Monday, June 9, 2008

Chris Strodder's Disneyland Encyclopedia: A Review

Today I received my anxiously awaited copy of Chris Strodder's The Disneyland Encyclopedia: The Unofficial, Unauthorized, and Unprecedented History of Every Land, Attraction, Restaurant, Shop, and Event in the Original Magic Kingdom (Santa Monica: Santa Monica Press, 1998). I'm usually not one to review things myself, but I do have some qualifications that pertain to the topic at hand. To wit, I'm a Disneyland historian (with an encyclopedia in progress) who has gone through library science training! If you're new here, yes, my work on The Disneyland Compendium may bias me against a perceived competing book... however, I think the product Kevin Yee and I are creating is vastly more comprehensive than this encyclopedia. In a coming post (probably this week, maybe very soon), I will expound on how the Compendium differs from anything currently existing or likely to be created.

Here I'm going to review the encyclopedia from an information access perspective, using my class notes to assess its authority, reliability, and encyclopedianess. While this may be overkill (should it be considered an encyclopedia just because it's called an encyclopedia?), I found the principles used to assess these rigorously constructed sources useful to think about in reviewing this encyclopedia. My comments below point out the flaws I found in the book, but I don't believe it's a bad book. This is an evaluation from a library science and how-I-will-do-it-differently perspective; I have no doubt that the volume contains a lot of information unknown to a lot of Disneyland fans and he seems to have expended considerable effort in pulling it together. I know one wouldn't attempt something like this unless they loved Disneyland!

So, who is Chris Strodder, and what makes him qualified to write this book? I admit I hadn't heard the name before I saw that this book was coming out. From his About the Author and Introduction, we learn that he is a Mill Valley-based web designer authoring on the side and that this is his sixth book since 2000. Two of his other books have very tangential relations to Disneyland: an adventure novel had a Disneyland-like park as a major setting, and The Encyclopedia of Sixties Cool talked about Disneyland in the 1960s. He grew up a fan of Disneyland, getting there every few years and more frequently while he attended UCLA.

He makes a point that he had no special access, nor has he at any time been employed by The Walt Disney Company. Disturbing to me was his seeming pride in pointing out that he did not "correspond with any Disney executives, officials, publicists, or archivists," and the dates used throughout the book are "as accurate as [he] could make them without having access to the official Disney Archives." Despite the use of the word unauthorized in the title (there's at least one Amazon comment on my own book 101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland complaining of our use of "unauthorized" in the subtitle), there's very little in here that casts Disney in a negative light. The only two instances I saw in three hours with the book tonight were a very brief discussion of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad's safety problems and problems endured by walk-around characters. So, why is he proud of the outsider status, when it does nothing to enrich the work but does detract from its authority? Although the Walt Disney Archives is well-nigh impossible to get into for research, Dave Smith will review outside manuscripts sent to him for accuracy.

The fan perspective shows up frequently in the writing, sometimes expressing personal affection for a removed attraction and sometimes grasping for information on an entry. In regards to Adventure Thru Inner Space, Stoddard writes, "Sadly, its sets aging and its wait-time disappearing, Adventure Thru Inner Space closed in 1985..." Or he mentions that the "coolest" job in the Park is "usually considered" to be the Jungle Cruise skipper. He signals less confidence in his authority to the reader with many uses of "usually" or "supposedly" ("John Hench is usually credited" as the designer of Carefree Corner's exterior, for instance, or writing "The Adventureland Bazaar...seemingly included..."). He repeats some rumors (such as that the Bengal Barbecue will be removed for an expansion of the River Belle Terrace--probably this last expansion), or that the Skyway was removed because of unruly Guests, safety concerns, or the theming of the towers in Fantasyland (without a mention of the labor savings!).

Where does he get his information, then, if not from personal experience or from anything unpublished? His bibliography is rather thin, but lists the Disneyland books you would expect. Surprisingly missing is any mention of The "E" Ticket magazine; I felt sure that would be a key source. Instead, much of his information comes from souvenir guidebooks (not the guidemaps that VintageDisneylandTickets has been posting, but the more book-like ones issued annually). The encyclopedia contains unending references to these guidebooks, frequently even talking about how long it was before the entity had its photograph in such a guide. The Crystal Arcade entry contains the line, "Somehow the flashy frontage missed the photographers' cameras for all of the park's early souvenir books until a wide photo put it behind the Disneyland Band in '68." It's regrettable that Strodder includes so many references of that type, for he's otherwise a very engaging writer.

The encyclopedia is only available in paperback and does not claim that it meets the permanence of paper standards that academic books usually do. I doubt this book would stand up to the use I gave my first copy of The Nickel Tour! There are lots of photographs throughout--almost all taken in 2007 by the author or another individual--but I found them to be a little small, particularly photos of signage and Main Street Windows. There are also some maps unique to this volume for the various lands.

Organizationally, the book is arranged alphabetically (it claims A-Z, but delivers A-Y--might I suggest "Zorro Days"?). The first thing one notices is that all the entry names are rendered in the Disneyland font; I didn't care for this. I think Strodder made a big mistake by how he combined various attractions and such. For example, Astro-Jets, Tomorrowland Jets, and Rocket Jets are all treated by one entry, while Astro Orbitor is treated separately. When he combines terms this way, it only appears in the listing under the first name. So, if you're looking for Rocket Jets, you won't find it alphabetically in the listing... or in the Land by Land listing at the end of the book... or in the index (yes, an encyclopedia with an index!); you have to know that it began life as the Astro-Jets. Same thing for the Plaza Inn (Red Wagon Inn), Disneyland Railroad (Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad), and a host of others; he uses the first name an entity had, even if most people would know it as something else. I think he lumped together things too disparate, as with Submarine Voyage and Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, or the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train and the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland.

The amount of space given to various topics is uneven. The three early permutations of the Rocket Jets were given one entry, but Critter Country Plush, an undistinguished shop of about six months' duration, gets its own! Strodder's love of the souvenir guidebooks is evident in that the entry for those is about as long as that for Sleeping Beauty Castle. Sometimes he seems to just put in what he knows (the fact that the All-American College Band performed from June 14 through August 13, 2007 is hardly relevant by itself).

There are sidebars throughout the text. These provide bits of trivia unrelated to the entries. (Not that I have anything against trivia.) I can see the value in things like a list of Opening Day attractions or boat names, but "10 Serene Hideaways" and "12 Terrific Views" hardly seem encyclopedic. The Land by Land appendix is nice, but would be better if it cross-referenced the terms lumped together and provided operating dates. The bibliography could be improved with a listing of all the souvenir guidebooks he used. (One of the things my Information Access professor stressed was the importance of letting your audience know what you have looked at, so they also know what you have not researched.)

On the bright side, the work is largely accurate. There are a few incorrect dates... even some I unwittingly contributed via my Disneyland Timeline! (For example, I had listed Carnation Ice Cream Parlor closing on Saturday, January 4, 1997, and the Rocket Jets on Monday, January 6, 1997; I later found out from Dave Smith that the Archives uses the last operating date as the closure date, so those should be shifted forward one day.) At one point I could tell he accepted a few sentences from The Nickel Tour without doing additional research. In what may have been convenient for their story structure, Bruce and David wrote, "There would be no Mineral King Resort. By now it was December of 1966." Strodder repeats twice in the encyclopedia that Mineral King was dead in 1966, but that was the first year of Disney's provisional permit; the project didn't completely die until 1978.

Some things I'm not sure where he got. He says there were "about a dozen" unscheduled closures of Disneyland; I know of three. Strodder writes that Cast Members are those Disneyland employees "who work in view of Guests, while it is actually all Resort personnel employed by Disney (and he makes no mention of the affectionate Disneylander term used through the years). His use of terms is mostly OK, though I don't know why he uses "Main Street" instead of "Main Street, U.S.A." as the term. My biggest gripe with his nomenclature is the exhaustive use of the incorrect "Plaza Hub." I have never seen or heard it referred to this way before. As near as I can tell, Central Plaza is the correct term, with alternates through the years of Hub, Hub Area, The Hub, Plaza, Plaza Circle, or The Plaza. On The Disneyland Story, Walt stands over the Main Street model and points to the area and says, "The Plaza, or the Hub, is the heart of Disneyland."

Who is the work for? The author doesn't say, except that it's a book he wanted to read himself (I can understand that!). If you own the books listed in the bibliography--and know them fairly well--you probably don't need this book. I know I would have loved this when I was just getting interested in Disneyland's history. But it suffers from some authority problems. Strodder relied on a very narrow range of sources and often takes the reader along with him as he compares guidebooks. I fail to see how consciously ignoring Disney as a source for information improved the book.

But I realize that my perspective in this is unique. I had a hard time finding many new things in the book, but that surely will be atypical. For a few years Kevin has been telling me that we could do at least the encyclopedia portion of the Compendium and I kept resisting because I didn't feel I had enough information. In a sense, this is kind of the book I think we would have ended up with. I'm confident that the sources I've had opened up to me, along with my approach to organizing the research, will result in something vastly different from Strodder's encyclopedia. Check back soon to hear about it!

10 comments:

Kevin Yee said...

See, Jason! We could have been first to market!!

I haven't seen Stodder's book yet, so I can't comment extensively, but I'd like to think we'd at least have had a few thousand entries, not just a mere couple hundred.

Futurama said...

A few thousand!? Wow! I still look forward to reading this one, but I guess I don't need to run out and buy it right away.

mydisneycollection said...

Oh Man! You got yours - I'm still waiting for mine. I'm really curious to see if anyone finds any errors. When The Disneyland Detective came out I was disappointed at the number of errors it contained.

mydisneycollection said...

Oops. posted too early. I should have read the entire article before I commented about errors. It sounds like we still don't have a definitive companion to The Nickel Tour.

Vintage Disneyland Tickets said...

Wow Jason, thats a very thorough review! I had a sense it would be as you described. Sounds like for the Disneyland novice this is a great book. Of course, the blog audience isn’t a novice, so I can see it’s really just previous info repackaged (not always a bad thing). It’s a little disappointing he didn’t used Disney to at least confirm some of his statements. Also, the use of those annual souvenir guide books is kind of a lame. Those book were the first Disneyland things I started to collect, but I realized they are pretty but lack current info, heck some of the photo’s are a decade old!

I am starting to get a better idea of what you and Kevin are working on, can’t wait to hear more about and always happy to provide any data/scans to help in your endeavor.

Biblioadonis aka George said...

Jason,

Very comprehensive, well-thought and well-written review.

I am glad to see your Library skills coming in to play. I agree that it is so important to take into account the author and the sources used.

This sounds like it might be more misleading than anything else.

Also, it doesn't sound very much like an encyclopedia to me...more like a semi-alphabetical rambling!

Major Pepperidge said...

I am confident that, after having met and talked to you, YOUR encyclopedia is going to be thorough and well researched, to put it mildly.

Trust me folks, Jason has done his homework!

Progressland said...

No, Major, I've been working on this rather than my homework. ;)

Anonymous said...

Sounds like he may have gotten his info from This Day in Disney History - a free website that doesn't have to meet the permanence of paper standards. LOL

Rex Libris said...

Actually, I am right in the middle of reading this book and I actually think it is a pretty cool book. I think for the limited resouces this author had, he did a pretty good job. If another encyclopedia comes out I would buy that also. But for right now I think this book is great. This is coming from another library science graduate.