Book Notes: “Disney’s Land”

Disney’s Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park That Changed the World
By Richard Snow
Scribner, 2019

Long-time readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of the Disney parks. I’ve written about the design of Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, about EPCOT, and of my visit earlier this year to Shanghai Disneyland. I’ve also posted my notes on Disney CEO Bob Iger’s recent memoir and another book on Disney history, The Magic Kingdom. I consider Disney’s work in built environments important for reasons that can be gleaned from the posts above.

So when I heard there was a new book out on the history of the design and construction of the original Disneyland, I rushed to read it. The book’s author, Richard Snow, is a historian, and two of his books — The Iron Road and Coney Island — seem like perfect precedents for a history of Disneyland given the park’s roots in both earlier amusement parks and railroading. (I haven’t read any of Mr. Snow’s previous books.) So I had high expectations, and I wasn’t disappointed. Mr. Snow is an engaging writer with clear affection for his subject.

Disney’s Land covers the period from the conception of the park in the 1940s to its first batch of significant additions — the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Submarine Voyage, and Monorail — in 1959. There’s also some background context that stretches earlier than that, including biographical sketches from Walt Disney’s life. These sketches are important to the story, given the degree to which Disneyland reflects the personality and interests of its prime mover.

Of all the park’s lands, the book pays most attention to Main Street USA. This focus is justified given its importance to the park (“Take Main Street away and Disneyland, although still superior to its imitators, is diminished.”) and how clearly it articulates Disneyland’s ethos of harnessing nostalgia and fantasy in service to both uplifting its visitors and driving profits. It’s also clear that Main Street is Mr. Snow’s favorite land, and reading Disney’s Land gave me a new appreciation for this part of the park. (Which, I must admit, has never been my favorite.)

The book also offers good sketches of other people who were central to the design and construction of the park, including Roy Disney, Ward Kimball, Ruth Shellhorn, Joe Fowler, France Van Arsdale, Dick Nunis, “Buzz” Harrison, Bob Gurr, and — most especially — C.V. Wood, the park’s first manager. The latter’s sketchy dealings were one of the book’s revelations for me.

I say that because I didn’t find much new information in Disney’s Land; I’d read or seen many of its stories and facts in other sources. One chapter even covers the opening day TV broadcast by transcribing much of it verbatim. Still, it was great to spend a few hours revisiting these stories and learning more about the people who designed and built Disneyland.

One of the book’s themes is the degree to which these people were venturing in unknown territory. Nobody had ever designed, financed, or built a Disneyland before. Many of the people involved were inexperienced, making it up as they went along. But they were also working within what was in some ways a more forgiving culture, as illustrated by this anecdote from the park’s uncertain day two:

[A Disneyland parking lot attendant] recognized Roy and hurried over, obviously troubled. “Mr. Disney, people have been stalled in the freeway and getting into our parking lot. Children are peeing all over the lot.”

Roy “looked around at all of these people who were coming here to pay to get in. With a sense of relief, I said, ‘God bless ’em, let ’em pee.'”

Can you imagine such a reaction now? It was a different world in 1955, and Disney’s Land does a good job of taking us there.

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