Friday, February 20, 2009

Tangent Review: The Scoop on the Anti-Disneyland

Carnival Undercover, By Brett Witter. New York: Plume (Penguin Putnam Group), 2003, 207 pp.

Before there was a Disneyland, there were carnivals and fair midways. Actually, you can argue that carnivals served as one of the inspirations for Disneyland - although not in a good way; Walt Disney has been quoted as saying that he intended his creation to be like nothing else in the world, especially not like the carnivals and fairs people were familiar with. But if what carnivals were and what they weren't helped define the Happiest Place on Earth, the success of Disneyland and other amusement and theme parks helped define carnivals, as well. For this review, I'm going to take a look at a book that explains the differences between carnivals and amusement parks and gives readers a peek behind the scenes of what's happening on the midway.

Carnival Undercover is part-expose and part love poem to the carnival and to the fairground midway. Brett Witter lets us in on how and why things happen the way the do at carnivals, how they differ from amusement parks and theme parks, how some of the amazing and annoying things you encounter at carnivals are done, how you can create a little of the carnival in your own home, and gain a (slight) advantage at the game booths. We learn things like what makes a carnival location and what makes for the best location in a carnival, what tell-tale signs of a poorly maintained carnival ride to look for, what midway games offer the best chance of winning and the least chance of winning, how freak show performers pull off their death-defying stunts, and what the life of a carny is like.

Interesting, I hear you say, but what does any of this have to do with Disney theme parks? Brett refers to the Disney theme parks several times throughout the book - mainly to point out how the theme park experience differs from the carnival experience, and not necessarily for the better. This includes comparisons of the multiple-entry, grid like nature of the carnival layout versus the "hub and spoke" layout of the Disney Magic Kingdoms, a review of how ride safety requirements differ between carnivals and theme parks, and even a critique of Disneyland's late, unlamented Rocket Rods.

Carnival Undercover is a really fun read. While Brett certainly doesn't view carnivals and carnies through rose-colored glasses, he has a strong sense of admiration and respect for the folks who make their living be working on the midway, and it shows in his book. Along the way, Brett makes a real effort to increase the reader's appreciation of carnivals and the carnival lifestyle as well, and provides some interesting tips and tricks that could be helpful to folks who like going to carnivals and fairs, including how to better your chances of winning and avoid gaffs (rigged games) on the midway. The book is a fascinating look at a topic that has seldom been given serious study.

So what problems do I have with Brett's book? At times, the book seems unfocused - veering away from its primary topic into discussions of amusement park attractions and attendance, among other things. My only other complaint about the book is that a lot of its facts are out of date, making you wonder about the accuracy of the rest of the book, but then this book has never been updated since its brief initial run, so to some extent you have to expect that sort of thing.

Carnival Undercover is an enjoyable and fascinating look at carnivals and fairs, providing information about how and why things happen the way the do on the midway, as well as tips and tricks to help the reader enjoy and appreciate their time at a fair or carnival a bit more. It's not intended as a serious or scholarly piece, and some readers may not appreciate the tongue-in-cheek attitude of the book, but it's a great way to learn about carnivals, amusement parks, and theme parks. If your interest in the amusement industry extends beyond the Disney theme parks, you may want to consider picking up a copy of this book.

Unfortunately, the book went out of print soon after its initial print run, but it's not difficult to find used copies through brick-and-mortar bookstores specializing in used or bargain books, or online booksellers like Amazon.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Nice Effort, But It Doesn't Deliver

Secrets of the Mouse: An Unofficial Behind-The-Scenes Guide to Disneyland Park, By Alan Joyce., 2008; 192 pp.

Going into a bookstore and saying you'd like a guidebook to a Disney theme park is kinda like walking into a Starbucks and saying that you'd like some coffee. No matter what bookshop you visit, you're going to be confronted with a lot of choices - there are are a lot of books to choose from, each with their own take on the parks, and every day new titles appear hoping to provide readers with a new and fresh perspective on the Disney park experience. And it's not just the big publishing houses vying for the Disney fan's or the park visitor's attention - thanks to the emergence of several self-publishing websites, a lot of first-time authors are bringing out out books on the parks in the hope of becoming the next Arthur Frommer or Steve Birnbaum. In today's post, I'm going to review a recently released self-published work on that promises to give readers a glimpse behind the curtain at many of Disneyland's most popular attractions.

Secrets of the Mouse provides concise information on the lands and attractions of the Happiest Place on Earth, including attraction history, information on attraction elements such as ride vehicles and theming, and details often overlooked by infrequent or casual guests. Besides information on attractions, the book also gives readers hints on where to find some hidden Mickeys in the attractions and attraction queues, and it provides some games to pass some time while waiting to board an attraction. The book is intended to be a guide for enhancing a guest's Disneyland experience; it's not so much intended to provide readers with information on what to visit and when as much as it's supposed to provide a ready reference to help a visitor get more out of their visit. For a self-published unofficial guide to the Park, Secrets of the Mouse is pretty well illustrated (although more than a few photos are on the fuzzy side), and it's a quick read; each entry on a particular attraction is about one to two pages long, so a reader can quickly go to the entry for an attraction and read up on it a quickly as he or she queues up to ride.

If you're an author and you're going to name your book Secrets of the Mouse, you'd better be ready to deliver some fascinating and surprising information, and... well, for the most part, this book doesn't. Don't get me wrong - it's not a bad book, and I did learn a couple of things I didn't know about Disneyland by reading it, but the book really doesn't deliver on the promise of its title if you're a die-hard Disneyland fan. You're getting some of the Mouse's secrets, all right, but they're probably ones you're already familiar with if you've done some reading about Disneyland or if you've been on one of Disney's official tours. The book also suffers from being a jack of all trades but a master of none; it's got some good information on attractions, some fun hidden Mickey hunts, and some fun games to play, but not enough of any of them to make this book really stand out form amongst the books available. Secrets of the Mouse would make a good gift for someone who's just starting to discover the little things that make a Disney theme park so special, but if you're past that initial stage of discovery, there are better choices out there.

Secrets of the Mouse provides a nice introduction to some of the history and hidden details found in Disneyland's attractions and to hidden Mickey spotting, as well as providing some fun games to pass the time while waiting in an attraction queue, and would make a nice supplement to a guidebook for someone unfamiliar with the California theme park. However, the book covers topics that have been covered before and covered in better detail in books that have been previously published, and someone who's already at least somewhat familiar with the little touches that make Disneyland a special place would be better served looking elsewhere (I'd suggest The Imagineering Field Guide to Disneyland and Disneyland Detective if you're looking for information on attraction details, and Disneyland's Hidden Mickeys if you're interested in hidden Mickey hunting). The book tries to be many things for many people, but in the end is only moderately successful at covering any of the topics included.