Mickey News interviews Sam Gennawey
Sam Gennawey is an urban planner, currently working as a senior Associate at Urban Planning and Communications firm in Pasadena California, which specializes in community infrastructure, planning and development. Sam has a BA from DePaul University in Urban Planning. A Disney lover and fanatic since a kid, he is also a columnist for MiceAge and Micechat and Webmaster of Samland’s Disney Adventures. It is Sam’s expertise in city planning and love of Disneyland and Walt Disney that prompted him to write this important historical and informational book entitled “Walt and the Promise of Progress City”
This fascinating read into the inner workings of Walt’s Imagineering team and Walt’s own thoughts and talents into urban planning; should be a must on every Disneyphile’ bookshelf. Here is Sam Gennawey…
MN…Where were you born?
MN…You grew up here all your life?
SG…Yes, I had a short stint in Chicago, but yes, all my life.
MN…Did you always love Disney?
SG…I did, ever since I was a little boy. My mom often took myself and my much older brothers to Disneyland. At the time, Walt made sure middle class families could afford to go. If you just paid the general admission charge and didn’t go on any of the rides or eat, it was very reasonable. Being younger, I stayed with my mom and my brothers ran on their own. We rode the free rides, and yeah, we went fairly often as a kid.
MN…Did you have any favorite Disney Characters, like Mickey or Pluto?
SG…Not really, I did like Piglet as a kid, but I loved the Place, Disneyland, more than the movies or the characters.
MN…Were your parents supportive of your love for Disney?
SG…Yes, my Mom was. In fact she is tickled that she is a protagonist in the book! They actually encouraged us to go to Disneyland.
MN…Could you give a background on your education?
SG…I have a BA in liberal arts with a concentration in Urban Planning from DePaul University in Chicago. I have worked in the field ever since as an Urban planner.
MN…What is an “Urban Planner”?
SG…My focus is in long range policy planning. I vision what the future community is going to be, and drafting the appropriate laws that would induce that type of development. I’m like a vision statement kind of guy.
MN…Have you met any Disney Luminaries?
SG… I have, especially since the book came out. I met Bob Gurr, Marty Sklar, prior to that, mouseketeer Bobby Burgess, Ward Kimball, artist Sam McKim, model maker Fred Joerger and landscape architect Bill Evens. Most importantly, Harrison “Buzz Price. He was the guy who literary found the locations of Disneyland and Walt Disney World. He was instrumental in helping me write the book in the first place.
MN…What person stood out most in your mind?
SG…It was a thrill to meet all of them, but it was Harrison “Buzz” Price and Imagineer Marvin Davis. Marvin was the land use planner who designed the hub and spoke design at Disneyland. He also did the primary land use patterns for Walt Disney World. So as a land use planner, I have always been a fan of Marvin Davis. Buzz Price has also been special to me, for all the time he spend helping me with the research for the book. Buzz never worked for the Disney Company, but as a consultant to Walt Disney. He worked on more than 150 projects for the brothers.
MN…How does your job relate to the book?
SG…It’s very directly related. The book looks at Walt Disney’s fascination with three dimensional environments. The book explains from an urban design point of view, this fascination. It was like a feasibility study, I looked at the concept of EPCOT, the Progress city model, looked backward to see if it was financially practical to be built. It was the first time anyone has applied the concept of urban design towards the Theme parks.
MN…Walt was an animator and storyteller, with no background in urban planning. How did he envision Progress City on such a grand scale?
SG…It was almost like anything with Walt. He had no formal training in making movies. He was much more sophisticated in engineering and mechanical engineering then many gives him credit for. During my research, I found that the original “Dancing Man” animatronic modeled after dancer Buddy Ebsen, was mostly done by Walt himself, he did the mechanics. Even the caboose of the Carolwood Pacific Railroad was completely built by Walt. He also had an incredible memory. He knew how to take things already out there and take them one step further. He was a prolific reader, and tried to learn
MN…How did you decide to write the book? Was it for informational purposed or personal fascination with Walt Disney?
SG…It’s both. The idea of writing a book was always on my mind. It was an incredible experience.
MN…Was researching the book difficult?
SG…In some cases. But in reality most historians and people who do what I do know where to look. My biggest disadvantage was not having access to the Disney archives. In addition to Buzz Price, I had access to Victor Gruens’ files, which was influential to what Walt wanted in his Progress city.
MN…Was the Disney Company supportive in your book and research?
SG…I don’t think the Company knew I even existed! But since the book, I have been invited to speak at several Disney Company functions lately.
MN…What are the major differences in design of Disneyland compared to Walt Disney World?
SG…They are many different things. Disneyland is a very urban park, surrounded by cities. It’s very tiny compared to WDW. All of the property controlled by the Disneyland Resort could fit into Animal Kingdom. Because of the scale, Disneyland is much more layered, more stuff on top of stuff, it feels more intimate.
MN…Was there anyone in particular a big help on the book?
SG…Harrison “Buzz” Price. Without him I would not been able to gather the “inside” information. I also had support from Werner Weiss of Yesterland.com, and Len Testa of Touringplans.com. And technical friend Marsha Rood, FAICP who is an urban planning legend here in Southern California. She was my urban planning guru throughout the book to make sure I got the concepts correct.
MN…Is the book part history of Imagineering or Walt’s ideas on Progress City or both?
SG…There is no separation. Walt and WED were one in the same. That was his playground, to get away from the pressures of the studio. The book goes into the development process, the how’s and why’s they did what they did, especially creating the physical places themselves.
MN…If EPCOT was built the way Walt envisioned it, do you think it would be as popular with guests as a Theme park, Attraction or curiosity?
SG…Walt didn’t think of it as a Theme park. It was to be a showcase of American technology and American Corporations to show how their technology could solve many of the World’s problems. It was Buzz Price’ expectation of Walt’s EPCOT that it would have been more popular than Walt Disney World. It would be like having the whole of EPCOT in one air-conditioned building.
MN…Do you think all the Disney Parks Worldwide are laid out the same?
SG…No. In the Florida parks, EPCOT, Animal Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom are. EPCOT is two Theme parks shoved together, all with strong hub and spoke designs. California Adventure is just a mess. Disney claims the Studios is hub and spoke, but it’s pretty much broke up, it’s just a front half and a back half. The rest of the worldwide parks are hub and spoke.
MN…What park if any is more radical designed than most?
SG…Of the four Florida Parks, Animal Kingdom. It’s consistent in its core message that we celebrate animals of the past, present and of our fantasy. All the lands represent life and balance, the struggle of mankind and nature. Each of the land does reflect different gradients on that. It fulfilled Walt’s dream of people being able to see live animals.
MN…If Walt had more property in Anaheim, do you think Disneyland’s design would have been different than the hub and spoke?
SG…I think that if he had enough land in Anaheim, he could have controlled what was happening around the borders, and may have not build Walt Disney World. The biggest reason he build WDW was that he hated what was happening around his Theme Park. They worked very diligently on the hub and spoke, the little building blocks, building the park behind a berm. The railroad is a 12 to 14 foot mountain of dirt that hides the park from the city and blocks out the noises. They went through about 139 different versions till settling on the version we are comfortable with today. He wanted to protect the edges against what he called in 1965 a “Second rate Las Vegas that was building around Disneyland” That was the major factor in buying all the land in Florida, he did not want the rest of the world encroaching in on him.
MN…When California Adventure first opened, many people were against it, why?
SG…I was there on its grand opening day. It wasn’t very well designed initially. It was like the “anti-Disney” park. It wanted to be hip, everything Disneyland was not. It was different than any of the other Theme Parks. It did not have what Imagineer John Hench called…”Architectural Reassurance” When you enter any of the Disney Parks, you feel comfortable and at home, because of the architecture and urban design.
MN…Were the design of the attractions figured in the design of the parks?
SG…Oh yes. They all go together. The idea of rides and attractions, then the show is to add capacity. You can only fit so many people on the sidewalks. To sell more tickets, you have to people someplace. So you want people on the rides, shows and even in lines to absorb people and that adds capacity. There is lots of mathematics that go along with this. That is what Buzz Price did, he created that whole economics for Theme Parks.
MN…Now for the important question; where can we buy your book?
SG…You can purchase it on Amazon.com, both in paperback and Kindle.
MN…Any future books planned?
SG…I hope so! This project was a lot of fun. I have some ideas in mind, so one of these days I’ll have another book.
MN…Where can fans contact you?
SG…You can contact me at Miceage.com and my own website Samlanddisneyadventures at www.samlanddisney.blogspot.com
MN…Last question, what is your favorite park and why?
SG…Its Disneyland and quite simply it’s the park that Walt walked through!
MN…I thank you for your time Sam, we will be looking forward to your next book!