BAY LAKE, Fla. – There are all kinds of urban myths and legends about Walt Disney World. Most are flat out fables: No, Cinderella Castle’s turrets and towers don’t come apart for storage in a hurricane. No, Walt Disney’s head is not frozen underneath (Walt was cremated). One is absolutely true: There really is an underground city below the Magic Kingdom. So what really goes on inside this 9-acre circular network of subterranean tunnels called the Utilidors?
To sum their role up simply, the tunnels provide “an urban basement providing out-of-sight access to infrastructural services,” according to Disney author and historian Jeff Kurtti.
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And they were a part of the plan from the very beginning -- a bold plan that added enormously to the cost and complexity of bringing the first phase of The Florida Project, but one born out of a desire to learn from and top what was built in Anaheim and Disneyland.
“(Walt) loved the fact that we were going to have a basement because the one thing he didn’t like about Disneyland is that the cast members had to go through different areas out of costume. This way they could be underground and come out into their land,” Dick Nunis, former chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts said.
But they aren’t really a basement. Anyone who’s tried to build in Florida knows -- or will quickly learn -- the water table is too high in our state to go down very deep, at least without a lot of extra work and money. To make Disney’s underground world, more than 7 million cubic yards of the earth dug up to create Seven Seas Lagoon was dumped and flattened.
All of that dirt was used to build up the heart of The Magic Kingdom’s fiefdom. In reality, the “basement” is the ground floor, putting much of the Magic Kingdom on the second floor at an average of 14 feet above normal ground level. One boundary is near the entrance to “It’s a Small World.” Guests take ramps down to reach the ride because its boats sail at actual ground level.
Not only do the Utilidors house the sewer lines, pipes, cables and other utilities you’d expect to find below ground, there are also storage areas, offices, breakrooms, make-up and dressing rooms, a cafeteria, a barbershop, a “zoo” to keep the Disney characters comfortable when they aren’t onstage, along with out-of-sight passages leading to 29 access points.
Walls are color-coded so employees can pop up close to their job site. Most of those access points feature signs reminding the “cast” to smile, because they are about to be onstage. Many those entrances and exits are cleverly hidden in plain sight.
EPCOT - the future city was still top of mind when phase one of the World was mapped out, a unique feature of the Utilidors is the Swedish AVAC trash-disposal system, which funnels trash underground in pneumatic tubes to a central collection point.
“Think about all the locations through the Magic Kingdom wherever the trash is at you go to a major receptacle, you pour it down, and it travels through these pneumatic tubes to one collection point. No need for trucks to come anywhere close to the guest. And the sights, the smells, everything is whisked away. It works as well today as it did, you know almost 50 years ago,” Phil Holmes, former vice president of Magic Kingdom from 2001 to 2015, said.
It might be the fastest trash disposal system on Earth. According to Aaron H. Goldberg, author of “Buying Disney’s World,” once the trash is deposited it is whisked away in tubes at almost 60 mph. Then it’s compacted and trucked to an incinerator.
The Utilidors provide important space for many critical functions, including the control of animatronic figures inside attractions throughout the park above. Kurtti wrote, “The Digital Animation Control System (DACS), ensures that the hundreds of Audio- Animatronics figures in the Magic Kingdom are ‘on cue’ during their performances, by orchestrating more than 2,000 individual functions every second.”
DACS also plays a role in opening automatic theater doors, elevating stage lifts, operating lighting and curtains and monitoring fire protection, security, equipment failure and power loss, although as the Kingdom has built out and technology has advanced over 50 years, not everything is as centralized as it was in 1971. With modern computers using tiny storage chips instead of enormous reel-to-reel tapes even some legacy attractions like “The Enchanted Tiki Room” are mostly controlled from its own show building.
Disney employees, tens of thousands of cast members, and characters at Magic Kingdom keep the magic alive, which means a lot of costumes. According to Disney, for many years the largest active wardrobe department in the world called the Utilidors home, housing more than 2 million pieces of apparel and accessories to outfit the man cast members and Audio-Animatronic performers within Magic Kingdom. In 2005, much of that wardrobe was relocated to a larger location in the cast members’ parking lot, making it easier and faster for them to check out and take home costumes.
Chances are strong you’ve never seen a service vehicle or delivery truck outside a shop or restaurant at the Magic Kingdom. Once again, that’s thanks to the Utilidors.
Deliveries and maintenance are mostly done through below-ground access, keeping the streets clear for pedestrians and the “peace and dreamlike quality of the park undisturbed,” Disney said. Even the bank trucks can drive right up to the “underground” entrances to collect the money. You can thank Walt for that.
Many guests ask to go down inside the tunnels. That is forbidden, except for a couple of tours that have been on hold due to the pandemic. So the next time you stroll through Main Street, think about what might be taking place throughout the mile of crisscrossing corridors that lie beneath your feet.
To all who come to this happy corner of ClickOrlando.com, welcome! Walt Disney World is counting down to its 50th Anniversary, and so are we. With 50 days until 50 years, we are taking a daily look back at the past, how Disney’s opening shaped Central Florida’s present and a peek at what’s in store for the future.
We’re also looking to hear your memories of Walt Disney World: What do you love? What do you miss? What are some of your magical moments? You can share them with us by sending us an email and we’ll post them all for everyone to enjoy. Some might even be featured during our News 6 TV coverage of Walt Disney World’s 50th.
Here’s to dreaming, and here’s to another half-century of The Most Magical Place on Earth!