Backstage Pass: Disney’s Keys to the Kingdom Tour

Backstage Pass: Disney’s Keys to the Kingdom Tour

Today, we are talking about another backstage tour, this one in the Magic Kingdom.  You may have heard of the Keys to the Kingdom tour before, it is one of the most well known tours offered.  Even so, I had a lot of questions about this tour before embarking down Main Street U.S.A.  Questions like, will this spoil the magic? What backstage areas are included? What’s for lunch? And is it worth the extra money?  Well, today we will answer all of those questions and more.  First, let’s get started with our…

Know before you go essential facts:

  • The tour is located in the Magic Kingdom
  • Participants must be 16 years of age or older and have a valid photo ID
  • The fright factor is 0 out of 5
  • The tour is 5 hours long
  • Lunch is included
  • The tour usually has four offerings per day, starting at 8:00 am, 8:30 am, 9:00 am, and 9:30 am
  • Disney’s Keys to the Kingdom Tour is $99 per person, plus tax.
  • Reservations can be made by calling (407) WDW-TOUR

Disney’s Keys to the Kingdom Tour is your ticket to unlocking the secrets of the Magic Kingdom.  This is your chance to learn about the inner workings of rides like The Jungle Cruise, to go behind closed doors in The Haunted Mansion, and to even step backstage and see Main Street U.S.A. from two unique perspectives.  More than that though, this is a history lesson in what makes this magical place so successful.  As you will learn on the tour, the keys to the kingdom are much more than a backstage pass, they are a way of life at Walt Disney World.

As we go along today, I will introduce you to the main components of the tour, as well as the four “keys” Disney uses to ensure the best possible guest experience.  What I won’t do though, is spoil all of the secrets.  Actually, I couldn’t do that if I wanted to!  Your tour guide will spend most of the 5 hours you have together telling story after story after story.   There is no way I could share all of the wonderful insights you will hear on the tour in our 20 minute podcast.  Still, I want to pass along a couple of nuggets so you will know what you can expect to learn on this tour.  With that said, let’s start at the beginning!

As we mentioned in our know before you go facts, this tour is only offered early in the morning.  You can choose between 3-4 times, usually beginning at 8:00 am, and then leaving every 30 minutes thereafter.  We chose 8:30 am as our starting time, on a day that the park opened at 9:00 am.  At the time this worked wonderfully, as we were able to get into the park before rope drop.  That procedure has since changed, and I will talk about that more in just a minute.

Once you are in the park you will take the short walk over to the Town Square Theater, the first building on the right after passing under the Walt Disney World Railroad.  Inside, you can check in and receive your name badge.  We were among the first to arrive and it was fun to see all 17 name badges laid out.  Each tour will average about 15 guests.  This is a much larger number than you will find on Wild Africa Trek, but the group is still small enough to allow you to ask all the questions you’d like.  Along with the name badge, you will receive an ear piece with transmitter.  This makes it much easier to hear your tour guide once things get underway.  With a group this size it may not seem necessary to have the ear piece, but once the park is open and you are surrounded by crowds of guests, these listening devices come in very handy.

If you arrive a little early you will have a few minutes to take pictures outside of the theater.  We went over and grabbed some great shots of the bench with Roy and Minnie at the start of Main Street.  You may also want to use this time to rest up for a few minutes.  You will be on your feet for a good portion of the 5 hour tour, so sitting inside the theater as you wait isn’t a bad idea.

 

Once the entire group is present, your tour guide will introduce themselves and make sure everyone has their ear piece working properly.  From there, he or she will go over some basic rules of the tour.  This includes the use of cameras, recording devices, cell phones, you get the idea.  According to the website the official statement on these devices is, “No cameras, video equipment or cellphones may be used throughout the duration of the tour. Photography is strictly prohibited.”  Our tour guide clarified this policy by explaining we were welcome to take pictures or video any front of house areas.  In other words, if you can see it with your normal park admission, you can record it.  However, once you step backstage, you better not even have your cell phone visible!  There are no pictures, video, or recording allowed behind the scenes.  I had my Go Pro camera recording during most of our front of house time.  Be sure to come by our You Tube channel to see a short video on our experience, at least the part I can show you!

This policy on recording illustrates two of the four keys to the kingdom, courtesy and show.  We will talk more about both as we go along, but I wanted to point out how the two balance against each other in this example.  Disney wants to be as courteous as possible to their guests.  They understand that you want to take videos and pictures while on a tour for which you paid money.  So, they allow you to do so with anything included in the show.  However, they don’t want to spoil that key of show for others, so they don’t allow you to take pictures of something that will ruin the illusion.

Moving right along, we come to one of my favorite moments on the tour.  After the rules, regulations, and introductions, our group walked over to the middle of the plaza where Main Street U.S.A. begins.  It was almost 9:00 am, park opening time when we walked over.  Our tour guide, Darcy, began to share some of the interesting history of how the Magic Kingdom began, including stories about Walt and his brother Roy.  During this time we could hear the welcome show come to a conclusion behind us and turned to see the crowd of early birds being escorted into the park.  I will never forget the look of confusion and befuddlement on several people as they were so excited, thinking they were the first to step foot in the park that day.  Only, as they looked over at us they discovered another group was already there, enjoying the park ahead of them!  It was funny, because I knew I would have felt exactly the same way.  This used to be one of the great perks of the Keys to the Kingdom Tour.  You could enter the park ahead of time and feel as though you were the only one there for a few minutes.  I loved that about the tour!

Well, due to another key to the kingdom, that procedure has changed.  Key #3 is efficiency.  With more and more people realizing the benefit of arriving early for rope drop, the area between the ticket gate and the train station was becoming increasingly crowded.  In early 2017 Disney decided to open up part of the park early.  Now, if the park opens at 9:00 am, you may be let in as early as 8:00 am.  You won’t have access to the entire park, but you can take advantage of everything from the train station all the way down to Cinderella’s Castle.  For you coffee drinkers, that does include getting your morning cup of Starbuck’s on Main Street.  The welcome show now takes place on the castle forecourt stage, followed by rope drop to each land off the central hub.  The new procedure allows for greater efficiency of crowd distribution, which ultimately makes for a safer opening of the park.  The one downside, you won’t have the same VIP feeling we did when enjoying our 8:30 am tour.

Did you notice I mentioned safety just a second ago?  Well, that is key #4!  Safety, efficiency, courtesy, and show are the 4 Keys to the Kingdom.  As you can already see, the four work hand in hand to deliver an unforgettable experience.  As the Keys to the Kingdom Tour continues, you learn a great deal about the show.  If you are like me, you have probably raced down Main Street on your way to your favorite ride, or spent most of your time inside the shops at the end of the day.  What you miss when doing this are the incredible details atop each building.  Next time you are in the park, find some time to  slowly walk this street and look up at the windows.  You will find the names of Disney greats like: Blaine Gibson, Mary Blair, Roger Broggie, Lee Cockerell, Yale Gracey, and many more.  You may have heard that these windows are a tribute to those heading up different departments which worked together to bring the Magic Kingdom to life.  What I discovered on the tour, is that these are also like the opening credits to an old movie.  As you enter the Magic Kingdom, you are given the list of names that helped create the show you are about to enjoy.  This idea actually begins before you get to the windows.  As you walk under the train station you will see posters for rides like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and the Haunted Mansion.  Think of these as the “coming attractions” portion of the show that precedes the list of opening credits.  When it comes to creating the show, you quickly learn there is no detail too small for Disney.  There are so many examples, but these are best left for discovering yourself when you take the tour.

About half way down Main Street the tour takes a brief stop in the alcove of Center Street.  This quiet spot just off of Main Street serves as an opportunity to take a seat and learn more about the purchasing of land for Walt Disney World.  This is the first in several sitting breaks throughout the tour.  Again, Disney wants to remember that key of courtesy and they have done their best to give your feet a rest.  If you read any reviews of this tour from several years ago, you many find some found the five hour walking tour to be too much to handle.  I think Disney has made a conscious effort to give guests on this tour today as much sitting time as possible.  Throughout the tour we had a chance to sit down off Main Street, in Adventureland outside the Skipper Canteen Restaurant, riding on the Jungle Cruise, at lunch, and riding through The Haunted Mansion. Now, everything in between was time spent walking or standing while learning about the Magic Kingdom.  There are definitely times when your legs will get a little antsy and your feet a little tired. Keep this in mind when you decide to book.

At the end of Main Street the tour stops to look back on one last window, that of Walt Disney.  This window above the Plaza Restaurant reads, “Walter E. Disney, Graduate School of Design & Master Planning.” I loved seeing this window looking out into the hub, the place from which you can go out and discover many of Walt’s own dreams and ideas.

The tour takes you into one of Walt’s favorite lands, Adventureland.  Here you learn how Walt wanted to call this True Life Adventureland, as an extension of his True Life Adventure series of television specials.  Of course, Walt didn’t want to the land to just share the name, he wanted it to share the same spirit.  As we discussed on our Jungle Cruise episode, Walt wanted the original cruise to be full of live animals.  He wanted a true life adventure in the middle of his theme park.  Your tour guide will explain why this was one idea that Walt had to dial back and how the ride we know today eventually came to be.  After spending a few minutes outside the Jungle Cruise, your education continues as you get to board one of the famous boats.  The best part, you don’t even have to wait in line!  That’s right, your tour guide will take the group through the ride’s exit dock, and you will get to board the next boat, completely bypassing the standby and Fastpass+ queues.  This is another one of those moments where you feel like a Disney VIP!

Once the entire tour group is aboard the boat your skipper plunges you ahead into the jungle.  Unlike a regular ride aboard the Jungle Cruise, your skipper remains silent and defers to your tour guide for the audio portion of your journey.  Don’t expect the same corny jokes from your tour guide.  Instead, you will learn more about the ride’s construction, operation, and history.  There wasn’t a lot of information here that I didn’t already know, having covered the ride in podcast form previously.  Still, there were a few insights that I learned along the way, and it was neat to experience the Jungle Cruise from a different perspective.

The Jungle Cruise is the only ride you will take while in Adventureland, but you will learn more about Pirates of the Caribbean, The Enchanted Tiki Room, The Magic Carpets of Aladdin, and even the history of dole whips.

Leaving Adventureland, you cross over into Frontierland.  At the edge of the two lands, right next to Splash Mountain is one of the gateways for Disney’s parades.  The street curves back into the cover of trees, before coming to the gate.  It sits back far enough to hide the entry point for the parade floats from public view.  The street itself is blocked off by a long rail, which only opens when the floats are going through.  Your tour guide will escort you past this railing and allow you to walk down the curved path until the gate comes into view.  One little thing I found fascinating was a yellow line that ran across the street about halfway back down the road.  This is an indicator to all Cast Members that they are entering the show area.  On one side of the line they are backstage, but on the other they can be spotted by guests and need to be in full character from that moment on.  Just another example of the importance of show, as a key to the kingdom.

This also marks the point in the tour that you are crossing over into uncharted territory for the average Disney guest.  Your guide will take you back to the large gate, with walls about fifteen feet tall.  There is a small door to one side that they will open, and as soon as you step through you are backstage!  That brings us to one of the biggest questions regarding a tour of this type.  Does it spoil the magic?  Well, yes, to some degree it does.  After walking through the door I could see the backside of Splash Mountain.  Much of that backside looks like a plain ole’ building, not a mountain at all.  Each building is painted a specific color to blend into the surroundings. Most of the time there is no way you will ever see this portion of the building, but on the small chance that something peeks through, Disney doesn’t want you to notice what’s behind the curtain.  The tops of some buildings are painted a faded sky blue, while the bottoms might be a muted green in order to blend in with the surroundings.  This attention to detail gives an even deeper appreciation for how much thought goes into every inch of property.  What you may give up in magic, I think you make up for in appreciation of the work that goes into making the magic.

While you are in this backstage area, you are treated to a close up look of the facility used to house the parade floats.  This is a huge warehouse where the floats are almost stacked on top of each other.  Most of the floats within view during our visit were from the Mainstreet Electrical Parade.  It was strange seeing these recognizable objects in the light of day, without their trademark lights bringing them to life in the dark of night.  The complexity of some floats was more impressive in this light, while others were surprisingly simple.  It was fascinating to learn about the logistical side of the parade operation.  Efficiency is definitely a key to the kingdom when it comes to storing, maintaining, positioning, and running each float for each parade.

One of the other great things about being backstage is the lack of commotion you typically experience in the parks.  There were very few Cast Members coming or going in this area and it was relatively quiet as a result.  This was a great time to ask our tour guide questions and get answers to just about anything we could think of to ask.

After our first look backstage we headed back into the park and walked over to the Columbia Harbour House for lunch.  Along the way, Darcy continued to share more secrets about the park as we passed through Frontierland and crossed over to Liberty Square.  I won’t spoil it here, but pay special attention to the material and color of the path as you walk from one land to the next.  The ground under your feet will change, and each change represents something unique to that land.

With a new appreciation for your surroundings, you will be escorted to the second floor of the Columbia Harbour House.  This is a wonderful little quick service restaurant located at the edge of Liberty Square.  Our table was right next to a window which overlooked the entrance of The Haunted Mansion across the way.  When we arrived in our private dining area upstairs our lunch was waiting for us. You may be wondering what we had for lunch, or how they knew what to have waiting for us.  Well, I did forget to mention that you place your order for lunch when you check in at the beginning of the tour.  There is a menu available then and and at the time of our tour we could choose from the following:

  • Chicken Breast Nuggets
  • Fried Fish
  • Fried Fish and Chicken Combo
  • Fried Shrimp
  • all the above are served with French Fries
  • Anchors Aweigh Sandwich, tuna salad with lettuce and tomatoes served with potato chips
  • The Lighthouse Sandwich, garlic hummus, broccoli slaw and tomatoes served with potato chips
  • Broccoli Peppercorn Salad, mixed greens and vegetables, broccoli, grilled chicken, parmesan, tossed with a creamy peppercorn dressing

The standard offering of Coke products is available for your included non-alcoholic beverage.

I opted for the Fried Shrimp with French Fries and a Coke.  This was the first time we had dined at the Columbia Harbour House, so I was very anxious to try it out.  I was pleased with my shrimp and fries.  They weren’t as good as what I was used to getting along the coast of south Texas, but better than many meals I’ve had at other Magic Kingdom quick service locations.  I’ve read reviews that complained their food was not hot when they arrived for lunch, but ours was served hot and fresh.  I think a lot of this is determined on how well your tour guide times out the arrival at the restaurant. We also received our commemorative Keys to the Kingdom pin during lunch which was very exciting!  It was fun to see the pins laid out waiting for us, and nice to have some time to relax during the middle of the tour.  Overall, this was a nice part of the tour, and we enjoyed the food enough that we plan to return to the Columbia Harbour House on our next trip.

As I mentioned, we could see the Haunted Mansion while eating, and this was the next stop on the tour after the break.  We spent several minutes outside the entrance learning more about the ride and how two Disney legends, Claude Coates and Marc Davis, each brought something unique to the mansion.  As with the Jungle Cruise, our guide lead us to the ride’s exit and we were allowed to sneak into the back door of the mansion.  We even got to go down a hidden hallway that leads to the break room for the mansion’s Cast Members.  Most guests will never see this hallway, but because it is used for guests with special needs, it is considered part of the front of the house and it was decked out with detail just like every other part of the mansion.  Another good example of courtesy, show, and efficiency working together to provide a good guest experience.  When we came out of the hallway we were in the loading room for the ride and we filed into our Doom Buggies in pairs.  Darcy wasn’t able to talk to the whole group while on the ride, but she did tell us several things to look for before we went inside.  After visiting the 999 happy haunts we regrouped outside where Darcy shared a few more spooky facts, and asked if we had caught the items she mentioned before riding.  One of the things your tour guide will likely point out after exiting is the location of Mr. Toad in the pet cemetery.  If you listened to our Haunted Mansion episode, you already know where to find this relic of the extinct ride.  Either way, it is always fun to see the Imagineers paying tribute to rides gone by.

Once you leave the mansion, time on your tour is running short, but there is still another backstage area yet to see.  Before that, you will make a stop for a few minutes near Cinderella’s Castle and learn some little known facts about the park’s icon.  There is much more to this magical building than just forced perspective.  Those are secrets I will leave for the tour!

Your final backstage experience begins outside of Casey’s Corner at the edge of Main Street U.S.A.  There is another door, barely noticeable, just next to the restrooms outside of the restaurant.  Your guide will lead you though this door and the next thing you see is the back side of Main Street.  Taking just a few steps in the right direction gives you a completely different perspective of the park.  I was fascinated by how the two sides of the  same coin could be so different, yet so undetectable.  We took a short walk behind the building before entering the back of one of the shops.  Inside, there is a staircase that leads down to the first floor of the Magic Kingdom.  Yes, I said first floor.  If you are a big enough Disney fan to listen to this podcast, then you probably already know the Magic Kingdom you experience is actually the second floor.  The first floor is a secret underground network, known as the Utilidors.

We could easily spend an entire episode on the utilidors of the Magic Kingdom.  They are one of the park’s great innovations, added from the time of Disneyland to the Florida project.  They serve to make the park safer, more efficient, more courteous, and certainly more show-friendly.  You will never see a Cast Member wearing a costume designed for Liberty Square in Tomorrowland.  Nor will you see a member of the Janitorial crew hauling a large container of trash down Main Street.  The utilidors serve as conduit for everything not considered part of the show.  This series of utilitarian hallways allow Cast Members to get from one side of the park to another without being seen by guests.  They allow the collection of trash to take place behind the scenes.  They provide a space for offices, supply rooms, break rooms, a cafeteria, and more.  In short, they are the housing for everything needed to create an amazing show above day in and day out.

That being said, the name Utilidors is very appropriate for this space.  This is a combination of utility and corridors.  Neither one very exciting in their own right, and not surprisingly, not very exciting when put together.  For every one that has seen the underbelly of the Magic Kingdom, there is a varying opinion of whether they live up to the anticipation.  Rather than tell you just what I think, I want to give you a clearer picture of what to expect.  Hopefully then, you will know whether or not this is something you really want to see.

The corridors range from about 10-15 feet wide, all with plain concrete floors.  The walls are about 8 feet tall, with exposed piping running overhead.  The top half of each wall is a rather boring cream color, while the bottom half is painted a different color to represent the land above.  Purple walls may indicate you are under Fantasyland, while blue walls another.  This change in color, along with signs and maps, help the Cast Members know where they are while underground.  Without Cinderella’s Castle visible from every land, it is easy to get lost down below.  For the most part, the walls are unadorned beyond the directional signage.  For the Keys to the Kingdom Tour, you will find some famous photos and historical artifacts behind glass as you walk the rectangular path under Main Street.

The tour spends about 30 minutes down below, as your tour guide explains the functionality of the Utilidors.  There isn’t a whole lot to look at underground, and this is one spot where there is no seating in sight.  Being at the end of the five hour tour, this is the one time my feet got a little tired.  I was ready to head back up the stairs when our time was up down below.

After coming out of the Utilidors we exited the building backstage, and walked around to a spot next to the Firehouse on Main Street.  We walked through another little doorway and left our time backstage behind.  This brings you full circle and you find yourself back at the central plaza in Main Street.  Before you go, your tour guide will ask if there are any other burning questions.  With all curiosity satisfied, they will collect your backstage pass and hearing device and wish you a magical rest of your day in Walt Disney World.

So, does that sound like something you would enjoy?  Are you ready to see behind the magic curtain?  Do you have a Disney itch that only a backstage experience can scratch?  If so, this is probably the tour for you!  I really enjoyed learning more about the Magic Kingdom, and how the keys of safety, courtesy, efficiency, and show guide every decision made.  I do think this tour is geared for select Disney fans, and there is a right time and a wrong time to go.

This is not a tour for the very young or very old.  Remember, you must be at least 16 years of age to participate, and you must be up for a five hour walking tour.  Of course, Disney does make special accommodations for those in a wheelchair or ECV.  For those without these accommodations you need to be prepared to be on your feet a little more than you would throughout a normal Disney day.

All right, let’s say you are of age and ready to embark on the tour.  When should you go?  Well, don’t take this tour on your first visit to Walt Disney World.  You need to experience the magic before you look behind the curtain.  Taking this tour on your first visit would be like watching the behind the scenes extras on a movie before watching the film.  Adversely, don’t wait until your 20th visit to the Magic Kingdom.  If you wait too long, chances are you will have read or heard about many of the stories shared on the tour.  Yes, there will be some surprises that you may have yet to discover, but there may not be as many as you hoped for.  If I could change one thing about my tour, it would have been to go on an earlier trip.

I would have liked to take this tour before I started the WDW Ride Guide.  Back then, most of the stories and secrets shared would have been brand new to me.  Like I said earlier, I had already done a podcast on the Jungle Cruise and learned much of the history that was shared during our ride on the tour.  Of course, I hadn’t seen the backstage areas, so this will always be something new no matter how deep your knowledge of Disney history.  I think there is a sweet spot of when to go on this particular tour.  When you have been to Walt Disney World more than once, and you soon find yourself pouring over Disney blogs and podcasts, you are ready for this tour.  This is a very special way to learn more about the magic, and discover a deeper appreciation for the tremendous work that goes into creating magic 365 days a year.

One last thing I have to mention before we wrap up today.  The Cast Members that lead the Keys to the Kingdom Tour are the cream of the crop.  Our guide, Darcy, was extremely professional, very knowledgeable, super friendly, and all around a great representative of the Disney brand.  I know from reading other reviews that Darcy is the norm when it comes to this tour.  These Cast Members have usually proven their worth through several years of experience, and Disney only selects the best to put in these roles.

If you have any questions about the tour that I haven’t answered today please let me know.  You can send me a message on our Facebook page. If there is another tour you would like to hear a Backstage Pass on send a message over today!  We will be back in the parks this spring and again this summer.  You know I love doing research on your behalf, don’t hesitate to ask!

Whether this was your first episode to tune into, or the 100th time you have downloaded the WDW Ride Guide Podcast, I want to sincerely thank you for joining me!  I hope by now it is crystal clear I much I enjoy sitting down each week to be your ride guide.  I look forward to our next 100 episodes together, starting with next week!  I hope you will join me then, and in the meantime make each day a ride worth taking!

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