Sunday, February 9, 2014

Birthday Surprise: Keys to the Kingdom Tour!

by Meghann on February 9, 2014

It’s official, Derek wins for best birthday surprise of all time. After months of holding onto the secret (and not giving much away with hints!), he surprised me with a Keys to the Kingdom Tour at Magic Kingdom yesterday.


It was the perfect birthday gift. Seriously, my husband knows me so well.

I’ve always been a huge Disney fanatic, but after seeing Saving Mr. Banks last December I got really into researching the history of Walt Disney World. When he asked what I wanted for Christmas, I told him I wanted a really good book that goes in depth about Walt Disney World’s history. While trying to find a book online, he stumbled upon the behind-the-scenes tours available at Walt Disney World. These tours book up months in advanced, so he immediately booked one for my birthday weekend and told me not to plan anything that day.

So for two months Derek tortured me by not letting me know anything about this big surprise he had planned. I HATE surprises so this part was really hard for me. But I was good; I didn’t snoop, I didn’t pry (too much), and I even stopped myself from asking friends a million questions (I knew they knew). Derek wanted to surprise me and I wanted to make sure that happened.

Derek did good with not giving me much to go on. I knew that we had a bit of drive to get there (he wouldn’t tell me which direction we were heading), he didn’t tell me what to wear (besides needing to wear real shoes), and I knew we had to wake up early (though when I asked what time I should set my alarm for, he said he would take care of it). At one point I did ask if we were going to Disney, but he said “that would be too easy.” Then his mom gave me a Disney gift card for my birthday and he made a big stink that she just got it because she knew I liked Disney. I didn’t question it. Made sense to me – a Disney gift card really is an awesome gift.

Even though I knew we had to get up early, I was still shocked when Derek’s alarm went off at 5:30. What? Man, that really is early. I was thinking “early” meant 7. Then I discovered we had a 2-2.5 hour drive and was HAD to be there before 9. So I got dressed in yoga pants (he said they were okay), a comfy top, and my Brooks Transcend shoes (which are AWESOME if you’re going to be on your feet all day). I also packed an extra bag with a few other clothes and shoe options “just in case” my wardrobe choice was wrong. Derek also made sure I had a jacket since the forecast called for rain and cold.


Once in the car, I fell right asleep (Derek encouraged it). When I woke up we were driving under the famous “Welcome to Walt Disney World” arch. I knew it! Then Derek pulled out my Magic Band, which he must have grabbed on the way out the door because it was sitting firmly on the table next to the door when I last saw it.

Of course, Derek still wouldn’t share anymore details about what was happening. We parked in Magic Kingdom and he admitted to overestimating how long it would take us to get to Disney. We were an hour and a half early! The good news is, we had no problem parking at the ticket and transportation center – we were the second row back.

Since we were early we headed to the Polynesian for a quick breakfast. I ordered a Mickey waffle because, well, it was my birthday after all.


During breakfast I kept quizzing Derek about what we were up to, but he would just ignore my questions. I almost immediately asked if we were going on a behind-the-scenes tour, but he acted surprised by the idea, as if he didn’t know they existed.

We hopped on the monorail and headed to Magic Kingdom. We entered the park around 8:15, but it wasn’t open yet. They were corralling everyone at the entrance for the official opening. I’ve never seen the opening ceremony before and was honestly excited about the possibility of seeing it. Maybe that was the surprise?

I knew someone else was coming because Derek kept checking his phone and taking secret phone calls. I asked him if we should be looking for someone and he said no. Then he left to use the restroom and he insisted I wait by myself at the entrance. A couple of minutes later my mom called asking where I was.

“I’m a Disney World!”

“Us too! Where are you standing?”

“I’m by the newsstand”

“So are we.”

It took a couple minutes of back and forth, but I found my parents on the other side of the rope, where all of the “reservation” folks were. They had on “guest” badges with 9:00am tour information on them. I knew it! I knew it! We were going on a behind-the-scenes tour! I was beyond excited!!


The Keys to the Kingdom Tour (or really any of the behind-the-scenes tours Walt Disney World offers) is something I’ve always wanted to do, but couldn’t justify the extra expense. Though, now that I’ve done one, I’m a little addicted to them and could totally justify the expense. As soon as I got back in the car I started researching other tours Walt Disney World offers and had to stop myself from reserving a spot on all of them. Check them out here and drool with me. #DisneyNerdsUnite

Sorry, tangent.

The tour started promptly at 9:00am. Out tour guide, James, was awesome. He’s been a Disney cast member for over 11 years and has been to every Disney park around the world. He’s also a tour guide for Adventures by Disney during the summer. He was so knowledgeable about all things Disney, I could have easily sat and talked to him for hours.


The Keys to the Kingdom tour is a 5 hour walking tour of Magic Kingdom (hence the need for comfortable shoes). James wore a microphone and we were given headsets so we could listen to James without having to strain our ears. Yes, we totally had the tour/tourist vibe with the headsets, but never underestimate the power of the headset – it made hanging on to James every word so much more enjoyable. Though, even with the headset, I was still in the front row for everything.

The tour covered the “onstage” portion of Magic Kingdom (the part of the park visitors see) and some of the “backstage.” In true show business fashion, when cast members are “onstage” they are 100% in character so there are separate “onstage” questions and answers while they’re in character and separate “backstage” questions and answers when they can relax a bit. Ask a cast member what the line is that goes from Cinderella’s Castle to Tomorrowland is and see what they say. 😉

The tour’s name “Keys to the Kingdom” is named for the four keys Disney uses as standards in of their parks:

  • Safety
  • Courtesy
  • Show
  • Efficiency

Throughout the tour, we reviewed all four keys and saw examples of how they are used in modern day. I really wish I had taken notes on everything because there was so much information to soak in. We reviewed Disney’s history, tricks to Disney’s magic, and a little bit about the future. I won’t even begin to cover everything here, but give more of a gist of the tour.

We started on Main Street, where Magic Kingdom opens like a movie. The train stations acts like a curtain for Cinderella’s castle, which visitors can only see once they’ve gone through the tunnel and fully immersed themselves in the magic that is Magic Kingdom. The names on the top of the buildings read like opening credits, listing names of individuals who played important roles in making Walt Disney World possible. There was even a window dedicated to all of the fake company names that Walt used when buying up all the land to make Walt Disney World possible.


From there we headed to Adventureland,  where James pointed out how Magic Kingdom uses subtle changes in music and scenery to transition between lands.


Did you know the Jungle Cruise was Walt Disney’s favorite ride at Disneyland? He originally wanted to use real animals in the attraction, but went with animatronics after he realized the expense and logistics of having real animals. Eventually Walt’s vision did come to fruition when the Animal Kingdom opened Kilimanjaro Safari in 1998.


James took over the role of skipper and shared a lot of interesting facts about the animatronics and history of the ride. I even learned there are heaters placed throughout the tropical plants for the rare occasion it drops below freezing in Orlando, they don’t want the plants to die. Even though all the boats are on tracks, the skipper still has control of how slow and fast the boat goes. They also attend an intense training session to learn to properly steer the boat to make it look realistic. And do you know why the water is murky brown? The clean water is purposely dyed dark to cover up the tracks the boats ride on.

We went backstage for a close-up view of the parade floats. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get a sneak peek of the new Fantasyland themed floats, but we did get one last look of the celebration floats before they’re demolished (they were already in the process of taking them apart). Fun fact: parade float driving is a full time job at Walt Disney World. It’s actually a refined skill that takes a bit of training and experience to master.

Lunch was provided at Columbia Harbour House (my favorite lunch place in Magic Kingdom). We had ordered off the menu during check-in and everything was set by the time we arrived to eat at 11:30. Each place setting had a name card that included a special “Keys to the Kingdom” pin.


I had my favorite – the hummus sandwich.


After lunch we rode the Haunted Mansion and reviewed some of the special effects that make the ride possible. Fun Fact: Did you know Haunted Mansion is in a different “land” in every Walt Disney theme park around the world? It’s also themed accordingly to the land it’s in at that park. i.e. the Haunted Mansion is part of “Liberty Square” at Magic Kingdom and resembles a haunted New England style mansion.

For our last portion of the tour (the “icing on the cake” really), we went underground to explore the Utilidors (aka secret tunnels under the park). We weren’t allowed to take photos, but I found a map online.


The Utilidor is actually the first level of the Magic Kingdom since they built the tunnels first, then built Magic Kingdom on top of the system. The system allows employees to travel from one portion of the park to the other without being seen. The utilidor is also a place for storage, character make-up, and employee cafeterias. Though Disneyland and Epcot have smaller utilidor systems, Magic Kingdom has the largest and most extensive of all Disney Parks. It’s also the most famous.

I’d never been down below before, so it was fun to see something new. Unfortunately we didn’t see any headless Mickeys or Princesses getting their make-up done. Apparently the “entertainment base,” where characters go for make-up, is strict on admittance and even James had never been before.

The tour ended way too quickly in my opinion. Seriously, 5 hours fly when you’re having fun! However, we were all exhausted. It’s crazy how much walking around can take it out of you.


We hit up Starbucks for caffeine, then rode a couple of rides before calling it a day.

We stopped at Landry’s for an early birthday dinner and I enjoyed a Peach Sangria and crab legs.

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Gotta love a good birthday meal!

I spent the car ride home researching other behind-the-scenes tours. Derek doesn’t know what he started – I’m officially addicted. It’s like this whole new world of Walt Disney World just opened up for me. There are so many options! Kid friendly tours, adult only tours, ones that cover one park, ones that cover multiple parks, etc. I think I know what I’m asking for every birthday from now on! 😉

Have you ever been surprised on your birthday? What was the surprise?



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