Wednesday, December 31, 2008

It's Only Bragging If You Don't Live Up To The Title

The Complete Guide to Walt Disney World 2008, by Julie and Mike Neal. Sanibel, FL: Coconut Press, 2007, 336 pp.

For me, the biggest problem I have with buying a guidebook to a Disney theme park is trying to find space for it on my bookshelf! For the more casual visitor, finding a guidebook for an upcoming visit is a bit more tricky - there are a lot of really good choices out there, and sometimes the choice comes down to what you'd like to get out of the book besides the basic facts. Should you choose a book that's well-illustrated so you can start enjoying your Disneyland or Walt Disney World vacation before you even get there? Do you want a book that's full of information or trivia? Do you want a book that provides unbiased opinions of what you'll encounter? This time, I'll be reviewing a guidebook that has a nice combination of all three.

The Complete Guide to Walt Disney World
is pretty much what the title says; the book provides a full overview of the Walt Disney World Resort, including the theme parks, water parks, on-property accommodations, dining and shopping. But it doesn't stop there. Julie and Mike Neal cover the various attractions and accommodations in great detail, including background on what inspired the attraction or the design of the resort, interesting bits of trivia and hidden details to look out for. They also cover background information on the Walt Disney Company and the resort in general, including a biography of Walt Disney, the history of WDW, an introduction to the Disney characters, and information on the various animal species you'll encounter at Disney's Animal Kingdom. The book is superbly illustrated with official images from Disney and many wonderful photographs taken by the authors. Given all of the information and all the illustrations included, the book is surprisingly concise. Calling the Complete Guide to Walt Disney World a guidebook to the Walt Disney World Resort doesn't really seem to do it justice; it's more of a mini-reference guide.

It takes either a great deal of nerve or a great deal of confidence to call a travel book a complete guide to anything, but I think Julie and Mike's book more than lives up to its title; the book is everything the Birnbaum Guide to Walt Disney World promises to be to its readers and then some. The Neals put a lot of work into researching this book, making over 800 trips to the resort over five years, and it shows; I dare any fan of Walt Disney World to read this book and not come away knowing a few things about the resort that they didn't know. The illustrations - maps and photographs - are outstanding. The book's full of both useful and fun information, and at 336 pages, manages to provide a lot of information while making the book easy enough to carry around in a bag or purse. It is, in short, a really impressive book.

This isn't to say that The Complete Guide to Walt Disney World is perfect. I managed to find several errors in the book, such as names of locations or persons - nothing important or egregious enough that I wouldn't recommend buying this book, but there were some really surprising errors considering the amount of detail in it. Like many Walt Disney World guidebooks, its coverage pretty much ends where the WDW boundaries do; if you plan to explore beyond Disney property, you may want to consider a second guidebook for that part of the trip (I'd recommend Pauline Frommer's Guide to Walt Disney World and Orlando). The book does provide a timetable for each theme park that will allow you to experience the highlights of the park, but there's not much else in the book in terms of touring plans or touring information for the theme parks and other activities. Overall, though, the positives of this book far outweigh the negatives.

The Complete Guide to Walt Disney World 2008
is a thorough, fact-filled and fascinating guide to the Walt Disney World Resort. It provides a lot of information but not so much as to be overwhelming, it's beautifully illustrated and organized, and it gives the reader a good background into what inspired the creation of the parks and the attractions found there. The book is a good source of information on Disney's Florida attraction and a good introduction to what WDW is and what it's all about. Julie and Mike Neal have written a book that gives Disney's official guidebook a run for it's money.

Note: Since the time I received a copy of this book, a revised edition for 2009 has been released by Coconut Press;
The Complete Guide to Walt Disney World 2009 is now available in bookstores and online.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

There's One Less Excuse For Not Visiting Tokyo Disney

Tokyo Disney Made Easy, by Kevin Yee. Orlando, FL: Ultimate Orlando Press, 2008; 180 pp.

If you've been a Disney theme park fan for a while, you've heard all kinds of stories about the Tokyo Disney Resort - about how beautiful and well-maintained it is, about the unique, top-tier attractions and shows there that can't be found at the other Disney theme parks, and about how visiting the parks is such a different experience from visiting Disneyland or Walt Disney World. It all sounds wonderful, but there's just one potential problem with going for a visit to the Tokyo Disney Resort: It's in Japan. A few thoughts of spending a whole lot of money, taking a long plane ride, trying to navigate one's way around one of the largest cities in the world, and not being able to understand the culture or communicate with anyone are usually enough to discourage all but the most devoted Disney fans from making the trip to see Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. A trip to the local bookstore doesn't provide much assurance; there are a lot of guides out there to Japan and to Tokyo, but there's not much information in most travel guides to Japan about the Tokyo Disney Resort, and there are no English-language guides to help someone plan a trip to the Tokyo parks. Until now, that is.

Kevin Yee, author of several books on Disney-related topics (including Mouse Trap, which I've previously reviewed in this blog), has put together the first English guide to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, Tokyo Disney Made Easy. In his book, Kevin provides a lot of useful information to the American traveler who'd like to make a trip to see the Tokyo parks, including how to plan for the trip, how to get to and from the airport to your hotel and to the Tokyo Disney Resort, what to see and what you can afford to miss, and a few cultural and linguistic pointers to make your visit less stressful. Kevin even provides tips on how to save a little money during your visit and how to navigate the parks with children in tow.

I have to admit that I was a little skeptical about how useful Kevin's book would be in planning a trip to Japan. Not to cast any aspersions on Kevin or anything - I think he's a very good writer - but I'd heard that he'd only visited the Tokyo Disney Resort once, and I wasn't sure how much information he'd be able to provide to the novice traveler based on one visit. I really needn't have worried. As Kevin himself mentions, the key to a successful trip is planning and research, and Kevin's definitely done his in writing this book. The information in Kevin's book is concise and well-organized, and I think even a veteran traveler to Tokyo Disney could pick up a helpful hint or two. The book provides a brief overview of the attractions and shows that can be found in the Tokyo parks, including recommendations on what rides and shows should be on a visitor's "must see" list and what rides and shows can be sacrificed if time is short and the crowds are particularly daunting (which they can often be at Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea). I particularly liked how Kevin walks the reader through the steps of dining and shopping transactions, which could be a little tricky if you're not aware how such transactions are done in Japan. Kevin also provides a mini crash course in Japanese in this book, with a few useful phrases, some basic rules of grammar, and a couple of other items that a visitor may find helpful.

So, are there any potential pitfalls or drawbacks to Tokyo Disney Made Easy? Well, the first thing to keep in mind is that this book is intended to be a guide to visiting the Tokyo Disney Resort, not a guide to Japan or even to Tokyo; while Kevin does provide a few pointers on how to get around Tokyo and Japan using Japan Railways, this book doesn't provide a lot of information about getting by in Japan once you leave the Disney parks. Frankly, that's not necessarily a bad thing; as I mentioned above, there are a lot of good travel guides to Japan, and there was really no need for Kevin to re-invent the wheel. Consider Kevin's book an excellent supplement to a good travel guide to Tokyo if you're planning on seeing more than the Tokyo Disney Resort while you're in Japan (and if you're going to travel all that distance, you really should see more!)

If you're one of those folks that just can't visit a Disney theme park without a touring plan, I'm sorry to tell you that there aren't any touring plans provided in Kevin's book; Kevin does provide some tips for navigating the parks and a few tips for creating a touring plan for your visit, however, and I think that the information Kevin does provide and a little research on the Internet should give readers a good start on devising a plan of their own. Aside from these quibbles, I think this is a very good guidebook.

Tokyo Disney Made Easy more than lives up to its name, providing a concise and informative guide to planning and enjoying a trip to the Japanese Disney theme parks. The book provides a good general overview of the parks and their shows and attractions, and it provides helpful tips for overcoming common linguistic and cultural pitfalls that a first-time visitor to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea may encounter during their visit. Any Disney fan that is planning their first trip to the Japanese parks should really consider picking up a copy of this book.

Christmastime (And Excuse Time) Is Here

Hi, folks. My deepest apologies to those of you who have been checking here (and contacting me) wondering why I hadn't posted a review recently.

To borrow a line from Twain, the rumors of my (and this blog's) demise are greatly exaggerated; between all the usual holiday insanity, somne changes at work, and a nasty cold virus that just refuses to go away, I haven't been getting a whole lot accomplished this month. I've almost got a book I've been reading finished (yes, I actually read the books I review!) and I've got a couple of days free from work coming up , so check back before the end of the weekend. If I don't have anything posted, well, Santa knows where to deliver the lumps of coal.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanaukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and happy whatever holidays I may have forgotten, everybody!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How Magic Came To The Sea

Disney Magic: The Launching of a Dream, By John Heminway. New York: Disney Editions, 1998, 92 pp.

Hello everyone - I'm back! I had a great vacation on the Disney Magic, although I didn't get anywhere near as much reading done as I expected to. I did, however, find a couple of new books to review while I was on vacation, and for my first review since my return, I'd like to discuss one of them.

In the late 1990's, Disney decided to make what was considered by some to be an unusual move. Up to that point, Disney had an agreement with another cruise line operating out of Florida to license the use of the Disney characters on their cruises, but Disney looked over its options and decided that it would be better served by creating and running its own cruise line. Disney decided to build two new ships for the cruise line, with a design and features that would not only mark the ships as uniquely Disney but would also evoke memories of classic ocean liners. The story of the creation of the cruise line and the design and building of the first ship - the Disney Magic - is a fascinating one, and John Heminway shares it with us in Disney Magic: The Launching of a Dream, a book published to celebrate the inaugural voyages of the ship.

Disney Magic covers the story of how Disney decided to get into the cruise business, some of the early design concepts for their ships, and the reasoning behind the design that was finally settled on. We learn a little about the process by which the ship was built - which had been used in the past for making ships bigger but had never been used before for building a new ship; we also learn about what inspired the ship's designers when they came up with the look of the staterooms and public spaces and how those inspirations are reflected in the final designs. The book is full of concept art and models, the collages that inspired the artists and Imagineers when designing key public spaces, images of artwork created for use on the ship, and photographs of room mockups and of the Disney Magic under construction.

This book was absolutely fascinating. I'd had some idea of the basic concepts behind the design of the Disney Magic, but I never realized how many different design concepts had been considered for the project and how much work was involved - both in terms of design and actual building - to make the ship a reality. John does a good job of giving a general overview of the ship's pre-history, and his book features quotes from key executives involved in the project - including then-CEO Michael Eisner - as well as some beautiful artwork.

My biggest problem with Disney Magic is that the story that it tells is incomplete. In order for the book to be ready for publication in time for the inaugural voyages of the cruise line, the story of the actual construction ends with the floating out of the ship from drydock (they don't launch ships into the water in modern shipbuilding). This is good in that the reader gets a look at many models and concept artwork that might have otherwise just been put away in the Walt Disney Imagineering archives, but it's bad in that we don't get to see much of the finished ship. I'm a little surprised that Disney's never printed a revised edition of this book or a new book covering the creation of the Magic's sister ship the Disney Wonder and the changes that have been made to the ships since the ships came into service. With two new ships joining the Disney Cruise Line in the next couple of years, I hope that Disney will consider publishing a new book.

The only other potential problem I see folks having with this book is that since Michael Eisner was still in charge of the Walt Disney Company when it was published, there are a lot of quotes from Michael included, and Michael being Michael, he takes a lot of credit for the way the ship turned out. I'm sure that will bother the Disney fans out there who are more than happy to see Michael gone from Disney, so don't say I didn't warn you - but don't let it stop you from getting a copy of the book, either.

Disney Magic: The Launching Of A Dream is an interesting look at the early history of the Disney Cruise Line and of the creation of its first ship, the Disney Magic. While it's a very short book and the story told by the book ends before it's really complete, the book more than makes up for these shortcomings with lots of illustrations of concept art and models. The book would make a great addition to anyone's Disney theme park library or would make a great souvenir or momento of someone's Disney cruise experience. The book can be purchased by passengers sailing on the Disney Magic in the ship's gift shops, Treasure Ketch and Mickey's Mates, or on eBay.
A word of warning about purchasing the book on eBay, though - a few less-than-honest sellers have tried to pass copies of the book off as a limited edition that was available only after immediately the ship went into service, which may be true for the book's first edition, but not for the current one. Be sure you ask about which edition the book you're bidding on and when it was initially purchased before you plunk down significantly more than the $14.95 cover price for the book.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Come Sail Away...

Folks, I'm headed off to Florida for a well-deserved vacation on the Disney Cruise Line and at Walt Disney World. I've got a few books with me I hope to read while I'm gone, and I'm always on the lookout for new books on the parks when I visit, so hopefully this trip will result in some more content on the blog once I get back. See you soon!

Le Premiere Guide de Souvenir D'Euro Disney

Euro Disneyland; by Dora Loewenstein (editor), et. al. Dusseldorf, Germany; The Walt Disney Company/Mohndruck Graphische Betriebe GmBH, 1992; 96 pp.

{That's "The first souvenir guide to Euro Disney" for those of you that don't know French - at least that's what Babelfish tells me. :) }

It's been a while since I've done a review of one of the souvenir guidebooks from the Disney theme parks, so I decided to pull down a guidebook from my bookshelf that a many of you may not have seen before. Euro Disney was the first souvenir "coffee table" book from Disney's first European theme park, first sold just after the opening of Euro Disneyland in April 1992. The book sold for 105 francs in 1992, which, according to some handy websites on the Internet, would have been $18.75 for any American visiting the park at that time, or about $27.39 today; in other words, this wasn't a cheap book, but the quality of the book shows when you look at it. They spared no expense on the park; looks like they spared no expense on the souvenirs, either.

I love the first edition theme park guidebooks, because I love seeing Disney's solution to a dilemma they've run into every time they've opened a new park - namely, how do you get across the experience of this new and different place when there's not much you can show of it just yet? Like we saw in the review for the first souvenir guidebook for Disneyland look for the March 6th post on the blog if you haven't read it), they primarily relied on concept art from Walt Disney Imagineering, which for me makes this book all that much more fun; until Alain Littaye and Didier Ghez published Disneyland Paris: From Sketch to Reality a few years ago, this guidebook was about the best source of Imagineering concept art on the park. (And by the way, if you're a fan of the Disney parks and of Imagineering concept art, get a copy of Alain and Didier's book. Now. Well, OK, finish reading this first.)

Fortunately for Disney, Euro Disneyland (it feels so strange not calling it Disneyland Paris!) was far enough along on construction at the time this book was published that they were able to take some photos of the outsides of buildings in the park; you can tell that in some photos, they really had to struggle to find a camera angle that didn't reveal the building was unfinished. There are also photographs of mock-ups of the resort's hotel rooms and a few photos of what I assume are concepts for cast member costumes; let me say that after looking at the pictures, I feel sorry for any actual cast members who had to wear these outfits! In some cases, the photographers didn't quite succeed and scaffolding is still visible in the shots. In a few others, they dropped all pretenses that the park was finished and showed the park under construction. I think it's pretty cool to see these very early photos of the park.

Disney also needed some shots of families enjoying their day at Euro Disneyland for the book; since the park wasn't quite that ready for the photographers, they went to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World and took a bunch of pictures of families wearing and carrying what must have been prototypes of opening day souvenir merchandise, like T-shirts and balloons. In some cases, they also used generic and stock shots from the MK and hoped nobody would really notice, and to be fair, a non-Disneyphile probably wouldn't. But since I'm assuming most of you reading this are serious Disney fans, you'll probably figure out which pictures are from WDW - and you'll probably have a fun time doing it.

Euro Disney is a really fun book from a visual standpoint. As far as the text... well, not so much. I think the book is unusual in that it spends the first 24 pages telling the reader not only the story of the Euro Disney Resort, but also the story of Walt Disney, the Walt Disney Company, and of the other Disney theme parks that were around when Euro Disneyland opened. The descriptions of the attractions and the dining and shopping opportunities at Euro Disneyland are a little too enthusiastic for my tastes and sound more like the writers were trying too hard to convince someone that everything in the park was absolutely wonderful.

Euro Disney is a fascinating look at the beginnings of Disney's first European theme park, filled with concept art and pre-opening photographs of the resort. Unfortunately, this book may be a somewhat difficult to find; I only see it come up rarely on eBay and other auction sites. Later guidebooks are a little easier to find, but they tend to be smaller, thinner, and in paperback, which makes the newer books feel kinda cheap in comparison to this one.

While you're looking, there are a couple of great books out there on the park that should be easier to find; one is the previously mentioned Disneyland Paris: From Sketch to Reality, and there's a good general history of the building and early years of operation of the resort called Once Upon An American Dream by Andrew Lainsbury.

Many American Disney fans may not get the chance to visit Disneyland Paris, or at best may get to visit once or twice in their lifetime; this is a shame, because it really was and is an amazing place. If you can't get to Europe anytime soon, picking up this guidebook or one of the other books I've mentioned may be the next best thing.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Find The Details of DCA? It's Elementary!

Disney's California Adventure Detective: An Independent Guide to Exploring the Trivia, Secrets, and Magic of the Park Dedicated to California, by Kendra Trahan. Mission Viejo, CA: Permagrin Publishing, Inc., 2008; 213 pp.

Before we get started, I need to do a bit of full disclosure. The author of the book I'll be reviewing this time is a friend of mine (and hopefully still will be after this review!) and, as president of the NFFC, is also my boss. I also played a minor role in reviewing the book's content prior to its publication. Okay, now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's begin...

I know I've written this before, but it bears repeating: The magic of the Disney theme parks is in the details. Someone can enjoy a visit to Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom, or any of the Disney parks without ever really noticing the details, but to truly appreciate what makes the Disney theme park experience different from going to any other amusement or theme park, a visitor really ought to take the time to find and appreciate all the little things that work together to immerse guests into an environment unlike any other they've ever experienced.

The trick is, how do you discover the details? For a long time, your only options were to find yourself a devoted Disney fan to take you around the park or spend a lot of time doing research. (I've probably spent way too much time doing both.) In 2004, Kendra Trahan came up with a third alternative; she wrote Disneyland Detective, a fascinating book that collected many of the most fun and interesting details and stories from the Happiest Place on Earth, so casual Disney park fans could discover for themselves a lot of what they'd been missing. So if you're Kendra, what do you do for an encore? You write another book about the Disney theme park next door!

Disney's California Adventure Detective is the first book published about Disney's second gate in California. The book covers the theme park as well as the Downtown Disney district and Disney's Grand Californian Hotel, sharing the some of the stories, secrets, and hidden details that guests can find in these places if they take a moment to look. There a lot of secrets and stories to be found at DCA and in this book - everything from hidden Mickeys and subtle references to movies and television shows to references to people and places in California history, as well as tributes to milestones in California architecture. The book is divided into seven chapters, each dealing with various sections of the theme park, and also contains three appendices that each go into greater detail about specific attractions where there are numerous references to be found. The book's layout highlights certain categories of information throughout, such as "lessons to learn" (background information on people and places referred to in the park), "treasures and trivia" (props to be found in attractions and fun facts related to an area or an attraction), and opening day attractions.

Kendra's done a wonderful job with this book. For a theme park that's been accused of not having a lot of "there" there (apologies to Gertrude Stein), Kendra's discovered a lot of interesting facts and details about Disney's California Adventure and its attractions. The book is a fast read, but I never felt like I was being shortchanged as far as content or detail. If someone can make it through this entire book without learning something new about Disney's California Adventure or about California, that person may want to consider applying for a job teaching California history or a job at the Walt Disney Archives! The book has wonderful photographs of the park and very nice illustrations of people who are significant figures in California history or who played a role in creating the Disney films and shows referred to in park attractions.

So, do I have any quibbles with this book? Well, yes (sorry, Kendra), but they're pretty minor ones. First off, while I think anyone from the first-time visitor to Disney's California Adventure to the person who's been to the park many times will get something out of this book, this isn't a book for "theme park commandos"; if your overriding goal when you visit DCA or any other theme park is to visit as many attractions as possible in a day, you're not going to have the time or inclination to really appreciate all the little details that make up the park, and you're not going to get all that much out of this book. (And if I've just described you, you may want to reconsider how you visit a Disney park - trust me, you're missing out on a lot!) If you're a first-time visitor to the Disneyland Resort, I'd recommend getting a good guide book in addition to this book to help you plan your visit (consider the Unofficial Guide to Disneyland or the Passporter Disneyland Resort); be sure to bring this book with you to refer to when you're in the park, though! There are a few factual and grammatical errors, but I don't think they really detract from the overall quality of the book.

I'd like to take a moment to discuss one of the bigger objections people might have to getting a copy of Disney's California Adventure Detective - namely, "The park's going to be totally different in a couple of years - why buy a book on DCA now?" As you may know, Disney's announced a major construction and renovation project that will dramatically change Disney's California Adventure; when the project's done, DCA is going to look a lot different from what it looks like now and is going to have a lot of new attractions. Keep in mind, however, that the project's going to be completed in phases and won't be fully complete until about 2012; while parts of this book already no longer reflect what's actually in the park and other parts of the book will soon no longer reflect what's there, a lot of the things that Kendra points out in her book are still there and will continue to be there for a while -- all the better reason to take a little time to learn about them and appreciate them now while you still can.

Disney's California Adventure Detective is a fun and enjoyable way to learn about the history, secrets and details that make one of Disney's newest theme parks a fun place to visit, and in the process the book challenges the notion that the theme park has very little to discover and enjoy. Some readers will appreciate the book as a historical snapshot of a theme park that will be radically different a few years from now, and others will appreciate having an expert guide to discovering and appreciating a Disney theme park. Either way, anyone who's interested in learning and discovering more about Disney's California Adventure should consider picking up a copy of this book.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Passport Ahoy!

PassPorter's Disney Cruise Line and its Ports of Call 2008 (Sixth Edition), by Jennifer and Dave Marx. Ann Arbor, MI: PassPorter Press/MediaMarx Inc.., 2008; 352 pp.

I'm in the process of preparing for my first cruise, which - surprise, surprise! - is going to be a Disney cruise. As you may recall, a few months ago in one of my first reviews, I talked about the Birnbaum Guide to the Disney Cruise Line, which I thought was OK, but could have used a bit more information, especially about the cruise experience. While I was going through my local bookstore recently, I came across the PassPorter's Disney Cruise Line and its Ports of Call; all three of you folks out there who read my blog regularly may recall that I previously reviewed the Passporter Disneyland Resort and I was pretty impressed, so I picked up this book in the hope that it'd be a big help in planning for my cruise as I'm sure that PassPorter Disneyland Resort would be to someone planning a trip to Anaheim. After having read the book, I'm convinced that I made a great choice.

PassPorter's Disney Cruise Line (please forgive me for abbreviating the title!) is a comprehensive guide to the Disney Cruise Line experience. If Jennifer and Dave Marx don't provide just about every bit of information you might need for planning and enjoying a Disney cruise, they come pretty darned close. They thoroughly cover your options when booking a Disney cruise, including the different types of cruises available, the best times to go, and even the differences in stateroom categories, and give the reader tools and tips to help plan out their cruise itinerary and budget; they also cover everything happening on board, including dining and activities for various age groups. Jennifer and Dave also cover the ports visited by the Disney Cruise Line, giving the reader a rough lay of the land for each port, discussing the various port excursions offered by Disney (and alternatives to Disney-sponsored port excursions that might save passengers some money), and briefing the reader on activities that cruise passengers can pursue on their own.
As you might expect from a PassPorter guide, the information is well organized and easy to review and refer to, and as with their other books, Jennifer and Dave are happy to share their thoughts and their readers' thoughts on the various elements that make up a Disney cruise. They even provide information about the latest Disney itineraries and ports of call and provide information about the new Disney cruise ships - information that was curiously missing from the Birnbaum Guide.

I was really impressed by Passporter's Disney Cruise Line, but it's not a perfect book. Fans of the ringed binder format of most PassPorter books and of the PassPockets for storing important documents and reminders of their vacation will be disappointed to learn that the book comes in a standard bound format, with nary a PassPocket in sight (although you can pay a little more for the deluxe edition of the book and get it in the traditional format). It's not quite as colorful as the traditional PassPorter guides or the Birnbaum Guide, and since it's not an official Disney book, there aren't any photos of the Disney characters (although the Marxes include enough photos of their family enjoying the amenities of a Disney cruise that you'll still get a good idea what being on board is like). None of these faults is a deal-breaker, though.

PassPorter's Disney Cruise Line and its Ports of Call is a thorough and easy to use guide to just about everything you'd need to know to plan and get the most out of your Disney Cruise Line vacation. I think Disney could take a few lessons from the Marxes on how to put together a guidebook to Disney cruises, as the book does a great job of providing almost all the information someone would need to plan, book, and prepare for a voyage on the Disney Magic or the Disney Wonder. If you can only pick up one guidebook to prepare for your Disney Cruise Line vacation, make it this one.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An Incomplete Look at Walt Disney World's Construction

What Would Walt Do?: An Insider's Story About the Design and Construction of Walt Disney World, by D.M. Miller. Lincoln, Nebraska: Writers Club Press/iUniverse, 2001; 111 pp.

As you may have guessed by some of the books I've previously reviewed, I'm one of those people that like to ask, "How did they do that?" But when I ask that question, I don't usually mean that I just want to know about the tricks of the trade that make rides and attractions in a theme park possible. I'm equally fascinated by the stories of how amusement parks and theme parks came to be - the people who designed and built them and the process by which they were built. So I was really excited a couple of years ago when a website I like to frequent (all right, it was - hi, Jim!) mentioned a book that was about an insider's account of what it was like to build Walt Disney World. After reading the book, I was a little disappointed.

What Would Walt Do? is the memoir of D.M. "Mike" Miller, an engineer who worked for a contractor involved in the construction of the Vacation Kingdom. Mike intersperses his personal history and his experiences of working and living in central Florida during the initial phase of Walt Disney World's construction with brief historical summaries and anecdotes about Walt and Roy Disney and others involved with the construction project. While Mike never got the chance to meet Walt and only got to meet principal executives like Roy Disney and Admiral Joe Fowler once or twice, he does have some interesting stories to tell about the folks who did the grunt work on the project, and about how Walt's influence inspired Disney and the people who worked for them to settle for nothing less than the highest quality work on the project.

In spite of what the book's title might have you believe, What Would Walt Do? doesn't offer much new perspective about the decisions and the personalities that shaped Walt Disney World's construction. Unfortunately, Mike's position in the construction team's hierarchy didn't provide him much opportunity to interact with the key people on the construction project or to be there when key decisions were made. Mike tries to make up for it with the anecdotes he shares about Walt, Roy, and others, but most of these anecdotes are second-hand ones that he gleaned from other sources, so most readers who are into Disney history won't be reading anything about the key people that they haven't read before. This book is more about Mike than it is about Walt, which hurts the book; there's nothing wrong with a little biographical information to help set the story, but quite a bit of what's covered in the book, like detailed information about Mike's life before working on the World, his take on the mores and cultural values of the times he lived in, and his feelings about unions, are just distractions from the central topic.

Does that mean that What Would Walt Do? isn't worth your time? Not necessarily. I enjoyed reading about what Orlando and central Florida was like before it became the theme park mecca of the world; Mike's description of what life was like for him in Orlando in the late 60s and early 70s provides an incredible contrast to Orlando as we know it today. Mike had the opportunity to work with some interesting people on the Walt Disney World construction project, and the stories he tells are fascinating, even if they don't have all that much relevance to the book's main topic. Mike tells a pretty good story, but if you're a Disney fan looking for the story of how Walt Disney World came to be, Mike doesn't have all that much to tell you.

What Would Walt Do? is an interesting look into the life of one of the folks who did the important construction-related work that made Walt Disney World possible, and it provides the reader with a look into what it was like to work on what was then one of America's largest construction projects. Unfortunately, the book's title might lead a reader to expect a lot more from this book than the author can deliver. If you're looking for a general history of Walt Disney World's construction and early years of operation, I'd recommend picking up a copy of Realityland by David Koenig and then getting this book as supplemental reading; this book would probably also make a good supplement to a general history of Orlando and central Florida, as well. But if you're looking for a book that's going to provide you with a lot of insight into how and why things happened the way they did or tell you something new about major players in the story of Walt Disney World, you'll probably be disappointed.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Tangent Review: A Look Back at Orange County Amusement Parks

Images of America: Early Amusement Parks of Orange County, by Richard Harris. Charleston SC, et. al.: Arcadia Publishing, 2008; 127 pp.

Are you ready for a shock? When I was growing up, I didn't spend all my leisure time at Disneyland. It's not that I wasn't as crazy for Disney back then as I am now; it's just that there were a lot of different things you could do in Southern California, and my dad wanted to do as many of them as he could. (Of course, the fact that Disneyland wasn't cheap even back then and there were no such things as annual passports may have also influenced his decisions as to where to go.) As a result, I got the chance to see a lot of places that are sadly now long gone, like Movieland Wax Museum, Lion Country Safari, Marineland of the Pacific, and many others. Today's review is about a book that may bring back some memories of long-since-vanished leisure attractions. It sure did for me.

Chances are that you're already familiar with at least a couple of the books in Arcadia's Images of America series, which feature collections of historical photographs of numerous communities throughout the nation. One of the latest books in the series, Early Amusement Parks of Orange County (that's California, by the way, not Florida), is a collection of photographs and other images from attractions that operated in Southern California. Some of the parks featured are well-known worldwide (Disneyland, of course, and Knott's Berry Farm), some were pretty well known to southern Californians in their day (Movieland Wax Museum, Lion Country Safari, Japanese Village), and some of the attractions featured may tax the memory of even the most devoted amusement park goer (Gram Paw Mac's in Garden Grove, Old MacDonald's Farm in Mission Viejo). Most of the photos appear to be publicity shots that found their way into local historical archives, but the book also features images of things like advertising and ticket media. There are captions accompanying each photograph to provide a little context and brief paragraphs at the beginning of each chapter provide a little background, but let's be honest here - most folks aren't going to bother with the text, and the photos are so much fun that I can't blame them.

I really enjoyed this book. It's not exactly the most demanding book in the world, but I spent a lot of time looking through it anyway; Richard Harris apparently knows his Orange County amusement parks well enough to skip some of the more commonly seen photographs of the attractions and present historical photos that many people reading this book may not have seen before. The text... well, I could take it or leave it; the information's interesting, bust most of it sounds cribbed from local newspapers or general histories of Orange County. But as I said before, nobody's gonna buy this book for the text.

My only other complaint about Early Amusement Parks of Orange County also has to do with the text of the book - or more correctly, what's not part of the text. A book like this would be really served well by some sort of bibilography; I'm sure that there will be amusement and theme park afficionadoes like me that will look at this book and want to learn more about some of the places and things they see, but there are no references to start them on their searches. I realize this won't be that big a deal to most people who buy this book, but a bibilography would have been nice.

Early Amusement Parks of Orange County is a fun way to relive memories of amusement parks you may have visited in years gone by - or to experience a little of these places, if you never knew they existed before picking up this book. It's not deep reading, and it's not cheap ($19.95 MSRP for a 127-page book?!?), but it is very enjoyable. If you're a theme park fan - Disney or otherwise - this is a book you should pick up.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Getting To Know Legendary Imagineers

Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Park, by Jeff Kurtti. New York: Disney Editions, 2008, 141 pp.

Once upon a time (actually, 53 years ago, give or take a little), a place that was unlike anything people had ever seen before was created on some former farmland in Anaheim, California. People came there expecting a typical amusement park or a carnival, if they had any idea what to expect at all, and instead encountered a place that allowed them to step into the past, the future, and into realms of adventure and fantasy; they found a place where people of all ages could leave the real world for a little while and have fun together. One man got the credit from the public for bringing the world this new and exciting place, but he didn't create it all by himself. The fact was, that man did something even more amazing. He brought together a group of people with a wide variety of talents - some of which the people didn't even realize they had! - and inspired them with his vision as their guide to create someplace special, a place that would set the standard for places like it all over the world. We know a lot about the man - Walt Disney - and the place he inspired - Disneyland - but many people don't know all that much about the group of people that he brought together, and how each of those people contributed to the creation of Walt's dream. Jeff Kurtti decided to write a book to fix that, and he did an amazing job.

Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends tells the stories of twenty-nine Imagineers, their contributions to the Disney theme parks, and to the art and science of Imagineering. The book also tells us a lot about the man Jeff dubs "the first Imagineer" - Walt himself - by sharing how each of them related to Walt and how Walt's ideas , desires, and expectations affected what they did and what they created. If you've learned something about the history of Disney and of the Disney theme parks, the names of the folks you'll meet in this book may already be familiar to you, and you might be aware of some of the things they've accomplished, but most likely you've never learned as much about them and what they did as you'll learn from this book. Jeff does a great job telling the reader a lot about these folks in very few pages; even though I like to think that I know quite a bit about the folks profiled by Jeff in this book, I still managed to learn several things about each of the Imagineers profiled that I didn't know.

Jeff breaks up the Imagineering legends' profiles into several sections, tying groups of Imagineers together by the work they specialized in, such as concept art, model making, and music. A few of the folks profiled by Jeff don't fit neatly into categories of specialization, so Jeff created separate sections to profile their contributions to the Imagineering of the Disney theme parks; one person in particular was so knowledgeable about so many different interests that he's honored with his own section as WDI's "Renaissance Imagineer". Each section of the book starts out with a quote by Walt that ties into that particular specialty of Imagineering. It's a fun way to highlight the contributions of the folks being profiled.

Jeff's goal in writing the profiles in this book was to provide enough information on each person that the reader can learn something new about the background and the personality of each person being profiled, but he doesn't throw so much information at the the reader that he or she feels like they're going to drown in a sea of facts. Jeff even thoughtfully provides a good selection of footnotes to the profiles to make sure the reader understands the significance of something tangentially mentioned in an interview or in an excerpt from another work. There's a nice selection of photographs and art with each profile, so you'll get a feel for what each person has done, but the images also serve to remind the reader that there was an actual person behind the things that they've seen and experienced at the Disney theme parks.

Are there any problems with Walt Disney's Legends of Imagineering? Well, I wish that Disney and Jeff hadn't kept us all waiting so long for this book's release (this book was originally scheduled for publication about three years ago), but I can't find too much to complain about as far as the content. I suppose someone could complain that there should have been more Imagineering concept artwork, illustrations, and photographs of the actual attractions in the book as opposed to publicity photographs of the Imagineers from WED/WDI and the Disney Photo Library , but such a complaint misses an important point - namely, that this book is intended to acquaint the reader with the people who created the attractions and experiences, not the attractions.

Books that acquaint the reader with Imagineering and Imagineers can generally be divided into two categories: "Image books", which feature so many wonderful images of Disney concept art and attraction illustrations that you just might be tempted to skip the text, and "reader's books", which provide interesting reading but not as much in the way of illustrations that you haven't seen before. Jeff's book is definitely a "reader's book" and doesn't feature a lot of illustrations devoted fans of Disney history and Disney theme parks haven't seen somewhere else, but again, I think that's the point -- there are several good books out there featuring some of the art produced by the Imagineers (a couple of which Jeff has had a hand in creating), but this is the first book I've seen about Imagineering that really wants the reader to spend time appreciating the creators of the magic instead of appreciating their creations.

Walt Disney's Imagineering Legends is a fascinating look at the people who made Walt Disney's theme park dreams a reality and who set standards for creativity, artistry, and practical applications of technology that were the benchmark for not only the Imagineers that followed them but an entire industry. A famous quote of Walt's states that it takes people to make the dream a reality. This book is a great way to get to know some of those people a little better. If you're a fan of the Disney parks, take a little time to read this book -- I think that afterwards you'll appreciate what you experience at the parks even more.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Hide and Seek with Mickey at Disneyland

Disneyland's Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Disneyland Resort's Best Kept Secrets, by Steven M. Barrett. Branford, CT: The Intrepid Traveler, 2007, 94 pp.

At the Disney theme parks, the magic is in the details. The thing that makes the parks so special is the wealth of hidden (and not so hidden) details that individually may not seem like a big deal , but that together enhance your overall theme park experience. One of the details that's captivated a lot of Disney fans are little things known as "hidden Mickeys"; over the years, the Imagineers have left their mark on the attractions and environments they've created by leaving partial or complete images of the world's most favorite Mouse (and a few of his pals) in the designs of those attractions and environments. Some folks at Disney claim that there are no such things as hidden Mickeys. Other folks acknowledge their existence, but can't confirm where they may be - the Walt Disney Company has never taken up the task of documenting them, as far as anyone knows. Like many things at the Disney theme parks, it's up to you to discover hidden Mickeys for yourself - but that doesn't mean you can't get a little help from a master hidden Mickey hunter.

Five years ago, Steve Barrett wrote a book called Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Walt Disney World's Best Kept Secrets, where he told his readers about these hidden treasures and provided a series of scavenger hunts so that folks could search for a few of these treasures themselves. Well, the book was so successful that Steve created a sequel, this time covering the hidden Mickeys that can be found at the Disneyland Resort. In a brief but fascinating introduction, Steve explains how the phenomenon of hidden Mickeys got started and some ground rules for determining what is and what isn't a true hidden Mickey, and then sends you off all over the Disneyland Resort in search of more than 170 hidden Mickeys. The scavenger hunts are organized into three sections - one for each theme park and one for the Downtown Disney district and the Disney hotels. The Mickeys are rated on a point scale in terms of how difficult they are to find, so you can test your hidden Mickey spotting prowess against Steve, or you, your friends, and family can challenge each other to see who's the greatest hidden Mickey finder of all.

I have to admit that I'm never much been into hidden Mickeys, and I'm awful at spotting them (you practically have to lead me right to a hidden Mickey for me to spot it, no matter how obvious it is), so I approached Disneyland's Hidden Mickeys with a little trepidation. Well, it turns out that I really shouldn't have worried. Although I won't talk about how well (or should I say how badly) I did at finding the hidden Mickeys in Steve's scavenger hunts, I did have a lot of fun learning about them, and I had a good time trying to find them using the clues in Steve's book.

The nicest thing about Disneyland's Hidden Mickeys is that you have a lot of options as far as using the book. For example, if you're not in the mood to go on a full-blown hidden Mickey scavenger hunt, Steve has thoughtfully included an index of locations in the back of the book so you can look for a Mickey while you're headed to or in line for your favorite Disneyland or DCA attraction. Totally clueless as to where that Mickey you're trying to find is? Steve has provided hints in separate sections from the scavenger hunts for when you get frustrated in your search. The book is compact enough that you can toss it into your bag or your back pocket and pull it out to go Mickey hunting when the urge strikes you. There's even a website associated with the book where you, Steve, and other hidden Mickey hunters can share (or debate) your discoveries.

So, are there any downsides to Disneyland's Hidden Mickeys? Except for the very real possibility of blowing a good part of your day at the theme parks hunting for hidden Mickeys, I can't think of any. Obviously, if you intend to do other things during your visit to Disneyland besides hunt for hidden Mickeys, you're gonna need another book to get you around. If your time is really limited at Disneyland or this is your first visit, you may want to forgo this book until you're able to devote some time to the scavenger hunts - but as I mentioned above, you do have the option of just looking for hidden Mickeys while you're waiting to ride an attraction by using the index. Aside from that, I have no real complaints.

Disneyland's Hidden Mickeys is a fun and easy way to introduce yourself to one of the more unusual aspects of the Disney theme parks. If nothing else, you'll learn to really pay attention to the little details that make up the parks, but more likely, you and your family will also have a lot of fun looking for a few of Disneyland's hidden treasures. Pick up a copy before you head to Anaheim or pick one up at one of many locations throughout the resort, and keep your eyes open - you never know where that Mouse may be hiding!

Obligatory Excuse Post Number Two

My apologies to all three of my loyal readers. Things have been, to put it mildly, hectic over the past four weeks, thanks to everything I had to do related to the NFFC Convention and everything I had to do at work after getting back. Things have now returned to what passes for normal around here, so I should be able to return to my regular schedule. But enough of my groveling...

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Shameless Plug for My Club

Speaking of places to find Disney collectibles, next Sunday (July 20th) the NFFC, a club of devoted Disney fans, will be holding its biannual Strictly Disneyana Show and Sale at the Crowne Plaza Anaheim Resort in Garden Grove. A lot of folks will be there selling a lot of fun Disney collectibles - new and used - and you never know what you might find. You may even find me, since I'm a member of the NFFC's board of directors; if you read this blog and recognize my name on a nametag as you shop, please stop me and say "Hi"; it's always nice to know somebody's reading this stuff besides me. :)

More information on the Show and Sale, including a coupon for $1 off admission to the Show and Sale, is available from the main page of the NFFC website, Hope to see you there!

Speaking of 25th Anniversaries...

Disneyland: The First Quarter Century. Walt Disney Productions, 1979; 122 pp.

I was looking back on my blog posts and I realized I hadn't reviewed any out-of-print books in a while! Oops. Today, we'll be taking another trip back into Disneyland's past with Disneyland: The First Quarter Century, a souvenir book issued in celebration of the Park's 25th anniversary.

Now, you may remember from our look at the first Disneyland guidebook in one of my first posts in this blog (and if you don't, may I refer you to the blog archives?) that Walt's little park only had a few attractions back when it opened in 1955. Disneyland did a lot of growing and changing from then until 1980, and this book's anonymous author (if anybody knows who the author might be, please let me know) does a wonderful job of chronicling that growth, and delves into what the Park meant to Walt and what it means to its many visitors today. The book is broken up into a couple of sections, such as "From Dream to Reality", where the author tells the story of Disneyland's conceptualization and initial construction, "The First Quarter Century", a chronicle of the Park's history, and "The Many Worlds of Disneyland", where some of Walt's quotes are combined with some scenic images of Disneyland and shots of guests enjoying the Park.

The book's an interesting read, but let's be honest here - most people who pick up this book are going to give the text a cursory glance at best and go straight to the pictures! And in my opinion, you're perfectly justified in doing so. The shots of the Park in this book - a combination of publicity photos and photos from Walt Disney Imagineering from throughout the years, plus what I assume were a few new professional shots taken just for this book - range from cute to stunningly beautiful. I especially enjoyed all the construction photos of the Park's attractions - I don't think it wasn't all that common to see construction photos in the media back then. I also had a fun time playing "Name That Imagineer!" as I looked at the photos of the folks at WDI (well , back then WED) working on creating some classic Disneyland attractions.

So, are there any drawbacks to Disneyland: The First Quarter Century? Well, if you're a devoted Disneyland fan, you're probably not going to learn anything new about the Park from this book ; if you're looking for a good official history of the Park with more information about what went into creating it, I'd recommend a book that came out from Disney a couple of years after this one called Disneyland: Inside Story by Randy Bright. A lot of the photos in this book are going to look familiar - many of them have been used often in the 24 years since this book was published in other publications and exhibits (in fact, I realized as I re-read this book for this review that I've seen several of them in the Disneyland: The First 50 Magical Years pre-show exhibit). Overall, though, I love this book - I think it set a standard for the Disney souvenir books that has been hard to match (although the most recent Disneyland souvenir book, Disneyland: Then, Now, and Forever, comes close).

Disneyland: the First Quarter Century is a wonderful photographic trip through the first 25 years of Disneyland's history. If you're just starting a Disney book collection, I'd recommend making this book of your first out-of-print book purchases; the book comes up for sale in used bookstores and for auction on eBay and other auction sites pretty frequently, and the price is usually fairly reasonable. If you've been collecting Disneyland memorabilia for a while now and you don't have this book, you've got a fairly big hole in your collection - start looking for a copy! Either way, be prepared to spend a couple of hours looking through this book once you open it up.

Friday, June 27, 2008

A Passport to the Happiest Place on Earth

Passporter Disneyland Resort and Southern California Attractions (First Edition), By Jennifer Marx and Dave Marx. Ann Arbor, MI; PassPorter Press, 2006; 282 pp.

Just for the sake of variety, I thought I'd do a review this week of a guide to the Disneyland Resort. Now, being a native southern Californian and having been to Disneyland so many times I can't even begin to count, I need a Disneyland guidebook like a fish needs a bicycle (sorry, Gloria Steinem). But if I did need a guidebook for a visit to Anaheim, I'd most likely choose this one.

Several years ago (no, I don't know how many - I'm not going to ruin my blog by doing silly things like research!), Jennifer and Dave Marx came up with the first of a unique series of travel guides. The PassPorter guides provide a lot of great information about Disney destinations, but they provide a lot more - a planning workbook, a easy-to navigate reference, and a keepsake/souvenir of the reader's vacation. A couple of years ago, with an excellent guide for Walt Disney World under their belt, Jennifer and Dave decided to create a PassPorter guide to Disneyland and southern California. If there was any concern that the original PassPorter was some kind of fluke, they've dispelled those concerns with this book.

Jennifer and Dave have created a great guide for planning a southern California vacation with an emphasis on Disneyland. They cover almost everything you'd need to know in a thorough yet concise manner, all organized for easy access. From accommodations to attractions to dining, the PassPorter Disneyland Resort provides the information you need to plan your vacation, and provides honest opinions on what you'll see and experience. Jennifer and Dave have included lots of references to websites (including theirs), so you can explore your options further and gather additional information; they also provide some of the nicest looking and most useful maps I've seen in a Disney guidebook (and that includes the Birnbaum guides). And it's all presented in a manner that doesn't leave you feeling either overwhelmed or like you've missed something.

But the neatest part of the PassPorter is that it isn't just intended to help you plan your trip - it can also be used to document it. Behind the guidebook text is a series of "PassPockets" that you can use to organize and plan your trip before you go and to record your expenses, photos and recollections of the days' events; the PassPockets even include sleeves where you can store items like receipts, ticket stubs, and other items you might want to save. When the planning's all done and you're on your way, bring the book along -- you can add a few autographs, notes, and photos to your PassPorter (there are pages for that, too), and when you get back home you can fold over the flap in the back of the book, close it up with the elastic band, and now you have a memory book of your vacation.

My problems with the PassPorter Disneyland Resort are very few. First off, if you're planning a trip to Disneyland later than a couple of months or so from now, I'd recommend holding off on purchasing the PassPorter until the new edition comes out in a few weeks; since the book was written in 2006, several items are out of date. Of course, guidebooks begin to go out of date almost from the minute they're published, and most of the book's tools for planning and preparing for a Disneyland vacation are as valid now as they were back in 2006, so if you're going sooner, don't give the PassPorter a pass (pun intended).

Second, if you're searching for optimal touring plans, you'll probably want to supplement this book with another book or website that emphasizes touring plans, like the Unofficial Guide to Disneyland; the Marxes provide one touring plan per theme park, but don't provide plans optimized for certain age groups or for varying lengths of stay. But both of these are very minor complaints.

The PassPorter Disneyland Resort is an excellent, thorough, and unique guide for planning and enjoying a trip to southern California; like its counterpart for the Florida theme parks, it'd be one of the two or three books I'd recommend to anyone making their first trip to experience the Disney theme parks. Now, how about we take up a collection to send Jennifer and Dave on some research trips to the overseas parks so we can have some great guides to those places, too?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

What A Mouse Can Teach You About Customer Service

Inside the Magic Kingdom: Seven Keys to Disney's Success, by Tom Connellan; Austin, TX: Bard Press, 1997, 193 pp.

Sometimes I'm so enthralled by the Disney magic (or the wizardry that makes the Disney magic) that I tend to forget that the Disney theme parks are a business. Needless to say, they're a very successful business, so inevitably the question comes up: Why are the Disney parks such a big success, and is there anything people could learn from that suceess that could apply to their own businesses?

In Inside the Magic Kingdom, Tom Connellan uses a fictional narrative of a group of five businesspeople who go on a business retreat to Walt Disney World to learn seven lessons about Disney's approach to customer service. Along the way, they learn that every customer service experience impacts perceptions of their own company's customer service, they learn how many little details combine to make up the Disney guest experience, how everyone and everything at the parks works together to enhance the guest experience. They also learn how Disney depends on many types of guest feedback to measure their success at pleasing guests, how Disney recognizes, rewards, and celebrates outstanding customer service, and how everyone - even people who don't deal directly with guests - can make a difference in providing excellent guest experiences.

I'm not a big fan of the "here's how to do it" type of business books, but Tom's done a pretty good job with Inside The Magic Kingdom. Tom's not going to win any awards for his characters - they're pretty much superficial creations intended to show how different types of businesspeople have different approaches to customer service - but his protagonists help to quickly get across the key points of the narrative. As the plot progresses, Tom introduces additional characters to share anecdotes about how Disney applies the lessons he's teaching, and he has his main characters share some interesting"Disney details" - some that you've probably have heard many times before, a few that may be new. Tom even has one of his characters go through the cast hiring process so they (and we) can experience a little of the Disney approach to hiring and training new cast members - an element of the park experience that we seldom hear much about in books about the parks. Best of all, the book is a quick read considering the amount of information you learn - I was able to finish the book over the course of a few hours over two days.

While Inside the Magic Kingdom is a pretty good business book overall, I have a few minor quibbles. The book's biggest problem is that it's starting to show its age; it mentions several senior Disney executives who are no longer with the Walt Disney Company, and there have been some changes to the Magic Kingdom since the book was written. (Admittedly, most businesspeople reading this book aren't going to notice, but Disney fans will.)

While Tom's narrative style for the book is fun, the plot's kinda weak at a couple of points. One character's transformation from confirmed grump to customer service fanatic is a bit of a stretch, and appearances by former CEO Michael Eisner are just plain unbelieveable. Also, if you're really fanatical about discovering Disney details, you may decide that Tom's telling you a lot of things about Disney you already knew. But I consider myself pretty fanatical about learning useless Disney trivia, and even I learned a couple of things I didn't know by reading this book

Inside The Magic Kingdom is a fun way to learn a little about how the Disney theme parks make the guest experience a little more special and how Disney creates and maintains a corporate culture that's fanatically devoted to customer service. If your boss asks you to recommend a book to add to the office's collection of training materials, you may want to have him or her take a look at this one, or maybe you can pick up a copy for yourself and sneak it in there when nobody's looking! Perhaps it'll inspire someone to add a little of Disney customer service magic to your workplace.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tangent Review: The Afterlife of the Queen

Destination Long Beach: The Queen Mary Story (2007 Edition), by Renee B. Simon; Long Beach, CA: RMS Foundation, 2001/2007; 124 pp.

This week, I'll be doing the first of what I call "tangent reviews". A tangent review is a review of a book whose primary topic is about something other than the Disney theme parks, but contains some mention of Disney theme parks and resorts. Why do tangent reviews? Because sometimes you'll find interesting bits of information about Disney theme park history in a book about something other than the Disney parks. (This also allows me to review books that I thought had a connection to the parks, but actually had next to nothing about them. Yeah, it's sneaky and it's lazy. So sue me.)

Believe it or not, I have other interests besides the Disney theme parks. (Shocking, I know, but true.) Chief among these interests are the theme park and amusement industry, transportation (mainly trains and ships), and 20th century history. Today's book covers a subject that has all of these things rolled into one very large package: the RMS Queen Mary.

For 31 years, the Queen Mary ferried passengers all around the world - mainly across the North Atlantic, but she made her way to other places as well. When she was in service, she was the epitome of luxury and speed, but sadly the world passed her by, and in 1967 Cunard, her operator, put her up for sale. Most histories of the Queen Mary end with The Last Great Cruise, her voyage from Southampton to Long Beach, California, to be turned over to the City of Long Beach, and a brief mention that she's now a hotel and tourist attraction. But the Queen Mary has been in Long Beach for almost 41 years and has been a tourist attraction for 37 years - both longer than she sailed for Cunard - and there's not a lot out there about what happened to the Queen after she came to California. That's why I was happy to see that the RMS Foundation, the attraction's operators, commissioned a book about that part of her story.

Destination Long Beach is an informative book about the long, strange history of the Queen and her adopted home, from the efforts by the city to buy her and bring her to California, the grand plans to turn her into a museum, hotel, and tourist destination, to the disappointing result of the plans going awry and a glimmer of hope that her unlucky situation might be about to change for the better. Along the way, we get to see how the City of Long Beach bought her almost on a whim, how it created a tangle of operating responsibilities that would have almost guaranteed problems even if the attraction had been as successful as they had expected, and how folks like hotelier and real estate tycoon Jack Wrather got things going in the right direction. We briefly see the Walt Disney Company take control of operating the ship as part of the deal where Disney reclaimed the Disneyland Hotel , the hope of a grand new theme park in Long Beach allowing the Queen to live up to her original expectations, and what looked like the end for the attraction when the idea for the park fell through and Disney decided that they didn't want anything more to do with her. Finally, we get to see a new regime take over operations, which initially brings the hope that the person now in charge will be able to make the Queen Mary do what she's never really been able to do the whole time she's been in Long Beach - be a popular place to go and to turn a profit - and then see her future again called into question when the relations between the new operators and the city turn sour. It's a fascinating story, and one that really deserves to be told.

Renee Simon does a pretty good job with the book. She's not shy about tweaking the noses of the people who made mistakes or questionable decisions, for the most part (more on that later), and the book contains some interesting photographs of the ship during her conversion (some would argue her demolition) and her new life as a tourist attraction. It's a fast read, as well; I was able to finish the book in a couple of hours.

So what's not to like about Destination Long Beach? My biggest issue with the book is that since the book was published by the folks who currently operate the Queen Mary, it's got a strong bias in favor of those folks, and especially the operating company's recently removed leader, Joseph Prevratil. For all of Renee's willingness to point out how many of the people who were responsible for creating the problems that the Queen Mary suffers from today, she's not willing to question anything that the RMS Foundation has done during their tenure - and I know from other research I 've done that they've made some pretty questionable decisions. I would have liked to see a lot more information about the time that Wrather and Disney operated the Queen Mary and what they did - right and wrong - while they were in charge; if we were to go simply by Renee's description in the book, the Disney tenure at the Queen Mary could be summed up as grandiose plans that they might or might not have been truly committed to, combined with general indifference. Finally, while this is a nice coffee table book with some decent photographs and text, it's still a coffee table book - the story of the Queen Mary in Long Beach deserves a more in-depth look than it gets in 124 pages full of photographs. But something's better than nothing, I guess.

If you're looking for a treasure trove of information about Disney's operation of one of Southern California's best-known (and least-visited) attractions and about the ill-fated DisneySea theme park, Destination Long Beach is going to be disappointing. But if you're interested in the challenges faced by people trying to create a tourist destination, in California history, or in learning about a little-known facet of a great ship's history, than you should consider giving this book a read. The book will also give you a reason to explore one of the great unappreciated treasures of Long Beach - figuratively and literally, since the only place I know of that you can get this book is from the Queen Mary Store on the ship. But hey, it won't kill you to spend a couple of hours away from Disneyland for one day.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Spoken Word CD Counts As A Book!

The Audio Guide to Walt Disney World: Main Street USA, by Lou Mongello; 2007; Louis A. Mongello/Second Star Media LLC. Audio CD; approx. 73 minutes.

Sorry for the delay in getting a new post up, folks - between the Real Job the Disney Fan Job, and a recent illness, it's been a crazy couple of weeks.

The next book I’ll be reviewing here is… a CD?!? OK, at this point a few of you might be wondering if I just hit my head with a Disney Big Fig, but stick with me, folks – this isn’t your typical CD.

A couple of years ago, I read “The Walt Disney World Trivia Book, Volume 2”, a collection of trivia questions about one of our favorite Disney destinations. I was really impressed by the book and the knowledge of its author, Lou Mongello. Well, since then Lou’s come up with another way to share his knowledge of Walt Disney World with Disney fans and casual guests – the first of a series of audio CDs where Lou acts as our tour guide on a “guided walking tour of the history, trivia, hidden treasures, and overlooked details of Walt Disney World.”

Appropriately enough, the first CD in Lou’s audio guide to Walt Disney World takes us to the first place many of us see when we first visit – Main Street USA in the Magic Kingdom. Starting just outside the entrance to the Magic Kingdom, Lou takes us through the turnstiles, under the Walt Disney World Railroad and into Town Square; Lou then takes us on a tour of Town Square’s buildings and up Main Street USA until we reach the Plaza. Along the way, Lou shares some of the history of Walt Disney World and of the buildings were visiting and passing through, as well as pointing out details that enhance the park going experience but might be missed by the average guest (and even by some devoted Disney fans like me).

If you ever wanted an easy way to get away for a visit to Walt Disney World without really getting away, this CD may just be what you’re looking for. With his narration and through the use of music and sound effects, Lou is able to put you right in the middle of the Magic Kingdom; Lou describes the sights of Main Street USA in enough detail and provides you with enough background audio cues that it’s easy for you to close your eyes and imagine yourself walking through the theme park on a beautiful day. Lou shares just enough information that even the biggest Walt Disney World fan should learn something new, but not necessarily so much that someone will turn off the CD feeling totally overwhelmed. I had a great time listening to this audio guide.

We’ve talked about how Lou’s CD can make you feel like you’re spending the day in Florida while you’re sitting at home, but how does it work as a guide if you’re already there? I haven’t had a chance to try out Lou’s CD at the Magic Kingdom myself, but I turned it over to a willing test subject who was still in Florida (my lovely fiancée, who didn’t have to come back from vacation as soon as I did), and she reported that Lou’s CD was a great way to enhance her visit to the Magic Kingdom – and had the advantage of being a lot easier to carry around and enjoy than a paper guidebook.

Is the Audio Guide to Walt Disney World perfect? Well, besides not being nearly long enough to suit me, I can’t find too much wrong with it. At the time that I got that I got the CD, I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t just download Lou’s guide straight to my iPod (a situation Lou has corrected by offering the Audio Guide online at I’m also a little disappointed that the Guide CD is one long track, which means if you’re listening on CD, you’ll have to stop and start over from the beginning if you have to stop listening for some reason. But these are minor quibbles. My fiancée and I had a great time listening to the first volume of the Audio Guide to Walt Disney World, and we can’t wait for the next volume!

I'll be back to reviewing paper books in the next post. In the meantime, thanks for indulging me!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Only English Book on Tokyo Disneyland?

Riding The Black Ship: Japan and Tokyo Disneyland (Harvard East Asian Monographs 173), By Aviad E. Raz; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, 236 pp.

Last Tuesday was the 25th anniversary of the opening of Tokyo Disneyland, the first Disney theme park opened outside of the United States. I thought it'd be fun in honor of the anniversary to review something about TDL. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done; to date, nobody's written a English-language guidebook to Tokyo Disneyland, and there's only one book I'm aware of that is dedicated to the topic. It's been a while since I read it, so I figured it'd be worth another look.

Riding The Black Ship is a monograph covering some of the sociological issues about TDL. The title refers to Commodore Matthew Perry's American warships that forcibly re-opened Japan to the West in 1853; some intellectuals have argued that like Commodre Perry's warships, Tokyo Disneyland is a cultural "black ship", forcing American popular culture onto Japan and the Japanese. After spending some time observing TDL, Disney, and Japanese culture, Aviad Raz argues that the Japanese have done the same thing they've done with many other things they've found in foreign cultures - they've taken something that interests them and adapted it to made it their own. The Japanese are thus not victims of a cultural invasion, but masters of a unique cultral phenomenon - they're riding and steering the "black ship" of TDL.

Aviad Raz was somewhat handicapped by an almost total lack of cooperation from the Oriental Land Company (the company that owns TDL), but still put together an interesting study of Tokyo Disneyland and how it's made its mark on Japanese culture, and vice versa. The book provides some interesting information about how TDL is operated, how the corporate culture of the U.S. Disney theme parks was adapted to suit the OLC and the Japanese, how other companies have adapted some of America's and Disney's organizational and training strategies to their businesses (or rejected them, as the case may be), and the appeal of TDL and Disney to various age groups in Japan.

You get a basic explanation of how OLC created TDL, information about the differences between how hourly employees are trained and do their jobs (which is influenced by the techniques of the U.S. parks) and how managers and higher-level employees are trained and how they work (which mirrors more traditional Japanese business culture). Raz demostrates how TDL modifies the Disney theme park experience to suit the Japanese by comparing three attractions at the park (two of which have sadly closed since the book was written) to their American or Japanese equivalents, and discusses how the Japanese workers react to some elements of the "Disney Way". The book provdes some fascinating insights into Japan's culture in general and Japan's business culture, with (of course) an emphasis on the business of theme parks.

Riding The Black Ship is an interesting book, particularly if you're curious about Japanese culture or have a strong interest in TDL and OLC, but make no mistake - this is an academic text, and it wasn't meant for a general audience; if a reading assignment in your college textbooks left your head swimming for a while afterward, you're not going to have a lot of fun reading this book. The information about TDL and OLC is pretty limited; Raz provides some interesting information about the park and the Oriental Land Company, but a lot more goes uncovered, and most of the reference material cited in the book was published only in Japan and in Japanese, so your options to explore the topic further are limited. Time has also caught up with this book; there's only a very brief mention of Tokyo DisneySea as an upcoming project, and attendance figures and trends have changed in the U.S. and the Japanese leisure industry since this book was published.

A lot of us Disney fanatics would love to see an in-depth discussion of Tokyo Disneyland - either a guide to the parks or a history of its construction and operation. Unfortunately, Riding The Black Ship doesn't quite fit the bill, but for now it's all we've got. This book is definitely for folks who enjoy academic texts or are fascinated enough by TDL or Japan to take what they can get. As for everyone else, well, here's hoping we're not in this same situation in another 25 years.