Friday, October 07, 2016

Nine Essential Disney Theme Park Books

You know what everyone loves? Disney books. There's entire websites dedicated to them. It's not an uncommon activity on social media to post photos of your growing library. Every year, new and desirable Disney books are released - independently, and also through official channels.

But - you know what a lot of people are getting rid of? Books. Whether you want to blame the e-reader revolution or larger cultural changes, many people are divesting themselves of large collections of things.

On top of that, changes in online commerce have led to the creation of huge, vertically integrated book resellers on sites like Amazon who take in massive collections of used books and make their money back on shipping and volume. Today, you can buy practically any older book you can think of online for less than the price of a good lunch.

So it's a great time for collectors like me, because it means that books are available online from huge companies for basically nothing. No more waiting for something to list on eBay, no more hoping you land the winning bid, no more waiting for the seller to ship it - the way I got most of my Disney library ten years ago.

But I've been buying Disney books online for long enough now that it's easy for me to forget that not everyone knows what these things are. And, judging by social media, it seems as if somebody discovers one of these great old Disney books every few months that they never knew existed. Perhaps this humble blog can fill in a gap, raising awareness of these great books as well as providing some background on what they are and what to expect - and how not to be ripped off!

So I put together a list of what I consider to be (roughly) nine essential, affordable vintage theme park books. These aren't books that were published with informational purposes in mind - they were sold as keepsakes, and their pleasures are largely aesthetic ones. Please keep in mind that I'm limiting my discussion here to widely available books - Disneyland: The Nickel Tour is amazing, and badly in need of a reprint, but also costs $400. The books I feature here won't break the bank.

But, you know, you should get these while they're affordable. They're also books that have been out of print for decades, so there is a finite number of them floating around. I've got a lot of Disney books, and I've looked through many more - these are ten that always bring me pleasure, no matter how often I pop them open.

The Story of Walt Disney World

Also known as the "Big D" book - because the front cover looks like a big black "D" with the center a cut-out window showing the castle. The interior of the book is a class act - a behind the scenes look at the construction of the Vacation Kingdom, presented with the most charming late-60s promotional writing and typefaces possible. Some of the photos in this book are commonly seen, but just as many are still likely to be new to you was they were in 1971.

So here's the thing to know about the D Book. This book was in print through the entirety of the 1970s - it was sold alongside the "Pictorial Souvenirs" as the main keepsake book available in the Vacation Kingdom through at least 1980. As a result, the book is very common. It's far easier to come across than the original Pictorial Souvenir, and far easier to obtain than any of the GAF guides or ticket books. It's the most easily accessible piece of early Walt Disney World to purchase, because it was in print for so long.

The interior of the book hardly changed that whole time - at some point in the mid-70s, a few of the photos inside were changed, and the resort map on page 14 was changed from the Paul Hartley original map (the one that hung in hotel rooms) to an updated, and less interesting, "fun map" showing the Golf Resort and various tourists cavorting around the property. The text of the book is the same, but the photos chosen for the early 70s edition are a bit more idiosyncratic - fewer shots of sailboats on the Seven Seas Lagoon.

One thing that never changed was the banner reading "Commemorative Edition" on the front, which has led hundreds of eBay sellers who think they've got a real find on their hands and to ask absurd prices for this thing. Every single one of these things says "Commemorative Edition". Very few of them are from 1971. Every one of them has a printing run listed on the inside front cover. I've seen dates ranging from 1972 to 1979.

Even if I feel that the print quality and the photo selection make the pre-1976 version slightly more desirable, this is a terrific book, and well worth something in the neighborhood of $15. Beware of scalpers, but well worth the effort.

Walt Disney World: The First Decade

Printed in 1980 ostensibly as a counterpart to Disneyland: The First Quarter Century, if I had to choose a single object to put into somebody's hands which explains what the company was hoping to do in Florida and how sophisticated the place was for its first few decades, it would be this handsome book. Nearly forty years on, I'm still not sure there's been a better Walt Disney World book.

Printed on thick, glossy paper, with durable binding and filled with uniformly beautiful, evocative photographs, Disney intended this book to last, and it has. Much of the spine of the book later became the basis for the hardback souvenir guides in the back half of the 80s, but the text is denser and more serious in The First Decade.

It stops not only to discuss the attractions, but their design and how they fit into the park itself. It devotes four pages to a smart discussion and beautiful photos of the Magic Kingdom's hub. Following the park tour, the book touts the backstage operations, communications and waste disposal systems, and other innovations. It bothers to print photos of the Utilidors, and makes a better case for their importance than most enthusiastic fans can. It's probably the best Walt Disney world book ever printed, and perfectly preserves the spirit of that distant, early decade in amber.

This book is widely available, and hasn't seen the jumps in price that others on this list have in the past ten years. It's so well printed that any copy you buy will probably have held up very well. Although it's not tough to find copies below $20, I can't see anybody who loves theme parks, public spaces, urban planning or just plain beautiful books being unhappy with this book after paying as much as $30. It's an essential volume.

Steve Birnbaum Brings You The Best Of Disneyland

Steve Birnbaum Brings You The Best Of Walt Disney World

Oh, Birnbaum. I grew up as an Unofficial Guide loyalist, partially because by the 90s the Birnbaum guides had become generic and corporate in their text and message. But if you can get your hands on one of the early Birnbaum guides - red for Walt Disney World or blue for Disneyland - you will find one of the best books ever written about these places. These books are so good that Steven Fjellman interrupts himself in Vinyl Leaves to gush about them.

You know you're in for something special when you open up these early guides and the first page reprints a memo from Dick Nunis approving of Steve's efforts. Things get stranger when, in his introduction, Steve describes his wife jumping up and down and screaming at the prospect of "riding all the rides". Throughout, these early guides have real character as Birnbaum guides you through the parks with wit, a little bit of sarcasm, and an obvious love for a stiff drink.

The amount and variety of information Birnbaum has gathered up from all corners of the company and presented in this guide is staggering. While later day Birnbaum guides present some tidbits of information ensconced in some fairly bland discussion of each ride, Birnbaum's admiration for Disney fairly leaps off these pages. He doesn't just give you an overview of each area of the park, he goes into the architecture, landscape, and atmosphere of each in detail. He doesn't just summarize what's available at each restaurant, he tries to create a sense of its design and offers some smart remarks about how stand-out dishes actually taste.

Some caveats. Birnbaum's 1983 guide, which advertises EPCOT Center on its cover (above), was completed in a rush to get the book to print and so the information on EPCOT is brief and incomplete. EPCOT Center fans will want to pick up his 1984 guide for a much better overview of that park. Also, around the time The Disney-MGM Studios was getting ready to open, the text was already starting to become compressed to fit in the new offerings. While the late-80s guides are still enjoyable, it's those red and blue covered guides that are truly remarkable.

You can see why Dick Nunis approved. These things were written to be ephemeral little books, used for one trip and then discarded, but they're so well done they've survived as both souvenirs and historical records. Not bad for a travel book.

It's always been kind of tough to find old editions of these books exactly for the reasons I described, but if you see a red or blue cover Birnbaum, grab it!

Walt Disney's EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow

Here it is, probably in the running with The Nickel Tour for the greatest theme park book ever published. This was written by Richard Beard, who worked directly for Disney and to be sure, this is definitely a promotional publication. Disney did their best to disguise this - publishing the book through Harry Abrams in New York - but that is what it is.

But what a book, and what a park.

Even die-hard EPCOT experts will be staggered by what's inside this book. Huge, colorful photographs accompanied by an intelligent text, this book makes the best possible case for what Disney hoped EPCOT Center could be. The print quality is excellent, and there's even fold-out pages for large format art and photos. The book traces the design and construction of the park - there's no real attempt to make excuses for the failure of Walt's future city to materialize. But this is an unusually compelling text, has excellent and abundant photos, and is a quality publication - Disney was making the case for why and how they built EPCOT through this book.

It speaks for a park that no longer exists. For kids to whom EPCOT was love at first sight, looking through this book can be emotional. It's much more like going to EPCOT than going to Epcot is. And there it can sit on your shelf forever.

This is the book that is seemingly re-discovered on social media every few months, and combined with a perhaps bland title, word has clearly not gotten out that this book is essential. Prices were high for a few years around the 25th Anniversary of Epcot, but have seemingly come down. So here's what you need to know when you go shopping:

First, there are three editions of the book, and they are all distinct. The first edition is simply called "Walt Disney's EPCOT", and pre-dates the opening of the park. The second is called "Walt Disney's EPCOT Center", and was published after the park opened. Both of these editions are large-format hardbound books - measuring 9.5 inches wide and 12 inches tall. They're both 240 pages long and have basically the same text and layout. The 1981 version consists entirely of models and artwork, while the 1982 version has replaced some of these with photos of the finished park.

The third edition is designated below its ISBN on the interior front page as "Special Edition", but it's easy to distinguish from the first two on sight. It's a smaller, thinner book, with a simple board hardcover front instead of the full dust jacket the 1981 and 1982 editions have. It's just 8.75 inches across and 11 inches tall, and has about 125 pages. The front cover includes the EPCOT Center "flower" emblem, and uses the actual park logo (right). This is a slimmed down version of the 1982 edition, and was published to be sold inside the park as a souvenir.

Some people, of course, will want to have all three. I suggest picking up the slim "Special Edition" first, which is the most common and a darn great book on its own, no excuses needed. From there, I think the 1982 version of the big book has a slight advantage for its mix of photos and art. It's not too tough to find the larger versions as library cast-offs.

However you find them, these books are wonderful and there's simply no good reason for ownership of them to be as confined to EPCOT super fans as it is. Seek them out, and the rewards will be well worth the effort.

Disneyland: The First Thirty Years

Yeah, I know. So far this list has been very East Coast-centric, but what can be done when you've got heavyweight hitters like Walt Disney World: The First Decade all lined up? The early 80s were just a darn good time for theme park books.

One of these excellent books was Disneyland: The First Quarter Century. That book is something of an outgrowth of a souvenir publication available at Disneyland through the late 60s and early 70s, usually simply called Walt Disney's Disneyland. Written by Marty Sklar and published in a hardbound edition, it was an early attempt to give a historical overview of the park. Disneyland: The First Quarter Century revised that book, re-organized the text, added better photographs and a few bells and whistles, like card stock section dividers. I think The First Quarter Century is a terrific book, but I'm going to direct you to its updated version from five years later as being slightly better.

To begin with, it includes New Fantasyland, which is for this author a crucial component of Disneyland's appeal. The card stock section dividers have become plain decorative pages, which is not a deal breaker. And the rest of the text is absolutely intact and unchanged.

Disneyland: The First Thirty Years is really more of a photo book of memories, especially when compared to its superb counterpart Walt Disney World: The First Decade. It includes historical photos of Disneyland laid out chronologically, with special attention given to celebrity and world leader visits. The last section is devoted simply to beautiful photos of the park from another time. In many ways, these books set the template for the kind of Disneyland book that still gets published today.

Disney did update the book one last time in 1990, now called Disneyland: The First Thirty-Five Years. I find this version to be by far the least compelling of the three, with few changes besides an even more compressed text and a few new photos. Additionally, the 1990 edition is often significantly more expensive than the 1980 or 1985 versions. So much of all 3 of these books are identical that you really only need one, and to me The First Thirty Years is the best compromise.

A Pictorial Souvenir of Walt Disney's Disneyland

I knew I had to include at least one of these books, which were a staple of the theme parks until around 1990. But which one? The late-70s Walt Disney World version, with the globe cover, came close to iconic, but I knew this list would lean too heavily towards Walt Disney World publications. Of the rest, I liked this mid-80s Disneyland book the best, in futuristic silver!

There isn't much that these books need to do besides contain lots of photos and be beautiful, but this particular edition has a dense, elaborate interior which is especially pleasing, with classy calligraphy lettering and some truly unusual photos.

On top of that, this book represents Disneyland at a specific moment in time worth remembering. Back when Bear Country was still Bear Country, before Captain EO and Star Wars invaded Tomorrowland and America Sings was still spinning, and Cascade Peak was still standing. It was a park on the razor edge between eras - with promotional pages in the back trumpeting EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland - before the real changes began.

Disneyland: Inside Story

You know those websites that cover the history of Disneyland? They all originate with this book.

Now, if the Richard Beard EPCOT book is somewhat under-rated, then this book is somewhat over-rated. This is a book which is so influential that practically its entire spine has been disseminated online in the form of trivia posts, "do you know?" articles, tweets and other digital noise. This is not a book you're going to want to because it contains amazing information; there are more compelling books about the creation of Disneyland which have been built on the back of this one. This is a book that's worth owning because it's a beautifully created object.

Just like with EPCOT Center: Creating the New World of Tomorrow, Disney produced Inside Story as a prestige product, intended to glorify their park. Once again published by Abrams in an oversize glossy edition, this is a park book which just plain looks beautiful. It's easy to imagine an entire generation of Disneyland kids pouring over it repeatedly (the way I was doing with my edition of the Imagineering book ten years later) before logging onto Usenet to talk Disneyland history. It's arguable that Disneyland: Inside Story, with its embrace of the parenthetical and adulation of Walt Disney, is the foundation of the online community.

Taking a step back, it's easy to see how Randy Bright combined aspects of Marty Sklar's Walt Disney's Disneyland book with aspects of Disneyland: The First Quarter Century to build a better mousetrap. Many of the stories from Sklar's book crop up again here, the same ones you've heard over and over again about cars parked in Frontierland and color blind tractor drivers. What Bright did was he added interviews with the designers who built the place and an extra layer of journalistic integrity. Most Disneyland books report briefly on the doubt and challenges related to creating the park in the 50s, but Bright takes the time to bring them to life in a way which makes them into genuine concerns instead of the quickly disproven complaints of negative nellies.

But it's also worth remembering that Bright was writing this book at an opportune moment in history. In 1987, Walt Disney had been dead a mere twenty years. Indeed, the sections of his book break down into Design, Construction, Very Early Disneyland, Pre-1966 Disneyland, and Post-Disney Disneyland. He even stops to describe the corporate takeover attempts of the early 80s with surprising candor.

The importance of this book means it's often sold for vastly inflated prices by those who primarily sell to Disney fans, but thankfully thrift stores, second hand book retailers, and used library copies are becoming more common. Unless price is no object, there's no reason to pay $60 for this book. It may take some hunting around, but I can't imagine than any theme park fan wouldn't find the effort worthwhile.

Walt Disney World (Souvenir Hardcover)

Here we go. This is the book that began my fascination with Walt Disney World. It's also still the most handsome souvenir book I've ever seen. These are truly obsession-worthy books.

I'm speaking, of course, of the hardcover souvenir books produced at Walt Disney World between 1987 and 1992. They don't really have a title, but their covers are instantly recognizable: embossed art around a central photograph of Cinderella Castle; pages and pages of remarkably classy photographs of the park; big Walt Disney painting in the front pages.

There's a couple of them. The forest green version was the original, published in 1987. The second edition has a cream cover and has been updated to include the Disney-MGM Studios, Typhoon Lagoon, Pleasure Island and the Grand Floridian. After that came the "20 Magical Years" edition, with a cover in blue and silver embossed art.

Here's the good news: all of these books are practically identical in layout and content. The book was expanded over time without sacrificing content. The deep basis for the book is Walt Disney World: The First Decade, of which this is something of an updated, slimmed down version. It's definitely more of a mass market souvenir than The First Decade, with less text and more pictures. But what pictures!

As an extension of the exemplary First Decade, these books really generate a feeling of what Walt Disney World was like before the booming 90s added too many things that were too poorly thought out. Visitors must have thought so too, because there's a lot if these out there, for relatively little money. As far as pictorial souvenirs go, this is amongst the most evocative to lose yourself in, and well worth the minor investment.

Since the World Began

If three of the previous books help to tell the story of Disneyland in all of its variance, then Jeff Kurtti's Since the World Began tries to do the same for Walt Disney World, and more or less it's still the best attempt at delivering the full package.

Walt Disney World is so contradictory and complex that in reality each of the parks could fill its own massive book, and such a collection of books would likely still gloss on the resort infrastructure, the dozens of hotels, Lake Buena Vista, Bonnet Creek, the golf courses, the water parks, and all of the rest of it. As a one-stop shop, Kurtti's book is limited in terms of what it can include, but in terms of giving a complete overview, it's still.... still the best effort available.

There are parts of the book where simply the same old facts and trivia about the parks are repeated, which is where the links between this book and, say, the souvenir hardcover are most apparent - I'm sure Disney provided the same packets and lists of information I looked through as a Cast Member. Since the World Began is not a research project, it's a very well done souvenir book.

Although published in 1996, the book is basically still pretty up to date. It includes sections on Animal Kingdom, the sports complex, and Coronado Springs, and since then (setting aside the expansion of DVC) the changes have not been as extensive as they were in the first 25 years of the resort. Since the World Began could be easily updated for, say, the resort's 50th and be fairly similar.

Somebody still needs to write the Walt Disney World history book extravaganza. I've done my best to fill in gaps in the early years, and much of the rest is a matter of public record. Since the World Began is not the telephone directory-size history book that Walt Disney World probably demands, but it's a really superb overview.

This book is also unique amongst souvenir books in that it's more text than images, by a huge margin.  Not even Disneyland: Inside Story seems so committedly... verbal. The book could probably benefit from a slightly more expansive layout and larger photos, and a slightly more in depth text, but this is the one and only place to start for anyone who wants to start learning about Walt Disney World, for two decades and counting.


Love the Disney World of old? Drop by our Walt Disney World History portal to see all of this site's history articles gathered in one easy to access place.