Sometimes, a book is released that catches you by surprise. I reviewed the Disneyland Encyclopedia and realized that it was going to be one of my favorite and most important research tools. I emailed the author, Chris Strodder, and asked him a few questions about writing and researching the book.
How did you research the book?
I researched the book mainly through decades of meticulous observation. I’ve been visiting the park steadily since the 1960s, collecting materials and taking notes since the 1970s. Since the era of the Annual Passports began, I’ve visited hundreds of times, especially in the last decade as I’ve prepared the two editions of this book. I’m one of those people who doesn’t need to go on any rides to enjoy the park–I happily walk around for days with my tape measure, my stopwatch, and my notebook while taking hundreds of photos of signs and doorways and murals and everything else for future reference.
But this isn’t a book of personal anecdotes, as you know. It’s a fastidiously researched history book. For decades I’ ve been reading everything (not just the expected Disney literature) that mentions the park, which explains a bibliography of about 100 books, a reference to an old MAD magazine that did a feature on “Dizzyland,” quotes from an article by humorist P.J. O’Rourke, the obscure history books and biographies and old newspapers I cited, info from various museum exhibits I’ve attended, plus a reference to a one-man show that ran in San Francisco and was put on by a man who worked at Disneyland for years. As with the 2008 edition, I tried to be as comprehensive and thorough in my research as possible. What’s wonderful is that there are so many books and articles to find: Disneyland is an inexhaustible subject, and there will always be plenty of park for all of us to write about.
When did you get the idea for it?
I got the idea for the book about ten years ago. I was reading lots of Disneyland history books, and most of them told the park’s story chronologically. That’s one way to tell it, of course, but what I wanted was an up-to-the-minute book in an encyclopedia format where I could look up each thing in the park and read its complete history without skipping from chapter to chapter through the book to track down the thing’s ongoing evolution. I also wanted to focus on Disneyland history right up to the present–so many books with Disneyland in the title are really more about local motels, nearby restaurants, and other attractions in Southern California, and their Disneyland coverage pretty much carries over from previous editions with the same generic information rooted in the past, even though the park is constantly and ambitiously evolving. So I started writing up my information and observations and research as separate encyclopedia entries to isolate and explore just about everything that’s ever been in the park, with frequent trips to keep the details fresh and current (I got in items as late as April, 2012, and to the publishing company’s credit they had the book in bookstores and libraries less than two months later).
What was the hardest entry to research?
No one entry stands out as being the hardest to research, but the hardest thing to accomplish for the book was the photography. As in the first edition, I tried to take 350 photos that spotlighted the buildings, not the crowds. The park is so photogenic, anyone can show up and point a camera almost anywhere and snap a nice photo. But I think that ease also leads to laziness; I remember seeing official Disney photos looking down Main Street where the photographer left the big box for his tripod in the shot, as if nobody would notice. So I wanted to take careful photos–for instance, most photos of buildings have no people in them, if you notice. To me people in photos can sometimes be distracting (I also understand how they can add energy and happiness to a photo, but I see lots of photos like that and hardly any with no people in the shot, which are much harder photos to take, thus my quest to do something different). When you see my photos of the castle and Haunted Mansion, and it’s a sunny afternoon but no people are shown, it’s not because I was there when the park was closed or because I had some special access; it’s because I stood out front for 45 minutes waiting for the exact moment when nobody was in the frame and all attention would be on the unobstructed buildings.
What has been the biggest change that you have noticed over the years?
The biggest change I’ve noticed over the decades isn’t with the park itself, which always looks beautiful and still operates flawlessly most of the time. The biggest change I’ve noticed is with the guests. When I was a kid and a teenager, I got to visit Disneyland only once a year or so, and it was truly special every single time I went. I’d spend weeks preparing by memorizing the maps and studying the souvenir books. And when I was carefully considering my A-E tickets and how I’d use them, I might go on a great ride only one time, and some I couldn’t go on at all. With the advent of Annual Passports, people can now go anytime they want all year long for about a dollar a day. Instead of an all-day blitz like I’d go on when I was a kid when I was there for my one annual visit, millions of people can now stop by after work for a few hours, and there’s no pressure to go on everything because you know you’ll be back next week if you want. I’m not complaining, because I have certainly taken full advantage of the Annual Passport option, but in some little nostalgic way it might make each visit a little less special for guests, just because visits can now be so frequent and so casual. And you don’t have to worry about saving up your A-E tickets because you can ride anything you want as much as you want with FastPass and various helpful apps as your allies. All good developments, to be sure, but this perhaps explains why I’ve seen people sitting on a bench, wearing headphones to block out the park’s music and sounds, playing a game on their phones. This is astonishing to me: people pay $87 each to come to one of the most sensory-rich places in the world filled with intricate details designed by creative geniuses, and they’ll sit there trying to ignore the park as much as possible so they can focus on the same game they can play at home. Fine, I say, everyone can enjoy the park however they want to, and the more people on benches the fewer people ahead of me in lines. But to me the park never gets old, it’s never been disappointing, and it’s always alive with fresh details to discover, not ignore.
Where do you like to hang out in the park?
Lately my favorite places are those away from the big exciting attractions and events: the serene path behind Fowler’s Harbor in Frontierland, the east side of Tom Sawyer Island, the Court des Anges in New Orleans Square, and a few more. These lovely spots give you a chance to unwind and slow down, to reflect and recharge, to spend time without spending money. Those opportunities are rare in Disneyland, so I encourage people to take advantage of them when they can. First-time visitors will easily find Space Mountain, the Haunted Mansion, and all the other landmarks that are conspicuous and famous and highlighted on maps, but they won’t always find the hidden, quiet corners.
What are your favorite Disneyland books?
My favorite Disneyland books are the original softcover souvenir books (they constitute one of the entries in the encyclopedia). I’ve got them all going back to the 1950s, and they’re still marvelous. Not only do they have vintage photos and two-page maps inside, the early ones have detailed lists of virtually everything in the park. These aren’t merely books, they’re time machines: when I pull off my bookshelf one of these golden oldies from the ’50s, ’60s, or ’70s, I’m instantly whisked back to my childhood when I was studying every detail and thrilling to the imaginatively illustrated previews of future attractions. That being said, I do love many later Disneyland history books, especially any that have a thorough index and a copious bibliography. Gordon and Mumford’s Disneyland: The Nickel Tour, Marling’s Designing Disney Theme Parks, the Behind the Magic book that accompanied the fabulous Disneyland exhibition at the Oakland Museum in 2006, and David Koenig’s Mouse Tales are just a few that I consider indispensable (I’ve been collecting Disneyland books, pamphlets, maps, brochures, and other literature for over four decades now, and someone will have to pry all these treasures out of my cold, dead fingers before I’ll relinquish any of them). What’s especially wonderful about Disneyland books—and about being part of the larger community of park fans and students of Disneyland history—is that the stories writers write and that people tell are mostly respectful and celebratory. When people find out that I’ve written The Disneyland Encyclopedia, nearly all of them instantly want to regale me with their joyous memories and favorite experiences at the park. I don’t think you get merry input like that if you’re in another community like, say, the World War One Survivors Society. Lachrymose stories of The Great War might be profound and inspiring, but not many end happily, I imagine. Here in the Disneyland community, there’s an almost boundless elation that everyone seems eager to share. Sure there are long lines (sometimes) and high prices (always), but do you know how people sound when they articulate their memories of the Happiest Place on Earth? They sound happy.
One other book-related recommendation is to check out the hundreds of books from Santa Monica Press (santamonicapress.com, the company that published The Disneyland Encyclopedia). They’ve been publishing entertaining, colorful, innovative pop-culture books for a long long time on all kinds of topics. Browse the SMP catalog, you’ll be intrigued and delighted. I feel incredibly fortunate to be working for them. And as always, I’m very thankful to all the readers and Disneyland fans who have been supportive and encouraging. I am the lucky recipient of nice comments, interesting questions, fascinating stories, and helpful suggestions, and I’m truly grateful.
- The Disneyland Encyclopedia: The Unofficial, Unauthorized, and Unprecedented History of Every Land, Attraction, Restaurant, Shop, and Major Event in the Original Magic Kingdom by Chris Strodder
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