Realityland: the secret history of Walt Disney World

I just finished reading David Koenig's "Realityland: True-Life Adventures at Walt Disney World," the latest volume in Koenig's excellent series of behind-the-scenes histories of Disney theme parks that includes Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland.

Koenig reports on the trials and tribulations associated with the launch and operations of Walt Disney World, a property in Florida twice the size of Manhattan, originally slated to hold Walt Disney's mad, magnificent and terrible "Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow." Koenig's extensive interviews with park and company insiders illuminate the heroic efforts and the ridiculous missteps from Disney on the way to building the world's most ambitious constructed environment.

Koenig's history shows us the real people behind the parks, the hand-scrapping union organizers and the shouting, abusive bosses, the innovative thinkers and the soulless corporate drones and raiders. The backstory of Disney World is like no other, because no one ever tried to build something like this before.

Walt Disney died three years before Disney World opened, and the organization spent 20 years treating him like Mao under glass, working only to the dicta that he left behind, treating his opinions as unshakable gospel (all the while conspicuously failing to build the city he'd planned for). By the late eighties, the company had to face the fact that Walt was dead and try to find its own way. The pathos and emotion of this transition really come to the fore in Realityland, which contains numerous passages I found myself reading aloud to friends.

The most fascinating stuff is, of course, the disasters -- and Realityland has them all, the fatalities, robberies, scams, idiocies and diseases. They provide a juicy, gossipy backdrop for the rest of the book, enlivening it. Link


  1. Is the “planned community” of Celebration one of the outgrowths of this? I’ve always thought that that was pretty creepy.

  2. I don’t necessarily find planned communities creepy, though the Catholic one down in Florida crosses the line for me. But still, I think as long as people have the choice to live there they’re fine. I do appreciate the “new” style of planned communities that try and recapture some of the small town feeling by mingling small commercial and residential and placing the porches of houses close to the sidewalk to encourage more social interaction between neighbors.

    I personally believe that for a long time the psychological and sociological benefits of urban planning have been ignored in a drive to throw up McMansions on every hill.

    Speaking about craziness behind the scenes at Disney, Neal Gabler’s bio of Walt Disney goes into great detail about the man himself and how he ran the animation studios. The drive to produce Cinderella makes every FUBAR software project I ever worked on look like a walk in the park. Granted, totally different scales of achievement and accomplishment, but still…

  3. Kind of a tangential comment, but… That book cover artwork is really cool, although the author’s name kind of gets lost at the bottom amid all the green, yellow, and especially purple. Perhaps a bit of drop shadow, outer glow, or a stroke around the font there would’ve sharpened things up a tad.

  4. Maurice Reeves: I’m all for new urbanism, and ideally New Pedestrianism, but I don’t have a lot of affection for greenfield projects like Celebration. Sometimes I wonder if some of these new developments are put up just because some people don’t want “used land.”

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