Disney designs perfection.
“Walt had the idea that guests could feel perfection,” John Hench wrote in his book Designing Disney, “I once complained to him about the construction of some new stagecoaches. Walt had asked that the cab be suspended by leather straps as early western stagecoaches had been. I thought that this was too much and told Walt, ‘People aren’t going to get this, it is too much perfection.’ ‘Yes, they will,’ he responded. ‘They will feel good about it. And they will understand that it’s all done for them (p.22).'” This is just one of many personal stories that John shares with his readers about his experiences with Walt and with helping to design some of the most iconic images in the world.
Title: Designing Disney
Author: John Hench with Peggy Van Pelt
Age: 16 and up (any Disney fan interested in theme park magic)
Publisher: Disney Editions
Genre: Non-fiction, autobiographical
That is the real beauty of his book. In Designing Disney, John shares a perspective few have. Being on the ground floor of arguably one of Walt’s most innovative achievements – the creation of Walt Disney Imagineering – John adds a personal touch that not only gives us insight into the creation of Disneyland and every other Disney theme park thereafter, but he offers these amazing stories that let us know Walt’s vision so clearly. Through John, you get the idea that Walt believed in the goodness of people and that he actually liked them. He felt that if you listened to guests they would steer you right (just another way Disney differentiates itself – they don’t think of people as customers or consumers, they think of them as guests). John said Walt insisted his designers get out among the people, “You guys get down there at least twice a month. For God’s sake, don’t eat off the lot. Stay there…lunch with the guests…talk to them (p.21).”
One of my favorite stories John shared was about people walking through the flower beds at Disneyland. He wrote, “…just after the park opened for business, we discovered that some of the guests had made a pathway through a flower bed. We were walking through the park one morning before opening when the gardners came up to Walt and said, ‘We need a fence to keep guests out of the flower bed.’ Walt told them, ‘No, we must pave this pathway. When guests make their own path, they probably have a damn good reason for doing it (p.30).'” Walt really paid attention to the subtle signals given to him by his guests which I’m convinced is what made him so successful. He was tapped into the mind of the people in a way few people are.
If that wasn’t enough to convince you to take a look at this book, there are of course the illustrations from John’s long and storied career. He shows us concept art, design work, even cast member costume designs he worked on to give us an in depth, behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Disney theme park magic. I love the concept art for things that never happened like a Mickey Mouse Hotel, or the work done on things that turned out slightly different than originally planned like Carousel of Progress or the Enchanted Tiki Room. Some of John’s writing is repetitive, especially between sections where he seems to repeat many of the same concepts and ideas he shared previously. But that’s a minor point in comparison to the treasure trove of information and artistic beauty he shares from many of the projects he has been a part of.
Unfortunately, this book is now out of active print, although you can still find copies on eBay and places like Amazon Marketplace. It comes in both hardcover (the edition I have pictured) and a newer softcover edition that was apparently printed in 2009. If you’re lucky, you can find this book at your local library, but its a must have for die hard theme park Disney fans. They will truly love it. With any luck, Disney Editions will come out with another release of this book for those of us who would love to read more of John’s stories.