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Class with the Fabulous Disney Professor: A Student's Review of "Manufacturing the Magic"

Class with the Fabulous Disney Professor: A Student's Review of "Manufacturing the Magic"

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Hey, Gang!

Jim Hill here. Yes, I know. This smacks of blatant self-promotion. Particularly since I was a guest lecturer for the class that Paul Schebelen is writing about today.

But the fact of the matter is (as Paul mentions repeatedly in his piece): Michelle did a really nice job with her Learning Tree University course. More to the point, another cycle of this particular class -- "Manufacturing the Magic: The History of Disneyland and the Growth of the American Theme Park" -- is about to get underway, with the online component beginning on July 14th and the really-for-real class getting underway in Costa Mesa on July 26th.

If you'd like further information on Michelle's theme park history class, you can visit the Learning Tree University site and check out the online version of their course catalog.

Okay. That's enough yammering by the well meaning ex-husband. Let's check out Paul Schebelen's article, shall we?



When you were in school, there were a bunch of classes you had to take, but there were also one or two classes that you wanted to take. You know the classes I mean -- the ones that got you odd looks from the guidance counselor and a few of your friends, and didn't contribute much toward your degree, but you had a great time taking them because, dammit, they were fun. I took a couple of classes like that in college, but I never had the chance to take a class that would have been a dream come true for a Disney theme park geek like me. Although there are a lot of fun and interesting classes offered by colleges and "learning extension" schools, I've never seen anyone offer a class about theme parks.

Until now, that is.

A couple of months ago, I was catching up on the latest Disney news and gossip when I happened across a column on another website by JimHillMedia's founder, Michelle Smith (AKA The Fabulous Disney Babe). Among the various things she mentioned in her column was that she would be teaching a class about the history of theme parks with an emphasis on Disneyland, and she asked anyone who was interested to contact Learning Tree University in Costa Mesa to sign up for her class, which would be starting in May.

Take a class about theme parks? I deliberated carefully about whether or not I wanted to invest the time and money to take a class about one of my favorite subjects from someone that always seems to have the inside scoop on how the Disney theme parks are run. About 15 seconds later, I called LTU and registered for the class.

A few weeks later, I got up bright and early on a Saturday morning to drive from Oxnard to Costa Mesa (for the benefit of you folks not lucky enough to live in Southern California, that's a drive of about 90 miles) and showed up at LTU for the first class of "Manufacturing the Magic: The History of Disneyland and the Growth of the American Theme Park."

I have to admit I was a little nervous when I showed up; I've had the opportunity to take tours of Disneyland with Michelle and talk with her about Disney theme parks, but I didn't know what it would be like taking a class with her as the instructor. Would I be sentenced to cleaning the erasers for not knowing the exact opening date of The Enchanted Tiki Room? Would I be stuck in a class with dozens upon dozens of people who would sit there stone-faced as she lectured? Most importantly, would an actual class about my favorite subject be as exciting as someone trying to explain a joke?

It turned out that I needn't have worried. The first group of students to take "Manufacturing the Magic" was small enough that we got to know each other very quickly and we got along great. And our professor? She was a little nervous when she started, but she did a great job; she taught us all a lot of things we didn't know about the history of theme parks and about The Happiest Place on Earth. I wasn't bored for a moment.

That's just fine, I hear you say. I'm glad that you got along great with the instructor and your classmates. But what about the class? "What's it all about, Alfie?" "Manufacturing the Magic" takes you through the history of the American theme park, the rides and attractions found at the parks, tells you the stories behind the creation and growth of the industry, and gives you a look at the business behind the fun.

The class starts with a whirlwind tour of the European roots of the American theme park, from ancient trade fairs in medieval times to the 19th century World's Fairs. Next, you learn about the history of some classic amusement park rides, from how medieval horse combat trainers evolved into the modern carousel to how groups of fun-loving Russians sliding down hills on their ... uh, sleds ... evolved into the modern roller coaster.

Once you have a feel for amusement parks' ancient roots, "Manufacturing the Magic" takes you to some of the places and events in America that influenced modern theme parks. You'll visit the "White City" of the Chicago World's Fair of 1894, where Americans bent on showing the world what Americans could do created an incredibly beautiful (and tragically fragile) showplace that attracted millions of people. From there, you go to Coney Island, where New Yorkers experienced amazing rides like a simulated trip to the Moon and were swung, spun, and surprised for the chance to touch their best girl or guy and for the benefit of onlookers.

You'll visit the trolley parks, where people from the cities took streetcars on weekends to escape from the worries of city life, to the New York World's Fair of 1939, where people got their first look at the bright new "world of tomorrow." You'll also get to meet a man from Chicago (whose father worked on the White City) who had this crazy idea about building a theme park full of cartoon characters in the middle of nowhere - some place called Anaheim - and how that man brought together ideas from amusement parks of the past and the movies, then added a few ideas of his own to create a place loved by millions that became the model for an entire industry.

Now, there's a lot more to "Manufacturing the Magic" than just history lessons. One of the advantages of having an instructor who knows people who know the theme park industry is that she can tell you about the business behind the magic, and Michelle does just that. Do you know what it takes for a place to be called a theme park? Michelle can tell you. What's the difference between a theme park, and amusement park, and an adventure park, and how would you classify each? There's no standard industry answer, but Michelle has a pretty good explanation.

Think that building a new attraction is as simple as putting up walls, doing a little construction, and cutting the ribbon? Think again; there are lot of people in various departments of a theme park that have to pull together to create an attraction, get it to work, and keep it working -- and sometimes, some of those people don't work together well, or at all. The amusement park business is, above all, a business, and business decisions made behind the scenes affect the way you enjoy your day at a park (and vice versa). "Manufacturing the Magic" gives you a peek behind the curtain at how and why theme parks are run the way they are.

Michelle knows her stuff when it comes to theme parks, but even she can't tell you everything there is to know about them; that's why "Manufacturing the Magic" features guest lectures by other folks who know a lot about theme parks. For example, our class featured a visit by the one and only Jim Hill, who told us about a wild Texan named C.V. Wood who was a major player in building Disneyland, and then got the idea he could do repeat the Disneyland magic in other places all over the country without Walt ... and ended up building parks that were "spectaculars," but in a different way from what he and everyone else expected.

Who's coming by to lecture next? Well, as Jim would say, that would be telling, but between everything that Michelle's learned and will share with you and the guests who can tell you what they know from first hand experience, you're sure to leave the class having learned something you didn't know about the theme park industry.

You can learn a lot about theme parks in a classroom, but you can learn a lot more about them by visiting a theme park with an instructor that knows the stories and secrets behind the most famous theme park of all. For that reason, on the third and final class meeting of "Manufacturing the Magic," Michelle takes you on a tour of Disneyland.

Okay, I can hear a few of you saying that you've been on tours of Disneyland before, but trust me on this one: there are a lot more stories and secrets about Disneyland than the ones you've heard on the official tours. Even if you think you know all there is to know about the behind-the-scenes history of Disneyland, you'll hear some stories on Michelle's tour that you haven't heard before. For instance:

* Where is the marker that isn't and never was the center of Disneyland?

* What single change noticeably sped up the waiting time for Dumbo? And which of the elephants on the attraction IS Dumbo, anyway?

* Where were some "relatives" of Sonny Eclipse from the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland supposed to take up residence in the New Tomorrowland, and why didn't they?

* Where can you still find some elements of the legendary "Tomorrowland 2055" project?

* Is there a "burial ground" of discarded Audio-Animatronic figures in the Park? Where did they come from?

* What's the story behind the ads for the Mark Twain and the Cavalry on the Big Thunder Trail?

* Where on Main Street U.S.A. could you once be fitted for and purchase a bra?

* You may know that Walt's has an apartment at Disneyland, but what is its layout and what kind of items are in it?

Michelle can tell you about all of these things and more on the "Manufacturing the Magic" tour of Disneyland.

As you may have guessed, I really enjoyed "Manufacturing the Magic", and I was very impressed by Michelle Smith's knowledge of theme parks in general and of Disneyland in particular. Michelle's passionate about the subject of theme parks, and her enthusiasm showed in the lectures she gave, the materials she presented, and the tour of Disneyland that she led.

Don't worry, this isn't one of those classes where the instructor talks and expects you to just sit there and listen; Michelle was interested in what her students had to say and what they wanted to come away with from the class, and she was very willing to modify the course as needed to better reflect the interests and knowledge level of the students.

If you should think of something you wanted to know about theme parks after the class is done, not to worry -- the way Michelle sees it, once you're her student, you're always her student, and she's willing to answer questions you might have after class is done (or in our class' case, after LTU wanted all of us to go home!). In short, the class was fabulous ... but then, what else would a class taught by The Fabulous Disney Babe be?

About the only disappointing thing was that this is currently a stand-alone class; I'd love to see a college or university offer a series of courses in theme park design or theme park management with this class as the program's introductory course. This'd be a natural for Cal State Fullerton or the University of Central Florida, dont'cha think? Just a thought.

If you're a big fan of theme parks in general or Disney theme parks in particular, and you're looking for an interesting way to spend a couple of Saturdays, contact LTU and register for the next "Manufacturing the Magic" class, which will be starting in late July. (Can't make it to Costa Mesa? Michelle's class is also available online from LTU; no Disneyland tour, though.) After all, even if you got your last diploma a while ago, it's never too late to take one more fun class.

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