Buzzed Books #35 by John King
Lou Mongello’s Audio Guide to Walt Disney World (Tomorrowland)
Here in Orlando, I am the literati’s sherpa for all things Disney, including visits to the 4 theme parks in my hometown. Sometimes, these friends come to me uncertainly, reluctant to face what their capitulation to this corporate mecca means about their roles as culturally sophisticated people. And do I help them?
The Disney thing is something I grew up with, and spending my childhood in Florida, the theme parks seemed like vivid manifestations of cartoonish imagination, a sublime landscape to create by. The Walt Disney World property was weird and huge and full of Florida. It’s twice the size of Manhattan.
Unlike many of my childish indulgences, Disney survived nostalgia, and grew more impressive through my adult perspective. Few horror movies have anything on Pinocchio. The Three Caballeros is exquisitely trippy filmmaking. Donald Duck’s rages (and the real-life frustrations that so very often cause them) seem more dramatically valid than most dramatic films. During my five years of Indiana while working on my doctorate, I missed Florida, this epicenter of so much Disney activity.
My re-connection to Walt Disney World was Proustian, and the place had changed enough for me to be obsessed with the changes that had occurred.
While I was earning my PhD, the powers that be at WDW decided to close down the greatest ride in the history of human civilization, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
In that attraction, you would drive around in an early model car terrorizing the village until you crash into a train’s headlight and arrive in Hell where various imps giggled at you.
Some executives closed it. A Winnie-the-Pooh ride with an exit-through-the-gift-shop replaced my wild ride.
So the history of Walt Disney World place started to sink its hooks into me, and there grew a significant number of people in the Disney fan community who were writing about this history in legitimate ways. Walt Disney didn’t shake dust off Tinkerbell to make all Walt Disney World happen. Thousands of engineers and artists made this happen. And the Disney community started paying much more attention to the people who created behind the scenes.
I know a great deal about Walt Disney World, and I am many people’s idea of an expert, but Lou Mongello knows a lot more than I do about this subject, and some part of what I know I learned from Lou.
Now if you are a casual visitor to Walt Disney World and somehow still reading all this, you should own Lou Mongello’s 102 Ways to Save Money at Walt Disney World. His sound advice can mean the difference between having a good, memorable family vacation and undergoing a tormented existential experience to be recounted later to a therapist.
If you are a diehard Disney World fan, however, and want to explore Disney history, then his audioguides, including his latest entry for Tomorrowland, are wonderful additions to your iTunes library.
These audiobooks are testaments to Lou Mongello’s amazing talent for research and his conceptual understanding of the art of imagineering–that is, the work performed by the group of writers, artists, engineers, technicians, and too many other job titles for me to mention who create not only the rides and other attractions at these theme parks, but everything that is visible to the public. One of the reasons that people like me keep going back is the mind-boggling amount of detail that goes into the stories the rides and landscapes are literally telling stories, if one knows how to look. Lou Mongello is an ideal docent, one who is available for personal tours, but he sounds abundantly personal in these guides.
Yes, I have listened to some of his audio guides while at the parks. With my earbuds in, I can’t really hear the squalling tantrums around me, and it really does make me slow down and enjoy the parks in a different way. These audio guides can also make for some happy, surreal listening in the harrowing journey on I-4.
The Tomorrowland installment marks the completion of the audio guides to the Magic Kingdom, a project that has taken him many years. (I wonder if he will move on to EPCOT next, or if he will revisit Fantasyland to include its recent expansion.) In about 80 minutes, Lou explains the history of every attraction, shop, and restaurant that has appeared in that area over the last 43 years. These histories are presented with ambient music and sounds from these areas, and with his years of podcasting experience, Lou’s sound engineering of all these elements is masterful.
In this audioguide, he covers the sparse weirdness of the early days of the park, when the attraction Flight to the Moon failed to be futuristic because NASA had already made successful trips to the moon. Lou covers the behind-the-scenes decisions to make the attraction Alien Encounter an adult-level scary experience. He covers the narrative that Tomorrowland would tell when it was transformed in 1994 into a retro-futuristic theme inspired by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. He covers the only time Mel Blanc performed a voice for Walt Disney.
This and the other guides are not for the casual Disney fan, but for those who are Disneyphiles, these audio tracks are refreshing ways into appreciating the history of these theme parks, understanding the artists who created them, and sharpening your sense of your own memory of the past.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University.