Walt Disney Lives

Despite the title of this article, I’m not talking about the urban legend about him being cryogenically sealed and stashed below the Pirates of the Caribbean exhibition. Nor is this some soft New Ageism about spirits inhabiting the celestial plane.

He’s alive down on a plot of land outside of Orlando, Florida, a boom city that was a dumpy little crossroad when Walt began buying what became a 30,000-acre spread there is the late 1960s.

Walt’s gone, but his vision and energy lives on, and once you start dipping into “Since the World Began,” you’ll see that the scope of his vision is nothing short of awesome.

There are many faces of Disney, the producer of family-friendly and highly profitable movies, the creator of family-friendly theme parks, but also a visionary who thought that, as one associate put it, “bad information was responsible for all the evil in the world.” Who tried to change people’s attitudes within the confines of an amusement park, the man whose idealism spawned the Epcot center, and under Michael Eisner, the Disney Institute, where education and learning are on a par with entertainment.

What the book won’t tell you — this is published by Hyperion, Disney’s publishing arm, and written by Jeff Kurtti, a longtime Disney employee — is just what hell Walt went through to realize his vision. You won’t hear of Disney’s fundamentalist upbringing, his retreat into fantasy to escape a brutal father and life in poverty, his endless hard work to make animated movies, his multiple nervous breakdowns. His brother Roy is idealized as the business brain behind Walt’s success, but you won’t hear that Roy constantly opposed Disney’s ideas as a waste of money. When Kurtti writes that Disney founded the design firm Walt Disney Imagineering in 1952 “because he realized that he wouldn’t be able to create Disneyland within the boundaries of the studio system,” he doesn’t mention that it was also because Roy and the Disney board refused to advance Walt the money to design Disneyland, fearing that it would be a failure.

There was plenty of reason for Roy to be worried, too. Disney’s ideas constantly threw the company perilously close to bankruptcy, generally on the order of every 18 months, until Disney’s deal with ABC in 1955 made him very wealthy and put the company on a firm financial footing. Walt Disney was an idealist and a visionary, and if it wasn’t for his tenacity, the company would not be the worldwide giant it is today.

Even while ignoring those shadings, there is still plenty of story left to make “Since the World Began” an awe-inspiring overview of Walt Disney World. It’s probably the single largest and most complex construction project this side of the space shuttle. Its statistics are jaw-dropping: 55 miles of canals and levees were built to control the water levels, nine acres of underground corridors thread through the park, housing sewer lines, pipes and cables, and a pneumatic system for hauling trash, 60,000 plants and 800 varieties of trees acquired, moved and transplanted to build the park, 100,000 pounds of linen had to be washed every day.

As befitting its creator, the theme park was ahead of its time in its use of innovative technology. WDW was also the first area to implement 911 service in Florida, the first commercial venture to use fiber optic cables, the first telephone system using underground cable instead of overhead wires.

But the park was also a reflection of Walt Disney’s vision of a global coming together of different peoples and cultures, learning about each other and attempting to find and enjoy peace as a result. It’s globalization with a human face, to borrow someone else’s phrase, and even if it seems outdated or even impossible in this post-9/11 world, Walt’s beliefs is a hopeful and sustaining vision, and as American as the culture from which it sprang.