We in Orlando share something special. It's a secret -- the secret of what really goes on backstage at Walt Disney World.
We don't derive this knowledge from the Sentinel or Bill Shafer's showbiz-type reports on WESH-Channel 2, but from plain, old gossip. Most people work for, have worked for or know someone who works for Disney. The biggest benefit to knowing them isn't the free pass. It's the stories. Anyone who has ever done time on the mean streets of Epcot has vomit stories, lost kid stories, obnoxious tourist stories and stories about slaving for the capitalist Mouse that doles out pixie dust faster than raises. These are the folks that brighten a dinner party.
David Koenig's new book, "More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland," is filled with these stories. It's a follow-up to his original "1995 Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland." (The book that fell in between those two was "Mouse Under Glass," which focused on Disney animation.) Koenig, who has never been a cast member himself, has gathered the urban legends of Disneyland and compiled them in one place. Because he's dealing with Disneyland and not Disney World, the details of his stories may be new to some of us. But Disney World has its own versions of each tale.
Koenig writes about a would-be skinhead invasion of the park; we have horror stories about working The Night of Joy. He has guests falling from skyrides; we have guests falling from parking-lot trams. He has children being conceived in Tomorrowland; we have children being born in Tomorrowland toilets. He has a tourist struck dead from a flying cleat off a boat in the Happiest Place on Earth; we have African birds struck dead by a tourist-transport vehicle in a protected wildlife game preserve. He has union strikes and management backlash, and well, so do we.
It's a lot of gossip and a lot of fun, but there is an underlying message, which we, as a people who live close to the Mouse, have known for some time: Disney has changed. With stories from old-timers and the days of Walt acting like a kid in the park, to stories of the security department becoming a profit center for the Magic Kingdom, Koenig demonstrates that the Disney company has gone from a show to a business.
One example is the philosophy that has permeated current cast members: Why give the guests the best when they are willing to pay the same amount for the mediocre? The stories of cutbacks, eliminated positions and turning every store on Main Street into a Costco of plush Mickeys and T-shirts is not limited to the West Coast. And they make for good commiseration stories among cast members.
Eyes and Ears, the in-house company newsletter for Disney World cast members, publishes the official "stories" Disney wants everyone to know and talk about. How guests love the new turkey-leg wagon is good PR. How the Journey to Jerusalem ride at Millennium Village was redesigned following the Arab-American flap is not. For that story you need to ask someone who worked on the exhibit. And isn't that what Disney is all about, anyway -- telling stories?
When it's all broken down, every entertainment company is about spinning yarns to keep an audience happy. Walt took storytelling to a new level in animation and dark rides. Even the hotels and restaurants have a story to tell. But the best tales are always the ones you're not supposed to know -- the ones about human foibles, anger, lust and revenge. If the Disney company doesn't want to tell those kind of stories, Disney cast members sure do. And Koenig lets them.