Sunday, December 1, 2013

'The Disneyland Story': A Detailed and Fascinating Biography of The Happiest Place on Earth

I'm happy to welcome my friend, Susie Prendergast, as a guest columnist to The Mouse Castle. She's smart, clever and most importantly a longtime Disney fan. Plus, by my estimation, she's read every single book ever written, making her eminently qualified to review Sam Gennawey's latest book about Disneyland. Enjoy!

I recently finished one of the latest books about Disneyland, The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney's Dream by Sam Gennawey. Once I started reading, I found myself caught in that weird position of wanting to read it faster to get to the next chunk of information, while at the same time wanting to read it slower to make it last longer. Then, as I attempted to write this article, I found that it is really hard to review the book without trying to connect everything to myself. That’s the magic of Disneyland, I think; it’s such a personal experience for people that it is difficult to separate the emotional aspect from the historical timeline. As I read the book, I kept inserting myself into the story line because “I was there!” or “I know that guy!”

Sam Gennawey manages this separation of park and self in his well-researched book, and hopefully I’ll be able to do the same here. From the moment I saw the vintage photos on the cover, I was intrigued to start reading, and as he states in the introduction, this book is the biography of a place--not the people, not the movies, just Disneyland itself. If you are a Disney fan, you have surely heard some of these origin stories through the years, but Gennawey gives us a chronological map to follow from the project’s inception until we are brought up to date at the end of 2012, through the billion dollar do-over of the California Adventure park.

The book is laid out in chunks of time, for example Chapter 4 spans 1956-1958, and Chapter 9 covers 1996-present. As I read, I imagined the park being laid down in layers, like those transparent overlay pages you’d find in an encyclopedia, where attractions would be added and removed and the boundaries of the park were constantly shifting. In this way, we are taken through the pipeline of development as ideas arise and are developed or set aside, some to be revived and some to be tossed out completely. I found myself getting very involved in the planning stages of the Pirates of the Caribbean, only to find that particular story was abruptly cut off because the final attraction did not fit into that particular chapter’s time frame. Not to worry though, because every thread is woven through the larger narrative, and the author deftly picks them back up again at the appropriate place.

The great thing about this book is the mix of technical details about things like specs on the locomotive engines, Autopia cars, and Monorail designs, blended with anecdotal stories and quotes from many different sources, so there is something for everyone here. The book is peppered with “tips” and trivia along the way as well. One of my favorite sections was about the complete Fantasyland revival in the early 1980s,probably because I can vividly remember the old Fantasyland and how overwhelming it was to walk into the new version when it opened in 1983. Tony Baxter talks about standing in the middle of all the destruction after beginning the massive overhaul and looking around thinking, “Oh my God, what have we done?” It was one thing to just design a new Fantasyland, but to alter so much of the original park must have been a daunting task!

Just as interesting as the concepts that did make their way into the park were the many ideas that did not come to fruition, such as the Port Disney and WESTCOT projects, and the development of the second-gate into what we do have today.

Gennawey uses his background as a city planner to show how environmental impact reports, city bond measures, and planning commission concerns all affected the development of the Disneyland Resort, and makes it all interesting to the average reader. Not even Disney gets their way all the time.

This was a great entry-level read into the history of Disneyland and it makes for a terrific jumping-off point for people who want to know more about particular attractions, Imagineering, or Walt Disney himself. This book has so many citations and such a well-rounded bibliography that you could spend a few years getting caught up in doing more personal research to pursue your further questions. Reading this made me nostalgic for the past and the things that have changed over time in the park, but I also found it reassuring to see the evolution of the park over the long-term. (People have been resistant to change at Disneyland long before the Internet became a thing, believe it or not.) As the saying goes, Disneyland will never be finished, and sometimes you have to let things go to move forward, yet the heart of the park stays the same. The Disneyland Story made me optimistic and I can’t wait to see what the future will hold.
--Susie Prendergast

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