This year, I was honored to be asked by Arthur Frommer to write two new flagship guidebooks for his guidebook series. The first one, for London, was released two months ago, and is selling well on Amazon (that’s here). Now, my guide to Walt Disney World and Orlando comes out.
Walt Disney World is tied to me as few other things in my life are. We grew up together. We were born the same year, two and a half months apart. Through the mid-1970s, I was a Florida kid, so we went all the time. Some of my first memories as a toddler were being pushed on a stroller through the Magic Kingdom when it was brand new, collecting tickets to ride more rides, staying up late to see the Electrical Water Pageant, excitedly looking down on everything I dreamed about from the Skyway buckets. In those days, the trees were newly planted, so some of my most powerful childhood memories are of sweating in the searing, shadeless Disney sunshine, smeared with chocolate-covered frozen bananas, impatient for the faraway day I would finally be tall enough to ride Space Mountain.
I grew with it, visiting it the way you’d see a beloved aunt or a grandma, until the trees were tall and full. You could fairly say that although I have moved, changed jobs, and transformed many times over the years, Disney World has always waited. My family never kept houses or property, so Orlando is one of the only constants I have known. I understand what it means to children, and I understand what it wants to be.
Although it was a formative place for me as a child, and I will always appreciate how to interpret it on that level, I am now invited as a professional. Each time I return to cover it, I remember how lucky I am to have kept it as a place of continuity in my life. Now, it’s like getting paid to visit grandma.
I have always seen what she’s worth, and I expect only the best from her. And I am far from the only person who has grown up with Disney World but who has been disappointed by the gradual dismantling of its original populist intentions (a topic worth another blog post sometime). People return from vacations there not just raving about the fun, but also rolling their eyes at the outrageous expense and hassle. Both fun and frustration are part of a modern Disney experience. I write about it the way people talk about it. I do it because I love the old girl.
Before I began the Frommer’s guide to Disney, I looked at the other books on the bookstore shelf and I saw that most of the books for sale were crypto-valentines, yet many families go to Disney a lot more intelligently. A huge number of people go to Disney because it’s Disney, the way we decide it’s time to finally see the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. It’s mindless fun, yes, but it’s also a bit of a cultural obligation. If you want to be a culturally literate American, at some point, you do Disney.
But none of the other guides were written that way. No guide is written for clear-eyed and un-initiated pilgrims, which is what so many visitors to Walt Disney World actually are.
Most Disney guides are obsequious with their prose. They only reveal themselves to be tap-dance routines when you read literally, using the same standards you’d apply to a news article. The previous Frommer’s guide said that “It’s a Small World” featured the song performed “in tiny Munchkin voices” (it doesn’t; they’re kids’ voices, and only the figures are small) and a rival publisher claims the Little Mermaid ride presents a “magical landscape” where you “feel the sensation of descending under the sea” with “Scuttle the seagull and his animated crab pals” (all hogwash; it’s all robots and lights, and isn’t the word pals a little like ad copy?). Readers are promised that on the dismal Epcot ride Imagination!, “a new perspective enhances your imagination” (really?).
You get the idea. Most Disney coverage is drenched in the words “magic” and “wonder,” immersed in delusion or requires readers to decode the superlatives to glean an expectation of what the truth will actually be. It’s not accurate. None of it would pass muster from the fact-checkers, editors, or publishers who oversee most other world destinations. The carefully cultivated fantasy world of Disney lends itself to unwittingly blind boosterism, flinching on the navigational advice for fear of bursting some tacitly agreed-upon illusory bubble. Editors must agree to allow the light criticism and descriptive hyperbole for the same reason many of us go in the first place: because, y’know, it’s Disney.
I knew that what the market was missing was a guide for the rest of us, written by someone who loves it—but also loves it enough to actually point out its growing pains. Something accurate, but also fair, and also full of love for the topic.
Minding the pixie dust. Filtering out the marketing-speak. I look at Disney for what it is: an American institution, an engineering marvel, a priceless historical artifact we use every day, a universe unto itself, and ultimately, a product.
As with all invested universes—Star Wars, Tolkien, the Catholic Church, the Red Sox—many people derive comfort from their mastery of it. Perhaps even I do. When you challenge that, disputes will be inevitable.
Because there are so many fervent followers, I know that I’m bound to receive some objections for being plainspoken about Disney. I know that some True Believers will bristle when I say Disney “tricks you into overpurchasing” (p. 21) or at my sidebar titled “Why You Don’t Want the Disney Dining Plan” (p. 23), or when I review the aforementioned Imagination! pavilion as “rotten with neglect” (p. 59). As I write on p. 89:
Be alert that many [cast members] identify personally with the Disney Way (it exists) and they take subtle exception to comments that carry a hint of being argumentative. Try not to bicker with Disney employees or put them in a position of having to defend or explain their company. And for heaven’s sake, no cussing! That code is technically meant to apply only to cast members, but the unspoken cultural expectation is that you follow it, too. The flip side of this is that if something goes wrong with your visit, cast members will often move heaven and earth to make it right and make your vacation a positive memory.
That’s from a guidebook. Yes, I wrote a guidebook to Disney as if its culture was as specific and as delicate as that of a foreign land. There’s no reason you shouldn’t approach Disney the way you approach India or Peru.
Some aspects of Disney are better than others; they naturally have to be, and I believe the number of critics is growing. My own family, which took me several times a year in my youth, largely refuses to go because of the crowds and what they perceive as a management that is always looking for ways to offer less for the money. But I expect my Amazon reviews to be tinged with outage and nit-picking, some of it the output of outrage that I would reveal the flaws in their deeply held value system, and the rest the complaints from people who don’t realize there are months of lag time between when a guidebook is researched and when it’s actually on shelves. They won’t see all the ways I love this invented landscape, my deep understanding of what it’s trying to do, and my reaction based on those grand intentions.
That’s okay. It’s a hazard of the beat, but it bears mentioning that it’s something I don’t have to parry after I publish my London guide.
My guide is a Disney guide for the rest of us. I cover the wonderful, the iffy, and the areas that need improvement. I adore Disney World, and I want it to do right by my precious childhood impressions. I’m willing to take the licks if it means creating a title that you can trust. You can buy it by clicking this link.