Ever since my Disney obsession began with my first trip to Walt Disney World as a 12 year old I’ve wanted to know how it worked. Peeks and glimpses backstage made my heart race like I was seeing top secret, classified Disney information. When I discovered that there were tours designed to show Disney geeks like me behind some of the inner workings of the parks I jumped at the chance to take them. The first one I experienced was Keys to the Kingdom, a half day tour of the Magic Kingdom. I’ve taken this tour twice now, most recently when my oldest son turned 16 and was old enough to experience it with me. This review, or recollection of the tour will contain some spoilers, so proceed with caution.
We scheduled our Keys to the Kingdom tour early in the morning for a several reasons, and I recommend you do the same if you choose to experience this tour. There are normally 3 tour times to select from, and the earliest has some advantages. First, once you enter and check in at the Exposition Hall you have a little time to explore an empty Main Street USA—prime time for taking photos and just feeling like you have the park to yourself. Second, if you are touring anytime from April-October that early tour will help you beat the heat of the day. Finally, touring first leaves you plenty of time to enjoy the Magic Kingdom after your tour because you do have to use park admission to enter the park for the tour.
Tour reservations normally open up 180 days in advance and you can call 407-WDW-TOUR to make your reservation. They usually offer discounts for Disney Vacation Club Members, Annual Passholders and Disney Visa Cardholders so be sure to ask. It is a long tour and requires a good bit of standing and walking, but they do find opportunities for you to sit and rest along the way.
Once you have checked in and received your credentials (since you are going backstage) and your headset, you select your lunch from the menu at Columbia Harbor House (included in the price of the tour). You are offered some water and have a little free time before the tour begins. I recommend arriving so that you can check in about 15 minutes ahead of your tour time.
The tour begins on Main Street USA with some basic background and history of the park and Walt’s vision for his theme parks. Your guide will point out some of the windows and talk about the Imagineers associated with them along with the architectural design and how it illustrates Walt’s theme for the area. As much as possible they try to make it an interactive experience asking the group questions and allowing you time to ask questions too.
The next stop is Adventureland—at this point the park may be open to guests so those headsets come in handy for being able to hear your guide. We stopped in a shady area with some seating, but as dining options change in Adventureland this may change as well. Here we prepared for our ride on the Jungle Cruise.
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Once onboard the Jungle Cruise you will get a very different experience than you do as a guest. The Skipper does not do any of the talking, our guide lead the entire tour telling us inside information and pointing out “Easter Eggs” along the way. Not to spoil the entire tour I will just share two of those with you (and some may already know these). In the scene with the Rhino “get the point in the end,” the audio animatronic is the same face sculpture as the grave digger in Haunted Mansion. And when you get to Trader Sam at the end, his striped pants are made out of the same fabric that was once used to make the roof of the boat . . . when they changed it out to the plain canvas they have now they wanted a way to commemorate and preserve that iconic original design.
Following the Jungle Cruise we exited the park to a backstage area by Splash Mountain (where the parades exit and enter the park). Back there we were able to walk through the storage area of the parade floats which was really interesting. We had a chance to sit in the shade and ask some questions of our guide before re-entering the park. This is one of the areas where the park wide trash collection system is dumped. He explained the ways they keep the smell of the rotting garbage from infiltrating the park just on the other side of the walkway. Our guide also explained some of the backstage procedures for Cast Members, particularly those who are friends of the characters. This is one of the reasons the tour has a minimum age of 16—don’t want to spoil the magic too early!
After our backstage visit we had our lunch break at Columbia Harbor House. They had an area upstairs roped off for our group and we had assigned seats with little name cards. Our lunch orders were delivered to us and we had a nice break time to visit with the rest of our group. This was fun because everyone in the group was a die-hard Disney fan. We were also given our souvenir Keys to the Kingdom pins at lunch.
Our next stop was the Haunted Mansion. While we were divided up in the Doom Buggies our guide maintained communication with us over the headsets so that he could point out various aspects of the ride. One that I will share with you is to look for the shadows of the audio animatronics used to create the ghosts in the ballroom scene.
The final stop was probably the most intriguing for Disney fans: the Utilidoors. We entered this maze of underground pathways on one side of Main Street USA and walked around just a bit. It was obvious that this area of the Utilidoors where we were allowed in was “show ready” for the tour groups that come through. It was still very neat to see how it all worked—I’m sure it takes a few days for cast members to get it all figured out so they know where they are going. We emerged on the opposite side of Main Street USA where it was time for a few more questions and our final goodbyes.
I really enjoyed the Keys to the Kingdom Tour both times that I took it (even though it was exactly the same the second time around). My son enjoyed it too. If you are a Disney fan and like to know how things work or get a little inside look at the Magic Kingdom I highly recommend it. If you do not want to see any of the less show ready areas of the parks and prefer not to spoil the magic you might want to stay away from doing tours like this. In my mind it is no less magical for having seen those parts of the park—it just enhances my appreciation for everything the Imagineers and Cast Members do to take us away from the real world and into a world of fantasy.
Have you taken the Keys to the Kingdom tour at Magic Kingdom? Tell us what you thought.