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 jimhillmedia.com - 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.