an event that would focus on the phenomenon known as Hidden Mickeys. It is obvious that the fascination with hunting Hidden Mickeys has captured the hearts and minds of many Disney fans, who will debate forever whether any three circles are a deliberate Hidden Mickey or merely decorative or just wishful thinking.
There are no deliberate Hidden Mickeys in this column.