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.