There may be as many Walt Disney biographies as there are Walt Disney conspiracy theories. (For the record, no, he was not cryogenically frozen.) But “Disney’s Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park That Changed the World,” a history by Richard Snow, breaks from the pack. Snow weaves a rich biography of a place: Disney’s first pixie-dust-frosted park, Disneyland.
Snow echoes Disney’s attention to detail in this lush history of how the theme park came to be. He zooms in on particulars that 21st-century consumers might take for granted, such as how engineers called on DuPont to help create a smoother, faster, polyurethane-wheeled roller coaster – Disneyland’s Matterhorn bobsleds – changing the construction of coasters around the world.
For Disneyland diehards who want to go under the hood of an Autopia car, this is a meticulous chronicle of artistic devotion. But for the merely Disney-curious and those who (like myself) haven’t visited Disneyland, it may, at times, be a bumpy ride.
Snow gives dozens of Disney employees and various contractors their due, often describing their pre-Disney careers and their temperaments, their engineering or artistic triumphs. Sometimes this resembles interminable introductions at a crowded party – a wash of names that leaves a reader wanting both greater emotional connection and a corporate pyramid chart.
But in a few cases, it seems a worthwhile endeavor to recognize unsung contributors – like Ruth Shellhorn, Disneyland’s landscape architect. She was brought on late in the park’s construction when the landscapers Bill and Jack Evans weren’t quite able to satisfy Disney’s cohesive vision of the grounds. Shellhorn was asked to glue together Disneyland’s disparate themed worlds with vegetation, and she did. She eventually helped create what famed developer James W. Rouse later called “the greatest piece of urban design in the United States.”
Snow does take on some of the more prickly aspects of Disney’s legacy. Early in the book, he quickly addresses and dismisses accusations that Walt Disney was anti-Semitic (other biographers support this judgement). In other instances, Snow prefers to show, not tell. When Snow quotes dialogue from Disneyland’s opening day TV broadcast discussing “redskins,” he introduces it as something “that wouldn’t air today.” Snow notes prejudice, but avoids wading into it.
But it seems audiences are ready to wrestle with representation and racism in the Disney canon. When Disney’s streaming service Disney Plus launched, some films – like “Dumbo” and “Lady and the Tramp” – included a disclaimer: “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”
Unsurprisingly, this language was instantly dissected on Twitter. Some noted it as progress that the company is acknowledging racism at all. Some criticized it as a weak shrug that bigotry was OK 60 years ago. Others compared it to Warner Bros.’ cartoon disclaimer, which calls out “ethnic and racial prejudices” and states “These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.”
It seems most people agree these movies should still be shown, and can be used as entry points into meaningful discussion, rather than ignored or glossed over. But the company is still experimenting with the best way forward, especially as it continues its trend of remaking cartoons in live-action format. The new, live action “Lady and the Tramp,” which debuted on Disney Plus, replaces the “Siamese Cat Song” with a different track.
In our search for art that emboldens us to forge a better, inclusive future, it may be most important to avoid slippery, saccharine nostalgia for the past. And for all his reverence for Disney, Snow understands this too: “The present is a bully,” he writes, “always making us think the molten moment we inhabit is the most alarming ever, while the past tends to slip into that specious category of ‘simpler times.’”