One of my favorite things about working as a Cast Member at Disney’s Animal Kingdom was the unique backstage experiences (backstage is any area out of view of guests). As a cast member, you get to see a side of Disney World that normal guests don’t-for some, this can ruin the magic. For me, it made me appreciate all the hard work that goes into making Disney World the most magical place on Earth. Here are a few of my favorite moments:
7 – Traditions
This may be cheating a bit since every cast member goes through Traditions. Traditions is Disney’s version of a company job orientation, and everyone, from the CEO to the custodial staff, has to attend before starting their first day of work. Even though it is an orientation, Traditions is really a cast member’s first taste of being backstage. Located in a building called Disney University, you get to see where a lot of the training classes for the different roles take place, attend an 8-hour (or longer) session where you learn all about the history of the Disney company, and get to walk in the utilidors (tunnels that run underneath the Magic Kingdom)! Traditions were such an exciting day for me, especially since I received my Blue ID upon completion! (The Blue ID is a cast member’s lifeline for free admission to the parks).
Also, and here’s a spoiler alert for anyone going to Traditions soon- your new boss, Mickey Mouse, personally comes to deliver your new nametag toward the end! It’s enough to make even the most casual Disney fan tear up.
6 – Eating at Pride Rock
Nothing about working at Disney is ordinary, and this includes eating your lunch. At Animal Kingdom, my fellow cast members and I usually ate at the main backstage cafeteria, which was appropriately named “Pride Rock.” This was a really big space with not only places to buy food (and Subway), but also a library with Disney movies and animal fact books, and a pinboard for cast members to pick from, and then trade pins with guests once they were back on stage. Since my role had me working all over Animal Kingdom, I would sometimes have to eat in a smaller breakroom on the opposite side of the park. However, I loved catching up with friends in Pride Rock (and sneaking glances at Festival of the Lion King performers eating lunch in their costumes)!
5 – Riding Bikes
Animal Kingdom is the largest out of the 4 Disney theme parks, so walking around backstage can get very tiring. Especially for my role- as a Conservation Education Presenter, I worked on a rotating basis in every land of the park, rather than most roles, who are just confined to one main area. I would typically start my morning somewhere like DinoLand USA or Asia, go to Africa after lunch, and then end my day at Conservation Station. I had many different breakrooms and pathways at my disposal, but the best way to access these areas was by riding bikes.
There are tons of bike racks in the backstage area of Animal Kingdom that are free for cast members to use. However, they are first-come, first serve, so if you try to find a bike toward the end of the day, you may be out of luck. I always enjoyed hopping on a bike and scooting over from Africa to Asia in a few minutes, taking in the sights and waving to other cast members. I loved seeing the attraction show buildings and the animal enclosures along the way. Bikes saved my life (and my feet) during my time at Animal Kingdom, especially when I would have to work at Conservation Station- a land of the park that is only accessible by train for guests.
4 – Waving to the Wildlife Express
Speaking of the train, the Wildlife Express not only transports Animal Kingdom guests from Harambe (in Africa) to Conservation Station- it also takes them through backstage areas and animal enclosures. Some lucky guests can catch a glimpse of the rhinos and elephants who didn’t feel like venturing onto the Kilimanjaro Safari attraction that day, and if there aren’t any animal sightings, cast members who narrate the train journey typically tell some really cool facts about the animals and the park.
Since the train did pass through a few backstage spots, cast members needed to either stay out of sight from the train or smile and wave to the passengers. Cast members always have to be “on,” of course! Usually, when I was in a backstage area by the train and heard the train’s whistle approaching, I would stop and wave. However, there were days when I really needed a break from smiling- mostly due to the heat, and the sheer exhaustion of being outside all day long. In those cases, all a cast member had to do was duck of sight (luckily, it was never too hard to find a “hiding” spot). Plus, you always had a few minutes’ warning before the train approached- railroad crossing signs and lights would flash and let us know not to cross the tracks. Safety first!
3 – Seeing Off-Stage Characters
Seeing characters like Goofy, Timon, Dug, Russell, and Flik backstage never got old for me. It might seem creepy, but I would always smile and stare like a 5-year old whenever I saw them walking to or from a set. More often than not, Goofy would give me a high-five, and Dug would playfully pat my head. Of course, you would also often find characters in various stages of undress, but even that was neat to see. The cast members who were “friends” with the characters were (for the most part) very nice and happy to chat with you if you found yourself on a break with them- only if you were in an air-conditioned breakroom though! If a “friend” of a character needed their space, of course, it was best to give it to them.
I liked interacting with everyone from Entertainment, and one of them even became a good workmate- he was friends with many characters, acted in Festival of the Lion King, and would perform in Animal Kingdom’s afternoon parade (he was amazing). There was only one backstage character I disliked, and that was the friend of Pocahontas. I’m not sure why, but she always seemed grumpy and never returned my morning “hellos”- even if I tried to act as nonchalant as possible. To this day, it’s still a little hard for me to have my picture taken with Pocahontas. Luckily, the rest of my character interactions backstage were nothing but positive!
2 – Visiting the “Bug” Trailer
Every animal at Animal Kingdom has a backstage home. This includes the insects. A lot of guests don’t realize that there are insects on view at Animal Kingdom, but you can actually find spiders, tarantulas, scorpions, and much more at Rafiki’s Planet Watch at the Conservation Station (the section of the park with the petting zoo and veterinary hospital). Back when I worked at Animal Kingdom, our team would also bring out “bug boxes” right as the park opened for the day, where guests could come up to us, view, and ask questions about the various insects we held in our see-through boxes.
In the backstage area of Animal Kingdom, there is an Entomology trailer which houses all these insects. Entomologists study insects, and those working for Animal Kingdom would take care of the insects on display, such as the Antilles Pinktoe Tarantula, the Emperor Scorpion, the Lubber Grasshoppers, and the Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. During one point, I was able to take a tour of the trailer, and see how the keepers kept track of things like their temperatures and food intake (lots of little crickets made up most of their diets). Our team was allowed to hold one of the Madasgar Hissing Cockroaches, but I regrettably declined- as much as I had learned about insects and invertebrate during my time at Animal Kingdom, I was still content just to hold them in a box, and not in my hand!
1 – Petting a White Rhino
This remains, by far, the best backstage memory I have from working at Animal Kingdom. Our group of Conservation Education Presenters would get to tour a different backstage animal habitat about once a month and learn more information about these animals from the keepers (this benefitted us greatly, as we were then able to give more accurate information to guests). We toured, along with the insect trailer, the aviary, the elephants, the giraffes, and my favorite- the white rhino.
I remembered my team was gathered around the white rhino barn, where a keeper was feeding grass to a large, yet docile rhino right in front of us. To all of our surprise, he offered to let us go up one by one and pet the rhino on the nose. We were all watched very closely, and we didn’t get to approach the rhino for very long, but it was a fantastic experience. I looked into the white rhino’s eyes and felt its rough skin. I wish I could remember specific details about the rhino we “met,” such as the name, gender, and age. However, that moment was such a happy blur. One of my fellow cast members actually cried she was so moved by the experience. It was great to see these rhinos being so well cared for, and learning that they were never forced to go out in front of guests. Working at Animal Kingdom, and seeing animals like the white rhino up close, inspired me to care for animals and conservation long after my Disney Professional Internship ended.
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