After my last visit to Walt Disney World I was really interested in a behind the scenes look at the magic. I wanted to learn more about the daily operations and the logistics of how Disney manages it's theme parks. How do the manage to feed, house, and entertain so many people every day while keeping their customers so happy and willing to shell out thousands of dollars for a repeat experience? It is pretty good question, huh? Unfortunatley, I could not find the exact book that I was looking for...if you would like to write it you can dedicate it to me and I will be first in line to buy a copy!
I ended up with a copy of David Koenig's Realityland. I found it to be a facinating behind the scenes look at the creation of Disney World. I must delare upfront, if you are looking for a magical, pixie dust recounting of Disney history, then this book is absolutely not for you. In fact, stop reading right now...go on, scoot!
Ok, for those of you still with me Koenig's book gives a glimpse of the unvarnished business side of the Disney empire. Every one knows that Walt was the ideas guy and his brother Roy was the number guy. There was a great deal of sparring between the two teams, but it all seemed to be done for the good of the whole. Walt's death in the early stages of planning for the "Disenyland East" project clearly rocked the foundation of the company and left them struggling to find the way to achieve Walt's dream.
Koenig interviewed 100 castmembers past and present to get to the root of the story. Everything from original site selection, to Eisner's unyielding focus on bottom line is detailed in a practical, matter of fact narrative, with great stories and castmember accounts woven in. Some have criticised the book as being a particularly harsh look at Disney. I did not feel that way at all. As much as rabid fans resist the idea, Disney is a business. It always has been and it always will be. That being said, the business model is very different that the ones we usually see. Most companies today choose cheap, fast, and easy...Walt's concept of "plusing" an experience - give a customer what they expect and then some - is seemingly lost in todays business climate. To be fair, Disney has done it's share of cheap, fast, and easy - some of it has worked and some of it hasn't. Realityland presents the facts and let's you decide.
For me, learning about the wheeling and dealing, labor negotitions, contract negotiations, problems of theft, and personality clashes that went on during the construction process was facinating. (I have a degree in Finance, so the balancing the whole numbers vs. creativty vs. quality issues were especially interesting to me.) All of the pieces that had to come together to make it all work is just amazing. It truly gave me a new appreciation of the parks.
Some chapters are a little dark, such as those dealing with deaths on property and animal cruelty. The old wives tale of nobody dying on Disney property is clearly not true! Some may be bothered that Disney vigourously defended itself in some wrongful death cases, I just see it as a business being a business. It does seem to be clear that Disney does a pretty good job addressing safetly concerns and does seem to learn from their own mistakes.
At the end of the book, Koenig focuses on the Eisner years. Fairly harsh criticism is layed at his feet - you will have to read and decide if it is fair or not. It is faily clear that Koenig feels that Disney lost it's way after the death of Walt Disney. A quote from the book: "Indeed, 20 years after his passing, his successors were finally, reluctantly, admitting that Walt was dead." Ouch.
Overall, I am giving this book the thumbs up. It is a great read detailing a company's change from one man with a big idea to a multi-national conglomerate. The company changed, the culture changed, the management changed, the focus changed, the business climate changed. Whether some or all of those changes are fundamentally good or bad is really your call to make. The bottom line is those changes brought us to where we are today. Would the company have survived, indeed thrived, with out the changes? Who knows, but it clearly would be different.