Review: A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of the Most Magical Place on Earth

Over the years, we’ve collected dozens of books about Walt Disney World. When sharing Our Disney Theme Parks Library, I’ve also offered the “cautionary tale” about how many boxes of books we deal with every time we move. Nevertheless, we keep buying more, obsessed with old concept art, hearing tales from Disney Legends, and learning more about the history of our favorite places. (Updated May 15, 2022.)

Let’s start with the latest update, which is that A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of The Most Magical Place on Earth is finally back in stock on Amazon. To our knowledge, this is the first time it’s ever been available for immediate shipping. Even some orders that were placed months before its release ended up being delayed last year.

The book is “only” 15% off right now on Amazon, but that’s better than you’ll get at Walt Disney World…if you can find it at all! While we hope it’ll be discounted for Prime Day or Cyber Monday 2022, those are still months away. The Walt Disney World 50th Anniversary book could just as easily sell out again tomorrow and be out of stock for another 6 months. To make a long story short, order it ASAP if you want it anytime soon. It’s one of the best Walt Disney World books of all time, and well worth the money!

Turning back to the review, there are many Walt Disney World titles we love, but the best books have always skewed towards Disneyland and Imagineering. Walt Disney’s original magic kingdom (lower case) has received a treasure trove of deep dives into the park’s creation and history. Disneyland Nickel Tour, Disneyland: Inside Story, and Walt Disney’s Disneyland are a few examples of more exhaustive titles that appeal to California’s more ardent fanbase.

Unlike Disneyland, most official books about Walt Disney World over the years have been superficial souvenir guides aimed at being keepsakes from trips. There have been strong niche titles, focusing on a specific park or even attraction. Some of this is by necessity, as Walt Disney World is more sprawling than its California counterpart, and tough to do proper justice in a single volume.

About the only title to try is Since the World Began, the 25th Anniversary book by Jeff Kurtti. This has been a centerpiece of many Walt Disney World libraries for the last 25 years, and many fans hoped that Kurtti would author a follow-up to that title for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary.

Admittedly, I was skeptical. While Walt Disney World’s fandom resembles that of Disneyland more with each passing year thanks to Disney Vacation Club, D23, an expansion of the local fanbase, etc., the company still seems to view Walt Disney World largely as a place for tourists. To be sure, there are the merchandise deep dives, but they’re scattershot. Everything “big” seems to go for the low-hanging fruit of casual visitors.

Not so with A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of The Most Magical Place on Earth. While it’s a Disney Editions title, this is more like something painstakingly produced by TASCHEN than the company’s publishing arm. It’s also unlike the average coffee table book. Although it is a visual feast with rare concept art and photos, it’s also extensively researched, sourced and cited. I don’t recall ever paging through another coffee table book with a dozen-plus pages of endnotes.

More than anything else, this book strikes me as a passion project–a love letter to Walt Disney World from authors Kevin Kern, Tim O’Day, and Steven Vagnini. Those names should be familiar to longtime members of the Walt Disney World fandom, as this trio has been involved in everything from the Archives to D23 to Imagineering projects.

The book begins with chapters about the history of Florida before Disney and the Vacation Kingdom’s Preview Center, almost as warning to casual visitors paging through in the Emporium that this is no simple souvenir for remembering their once in a lifetime trips. This title is wholly devoid of regurgitated marketing copy and the same generic stock photos you’ve seen recycled for decades.

Even the best Walt Disney World books often focus an inordinate portion of their pre-1971 history on Walt Disney himself. To a degree, that’s understandable. The inimitable American original casts a long shadow, and his creative vision for the Florida Project certainly deserves attention. Often it feels like something other than that, with more generalized Walt lore borrowed from biographies to meet a page count.

The first two chapters of this 50th Anniversary tome are as laser-focused as Walt Disney’s ambitions for his Florida Project, weaving history with amusing anecdotes with colorful quotes. It’s relatively dense material, but never feels that way. Rather, the reader is pulled into the story of Disney and Florida, the surreptitious land acquisitions and the early years of development.

Even if you’re familiar with the story–and I’m well acquainted with it–the framing here is different, with more detail and descriptions directly from those involved. It reads less like the polished corporate history and more like firsthand accounts, warts and all, told over drinks. The parties involved come across as actual people with personalities, which is also a refreshing change of pace, and one that makes the history all the more engrossing.

One of my biggest frustrations with official Disney history is that it’s presented as “corporate canon” that has been meticulously sculpted over the years. Even the imperfections are calculated, an attempt to feign authenticity that rings hollow. Walt Disney is the protagonist (and only major “character”), and he’s a one-dimensional caricature of a real person who speaks in sound bite-sized quotes. Usually, the result is an interesting premise, but surprisingly stilted and superficial. (As a quick aside, this is why Walt Disney: An American Original is his best biography–it avoids those pitfalls.)

The first two chapters of A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of The Most Magical Place on Earth take what is undeniably fascinating history and tell its story in an authentic and engaging manner, presenting new information and individual accounts alongside art and photos. It might seem simple and straightforward enough, but the authors’ choices make a world of difference. The stories are captivating and come across organically, resulting in the first 73 pages reading like a page-turning novel. I was pretty surprised to look down and see I was already on page 64 when the book “finally” arrived at October 1, 1971!

All of this is aided by essays from some important individuals who reflect upon bringing Walt Disney World to life. Dick Nunis, the former Chairman of Walt Disney Attractions and Disney Legend, reflects on the decision to build in Florida, surveying the site, and trying to perform rudimentary visitor analytics.

Debby Dane Browne recalls her whirlwind experience going from reading about hiring of “Disney Girls” for the Preview Center to becoming Walt Disney World’s first Ambassador to her memories of opening day. Roy Patrick Disney, the grandson of Roy O. Disney, shares stories of his grandfather’s sacrifice and stewardship in making Walt’s dream a reality. Throughout the book, these essays and quotes bring fresh perspectives to the material, and imbue the book with a sense of humanity. (Some, like stories from John Stamos and Kevin Feige, hopefully make the title more accessible to a casual audience.)

Chapter 3 provides the framework for the rest of the book, drawing inspiration from the plaque under the Train Station: “Here You Leave Today And Enter The World Of Yesterday, Tomorrow And Fantasy.” This sets the table for subsequent chapters, which divide parks, resorts, lands, attractions, and the rest of Walt Disney World into four categories: Nostalgia (An Idealized Yesteryear), Fantasy (The Art of Make Believe), Discovery (Adventure and Exploration), and Tomorrow (A Step into the Future).

The final two chapters are shorter, looking back at past celebrations and forward to the World’s Most Magical Celebration. They’re still interesting, but are more aimed at wrapping up the book with a 50th Anniversary presentation. They’re not as thorough as the three chapters that make up the core of the book, though.

The first of those main chapters is Nostalgia, which offers examinations of Main Street U.S.A., Liberty Square, Country Bear Jamboree, Crescent Lake, Grand Floridian, Great Movie Ride, Tower of Terror, and more. The Fantasy chapter is, naturally, home to Fantasyland, plus Pandora, Star Wars, Maelstrom, nighttime spectaculars, and Figment & Dreamfinder.

The Discovery chapter offers insight into Adventureland, Old Key West, Wilderness Lodge, River Country, Fort Wilderness, Typhoon Lagoon, Disney Springs, it’s a small world, much of Epcot and most of Animal Kingdom. As with the other chapters, there are quotes and fascinating anecdotes from key figures, such as Aunty Kau’i, the longtime cultural ambassador and educator at the Poly.

The chapter about and concept of Tomorrow is perhaps more clearly defined, with a clear focus on futurism and space. This is unsurprisingly home to Tomorrowland, Spaceship Earth, Horizons, Contemporary Resort, and the infrastructure that underpins the complex grid of the Vacation Kingdom of the World–transportation, energy, Utilidors, DACS Central, and more.

If you’re looking for a compendium of all things Walt Disney World, these chapters might disappoint. There’s nothing encyclopedic about this (that book already exists), which is the type of thing you’d typically find in a more straightforward souvenir book.

Thankfully, the authors eschew such an approach in favoring of offering interesting insight, anecdotes, and morsels of information that you otherwise might not know. For example, there’s no scene-by-scene description of Mickey’s PhilharMagic, but there is a tidbit about Tinker Bell originally being the “featured foil” rather than Donald Duck. This is then a jumping off point for a longer passage about the long-extinct Mickey Mouse Revue. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh fans (do they exist?) might be disappointed that it’s only given passing mention over the course of a couple pages about Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

You won’t be lost if arriving to this book with zero familiarity with Walt Disney World, but there’s definitely some background knowledge that’s assumed throughout the book. This is necessarily the case, as the authors are tasked with the formidable challenge of distilling 50+ years of history, parks, attractions, resorts, and more into a little over 300 pages. Without question, the approach they took was the right one.

Ultimately, A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of The Most Magical Place on Earth is the best book about the Vacation Kingdom of the World and one of the highlights of the entire 50th Anniversary celebration. While there are a number of excellent topical titles focused on something specific, nothing before has tackled Walt Disney World as a whole with such interest and insight. This is Walt Disney World’s “Nickel Tour,” which is the highest praise possible. It’s going to be the souvenir that creates new lifelong fans among Walt Disney World first-timers, and the spark that sets young kids on a lifelong career path.

This is an incredible testament to authors Kevin Kern, Tim O’Day, and Steven Vagnini. It’s evident their goal was a book by fans, for fans–and that’s exactly what they accomplished, while also making it easily accessible. The authors managed to take such a sweeping subject and present it in “something for everyone” format. Whether you’re after a coffee table book with beautiful art and photos or a riveting read about the history of Walt Disney World, this has you covered. As should be evident from my effusive praise, A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of The Most Magical Place on Earth is an absolute must-buy for all fans of the Florida parks.

A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of The Most Magical Place on Earth retails for $60 and is available from Amazon.com, in the parks, and at independent booksellers. It is frequently sold out online and at Walt Disney World, and often backordered on Amazon. We highly recommend buying is ASAP if you want it in time for Christmas. Click here to purchase A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of The Most Magical Place on Earth. We receive a small commission from your purchase, so buying through that link helps support the site!

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

Your Thoughts

Have you read or perused or A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of The Most Magical Place on Earth? Do you agree or disagree with our review? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

20 Responses to “Review: A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of the Most Magical Place on Earth”
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