Monday, February 27, 2023

Between Books - Disney's Theme Parks and America's National Narratives

Book cover for Disney Theme Parks and America's National Narratives showing a large crowd in front of Cinderella's castle at Walt Disney World.

I started this book and couldn’t get past the first page. I just couldn’t read it. And that’s why I got glasses!

It has been a while since I have read a monograph with smaller type, smaller pages, and with only occasional pictures. And the addition of glasses did make me feel like an academic reading a book for scholars.

Disney Theme Parks and America’s National Narrative: Mirror, Mirror For Us All by Bethanee Bemis hypothesizes, argues, and defends an academic thesis about the history and culture of the United States and Disney Parks. Bemis puts forth that Disney theme parks are a physical location where the American public negotiates the meaning of what it means to be American. She looks at five points of contact. She examines the use of American folklore and myth in the parks, Disney characters as American symbols, the transformation of folk history into an experience, the legitimization of Disney’s version of history by national figures and organizations, and finally Disney's use and evolution of history in the theme parks. Bemis argues that what is reflected in theme parks are not just conservative viewpoints but an evolution of how Americans see themselves. The book chapters delve into these topics, by demonstrating numerous examples in a short number of pages. For example, “Mickey Mouse/White House: Celebrating American Indentiy at Disney Parks” provides an overview of every President’s relationship since Dwight D. Eisenhower with the Disney Parks. In this chapter, special focus is given to presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan who had more than glancing visits to the parks. And Bemis uses these examples to show the messages that Presidents were delivering using the parks for context and emphasis.

Bemis is a well-trained and respected academic with ties to the Smithsonian. She writes for an academic audience with numerous citations and a reference section that shows she’s done the work. The writing is clear and straightforward. And honestly, I feel like it’s accessible to the non-academic reader. But. this is a very different tone than a memoir, biography, or even non-academic history with a goal of entertaining. This is not a fireside or bedtime read, this is a monograph, a complex study. And that tone may not attract all readers. Also, this is a $40 book, which while a standard for an academic monograph may be too pricey for a 120-page book with limited pictures.

As I read through this book, I do feel Bemis very much depicts a relationship between the parks and American people that evolves. And while American history and even Walt Disney himself were often conservative in nature, there are many pieces of clear evidence that show the parks evolve along with society. I think the most impactful evidence for me of this evolution is Disney’s view of Gay Days. Bemis shows us how Disney had negative reactions to same-sex relational displays in Disneyland, to their caution but allowance to the first Gay Days events, to current corporate acceptance and support. Bemis shows us how the American viewpoint on this issue evolved the parks’ changing narrative making her point about the changing narrative.

Many early academic Disney books were, to be honest, attacks. The Disneyfication of American history is painted in a negative light as it may have glorified patriotism and ignored peoples and minority groups. I fully see the point that Bemis is making, the park narrative, which is not a true depiction of American history, has evolved as guests interacted with the parks. But what you look for, one will find. And I can see how those who believe that Disney parks and executives are immoral agents manipulating historical views, would be validated by this study. And I can see how those who believe that Disney creatives have only good intent would also be validated. In the end, Bemis to me paints a picture where the parks and the people for good and ill have informed each other. And it is a much more interesting and complex relationship of gray instead of black and white.

Professional academic Disney works are coming! They are not marketing. They are not Disney-sponsored history. They are not love letters from fans. They sometimes require reading glasses! Disney Theme Parks and America’s National Narrative: Mirror, Mirror For Us All by Bethanee Bemis is part of this professional trend. The monograph would likely not be for everyone, as it is not as fun or nostalgic as a memoir or entertaining secrets account. But it does paint us a valuable picture of how an entertainment company can be influenced by society, and how that narrative can be mirrored back to the people.

And it appears that thanks to Bemis I can see clearly now! 


Review Copy Provided by Routledge

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Thursday, February 23, 2023

Between Books - Star Wars: The Halcyon Legacy

Book cover for Star Wars the Halcyon Legacy showing a Jedi wookie standing in front of an image of the Halcyon


I love it!

It may not be for everyone, but I generally am a fan. And with something as big as the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser it’s all departments on deck as Marvel supports an ambitious new hotel experience!

Star Wars: The Halcyon Legacy written by Ethan Sacks with art by Will Sliney takes readers on a historic journey on the fictional galactic starcruiser. We join a grandfather and granddaughter on a voyage when it is stopped by pirates. The space pirates are seeking out a spy for the Resistance, and they hope to be rewarded by the First Order for turning over the agent. During this crisis, the Halcyon’s logistic droid Deethree Ohnine tells the family stories of past events, including one that involved the grandfather. These tales also give Star Wars fans moments with The High Republic, Aurra Sing, Asajj Ventress, Anakin Skywalker, Padme Amidala, Lando Calrissian, Hondo Ohnaka, and many more. The stories together paint a picture of a cruise liner with a long history of intrigue and adventure.

Overall, the story is what you expect for a comic book tale. And it is written clearly and approachable especially for younger fans. I assume that Disney and its subsidiaries did require that the story include a large number of tie-ins…for synergy. The art is well done and gives you the visual reference you need to enter the Star Wars universe.

Huh, so you want to open with a story about the High Republic? I get that the High Republic is a massive Disney publishing program. But do you really want to open with that? To me, this comic has a purpose. Okay, I will agree that Sacks and Sliney had the purpose of creating an enjoyable story. So two purposes. Purpose two, as likely seen by Disney as purpose one, is to get guests excited about Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. I’d also argue that kids are a great target for the comics format. I am not convinced that kids really know anything about the High Republic publishing effort. I’m not convinced as a Disney adult that the High Republic, especially wave two, is successful also. So while I get the references to the newest trilogy, especially how it aligns with Batuu, I scratch my head with the inclusion of an era of Star Wars that is really only on the page at the moment.

To continue to overstep myself, I think if Disney Parks, Lucasfilm, and Marvel wanted to really use synergy this story should have gone a little differently. First, we only get to see Captain Keevan in the story from the actual park experience cast. I think they could have added more current crew to the story. That would have better prepared you for who you will meet on the Halcyon. We really don’t get to see as much of the ship as I wanted. And I still scratch my head that anyone can do lightsaber training after tv has shown us they are super hard to use (nerd alert). Second, I would have rolled into the moments that older Star Wars fans may really have wanted, the original trilogy cast on an adventure. I think this would have been a perfect moment to adapt Princess Leia’s and Han’s honeymoon into comics. They’ve adapted entire Thrawn novels into comics. And this would have been a great moment to give that story some visuals. Now that is synergy and maybe help get Disney some bookings. And spoiler, younger fans like that first group of heroes too!

Star Wars: The Halcyon Legacy written by Ethan Sacks with art by Will Sliney is a fine representation of a comic book that can be enjoyed by numerous audiences. I just see the ability to better apply synergy. I think that Disney could have better used this opportunity to get bookings by making guests feel both informed and excited about a vacation of a lifetime. I would have simply recommended sprinkle in more of who we know and who we will see.


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Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Between Books - Not Just a Walk in the Park

Book cover for Not Just a Walk in the Park showing Jim Cora standing in front of a Disney castle.

Do you want to talk about the Disney navy? Did you hear about the time Disney almost bought an aircraft carrier?

Not Just a Walk in the Park: My Worldwide Disney Resorts Career by James B. Cora with Jeff Kurtti outlines the late Disney Legend’s life and career. Cora begins his tale with a story of immigrants. Cora’s family immigrated from Lebanon before his birth. This resulted in a circumstance where his complexion and culture made him feel out of place. Cora entered the Air Force after high school, and post-service balanced school (which he struggled with), and a job at Disneyland (which he flourished with). Cora would be noticed by Van France and Dick Nunis for his ability to train and organize. After ten years that saw Cora move between Disneyland and Retlaw, he was asked to help oversee the on-site development of Walt Disney World with an eye toward operations. This established Cora as a Disney projects expert which launched him into decades of international adventures with roles overseeing development at Tokyo Disneyland, Euro Disney, Tokyo DisneySea, and unbuilt concepts as the leading executive for Disneyland International. Cora would retire after 44 years of Disney projects, but in his later life, he continued to make himself busy mixing his project, operations, and storytelling expertise to continue to delight his audience despite significant health problems.

Honestly, I was not aware of much of Cora’s career. And his writing is clear, and to the point, and I imagine his tone. He writes a book that is not just about Disney, but also his family's legacy in the United States, his personal failures, and his attempts to hold to a strong operational standard. I found myself amused by stories that were best told by him, like a pitch to purchase a scrap aircraft carrier to create a mobile Disney park. Cora also had a great vantage point to compare the creation of Disney parks in Japan and France. Spoiler, he found the Japanese to be the superior group of managers to work with going so far as suggesting their staff and not Americans may be the best trainers abroad. His life gives us a view from the middle of the hierarchy in getting Disney projects made abroad and lessons on managing up. As someone who grew up in the Eisner era, I enjoyed the stories of Michael Eisner asking for medical advice, while neither Cora nor Eisner should have been working. And the tales of the supportive Frank Wells just help to make him even more endearing.

I recently had a conversation about networking. I don’t like it. I am just a little too introverted. And I would like to think that my work and effort are what I should be evaluated against. I really get the sense that this is how Cora saw life too. He was raised by his parents to be hardworking. He was proud of what he did. Cora points out Disney Legends, such as Marty Sklar, who knew better than him how to be political in the office. But I think it is likely this what you see is what you get, and what is get is pretty darn good, which led figures like Dick Nunis to rely on him. And Cora himself did not suffer fools. His text has several references to organizational tendencies that he felt lacked efficiency. And there are stories of executives who lacked the proper work ethic or Disney spirit. Not everyone liked Cora, he at one point was key in corporate layoffs. But at least in his writing he also showed a very human side of himself.

Not Just a Walk in the Park: My Worldwide Disney Resorts Career had been on my to-read list for around a year. I’m really glad that I added it to my Between Books. Sure, it’s not a book filled with excitement and artistic lessons. And there is a lot about operations and career building, which I appreciated. But most of all while I am getting older in Betweenland, it reminded me that I have a lot to still contribute. And that everything behind me, can lead me to situations where I can still give to others.

Thank You, Mr. Cora!

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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Dreaming Disney - 50 Years of Magical Learnings


Professionally, I have spent over 20 years in education. This has always put the Disney Institute courses on my radar. But they were dreams. I could not afford this training which primarily was site-based courses where one might also get to visit a theme park. I mean I am down with combining education and theme parks.

The pandemic changed everything.

Education went online, including the Disney Institute.


In 2022, I had to change a lot about my life due to the pandemic’s impacts. As I reviewed my next steps, I also ran across an online Disney Institute course celebrating the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World. My wife and I decided to sign me up partially to entertain me, and partially to keep me thinking about the business world. I think we both decided that the course was going to be highly fact and trivia based. Instead, I got a business-focused management course that one could place on LinkedIn…if others understood exactly what the course entailed.

“50 Years of Magical Learnings” is a 30-plus module course that combines Walt Disney World Resort history and business principles. Each lesson uses a variety of text, video, interactive activities, and journaling to convey business lessons seen in the history of Walt Disney World. The segments can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to complete. Topics explored include employee recognition, continuous improvement, telling a story, customer service, safety and so much more. Seven of the lessons include insights for Disney executive George A. Kalogridis who served as the 50th Anniversary Ambassador, which allow him to reflect on his professional journey as he moved through the resort leadership.

The content varied in content, but the majority of it was helpful and relevant to a professional journey. Instead of completing a course in one sitting, I spaced it out for nearly a year trying to complete one module a week. My payment did give me access for a year. And during the year new modules were released as they further developed the course. It provided me with a good professional development opportunity that I controlled and could drop in and out of as needed. I will admit I did struggle at times with some of the journaling as my career path went up and down a few different roads. I enjoyed it, professionally, as it framed issues within a familiar to me setting. And the content and videos were professionally developed.

Financially did it make sense? Pre-pandemic these courses were well outside of my price range and I did pay out of pocket. The course at the time I enrolled was $399. We found a deep discount that made it even more financially viable. And since I spent a year engaging the content it felt like an investment in me. The courses on leadership, employee engagement, and customer service are listed as taking 45 to 60 minutes for a cost of $199. Therefore, I found myself feeling like I got a steal for the year. I do intend to add the completed course to my LinkedIn. My only worry with this choice is that someone might think it is a trivia course and not a business course. But hey, that wouldn’t be the first Disney-related business entry on my resume. I also am considering paying out of pocket for an additional shorter course.

“50 Years of Magical Learnings” may attract Disney fans with the promise of stories and facts about the Walt Disney World Resort. But it is packed with leadership and business content wrapped into a well-produced professional development course. I do prefer the way I managed my course completion allowing myself to marinate and reflect on the lessons instead of rushing quickly through the lessons while they jumped past my eyes without thought.

Let’s be real. Unlike required corporate learning, I paid for this. And hey…Mickey Mouse!