One focuses on the magic, the other on the machinations
As the hordes of tourists recede with the dying summer, the theme parks suddenly remember those of us who actually live in Orlando. The next three months are by far the best time of year for locals to visit the attractions, with shorter waits and special events to complement the falling humidity. Unfortunately, Disney hasn’t had a major new addition since 2006’s Expedition Everest: You can only ride the same old E-Tickets so many times before you find yourself snoozing down Splash Mountain.
So, where to find motivation when the kids demand another visit to the rat? You can’t change the parks, but you can change the way you see them. Two new books give a fresh perspective on the engine driving Orlando’s economy. One does it while preserving the pixie dust, while the other shines a bright light on what goes on behind the magic.
Ask what makes Disney parks different, and most people will answer “attention to detail.” Imagineers are rightly renowned for the overload of elements they ladle on their designs, and the mode of visual indulgence that best represents their sense of play is the Hidden Mickey (HM). These stylized visages of the iconic rodent (classically a circle for a head with two smaller adjoining “ears”) started in the late 1970s as a modest in-joke among park designers. Now they’re a near-mandatory element of any new Disney development. Classic examples include the plate and saucers in the Haunted Mansion ballroom and the mouse-eared Viking in Maelstrom’s queue mural.
HMs can inspire Mickey mania in hard-core hunters, who will sometimes convince themselves that any coincidental circular concordance is an intentional emblem. I claim no immunity to the madness: A decade ago I found myself unemployed in Kissimmee with little to my name but a WDW annual pass, and became briefly obsessed with tracking down every dubious design documented on the nascent Internet. Luckily, today’s mouse-seekers pick up Steven M. Barrett’s Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Walt Disney World’s Best Kept Secrets, now in its third edition. While there is no official Imagineer-approved list of Hidden Mickeys, this book is the next best thing, and that Disney sells it in park gift shops attests to its authority. In a prior review, I gave some knocks to Barrett’s The Hassle-Free Walt Disney World Vacation guidebook, but here he delivers big with a slim volume you’ll eagerly cart around the parks.
Rather than dryly documenting Hidden Mickeys encyclopedia-style, Barrett wisely turns them into a well-planned scavenger hunt for the whole family. With a chapter for each major park, plus sections on all of the resorts and minor attractions, the book serves as both an engaging game (complete with competitive scoring) and a sensible touring plan that will help you avoid standing in too many oppressive lines. Each of the 700-plus Mickeys is listed with both a vague “clue” and a more-detailed “hint”; you can savor the thrill of discovery or choose to cheat. Either way, you’ll find yourself scouring familiar sights like you’ve never seen them before.
My minor quibbles with the book are that the format makes it too easy to “spoil” other clues when looking up a hint, and some info is inevitably already outdated. Those concerns are outweighed by the value the book will add to your admission – as long as you don’t trip and fall while craning for that last elusive mouse.
While Barrett aims to accentuate the “magic,” David Koenig’s Realityland is for cynics who want to know just what goes on behind the curtain. Koenig is well known in Disneyana circles for Mouse Tales, one of the first and best exposés of Disneyland’s unglamorous backstage. Now Koenig has focused on True-Life Adventures at WaltDisney World, producing required reading for anyone wanting to understand how the rat came to rule our region. Starting with the dying days of Walt himself and continuing to the latest dollar-squeezing schemes, Koenig tells a decidedly unauthorized history of WDW, with a healthy emphasis on the hucksterism, deception and outright fraud that helped build America’s favorite family vacation spot.
The best stories are from the early years, when Orlando Sentinel publisher Martin Andersen, State Sen. Irlo Bronson and other power brokers colluded to keep Disney’s late-’60s land purchases secret. The resort’s initial construction – a project so massive it was overseen by a major general and an admiral – was fraught with fascinating turmoil, from fired contractors to flaming outhouses. The years since have seen deaths, scandals and lawsuits, and this book unearths nearly every one. From the watering-down of the original EPCOT’s grand ambitions to the suspicious swiping of Universal’s original plans for the rushed-to-market Disney-MGM Studios, Koenig drags every skeleton out of the Mouse’s closet and makes them dance. If you’ve only ever been exposed to Disney’s squeaky-clean face, you may be in for a shock.
Those already familiar with the mouse’s seedier side will have heard many of these tales before, but here they’re all assembled in a tome both comprehensive and compulsively readable. After reading Realityland you’ll probably never experience Disney with child-like wonder again, but the insider info is well worth a little lost innocence.