The Inspiration Behind “Red, White, & Disney”

My book is something I probably don’t talk about enough on this blog. (Did you know I wrote a book? Did you know I actually wrote two books? See what I mean…) Red, White, & Disney shares the real-life inspiration and the fictional storytelling behind areas of the Walt Disney World Resort that are based in American history. What can I say, I’m a nerd…A nerd who doesn’t know how to promote her own book because it’s weird. Seriously, have you written a book? Because how do I get people to read it in a way that doesn’t make me feel really uncomfortable like I’m just bragging about myself, but also in a way that gets people to buy it? It’s a topic for a whole separate post I’m sure, but if you have a quick answer, let me know in the comments. I was recently asked how I got into all of this, and what made me want to write a book about it and I realized when I answered the question then that I’ve probably never really shared many of those thoughts on here…

I’ve been going to Walt Disney World for pretty much my entire life. I can’t really say that I remember my first visit (when I was three) but I’ve so carefully studied the photos and home video and have researched what exactly the parks were like in 1995 so much at this point that I still somehow feel a sense of nostalgia towards that trip. Since then, I mostly went to the parks every other year on relatively large family trips with about eight of us. Perhaps due to the large family dynamic just not being the best way to explore a theme park (in my opinion) or because I honestly think Disney is more enjoyable at least for me as an adult, but I didn’t really fall in love with it the way I am now until I was at least in my teens. Still, there are certain small memories I have from being a Disney kid that stand out more than others, and they’ve definitely shaped the way I view the parks in terms of their history and the details in their design today.

I was obsessed with Roller Coaster Tycoon as a kid (okay, I mean I kind of still am. Or I would be if it didn’t destroy my laptop anyway, but I guess that’s what I get for trying to play a game from the 90s at the end of this decade.) But Roller Coaster Tycoon was never enough. First of all, it takes countless hours on Roller Coaster Tycoon to unlock any of the cool theming elements and decorations, and if you haven’t figured this out by now that’s really what I’m all about in terms of theme parks. Then when you could unlock all of that, the theming was still…lacking-which isn’t a knock on the game itself (I dressed like a Roller Coaster Tycoon guest for Halloween two years ago, clearly I LOVE the game) but I would have loved the ability to add or at least see more details that could be used to create different lands in the parks.

In the late 90s when the internet was barely a thing, at least for someone who was only seven years old by 1999, I spent a lot of time playing CD-ROMs, and aside from Roller Coaster Tycoon my favorite was without a doubt the Walt Disney World Explorer one. I hesitate to call it a game, because there were no tasks or goals or anything like that, but I guess that’s what makes it a real microcosm of the 90s, that it was a CD-ROM so you could explore Walt Disney World I guess in a way vaguely similar to Google Earth but with actual information about different areas of the parks all without having to be connected to the dial-up. Since I had only been to the parks a couple of times by then, and the internet was new and not something a seven year old would have used to research things, the Walt Disney World Explorer disc allowed me to see different parks of the parks that I only vaguely remembered and wanted to make sense of. It wasn’t like the CD was ever updated- new information would never come out, and once something changed in the parks it was instantly outdated. And I probably learned everything there was to know from it within a week of owning it, but I’d still spend hours just going through it and looking at photos and trying to learn more about how the parks were designed.

Before the internet was what it is today, the only other way I really researched these kinds of things as a kid was with books (mostly from the library, and in most cases the library would only stock things on Disney World like Birnbaum’s travel guides so the level of depth that I was looking for was never truly accessible during that time). By the mid-2000s the Travel Channel (which has since gone downhill and I have lots of feelings about it–a post for another time) began running lots of specials on Walt Disney World and I’d record them all on VHS tapes and hang onto those as the only really new pieces of Disney parks research at a time when I was at a weird age to be doing this and the information just wasn’t out there like it is today.

One of the memories that stands out most for me from my trips to the parks was waiting for the parade to start in the Magic Kingdom. I don’t know how this started from such a young age (okay, I kind of do, I’m sure I acted like a brat and insisted one way or another) but I’ve basically been the official seat-holder for shows and parades for as long as I can remember. Telling people they can’t sit somewhere is evidently just an odd skill I have because it even carried over into what I did when I worked for Disney as I’d spend entire shifts telling guests without wheelchairs that they couldn’t use the reserved wheelchair section for shows and ‘ruining vacations’ all the time when Fantasmic would go to standing room only. When I was probably about 11 or 12, I remember camping out on the curb on Main Street U.S.A. across from Casey’s Corner with one or two of the adults on the trip. Bags were spread next to us, maps out to sit on the curb, the whole thing. We were waiting for this parade for an hour or two before it started and there was no way we were not going to be front and center.

The other adults were inside Casey’s getting hot dogs for us to eat on the curb before the parade started and while we waited for their return I’d find myself staring at the baseball-themed quick service restaurant waiting for their return. I wasn’t interested in baseball at all as a kid-I probably would have been if I grew up on it, but I didn’t and aside from the fact that Casey’s was in the Magic Kingdom I had no real connection to the theming then. But I still remember sitting there on the curb looking across the street and questioning some of the restaurant’s details before the parade stepped off. Who is Casey? Is Casey a real person? What’s with the Cast Member’s costumes here, they’re not like modern baseball uniforms-were things that different in the time period of Main Street? On trips where I’d be lucky enough to be the one helping carry hot dogs back to the rest of the group, I’d be waiting for our food inside the restaurant looking at the vintage and aptly curated baseball memorabilia and wondering things like, What’s Mudville? Is that a real place? Is that the team Casey is on? (Answers to these questions and more start on p. 4 of Red, White, & Disney, by the way.)

Of course none of this really mattered (at the time). It was just a way of distracting myself as a kid while waiting for what I was most excited for, the parade. But that’s really how my curiosity in learning more about the design of the parks started. If I wasn’t even really interested in baseball on my own but Disney had somehow designed this fast food restaurant in a way that made me want to learn more about it, could you imagine what the rest of the parks would have in store? Of course, I’m writing this all to relate it to how I ended up researching enough of this to write Red, White, & Disney but this desire to research and find out why certain things are the way they are really shaped my entire undergraduate coursework and even career choices. I changed my major from Business to History (with a brief stint as an English major in between) because I didn’t want to learn how businesses function but rather why they function the way they do. I spent a number of years working in museums after changing my major because I wanted to better understand how we can present history in a way that’s accessible for casual visitors so hopefully they could be inspired to find out why too and get more interested in it (big dreams here if you’ve ever worked in a museum or any public history job!). I even went through a phase (maybe not a phase actually, I still do this) where I over-analyze Disney ads and commercials because I find the ‘why’ of the way things are marketed to different audiences so fascinating- and today I work in tourism marketing.

The more I learned about American history and how it’s presented to the general public at museums and historic sites, and even through more entertainment-based things like movies and fashion, the more I became interested in how it’s being used at Walt Disney World. The Magic Kingdom is the #1 most visited tourist destination in the world welcoming over 20 million people each year. And that’s only one park- Walt Disney World has three more. And the resorts. And Disney Springs. And the water parks. And the ESPN Wide World of Sports. And the BoardWalk if you want to get technical. I’m not sure how many of those 20 million people are realistically going to museums (at least the top-notch non-kitschy touristy types) and I’d be willing to bet a lot of them are getting their knowledge of American history through a mix of required courses in high school they may not even remember and things like the interactive queue at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with its information on the American frontier, or the scenes of Living with the Land that share information on the importance of farming in the Midwest.

As passionate as I am about history and about the details carefully embedded into the Walt Disney World Resort, all of this made me wonder how much of it is legit. I mean, every Disney fan has heard the story that the brown pathway in Liberty Square is meant to guide guests to the nearest restrooms while also serving as a reminder than in Colonial American towns waste was often just tossed into the streets. That level of authenticity would definitely not fly in a theme park, so the brown pathway is the closest we’ll get to the real thing there, but this made me wonder what else has been omitted or changed, and why were certain things changed. There are parts of American history that are obviously not a good fit for theme park (slavery, mistreatment of Native Americans, etc…though the American Adventure show in Epcot does actually touch on these) but all of this made me question why some more minor themes and details were changed as the parks were designed. Things like having a Christmas shop in Liberty Square when 18th century colonists typically would not have celebrated Christmas, or how the architecture of the Haunted Mansion is totally out of place with the rest of Liberty Square, weren’t as clear decisions to me as things like omitting brutal events and themes from history, so I wanted to learn more.

For all of the reasons above and to prove to myself and society in general that I actually sometimes use this piece of paper I have from college, I wanted to take all of these thoughts together, do some research and put it all into what has since become Red, White, & Disney. Now if only those 20 million people visiting the Magic Kingdom could pick up the book I think I’d really be getting somewhere.

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