Sorry, mouse fans: If you’ve ever been to a Disney park, chances are you missed a lot.
“Disneyland was designed so that you really couldn’t see everything in a single visit,” says Paula Sigman Lowery, a consulting historian for the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. She points to Walt Disney’s signature love of arcane embellishment, first in his animation (in "Pinocchio," just try to catch all the details of the background paintings in Geppetto’s workshop) and later in his groundbreaking California theme park.
Disney acolytes live for those minutiae and hat tips to those in the know, fueling a brand loyalty that’s the envy of businesses around the world. Disney Parks have parlayed this emotional connection into an uninterrupted reign as America’s best family getaways and most-visited tourist attractions since 1955.
Today, in addition to all the Easter eggs Walt and his Imagineers baked into their attraction designs, the parks have also accumulated almost six decades of hidden history that’s waiting to be discovered by eagle-eyed guests — provided they know where to look.
How many of these secrets did you know?
Hidden at the top of the 147-foot mountain of Disneyland’s first roller coaster, the circa 1959 Matterhorn Bobsleds, is something more surprising than a roaring, fur-covered beast: a single-hoop basketball court for use by park employees on their breaks. It was created by vote to fill the extra space in the snowcapped icon, as the coaster makes use of only the bottom two-thirds of the peak.
A kinder Dumbo
Timothy Q. Mouse, who presides over Dumbo the Flying Elephant (Magic Kingdom and Disneyland), once brandished a training whip to make the elephants soar. Times changed, and the whip was quietly replaced with a “magic feather.” One of the original Dumbo “flying elephant” vehicles is on display at the Smithsonian.
Meow vs. mouse
As any urban dweller can tell you, mice are a fact of life — especially at Disneyland, a theme park built in the center of Anaheim, Calif., where every day brings spills of all sorts that critters love. To help curb the problem, Disney takes a barn cat approach and “employs” hundreds of collarless, free-roaming mousers that they feed during the day (and spay and neuter) then let loose at night. It’s a fun irony that Mickey’s greatest natural enemy is given the keys to the Kingdom after dark.
Raiders of the lost iguanodon
Although they are different rides on opposite coasts, the track layouts of Indiana Jones (Disneyland) and Dinosaur (Disney’s Animal Kingdom) are nearly identical. The sets and lighting are different.
The largest and most complicated audio-animatronic ever assembled is the 22-foot-tall Yeti inside Expedition Everest (Disney’s Animal Kingdom) — and it doesn’t work. When the ride opened in 2006, it lunged menacingly at every passing train, but its systems couldn’t sustain the intensity, and it had to be turned off. Now its design-failure immobilization is concealed with a strobe-light effect, spurring some guests to nickname it “Disco Yeti.”
Walt’s the password?
Although it may be more of an open secret at this point, mum’s the word on a mostly off-limits speakeasy-esque private dinner club called Club 33, hidden in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. (Tokyo Disneyland also has one but not the Magic Kingdom.) To find it, look for a gray-green door near the Blue Bayou restaurant with a mirrored plaque that reads “33” — but don’t bother pushing the button for entry unless you have a reservation. (There’s purportedly an 18-year waiting list and $10,000 initiation fee.) Inside, celebrities and business VIPs can grab dinner and a Big Easy–inspired cocktail, the only such place within Disneyland itself where alcohol is allowed.
Each president in the Hall of Presidents (Magic Kingdom) wears clothing made using the techniques of his era. For example, if there were no sewing machines in his time — we’re looking at you, Georgie boy — then his suit is hand-stitched.
For rock ’n’ roll fans, Walt Disney World may not actually be the most magical place on earth: The Beatles officially broke up at Disney’s Polynesian Resort. While on vacation there on Dec. 29, 1974, John Lennon signed the papers that made their dissolution legal.
Repurposed film props
The organ in the ballroom scene of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion is the actual one played by Captain Nemo (James Mason) in 1954’s "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" —albeit with a different configuration of the pipes.
Want to upload that vacation video to YouTube? Don’t be bummed if Disney asks you to take it down. As in most privately owned theme parks, everything in Disney — characters, rides, and architecture, down to every mouse-eared design detail — is the company’s intellectual property. Disney hasn’t flexed that legal muscle yet, but as a spokesperson seemed to suggest in this story on Daily Finance, it could. It’s just one reason that the movie "Escape from Tomorrow,: shot guerilla style at Walt Disney World, was such a gamble; the filmmakers even have a cheeky “lawsuit-free” ticker on their website.
More From Travel + Leisure:
- Disney World tips and tricks
- Best Disney World money-saving tips
- Coolest Disney rides
- Best museums for families
- America's best family hotels