Imagine one of the world's most famous streets, Regent Street in London, the Champs Elysee in Paris, or perhaps 5th Avenue in Manhattan. Take away all the people, every last one. Get rid of all the unpleasantness; the trash in the gutter, the billboards selling you things you don’t need and the newspaper vendors telling you things you don’t want to know. Now, just add sparkling lights and a jaunty tune or two and you too can recreate my best Cast Member moments.
If you are on a closing shift in any Disney park, especially if you are a in the Guest Entry complex management team, you’ll have experienced one of the greatest Disney moments. That fleeting time when the night is dark, the park is empty of Guests, but all the show lights are still burning bright and the music plays on Main Street. For all the world you could be alone in your own private Disneyland. It is the Golden Hour.
For a year or so, two nights a week I was the guy with the keys to the gates of the Magic Kingdom. After wishing thousands of Guests a good night and a safe journey, when the Security Cast Members had handed off and my last Cast Members had gone home, I’d walk back around all the gates one last time, checking the Kingdom was safe from invaders. Then it was a short walk to hand in the keys. I would make that walk last as long as I could just to bask in the quiet glow of the by now empty Town Square and Main St.
There is something just so special about the time between the last Guests leaving the park and the time when the Maintenance Crew start their nocturnal work. There is almost nobody around and the attractions hosts are long gone towards costuming. If the food and beverage team are still there, they're probably scrubbing the floors and the merchandise guys are re-stocking the plush mountain. The Ticketing and City Hall teams are the only ones still around ‘On Stage’ and of them it is just the team leaders and leads who are still there. Main St USA is theirs and theirs alone.
It is your own private Disneyland, it's the Golden Hour
To walk down the fairy lit, small town American dream with no-one else there, not a soul, nobody, it is only possible in that golden hour. But if you wait too long, just a couple of minutes too long, the illusion will be shattered; a merchandising window dresser swapping out new tees for old, a show lighting guy changing out a blown light bulb or the night custodial guys with a high-powered water hose. Any of them will shatter the whole illusion; the Golden Hour is special but oh so fragile.
There is a true magic to being able to walk down one of the world's most famous streets and have it to yourself, lit up like a film set and with a sound track just for you. You must seize this moment, Carpe Diem as Robin Williams’ (or Catullus) might have had it; grab those precious few moments of tranquility when Disneyland is yours.
There is, of course, that quiet time before the park opens to the Guests, maybe an hour or two before the Steam Train whistle blows on Main St Station to announce that the park is open. But even for me, a self-confessed morning person it’s just not the same.
Those Cast Members who are in the parks are hard at work, usually getting the park all spic and span and ready for the new day. The park is still eerily empty with maybe just a fleeting glimpse of a fellow employee disappearing around the corner. In this pre-opening dawn, the parks are quiet; no one has yet flipped the switch on the all-pervading sound track to the park, the music, the bird calls, the ‘atmosphere’ noise. And there is the answer, the dawn doesn’t have that Disney magic.
The parks need to have had Guests in them, to draw in their breath and, like a tree photosynthesize the oxygen of a day at Disneyland. Pre-opening is the parks breath of anticipation before the Guests arrive, the Golden Hour is the sigh of satisfaction of a Disney day well done.
I remember I got a call to be interviewed on a podcast about this article...