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Thursday Treasures

December 29, 2011

by Kelvin C. 

Previously on Thursday Treasures: 'I never get to do anything!' Sight! Sound! Taste! Feel! Smell (wait, there was never any smell lest you count me')! Freebies! Kathryn Beaumont! Christmas! Snow!

Now that we got the recap out of the way, it's time for me to move on to the second half of my D23 Magic and Merriment experience. Reuben and I arrived at the Columbia Harbor House at Liberty Square for an exclusive breakfast that was similar to the previous day's. Before you say, 'Well, you didn't tell us what you ate,' it's because I'm leaving that to Reuben to cover for one of his Sunday Brunches. Remember, I'm the 'Mmmm, tasty colors' guy. The entire second floor of the restaurant was opened just for us, which made us feel rather special. After receiving our itineraries for the day, we had some time to kill until our backstage tours at 10 a.m.

Astute readers will remember when I said that while Fantasyland's my favorite area in all the parks, I rarely get to experience it due to the company I travel with. So what better opportunity to experience all of it than with my fellow Disney nerd pal Reuben? To sweeten the deal, it was so early in the day that the park was still empty, resulting in us covering that entire land in the span of a single hour.

Afterwards, it was time to head over to Splash Mountain where we were told to meet for the tours. As we made our way there, Reuben noticed that there wasn't a single person around from the event. There were no groups huddled together, no familiar faces, not even any event passes hung around anyone's neck. We looked at each other in confusion as we were there on time. Two cast members working at the entrance had no idea what we were talking about when we asked them. Neither did two more cast members who worked in the attraction's shop. Although in my head I knew it wasn't a big deal, I still felt my heart beating faster with every minute that passed by. Where was everyone? We were told to meet at Splash Mountain at 10, and that's exactly what we did. Are these D23 events so exclusive that not even cast members know about them? We experienced that the previous day at Norway with the whole lounge fiasco, but that made sense since we arrived after the fact. How could an entire group of people just disappear at a location without any cast members aware of the fact?

Several phone calls later, a cast member we hadn't spoken to suddenly appeared from the back of the shop and asked us if we were part of the Magic and Merriment event. She then escorted us to the outskirts of the attraction area on the far left where a massive gate used to let the parade floats out stood. Once through, we saw our group huddled together in front of a warehouse. We joined them after receiving some finger-wagging from the host who had an attendance sheet and was wondering where the heck we were.

So began the first of our backstage tours: the Parade Barn, which we thankfully only missed the introductory words for. The cast members who hosted these various tours requested to remain anonymous outside the tour itself and reminded us that no photography of any kind was permitted. Walking inside, we gaped at the massive floats tucked away, sources of magic and inspiration hibernating in such a common surrounding. It was an odd and surreal contrast. Spread before us were the Main Street Electrical Parade floats, one of which the parade guide turned on for us. He told us how, as with driver's licenses, there were different categories for different operators based on the weight and size of the float. Level C operators control the small floats that have no people on them (like the individual insects in the Main Street Electrical Parade), Level B the medium-sized floats (like a Wonderland mushroom), and Level A the largest and most complicated ones that usually have a character on them (like Elliott who has Pete riding on him).

Outside the warehouse were floats from 'Celebrate a Dream Come True,' including the 'Wish Upon a Star' float (themed to both Pinocchio and Snow White), the 'A Hundred Thousand Dreams to See' float (featuring different flying characters, most prominently the Genie), the 'Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes' float (fashioned after Cinderella's coach), and the elaborate castle finale float. The latter, we were told, was actually from Disneyland and given to Walt Disney World for its 20th anniversary. The float has been used ever since, though has been given major facelifts over the years. The Tinker Bell balloon float from the Main Street Electrical Parade was also outside because it was too tall to fit with the other MSEP ones inside.

After waiting for the 'Move It, Shake It, Celebrate It' floats to pass in front of us and out the gate, we went to the parade barn that held the special holiday event floats. Here we saw the Pirates of the Caribbean one used for 'Mickey's Boo to You, Too' and were told that because ABC wanted it for the Disney Parks Christmas Parade telecast, the Imagineers had to wait until after filming to put up the Main Street garland, otherwise the ship would've torn it all down. We also got to see the gingerbread house up close and were shown where the operators would sit. A good question someone asked was how the floats know when to synchronize with the audio. The guide explained that this is a fairly recent technology where the amount of times the float wheels turn on a given route is calculated both in advance and while the float moves, and the music cues are synched up to those. The audio is purposely played a few seconds ahead of each float in order to act as fanfare.

After the Parade Barn tour, we traveled by bus to the Scenic Services warehouse. In this locale was held basically anything you could think of that you'd find in an attraction or show. All kinds of miscellaneous statues and figures, draperies, decorations, backdrops, etc. It's essentially the team Disney goes to when they need something created for an attraction or event. Our tour of this warehouse, unfortunately, wasn't as thorough as the Parade Barn due to the fact that most of the scenic props and accessories were shelved in boxes and bags, so there wasn't much to see. There were also workers bringing in large materials via loud trucks. I did manage to spot high up in the shelves large statues of Ariel and Flounder, Christmas ones of Goofy and Pluto, and a collection of American landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty. Interestingly, I noticed a lot of the props were covered by Disney bedsheets. I was tempted to snatch a Disney afternoon one that was clearly from the early 90s, but I didn't want to risk getting banned from Disney parks for life.

To keep with the holiday theme of the event, the guide talked to us about some of the Christmas props they've created, most notably the Cinderella Castle dream lights. Amazingly, we were told that the amount of power used to run the lights is equivalent to about three wash and spin cycles in your home's washer and dryer. It was for that reason Disney decided to use the LED lights that adorn the castle. To help blend them in better during the day, the electrical cords were painted to match whatever part of the castle they'd be draped over. For example, a net of lights placed over one of the towers would be painted blue while other placed over the walls would be gray.

We were granted our first picture of the tour in a specially-designated area with one of the large toy soldiers placed outside at Christmas. I apparently took this burst of freedom too far when I decided to lean on the soldier's arm in a chummy sort of way, resulting in a stern headshake from the guide.

The last stop on our tour (after a bus ride that lasted 30 seconds since this one was literally a few yards away) was the Holiday Services warehouse. This domain housed all of the Christmas decorations placed throughout the parks and resorts. Huge shelves closely placed together towered over us and went on for quite a while, vaguely reminding me of the Hall of Prophecy from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. These shelves had plastic bins with multiple copies of each ornament. Many were of Disney characters while many more were of more traditional ornaments. I again resisted the urge to imitate the skills Aladdin and Flynn Rider are best known for and proceeded on my way.

The guide demonstrated how the ornaments are placed on the trees in a particular way that prevents them from ever falling off. Besides being hooked a certain way, they're also attached to the base of the trees themselves, so you really can't grab one unless you want the entire tree toppling on you. He took us to a separate, smaller room where we saw cast members hard at work creating the individual decorations we often take for granted when seeing everything at once. He went on to explain that the ornaments get reused about five times before they're donated to children's homes and hospitals.

On the way out were small Christmas trees filled with decorations that differed from the others around the warehouse. The guide explained that sometimes if there wasn't much to do, Holiday Services would create their own decorations to entertain themselves, and sometimes these, too, would be donated. One noteworthy tree had its glittery, painted ornaments all created from plastic water bottles that were cut and pasted to form different patterns.

It seemed as though Disney could sense the greedy impulses I had throughout the tours, for once we boarded the bus, our bags were inspected to make sure we didn't swipe anything. Looking back on the three tours, I find it interesting that despite seeing where all the Disney theme park magic was coming from, the enchantment wasn't ruined for me. Sure, the warehouses themselves were pretty ordinary outside of what they housed, and the outer backstage areas were pretty barren and not unlike a Home Depot or Lowe's, but seeing all of it reminded me that hardworking people have always been and will always be the ones who put forth the so-called 'Disney essence' for us to see. While it's nice to think of it all happening via a wave of a magic wand, it's still just as awe-inspiring to see and know that it's all the fruition of talented cast members and Imagineers who have the same goals as any fairy godmother ' making dreams come true.

After spending some more free time roaming the Magic Kingdom, Reuben and I made our way over to Sleepy Hollow Refreshments for our 2 o'clock tour of the Cinderella Castle Suite. While waiting for the groups to assemble, we ran into Heather the photographer again and got to chat with her for a few minutes. It turns out that before being a photographer for Disney, she was actually a graphic artist who helped design many of their DVD menus. Considering how obsessed the two of us are over Disney's home video releases (which, coincidentally is how we first met online), we found that tidbit absolutely fascinating. She snapped a few random pictures of us that were too chic to be posted on D23's website, then we got ready for the Castle Suite tour.

Now, Cinderella, while not my favorite Disney film, is perhaps the one that strikes the most emotional chord with me. It was my first Disney film, and I feel like it's the one that best encompasses what the Walt Disney Company is all about. It's the film that caused my lifelong obsession with both Disney and fairy tales, and considering how much of who I am is rooted in those, that's a pretty big accomplishment for one film to achieve. So when the Dream Suite was first announced way back during the 'Year of a Million Dreams' campaign, I knew I had to go there someday.

We were all separated into groups of about six people, otherwise the suite would fast become a sardine can. Led through the walkway tunnel where the mosaics lie, we waited in front of a door to be let in. The walkway was closed as it usually was due to the 'Dream Along with Mickey' show, though Reuben noticed something when peering through the large wooden doors. We were able to see the dancers rehearsing for the next performance. This was only for a few seconds, though, for our tour was about to begin.

First we entered a very rich and antiquated-looking foyer. There were large tapestries hung on up on the walls, and an ornate desk was placed in the middle, complete with quill and inkwell. Off to the right in the corner was a grandfather clock whose hands were pointed at 11:59 and will always remain so that way the magic never ends. On the wall next to it was a golden elevator that we took up to the suite level. The elevator's panels were actually inspired by the interior of Cinderella's coach as seen in the film (though the color scheme was kept more rustic rather than pink). The floor featured a detailed mosaic of the pumpkin coach itself. As the elevator doors opened, we found ourselves a facing another small foyer. The Imagineers did this because they didn't want the beds to be the first thing the guests saw upon entering. This foyer was fascinating for several reasons. First, behind glass were housed several key Cinderella items that were used in the 'Cinderellabration' show ' her crown, scepter, and most importantly, the legendary glass slipper itself (a size seven-and-a-half, in case you were wondering). My anal retentive nature did notice, though, that the slipper was missing its heart-shaped pendant in the front, but I shrugged it off. The other noteworthy thing about this foyer were the pieces of concept art from stylist Mary Blair. Now, when I say that these were concept art pieces, I mean that these were THE actual pieces of artwork painted by Blair herself, not reproductions. I was shocked to see how small they were since I always had it in my mind that concept art was commissioned on large canvases ala animation backgrounds.

Then came the room itself. Immediately upon entering, I noticed how lush the details in the suite were. You would think a room chock full of Cinderella references would basically look like a section of The Disney Store, but the Imagineers kept it all subtle and sophisticated. It all felt very true to the era of the story, even if visually it was darker than the film's design. A desk to our right had a guest book with a stained glass image of Cinderella dancing with the prince. More original Mary Blair artwork adorned the walls, and Cinderella's friends were both sculpted onto the top of the pillars and painted on a dome ceiling above us. There were also glass slipper and pumpkin icons scattered all over the windows, designs, and furniture which followed a brown and beige color scheme. Scattered throughout were various ornate boxes and trinkets that hid modern things like telephones and tissue boxes.

Two queen-sized beds to the left of the desk and book faced a fireplace that every 15 seconds emitted fireworks and Hidden Mickeys from its embers. Above the fireplace was what seemed like a painting of Cinderella herself (human, not animated) but was actually the screen saver for an HDTV. To the right of this was a small sit down room with a sofa and another hidden television. Reuben and I peered out the stained glass windows and could see the castle turrets below us as well as hear the 'Dream Along with Mickey' show. To the left of the fireplace was the bathroom. Instead of a usual knob for the faucet, it was designed as water pump similar to what people in Cinderella's era used for basins. Surrounding the bathtub were mosaics depicting the castle and scenery similarly to the mosaics found downstairs. Directly above the bathtub was a twinkling night sky. It was truly a suite fit for royalty, and just as suddenly as Cinderella when leaving the ball, we had to leave in order to make room for the next group.

Still in a daze over being inside the suite, Reuben and I spent the next few hours of our free time around Magic Kingdom before heading over to Animal Kingdom at 4 for the last Kilimanjaro Safari ride of the day reserved just for us. Our safari guide was excellent and consistently enthusiastic throughout the ride. Even when we came to empty patches of nothing where the animals that should've been there were away resting, he still found something to point out and talk about. Most of the riders were non-responsive, but Reuben and I felt proud that we interacted with him throughout the journey.

A while later, the entire group met in front of Expedition Everest for a group photo. I made sure Reuben and I made our way towards the front so we could be clearly visible. As we were waiting, I heard a voice say, 'Let's make some room for Kathy,' and suddenly none other than Kathryn Beaumont showed up and wedged into the middle of the group about 10 feet away from me. I was tempted to worm my way in a bit closer so I'd have another photo with her (even though it still technically counts as one either way), but I decided I couldn't abandon my comrade for my idol. The photo later ended up getting published, which we had expected based on previous D23 events.

We then made our way to the attraction itself which was left open just for us (the rest of the park was closing at this point). For a moment I wondered if Kathy would be riding, as well, and how amazing would it be to sit next to her during it. Then I realized that she, understandably, was staying behind, so I went on my way to escape the Yeti with Reuben.

A reception waited for us afterwards at Flame Tree Gardens. Drinks of both the soft and adult variety were distributed at a bar while waiters came around to our tables with hors d'oeuvres filled with chicken, beef, and pork. A trio of musicians played music on their steel drums, and after chatting and munching, we proceeded to Camp Minnie Mickey.

At the camp was a lavish buffet waiting for us. There were approximately six tables filled with all sorts of food and drinks. They were arranged in a circle around a large open area filled with tables and chairs. Above us were Christmas lights strewn across the area. I'll again let Reuben the food expert elaborate on the cuisine, but I can say that there were all sorts of meats, vegetables, fruits, breads, and sweets. No food group was left behind. Christmas music was played on speakers scattered around, but a live guitarist walked around making up improvised songs. Kathy was there with us and had an impromptu serenade by this troubadour. He then announced the engagement of a couple we had briefly spoken to a couple of times throughout the weekend. This was, of course, met with resounding applause, and to sweeten the deal came Santa himself to congratulate the two. Well, not quite Santa. It was none other than Goofy dressed as old Saint Nick. He made rounds posing for photos and causing general mischief.

Everyone was free to leave whenever they pleased, and Reuben and I decided to go since he had to work early the next morning and I had to board an early flight home. As we made our way towards the camp exit, I was tempted to go to Kathy's table and thank her for being such an inspiration to me, but I was afraid of coming across as a crazy stalker, so I decided against it. We did, however, thank the host for what became an amazing, one-of-a-kind weekend.

With 2011 coming to a close, I look back on my year and realize just how truly blessed I've been. I got to travel to Walt Disney World no less than three times. The first time, in March, was the usual quick 'gotta-go-to-the-next-attraction-before-the-world-explodes' trip with some friends. That trip was worth it, though, because I got to meet this site's very own webmaster Brent Dodge. The second, in October, was even more special for many reasons. It was always a dream of mine to go to Disney alone without my ADD-ridden friends dragging me around the place like some kind of kite. It was also a dream of mine to spend my birthday at Disney. Those two dreams came together during that October trip, and what topped it off was getting to meet Reuben for the first time.

It was strange to me. I've made all these friends online with whom I've shared my passions and opinions, but I haven't had any friends in the 'real world' with whom I could fully do that. My closest friends love me and accept me for who I am, but I also can't help but feel they tolerate me more than understand me. The same goes for my family, too, where I can only relate to them via blood and by no other means. With Brent and Reuben (and of course Amanda, who I can't forget), I was suddenly encountering people who knew and recognized literally everything that was coming out of my mouth. I could start songs and they would finish them. I could make an obscure reference to something and they'd laugh. I was used to this in chat rooms, but having that kind of experience face to face with other people was a foreign concept to me, yet it was one I relished.

2011 started with a standard trip where I got to meet a friend, continued with an epic trip where I got to meet more new friends while exploring the parks at my own pace on my birthday, and then ended with the special event you've just read about, one where I got to meet one of my personal heroes and experience Disney in a whole new way. I truly can't whine that I never get to do anything. It's sappy to say it, but my dreams really did come true at Disney this year. Yeah, I realize it's all Hallmark television special material, but sometimes things are sappy and clich'd because they have a basis in truth; it's just a truth that's accepted rather than spoken about. I hope to have more adventures and meet more new friends at Walt Disney World in the coming years, but if not, I'll have enough magic and memories to last me a lifetime.


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