Monday, May 4, 2009

A Book For Learning the Whys of WDW

The Unofficial Disney Companion: The Inside Story of Walt Disney World and the Man Behind the Mouse, by Eve Zibart. New York: Macmillan Travel, 1997; 213 pp.

If you've spent any time in your local bookstore's travel section, you know that there are a lot of books that give tips on how to enjoy the Disney theme parks. A little less often, you'll run into a book that tries to do something different - that is, a book that attempts to explain the "whys" of Disney instead of the "hows". Instead of providing advice on how to see the most things in the least amount of time and for the least amount of money, these books tackle subjects like how Walt Disney influenced the design and operation of the Disney theme parks, or what the thousands of Disney cast members do backstage magic that creates the magic onstage. These books can be absolutely fascinating, but they can also be frustrating and difficult to understand - calling a couple of them "dense" would be a major understatement. Today, we're going to discuss a book that tries to tell the inside story of Walt Disney World in a way that the average park visitor can appreciate.

As you may have guessed from its title, The Unofficial Disney Companion was intended as a companion piece to The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. The book covers a lot of interesting aspects of the Walt Disney World story that tend to be given short shrift or get compeltely left out of the guidebooks, like why Walt wanted such a large parcel of land to build his Florida theme park, the challenges faced in making Walt's dream a reality, the times and trends that influenced Walt when he and the Imagineers created Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom, and how Michael Eisner influenced the expansion of the resort and the types of new attractions added to the parks during his tenure. Readers get a peek at what happens behind the facades and under the feet of the guests, get an idea of how sometimes Disney's view of American history may be a distorted one, and the challenges of dealing with animals and nature while trying to run one of the busiest tourist destinations in the world.

Eve Zibart does a really good job in this book of making topics that are normally the realm or academics and philosophers accessible to the layperson. Although by necessity Eve has to boil down some pretty complicated concepts into simpler ideas, she does so without making the reader feel like he or she's not getting the whole story. While Eve's obviously a fan of Disney in general and Walt Disney Worldin particular, she doesn't pull any punches when it comes to discussing what Disney does well and where Disney comes up short. This book's a fascinating look at some issues and ideas that the average visitor to the World might not generally consider, yet have a tremendous impact on what they experience.

That isn't to say that The Unofficial Disney Companion doesn't have its share of problems. Considering the amount of research that had to have gone into writing this book, Eve still manages to present some information that anyone who's done a little in-depth research on Walt Disney World knows is absolutely false (Cinderella Castle's tallest spire doesn't screw off in case of hurricanes, and the meteor projection in Space Mountain isn't a chocolate-chip cookie, just to cite two examples). Another really unfortunate oversight in this book is the lack of a bibliography, which means that readers can't go look for other books and articles that provide more information on topics that Eve covers in her book. Finally, a good portion of the information in Eve's book is now out of date; there have been a lot of changes at Disney since this book was first published more than 10 years ago (such as the addition of Disney's Animal Kingdom and the closing of the Disney Institute and Pleasure Island), and a new edition of the book hasn't been printed for several years.

It goes without saying that if you're one of those people that absolutely don't "want the magic spoiled" foe you about the Disney theme parks, The Unofficial Disney Companion isn't the book for you; if you're already a devoted fan of the Disney theme parks and are searching for more information about what goes on behind the scenes at WDW and why, you're probably not going to find anything in this boook that you haven't read somewhere else. But if you're one of those people that want to take their knowledge of Disney beyond what you've been told on an official Disney tour, this book might be a good start for your journey of discovery.

The Unofficial Disney Companion provides a fascinating look at what went into creating Walt Disney World as we know it today, including its history, the historical and cultural influences of its creator and his antecedents, and the challenges the Company and its cast members face in creating Disney theme park magic. The book's credibility is slightly hurt by including some old stories that have been proven to be false, but for the most part it's a good introduction to some aspects of the resort that many guests may have never considered.

The Unofficial Disney Companion has been out of print for several years, but it often turns up in used bookstores and on eBay. There's also a second edition of the book available; renamed Inside Disney, the second edition was published by Wiley in 2002. Aside from a few updates, both editions of the book are nearly identical.