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.

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