Disneyland may look like a straightforward theme park. But there's a secret world hidden behind the balloons, castles and cotton candy - a place where wild cats roam the park at midnight, Mickey Mouse hides in the wallpaper, and movie stars sip martinis behind closed doors.
It's not easy keeping the grounds of Disneyland utterly spotless, as well as free of unwanted pests. Every night after closing time, 200 feral cats are released into the park to help keep the rodent population under control. Though Disney doesn't comment on the matter, rumour has it that the feline taskforce dates back to 1957, when renovations to Sleeping Beauty Castle revealed a colony of more than 100 stray cats. After unsuccessful attempts to chase them out of the park, Disney decided to put the cats to work instead. Today they spend their daylight hours resting in the park's well-concealed 'cat houses’, though you can sometimes spot a furry face peeking out between the mechanical lions on the Jungle Cruise.
At Disneyland, the round-eared Mickey Mouse emblem is everywhere. But thanks to clever Imagineers (Disney's specially trained designers and engineers), hundreds of 'Hidden Mickeys' are also scattered across the park. The subtle symbols are often difficult to spot: they're camouflaged in the architecture and landscaping as well as in the smallest stylistic details, from the floral wallpaper of the First Aid station and the rust marks atop a treasure chest in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, to the shapes of car speakers on Space Mountain. No one knows exactly how many exist.
Cocktails behind closed doors
Disneyland is dry - unless you can manage to get your name on the list at Club 33. The secret cocktail lounge, tucked away above the Blue Bayou restaurant and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in New Orleans Square, has a limited membership of around 500 and a waiting list of approximately 14 years. Walt Disney designed the club as an exclusive space to entertain possible investors; since then, the lounge, complete with an elegant dining room and a first-class wine cellar, has hosted US presidents, film stars, foreign dignitaries, and lucky guests with connections. It's said that Robert Kennedy dined here on 3 June, 1968, two days before he was assassinated.
Trick of the eye
Things are not always as they appear at Disneyland. The park's design employs 'forced perspective,' creating optical illusions that make structures appear larger or smaller than they actually are. Sleeping Beauty Castle, for example, looks much taller than its 77 feet - that's because the 'bricks' and other architectural features grow progressively smaller as the towers rise. The Matterhorn also appears more massive than it is, since the tallest trees are at the base of the mountain and the smallest are placed at the summit. Entering Main Street, thanks to clever angles and scaling techniques, the castle seems far away and the old-fashioned shops and ice cream parlours seem to be several stories tall. As you exit, the same Main Street seems much shorter. Walt Disney figured that families coming into the park would be filled with anticipation, but on leaving, they'd be too tired for a leisurely stroll.
Always on stage
At Disneyland, a janitor isn't a janitor - he's a 'cast member'. So are the legions of cashiers, painters, ride operators, gardeners, and performers, from the girl who portrays Cinderella to the guy pushing a broom around Frontierland. All cast members are trained to follow a specific code of etiquette that helps preserve the Disney magic. On the list of dos and don'ts? Never break character. If wearing a costume that belongs in Fantasyland, don't set foot in Tomorrowland - it might confuse visitors or break the park's orderly image. When directing guests, point with two fingers or an open palm, never the index finger. Cast members are issued a Disney 'look book' that details the fresh-faced ideal - no long fingernails, beards, or unnaturally coloured hair allowed. It's a throwback to Walt Disney's All-American standards: when the park opened even guests with facial hair weren't allowed entrance.
A light stays on
When construction was underway in the early 1950s, Walt didn't want to miss a moment of his dream coming to life. That's why he installed a small private apartment for his family above the Fire Department on Main Street. Decorated by one of Disney's set designers, the apartment featured turn-of-the-century decor; the apartment still contains Walt's tiled shower (fitted with multiple shower heads to soothe an old polo injury) and a ceramic bar set Walt used to serve his favorite hot drink, the rum- and brandy-based Tom & Jerry. Though no photography is allowed , guests on the Walk in Walt's Disneyland Footsteps tour are allowed to take a peek inside. The lamp in the window, visible from the park, was once illuminated to signal to cast members that the head honcho was on the premises. Today the lamp always stays lit in honor of the man behind the mouse.
This article was originally published in November 2011.
Inspire your kids to travel with Lonely Planet’s new Not For Parents series.
(PS. They're also available on the iBookstore! Check out Paris, Rome, London, New York and The Travel Book.)