A Peek behind the Curtain of a Disney History Book: A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World

As an author, particularly one writing in the genre of nonfiction and history, I come under constant scrutiny and criticism from readers.

This is even more true when you write about a topic readers are passionate about like Walt Disney World.

Let's be real: as someone reading my blog, you've more than likely frequented WDW message boards or DisTwitter and have seen various posts by Disney fans who disagree over what the outside world would see as ridiculousness (such as whether resort mugs should have handles or not or whether Disneyland should replace its "classic" Tower of Terror attraction with a Guardians of the Galaxy overlay) that may contribute to why many Disney muggles (those not privy of Disney fandom) see us fans as crazy. There are even people on Twitter that I've unfollowed due to their constant scathing remarks, oftentimes making personal attacks on people for their differing opinions on the state of the Disney parks (I don't need that negativity in my life).

Some of this feedback on my books has come in the form of comments on blogs and letters to my publisher. However, the most damning comments has been reviews of my books, officially published on Amazon.

Some of these negative reviews are on the level of ridiculous. One reviewer states that "Any book that contains a historic look at WDW, wich the book seems to be, should knoe that the word is imagniears. How many volumes are set to. Be forthcoming? It would be a shame that it is onlt one. Please hire an editor." Obviously this reviewer does not know what they are talking about, as the appropriate term actually is Imagineer. Some of my students who have read my reviews have even noted the awful spelling and grammar that this reviewer uses, which negates many of their scathing remarks.

Other reviews have marked me negatively on Amazon when their real problem was the formatting of the book. For example, "The book was smaller than I imagined it would be. It's a good simple history, though it could benefit from some greater depth. The writing is good and the approach is fantastic, but it is sometimes lacking in depth. Nonetheless, I look forward to volume 2 (and further histories of the Disney rides and attractions)." The main problem this reviewer had with my book was that it was too small. I'm a historian and love reading history books. However (and this sounds bad coming from its author), my book was incredibly detailed, especially the chapters on Carousel of Progress and Pirates of the Caribbean, to the point where I can't remember half the details I wrote about.

However, it may be this review that upset me the most: "Unfortunately, I can't even finish this one. Its another in a line from Bob McLlain that shows the downward slide of the publisher, lack of editing, and misinformation. Within the first two chapters I made several notes on factual errors. For example, the roof of the Tiki Room is not made of thatch, but metal designed to look like thatch. It serves as a large lightening rod. The evening parade does not cut off the Adventureland, as the parade runs from Main Street to Frontierland, with exit available by entering the emporium near Casey's and exiting near the Firehouse. Exit is available between float units. On top of errors, this reads like an essay from a college student using Wikipedia."

As a history teacher, amateur historian, and someone who worked for four years in my university library as a research deskie, this review was incredibly offending. And this wasn't the only review to accuse me of using Wikipedia for my research.

Now, to be fair, there are times when doing quick research or looking up quick facts, it is okay to use Wikipedia. For example, if you are trying to figure out the date that Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer referred to by John, the father in Carousel of Progress, was released (1927), Wikipedia is an okay resource to use. Or if you are trying to get a quick summary of the story of "Sleepy Hollow" (spoilers for Volume 3!), Wikipedia can be an easy tool. However, when doing historical research in needing specific details, one needs to use more academic research than a typical online encyclopedia.

So what is the process through which I researched my two books? It may be easier to provide you with an excerpt from one of my books and then break apart the text to explain the process to you.

The following is an excerpt from A Historical Tour of WDW Volume 2 and is taken from the chapter about Spaceship Earth at Epcot:

           The background mural that is painted behind the horses and three men can be pinpointed to an exact place in the Roman Empire, which provides the viewer with some historical context of when and where the scene is taking place. The mural depicts a large Roman city, stretching off into the distance, while a series of buildings and statues are identifiable nearby. To the left of the scene, behind the horse-drawn chariot, are a series of statues capping Roman pillars, stretching on the left side of an avenue. Behind the tall statues is a building with columns holding up the roof with a triangular-shaped pediment. On the opposite side of the scene, behind the slave holding the reigns of the horse, is another series of statues atop pillars, while statues of mounted horsemen are rearing on a platform alongside steps leading up to the scene. Behind the horsemen is a series of buildings with columned facades, one with a triangular pediment and the other capped with a dome. The avenue surrounded by the pillared statues identifies the location as being in the Roman Forum, the headquarters for government and mercantile activity in the capital of the Roman Empire, the city of Rome (located in modern-day Italy). However, it is the location of the pedimented and domed buildings and the presence of the rearing horsemen that identify where the three gentlemen are congregated: the Temple of Castor and Pollux. The temple was built in 495 BC and dedicated in 484 BC, thanking the twin sons of the Roman god, Jupiter, for their assistance in the victory in battle. Interestingly enough, the actual statues of Castor and Pollux that are depicted in the scene’s background mural are not historically accurate: the scene shows them riding on the backs of rearing horses, while in actuality they were holding the reigns of the rearing horses.

Photo Credit: Melissa Knight

Photo Credit: Melissa Knight

Photo Credit: Melissa Knight

Photo Credit: Melissa Knight

              The location of the Praetorian receiving a proclamation from the Senator on the steps of the Temple of Castor and Pollux can also help to locate the date or period in which the scene is taking place. However, there is some discrepancy: one possibility would lead to historical inaccuracy, while the other is more plausible. During the time of the Roman Republic, from the temple’s dedication in 484 BC until 27 BC when Augustus established the Roman Empire, the Temple of Castor and Pollux served as the meeting place for the Senate, where they would make legal decisions and establish laws for the whole of the Republic. However, the placement of this scene during this era of Roman history does not fit, as the statue of Augustus holding the scroll that precedes this scene was not constructed until 20 BC. Thus, the statue makes this theory, that of the Temple being used as a meeting place for the Senate, unlikely. More likely is the second theory; from 37-41 AD, the Temple of Castor and Pollux was used as the palace of Caligula, who served as Caesar during a short three years and ten months. These was partially because Caligula would, on occasion, present himself at the top of the steps, making speeches, and attempt to personify himself as a god to be worshipped, in addition to his role as Roman emperor. This storyline for the scene would likely be more accurate, as the reign of Caligula took place twenty-three years after that of Augustus, which would maintain the historical integrity of the Temple of Castor and Pollux being the setting of the scene after the vehicles pass the statue of Augustus. While the important man handing the message off to the Praetorian is not Caligula, as evidenced by the Senatorial robe he is wearing, Senators and the emperors worked closely in regards to one another, and it is likely that he is delivering a message on behalf of Caesar Caligula.

A bust of Emperor Caligula

A bust of Emperor Caligula

The presence of these three men standing on the steps of the Temple of Castor and Pollux identify what may be going on in this scene, which, intentional by Imagineers or not, represents a dark event in the history of the Roman Empire. During the reign of Caligula, the Praetorian Guard began to amass political power. At the same time, Caligula increasingly began to treat the Senate and other high-powered individuals in the government of the Roman Empire, causing many to begin conspiring against him. In 40 AD, Caligula announced that he would be moving to Alexandria, which was the center of Roman power along the Nile River in Egypt. His goal in moving to Egypt would be to gain more power and following from people, as those in Egypt worshipped their leaders as gods. As a result, Caligula planned on ruling the Roman Empire from the city of Rome, which was the traditional center of Roman government and administration, to Alexandria, which was in a land looked down upon by the Roman government because the people there were not “true Romans,” having been born outside the capital. As a result, the Roman Senate began to conspire with the Praetorian Guard to assassinate Caligula, which occurred in 41 AD; he was stabbed thirty times while addressing a group at an athletic event. The Senators, realizing how much the government had strayed from what they perceived as the glories of Rome’s “golden age,” planned to reestablish the Roman republic after Caligula’s death, thus giving them their political power back, which had been taken away when the Roman Empire was established. However, after being driven from the city, Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, exacted revenge on those who conspired and committed the assassination, and later naming himself the next Caesar of the Roman Empire. With these details in mind, this scene may actually be a Senator and Praetorian Guard passing messages between those conspiring to assassinate the emperor.

So let's break this scene down, shall we? Oftentimes when analyzing an attraction for my books, I utilize Google and YouTube to get started, as well as my extensive experience and background knowledge on the parks, attractions, or resorts being analyzed. Spaceship Earth is one of my all-time favorite attractions and must-dos: in fact, I often ride it multiple times a trip. The Rome scene has always been a highlight of the attraction for me for a few reasons, including the "Rome Burning" smell (which after the addition of Dame Judi Dench doesn't even represent the fall of Rome anymore, but rather the burning of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt...read Vol. 2 to learn more), as well as the old projections of the charioted soldiers riding through the streets of Rome on the painted backdrop of the scene during the Jeremy Irons version of the attraction.

Step one of attraction analysis usually involves me finding the most updated video of the attraction on YouTube. I sit and watch the attraction online usually in its entirety first, and then I'll break the video down scene-by-scene or even frame-by-frame to analyze the details, music, backdrops, and dialogue.

For this scene, I used my historical  background knowledge to realize that the backdrop of the attraction, as well as the monologue of Dench explains that this is during the time of the Roman Empire, which places the scene during the timeframe of sometime between 27 BC and 476 CE, the span of a little more than 500 years. Dench's monologue explains that Rome created a system of roads to help run the bureaucracy of its empire. This places the scene somewhere in the city of Rome itself. As a historian and teacher, I know that the majority of Rome's central authority took place in the Roman Forum, which was the hub of government and religion in the city of ancient Rome.

The  real   Roman Forum.

The real Roman Forum.

I decided to Google the Roman Forum to see if I could find any pictures, maps, or depictions of what I saw in the background of the scene. Most identifiable are the tall pillars capped with individuals stretching on the left and right side of the scene and leading away from the location of the scene. Based on the position of the other buildings, specifically those with the triangular topped roofs, I was able to identify that riders were in fact passing the Roman Forum. I was able to figure out that the location of the buildings placed the guests as viewing the Forum from the porch of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, two Roman gods. I Googled a picture of what archaeologists believe the Temple would have looked like during the time of the empire, which confirmed that this was in fact what was being depicted: the temple had a series of steps leading down to the Forum with statues on either side of the steps. As mentioned above, however, the statues were not accurate; it is possible that Imagineers and designers of the attraction wanted to portray the brothers in a more dramatic fashion, mounted atop rearing horses rather than simply standing alongside them holding the reigns.

The  real  statues of Castor and Pollux, not depicted accurately in the attraction's mural.

The real statues of Castor and Pollux, not depicted accurately in the attraction's mural.

The real statues of Castor and Pollux, not depicted accurately in the attraction's mural.

Ok, so I was able to narrow down where the scene was, but 500 years is a lot of time. To narrow this down, I looked at the costumes of the animatronics. One of the figures was obviously meant to be a Roman soldier, as he is standing near a chariot and is wearing the armor of a Roman soldier. A second figure is a slave, based on the basic toga he is wearing, as well as his haircut and the paleness of his skin. However, it was the third figure in the scene, wearing a garment with a purple stripe, that was interesting to me. Because of the toga with the royal color, I was able to identify this figure not as an individual but as a part of a group: he was a Roman senator. But this made the mystery only deepen. Why would a Roman senator be handing a scroll to a soldier who would be using the roads?

I Googled for the history of the Temple of Castor and Pollux and found something quite interesting and slightly shocking: the emperor Caligula, who reigned in Rome as Caesar from 37-41 CE, actually used the Temple of Castor and Pollux as part of his palace. This angered many in the bureaucracy of the Roman Empire, including the Senators. The Senators, fuming from this sacrilege of government using religious buildings, called upon a group of soldiers called the Praetorian Guard to help rid Rome of the "corrupt" emperor. Caligula had also planned on moving the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the city of Alexandria, located at the mouth of the Nile River on the Mediterranean. This also angered many Roman government officials who foresaw the fall of their empire by moving the capital from its traditional, centralized location to a place on the outskirts. I did some crosschecking and research on the Praetorian Guard to learn that the armor worn by the soldier receiving the proclamation was a close match to that which would be worn by the elite military group responsible for the assassination of Emperor Caligula.

As a result of the many details in the scene, I made the educated assumption that, whether intentional or not, Imagineers had actually depicted a secret murder in the classic Epcot attraction. While many viewed the pre-Jack Sparrow version of Pirates of the Caribbean as politically incorrect (the "pooped pirate" searching for his new bride, the pirates chasing the townswomen, Carlos being tortured for the location of the town's treasury), this scene is actually quite darker, representing the assassination of a government official (through death by being stabbed 39 times). However, the dim lighting of the scene, as well as the short period of being in the scene (a grand total of 23 seconds), and guests' overall lack of knowledge of the nitty-gritties of ancient Rome leads the details of this scene's backstory to pass over the heads of many.

Who is that scholar in the middle???

Who is that scholar in the middle???

So there you have it, folks. A brief glimpse into the way research was done for my books. While I'm a total history nerd, I have had to track down a number of historical tangents to find evidence to support my arguments for one detail (i.e. where was the Arab scholar with the onion-shaped turban actually from???). Maybe this is why it seems as though my book is a walking Wikipedia article...I was required to tie together a great number of seemingly-unconnected details to create historical backstories of classic and favorite Disney World attractions, land, and restaurants.