You know that thought we all have during a magic show when we wonder what it would be like to go backstage after the show and see how the miracles are accomplished? How we’d stumble backstage into a world of rabbits and top hats, of silver cups and magic wands and find that maybe it’s real magic and not just sleight of hand?
That actually happened to me.
But not in the way you might think.
You see, I pulled back the curtain on a completely different kind of magic show. I stepped backstage into a different set of secrets.
I got a job at Disneyland.
Being in the theme park industry (at another park that will remain nameless…let’s just say it rhymes with Not’s Barry Farm), I have friends who have worked at the House of Mouse for years. But I’d never thought about taking a job there. When the chance to join the park as a Cast Member materialized in a form that would allow me to be the fill-in guy for a show instead of committing to a full-time position, I jumped at it. The only trepidation I felt was worrying that working at the park would destroy the magic I had felt going there as a guest my whole life. Would stepping backstage and uncovering the mysteries somehow change the park for me? I put those thoughts aside when I auditioned for the role of the Mayor of Frontierland and was promptly hired for the show!
Rehearsals for the show went by in a whirlwind and before I knew it I was donning my top hat and frock coat and heading out to the Golden Horseshoe to start my show right out front. It’s hard to describe the feeling I had that first day. Having been an actor for years, I wasn’t nervous. No, it was another kind of feeling. It was that strange sensation when you ask yourself, “How did I get here? Have I gone through the looking glass?” People from all over the world look forward to their day at Disneyland and I felt myself becoming part of their memories. The show I was in brought people up to join in the fun and there’s something so amazing about making impressions on people that you know will last a lifetime. Children look at you in awe and adults eye you with a little bit of envy, and who could blame them when you’re having as much fun as I was at “work”?
We did 5-6 fifteen minute shows a day and I found there was enough downtime to actively go out and explore the backstage world of Disneyland. Any thought I had about ruining the magic evaporated as the inner workings of Mickey’s home were just as fascinating as what happened in front of guests. I had lunch at a restaurant that was buried within the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction – sometimes you could actually hear the boats plummeting down the chute as you chowed on your French Dip sandwich. I peeked out from the Frontierland dressing room to get a bird’s eye view of the Rivers of America unavailable to regular folks. I walked behind Snow White’s Scary Adventure and traipsed through the backstage of Pinocchio’s Daring Journey. I ducked behind gates that said “Cast Members Only” and journeyed through hallways lined with the park’s lost history, including photos of Cast Members from the 1970’s and ride vehicles no longer needed (think Skyway Buckets and PeopleMover conveyances).
Each step backstage brought new wonders and unseen lore that simply fascinated me. Being so new (and not being there that often), I never got jaded or took anything for granted in The Magic Kingdom. Each day that I punched in for work was another day of wonder and fun – I know, it sounds crazy, right? But it’s true! I found myself beaming when we added a show that took me on the closed off outside balcony of the Golden Horseshoe and running around firing a pistol to escape the Sheriff. It was every little boy’s dream and I was smack in the middle of it. I looked forward to every show and every chance to connect with the worldwide audience that Disney drew in. I worked there with a very talented group of guys who were always on their marks and ready to make the show better.
The day that I discovered that the Frontierland dressing room was connected on the back to Adventureland was, coincidentally, the same day I began having Bengal Barbeque for lunch.
Suffice it to say, it was a great time working at Disneyland.
But it got even better when the park began its’ Year of a Million Dreams campaign. Part of the promotion involved Cast Members randomly selecting guests in the park and bestowing them with gifts, such as specially decorated Mickey Mouse Ear Hats or free churro coupons. The big prize of the day, though, was a free night’s stay in the park’s Dream Suite. Built over the Pirates of the Caribbean in what used to be the popular Disney Gallery (and what was originally built to be Walt’s private apartment, though, sadly he passed away before it was completed) the Dream Suite is a lavishly decorated hotel room with over the top furnishings and a 24 hour concierge. Families who won the Dream Suite for the night were treated to quite possibly the best night ever at a theme park as their every whim was indulged in the way that only Disney can provide. Part of the prize package also included a ride down Main Street in the Year of a Million Dreams parade and that’s where I came in. Management came over to Frontierland and informed all the Mayors that we would be doing double duty as the Mayor of Main Street as well. This was great as it allowed me to explore a completely different side of the park as well as take on new challenges. My job was to meet with the winning family and get to know them so they felt comfortable during the journey. You see, watching a parade and being in one are two completely different things and those not used to the limelight can be pretty overwhelmed. I have vivid memories of meeting so many wonderful families, hearing their stories and making the trek from It’s a Small World to the Main Street Opera House with them. To complete the show I was given a live microphone to use during the parade that broadcast my voice into every corner of Main Street.
Okay, for once, I was a little nervous.
Doing a show in front of the Golden Horseshoe or meeting with guests was one thing. Announcing during a parade for thousands of people is quite another.
That first parade was amazing. I can remember every moment of stepping into the car, heading out past It’s a Small World and creeping by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Everything was fine – I announced the family’s name and what they had won and I made eye contact and joked with the people who had camped out to watch the parade. Then we rounded the Hub (that circular portion of the park right in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle that offers avenues to all the amazing lands) and I got my first look straight down Main Street to the Railroad Station at the other end.
It took my breath away.
I raised the microphone to my mouth and said, “Hello, Main Street!”
Thousands cheered as if I was Mickey Mouse himself.
What a rush.
The next ten minutes or so flew by as we made our way down Main Street and into the small pocket next to the Opera House. It was exhilarating, let me tell you. I thanked the family and ducked backstage to return my microphone. Even that was a kick as the sound booth was located up a massive staircase and tucked away above the Opera House itself. Along the way were various backstage offices and more display cases of Disney’s past. I’m sure the sound engineer was quite puzzled when he took the microphone away from a guy as happy to be at work as I was.
Happily, the Year of a Million Dreams campaign ended up lasting nearly 18 months and I had many opportunities to parade down Main Street with the winning families. Along the way the park upgraded the Main Street Fire Engine we had been traveling in to a fully equipped parade float made to resemble an antique car. To accommodate guests of every size, stature and mobility, the “car” had more bells and whistles than Chitty, Chitty Bang, Bang. Every door opened multiple ways; every seat could be removed, reconfigured or resized to fit children and adults from every walk of life. It was a time machine made to take its occupants back in time to turn of the century America just like Walt Disney himself grew up in. I liked participating in the parade so much that I would go in just for the 30 minute shift to act as Mayor. Parking backstage, walking through hidden hallways and covert break rooms to perform for thousands of people? Yes, please!
While the Mayor of Frontierland and his companions had their own break room, the Mayor of Main Street wasn’t quite so lucky. To become the other Mayor I found myself in the massive Disneyland Costuming Department. Filled to the brim with thousands of signature costumes, I would get dressed next to Pocahontas, Snow White and Mary Poppins. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life. To get to the parade kick off point I would be driven in a small cart backstage to just behind It’s a Small World – a journey that took me into even more amazing parts of the Magic Kingdom. The gate where the parade began was just next to the back parts of the Autopia and above the subterranean caverns of the Submarine Voyage (the original before Nemo and his friends took over). I was fascinated by the inner workings of the park and soaked in every moment.
The Year of a Million Dreams turned out to include my dreams, as well.
Sadly, the economy took a turn for the worst in 2008 and 2009 and I found shifts harder and harder to get as Cast Members rarely called in for shifts anymore. There wasn’t much need for a fill in guy when there was nothing to fill in.
But Disneyland left me with one final set of memories before I packed up my gear and headed out the gates. It was Christmas time and the citizens of Frontierland were rehearsing a new show for the holiday season. In order to have full run of the playing field it was necessary to conduct rehearsals in the wee hours of the morning. You see, you can’t rehearse when there’s any chance that guests will see what you’re up to. So it was that I found myself parking and entering the park behind New Orleans Square at 4:00 AM. With all the gates locked up tight, I had to get creative as my progress was continually being blocked at every turn. There are many passages that end in work areas, break rooms, or offices and it’s easy to make a wrong turn. Eventually, I passed behind The Haunted Mansion and got my first glimpse of the park that morning from behind the New Orleans Square Railroad Station, you know, the one that has Walt’s opening day speech via Morse code on a continual loop. I stepped through a door and discovered that I was on the train tracks themselves. I was in no danger, as the locomotive wouldn’t be in operation for many hours, but it was a thrill, none the less. Walking through Disneyland in the dark of night like that made me feel like I was the last man on earth. I ignored the occasional gardener and really soaked in the sights and sounds of the park without anyone really in it. Empty ride queues, unmanned food carts and walkways splashed with water in preparation for the day’s activities gave the entire affair a magical air. I joined my friends in rehearsal and marveled at the fortune I had of being at Disneyland nearly alone.
To cap off the night I took the long way out and reenacted Walt’s famous jaunt through Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. It was the perfect end to my tenure at the Magic Kingdom. I look upon those days with great memories and unforgettable moments. Any thoughts I had about spoiling the magic were completely unfounded and the experience enriched my life in ways it’s hard to describe. I cherish my days at Disneyland and still have that childlike feeling every time I spin through the turnstiles.
There’s still magic on Main Street and it’s not so far away.
Jeff Tucker works in the theme park industry. His magical book series, “The Sixth Key,” is available on Amazon.com. He also hosts his own Podcast, “91 Reasons,” available on iTunes.