Saturday, February 11, 2012

Realityland by David Koenig

The world needs enthusiastic amateurs; there aren't enough professional anythings to get everything done. (Or, more importantly, there's never enough money to pay enough people professionally to get everything done.) David Koenig is incredibly enthusiastic, and I'd characterize him as an amateur historian -- though I don't know if he'd agree with either half of that characterization, since he's a professional journalist by day, and he might see his histories as growing out of that -- and he's contributed greatly to the body of unofficial knowledge surrounding Walt Disney and the companies bearing Walt's name over the past two decades.

Koenig is from Southern California, and apparently has the local's love for Disneyland; his book-writing career began with Mouse Tales (which I reviewed here four years ago), a generally positive behind-the-scenes look at the origin and day-to-day operations of that park, with an emphasis on quirky castmember stories and wacky hijinks. He followed that up with More Mouse Tales (more stories from Disneyland) and Mouse Under Glass (comparisons of source material and final films for the first 30 animated Disney movies, with other details on those films), and then finally moved on to what would have seemed to me (if I'd been his editor at the small California house Bonaventure Press that has published all of these books to date) to be the obvious second book: a look behind the scenes at the biggest Disney agglomeration of theme parks: Walt Disney World.

Realityland takes about a third of its three-hundred page length to get to opening day of The Magic Kingdom (the first park down there in Florida; the one that's a semi-copy of Disneyland), with details of the land deals, construction headaches, staffing problems, and other big-business concerns of a major construction project. Koenig is a journalist, and he's good at the shoe-leather stuff: he's clearly interviewed everyone he could track down that's still alive from those early days, and got great quotes and details of that troubled construction -- the stuff that Disney kept carefully out of its press materials.

The rest of the book mostly alternates between themed operational chapters -- about cast members, security, safety, competition, and so on -- and chapters that move the story forward in time, covering the construction of EPCOT and then Disney-MGM Studios and the various boardroom conflicts and shakeups along the way. This portion of the book is less well organized than the straightforwardly chronological beginning, and Koenig could have used a stronger editor (or another draft or two) to really pull this all into clearer focus -- he does drop some threads entirely, or for chapters at a time. Still, Koenig had a lot of material to organize: just that security chapter, for example, seems to cover in some detail every single death, major injury, and mishap that took place during the first thirty years of Walt Disney World. And he does keep it all lively and comprehensive at the same time.

Realityland also rushes through the last decade or so that it covers -- it was originally published in 2007 -- so there's not as much detail on the fourth Disney Florida park, Animal Kingdom, and the end of the Eisner years. (I suspect this has to do with the fact that the people involved with those decisions are mostly still in the middle of their careers, and many of them still at Disney: it's difficult to write corporate history while it's still happening, even if you're willing to take things off the record.) So it might have been better if Realityland covered just the first twenty years of WDW, running to the early '90s and leaving room for a second book, but I don't expect Koenig is done with Disney in any case, so there may yet be another book of more WDW stories, or maybe even one about those exotic foreign parks.

Realityland is both more amateur (in the sense of being enthusiastic, engaged, and connected) and more ground-level than a a more "serious" corporate history book like James Stewart's DisneyWar (which I read six months before this blog began, and so did not review), which are both strengths and weaknesses: Koenig has a partisan's interest not just in Disney as a corporation, but in a certain conception of Disney as an organization with a purpose, and that colors every bit of his reporting, but it also drives his interest in the details of park-level employees' jobs and the day-to-day operations of the parks, which can sound like minutia but directly affect the experiences of the millions of people who crowd those gates every year.

So this is primarily a book for Disney fans, for people interested in those theme parks in particular, rather than in general business readers wanting a story of success despite setbacks that they can underline and highlight for insights that they'll pretend to apply to their own careers. And if I think that we're the more authentic and meaningful audience, that may just mean that I'm another enthusiastic amateur myself!

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