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.

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