Culture

10 Must-Read Books for Disney Nerds

The Walt Disney Company has provided quality entertainment to generations of fans for almost nine decades now. No other company has done what Disney did with such excellence — from animation to live-action films to television to totally immersive theme park experiences.

Disney fandom requires a certain level of passion, but there are some whose devotion to all things Disney rises to another level. I call them “Disney Nerds,” lovingly so, because I consider myself one. Actually, I debated whether to use the term. I prefer “Disney Aficionados,” but worried it sounded too pompous.

Whatever you call us, I’ve compiled a list of ten essential books for Disney Nerds. Think of this list as summer reading for the die-hard Disney fan. The books you’ll see in this post run the gamut from theme park guides to historical chronicles to the ultimate biography of the man himself, Walt Disney. Each book will expand your knowledge (and hopefully love) of Disney culture in its own unique way.

Get ready to dig in and feast your eyes on some great Disney reading. For the list, I’ve tried to choose books that are readily available, and have provided links to order or download them for Kindle apps where applicable. So here we go.

10. The Imagineering Way: Ideas To Ignite Your Creativity by The Imagineers

Obviously the Disney company holds creativity in high regard, and the Imagineers serve as the gatekeepers of Disney’s creative efforts. The discipline of Imagineering (a hybrid of imagination and engineering) covers a broad range, from painting and lighting to research and master planning.

If you’re anything like me, you often wonder how the Imagineers do what they do, holding such high standards of creativity on a consistent basis. The Imagineers have peeled back the curtain just a bit to reveal the secrets to igniting creativity in their book The Imagineering Way, and they have managed to create an invaluable bit of reading for people in creative fields.

In typical Imagineering fashion, each chapter takes on a different format: one author may write a personal anecdote, while an artist might draw a comic panel that says something about creativity. Some chapters offer practical ideas, while others serve simply to encourage. Representatives of different fields of Imagineering show up, from show writers to landscapers to executives.

With its lighthearted tone and loads of inspiration packed into a small package, The Imagineering Way is an essential read not just for Disney fans but for creatives of any kind. The Imagineers also published a companion volume titled The Imagineering Workout which offers exercises to help stretch those creative muscles.

9, 8, 7, 6, & 5. The Imagineering Field Guides by The Imagineers

Not only do the Imagineers want us to ignite our creativity, but they also want us to see the Disney parks — at least the American ones — through their eyes. You may think I’m cheating by putting all of these books together in one entry, but I can’t separate them. The interested newcomer and the seasoned Disney traveler alike will find a wealth of fascinating and fun information in The Imagineering Field Guides.

The Imagineers have published five books in the series: The Imagineering Field Guide to the Magic Kingdom, The Imagineering Field Guide to Epcot, The Imagineering Field Guide to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, The Imagineering Field Guide to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and — so you West Coast Disney fans won’t feel left out — The Imagineering Field Guide to Disneyland.

You won’t find your typical travel guide information (starred restaurant reviews, parade times, and the like) in these books; instead, you’ll learn a little about each attraction in the parks, as well as some history, trivia, and glimpses into the processes and tricks of the trade the Imagineers use, such as Audio Animatronics and forced perspective.

The authors aim to enhance guests’ enjoyment of the parks with the information they arm us with. They start out by tying each park back to Walt Disney’s original vision for the parks, and then they break each park down by land, highlighting attractions and some of the more interesting features throughout the parks. I’ve read all five of them several times, and I always walk away enjoying and understanding the parks I love even more.

4. Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends by Jeff Kurtti

I first became familiar with Jeff Kurtti’s writing from his 1996 book Since The World Began, which was his 25th anniversary history of Walt Disney World (and which he has sadly not updated or reprinted). That book made clear his love for the Disney company and its alumni. Kurtti has written over a dozen more books about Disney products, people, and properties, but his best work by far is Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends. In this book, Kurtti tells the stories of 30 people who made their mark during the early days of Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI).

The author divides the book into sections, and artists from disciplines as diverse as writing, mixed media, modeling, all the way up to the executive office get their due here. Well known Imagineers like the Sherman Brothers, Herb Ryman, and Rolly Crump have chapters in the book, as do more obscure — but equally important — people such as Bob Gurr, Harriet Burns, and Bill Evans. “Renaissance Imagineer” John Hench, who worked for WDI until his death in 2004 at age 95, merits his own section. The book is jam-packed with information, yet it feels like a coffee-table book with its full color spreads and copious photographs.

Kurtti does not aim to chronicle the story of every early Imagineer (after all, where’s Mary Blair?); rather, Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends is a lovely portrait of many influential Imagineers of the mid-20th century. As Imagineering great Marty Sklar — who deserves his own chapter in this book — writes in his foreword:

Only the team leader has his name on the front door, but Walt Disney knew who designed and built the house. So the next time you visit Disneyland [or Disney World –CQ] take a few minutes for a leisurely stroll down Main Street, U.S.A. Look up at the windows above the shop fronts. There you will find their names. They were the generals and admirals, and it was an army and navy like no other. They are Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends.


3. Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas

I’ve seen plenty of biographies of Walt Disney and have even read a few of them. Some of them gloss over Walt’s flaws while others attempt to paint him as some sort of monster, and these books don’t do justice to the truth. I’ve found a handful of Walt Disney biographies that treat him fairly.

I enjoyed Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, despite the fact that it was overly long and the author made some psychoanalytical leaps with which I wasn’t comfortable. I’m currently reading Michael Barrier’s The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney — had I been able to finish it in time, it likely would have made this list. My friend and editor David Swindle recommended Disney’s World by Leonard Mosley, and soon I’ll get my hands on a copy of it too. [Editor update, 12/16/13: I rescind my recommendation of Disney’s World. It’s a fun book most of the way through but 2/3rds in it starts dumping disinformation on Disney, accusing him of antisemitism without sources. Don’t bother with it.]

None of the books about Walt that I’ve read hold a candle to Bob Thomas’ excellent Walt Disney: An American Original. I would call it the closest thing to an official biography of Walt, though it’s far from a hagiography. The company gave Thomas what was then unprecedented access to its archives, including Walt’s office, which the company left in the exact same state as it was when Disney last worked in it. Thomas spoke with Disney family members, company employees, and some of Walt’s closest associates. Many of the people he interviewed have since passed away.

This level of access to the people who surrounded Walt Disney as well as the legacy he left behind make for a compelling, thorough, warts-and-all portrait of the man behind the legend. Thomas begins with Walt’s childhood days and covers the entirety of his life, including a tender account of Disney’s last days. I haven’t read anything else that covers the life of Walt Disney in such a comprehensive way. Thomas’ meticulous research and expert writing helped me see Walt as a human being as much as a hero.

2. Working With Walt: Interviews with Disney Artists by Don Peri

As the people who worked directly with Walt Disney age and pass on, fans should cherish their firsthand perspectives on toiling alongside the creative genius himself. The interviews with those who knew him convey what it was like to be a part of the Disney organization in its early days. Writer Don Peri captured his conversations with 15 of those artists in his invaluable book Working With Walt (also available for Kindle).

In compiling these interviews for publication, Peri writes in his introduction that his intent was to speak with those who, in spite of Walt’s negatives, loved and respected Disney:

To be honest, I did not try to cover the whole spectrum of people, with their divergent personalities and points of view, who worked at the studio.

[…]

The people in this book are not unbiased. They admired, respected, even loved Walt Disney, and yet all of them experienced the full force of Walt’s personality. The word most often used to describe their feelings about Walt is “awe.” They were then, and for the rest of their lives remained, in awe of him.

Disney aficionados will recognize some of Peri’s interview subjects: Ken Anderson, Harper Goff, Wilfred Jackson, Herb Ryman. Other names are lesser known, including Marcellite Garner, one of the first female Disney employees and the original voice of Minnie Mouse. Each subject contributes his or her unique recollections and impressions of the man whose talent and vision started it all. In publishing these conversations, Peri has done all Disney fans a great service.

(Author’s note: during my search for links to the books I’m writing about here, I discovered that Peri has written a sequel, Working With Disney, that covers a larger gamut of Disney personalities, including Imagineers and Mouseketeers. I’ve downloaded it to my iPad and can’t wait to read it!)

1. Project Future by Chad Denver Emerson

We’ve learned about Walt Disney and his inner circle, and we’ve uncovered some of the secrets behind the company’s success. Now it’s time to sink our teeth into one of the most fascinating episodes in Disney lore: the acquisition and development of the land that would become Walt Disney World.

Author Chad Denver Emerson tells this amazing but true tale in his book Project Future (also available for Kindle). Emerson relates a story that is part spy novel — complete with clandestine meetings, secret identities, and obfuscated phone and paper trails — and part Grisham-esque legal and political page turner — including last-minute legislative changes and a lawsuit that went all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.

Not long after Disneyland opened, Walt began looking at options for some kind of park in the eastern half of the country. Buoyed by the success of his projects at the 1964-65 World’s Fair, he started searching even more intently for an “East Coast Disneyland” and settled on Central Florida, near the sleepy town of Orlando. The company bought tracts of land under assumed names so as not to draw attention to the purchases and thus drive up prices.

Walt outlined his dream for the park in the legendary EPCOT Film:

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The company knew that achieving Walt’s dream would prove difficult if the Florida Project (which was the park’s name before Walt’s death — after Walt passed, his brother Roy Disney christened it Walt Disney World) fell under state and county jurisdiction, so Disney took advantage of a somewhat obscure provision on the books in Florida that allows for the creation of autonomous improvement districts. The company weathered Walt’s death and shakeups in both the legislature and governor’s mansion to shepherd their unprecedented legislation through. Finally, Disney essentially sued itself, convincing the state of Florida to file suit against the new Reedy Creek Improvement District in order to prove that the special powers that belonged to the district would withstand any legal challenges.

Though the book bogs down a bit near the end as Emerson cites several field studies proving Walt Disney World’s success, for the most part Project Future tells a fascinating story that deserves a wider audience among Disney fans.

For extra credit, I recommend Christopher Finch’s The Art of Walt Disney, a massive coffee-table book packed with artwork from the entire history of Disney films, television, and theme parks. It costs considerably more than a typical book, so it’s quite an investment, which is why I didn’t include it in the list.

So, my fellow Disney Nerds, here’s your summer reading list. Enjoy these books. Savor what the authors have to share. Immerse yourself in all things Disney. You won’t regret it.