Behind the Magic

I’ve become obsessed with the dark side of Disney.

I’ve visited Disneyland at least once a year since I was three. While I still love going there, much more than a childless person my age probably should (I could ride Star Tours every day of my life, and the churros are killer), I’m a little freaked out by the lengths the company goes to to maintain the park’s idyllic image—most if not all of which are undoubtedly necessary to maintain its visitors’ safety, but many of which are also reminiscent of every dystopian sci-fi novel I’ve ever read. For one, there are plainclothes security officers and surveillance cameras all over the park, even in some of the rides. I was maybe nine or ten when I found out about the cameras—I think I’d been watching a travel program on TV—and was utterly mortified: I’d recently returned from a Disneyland trip where I had been vigorously scratching my crotch while riding Space Mountain, thinking that, since the inside of ride was pitch-black, no one could see me.

When the people at Disneyland aren’t recording your embarrassing adolescent indiscretions, they’re manipulating the very air you breathe: Koenig’s book contends that there are hidden vents in Disneyland that blow sweet scents like vanilla and (in December) peppermint into the park. I alternate between thinking this is really cool because, you know, I enjoy the smell of vanilla, and then wondering if this is just low-key mind control. I mean, it’s one thing to walk by a restaurant or a bakery and catch a whiff of something yummy in the oven inside; it’s quite another to manufacture an aroma that promises a delicious source that doesn’t actually exist. The lovely aromas wafting through the park come not from a fresh batch of cupcakes or a Christmas tree festooned with candy canes, but from some brainstorming session in a corporate boardroom. Also, the vents are located near the park’s entrance/exit, where there are rows upon rows of shops. I imagine that if you’re all happy and hopped up on the smell of vanilla, you’re probably more likely to throw down $24.95 for a Mickey Mouse T-shirt.

I’m most fascinated, though, by how clean Disneyland is. Think about it: nearly 40,000 people from all over the world visit the park every day; many of these people are sticky, naughty children who drop shit on the ground or just touch everything; and tons of visitors are walking around with potentially messy foods like popcorn, turkey legs, cotton candy, ice cream, and churros. This place should be filthy. But the people in charge are ruthless when it comes to disinfecting everything. Every night the park undergoes a hardcore scouring to ensure that everything is nice and sterile by the time visitors arrive the next morning. Throughout the day, a piece of trash is never on the ground for very long, because employees are constantly sweeping up; and, according to Disney legend, trashcans are positioned no more than 30 steps away from one another, to discourage littering. And according to Koenig’s book, there’s one guy on the cleaning and maintenance staff whose entire workday is devoted to polishing the brass on a carousel. What the hell?

Then there’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, a slow-moving attraction located in the Fantasyland area based on Disney’s 1949 adaptation of the book The Wind in the Willows. Riders sit in an old-time-y car and visit Mr. Toad’s mansion, drive through the countryside, crash into some explosives, then drive willy-nilly through London, wreaking havoc on the citizenry. You finally enter a courtroom, where a judge finds you “guilty.” And then, at the end of your journey, you end up…in hell. The room gets warmer, and there’s a dragon with demonic eyes and a sinister soundtrack replete with evil laughter—and then the ride is over. There’s no uplifting resolution: you just go to hell. Isn’t Disney is supposed to be about wishing on stars and hope? The only explanation I can come up with is that the ride’s story has a moral, and that is: do not go on wild excursions with toads who wear suits.

By far the most enigmatic part of the whole Walt Disney empire, though, is the man himself. As a kid I saw him as a kindly uncle figure with the pure heart of a child who, I guess, was sent down from the heavens to bring us all joy through his cartoons and theme parks. But as I got older I learned some troubling stuff about him. There have been persistent rumors that he was anti-Semitic, based partly on the fact that in 1938, a month after Kristallnacht (a series of attacks on German Jews by the Nazis that left at least 90 people dead and some 30,000 imprisoned in concentration camps), Disney gave the Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl a tour of his studio. He later said that he wasn’t aware of her politics, and his alleged anti-Semitism has never been substantiated.

There have been claims of other sorts of racism too, mostly based on some of the early Disney animated movies, which occasionally featured racist stereotypes. Two examples of this that really make my stomach churn: a 1932 short film called Trader Mickey in which Africans are depicted as dim, big-lipped cannibals, and 1953’s Peter Pan, where you’ll find a repulsive song about American Indians called “What Makes the Red Man Red?” sung partly in broken English. In the documentary Walt: The Man Behind the Myth, Floyd Norman, a black animator who worked for the company in the ’50s and ’60s, says that as a boss, Walt treated everyone equally; and to be fair, Disney didn’t direct Trader Mickey or Peter Pan—though he was clearly fine putting his name on them. The whole thing confusing, and probably speaks more to what was considered an “acceptable” amount of hideous, stomach-churning racism back then than to anything else.

One totally upsetting claim that can’t be denied is that for the last 26 years of his life Walt Disney secretly worked for the FBI, informing on people in Hollywood who he presumed were “Communists”—including a number of Disney studio animators who were on strike against his company in 1941. Walt Disney may or may not have been a racist, but he could definitely be a dick.

Each of these things has worn some of the innocent wonder of Disney away for me, but that’s not necessarily bad news. The relationships that we have with the things we loved when we were kids change and become more complex as we get older; they have to. Disney is pixie dust and penis castles, and that’s the way it’s always going to be. ♦


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  • Melanie Hunt March 19th, 2013 3:33 PM

    errrrr, with the exception of disney man himself being a bit of a knob, Disney has gone up a notch for me… I like a bit of twistedness, might go on the ashes ghost train when in Paris next, then tell my friend once we’re already strapped in >:D


  • moonchild March 19th, 2013 3:44 PM

    There’s this AMAZING spoken word poem that made me cry a bunch of times about how Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were unconsensually kissed:


  • LuxOrBust March 19th, 2013 3:44 PM

    there’s also a secret dining area in the pirates of the carribean ride called Club 33, which alludes to the highest degree you can reach in freemasonary. walt disney was a free mason and this restaurant is reserved for elite park visitors. you can see a door marked for the restaurant when you go through the ride. here’s an article about it:
    the video in the article is very telling

    • rhymeswithorange March 20th, 2013 10:01 PM

      I went there two years ago! The neighbor of my mom’s best friend knows someone who is a member. It was really cool, and the desserts were OMG heavenly

  • AliceS March 19th, 2013 3:48 PM

    Love this article. I’ve always been interested in these things, but I didn’t know some of these facts.

  • sugarmilz March 19th, 2013 4:09 PM

    I couldn’t even find the offending spire…someone help me look?
    And I love Disney, so although it’s like the dark side, I still love Disney as much as I did before I read this.

  • HearMeRoar March 19th, 2013 4:19 PM

    When it comes to the “subliminal messages” in the Disney movies, even if they were put in on purpose, kids won’t notice that really. I think what’s really wrong with the Disney movies is the way they portray women’s bodies. If you just look at most of the princesses’ bodies, they are very skinny and usually possess a body that real women just cannot physically have, like Meg from Hercules. Watching the movies now makes me realize that it’s no wonder why girls think skinny is better. Disney princess movies are some of the first movies they watch, so they are told at an early age that princesses can only be skinny and have the societal standards of beauty. For some reason, that’s just the one thing that stands out for me whenever I see those movies– how much they sexualize women. And thinking about it now, unless I’m forgetting one, literally every princess is described as beautiful early on in the movie. Oh well, there’s my two cents.

  • Tangerine March 19th, 2013 4:27 PM

    Another theory for club 33, mentioned above in the comments, is that it was made for Walt to wine and dine his sponsors, and there were 33 original sponsors for the park. ;3
    Not as exciting, sure. To this day, you can rope yourself an invitation if you know someone with a corporate membership.
    There isn’t any memorabilia in there you can’t find pictures of online; thank you internet.

    My favorite disneyland myths when I went there every year for band were the ones about deaths on rides. To this day, I tuck my head on Thunder Mountain RR, because I’m the tiniest bit afraid of being beheaded. :p

    Also, there is a basketball half-court in the matterhorn.

  • AnaRuiz March 19th, 2013 4:38 PM

    Such a fun article!! I was really missing the Rookie humor.

  • abby111039 March 19th, 2013 5:20 PM

    Very interesting article. Somehow, there being a dark side to something makes it all the more enjoyable for me. Maybe I’m just weird. ;P

  • Mary the freak March 19th, 2013 5:21 PM

    this article was so amazing and funny!

    I have this feeling that this will be a awesome day on rookie. Well, it should. It’s my birthday yay! (:

  • MaddieMae March 19th, 2013 6:35 PM

    Hahaha, I loved this! My sister and I look up subliminal messages in Disney movies when we’re bored, but I don’t think I ever knew all this weird stuff about the man himself. There are also a lot of Silly Symphony cartoons (which I think are Disney, if I remember correctly) that are pretty racist.

  • GlitterKitty March 19th, 2013 6:37 PM

    Great article! I was at Disney World earlier this year and while sitting in the park having ice cream my Mom goes, “You know Disney was a Nazi?”. And because that’s how we are, she pulls up the Wikipedia article on her phone. It said that Disney himself wasn’t a Nazi but he was a little too close with some people who were.
    My aunt also said that the employees have this secret underground entrance and change rooms so no one sees them enter in regular clothes and then come out as a character. It would “ruin the illusion”. When we were there we had a look around and there didn’t seem to be any sort of employee buildings or “back rooms” anywhere. And we did see a lot of employees slip through a space at the end of a fence….. I was fascinated by this and now imagine some secret underground Disney world.

  • jenaimarley March 19th, 2013 6:46 PM

    Banksy’s stunt in the Exit Through the Gift Shop movie freaked me out so much: it made Disneyland seem like the CIA mixed with the KGB or something.

    • soretudaaa March 19th, 2013 7:35 PM

      lololol THIS is exactly what came to my mind when I read the title

  • Eryn March 19th, 2013 6:49 PM

    Walt Disney was my grandma’s fifth cousin, just had to share that cause I think it’s pretty cool to be related (however incredibly distant) to him okay gonna actually read the article now

  • StrawberryTwist March 19th, 2013 6:50 PM

    This is so true! We watched these videos clips in psychology a few months ago. This also reminds me of swoozie youtube videos. He shares his experiences at his old job at disney world
    here is the link :

  • NotReallyChristian March 19th, 2013 6:53 PM

    Oh my god, I have a copy of the Rescuers on VHS that’s probably from before 1999!!! So excited to watch it in slow motion…

  • missblack March 19th, 2013 7:27 PM

    Urr, not trying to be a dick here but it’s the Wind IN the Willows.

    Also I always hear people say that Walt Disney was terrible but I can just never believe it because I read Bill Peet’s autobiography ages ago and he said Walt Disney was a really nice guy who smoked too much. And Bill Peet worked for Disney for a long, long time.

    (Also I must be super ignorant because I always thought that Indian song from Peter Pan was kind of cute.)


    • Anaheed March 19th, 2013 9:31 PM

      Not dickish at all; I love getting corrections in the comments! Thank you! That was a hilarious typo on my part — I must have been subconsciously confusing it with Sex and the City (you can see the parallels I’m sure).

    • Hannah Mask March 20th, 2013 2:08 PM

      yeah, agreed about the Peter Pan song. I made an account just to comment on this (I have no business reading this website because I’m 24 years old, hah). But I must have watched that version (and the Mary Martin version) of Peter Pan at least 1,000 times when I was a toddler, so maybe I am biased. I can definitely see how it would be offensive by today’s standards, but for it to have been made in 1953, I think it’s pretty tame. Even by today’s standards, though, I would never call it “stomach churning” or “repulsive”.

      If it’s “stomach churning” because of the broken English used, what about AAVE (African American Vernacular English)? Or any other type of pidgin language? As for their use of “red man”, that was common then, just like using the term “colored” or “negro” was common and not offensive. I am certainly not saying someone does not have the right to be offended by whatever they are offended by (as convoluted as that sentence is–you get my drift). I’m more or less just saying: I did not find it offensive, and these are my reasons.

  • Ribba March 19th, 2013 7:31 PM

    Disney *definetely* has definitely had a lot of racism in their movies. Pochahontas and Mulan are two recent examples, but the older movies has much more blatant racism:

  • hiraari March 19th, 2013 8:01 PM

    This article is so interesting, I love it!!!

  • ___ellarose March 19th, 2013 8:06 PM

    Ugh now I wana go to Disney land soo bad and look for secret doors and stuff! (I haven’t been since I was really little)

    my dad worked as a bus boy at the pirates of the Caribbean ride restaurant, he said he would hide and then through peoples left over bread at people on the boats going by.

    my brother in law is a cartoonist and he was mentored by one of Disneys cartoonists who told him the subliminal messages are totally legit and that the cartoonists would sneak them into movies when they got bored.

    but thanks for this article as always very entertaining :)

  • hanalady March 19th, 2013 8:45 PM

    I am very disappointed to read such disregard for racism and anti-Semitism on Rookie. The fact is that Disney’s “alleged anti-Semitism” actually HAS been substantiated many times over: the man was known to make anti-Semitic comments around the office, he blatantly included negative stereotypes of Jews in early cartoons like The Three Little Pigs, he owned a newspaper that regularly printed anti-Semitic propaganda, and he didn’t just give one tour, he maintained professional relationships with many German companies throughout the war. And please let’s not minimize the effect of maintaining social and financial relationships with Nazi supporters–that’s exactly what almost every single non-targeted person across Europe did, and their combined silences created a social environment where millions of people were murdered and everyone just let it happen because it was easier than speaking up. The prioritization of corporate interests (by companies like Disney, Coca Cola, and IBM) over moral/human interests contributed to the deaths of millions of people.

    Furthermore I am sick to death of the argument that just because a certain level of prejudice was socially acceptable at some time in history means we shouldn’t hold the people of the time responsible for their actions in memory. We absolutely hold slave owners accountable for the treatment of their slaves, so why does Disney get a pass? I like Disney movies too but it is seriously not okay to sanitize history and minimize past oppression because we want to ooh and ahh over “Tangled” without feeling implicated ourselves.

    • hanalady March 19th, 2013 11:27 PM

      *i mean specifically in the last few paragraphs. the rest was fine as far as i’m concerned (although i must admit i didn’t read the first page too closely)

    • lilblucherrygrl March 20th, 2013 9:10 PM

      Completely agree. I don’t care if it was “ok” to say those things back then. They always had the choice to evaluate what they were saying and most people didn’t take that opportunity. Sure in the present times we have more information on why these things are messed up but it doesn’t take much knowledge to understand why being hateful is wrong.

    • hanalady March 21st, 2013 2:21 AM

      thank you! and all this isn’t to say that Rookie should never post an article that’s remotely positive about someone like Disney… i just think we need to find a way to reconcile the fact that he was a racist and anti-Semitic jerk with the fact that we like the movies his company makes. it’s okay to have both, but arguing that it really “wasn’t so bad” for the sake of not feeling guilty about liking his movies is just hiding and reminds me of revisionist history :/

  • AliceinWonderland March 19th, 2013 10:42 PM

    “Disney is pixie dust AND penis castles”

    Lol. This should be Disney’s new motto.

  • taste test March 19th, 2013 10:52 PM

    there’s this blog that writes long, intense essays about disney world with a category devoted to weird tidbits from disney world’s past. I think it’s sorta relevant to this article, so I’ll leave it here if any other rookies want to take a look.

  • spudzine March 19th, 2013 11:13 PM

    I am very glad that this article has been made, because I recently found out about some hidden and very creepy messages in old micky mouse cartoons
    So I’m glad I could delve deeper into “the wonderful world of disney”

  • clairedh March 19th, 2013 11:22 PM

    I am heading to America for the first time in June/July this year and I am super excited! One of my first stops will be Disneyland so I’m just going to forget I read this cool article and let myself get immersed in the Disney magic! But really guys, my mind is blowing with excitedness

  • aliastro March 19th, 2013 11:50 PM

    I wrote a paper once about all the hidden stuff about Disney World. To learn about the hidden queer history of Disney check out:

    See also Celebration, Disney’s creepy Stepford wife-town in Florida.

  • carofine March 19th, 2013 11:55 PM

    I’m giving a speech about Disneyland next week and how it’s pretty much a giant symbol of our American dream for happiness. Mouse Tales is one of those books I can read over and over, it’s fascinating to see how much control and detail there is at Disneyland. Cool article, Rookie!!

  • pearl irene March 20th, 2013 12:05 AM

    i went to disneyland for the first time this winter at age 16 and i’m going to be honest… i loved it. the weather was perfect and sunny and breezy and cool and we didn’t wait in a single line and i got my picture taken with princesses and the mom from the incredibles and it was just great.

    and this is the icing on the cake, how strange/funny to learn stuff like this about something we’ve all grown up with :)

  • lydiajamesxxx March 20th, 2013 12:29 AM

    well, this could explain my longterm childhood fear of the older versions of mickey mouse…

  • Melisa March 20th, 2013 3:30 AM

    One VERY interesting (not to mention creepy) thing I’ve recently read is that lots of families are scattering the ashes of their loved ones throughout Disneyland. The most popular place is actually the Haunted Mansion.

    Honestly, I’d understand why Disneyland would be the perfect place to scatter ashes (the happiest place on earth, anyone?), but it’s just creeeeepyyyy.

  • Nikilodeon March 20th, 2013 9:49 AM

    okay i didn’t know where to put this comment but i guess i’ll just say it here:


    i love that movie so much.

  • littleredridinghood March 20th, 2013 1:41 PM

    In Pinocchio a man kidnaps little boys and takes them to a place called PLEASURE ISLAND where they drink and smoke. That ruined a bit of Disney’s magic for me.

  • saramarit March 20th, 2013 2:05 PM

    Did you know that visibily disabled people, including kids, can’t have their picture taken with Mickey Mouse or any of the other characters?

    Apparently it doesn’t look right in the happiest place on earth.

    • riseagainstyourfate April 1st, 2013 3:26 PM

      This I know to be false – I have been to several parks several times with my extremely disabled sister, and if anything the characters spend more time with her and she gets more pictures taken.

  • MabelEnchanted March 20th, 2013 2:28 PM

    Is it weird that I love finding stuff like this? It just makes me laugh a lot so thanks for the new things. :’)

  • yourenotfunny March 20th, 2013 3:44 PM

    Wow, i’m going to Disney World next month and all this talk of free-masons and scandal.. I’m not sure if it excites or horrifies me.

  • unicornconnect March 20th, 2013 3:59 PM

    This is one of the best, most interesting, slightly creepy articles I have ever read!!! Human remains in the ghost house, that actually kept me awake at night.

  • Molly March 20th, 2013 7:18 PM

    This was so crazy! It definitely renewed my interest in Disney Pictures (I mean, seriously, now I have to go watch every single Disney movie ever made all over again) not to mention the wonderful fact that it added some mystery to the oh-so-glamorous life of this Disney OBSESSED teen. Walt (may I call him Walt?) was a normal person, and people have flaws, and people can do evil things sometimes, but that doesn’t change the good things about us. And who can disagree with me when I say that (as a whole) Walt Disney’s cartoons are full of good things.

  • Molly March 20th, 2013 7:27 PM

    But this was on the top 5 million for my favorite Rookie articles (don’t worry though–it’s way up there, not that you should care what I “rate” you). I’ve always suspected something dark and twisted about Disney’s… style. You know… always adapting Hans Christian Anderson and Brothers Grimm stories into seemingly less um gruesome and/or depressifying(depressing and terrifying) tales.

  • shelley March 21st, 2013 2:05 PM

    I had a super realistic dream that disneyland was kidnapping kids, operating on them and feeding their organs to aliens!

  • mickeyf19 March 24th, 2013 11:01 PM

    I’ve been to Disneyland a few times annually and while I find myself getting caught up in it all, loving it, there are so many things that just seem…off. I love reading about all these scandals and stories. Because I love Disney’s stories, but I also despise them for so many terrible messages that they send…

    Anyway, I kept thinking about this story I read on tumblr while reading this article. It really…gets to you. I often find myself thinking about it. So if you have an extra ten minutes, definitely take a look at this:

  • Kay Dee March 26th, 2013 8:55 PM

    YOOOOO!! beauty and the beast is a narrative about domestic violence. it tells BBgirls that, its your jobs to change the batterer/prince.

    dun believe me?

    watch this is a clip from an amazing documentary called Mickey Mouse Monopoly( i think the whole this is on youtube, which is great am i right, eh eh?!?).

    final thought: luv disney, but with a VV critical eye, and firm boundaries.

  • meels April 1st, 2013 6:33 PM

    damn i really liked this article, made me laugh a lot.

    disney is an odd little world

  • shutitoff April 6th, 2013 5:02 PM

    If you don’t believe there’s racism in Disney films, it’s worth a look at the deleted centaur girl from Fantasia.

  • May 15th, 2013 1:37 PM

    Disney does have a dark side and I wish it really was 100%”Magical and happy” and all of that positive stuff. I admit, I may watch the “Lion King” from time to time with my sister and watch that stuff go over my head until I search it up a day later. I’ve always thought there was something a little bit strange about Disney. Let alone I’ve wanted to go to Disney World from time to time.

  • Cecelia May 24th, 2013 3:59 PM

    Besides Walt Disney holding some inappropriate views such as his anti-semticism and blatant sexism and racism, I can’t see anything else wrong? His views are, in most cases, to be expected of the times he lived, though it is sad, it is true. I can see the word SEX in The Lion King or hear anything but “Here kitty…” in Aladdin; people are just making this up to have a little fun in my opinion.

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 24th, 2013 1:33 PM

    This is awesome. Creepy Disney is delightful!

  • ArmyOfRabbits July 10th, 2013 1:48 AM

    There has been some discussion whether or not Walt Disney was an anti-Semite. It’s hard to say since he worked with Jewish artists for his company. (Haven’t found any reliable evidence about him being one or not). But you guys are welcome to check this link out, and read the comments:

    I’d like to go on the Small World ride again and see if I can witness anything different. XD Gosh the next time I head over to Disneyland, I might just look for hidden mysteries and clues.