This joyful, lavishly detailed account will entertain Disneyphiles and readers of popular American history.
One day in the early 1950s, Walt Disney stood looking over 240 acres of farmland in Anaheim, California, and imagined building a park where people could live among Mickey Mouse and Snow White in a world still powered by steam and fire for a day or a week or (if the visitor is slightly mad) forever. Despite his wealth and fame, exactly no one wanted Disney to build such a park. Not his brother Roy, who ran the company’s finances; not the bankers; and not his wife, Lillian. Amusement parks at that time, such as Coney Island, were a despised business, sagging and sordid remnants of bygone days. Disney was told that he was be heading straight toward financial ruin.
But Walt persevered, initially financing the park against his own life insurance policy and later with sponsorship from ABC and the sale of thousands and thousands of Davy Crockett coonskin caps. He assembled a talented team of engineers, architects, artists, animators, landscapers, and even a retired admiral to transform his ideas into a soaring yet soothing wonderland of a park. The catch was that they had only a year and a day in which to build it.
On July 17, 1955, Disneyland opened its gates–and the first day was a disaster. But the curious masses kept coming-eight hundred million of them to date–and the Disneyland castle has become the universally-recognized trademark of the $250 billion company we know today. There are Disney parks in Florida, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, but this global empire rests upon the magical foundation that was built in a single year by a man with a watchmaker’s precision, an artist’s conviction, and the high-hearted recklessness of a riverboat gambler.
To judge by Mr. Snow’s entertaining chronicle, Walt himself didn’t quite know what his great endeavor should be. [He]is quoted saying in 1957, just as Disneyland was making him rich, that “if it hadn’t been for my big brother, I swear I’d’ve been in jail several times for checks bouncing.” It is personal nuggets such as these that show Mr. Snow to be as solid a storyteller as Walt Disney himself.
The author’s admiration for Disneyland infuses his brisk, thorough history of the huge theme park, from an idea conceived by “the powerful personality of one man” to its realization as a monument to “an America where all is prosperous and convivial”—a place, as writer Ray Bradbury commented, that “liberates men to their better selves.” … An animated history of an iconic destination.
The clockwork of the park — and to some extent, the personality of the man who created it — receives an expert inspection in Richard Snow’s new history…This is primarily a construction saga, albeit a highly readable one set in an anxious nation that didn’t know it needed Disneyland until Walt provided it… The pacing is well-timed: Readers are led toward the climax of opening day…and the whole enterprise is shown as a magnificent amoeba that was as much an accident as a mastered design.