Karl Marx, Henry Adams, and George Orwell are typically not three names you would associate with the Walt Disney World Resort. But these are just three of the many intellectual giants used by Stephen M. Fjellman in his analysis of the Florida theme park in Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World and America. He tours through the park based on common themes so an area of the Magic Kingdom Park could be placed next to a Disney-MGM Studio attraction and a water park. Published in 1992, Fjellman tours through the parks of the resort that existed at that time and uses his knowledge of history and anthropology to explain the background and messages that park areas and attractions are telling. The analysis discusses heavily the commoditization of the park experience and the biased messages that the park is sending to guests, especially in support of American industry.
Fjellman proclaims that he is a Disney fan, and will return to experience the parks again and again. However, I think it is easy to say that his perspective is one of a cynic. For example, he writes with a bias that is clearly anti-corporation. So while he may be a fan, he accuses Disney of cooperating with industry to cover the sins of the industrial and post-modern age by over idealizing the histories of corporate America within park attractions. And he notes that the key historical message, or as he calls it Distory a distorted Disney picture of history, is progress achieved through the efforts of business. Distory is a history that ignores the injustices against non-Whites, women and the poor while applauding industry. Distory makes pirates rape fun as Pirates chase damsels within Pirates of the Caribbean. He classifies EPCOT as the Experimental Commercial of Tomorrow. Additionally, he calls out how the Disney park experience is one of purchasing commodities including civility. I admit, I understand Fjellman’s points about Disney’s editing of history. But as someone who has written history and read history extensively I also understand that history is often edited even in academic publications to tell a story that is often slanted by the writer. Additionally, I do not feel like Disney is currently trying to hide their corporate partnerships, often used by Disney to pay for the creation of attractions. But honestly I do not believe I personally have bought any products or services because I was aware of a partnership with Disney.
I really was looking forward to this book. I had read great things about it and had seen ratings that were generally high on book websites. But for me the cynical attitude was too much. For example coming from an academic background and understanding that this is a very academic book, I found this text to be overly judgmental. And the judgment and personal bias comes through in the writing. It often feels like the author is unable to accept that Disney would act like what it is, a company which has a mission to make money! I have no problem understanding that companies, including Disney, make decisions I would not support for profit. As much as we would like to see Disney as a public trust, it is not. It is instead a company with a good reputation. But I understand that making money is their main focus. And perhaps that is why I am more interested in Imagineers, who intellectually we might believe were acting in the best interests of the guests, instead of the Disney Chief Financial Officer!
I really cannot get away from the tone. When I was grad student, my major professor overheard another of his grad students and me discussing General George Patton and some of the more outlandish and perhaps mythical stories around him with some undergraduates. He chuckled for a moment and looked at me and stated there are stories you tell on a bar stool and stories you tell in a lecture hall. The point was clear to me. One should not be reckless and glib when you speak from an academic position of authority. Fjellman’s explanation of WED, now Walt Disney Imagineering, as the place where the Imagineers hang out is simply to glib to me. And his discussion of Walt Disney and the possibility of him being cryogenically frozen so he could return and repair the mistakes of his successors is a bar stool myth. I was especially frustrated that the only possibility of this being a myth is within the footnotes which many readers may not reference. I understand that some may enjoy this type of history in an academic wrapper, but I would be more willing to accept this kind of tone if the book did not represent itself as an academic endeavor.
Vinyl Leaves is generally a well loved and reviewed Disney book on culture and Walt Disney World. However, I personally did not enjoy it, mostly due to the bias I found within it. Perhaps I have been brain washed, as I believe that Walt Disney wanted to create something fantastic and that his successors used his strategies like cooperating with cooperate sponsors to build something good though not as wonderful as originally planned. Additionally, I do agree that Disney edits history in the parks, but I also feel it is foolhardy to use theme park attractions to build one’s holistic picture of American society. I found the book slow to read and would never recommend it someone looking for an enjoyable read. Instead I would recommend that researchers be aware of the book and use it understanding the bias found within it. Just because it is biased does not mean there is not plenty of factual information within it. Personally, I kept comparing much of it to Walt and the Promise of Progress City which is an easier to access picture of what Walt Disney intended in Florida and how it feel short.