Friday, March 28, 2008

Setting Sail With Disney Cruise Line

Birnbaum's Official Guide to Disney Cruise Line 2008, by Jill Safro (editor); New York: Disney Editions, 2008, 220 pp.

Okay, some folks out there may dispute my reviewing this book in this blog, since it's about the cruise ships owned by Disney, not one of the theme parks. But so many people take advantage of a Walt Disney World vacation to try cruising with Disney that it really didn't seem like that much of stretch to me; besides, Disney markets the cruises along with their theme parks, WDI had a role in designing them, they're under the same division of the Walt Disney Company as the parks, and the characters are everywhere - if they can't be considered part of the Disney theme park family, they're at least close relatives. Now that we've got that settled...

The Birnbaum Official Guide to the Disney Cruise Line is the latest addition to the series of Disney's official guides to their destinations; like the rest of the books in the series, it lays out the basic information about your destination, some of your options as far as accommodations and things to do, explains some of Disney's policies and procedures for your visit, and does it all while including many images from the destination and of the Disney characters.

As a guidebook, it's a pretty good introduction to the DCL ships and cruise itineraries. The information in the book's concise (maybe a little too much so in some cases), it gives you a pretty good feel for what'll be happening, and it's a quick read (I was able to finish it in a couple of hours, and I didn't have to devote my full time to it). If you had your heart set on a Disney cruise or someone in your family surprised you by announcing that you were going on a DCL cruise, this is a pretty good way to get your feet wet (pun intended). There are plenty of general guides to cruising out there, with varying amounts of information, but few books out there that narrow the focus so precisely.

Unfortunately, the book has a couple of problems. The biggest one's the result of its biggest selling point - it's an official guide produced by Disney, and as such the book's pretty uncritical about Disney and it's activities; it also tends to be a bit vague on some details, like the costs of the items not covered in the cruise price. There were also a couple of really bad screw-ups in the book, like a map of the 7-day Western Caribbean cruise that shows the wrong destinations, even though the itinerary is published right next to the map, and the book contains little information about special itineraries and no information about upcoming changes to the cruise line, like new itineraries and the new ships. Now, I realize a fair amount of information in any guidebook's going to be out of date almost from the minute it leaves the printers, but it doesn't look good when an official guide that you're paying for has less accurate and up-to-date information that a brochure you can pick up from your travel agent for free.

Almost half of the book is devoted to the shore excursions available in each of the DCL ports, with prices and brief critiques based on the authors' personal experiences or the experiences of others who've taken the shore excursions included. It's a nice touch - again, many books on cruising in general don't share much information on ports or share information about many ports besides that ones you'll actually be visiting. There's very little about the destinations themselves, however; if I were serious about shore excursions, I think I'd still pick up or check out a separate guide to Caribbean cruise ports to learn a little more about my options.

Overall, Birnbaum's Official Guide to Disney Cruise Line is a good starting point for the person who's serious about booking a Disney cruise or finds themselves going on a Disney cruise but really doesn't know what to expect. Like most of the Birnbaum Guides, I'd consider the book only as a starting point for someone who wants to get their most out of their Disney experience. It's a good start, but realize that if you want to be really serious about saving time and money and being ready for your Disney cruise, it's only a start.

Saturday, March 15, 2008


The Imagineering Field Guide to Disney's Animal Kingdom, by The Imagineers; New York: Disney Editions, 2007, 128 pp.

A couple of years ago, Disney came up with a great concept for a series of books. Each book in the series would take the casual guest on a tour of the Disney theme parks led by the Imagineers, giving them an idea of what went into creating the theme parks and showing them a few of the little details that went into creating new and unusual attractions and environments for the guests to enjoy. The series started out with a book on Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and followed up with a book on Epcot. The latest book in this series, on Disney's Animal Kingdom, came out last year, and I hadn't had a chance to read the book until now, so I decided to use the Imagineering Field Guide to Animal Kingdom to take an armchair tour of the park. It was a very quick read, but I came away with a greater appreciation for what the Imagineers do and a better understanding of the themes expressed in the park.

The book starts out with a very brief history of Walt Disney Imagineering, then gives brief overviews of the various creative disciplines at WDI and a quick run-though of some of the language used by the Imagineers to describe what they do. This was probably my favorite part of the book - if you've always felt that your dream job is to be an Imagineer, you can use these first few pages to get an idea of what type of job you could actually do there if you had the chance!

After your introduction to Imagineering, the book takes you section by section through the theme park, explaining the overall theme or message that a particular land in the park is trying to convey and how the various design elements work together to convey it. This book isn't so much about telling you about every single detail you might see and explaining what it means and how it got there (although there is certainly quite a bit of information about many details you'll see in the park); the purpose of the book is to point out the overall idea and a few elements that help get across that idea, in the hope that you as a guest will spend the time looking for more details and trying to figure out how they contribute to the story the Imagineers are trying to tell.

The main impression I walked away with after reading this book is that anybody who complains that there isn't enough to see at Disney's Animal Kingdom just isn't trying hard enough. As you read through this book, you get a real feel for how much there is to experience and enjoy about this park and how much work goes into creating the overall feel of your surroundings. The amount of effort that goes into creating elements of the park that most people may never notice is absolutely amazing. I've always been impressed by what Imagineers do, but after reading this book, I'm even more impressed. I can only hope that the casual park guest who picks up this book and takes it with them on their park visits is equally impressed
and takes the time to really focus on what they're experiencing.

So, is this book the perfect guide to Disney's Animal Kingdom? As much as I love the book, I have to say "not quite". My main objection to the book can be summed up in three words: It's too small. Now, I realize the concept behind this book (and all of the Imagineering Field Guides) is to provide something that a guest to the park can lug around in their back pocket or purse as they visit, and that's fine. The problem is, I came away feeling that there were more stories to share and more details that could be pointed out, but that I wasn't going to be able to find out more because the book was constrained by the need to keep it down to a manageable size. Worse, the size of the book demands that the WDI concept art that's included also has to be kept small, so you can't take in all the rich detail that went into creating it. I'm not sure how you could get past these limitations - a larger size edition of this book? An online supplement? - but I'd love to see someone try. Are these limitations severe enough that you should leave this book and the others in the series on the shelf? Absolutely not.

Most of us are never going to get to explore a Disney theme park with an Imagineer as their personal guide, but the Imagineering Field Guides are a pretty good substitute. Although the hard-core Disneyana fan may be a little unsatisfied with the amount of information and art shared in the Imagineering Field Guide to Disney's Animal Kingdom, this book and the other books in the series provide a good jumping off point for exploring and appreciating the little details that make the Disney theme parks so special. I can't wait to see the rest of the books in this series!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The First Guidebook

The Story of Disneyland; Disneyland Incorporated/ Western Printing & Lithograph Company, 1955; 20 pp.

I figured that a good way to start off a blog reviewing books about the Disney parks would be to review one of the first books about the Disney parks! The Story of Disneyland is a souvenir guide sold at the Park during its first year of operation in 1955, and its purposes were (besides giving those first visitors something to take home and show off to their jealous neighbors) to tell folks a little about Disneyland how came to be, what it was like, what was there, and how to find it.

You open the book and there's the smiling face of dear old Uncle Walt welcoming you to the Park. The next three pages gives you the Cliffs Notes version of the reason for the Park's creation and how the place was designed and built. Even this early in the Park's history, there were some pretty fascinating statistics: Over 300,000 cubic yeards of earth were moved to form the contours of the land, the King Arthur Carousel was purchased in Canada for $22,500, and the first Disneyland parking lot could hold 12,175 vehicles, just to name a couple items from the book. We then move on to an introduction of each of the five lands that made up Disneyland in its opening year, with brief but breathless descriptions of what you could expect to find there (Fantasyland, for example, is "A world of imagination, where the dreams of childhood come true").

Now, this guidebook presented a problem to the folks at Disney that they would encounter time and time again when first introducing their theme parks to the public: How do you show people a place that's nothing like anything they've ever seen when it hasn't been built yet? The guidebook had to be put together long before anything was ready to be photographed, so the 1955 edition of The Story of Disneyland features line drawings and illustrations created just for the book, as well as a couple of pages illustrated with some of the Imagineers' concept drawings for the attractions that put in there. I love looking at concept art of the parks and their attractions, so this was a real treat for me. By the 1956 guidebook, the art was replaced with photographs from the Park, which is nice in its own way, but somehow just isn't quite the same.

Now we get to the oddest part of The Story of Disneyland: The guide maps. To help guests find their way around the Park, the writers and designers of the book divided the Park into four sections (Main Street USA and Adventureland shared one section) and placed each section on a grid. To find an attraction, a shop, or even a restroom, you had to consult the index to get the grid coordinates, find the map of the section of the Park you were interested in, and then find the coordinates on the section map (for example, the restrooms in Frontierland were located at B-P17). There are no legends on the section maps, or really much of anything on the section maps other than the buildings and the waterways. Lotsa luck finding that restroom. I'll never complain about the Park guide maps they have now ever again!

I love the park guidebooks and the guide maps because they give you a snapshot of a moment in time. The one thing that's a constant at the Disney theme parks is change, and it's nice to be able to look back and see what the parks were like way back when. I couldn't be there when Disneyland first opened (seeing as I wouldn't even be born for a few more years!), but guidebooks like The Story of Disneyland make it possible to be there, at least in spirit.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Memoirs of a Cast Member

Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Member 1987-2002 (Preview Edition), By Kevin Yee; Ultimate Orlando Press, 2007; 200 pp.

Many years ago (more years than I care to admit on some occasions), I was a Disneyland cast member. The experience was both fun and frustrating, exhausting and exciting, dull and delightful, but mostly it was probably one of the most enjoyable job experiences of my life. The one problem I've run into about the job is trying to explain what it was like to someone who never worked there. Sure, I could tell the person a few amusing stories and provide some general descriptions of what the job was like, but I felt that the only way anyone could really understand what it was like to work as a typical cast member was to actually become one. Well, Kevin Yee has solved that problem for me.

Mouse Trap is a memoir of Kevin's time working at Disneyland - mainly his work at one of the New Orleans Square restaurants, but he also includes stories about his work for the Entertainment Art department (those are the folks that prepare and provide temporary decorations for events at the Resort). Kevin shares stories about what it was like to get hired at the Park and indoctrinated into the "Disney way", the daily routine of a restaurant cast member and lead (first-line supervisor), and some of the amusing or just plain odd not-so-routine occurrences on the job. Kevin takes the reader backstage at the Park for a tour of the places that guests normally don't get to see, and tells us about some of the activities and places that cast members can experience while working for the Mouse. Kevin provides a basic introduction to the way things work at Disneyland - everything from the categories of cast members and the training cast members can receive to the reports and statistics leads and supervisors use to determine whether a Disneyland restaurant is running at peak efficiency and profitability.

If you're looking for a tell-all filled with the most salacious stories of cast members and guests behaving badly, or a diatribe about how wonderful working for Disney used to be but isn't any more, this probably isn't your book. Kevin does share some amusing stories about some of the odd and unusual things that happened to him, fellow cast members, and guests, but the aim of this book is primarily to give the reader a feel for what it's like to be a typical hourly cast member or a lead, and Kevin's done a great job. Reading the book, Kevin reminded me of some of the terminology and procedures that seemed perfectly ordinary to me at the time I was working for Disney and now seem a little unusual compared to other jobs I've worked; Kevin also told me about a lot of job-related items and issues that I wasn't aware of when I worked at the Park or that changed after I turned in my nametag.

My only complaint about the book - and it's a pretty minor one - is about a couple of illustrations. One illustration of the Park should have been labeled so that folks not familiar with the Park could more easily follow along on Kevin's tour of Disneyland's backstage areas; there's also a collage of forms and documents used by cast members included the book as an illustration, but it might have helped folks who never worked at the Park a little if some of the individual documents had been included elsewhere in the book to illustrate a point Kevin was making. Neither of these problems really takes much away all that much from the book.

Are you looking for a book that will allow you to getting a better understanding what the working life of that cast member serving you is like, or do you want to relive a few memories of your time working at a Disney theme park? Then you should definitely consider picking up a copy of Mouse Trap. Kevin's memoir of his days as a cast member may be the closest you can get to the experience of being a Disneyland cast member without applying to work there yourself.