Book Review: Spinning Disney's World

Disney Legend Charlie Ridgway's book, Spinning Disney's World, has been out for a few years, but only recently in a Kindle edition. As a Disney press agent and publicity director for over 30 years, Charlie's got some stories to tell.

Next time you're in the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, slow down on Main Street and scout the names on the shop windows. You'll find this one:

Ridgway and Company
Public Relations
Charlie Ridgway - Press Agent - No Event Too Small

For over thirty years, Disney Legend Charlie Ridgway was what his window proclaimed: a press agent.

He had many other titles, among them Publicity Manager and Director of Press and Publicity, but at heart, he was a press agent, and that's how he likes to be remembered.

In 2007, Charlie wrote a book called Spinning Disney's World: Memories of a Magic Kingdom Press Agent. It's still available in hardcover.

Recently, the publisher released a Kindle version of the book, quite a bargain at $7.99, and the occasion merits both mention and a fresh look at the content.

Charlie, Sharp as a Tack

There are two kinds of books written about Disney history: the first kind is written by researchers who hunt down primary material and then report upon it; the second kind is written by the people who made the history themselves.

Charlie Ridgway made a lot of Disney history. He recounts much of it in his book, and he recounts it in a clear, simple style, his words well-chosen as you would expect from a man who got his first job in journalism back in 1947.

Now 87 years old, Charlie is still sharp as a tack.

We spoke yesterday for a couple of hours - with Charlie doing most of the talking! - and his ability to tell a story has not diminished. His grasp of events from decades ago is more precise, more reliable, than my memory of what I had this morning for breakfast.

And much more interesting, too!

Spinning Charlie's Book

Even though Spinning Disney's World begins with Charlie's first-hand account of Disneyland's grand opening in 1955, attended by a skeptical press and an enthusiastic public, Charlie was there as a journalist, and he stayed a journalist until 1963, when he began work for Disney.

In those early days, many referred to Disneyland as "Walt's Folly". But not Charlie, who saw its potential, and who wrote favorable features about the park for the Los Angeles News-Mirror and other outlets. In doing so, he managed to strike up a friendship with Walt Disney, and he also knew many of the executives who worked for Walt back then. One of them, Eddie Meck, Disneyland's Manager of Publicity, hired Charlie because Eddie "couldn't write a press release to save his life".

In the book, Charlie tells the story of one of his first assignments as the newest member (paid the princely sum of $67 per week!) of Disneyland's public relations department: working with Kevin Wallace of The New Yorker to communicate how Disney kept its park so clean (and its crowds so congenial!). The simple lesson: keep it clean, and it will stay clean.

Today, of course, the lesson has become official policy, requiring every Disney Cast Member, no matter their rank, to bend down and pick up any trash discarded but not disposed of by guests.

During his long career with Disney, Charlie had access to an astonishing array of celebrities and dignitaries. He became friends with many of them, including Bob Hope and Helen Hayes, and with the others he maintained a professional relationship based on something woefully lacking in today's world: the personal touch.

Arthur Levine, who writes about theme parks for About.com, remembers receiving a personal reply from Charlie after he sent him a letter - at the age of 11! - to ask for more information about Disneyland.

That gift for communication, for plain ol' kindness, set Charlie apart, and enabled him to promote Disneyland in the 1960s without really seeming to 'promote' anything. It didn't go unnoticed, either. When Disneyland President Jack Lindquist needed a point man to create the spectacular media campaign for the opening of Disney World in 1971, he picked Charlie.

Stories, Sugar-Free

Although Charlie has great admiration for Walt Disney, and nothing but fond memories of his years with the company, he does not sugarcoat the facts.

Was Walt Disney a genius, a visionary, a charismatic figure beloved by the people who worked for him? Sure. But did he lose his temper? Struggle while rehearsing his lines for a live telecast? Embarrass himself with a Sicilian donkey? You bet. And Charlie tells those stories, warts and all.

(About that Sicilian donkey: a young girl, the daughter of the Hollywood correspondent for Parade magazine, was bitten by the beast, and then brought in to see Walt, who assured her the donkey hadn't meant to do it, and he'd prove it to her. But when Walt patted the animal's head, it bit him, too. The donkey, as Charlie puts it, quickly disappeared.)

The first part of Spinning Disney's World is chockful of anecdotes about Walt, about the many famous people who visited Disneyland, and about Charlie's clever strategies to 'spin' Disneyland to the press without having to pay for the publicity.

Later in the book, Charlie explains his role in the mysterious Florida Project, the 'code name' for Walt Disney World, where he worked upstairs at City Hall in the Magic Kingdom, planning countless press events and innovating such things as the use of live satellite uplinks for EPCOT's grand opening in 1982. His memories of those years convey the excitement and audacity of duplicating Walt's Disneyland vision on a far grander scale in the middle of nowhere.

Throughout the book, tangled with the tales, is something more: a brief primer on how to conduct public relations in the old school style. Is that valuable in today's social media world? Is a journalist from the days of manual typewriters and teletypes still relevant? You'd be surprised...

Worth Its Weight in Walt?

For $7.99, you can download Spinning Disney's World in Kindle format from Amazon and start reading in less time than it will take me to type the rest of this review. If you don't have a Kindle, you can buy the book in hardcover, also from Amazon, where it's listed currently for $17.56.

The nice thing about owning the hardcover book is that, if you see Charlie, he'll autograph it for you. He remains active in the Disney community, and last weekend attended a D23 event at Disney World where he told me that he autographed several dozen of his books for fans.

Charlie Ridgway believed that the Disney concept sold itself. He never had to twist the arms of journalists to generate coverage for the Disney Parks. All he had to do, really, was invite them inside. Once you open Charlie's book, you'll understand exactly how that works.

Next Wednesday, May 25, mark your calendar for the debut of Charlie Ridgway on DisneyDispatch!

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