Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney And The American Way Of Life


The Magic Kingdom sheds new light on the cultural icon of "Uncle Walt."  Watts digs deeply into Disney's private life, investigating his roles as husband, father, and brother and providing fresh insight into his peculiar psyche-his genuine folksiness and warmth, his domineering treatment of colleagues and friends, his deepest prejudices and passions.  Full of colorful sketches of daily life at the Disney Studio and tales about the creation of Disneyland and Disney World, The Magic Kingdom offers a ...

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The Magic Kingdom sheds new light on the cultural icon of "Uncle Walt."  Watts digs deeply into Disney's private life, investigating his roles as husband, father, and brother and providing fresh insight into his peculiar psyche-his genuine folksiness and warmth, his domineering treatment of colleagues and friends, his deepest prejudices and passions.  Full of colorful sketches of daily life at the Disney Studio and tales about the creation of Disneyland and Disney World, The Magic Kingdom offers a definitive view of one of the most influential Americans of the twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Watts' account of the Age of Disney hits the bullseye."—Newsday

"A very thoughtful, reasoned, and entertaining view of a great American success story—two brothers from the Middle West who came to symbolize everything good about America."—Roy Disney

"Gives us a vivid portrait of the man behind Mickey Mouse, while at the same time situating his anomalous achievement within a social and esthetic context. . . . A terrifically readable and illuminating book."—New York Times

"An invaluable mine of material on how the American century became the Disney century."—Los Angeles Times

"Reveals why the man who created Mickey Mouse reigns as one of the most important cultural influences of the 20th century. [Written in] a lively, accessible tone."—USA Today

The first truly balanced account of Walt Disney's life and work. Fascinatingly detailed, intellectually vigorous, and candid, Watts's exhaustive research presents a human portrait of this extraordinary ordinary' man and his profound influence on American culture."—John Canemaker, author of Treasures of Disney Animation Art and Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspiration Sketch Artists

"Forcefully and cogently argued, it does an excellent job of tying together all of the facets—artistic, commercial, and personal—of the Disney saga. . . . This valuable, unique book will be valued by fans, cynics, and semioticians alike."

"A captivating portrait of a complicated man."—St. Louis Post- Dispatch

"Requires us to acknowledge two essential truths that are easy to forget: That where Disney ended up is not where he began and that his stupendous success arose from . . . his heartfelt understanding of and sympathy with average Americans and their hopes, fears, and values'"—Washington Post

"Steve Watts is both a scholar and a Disneyphile, which makes him an ideal author for this much-neded volume about Walt Disney's place in American culture. It told me things I didn't know before, but even more important, it made me think about things I already knew."—Leonard Maltin, author of The Disney Films

"The Magic Kingdom is a most impressive achievement. . . . More than a first-rate biography, this extraordinarily lucid book- -a work at once of genuine empathy and unsparing criticism—is cultural history at its best."—Robert Westbrook, author of John Dewey and American Democracy

"As true a picture as I could have imagined."—Fess Parker

"This exhaustively researched and remarkably judicious volume should remain our best source on Walt Disney and his manifold enterprises for many years to come."—Journal of American History

"This lively, witty, and insightful study is likely to become a standard."—Library Journal

"Mr. Watts is to be congratulated for producing a subtle, generous-minded account of [the Disney] legacy, and for reminding readers, after so much Disney-bashing, that there was a bright as well as a dark side to the magic kingdom."
The Economist

"The most responsible and comprehensive book on Disney's relationship to American culture in a long while."
Seattle Times

"An immensely thorough, thoughtful survey and syntheses of some sixty years of commentary about Disney, intertwined with Watts' own remarkable perceptive assessments."—Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Relying on a mountain of archival and interview material, Watts does a masterful job of keeping the sometimes contradictory strands of Disney's life and work together."—Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"A thoughtful and well-researched biography . . . which also provides a starting point for thinking about the Disney legacy today."—Commentary

"A fine example of academic research that is fully accessible to a nonacademic audience."—Dallas Morning News

"An admirable even-handed work. . . . Stands well above the current, permissively silly academic standards for the discussion of pop culture. . . . A new perspective."—Washingtonian Monthly

Library Journal
Although the Disney studio was hailed as a dream factory, there was plenty of hard work and hard-nosed business deals behind the facade. Drawing on interviews and research from Disney archives, Watts shows how Disney and mid-America influenced each other, from the birth of the animation empire, through the "libertarian populism" of the Fifties film, TV, and theme-park efforts, to Walt's untimely death in 1966. Other topics include Disney's pioneering role in business "integration" (using one side of the business to promote another side), his idealization of small-town life, his contagious creative enthusiasm, and his growing conservatism and abiding contempt for unions. Whether selling World War II to an anxious home front, lifting spirits in the Depression, soothing America's Cold War fears, or catering to the new leisure and consumer society, Disney had a unique rapport with average Americans. Portrayed as neither devil nor saint, Disney emerges as a human and sometimes sympathetic figure. This lively, witty, and insightful study is likely to become a standard. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. [Two other Disney biographers in recent years have accused the Disney family of attempting to undermine criticisms of him; for a more critical appraisal see Marc Eliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, LJ 5/1/93.Ed.]Stephen Rees, Levittown Reg. Lib., Pa.
Part biography and part cultural analysis. Watts (history, U. of Missouri) argues that Disney reflected a central irony of modern American society: while proclaiming a genuine allegiance to the values of an earlier age (self-reliance, the work ethic, the culture of domesticity, sexual inhibition), he took the lead in creating the modern world of consumer self-fulfillment. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
The New York Times
Terrifically readable and illuminating. Mr. Watts has done an intelligent job of assembling and analyzing a vast amount of material...a coherent, insightful book. -- The New York Times
The Economist
An excellent book. Mr. Watts is to be congratulated...for reminding readers that there was a bright as well as a dark side to the magic kingdom. -- The Economist
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826213792
  • Publisher: University of Missouri Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2001
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 568
  • Sales rank: 825,341
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Watts is Chairman of the History Department at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is the author of several books, including The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America, 1790-1820.

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Read an Excerpt

The Magic Kingdom

Walt Disney and the American Way of Life

By Steven Watts

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 1997 Steven Watts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-1379-2


Disney and the Rural Romance

In 1956 Walt Disney returned to his past. The creator of Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, television's Disneyland show, and a fabulous amusement park, now one of the most famous people in the world, went back to Marceline, Missouri, the tiny town of some 2500 residents where he had lived as a boy. The city fathers had built a park with a swimming pool and named it after their well-known native son. They had invited Disney to the festivities, scarcely believing that he would take time to attend. To their surprise, however, he agreed, and he showed up on July 4 with several members of his family and staff in tow, including his brother Roy, the Disney Studio business manager. The visit was full of reminiscences. Viewing the local landmarks, talking with townspeople, and visiting his parents' old farm, Disney waxed nostalgic about Marceline. "I feel so sorry for people who live in cities all their lives and ... don't have a little home town," he told a crowd at the park dedication. "I'm glad my dad picked out a little town where he could have a farm, because those years that we spent here have been memorable years."

There was more to this event, however, than met the eye. Disney's celebration of Marceline and the accompanying injunction that everyone should have small-town roots rang true to his character and his sentiments. But it didn't quite ring true to the facts. Walt Disney had not been born in Marceline. In fact, he lived there for only three and a half years, from age four until he was eight. He had not even set foot in Marceline for over forty-five years, spending the vast majority of his life in those same big cities—Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles—whose inhabitants he claimed to pity. Disney's memory, in other words, took a back seat to his need for mythmaking. His love for this village was genuine, but like much else about this fascinating and elusive man, it was touched by ambiguity.

I. Between the Country and the City

Marceline was typical of many midwestern towns. Perched among the gently rolling hills of Linn County in north-central Missouri, it lay surrounded by expanses of prairie that gave way to occasional patches of oak, hickory, sycamore, and scrub cedar. Incorporated in 1888 as a creature of the Santa Fe Railroad, it had sprung up along the new line connecting Chicago and Kansas City, as the Santa Fe Land, Town, and Improvement Company first bought up land and then platted and sold lots to create a new terminal point. Within six months the population numbered about 2500, and local real estate speculation ran wild. Typically, Marceline saw an overnight explosion of frame houses accompanied by the more gradual construction of supporting institutions—several saloons, a post office, two banks, a small theater, the office of a local newspaper, and a sprinkling of small retail shops. Hard on their heels came the churches, inevitable in the pious Midwest; seven denominations appeared within two years of the town's founding. By the early twentieth century, however, the boom days had faded. As the population leveled off and economic growth receded, the town settled into a provincial routine that was equal parts stability and simplicity, community and confinement.

Marceline, in other words, did not seem the sort of place to inspire a sense of magic and fantasy. But it did precisely that to Walt Disney. As a matter of fact, this rather unremarkable town held a key to the boundless creativity that fueled the enormous Disney cultural enterprise. The Disney family moved there in 1906, when Walt was four years old. Although they stayed only a few years while his father tried his hand at farming, this period had an impact on the young boy's psyche and values that lingered for a lifetime. As an adult, he often talked about his love of rural life and spun tales about his Marceline days. Such sentiments were not only for public consumption. In late middle age, rich and famous as a Hollywood filmmaker, Disney built a small barn behind his house near Beverly Hills to serve as a workshop. It was an exact replica of the one he remembered from the Marceline farm.

Friends and family also testified to this influence. Disney's wife, Lillian, once discussed Marceline's hold on her husband: "I don't know why Marceline was so important to him. He didn't live there very long ... But there was something about the farm that was very important to him. He worked hard but he enjoyed the work. He liked the animals and he liked being close to the soil. Work can be relaxing on a farm, even though it's hard. He always said that apples never tasted so good as when they were picked off the trees on the farm." An artist at the Disney Studio once glimpsed the same emotional current in his boss. Residing on a tiny farm outside Los Angeles in the late 1930s, he was happy to receive a visit from Walt and his family one Saturday afternoon. The two Disney girls hugged the baby farm animals, and their world-famous father snapped a couple of photographs before commenting "Boy, I envy you." As the astonished employee's jaw dropped, Disney continued, "Yeah, boy, someday I'd like to live on a ranch and have animals myself." He gazed off and said, "When I was a kid, we lived on a farm and we had all kinds of animals. I'd like to have that again."

Reaching beyond Walt's personal life, Marceline's rural images also had a profound influence on his work. It became something of a standing joke at the studio, for example, that Walt had a great fondness for outhouse humor. An interviewer once asked a group of story men and animation directors about this, and after several muffled guffaws and an exchange of glances, one of them diplomatically described his sense of humor as "rural." He explained, "The sort of things that tickled Walt were outhouse gags, goosing gags, bedpans and johnnypots, thinly disguised farts, and cow's udders." Disney readily confessed to this. As he once noted, "I know in the early cartoons I used to feature a little outhouse and I know darn well I got that here in Marceline ... We got a lot of laughs with that outhouse. But, of course, as we got a little more money to work with, why, we got a little more refined about it. The outhouse had to go."

Memories of Marceline, however, had a deeper influence. Many of the Disney Studio's famous animated shorts from the late 1920s through the 1940s, including both the Mickey Mouse cartoons and the more adventurous Silly Symphonies, revolved around rural motifs and small-town adventures. Steamboat Willie (1928), for instance, the groundbreaking sound cartoon that made stars of both Mickey and Walt, featured a Twain-like riverboat setting and gags and comedic situations associated with farm animals. The Country Cousin (1936) drew its humor from the misadventures of a rural rube from Podunk who went to visit his tuxedo-clad cousin, Monty the city mouse. Even with the studio's gradual move to live-action films in the 1950s and 1960s, the rural influence remained strong. A trio of small-town films set in the early twentieth century, for instance, were so close to Walt Disney's heart that they moved him to tears. Both Pollyanna (1960) and Those Calloways (1965) elicited a strong reaction from him, and director David Swift and producer Winston Hibler were shocked to see him cry unashamedly when he previewed the rough-cut versions of these films. So Dear to My Heart (1949), a deeply nostalgic movie set on a midwestern farm in 1903, struck him even harder. "So Dear was especially close to me," he once admitted to a reporter. "Why, that's the life my brother and I grew up with as kids out in Missouri. The great racehorse Dan Patch [a figure in the film] was a hero to us. We had Dan Patch's grandson on my father's farm."

Thus Marceline inspired a whole state of mind, a love affair with small-town America. A pair of nagging questions, however, remain unanswered: What exactly made the town such a reservoir of inspiration for Disney's imagination, especially since his actual contact with it was so limited? And, perhaps even more important, why did American audiences respond so enthusiastically, even rapturously, to this personal vision? The complex answers to these questions lie in history, particularly in the broad transformations that were remaking the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century.

During Disney's youth, in fact, small-town America was beginning a period of rapid decline. As historians have made clear, in the decades from 1880 to 1920 the United States saw a series of sweeping shifts that took it far in the direction of a modern urban industrial society. Galloping industrial growth, mushrooming corporations, the late-century flood of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, and an explosion of urban growth irrevocably transformed the socioeconomic landscape. This array of far-reaching changes prompted a momentous cultural shift. By the turn of the century, Victorian culture, with its values of self-control, domesticity, and a stern work ethic, was giving way to a consumer culture based on a code of material abundance, leisure, and self-fulfillment. In the early 1900s, a new vision of America was becoming clearer and clearer. In an atmosphere of growing material abundance, the ideas that human instincts should be sated rather than restrained, that leisure had a place above old-fashioned attachments to productivity, that the external projections of human personality were more important than the internal restraints of character, emerged as threads of a new national culture.

Disney's small-town America, the source of his golden memories, was in fact beginning to vanish even as he experienced it. At some level he sensed this acutely, because the stable years he spent in Marceline were a brief respite from the geographic mobility and emotional turmoil that characterized the great bulk of his childhood. Hence an irony: Walt Disney insisted on the value of deep roots in rural community precisely because his own roots ran so shallow. The desperation of his grasp for this ideal stability only revealed the ephemeral nature of its object. Disney's obsession with small-town America simply highlighted the larger pattern of dislocation and urban flux that actually colored his early life. His popular audience, many of its members also suffering from the dislocations of historical change, likewise yearned for the stability and comfort of a way of life that was vanishing.

In later years, Walt liked to portray himself as a self-effacing farmboy from the Midwest. Ward Kimball, a leading Disney animator and one of Walt's few close friends, noted that his boss was "very preoccupied with his own history" and set many of his pictures in "the Gay Nineties or the early 1900s—because that was when he was a kid." Indeed, it seems clear that Disney mythologized his past and presented it to the public. But the process was more tangled than anyone, especially he himself, ever realized. Its complexity began to form in his earliest childhood years.

II. Son of the Midwest

Walt Disney, whose working-class parents struggled to make a living, spent much of his boyhood on the move. He was born on December 5, 1901, in Chicago, Illinois. His first name honored the preacher of the local Congregational church, of which his parents were devoted members, while his middle name, Elias, came from his father, a carpenter and occasional lay preacher. Only a handful of photographs have survived from his infancy, but one depicts the nine-month-old Walt seated on a wicker fan-back chair in a frilly white baby gown and slippers, looking curiously out at the camera. His older brother Roy remembered pushing him along the street in a baby carriage and buying him small toys with his odd-job earnings. Elias Disney worked as a small-time contractor, building houses throughout the city. His wife, Flora, helped her husband by drawing construction plans and keeping the books while managing a bustling household of five children. She had designed the family's modest two-story house at 1249 Tripp Avenue in northwestern Chicago, and Elias had built it.

By the time Walt was nearly five years old, his parents had grown increasingly wary of life in the big city. Elias, especially, had become uneasy. In part it was a matter of crime, noise, and overcrowding, which disturbed his hopes of tranquillity and advancement for his children. But it was also a case of Elias's notorious wanderlust. Since young manhood he had roamed the country, searching for success in a variety of jobs: railroad machinist and carpenter in Colorado, farmer in Kansas, hotel proprietor and orange-grove owner and mail carrier in Florida. By the time of his retirement, he would have moved at least five more times throughout the Midwest and on the West Coast. His decade and a half in Chicago was a record for staying put, and he began searching for a new location for his family and a new path to success.

Early in 1906, Elias decided to turn again to farming. His brother, Robert, owned several hundred acres near Marceline, and several other relatives lived nearby, so Elias purchased the farm of a recently deceased Civil War veteran and in April the Disney family settled into a small, one-story white house set on forty-five acres of land. It was a multiuse farm, with both crops and livestock, and Elias and his three older sons—Herbert, Ray, and Roy—began the backbreaking labor of planting corn, wheat, and sorghum and raising hogs, cattle, and horses. The work of the traditional farm wife, with its constant round of cooking and baking, preserving food, washing clothes, gardening, and churning butter, proved no less taxing for Flora.

Walt, too young to do much useful work, had the run of the place. He romped in the surrounding fields and woods and encountered birds and wildlife of all kinds. The boy loved to splash in local creeks and play in the farm orchard, and he grew especially fond of watching the Santa Fe trains as they passed on the tracks a short distance from his house. He often had the companionship of a small Maltese terrier—"He was my pal," he said some fifty years later—or a small pig named Skinny he raised with a baby bottle. Both pets followed him everywhere. In later years, Walt loved to tell stories of his heroic hog-riding exploits during these years: apparently he would jump on the back of his father's sows and ride them around the barnyard until they dumped him off in the nearby pond. He also began school, attending Marceline's Park School, where he learned the rudiments of reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography.

This carefree, even idyllic time was not destined to last. Elias's farming endeavor floundered within a few short years, and the failure could be traced to a number of sources. Angered by their father's moral strictness, demands for unrelenting labor, and tightfistedness, Herbert and Ray left the farm after a couple of years to make their own way, returning to Chicago and later going to Kansas City. Moreover, Elias was simply not a very good farmer. Refusing to use fertilizers, he managed to produce only small harvests, and he was unable to tailor his crops to the market. Illness proved to be the final straw. In the winter of 1909–10, he caught typhoid fever, then fell victim to pneumonia and was unable to do any farmwork at all. In early 1910 he was forced to sell his farm at auction—he barely got back what he paid for it—along with all of his livestock and equipment. This event was heartbreaking for the younger Disneys, especially Walt, who saw his familiar rural world disappear on the auctioneer's block.


Excerpted from The Magic Kingdom by Steven Watts. Copyright © 1997 Steven Watts. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


I. The Road to Hollywood,
1. Disney and the Rural Romance,
2. Young Man Disney and Mickey Mouse,
3. The Entertainer as Success Icon,
II. The Disney Golden Age,
4. Disney and the Depression: Sentimental Populism,
5. Disney and the Depression: Populist Parables,
6. The Entertainer as Artist: Sentimental Modernism,
7. Of Mice and Men: Art Critics and Animators,
8. Disney and American Culture,
9. The Fantasy Factory,
10. The Engineering of Enchantment,
III. Trouble in Fantasyland,
11. Animation and Its Discontents,
12. Disney and the Good War,
13. Disney's Descent,
14. The Search for Direction,
IV. Disney and the American Century,
15. Cold War Fantasies,
16. Disney and National Security,
17. Disney and Domestic Security,
18. Citizen Disney,
19. Disney and the Culture Industry,
20. The Happiest Place on Earth,
21. Pax Disneyana,
22. It's a Small World, After All,
Bibliographic Essay,

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