Friday, April 11, 2008

On the Possibility of Knowing Disneyland's History

"If I could convince David that it might have happened, we put it in the book." Such is how Bruce Gordon related to me and Kevin the historical accuracy of The Nickel Tour. I think he probably overstated how much is fictitious, but it does lead one to question how much of the Disneyland story we know is solidly grounded and how much is what Wade Sampson tells us Imagineers call "logical erroneous conclusions." I'm convinced there are shades of gray involved, which is why I have refrained from grounding it in fact vs. fiction fashion. There's another interesting question, too: How much does it matter?

Before I heard Bruce say this, I had finally become a "Walk in Walt's Footsteps" tour guide, when that tour was being revised in 2002. At one point in the training, the trainer asked everyone to share their favorite story about Disneyland that they told on the tour--and source it. (This was too early for me to cite one of my books!) Anyway, we went around and several of the guides used The Nickel Tour as a source. It was assumed, I guess, that everything in the book had to be right. Of course, all it really assured was that the Cast Members weren't making up their own stories--just recycling those that were already part of the Disneyland canon! (For my part, I shared the story of the Dominguez Palm, based on World of Flowers and Ron himself.)

It wasn't really until at least twenty-five years after the Park opened that a historical consciousness about it developed. Since the early 1990s, especially, interest in the development and designers of Disneyland has blossomed. Fans and authors conduct interviews with an increasingly diminished number of people who contributed to Disneyland so long ago. But we're not really getting the full story; we're getting the story of those people who have lived long enough for us to take an interest in listening. Did anybody ever talk to C.V. Wood about Disneyland after he left? He died in 1993, yet I know of no interview with him about his contributions. The people who have stayed with us and share generously of their time and knowledge are not immune to mistakes and can unintentionally embellish or omit parts of stories. Who knows?

There are sources besides people upon which to base our understanding of the Disneyland of yore, though. Contemporaneous sources might provide a broader picture. Records inside the Walt Disney Archives undoubtedly provide a unique window to understanding Disneyland (witness the information from memos used in The Nickel Tour), yet only rarely are outside individuals let in. How often do Disney Cast Members have enough free time to do substantive research? Quite a bit of material has filtered out to the fan community, but that "record" is fragmentary.

Our knowledge of what really happened will always be limited by these circumstances. What I try to do--and this is explicit throughout the thesaurus--is to cite where the information came from. The evaluation of a historical anecdote requires careful evaluation of the source itself. But our yearning for a good story frequently gets the better of us, and we end up repeating that "a spire on Sleeping Beauty Castle was intentionally left unfinished as a reminder that Disneyland will never be completed as long as there is imagination left in the world."


Unknown said...

Great points in the article!

I wonder what is in the archive that would dispell notions that we currently hold as true?

Eric Scales said...

I've hated that "unfinished spire" story since I first heard it from a Disneyana Cast Member. It's just totally unbelievable and ignores the basis of what Walt was saying. Can't wait for your book Jason!

Major Pepperidge said...

Unfinished spire? I never heard that story. Sounds kind of silly, to say the least!