Day 474: Disney’s Hidden Corners

originally published April 18, 2013

Anytime someone uses the term ‘Mickey Mouse Organization’ to denote a company or government that is inexperienced, ineffectual or somehow incompetent, I wonder why such a saying exists. The real Mickey Mouse organization – in particular the theme parks with Mickey’s trademark ears plastered all over the place – is about as slick and capable a machine as you’ll ever see.

Every facet of the theme park experience is engineered and monitored, from the admin buildings and garbage cans being painted to blend into the landscape, to the meticulous litter monitoring and hidden camera setups.

Oh and there are secrets. Crazy, amazing secrets. Tiny corners of the park that you can’t wander into as a tourist, but with the right connections, you can witness for yourself.

High on my bucket list of places to visit is the mysterious Club 33, located in the New Orleans Square district of Disneyland, not far from the Pirates Of The Caribbean ride. You can approach the door with the number ‘33’ beside it, but unless your name is on the list, you aren’t getting in.

Opening just six months shy of Walt Disney’s death in 1966, this was his attempt at an exclusive VIP club for the park, akin to what was offered to dignitaries at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. The wait-list for membership is about 14 years, meaning you’ve got roughly equal odds of getting in as trying to secure season tickets for the Green Bay Packers. Membership costs $10,000 up front, plus $3500 per year. And what do you get for all this?

Booze, for starters. Club 33 is the only fully-stocked bar in the park. Also, the food is supposed to be pretty great. The place is stacked full of goodies Walt and Lillian Disney picked up in their travels, including a harpsichord which has been tickled by the fingertips of Elton John and Paul McCartney.

While I’m sure it isn’t worth the price of admission, this would be a fun party to experience.

You can’t visit Disneyland without taking a walk down Main Street, USA. Walt knew this, and ensured he’d have a front-row seat to watch each happy soul leap, lunge and lope into his park by installing an apartment in the space above the Main Street fire station.

The apartment, where Walt used to stay whenever he was in town, is not open to every Joe & Judy Slob-Tourist who wanders into the Magic Kingdom, but special tours can be arranged. The place has been preserved almost immaculately from when Walt used to put his feet up there. And because he traditionally had a light on at his desk when he was there, the Disneyland team has left a permanent light on – which you can see from out front – signifying that Walt is always there in spirit.

Kind of kicks you square in the heart-nuts, doesn’t it?

Have you ever seen a single mouse at Disneyland that wasn’t actually a guy in a big mouse-suit? I would bet you haven’t. That’s because of Disney’s 200 or so feral cat employees who are released into the park after closing every night to sweep the grounds and rid the area of any unwelcome, non-trademarked rodents.

This is a story too incredible to make up. The cats get rounded up every morning and taken to secret feeding stations, where they get treated to tasty eats and top-notch health care. Among homeless cats around the country, this is the place they all talk about in hushed tones – the Promised Land for the wayward feline, a meowing mecca.

Yes, that is a basketball court, and it can be found at Disneyland, though not in a spot you’ll ever see unless you get hired there. Every so often you might catch a glimpse of some people scaling the outside of the Matterhorn. This grabs the eyes of the guests walking below, and might add a dash of what-did-I-just-see excitement if you spot them while riding the bobsled rollercoaster in the mountain. But those climbers have access to a room that you, the common schlub, will never see.

The unadorned space inside, surrounded by staircases and access routes for quick ride repair, was transformed into a single-hoop basketball court. Rumor has it the company took employee suggestions for what to do with the space, and basketball won out. There’s another rumor that Walt had it installed because Anaheim had a law that stated that no building can be constructed above a certain height unless it was a sports arena. This was his way around that law.

That rumor has been solidly debunked though. But the b-ball court is there. Disney loves its secrets.

Can you imagine spending the night inside the massive Cinderella’s Castle on the grounds? If you’re in Anaheim you’re out of luck. But at Disneyworld in Orlando, there is a snazzy suite, just waiting for you to wave your credit card at it so you can spend the night.

The place was created to be Walt’s Florida-based apartment, but since he passed away before the park opened, it wound up being used for a gaggle of telephone operators for a while before getting abandoned. The suite is decorated with elaborate care and ornate detailing, but it’s cramped as all hell. Well, except for the bathroom. Check out this glorious hot tub:

Celebrity guests receive an $18,000 glass slipper to keep as a souvenir. But spending a night there isn’t as exclusive as getting in to Club 33 – I’ve heard you just need to fork out something like $4000 for the privilege. There is only one place like it in the world though – and the décor may be fairy-tale chic, but there are two flatscreen TVs (including one inside the bathroom mirror) and all the trappings of 21st century technology at the guests’ disposal.

During the Year of a Million Dreams promotion in 2007, the park would select one family at random to award a night in the suite. They’d pick some arbitrary place and time, like Turnstile 7 at 10:15am, show up there and award the prize. Winners would also get to be grand marshal at the nightly parade, then get two hours of the park to themselves.

Pretty sweet. But I’d settle for a simple glass of whiskey at Club 33.

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