Did you know that most of the action figures in Disney adventure rides actually have blank faces?
That when you go to Disney World you are actually walking around on the second floor and not the ground floor, which is hidden?
That although the Disney Dream cruise ship is as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall it only needs 12 feet of water to float?
That a Disney character actor can go to any Disney park in the world for free – and take four friends along?
That the Shanghai Disney Pirates of the Caribbean ride is as large as six Toyota plants put together?
That there’s an apartment in Cinderella’s castle and you can actually rent it?
That many backgrounds in theme park rides are actually sophisticated projections only?
That every Disney cast member has to be able to draw Mickey Mouse well?
That “being friends with” a Disney character has a special meaning?
Those are a few of the facts about the world of Disney that Justin Lee Bartlett provided at the Magnolia Civic Center Saturday.
Bartlett owns Extreme Youth Activities 365 but people here may recognize him because of his work with East Union Attendance Center theatre productions over the years. His program Saturday came as a result of being a Disney character for three years, primarily on Disney cruises.
He used interactive media along with extensive video segments that included what was almost a Disney’s Greatest Hits to give a behind-the-scenes look at the various Disney enterprises.
He said that everything Disney-related is based on the original concept of “Imagineering” developed by Walt Disney even as planning of the first Disneyland was just getting started. As the term suggests, Disney wanted his engineers to be driven by imagination.
Disney said there is no real secret to what they do, they just keep moving forward.
Bartlett said a more in-depth story about the history of Imagineering can be seen on the Disney Plus TV channel.
He talked about his time doing youth activities in one of the Kids’ Clubs on cruise ships where “he was friends with Pluto” about a year and a half. That phrase about a character actor refers to the character he portrays.
“One thing that caught my eye is what they call the Walt Disney Theatre,” he said. “As soon as you walk through the doors of the theatre you are in awe.”
Bartlett got involved with automation engineering, which, in the case of the theatre, means there are no stagehands moving sets and set pieces. It all moves itself through carefully programmed automation.
“I got really interested in that and studied it for a year and when they finally let me in the booth I got to run shows like Disney Frozen on Broadway, I got to do Beauty and the Beast, I got to do Aladdin, Tangled.”
Bartlett said most people don’t realize how many Disney parks there are, but of course Walt Disney began as an animator. Mickey, Minnie, the rest of the characters and the parks came later.
The parks grew out of a desire for Disney to do things for his family, Bartlett said.
“He saw a need in family fun entertainment,” he said. “Clean entertainment, clean parks, not those fairs that you go to. He wanted a nice, friendly place.”
Those qualities are required at Disney properties.
“Those cast members will do anything they need to do to make your visit as magical as possible,” he said. “That is taught within the company.”
People think Walt Disney World is the most famous but Bartlett said the Shanghai park is actually the most famous for its rides, and their technology is superior to any of the other parks. “They are way beyond anything we are putting out in the United States right now,” he said.
The original park was developed in 1955 in Anaheim, Calif. followed by California Adventure in 2001. The popular Disney TV show was actually a means to promote and help develop the park.
“Disneyland, when it opened was a failure,” he said. “The first day it opened it was horrible. The asphalt on the ground was still wet so when the women were going into the park and they were in heels, the heels were sinking into the asphalt. People were getting on and off the rides on ladders. Things were breaking down. There wasn’t exactly running water.”
“They advertised it as a failure but the audience did not see it that way,” he continued. “Families kept coming back day after day and eventually the park hit capacity and it became a hit.”
Project Florida came next, comprising four parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom. There is a new park coming on line in Florida that is very top secret, he added.
Disney did not live to see the Florida park open but he did see the successes in California.
Bartlett said every cast member has to go through a week of training at Disney University. “You learn about the history of the company and the love Disney had for making magic for other people. He just loved making people smile,” he said.
“The Magic Kingdom in Florida opened and was a huge success, way better than the first one, everybody says,” he said, adding that it is difficult to name a “best” park. “Every park has its own attractions to distinguish it from others,” he said.
People may not know that Epcot was developed from the rides at the New York World’s Fair. “Disney developed all these attractions, put them at the World’s Fair and once it was over they packed up all those attractions and brought them back to Disneyland,” he said. Some of them later moved over to the Magic Kingdom. “Does anyone remember ‘It’s a Small World?’” he asked. That’s one of the original rides that was at the fair and has endured.
“Epcot is a world showcase,” he said. “If you want to travel the world in a day, go to Epcot. You can eat food from all over the world in one day.” Of course the Hollywood park is good for movie fans while the animal kingdom has great conservation efforts going on.
The parks have not translated seamlessly to foreign countries.
They had to redevelop stories for the Tokyo park because our stories were not familiar to them, for instance. Bartlett noted they actually went five miles out in the ocean and built a park for Tokyo.
“Disney is really big on projection mapping,” he said. When you see the castle itself, it gives you all those images that are carefully matched to the shape they are projected on only.
“Back in the day they used robotics for characters on the rides,” he said. “They still do that, but now the faces of the characters are completely white. Projections give the faces movements and that’s what makes the rides more realistic.”
Bartlett showed a video of the Shanghai Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which has the original characters but a completely original story. This is the ride as large as six Toyota plants and has full-size ships that move, explode and sink. The ride is moved by magnets that add realistic ocean movement and salt water is even misted into the air to afford more realism.
Bartlett talked about various rides at several parks.
He was asked about the tunnels under the parks, called utilidors rather than corridors.
“At Disney World, guests are actually on the second level of the park,” he said. In addition to the utilidors, there is a cast mess, a subway, grooming salons (no cast member is allowed to have facial hair – “except for the famous Walt Disney ‘stache,” he said. “They don’t want to have cast members walking through parts of the park where they don’t belong,” he said. “Once you walk out you are considered on stage.”
The utilidors house utilities, move food and other items and even garbage.
“There is $6.5 million in food per park every day,” he said.
One does not see trash at a Disney facility, but one does not see trash trucks either. A huge suction system carries it away. “Everything is recycled. Everything is environmentally friendly,” he said.
He confirmed the rumor about an apartment hidden in Cinderella’s castle, saying he has been in it but not stayed in it. “Sometimes the parks choose a random family of the day to stay in the castle,” he said. “They can have dinner with Cinderella.”
Bartlett is most familiar with the cruise ships, which may be even more magical than the parks.
For starters, the horn on Disney cruise ships plays Disney songs.
Bartlett’s quarters were in the front of the ship, right by the 3.4-ton anchor. “Every morning at 6 a.m. dropping the anchor was such an alarm clock. Stuff rattling off shelves,” he said.
But he was not complaining. “Disney takes very good care of its employees,” he said.
Everything is included in the price of a cruise and it is packed with activity options. They have rotational dining, which means you sample different types of food and drink, but the same servers stay with you so they get to know your likes and dislikes, he said. There are 24-hour free room service, family entertainment, areas for kids, teens, tweens and adults and features such as first-run films. “There is a different Broadway-style musical each night,” he said, and fireworks, $32,000 worth each time.
The fireworks, by the way, are custom-made out of fish food so they do no harm falling into the ocean. All food waste goes through a filtration system, is compressed into cubes that are safe to eat and dropped in the ocean as well.
“The ship makes all its own water,” he said. “The engines make steam that is filtered and used.”
The staff prepares 27,000 meals each day on shipboard, he added.
Each person is given a “magic band” to wear, which contains RFID and RF chips, allowing parents to track children. In the parks, the magic bands can alert the staff if too many people are in one area. If that happens they can send out texts to people in the group to draw them to another area.
The bands also contain credit and debit card information as well as acting as door keys so people don’t really need to carry anything with them.
As impressive as the Broadway shows are, he said it is almost as fascinating to go in about 2 a.m. to see all the lighting and scenery to be replaced each night.
Disney does not overlook details. If you have an inside cabin you may still have a “virtual” porthole. Cameras outside the ship project images to the virtual portholes but the staff sometimes adds to that by having Tinker Bell fly by your porthole or show some other character.
The shows are interactive to a high degree, he said. “They want to submerge you into the atmosphere,” he said. Bubbles fall from ceiling when you are under the sea, snow falls from the sky in Frozen.
“I did automation for Frozen,” he said. “The special effects are out of this world.”
He explained how they make a live Anna slowly freeze onstage using projection mapping. “It has to be exact so she can freeze slowly. It can’t be half an inch off. It takes a lot of practice and skill,” he said.
Both actors and set pieces have to be able to compensate for movement of the ship.
“Even though Walt has passed, his legacy lives on today,” he said, and working for Disney becomes a lifelong experience.
While he enjoyed being a character actor, he was fascinated by the technology. “I want to be an international automation technician and travel all over the world,” he said.
“Once a cast member, always a cast member,” he said. “I do believe I will be going back with the Disney company; I just don’t know when.”
Bartlett is not employed or compensated by Disney now; he just loves presenting programs about his experience and put Saturday’s presentation together himself.
He said he may present it again once the pandemic is past and may be willing to present it for groups. Anyone interested may contact him through the civic center.