The first-ever in-depth, unauthorized look at the creation and operation of the world’s most popular vacation destination.
Step backstage and witness: Walt’s original plans for Disney World and how his dreams completely changed in the hands of his successors… His undercover agents who secretly bought 44 square miles of swamps… The chaotic construction and frantic first years of the Magic Kingdom… The underground caverns that wind beneath the theme park… Disney’s unconventional, initially disastrous foray into operating its own hotels… The behind-the-scenes machinations that led to EPCOT Center… How safety and security are maintained on property at all costs… The tumultuous change of leadership that turned the cherished Ways of Walt upside down.
Anyone who knows me knows I have a bit of an obsession with Disney, and with the Disney theme parks in particular. I first went to Walt Disney World in 1998, when I was 26 (we never travelled abroad when I was child, my mother hates to fly, my first foreign escapade was aged 15 on a school trip to France) and I fell in love with the place immediately. But, as well as being magical, I was fascinated by how the whole place had been created and was run, how they had managed to make it so self-contained, so separate from the outside world, so that the illusion could be maintained throughout. A few years later, when we visited Disneyland in California, I became even more fascinated by the difference between what Disney had achieved in Orlando compared to Anaheim.
I have been back to Florida countless times in the past 22 years, and it is even more fantastic when you see it through your children’s eyes. My two girls have grown up with it and they, along with my three step-daughters who first visited seven years ago, and even my big, beefy, cynical Irishman are also enchanted with the place. That takes somewhere special. But none of them are as obsessed with the machinery behind the Mouse the way I am.
Here is my shelf of non-fiction books about the Disney company and Walt Disney World (I’ve got a couple more that are too tall for this shelf and are elsewhere, plus a couple of digital ones as well.) They cover everything from theme park design to how Disney train their staff in customer service, boardroom battles for control of the Disney empire, to stories from ex-cast members and maps of the parks, and they are all fascinating. I’m always on the look out for more too, so if any of you have any recommendations, let me know.
Since we weren’t going to get a holiday abroad this year due to Covid, and my planning for our next Florida trip is also on hold while the uncertainty around the pandemic lingers, I decided to take a virtual trip there through one of my favourite books about the creation of the Florida theme park, Realityland by David Koenig. This book is a really comprehensive guide to how the idea for the second park in Florida was conceived, how Walt and his team went about acquiring the land and building the park, to how it has developed over the years (although it only goes up to the mid-90s. Any chance of an updated and extended version covering to the present day, David? I would buy it!)
For any of you who don’t know much about Walt Disney World, but are interested in how something as huge as the Florida park came about, this book is a fascinating read. It tells you how Walt wanted to make sure his park was not eventually surrounded by uncontrolled building of cheap motels, restaurants and gift shops as in Anaheim which spoiled the Disney illusion. How they bought the land in secret, and negotiated with the local government for unprecedented control over everything, including drainage, fire and policing. How they turned 40+ square miles of Florida swamp into what is there today, even after the tragic death of Walt before it was completed, and how they tried to be true to Walt’s vision for EPCOT and whether they succeeded.
It would be hard to see how any book on the subject could be more comprehensive than this one, and yet it is still very easy to read and approachable, if you are interested in the topic. And the story of how this amazing and impressive place was built, is maintained and continues to grow and delight people the world over is quite remarkable when you take a step back and look at it. Regardless of whether you love Disney or loathe it, you have to give them credit for what they have created, from Walt’s original and extraordinary vision to what stands there today, which even he probably could not have foreseen. And it all started with a Mouse.
Realityland is out now and you can buy a copy here (although, being an old book it’s quite expensive!)
About the Author
David Koenig is chief editor for Costa Mesa, Ca.-based 526 Media Group. He received his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton, and has become arguably the theme park industry’s best-known outsider, after penning such best-sellers as Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland, Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks, and Realityland: True-Life Adventures at Walt Disney World. He is also an original contributor to MousePlanet.com.He lives with his wife Laura and children Zachary and Rebecca in Aliso Viejo, Ca.
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