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'Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Disney's Best Kept Secrets' - a Theme Park Insider interview with Steve Barrett

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Published: November 28, 2011 at 9:52 AM
Long before theme park designers were adding games to attraction queues, or techies were building iPhone apps to help you kill time while waiting in line, Disney fans had a unique game to play whenever they visited a Disney theme park - find the Hidden Mickey.

Hidden Mickeys bookHidden Mickeys are those images of Mickey Mouse, or even the three-circle Mickey head logo, that can be found tucked into the detail of many Walt Disney World and Disneyland attractions. And the go-to source for all things Hidden Mickey is Steve Barrett, "The Hidden Mickey Guy" and author of the Hidden Mickey field guides.

I spoke with Steve over the phone earlier this month about his guidebooks, and how he got started on the hunt for Mickey.

Robert: What made you so interested in Hidden Mickeys that you started writing books about them?

Steve: I feel in love with Walt Disney World when I came here on a conference. I lived in Oklahoma at the time and was a professor, writing articles about research, journal articles, that sort of thing. So I started reading everything I could on Disney and started making trips to Disney World whenever I could. Over time, I became somewhat knowledgeable about how to navigate the parks. So my first book about Disney World was a guidebook. I found a travel publisher and they asked me after a few years if I had any other ideas for a Disney book.

And I said, well, I've been collecting these "Hidden Mickey" sightings over the years. I had a large file of Hidden Mickeys, and I organized it into a book. What helped me with the first Hidden Mickeys book was that I already had a knowledge of how to tour Disney World, so I organized the Hidden Mickeys into scavenger hunts, as opposed to just a list. I wanted to make the book for the guests so that if they really wanted to spend the day looking for Hidden Mickeys at the Magic Kingdom or at Epcot, they would have a plan for doing that so that they could maximize their efficiency, as opposed to waiting in long lines all the time. So the scavenger hunts are basically organized for efficiency.

So that's how the book was originally put together. I started writing it in 2002 and it took me about six months to put it together, and that first edition came out in 2003. Of course, Disneyland was the natural follow-up and the first book there came out in 2007.

It's interesting, I've been writing about Hidden Mickeys since 2002, and I was commenting to my publisher the other day that it's almost a physical law of the Hidden Mickey universe that new ones appear and old ones are lost at a constant rate - about every two years the amount of new Hidden Mickeys and lost ones make a new book reasonable. So new editions, for Disney World and for Disneyland, have been coming out every two years. It really is a constant evolution of the Hidden Mickey game.

Robert: Do you remember the first Hidden Mickey you found?

Steve: Back in the 1990s, when I was first getting into the Hidden Mickey game, it was the early days of websites, right? And the first website I knew of that talked about Hidden Mickeys was put together by some college students at Stetson University. I remember studying their site and the first one that really stuck in my head as "wow, that's pretty cool" was in Snow White's Scary Adventures at the Magic Kingdom. In the queue, there's a mural and Snow White is standing near a house and there's a chimney right near her and there's some rocks on the chimney that are arranged as a three-circle, or what I call as a classic Hidden Mickey. I think that was the first one that really made an impression on me.

At that time I was wrestling with - and I still do - what is a decorative Hidden Mickey that's too obvious and what is really a Hidden Mickey? The one on Snow White is definitely a Hidden Mickey. It doesn't jump out at you - you have to sort of study it.

Robert: You mention the classic and the decorative Mickey. What are all the categories?

Steve: That's the first decision I make when I cast member tells me about an image or when people write me about Hidden Mickeys - is it decorative, or is it hidden? And that's a difficult decision to make because some are right sort on the borderline. For example, one important factor in my mind is to whether it is hidden or not is how inventive it is and whether people are going to stumble across it immediately or do they have to look for it? If it is decorative, I don't put it in the book or on the website.

The most common image is the three circle, or tri-circle, or as we say classic Hidden Mickey. There are other compelling images that the Disney Imagineers and artists put in place. For example, a side profile of Mickey, or a silhouette of his body, or even other characters. There are Hidden Minnies or Hidden Goofys or Hidden Donalds. Now when you are talking about Hidden Minnies or Goofys or Donalds, obviously, you're talking about their profile or their face that you can recognize. The classic, three-circle, image only applies to Mickey.

Sometimes you see his handprints, or his shoes. If they are hidden and it appears that the artist put it there to be hidden, then that counts as a Hidden Mickey.

Robert: What are some of your favorite examples of Hidden Mickeys in the parks?

Steve: In the books, I have my Top 10 favorites in each park. At Disneyland, my favorite Hidden Mickey there, since the first edition, has been a Hidden Mickey image at the Grand Californian Hotel on the front counter. There's a subtle image of almost a full-body Mickey as a conductor. He has a [baton] in his hand and he's standing between two bears. That's not a classic Hidden Mickey - that's a full side profile image of his face and body. It's very subtle though, it's in the design of the front counter. It's just wonderful. I love those types of Hidden Mickeys.

The ones I like the best are the ones that the artists and Imagineers spent time with, to make it unique and hard to find. Disney World has a similar one that's been my favorite for a while. It's at the Garden Grill Restaurant at The Land pavilion and it's on the mural inside the restaurant. There's a Mickey image behind the fern. Again, it's hard to see. It took my wife a whole year before she could spot it. It's almost like a hologram effect - a a Steamboat Willie image of Mickey behind the fern, looking to the left. I think it's a brilliant example of what the artists can do to hide Mickey.

Robert: Even with your book in hand as a field guide, you still have to invest some time and effort to find the Mickeys.

Steve: I award points to the hard ones to find. Five-pointers is what they're called. The one- or two-pointers are a lot easier to find. When I find an image like that, it makes me ecstatic. I just really appreciate what the artists can do with this game.

Robert: You mentioned that as new Hidden Mickeys appear, usually in new attractions, some of them go away. What are some of your favorite Hidden Mickeys that are no longer with us?

Steve: My favorite Hidden Mickey in any park used to be in the Wonders of Life pavilion at Epcot. As you know, that attraction closed a number of years ago and above the Body Wars entrance was a mural with a fantastic drawing of a full-body Mickey hidden in some nerve tissue. That has been my favorite one, and it's lost. I keep hoping it will reappear some day, but I'm afraid that it's lost forever.

Body Wars Hidden Mickey
A Hidden Mickey in the Body Wars mural. Can you spot it?

Some really compelling Mickey images are maintained by cast members, and I certainly appreciate that. One that comes to mind is in the Japan pavilion at Epcot. There are three rocks that are placed in a clearing, near a bush. Most people walk right by and never ever see it but if you look in the clearing, you'll see those three rocks there and they are arranged as Mickey.

Well, they were lost a few years ago and when something like that is lost, obviously I worry that they can be gone forever, but this one came back and apparently the cast members maintain that one. I check it all the time for the last few years, and it's been in place.

There's another one in Spaceship Earth that a lot of people wrote me about several years ago when Spaceship Earth was refurbished. There was a Mickey image on a coffee mug in the big computer room - on a table on the right side of your vehicle. About a year or so ago, it disappeared. Well, there's another lost Hidden Mickey. But it reappeared a few months ago. Evidently, one of the managers of that area or one of the cast members, thankfully, decided to maintain that one.

This lost ones tend to occur when an attraction goes away or is changed. Those Hidden Mickeys tend to be lost forever.

Robert: Are there any examples of, I guess I'd call them "urban legend" Hidden Mickeys - ones that people say are Hidden Mickeys but that really aren't?

Steve: There are images we debate on. On my website, I have a "Questionable" section that people can go to to vote. There are some images that are marginal, that people send me. Over the years, I've been very happy with the voters. I side with them 99% of the time when they an image is a Hidden Mickey or not.

I only put Mickey images into the book that guests can see. For example, when I first wrote about Test Track Hidden Mickeys, it look me like 12 times to spot all the Hidden Mickeys on that ride, and there are probably one or two there that I've never even seen. So some of the images you would only spot if the ride breaks down and you get to walk through the attraction. There's one in the Dinosaur ride in Disney's Animal Kingdom that supposedly there's a Hidden Mickey on the forehead of the first Carnataurus that comes at you from the left and the cast members say it's there but I cannot see the thing.

As for Mickeys that might be hidden or not? There's the obvious one on I-4 in the electrical wiring, near the Celebration exit. That's a huge Mickey. Everybody driving down I-4 can see that. But it's so compelling, and such a beautiful image that I call it a Hidden Mickey because I want to put it in my book!

I even talked once to somebody who was on the electrical team putting up those poles at the time, and they were told by Disney management, yeah, we'd like you to make a Mickey image here. That requires some engineering know-how to do that, That's not a typical way to run wiring, you know?

Robert: With so many people enjoying the "hunt" for Hidden Mickeys, adding them seems like a smart way for Disney to "plus" attractions, and make them even more rewarding for visitors.

Steve: It took Disney a while to recognize this. It presumably started when Epcot was being built and Disney management back in the early '80s wanted to keep the characters in the Magic Kingdom because Walt himself had envisioned Epcot to be a more adult [destination]. So the Imagineers began hiding Mickey in the construction of Epcot. The cast members picked up on this as the 80s went by. Arlen Miller, who lives here in Orlando, sent me the article he wrote in 1989 in the Eyes and Ears newsletter for the cast members where talked about the Hidden Mickey images at Epcot.

I think Disney realized early on that this was kinda fun for the artists and fun for the guests to find. It's great game that keeps people occupied, especially in queues, waiting in line.

I talked with some Imagineers, and the issue of Hidden Mickeys and hidden images comes up in planning sessions. Recently I talked with one of the Imagineers developing the new Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom and he said yes, it is a topic and we do put some thought into it. It's in their interest to have the Hidden Mickey images compelling, and to make them fun to find.

Disney has embraced this game, but that wasn't always the case five, 10 years ago. It was rather a hush-hush thing because Disney management wanted guests to be more enveloped by the environment they were in. If you were in the Indiana Jones queue in Disneyland, they wanted you to feel that kind of experience, not look for Hidden Mickeys. But now they know that guests have fun finding them. It just adds to the Disney experience.

Steve Barrett's "Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Walt Disney World's Best Kept Secrets" is available from Amazon for $8.99 in paperback and for $7.19 for Kindle. "Disneyland's Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to the Disneyland Resort's Best-Kept Secrets" is also available for $9.95 in paperback from Amazon.

Coming this weekend: Interviews with Michael Bay and Universal Creative's Thierry Coup about "Transformers: The Ride," debuting Friday at Universal Studios Singapore.

Readers' Opinions

From KJ Simpson on November 28, 2011 at 3:10 PM
Great interview! Searching for Hidden Mickeys was one of the highlights of my family's last trip to WDW. I was surprised at how much we all got into it- it really stuck with us after the trip, as well. Steve's book is always around our house, on a coffee table or on a kitchen counter- we all pick it up every now and then to reminisce, or to read about ones we've yet to see! I took photos of a lot of the ones I found on my last trip, and everyone who looks at our vacation photos is drawn to the Hidden Mickey shots (once we fill them in on what it means). It's hard to pick a favorite, but if pressed, I think I'd have to say the one in the mural as you board Maelstrom :)
From Mike Gallagher on November 28, 2011 at 5:54 PM
I'm not very good at finding hidden pictures like that (bad eyes) but I found the one in the Body Wars photo. I'm so proud of myself....
From Anthony Murphy on November 30, 2011 at 10:44 PM
Excellent book!

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