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'Disney's Land': The making of the Magic Kingdom

Walt Disney in an uncharacteristically empty Town Square,

Walt Disney in an uncharacteristically empty Town Square, possibly musing about what his $17 million has bought, and definitely planning how to improve on it. For use in bookreview:
For use in bookreview:   Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park That Changed the World  by Richard Snow, Scribner Credit: Getty Images /Gene Lester

DISNEY'S LAND by Richard Snow (Scribner, 384 pp., $30)

When Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, almost everything went wrong. Billed as a press preview day, the park was free to invited visitors — including celebrities galore — but many of them ignored the staggered times on their tickets, and some brought hordes of guests. A few enterprising sorts just sneaked in, climbing over the back fences.

The official number of attendees was just more than 28,000; people who were there estimated it at around 50,000. The crowds were crushing. The operator in charge of loading up the steamship Mark Twain let on twice as many passengers as he should have; the boat got stuck and guests had to wade through the manufactured river to shore before it could move again. An engineer who’d helped create Autopia accidentally ran over Sammy Davis, Jr. with one of the attraction’s whimsical cars. “Fantasyland,” writes Richard Snow, “was beset with crises.”

And yet, even though those who had worked for years to create Disneyland called the day “Black Sunday,” it was off to a roaring start. The next day — the first at which admission was charged — people began lining up at 1 a.m.

“Disney’s Land” is Snow’s exhaustively researched, jam-packed chronicle of how Walt Disney conceived and created a new kind of amusement park, transforming 85 acres in previously underwhelming Anaheim, California, into the world’s first theme park, a faux city — or world — designed to thrill and enthrall with its blend of American nostalgia and futuristic imagination. As a younger man, Snow saw Disneyland as representing “a sterile institutionalized self-congratulatory blandness.” Now, he writes, “I realized that his was a far more imaginative, less sentimental vision than I had come to believe.”

Walt Disney was born in 1901 in Chicago, but grew up in small-town Missouri, a world he sought to recreate in Disneyland’s Main Street, with its Victorian storefronts, gingerbread-trimmed. It wasn’t until the late 1940s, after conquering the world of animated film, that Disney began thinking of launching a different kind of entertainment empire. A 1948 exposition of steam trains, complete with geographically themed exhibits — including a recreated French Quarter complete with gumbo — helped spark the idea.

Back in Burbank, California, Disney began planning what he first described as “Mickey Mouse Park.” He started with steam: the train that would encircle the park, the passenger boats that would transport visitors to imaginary distant lands. He involved himself in every minute detail of the park, down to figuring out the placement of garbage cans by measuring how many steps it took him from the concession stand to finish a hot dog and then dispose of its wrapper. The disastrous opening day, and the harsh reviews that resulted, didn’t dampen the public’s enthusiasm for the park, which was boundless and enduring.

It’s an extremely entertaining story, if one occasionally crowded with an abundance of detail and minor characters. At times, the book’s narrative feels as if it’s in danger of being overrun by a swarm of midcentury white male engineers: "Mad Men" with slide rules. But this is part weakness, part charming; how else would readers learn about how carousel horses are made, or that the original Dumbo ride was meant to carry visitors in flying pink elephants, before that reference to drunkenness was squashed for not being too wholesome?

More troubling are Disneyland’s (and Disney’s) politically incorrect elements, from Adventureland’s faux African village (decorated with “grinning skulls”) to the use of actual humans to enact stereotypical roles: “the park grew an Indian village, inhabited by true Native Americans drawn from as many as 17 tribes,” Snow writes. Just this year we’ve learned that many vintage Disney movies are being tagged with warnings about their use of racial stereotypes, and even if this sort of thing were more common in 1955 (coincidentally, the same year Rosa Parks initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott), it clearly wasn’t right then, either. One wishes for more authorial context, and even judgment, but Snow seems inclined to defend Disney on this score, quoting from PR fluff to make the case: “When, in 1957, the Soviet press reported that Frontierland was holding Indians in captivity to amuse the capitalist visitors, Chief Riley Sunrise retorted, ‘Captivity my eye! How many Russians make a 125 bucks a week?’”

As in the real small towns Disney celebrated in his park, history is complicated, and legacies are mixed. Along with the park’s influence on the movement to protect and preserve historic main-street architecture, Snow cites its influence on customer service in general (any time you’re called a “guest” at the drugstore, you can thank Walt). Disney, Snow writes, “had a lifelong belief in a bountiful and magnanimous tomorrow.” Too bad about the past, which remains vexing, and in this otherwise excellent book, imperfectly addressed.

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