Staff Review: Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City by Sam Gennawey

Don’t forget, our Disney Book Club will be meeting this upcoming Wednesday, April 1st, at 6:30pm to discuss Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City. Please come and join us. Whether you’ve read the book before or just want to know more about Walt Disney, it’ll be a fun and entertaining evening for you. For more details, visit our ‘Upcoming Events’ page or visit the event’s page on Facebook:

Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City
by Sam Gennaweydisneybook

In the months before his death, Walt Disney unveiled his plans for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (called EPCOT for short), a centrally planned city that utilized the latest technological innovations to create a new kind of urban center. Developing a city may seem far-fetched for a man best known for his innovations in animation, but author Sam Gennawey traces Disney’s interest in urban planning and designing public spaces from its roots in his backyard steam train and the design of his Burbank Studio all the way through to Disneyland and beyond. Along the way, the reader is introduced to failed projects, like a proposed ski resort, as well as the successes. Walt Disney died before his proposed city could be built, but Gennawey extrapolates what may have in Florida today had Disney’s plan been carried out as he envisioned it.

I found this book to be absolutely fascinating and eye-opening. As a frequent visitor to Disneyland, I’m very familiar with Main Street USA, the “land” at the entrance to the park. It has an old-timey, classic appeal and as you walk down the street, toward the Sleeping Beauty Castle, it’s a comforting and calming experience. Sam Gennawey explains many of the architectural tricks and cues that help create this experience for guests, and as I read I found a new appreciation for the care and attention to detail that Disney and his Imagineers devoted to the appearance and layout of the buildings. As Gennawey continued to other areas of the park, I mentally followed in his footsteps. He also talks about some of the innovations Disney brought to his theme park, like the dedication to preventing litter and maintaining the appearance of the buildings, and how his ideas spread to other parks and eventually became standard practice.

I also loved reading about lesser-known Disney projects. We’re all familiar with the phenomenal success of Disneyland, but I’ve only heard of his proposed Mineral King project in footnotes or asides. It was a proposed ski resort, to be located near Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. I hesitate to call it “Disneyland in the mountains” but in many ways that’s exactly what was planned. The resort was to be an entertainment destination, with wilderness lectures, outdoor activities, restaurants, a conference center, and planned ‘attractions’ similar to the ones at Disneyland. The project was eventually shut down by the United States Forest Service after protests and a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club. As a Disney fan, I’m so curious about what Mineral King would have been like, but as a Sierra Club member I’m also horrified at the thought of the impact of the described resort on the environment just outside one of the most beautiful parks in California. It would have been interesting, but I’m glad the decision was made not to go with the Disney proposal.

Of course, most of the book is devoted to EPCOT. I really enjoyed Sam Gennawey’s projection of what EPCOT would look like if it had been completed; it’s a great thought exercise that showcases Disney’s creativity and his forward-thinking. I certainly enjoy the EPCOT theme park and what it offers today, but neither it nor the Disney city of Celebration really encapsulates Disney’s vision. Anyone who has enjoyed walking around Disneyland or the Magic Kingdom, admiring the architecture and the themed lands, will learn a lot from this book. Those who are curious about the urban planning and want to explore a centrally-planned city will also find it difficult to put this book down.

– Review by Suzi

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