REVIEWS: “Between-Disney-Vacation” Recommended Reading 101

It’s February. Even though we’re within a few weeks of Daylight Savings — the unofficial gateway to spring — most of the nation still finds itself in the throes of winter for at least a few more weeks. Of course this also means, for most of us, that although we’re getting closer to our next Disney vacation every day there’s still some winter to endure. If you’re like me, life tends to be what happens between visits to the Disney parks. As a way to cope with such a reality I’ve managed to find a few practices — we’ll call this “prep” — that help me deal with the time between trips. Music, podcasts, and of course books are all tools in my Between-Disney-Trips survival kit. So it’s in this spirit that I submit my favorite or most recent “February Survival Reads:”

Dream ItDream It! Do It! My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms, Marty Sklar
Different from other books I’ve read on the subject of Disney backstory and mythology, Dream It! Do It! by Marty Sklar will be most enjoyed by those most familiar and intrigued by the stories perpetuated by and grounded in Disney lore. Sklar is a career Imagineer that has contributed to every major event in the development of each of the Disney parks. Additionally, he may be the only single person with both a working and personal relationship with anybody that’s anybody associated with the Disney parks story — including the man himself, Walt Disney. This includes the Sherman brothers, John Hench, Mary Blair, Card Walker, Dick Nunis, Joe Fowler, Joe Potter, Claude Coats, and Roy O. Disney. And that is by no means a complete list. If you’re looking for an insider’s perspective and little-known albeit interesting pieces of information associated with Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and even Disneyland Paris and Tokyo, this is your book. What I enjoyed most were the stories about the creation of the engineering and imaginative feat that became Walt Disney World. What I enjoyed least were the inner workings of the corporation itself.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 2.19.46 PMWalt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Neal Gabler
It’s worth reading just for the behind-the-scenes story on the production of Snow White alone. But the author also takes a deep dive into the early studio years that makes the Walt Disney story that much more accessible to fans and park visitors. There’s some decent stuff on Sleeping Beauty but I found myself wanting more about the genesis and production of Cinderella. For me, this biography has probably been the most comprehensive—even through those painful war years and nature documentaries. Gabler cites pop culture writers of the day and movie reviewers where it is appropriate. Readers Beware: this is quite the commitment. But for hardcore fans, I think it’s also a rite of passage of sorts.


Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 2.22.22 PMThe Haunted Mansion: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies, Jason Surrell
Even though The Haunted Mansion is one of my favorite attractions, I never could put my finger on why so many Disney enthusiasts were so obsessed with it. My hope was that reading Surrell’s book would help me understand the Haunted Mansion phenomenon and it absolutely has. He begins with the genesis of the idea in the Museum of the Weird for which Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump were commissioned to begin exploring and experimenting with gags for the mansion. Surrell then walks his readers through the whole creative process. Along the way you meet X. Atencio, Marc Davis, Claude Coats, and plenty of others that had a hand in bringing the attraction to life, er, afterlife. The last third of the book addresses each “scene” in the Mansion in detail—but not so much detail as to be overwhelming. It’s an easy read and highly recommended for Disney fans at practically any interest level.

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 2.24.33 PMThe Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, Michael Barrier
Oddly enough, this has been my favorite Walt Disney biography. Given Barrier’s obvious bent toward the history of animation and Disney’s place in it, I didn’t have the highest expectations. I am generally more interested in Walt’s life than in the medium itself. But the fact is that Michael Barrier made me care. He made Walt’s life through the lens of historical animation even more interesting. I’m not sure I would make this my first biographical endeavor into the life of one of the most influential people of the Twentieth Century. But I would recommend it as the second.


Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 2.26.15 PMThe Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion, Jeff Baham
This book is everything you would expect from the founder of Jeff is exhaustive in his research and relentless in his pursuit of the most accurate and most thorough Haunted Mansion apologetic. Different from Surrell who takes an Imagineer’s perspective, Baham writes for the person who just can’t get enough of the Haunted Mansion. A couple of reviewers didn’t like the second section of The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion and the way it takes readers step-by-step through the Mansion, but that was probably my favorite part. But that is not to say that I didn’t also love all the history and background present in the first half as Coats, Crump, Davis, and Gracey dominate the narrative as they rightfully should. The bottom-line: this is just a really cool book.


Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 2.29.40 PMWalt Disney: An American Original, Bob Thomas
Promoted as the only “authorized” biography by the Disney family, what Thomas does get right is that he doesn’t waste a lot of time on the parts of Walt’s story that might have the potential to drag. Instead, the author gives most of the big story lines equal billing: Oswald, “Steamboat Willie”, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Disneyland, and the World’s Fair. Of the biographies that I’ve read this is perhaps the easier read. I liked most about this book the attention Thomas gives to Mary Poppins, something Gabler’s book misses in my opinion. That being said, a reading of Gabler, Thomas, and Barrier provide what appears to be an accurate view of the man you’ll come to know simply as “Walt.”


Not reviewed here are the two Walt Disney Imagineering books. These are great but aren’t your typical front-to-back reads and tend to focus exclusively on the creative aspect, which isn’t for everybody. Regardless, they are great to have. Four Decades of Magic is a series of essays, some more interesting than others, that includes some very interesting and fun background and content. (For instance, did you know that there is purportedly a ghost that haunts Pirates of the Caribbean Florida? Chad Denver Emerson’s book will tell you all about it.) I didn’t review it here because it doesn’t have the most “finished” feel to it. And I’ve intentionally avoided Project Future but only because I’m just not as interested in the corporate side of the Disney experience. There are plenty of others but I feel good about recommending all six of these books as a part of your 2015 February Survival.