A Coincidental Conversation™ with Richard Snow about Amusement Parks, Perseverance, and the Disneyland moment that changed his life
today at 11:35 am
Richard Snow was 12 when he had his life-changing Disney moment.
I had mine at 57.
Speaking of moments, there’s a very cool one that happens when you find a special book. You read the cover and promotional blurbs, hoping that you might have found one of those books, Charlie’s Golden Ticket, if you will. A book you know you’ll leave dog-eared, highlighted and smelling faintly of the bologna sandwich you ate one day while reading it.
But you never know until you read those opening lines.
Yes, the dedication can sometimes hint at the talent and passion of the author. But it’s those opening lines that tell the tale.
As I started it, I knew right away that I had come across a book, and a writer, that would both be fine companions for the days ahead.
A book about the building of the world’s first theme park, Disneyland, and very much a book about a man, Walt Disney. A man so many loved, especially by children, but who – like any card-carrying human being – had many different, and often conflicting, sides. Sides finely illuminated throughout the book in a way that helps the reader understand how a man often described with terms like “gruff” and “dictatorial” could so inspire his team that they’d rarely leave.
By a writer, Richard, who wields words like a swordsman, employing poetic prose, compelling storytelling, humor so good but sometimes so subtle that it doesn’t hit you until you’re lying in bed at 3am, and the type of exhaustive detail that Walt Disney himself was known for.
As to that Disney moment that Richard had, well, read on, my good friend. Believe me, it will be well worth your time.
So, with that, below are 14 takeaway quotes from our conversation (edited for length and flow). And I’m guessing that, after you read them, you’ll want to watch our full conversation.
Takeaway Quote #1: On why amusement parks have always captivated him. “People roughly divide themselves into two categories – those who like circuses and those who like amusement parks. Well, circuses have always given me the creeps, like a clown doing something scary. But amusement parks, for a child, are paradise. You’re turned loose in a regular little city where you can walk around, make your choices of which great ride to go on, with some being scary. Testing yourself against those scares when you’re little is fun.
“I grew up in Westchester, a suburb of New York, and Playland was our nearest amusement park. Then, later, I badgered my father to take me to Coney Island. But then we got our first television set and Walt Disney appeared on it and started telling me about Disneyland and that swept everything else away.”
Takeaway Quote #2: On why Walt Disney resonated with him as a child. “When Walt Disney came on and told me about what was going to happen in Frontierland and Davy Crockett and other stuff, he was for me the small child’s ideal adult. When he started talking, I had utter confidence in him and the absurd idea that he was talking just to me. I was drawn in right away by his calm vernacular and easy speech and his telling me about these fabulous things I could do. It was irresistible.”
Takeaway Quote #3: On how writing “Disney’s Land” was a labor of love for him. “It very much was. Plus, it was equally a labor of escape. I had just finished a book on the Civil War and was casting around for something else to do. Then I read Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream by Sam Gennaway and thought, ‘Hey, this might be interesting. I like that place.’ I ordered the book and it interested me so much that I started ordering other Disneyland books. Then, two or three books in, I thought to myself, ‘Come on, Richard, somebody is telling you something, so stay with this subject you’ve always been interested in.’ And, as you know, Disneyland has an endless vineyard of historians, so it was relatively easy to keep expanding my Disneyland library. Interestingly, my last book was on the Civil War, which of course has an endless galaxy of books about it, but I believe Walt Disney has generated as many books as the Civil War.
“Then, I finally made a pitch to my editor at Scribner. And he said, ‘Sure, go ahead. Everybody likes Disneyland.’ And so, I did.”
Takeaway Quote #4: On the interesting reaction he got when he told others he was writing a book about Disneyland. “It was sort of, ‘Come on, Richard, everybody knows about this. Why do you want to do it?’ I knew that every living American has a clearly embedded idea of Disneyland, but that there were still many things they didn’t know about it. Like how the ABC television network came of age only because Walt Disney was willing to use them to publicize his park. Then I read more and saw everything that Disney was up against in building this park. He was one of the most famous men in the world, but he didn’t say, ‘Now I want to build an amusement park,’ and everyone said ‘Great!” Instead, he said, ‘I want to build an amusement park,’ and everyone said, ‘Don’t be crazy!’
And the more I read about it, the more interested I became, especially about his admirable perseverance.”[Editor’s Note: At this point in the conversation, I couldn’t help but mention the similarity between Walt’s perseverance in building the park, and Richard’s perseverance in writing the book about Walt building the park.]
Takeaway Quote #5: On how he decided on the structure of his book, with so much content to choose from. “I started to see how all these fascinating little stories about Disneyland went together like pearls on a string. The overarching story was Disney carrying it through, but there were also many chapters about everything he had to do to bring this park about. Like building a real, persuasive jungle in 12 months and inventing a new kind of tiny motor car that a kid could drive without killing itself.
“Plus, Walt had to invent everything. There were really no off-the-shelf rides in that park. I mean, there’d been an outdoor amusement industry in America for 100 years, but he didn’t want anything to do with it. Because, right after World War Two, the amusement park industry in America had reached its low point.
“Originally, there were nice amusement parks everywhere, then the Depression came and people had to keep them going without any maintenance. So, by the time Disney started thinking about it, most of the big American amusement parks were in a state close to ruin. At the same time, his wife, Lillian Disney, said, ‘Why do you want to do that? They’re so dirty.’ And Walt said, ‘Mine won’t be.’ And he was right.
“So, overall, the big story broke itself down rather nicely into little stories as each of the attractions – because Disneyland itself is a series of stories.”
Takeaway Quote #6: On Walt’s eye for talent. “Yeah, for example, there were these World War Two guys, mechanics, making cheap amusement rides in a squalid little brick building in the area. Somehow, Walt thought they would be the people to make the car for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. So, Arrow [Development] built the nice little cars that Mr. Toad drives and also went on to invent the modern roller coaster and the first tubular tracks that allow you to fling yourself in a great lariat upside down.
“Yes, Walt was a genius at choosing people. He found people who had innate talents, but perhaps even they themselves had no idea they were containing them. And it’s inspiring to see how that happened again and again.”
Takeaway Quote #7: On Art Linkletter’s infamous walk with Walt. “Walt took his friend, Art Linkletter, out to see the construction site and said, ‘This is where the castle is going to be, and it’s going to be big business, so you should buy stuff along here,’ and all Art knew was that he’d been driven 30 miles into nowhere. So, Art told him that he had no spare cash. Of course, later, in Art’s autobiography, he wrote that, every time he thought of that little walk he took with Walt, he realized that every step cost him a million dollars.
“Of course, we shouldn’t be too sorry for him, because at the very end, when they were having to put on the big television show that was going to introduce Disneyland to the world. Walt asked Art to host it. Art agreed and, knowing that Walt was low on money, said he’d do it ‘for scale,’ about 200 dollars a day. But he also asked for the rights to all the camera and film sales in the park for 10 years. So, he did all right.”
Takeaway Quote #8: On Walt’s sometimes contrarian nature. “At one point, one of his animators showed him something, and he said, ‘Oh, that’s pretty good,’ and then he left the room. Next, the guy’s boss called him into his office, closed the door, and said it was the only time he had ever heard Walt give anybody a compliment.
“But Walt was also open to things and people. He wouldn’t bat away ideas. Yes, he was as hardheaded as General Sherman when it came to anything he produced and he could have his moods, but he was certainly not a skinflint or a miser. He also certainly believed in rewarding his people. And he managed to attract and keep one of the most brilliant workforces we’ve seen in the 20th century.”
Takeaway Quote #9: On how Richard stays objective about historical figures, especially one like Walt Disney who was such a big part of his life. “Well, we all have friends who are great in one way and perfectly awful in another. And you know, even when Walt was at his grimmest and most demanding, he was always interesting.
“But he wasn’t easy to talk to. In fact, people would often say that his brother, Roy Disney, was more like what they thought Walt would be, someone you could throw your arm around and pat on the back. You could no more pat Walt on the back than you’d slap the wall. It would be like slapping George Washington on the back.
“Walt was not an intimate person, but he was, of course, a great communicator. So, he always made clear what he wanted. He would tell you what he needed and what it should look like. He was always in communication with people, and he lost very few of them. With somebody as tough and dictatorial as he could be, you’d think there’d be a lot of personnel driven away as he went along. But that didn’t happen. They stuck with him.”
Takeaway Quote #10: On how several themes that show up in “Disney’s Land” also showed up in Richard’s previous books, like trains in “Iron Dawn,” amusement parks in “Coney Island: A Postcard Journey to the City of Fire.” and people of determination, like in I Invented the Modern Age: The History of Henry Ford. “Henry Ford had this fierce vision that nobody understood at the beginning, that you can make a good car for two hundred dollars, and it will change the world. And he saw that through with his world-changing Model T. Then, when he was probably the richest man in the world, he built Greenfield Village, the closest thing I’ve ever seen to Disneyland. In it, he put things from people he was interested in and admired. Like Thomas Edison’s laboratory, the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop, and a courthouse in which Abraham Lincoln practiced law. Then he set them all down in this fantastic little village that, in its way, is as charming as Disneyland. It’s immaculately kept. And so, I would say, if you’ve been to all the Disney places, go visit Greenfield Village in Detroit. Disney went there, too, and was enchanted by it, and it played a big role in encouraging him.”
Takeaway Quote #11: On how Disneyland’s Main Street inspired renovations of many small-town main streets across the country. “The buildings Walt put up on Main Street in Disneyland, which are caricatures of the real buildings from his childhood in Marceline, Kansas, exude a familiar comfort that is at once friendly and playful.
“In Medina, Ohio, for example, they were about to pull down their old courthouse and build some new stuff and somebody had just come back from Disneyland and said, ‘Look. you like Disneyland, right? We all like Disneyland. Well, we’ve got something here as good as Disneyland if we just paint it and take care of it.’ And they did. And downtown Medina is sort of famous now as being a perfect American turn-of-the-last century small town.
“Well, this happened all over America. And I think an awful lot of very fine and worthy architecture would be dust now if it hadn’t been for Walt Disney’s fanciful idea of what the main street of his youth promised, if not actually delivered, back then.”
Takeaway Quote #12: On the Disney moment that changed Richard’s life. “In 1959, when I was 12, I whined my parents into sending me out to my aunt and uncle in Los Angeles, and they took me to Disneyland, where they had just finished the Matterhorn and submarine ride. And it was just as I thought it would be. I was absolutely enchanted.
“So, my aunt and uncle took me around and then they turned me loose. And everything was wonderful, including the Peter Pan ride and jungle ride. But the thing that stayed with me most was when I was, right at the end of the day, when it began to get dark, and the light started coming on along all those gingerbread buildings and there was a horse car clapping quietly by and suddenly it was twilight on a tranquil American small city street in 1908. And I suddenly thought, I want to stay here forever.
“And in a way, I managed to do that, in that it got me interested in American history at that moment, which expanded to a larger interest in American history. And I got lucky enough to get a job on American Heritage magazine and even luckier to be able to edit it after a while.
“But I really do think that I, you know that in fomenting in me that specific particular interest in history, Walt Disney put bread on my table for my whole life. And I’m very grateful to him.”
“Looking back, in that moment, of course, as boy, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Gee, this is a nice example of Gothic revival.’ I was just getting a total feeling of comfort and promise. It still hasn’t left me.”
Takeaway Quote #13: On new projects that Richard is working on. “My last book was about the Civil War Navy, and I’ve gotten drawn back into the American Navy. Of course, I don’t fall very far from the tree. My father was in the Navy, in World War Two, so that’s always interested me.
“But I’ve never enjoyed working on a book more than Disney’s Land. Walt Disney is great company, and all the people he got working for him are great company. Since then, many of them wrote funny, fascinating books. There was so much enjoyable literature spawned by the builders of Disneyland. I still feel that the whole couple of years of writing the book was like a vacation.”
Takeaway Quote #14: On how Richard would finish the quote, “It all started with a mouse” if talking about his career – a quote often attributed to Walt Disney (though Richard’s book explains that one of Walt’s PR people actually came up with it, though Walt used it and believed in the quote’s sentiment). “For my career, it all started with twilight on Main Street in 1959. You know, it’s a little embarrassing to admit, but not so embarrassing that I don’t want to express my gratitude.”
And wait, there’s more…
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