For a lot of the day Remo was unnaturally quiet, but I think it was the same as me: trying not to get sucked into the bickering. We just kept our mouths shut and went along with the tide floating the family from thing to thing. He carried Ford for a while and talked baby talk to him and pointed at animals and gave their names even though Ford wasn’t anywhere close to the talking stage yet. I guess you have to do that though so that babies will start talking eventually, right?
When it was my turn to hold Ford, which didn’t come until one point where all three women went into a store to try things on and we menfolk stayed outside to sit on a bench, I discovered I still didn’t have the knack of baby talk. I always talked to Ford like he was a regular person who just couldn’t answer yet. It was a one-sided conversation but, you know, he had a personality. He wasn’t like a doll–he was very clearly a little person, reacting to things and having feelings. He just couldn’t say anything about it yet.
He was also a very tired little person by the time dinner rolled around, and he and his mother were both falling asleep. The rest of them went back to the hotel, leaving just me and Remo.
“So what are we going to do,” I said, looking around. “Ride Space Mountain?”
“If you want. One sec.” He pulled a pager out of his jacket and checked it. We found a pay phone near the train station entrance and he called in while I visited the men’s room.
When I came out he said, “We’re meeting a friend. Want a private tour?”
“You bet!” That was the most exciting thing I’d heard all day.
“I knew you’d say that.” He smiled. “I didn’t want to drag the whole group around. He said he’ll meet us … over there.” He pointed. A clean-cut looking guy in a button down shirt and khakis waved back.
When we got closer I could see he wasn’t quite as clean cut as the usual Disney employee. The long sleeve shirt was hiding his tattoos and there were marks in his ears where he’d taken his piercings out. He and Remo shook hands and then Remo introduced me.
“Daron, this is Lego Johnson. He used to work with Louis before he went to work for the Mouse.”
“Lou, but call me Lego if you want,” he said, shaking my hand. “We couldn’t have two guys named Lou on the same crew so I got a nickname and it stuck.”
“Louis is running lights for us right now,” I said.
“I know. He’s coming over Friday.” He turned and gestured for us to follow him as he went through a gate marked Cast Members Only. I’ll be honest I don’t remember now if he gave us some kind of backstage passes or credentials or what. There must’ve been something. “You been back here before?”
“Nope, you?” Remo asked me.
Lego cracked a smile. “Cool. This is fun. This place is like working on a cruise ship only even better. And a helluva lot bigger.” We followed him behind the buildings of Main Street which looked smaller on this side. “Always on the cutting edge of stage tech. If it isn’t invented here, this is one of the first places something’ll be adopted. Are you going to get a chance to see the other parks at all?”
I looked at Remo. “Dunno,” he said.
“Well if you get a chance, Disney MGM Studios is cool because if you go during the day you can see the animation studio in operation and all kinds of cool movie tech. And of course EPCOT Center is there to be educational. Yours isn’t that old yet though, Reem?”
“He’s not even one yet,” Remo said. “But we’ve already got a million pictures of him. His mother takes a photo every day and sends them to me when I’m on the road, you know?”
“She does?” This was the first I’d heard of that.
“Yep. Doesn’t want me to miss a day. Any she doesn’t send to me she shows them all to me when I get home.”
“Kinda obsessive,” Lego said, which was exactly what I was thinking, but didn’t want to say. “But in a loving mom way? Eh?”
“Yeah,” Remo said.
We went into a tunnel. “Okay so if you ever saw the movie Westworld, this is probably freaking you out right now,” Lego said.
“I have a vague memory of Yul Brunner killing everyone?” I said, looking around.
“That’s the one. Anyway, welcome to where it all happens. Florida is totally flat and riddled with water-filled limestone, so to build the Magic Kingdom they dug out the whole Seven Seas Lagoon out there and piled up all the dirt to create a gently sloping hill. Cinderella’s castle is at the highest point and right now we’re underneath all that.”
We passed a tall guy leaning against a corridor wall who was dressed as Goofy from the waist down–judging by the giant shoes–but who was in civvies from the waist up and was smoking a cigarette. He and Lego waved to each other as we passed.
We also passed a handful of musicians, two of them carrying guitars in gig bags on their backs, being led in the other direction by a young woman.
I don’t remember the numbers Lego rattled off but he told us how many employees worked the park when it was busy, how many of the “cast members” were performers and how many were in the production departments. The employees of the costume department alone exceeded the population of the town where I grew up, I think. At Disney every employee was considered a “cast member,” even the guy who swept up the trash.
We came out in another section of the park and stood by while a large group of high school kids in matching T-shirts was herded past us. A pang of recognition ran through me.
“Those are band nerds,” I said.
“Yup. We do a lot of band and chorus festivals and competitions, plus we bring in groups to perform here throughout the year.”
Remo seemed surprised by this. “Does that work out?”
“What do you mean, work out?” Lego asked. “Where the hell else are you going to find a seventy person show chorus or hundred piece brass band who’ll play for nothing?”
“They don’t get anything?”
“They get a trip to Disney out of it.” He shrugged. “And often a donation to their music booster program or instrument fund. But meanwhile we still make money. It’s win-win. If they didn’t come, we wouldn’t be having those shows. It’s not like they’re taking gigs away from paid musicians.”
As we walked around he explained stuff I never would have even thought of, like the research they did to figure out what color to paint things. I’m not kidding. The reason we all look rosy in the family photos we took with the castle in the background? Because Disney got Kodak to figure out what color red to make the street. Because the first thing people do when they arrive all pasty and white from the frozen north is take a family photo with the castle and they look terrible. So they did it so everyone would look better in their photos and be happier.
That’s an attention to detail and customer service beyond anything I could fathom. They don’t make more money because the street’s red. There’s no way to measure the effect it has on the bottom line other than a negative one: it cost money to research it and to change the color. But they did it anyway.
To make people happier.
“Disney is kind of like a cult, isn’t it,” I said at one point when we were going past Cinderella’s castle and Lego was telling us employees are instructed not to talk about why there’s a guy wire from the tower. During the fireworks a cast member dressed as Tinkerbell flies along it but, you know, you shouldn’t tell kids she’s not really flying, so he was explaining each person comes up with their own explanation. (“I tell them ‘oh, Cinderella just got cable,'” he said.)
“Yeah, a little,” he agreed. “A cult-like devotion to an ideal. I like it, I guess. I like that my job is to make people happy.” He chuckled. “The benefits, regular salary, and health insurance are good, too.”
We went back into the tunnels a little while later and I saw the same group of musicians we’d seen before, now outfitted in some kind of wild west getups and looking vaguely uncomfortable while they waited for something.
Lego snuck us to the front of the line for Space Mountain, which was fun, and then asked if we were sticking around for the fireworks. Remo gave the right answer, which was of course we were, and Lego brought us around to a spot inside the castle wall but where we couldn’t be seen. I put my earplugs in because that put us really close to the explosions and the hard surfaces around us were going to make the echo deafening, too.
Fireworks are such a spectacle for me because there are times when my senses are so absorbed by what I’m seeing that my brain shuts off entirely. I quit thinking so much. I quit thinking at all. And when I quit thinking, my feelings run wild.
Which explains why I cried during the fireworks display, right? It’s not a very long fireworks show. Not that it matters. It was like my breath caught on the very first big boom and just…waterworks. We were standing in the dark and looking up so I didn’t do anything to try to hide it. I just stared up and let it my eyes take it all in. There was music, too, but I couldn’t really hear it. And I don’t think I even saw Tinkerbell–she flew from the other side.
By the time it was over I had regained my composure. Mostly. At least Remo and Lego didn’t mention it.
Why is being human so difficult sometimes? (Not that I’d trade the experience, though, no way.)
Anyway, we thanked him for showing us around and then a car service came to get us to take us to our hotel somewhere on the outskirts of Orlando. Neither of us was really saying anything even though now the reason we’d been so quiet all day wasn’t present.
I did say one thing as the car was pulling up, though. “Thanks for that. That was fun.”
“Yeah, I thought you’d like that.”
“Always like to see how the sausage is made, yeah.”
He put his hand on my shoulder like he knew perfectly well we hadn’t gone backstage at Disney for professional reasons but respecting my need to use work as a cover, and then we got in the car.
(ctan is in Vegas this weekend for a Harry Potter convention. No, I don’t understand it either. Here. Have Elvis Costello’s 1991 take on that other *other* weird American wonderland, Hollywood. -d)