Book Review: Spinning Disney’s World by Charles Ridgeway

This week I’m going to explore two very different books about the same subject–working for Disney.  Today we’ll discuss a memoir from a former PR executive who was with Disney from the early days of Disneyland through the preparations for Hong Kong Disney.  Later this week I’ll review a memoir by a former cast member who will paint a very different picture of what it’s like to work for The Mouse.

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Spinning Disney’s World: Memories of a Magic Kingdom Press Agent by Charles Ridgeway

Rating 4/5 for Disney fans

When reading a memoir like this, it’s important to remember the author’s bias and adjust your expectations accordingly.  Ridgeway is a former press agent for Disney, thus it’s unrealistic to go into the book expecting dirt.  However, if you begin the book imagining that your uncle is going to sit down and spin you folksy stories about the past, then you’ll enjoy the next 23 chapters.

Ridgeway doesn’t tell his story sequentially–it often feels like he’s just writing his stream of consciousness.  One minute he’s talking about Nixon dedicating the monorail, then he talks about why he dislikes the term “amusement park,” he goes forward in time to talk about trash collection strategies, then we are given this tidbit–

Because at ground level the store fronts along Main Street U.S.A. took a daily beating from guests – little nicks and scratches – while the upper level stayed in good shape for a couple of years at least, the painters had a set of colors for the lower half that matched the upper half after it had faded for a year. (12%–sorry, my kindle edition doesn’t give me page numbers, so I’ll note the percentage point where I found the quote)

Then we’re back to trash collection followed by crowd control techniques.

It may sound like a jumbled mess, but it actually works quite well.  Ridgeway genuinely loves his subject material and it shows. Even when he talks about things like how changes in media (the invention of satellites, the internet, etc) have changed how PR works at Disney he’s as enthusiastic as a kid at Christmas, which makes what might otherwise be boring seem like an interesting tidbit of knowledge.

Ridgeway was part of the company when Timex, who made the Disney themed kid watches for Disneyland, turned the company down cold at the idea of making Disney watches for adults.  Timex didn’t think they would be able to sell any, and refused.  They allowed the company to approach other watchmakers.  When Hamilton agreed to make them, and to sell them for what was an absurdly high price of 60 USD….they were sold out before they got to Disneyland.  Ridgeway notes he couldn’t manage to purchase one until the fifth shipment! (21%)

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 12.19.53 AMcurrent watch on sale–not the one he mentions.

One of the pitfalls of life as a Disney press agent was managing expectations.  The opening of Disneyworld was one such example…

One paper predicted twenty-five thousand people for opening day.  We had figured about ten thousand, but were not making any predictions publicly.  We had scheduled it in what is traditonally the lightest vacation month of the year, on a Friday, the lightest day of the week.  But we were really only guessing.

Another paper said fifty thousand, another one hundred thousand.  Finally, Cocoa Today, being used to estimating crowds for the launches at Cape Canaveral, predicted two hundred thousand people.  To make it worse, a veteran Reuters correspondent at the Cape picked up the story and moved it on her wire.  Somehow a zero got added in transmission and all over Europe they read were were expecting two million people for the opening.

At the close of the day, Jack Lindquist and Disney President Donn Tatum were on hand on the balcony at the Polynesian atrium for a press conference to sum up the opening.  Attendance, they reported was about ten thousand.  (I think they counted a few of those cast members who were sailing around the lagoon in Sun Fish sailboats to make the place look alive.)

“That is what we expected,” they said.  But no one there believed them.  The New York Times among others reported, “Disappointing opening.” (44-45%)

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My favorite parts of the books were the back stories to iconic Disneyana like the famous “What’s next?” commercial.  Ridgeway recounts the genesis, crediting Michael Eisner’s wife, Jane.

(During dinner with pilots who had just gained fame for setting a record for navigating the world without stopping)

In casual conversation, Jane asked, “Now that you have been around the world, what are you going to do next.”

Jokingly the pilot replied, “We’re going to Disneyland.”  And there it was!

“What a great idea for a Disney commercial,” was Jane’s automatic reaction.

…. (this was 2 weeks before superbowl 21)…

The NFL agreed immediately to support the idea of having the hero of the game participate.  Appearance fees were arranged with likely candidates from the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos.  NFL films agreed to supply game footage within an hour of the end of the game in the Rose Bowl.

Some might have been content to tape a commercial to run a week or a month later-not Michael.  He wanted it on air the next day.

…..

With an ENG camera crew in tow, she (Maureen O’Donnell) stood posed on the sidelines, barely waiting until the final whistle to dash onto the field, elbowing her way through fans and interview-hungry tv newsmen to grab New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms by the jersey.

Edited in later, the booming voice of an announcer shouts over the screaming uproar of a just-finished championship game ‘Phil Simms, now that you have won the Super Bowl, waht are you going to do next?’  Phil had just two lines to record.

“I’m going to Disney World!” and “I’m going to Disneyland!”

One was for the East Coast and one was for the West Coast. (86%)

2009 Superbowl winner ad

Uncle Charlie has stories about what it was like to work for Walt Disney (all of which burnish Disney’s halo).

Never a backslapper, Walt didn’t run around praising people for good work.  He expected it.  But one nod of approval or a smile from Walt was enough to keep his creative people enthused for days. (20%)

Those press lunches were where I really got to know Walt’s personality.  He was always at his best with the press.  We posed the group for pictures.  Walt, as usual, stood on tiptoes so he would look a little taller in comparison to tall people like the Fort Lauderdale editor, Fred Pettijohn.  (30%)

When it opened, Disneyland still had several unfinished attraction.  Asked when it would be finished, Walt replied, “Disneyland will never be completed.  It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” (98%)

In truth, Walt Disney was a fairly complex individual.  It is inconvenient to think of such a beloved American icon as a racist, for example…

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In her article “Fact-Checking the Age-Old Rumors of Walt Disney’s Dark Side,” Angela Dobbins says (among others)

The charge: Walt Disney was racist.
The evidence: These charges stem primarily from the use of racial stereotypes in Disney movies from the 40s: Dumbo‘s black crows; Fantasia’s black servant centaurette; and Song of the South, a movie so offensive that the Disney company will no longer let it be seen in public. Then there is Walt Disney’s own behavior: Gabler cites a meeting in which Disney referred to the Snow White dwarves as a “nigger pile” and another in which he used the term “pickaninny.” The book notes that Disney anticipated the Song of the South controversy and attempted to make it less racist with a rewrite and meeting with the NAACP. The meeting never happened, and the movie was released anyway. There was also some controversy about the company’s unwillingness to hire minorities at Disneyland.
Believability: Those are certainly not flattering facts, but they are facts.  (source)

One might argue that those are all period pieces, to which I’d respond that the modern era record isn’t fantastic, either.  The first princess of color was Pocahontas (1995), followed by Mulan (1998) and Tiana (2009)–a total of three protagonists of color.  All of these token princesses remain problematic when viewed through the lens of a historical/gender/race scholar.

It is also undeniable that the image Disney strives to recreate is that of a largely Rockwellian America–Middle/Upper Middle Class, White, Straight, Christian and Nuclear families.  Disneyland is, i many ways, the embodiment of that–Cast Member regulations are incredibly strict, and require that you look as straight laced and clean cut as possible (we’ll get to things like drunken cast member parties and sex on property tomorrow).  It should be unsurprising to a modern reader, then, to learn that Disney was a Republican (25%).

Ridgeway avoids these topics directly, but he does admit that

At the gate, Marketing Director Jack Lindquist looked over the crowd waiting at the fourteen turnstiles and picked the one that would turn for “First Visitor.”  His family would receive a guided tour, a night in the hotel and other favors, although that was not announced in advance.  By “pure coincidence” Jack picked the one where a family of five handsome blonde guests awaited, man, wife, and three beautiful children.

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 10.32.27 AMWilliam Windsor Jr and family, the first visitors to Disneyland.  source

The man whose name is synonymous with wholesome family fare also “remained to the far right on the political spectrum, suspicious of foreigners, and unwilling to hire Jews or blacks in his company,” writes Stefan Kanfer in “Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America from Betty Boop to Toy Story.” “More than once he announced his preference for animals over people, and called his time ‘the century of the Communist cutthroat, the fag and the whore.'”

Although in the 1930s Walt is said to have stood by an animator arrested on a charge of homosexuality, compassion vanished when the company’s public image was at stake. In 1963, Tommy Kirk — a child actor in such live-action Disney films as “Old Yeller,” “The Shaggy Dog” and “Swiss Family Robinson” — had his contract suspended “because of growing awareness of his homosexual orientation,” says Griffin, whose book relates the story based upon Kirk’s published comments. “Supposedly [Kirk] got too frisky with a boyfriend at a public pool in Los Angeles, and the other boy’s mother found out about it and went to Disney,” he says. “They called Tommy in and fired him.”

source

But who is the real Walt Disney?  The racist homophobe?  Or the “true patriot”(25%)  Ridgeway describes?  Before Ridgeway’s book, I hadn’t known that the Disney brothers almost went out of business during the WW2 era because they’d spent their time and effort making “training films” and “morale boosters” for the US military. (50%)  One of Walt’s biggest commitments was the Hall of Presidents, which still continues to add an animatronic figure with each new Commander in Chief.

Ridgeway’s best stories are the ones where he is telling his own story, rather than playing press agent for Walt Disney.  There’s enough unbiased detail in the book to convince me that Disney considered himself a patriot and that he genuinely wanted the company and the parks to do things in the service of America without the following anecdote about “America on Parade” in 1975

Among the invitees were Brady Black and his wife.  Brady, then editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, had been interested in Disney parks for a long time.  They brought their draft-age son along.  I knew they had been worried about the young man as had many of my friends with their sons.  He had been against the war and even threatened to burn his draft card.

The four of us watched the whole parade.  I wasn’t close enough to hear, but I saw her son lean over and speak into his mother’s ear.  A few minutes later she told me, with tears in her eyes, what he had said.

“Mom, this country isn’t so bad after all.

“I never thought he would say anything like that,” Mrs. Black said. (50%)

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These moments detract from Ridgeway’s story.  They take us out of his tales and remind us that he is a PR agent, and thus a master of the fine art of spin (it’s even in the title!).  These moments throw the rest of the content into question.  I would have preferred a more balanced perspective on Disney the man, or less mention of Disney the man and more of his stories about day to day life as a press agent.

Like I noted at the start–if you go into the novel with realistic expectations, it is an entertaining read for Disney fans.  Just read critically.

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