Until this past month, I had never been to Disney World, nor any major theme park. I went to Six Flags as a young child, but I barely remember it. Going to Disney World for the first time as an adult, I can’t experience it from the perspective of a child who has the capacity to fall for the park’s illusion that its magic has been created specifically for you. So, instead, I enjoyed it by analyzing how that magic works.
Every part of the Disney parks is designed to entertain, but also to seem like it’s all happening for the first and only time. In reality, every activity in the park—every roller coaster, street performance, parade of floats, and fireworks display—is on a loop. Every unforgettable moment will be recreated for the hundreds of people in line right after you the moment you’re shuffled away. Every Disney World princess isn’t just one actor, but several, who rotate out according to their ability to perform the various tasks required for their job, be it a 30-minute musical sing-along or a multi-hour meet and greet.
No matter the age of the person to whom they speak, every Disney parks employee strives to maintain the illusion that every character in the park is real. The staffers at a breakfast meet-and-greet with Lilo and Stitch, for example, served us a pitcher of juice that they described as Stitch’s own recipe. At the Beast’s castle, the waiters referred to the Beast exclusively as “the master,” just like the Beast’s servants do in Disney’s movie. Actually meeting these characters is always treated with A-list fanfare by the surrounding staffers. Everyone behaves as though you are meeting the one and only Mickey Mouse, who is not only real but a massive celebrity, obviously. There are definitely not a handful of other carefully placed Mickey Mouse actors elsewhere in the parks. There is just that one Mickey Mouse, shaking your hand.
The results feel both weird and fun, like a role-playing game that we’ve all agreed to take part in. As a kid, I was skeptical about everything from Santa to circus clowns to magicians, instead enjoying the search for the seams in the illusions around me. I performed and did tech for my school’s theater department, and, as an adult, have a career in asking game developers how their creations are made (I used to write local theater reviews, too, in the days before I worked here.). My lifelong best friends, who enjoy theater and design as much as I do, went with me to Disney World, where we met up with another friend who works at the park. Together, we theorized about how the place was made.
We interrogated our friend about each detail of every display. Some of our questions had more satisfactory answers than others. How did Merida balance on top of her massive parade float without falling? Underneath her dress, she’s strapped into a tiny stool. How do the actors doing meet-and-greets take breaks from the hot sun and screaming tots? They have in-character codes that they say to their handlers, who can then keep up the illusion; Gaston would need to “tend to his horses” or Uncle Scrooge would have to “polish his dimes” when it came time for a water break. How do the “Festival of The Lion King” singers and acrobats perform their 30-minute musical and circus spectacular every hour, on the hour, every single day? Disney shows don’t publicize their cast lists or the legal names of the actors, so it’s hard to tell how many performances a cast member does. But my facial recognition skills are good enough that I can tell the answer is “a heck of a lot.” I don’t know how they keep it up, especially given the physical and emotional demands of the repeating shows and meet-and-greets, but they all somehow do.
I never saw any of the actors appear to be tired, but of course they were; Gaston had to “tend to his horses” before we managed to meet him. The closest any regular staffer came to breaking the illusion happened at breakfast on my last day. After my cashier rang me up, she said, “Guess what?” I said, “What?” looking her in the eye. She laughed in relief and told me I was the first person that day to have responded with something other than a rushed “Thanks!”
Disney’s actors remind me of something I hear from people who work at video game studios with a lot of crunch. You work so hard because it’s your job, and when you get too tired to do it anymore, there are hundreds of people in line after you to do it for less and with a bigger smile.
At Disney World, you see people doing their work all around you, cranking the background gears to prop up the beautiful dream. The actors’ job in particular is to encourage you to forget that they are people at all. They are performers who guide you from one tableau to the next, making sure to shuffle you along to the next display before you see its cracks.
The theme park rides operate on the same principle. Each cart of visitors rolling by each set of animatronics sees the same setup, hears the same songs and dialogue. The loop of footage only starts for the next cart once the first is just out of reach. You don’t hear the repetition, and this allows you to believe that the experience was for you alone.
The seams were easiest to find on Disney World’s older rides. The Carousel of Progress, which first debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, is still available in an updated form at the park. The ride features a circular stage that cycles from one animatronic tableau to the next, each scene depicting a different decade of human technological feats. The circular stage doesn’t move; instead, the audience’s seats circle slowly around the stage between each scene. As the decades-old machine propelled my audience’s rows of seats around the stage from one scene to the next, I looked to our left and squinted through the dim sliver of space between the stage and the wall that divided each audience section. I saw the audience behind us, still stuck in the past, their eyes fixed on the exact same tableau that I had just seen.
The more people that I saw experiencing the same thing that I had just experienced, the more obsessed I became with finding minute differences between our experiences. The two comedians who hosted the Frozen sing-along show improvised a gag about a father in the front row who had apparently tried to hand them his baby (“Daddy’s tired,” they joked.). Did they tell that joke at every show, knowing it would always land with an audience of exhausted parents? Did they come up with new jokes every time to prevent losing their minds? I could have watched the show a second time, but I had so many other rides to see. That and no one should sing “Let It Go” more than once per day.
At Hollywood Studios, my friends and I watched Captain Phasma and the stormtroopers march twice so that, the second time, we could be in the right place to get a photo of her interrogating passersby about the Resistance. But it didn’t feel as good the second time. Captain Phasma said the same lines, plus she sounded like Star Wars actress Gwendoline Christie, so the whole effect was probably a pre-recorded segment that the stand-in actor was just playing through their suit’s helmet. Clearly, similarity to the source material had been favored here over spontaneity, even though the structure of the march and the interrogation were written to seem unplanned. The performance was perfect, but by necessity, it had to be almost the exact same thing every time. Disney World has to keep updating its parks, attractions, and featured characters, not just because more movies keep coming out, but because the magic has diminishing returns.
The first time around, the magic is impressive. Disney World now has “magic bands,” electronic bracelets that attendees can use to scan into each ride and hook up to a credit card to reduce purchasing food and souvenirs into a tantalizingly speedy wrist-tap. Guests can also sign up ahead of time for three Fast Pass tickets on their bracelets per day, which allow them to skip the line for those three rides. The attendees who love to plan, as my friends and I do, can pack a staggering slew of activities into one day through the use of the bracelets and the Disney World app (which provides live estimates of each ride’s wait time).
Disney World also uses these bracelets to bring some magic into exploring the park. There’s the Pirates of the Caribbean treasure quest, which involves going to an outpost and asking an employee for a couple of physical treasure maps that guide you to check out specific locations nearby. When you reach each of the marked spots, you use your bracelet to tap on a seemingly mundane object. That sets off some sort of reaction, like dry ice from the inside of a cannon on the street, or an animatronic snake rising up from inside a high wicker basket to spit “venom” (water) into your face.
Once you follow all of the instructions, you go back to the outpost to get your treasure: a Fast Pass ticket to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. As we showed our special tickets to get onto the ride, staffers beamed and congratulated us for “finding the treasure.” The ride itself was fine—just another trip through a series of animatronic tableaus, this time with pirates—except the journey felt special, since we’d unlocked it through a means that felt secret. It wasn’t secret, but it still felt that way. The magic had worked.
I wanted to cram as much Disney World as I could into my trip, because I don’t intend to go back again. I get the sense that the more often I go, the more I’ll see the cracks, until the whole illusion crumbled past the point of recognition.
It’s a good thing that Disney World uses eco-friendly fireworks, because the theme park sets them off over Cinderella’s castle in Magic Kingdom every single night, with a second and third nightly display going on at the Hollywood Studios and Epcot parks. I saw the fireworks at Magic Kingdom just once. As I watched, I thought about every other times the fireworks had happened before, and how many times they would again.
It is hard to imagine that many fireworks. It’s also hard to imagine how many billions of dollars Disney takes in per day. But that is what I kept on trying to fathom after I got home and searched online for more information about how the Disney parks operate. Are the animals who live in Disney World’s Animal Kingdom treated well? Are the staffers who work at Disney really as happy as they are told to appear, or are they struggling? Is the “dream job” actually the dream?
I don’t have to look up how this magic trick is done. I know the answer, even without seeing the performance a second time. Hundreds of people work very hard. A handful of people in boardrooms get very, very rich. But at Disney World, you can see the work in front of you, even if the park tries to hide it. The people at the park have made something special just for you, even though they’re making it over and over again for the people in line after you. The illusion, in that sense, is real—you really are having a once-in-a-lifetime experience, even if it will start over in just 30 minutes.