I have always been a fan of Disney, and thus have always enjoyed trips to Disney World. While the movies are the staple of the Disney brand, it is the rides and attractions that stay closer to my heart. Specifically, though, it is the nostalgia I feel when I visit places like EPCOT or Adventureland in Magic Kingdom that excites me. I find myself wanting to know the history of a certain ride or attraction, and the ideas which inspired it. I even sometimes go as far as reading the wikipedia page of a ride while waiting in often long lines.
If you are anything like me, or just interested in the history of Disney World, David Koenig’s book, Realityland, is the book for you. Full of insight, this work paints a beautiful picture of the creation and expansion of the most magical places on earth. The question, though, is whether Koenig is biased in his work.
2. The Transition
There is a sort of paradoxical relationship between Disneyland and Walt Disney World, especially when it comes down to writing a book about one or the other. One cannot be mentioned without the other but, if one is highlighted in the story of the other one, then the book is seen as “biased.” There is an obvious rivalry between the two parks, and any author has to walk this very very fine line if he or she wants to tell the whole story.
Luckily for readers, Koenig does not really have to talk about Disneyland that much. Unlike most books which talk about Disney theme parks, this book is solely about Disney World. Thus, any mention of Disneyland is ONLY about how it relates to the building of Walt Disney World. Furthermore, Koenig has already written a book about Disneyland so he doesn’t feel the need to show off his impressive knowledge base about the other park.
All that being said, Koenig is pretty obviously a bigger fan of Disneyland than Walt Disney World. This is true of most people that live in California, so I can’t really blame him. It’s not a bias that gets in the way of the objectivity of the work as a whole. It certainly doesn’t feel like an agenda either, to convince the audience that Disneyland is better than Disney World. In fact, it adds perspective to someone (like me) who has only been to Disneyland a few times. By being knowledgeable about both parks, Koenig is able to compare one to the other in a seamless way. And the story he tells about the transition from Disneyland to Disney World maintains the relatable nature of the book but adds new information that captivated me. Overall, this is one of the best parts of the book.
3. Magic Kingdom
This was my favorite part of the book. When Walt Disney died, it was a madhouse. No one was as creative, as innovative, nor as persuasive as Walt was. That became a huge problem when Walt had already broke the news that Disney World WILL happen. For about 1/3 of the book, Koenig takes the reader on a literal adventure of the days leading up to the massive project: the creation of another Disneyland with two hotels and a bigger castle. This part of the book alone could be a movie. Koenig does a great jobs interplaying facts and stories. He also highlights behind the scenes stars which I am now outraged were never given the spotlight.
For those that question Koenig’s biased nature, certainly his description of Roy Disney would be a place to investigate. Roy looks very practical, almost to the point where it inhibits his ability to construct the park with all the features that made Disneyland so spectacular. I don’t think that is biased because multiple other sources confirm that Roy was actually that way. Furthermore, Roy died soon after the building of The Magic Kingdom, and old age, as Koenig points out, did inhibit Roy from being as cognizant as possible.
The reason why this is my favorite part of the book, though, was because of Koenig’s great description of Dick Nunnis. Nunnis is a hero and, in my opinion, the theme park should be called Dick Nunnis World. See, Disney World had fallen very far behind schedule a year before it was supposed to open due to two problems. First was the inexperience of those who were running the park operations and second was the unmotivated nature of the workers who were building the park. Nunnis was able to change both by adding experience (he had helped construct Disneyland) and was maybe the best motivator I have ever read about. I don’t want to give too much away, but just look for Nunnis if you pick up this book as the stories (some true, other folklore) will leave you wanting more.
Walt Disney wanted a city, not another theme park, of tomorrow. This statement becomes thematic of the other 2/3rds of the book. Was it cool? Yes. Was it innovative? Yes. Was it profitable? Heck yes. Was it what Walt wanted? Probably not.
It does become a bit annoying when Koenig brings it up after every highlight or positive moment of the building of EPCOT. Spaceship Earth: it was cool, innovative, Dick Nunnis helped build it with his bare hands, and it is featured in the center of the park. But, it wasn’t what Walt wanted. See how it makes everything I just said a little worse?
Maybe I am so nostalgic about Disney that it is tough to criticize something so fundamental to the theme park. But, it certainly decreases the level of objectivity that Koenig maintains throughout the rest of the book. You can tell he is still angered that Disney did not build a city, or even to some extent tried to. He even through Nunnis under the bus by criticizing Nunnis’ “Disney Apologist” approach to the whole matter.
Still, this is a very engaging part of the book which has forever changed my perspective on Disney World and the executives which run it.
5. Eisner’s Disney
If there was ever a question of Koenig’s objectivity, this part seals it. Koenig is not a fan of Michael Eisner, and by the end of it, neither are you. Unlike EPCOT, Eisner not only turned Disney into a “profit first” company, but he sacrificed some of the magic which created the happiest place on earth to do so. Koenig does a great job layering facts and stories but also disguising his opinion as widespread (which it probably is.)
Koenig does highlight the fact that Eisner makes the park, and the Disney brand, VERY profitable. He adds two new theme parks, a collection of new classic movies, and an array of investors who make Disney one of the best companies in the world. But, all of this seems to be outweighed by the loss of wonder and amazement which the “old disney” stood for.
Furthermore, Eisner all but fires Dick Nunnis, which pisses me off. Even if Nunnis is “old disney”, Eisner had no right to take Nunnis out of the equation. Okay, maybe I am a little biased, but you should blame it on Koenig for making me that way!
This book is a MUST READ for any fan of Disney World. The amount of knowledge that you have will double after you read the book. Yes, the book is opinionated. Yes, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth about new Disney. But, ultimately, it is worth it. The opinions are rarely explicit and never in your face. Furthermore, I think Koenig’s opinions are as correct as opinions can be. He really leaves it up to you to decide whether Disney did it right. But, after reading the book, it does leave me wanting to spend my next Disney vacation at Disneyland.