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...