The History of Disney Travel Guides

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

One of my favorite stories is one that Imagineer Marty Sklar told many times over the decades and, fortunately, repeated in his recent book Dream It! Do It! My Half Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms.

As Sklar told the story in his book:

“In the late 1950s, one of my jobs was to write the copy for The Story of Disneyland souvenir guide. As the costs of printing and production grew to 24 cents for a product that sold in the park for 25 cents, the merchandise staff wanted to double the price to 50 cents.

“In those days, Walt was the judge and the jury for even decisions as mundane as this. I accompanied the merchandise staff to a meeting with Walt, and watched them strike out. ‘No’ was the answer.

“Walt’s reasons were clear and direct. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘we don’t have to make a profit on every line of merchandise. Our guests take those souvenir books home, put them on their coffee tables, and their friends see them and think, ‘That place looks like fun!’ and when they come, they buy tickets to the park, and food, and merchandise inside. That’s when we’ll make our profit. Keep the price at 25 cents; I want as many souvenir books as you can sell in homes across the country—around the world.”

Most Disney fans do not realize that when Disneyland opened in 1955, it was as strange to most Americans as a foreign country. Disneyland was physically unlike any other amusement park.

There was only one entrance, whereas most amusement parks and carnivals had multiple entrances around the perimeter of the park. People often struggled to remember where they entered at the end of the day. That confusion was designed to keep people inside the park, along with a chaotic interior layout that twisted around and around.

There was no midway nor was there a Ferris wheel or roller coaster rising high in the sky for some sort of reference or filling the air with horrified screams.

Disneyland produced a small folded guide map with Tinker Bell on the cover that was available for free to guests. Starting on opening day, the Bank of America that operated on Main Street also gave away free folded colored brochures to guests that featured a map for the park.

The primary purpose of Guest Relations was not to handle guest complaints, but to offer vacation planning tips on how to understand and best enjoy Disneyland. The primary purpose of the train was not to provide another attraction, but to allow guests to circle the park to get a sense of what Disneyland was and where things were.

Disney Legend Cecily Rigdon was promoted from ticket seller at the outside kiosks to Guest Relations because Walt saw her line was always the longest. Installing microphones, he discovered that she was giving tips about where to go and where to eat depending on the nature of the family. Guests eagerly waited in a longer line to get her suggestions.

For Walt, it was very important that guests be able to get around easily to enjoy their day and to understand what was there and where.

While most readers of this column are probably veteran travelers and instantly know that if one area is blocked how to do a “work around” to get where they need to go, or when is the best time to go on an attraction or see a show, there are still many people who go to the Disney parks so infrequently, or have such limited time schedules, that they need assistance for their experience.

So Disney travel guides were born.

I have many friends who are professional writers. One of them earned his living for many years translating German books into English and writing some historical novels.

One day, he called me up very excited because he had been able to purchase a complete set of volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica from the 1920s. I pointed out that he could have spent much less purchasing a recent set, which had more up-to-date entries.

He then revealed to me that he had at least 10 complete sets of Encyclopedia Britannica, but from different time periods and was hoping to purchase more. In 1933, the Britannica became the first encyclopedia (and I only know how to spell that word correctly thanks to Jiminy Cricket singing the word on the original Mickey Mouse Club television series) to continually update entries on a regular schedule.

As my friend patiently explained to me, an early edition of Britannica might have two or three pages devoted to buggy whips with detailed descriptions, history, illustrations and more, because it was a vital tool at the time. However, even a decade later, because of space restrictions and new entries, that entry on buggy whips might be severely edited to a half page or eliminated entirely.

He was buying sets from different eras to help him with accurate details for his historical novels. He had access to information that he could trust that literally existed nowhere else.

That conversation taught me two things.

First, I started to look for certain individual volumes of older Britannica sets and was ecstatic when I uncovered in a Burbank used book store volume “D” from 1956. Why? Because there was a multi-page article credited to Walt Disney, but obviously done by the Disney publicity department, and several black and white photos all about Disneyland, obviously written shortly after the July 1955 opening.

Second, it taught me that I better start collecting the Birnbaum travel guides to Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Just like the Britannica, the Birnbaum guides have significant changes each year as old things close, new things open and policies change.

The Walt Disney World Birnbaum guide from 1990 has three pages devoted to Pleasure Island because that location had just opened months before the guide went to press. Yet just a few years later, the entry shrunk to miniscule size taking valuable information away.

Steve Birnbaum was a writer best known for his travel commentary and guide books. He originally worked as a managing editor for Fodor’s travel guides.

He created his own travel guide series in the mid-1970s that totaled 36 different books from Italy to Germany to Disneyland at the time of his death from of leukemia on December 20, 1991, in Manhattan at the age of 54.

He was well known not only for his books but his appearances on television, his syndicated travel column for newspapers and his articles in many high profile magazines.

His wife of 31 years, Alexandra Mayes Birnbaum, continued his work, including editing the Birnbaum travel guide books. The Disney books were published by Hearst while many of his other guides were published by HarperCollins. In 2001, Disney bought the brand and began publishing under its own imprint.


The virtue of the Birnbaum Disney guides is that they are always clearly written and organized, colorfully illustrated with photos, have accurate information, and are accessible to all levels of Disney guests, especially first time visitors.


In 1990, as president of Disneyland and Walt Disney World, Dick Nunis, wrote:

“In 1981, our company entered into a comprehensive project with Steve Birnbaum to write the first official guide to the Walt Disney World Vacation Kingdom. I was impressed that even Steve, with his acclaimed travel book reputation, would want to tackle such a project.

“As one who has spent a major part of my career with the operation of this vast resort complex, I knew he would be undertaking quite a task to provide an all-in-one source for anyone planning to visit Walt Disney World.

“After an initial year of basic research and revisions, [Steve and his staff] have produced a book which is well organized, easily readable, and most important, complete and accurate.

“This guide, though written by someone who has never worked for our organization, captures the spirit of what everyone at Walt Disney World endeavors to achieve.

“Subsequently, Steve prepared a corresponding guidebook for Disneyland, complete with numerous anecdotes and trivia, and he now updates this guide every year. I am pleased with the preciseness and quality of Steve Birnbaum’s work, which may bring some of the magic of our kingdom to you.”

This is very high praise from Nunis, who was not known for such gushing and had extremely high standards. “Steve Birnbaum Brings You The Best of Walt Disney World” first appeared in a 1982 edition with a red cover, with the Disneyland edition not appearing until 1985, but also with a fire engine red cover.

The Disney Company decided to go with Birnbaum’s proposal because they hoped it would reach a different and larger demographic of tourists planning trips. In addition, the books would be easily available at a local bookstore and, in keeping with Walt’s philosophy, people who had never been to a Disney park would find the book and be motivated to come and visit.

Birnbaum’s books became the standard for Disney guide books. It still remains the top-selling edition to this day.

Why did Birnbaum select Walt Disney World to do first as a guide book?

“To tell the truth, I came upon Disneyland a little bit backward,” he said. “For most people in this country, Disneyland was their first experience with Walt Disney’s remarkable idea of what outdoor amusement could be like.

“Not me," he continued. "As an easterner, I had visited Walt Disney World many times before I ever made my first foray onto Disneyland’s Anaheim premises, and I went with a fair amount of skepticism. After all, didn’t Walt Disney World really represent [Walt’s] ultimate concept? Furthermore, wasn’t Disneyland just an identical copy—albeit the original one—of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World? It turned out that all my doubts were unfounded, for although certain of the basics of the two extraordinary establishments are undeniably the same, Disneyland is possessed of a unique charm.”

Birnbaum had access to some impressive contributors who helped him put together his guide books including John Hench, Marty Sklar, Tony Baxter, Ken Anderson, Renie Bardeau, Van France, Ron Dominguez, John Cora, Charlie Ridgway, Dave Venables, Judi Daley, and dozens of others from the Disney organization.

“I would also like to point out that every worthwhile travel guide is a living enterprise,” wrote Birnbaum shortly before his death. “That is, this book may be our best effort at explaining how best to enjoy Walt Disney World at this moment, but its text is in no way cast in bronze. In each annual revision, we expect to refine and expand our material to serve our readers’ needs even better.”

“Despite the designation of ‘Official Guide’, I should say that the Disney Company has exercised no veto power whatever over the contents of this book,” he said. “Quite the contrary, they have opened their files and explained operations to us in the most generous way imaginable."

“I daresay that there were times when the Disney folks were less than delighted at some of our opinions or conclusions, yet these analyses all stayed in,” he said. “Furthermore, we’ve been flattered again and again by Disney staff who’ve commented about how much they’ve learned about some unfamiliar aspects of Walt Disney World [or Disneyland] from the material in this guide.”

The next best selling Disney travel guide is “The Unofficial” series created by Bob Sehlinger, a Lowell Thomas Award-winning journalist, that first appeared in 1984 and grew from 200 pages to more than 500 pages a decade later.

“Five years from now,” Sehlinger told Craig Dezern of The Orlando Sentinel newspaper in 1994, “you’re going to have to hire a Sherpa to carry your book for you.” (Today the book is 864 pages of tiny type that is appreciated and lauded by seasoned Disney travelers.)

Sehlinger used to recommend to his readers that they buy the Birnbaum guide, as well, until MacMillian who was publishing The Unofficial Guide at the time, started objecting strenuously.

“We didn’t feel the official book provided the kind of information to tour the park in an efficient way,” Sehlinger said.

For instance, The Official Guide didn’t separate the “don’t miss” from the “don’t bother” and Sehlinger said he felt an “official” guide wouldn’t always reveal the shortcomings of "The Mouse."

Just like Birnbaum, Sehlinger has a staff that personally visits several times before putting information to print. Today, the co-author of the Disneyland and Walt Disney World guides is Len Testa. Sehlinger oversees some impressive contributors, including Seth Kubersky, Jim Hill, Sam Genawey, and Jeff Kurtti, among others.

The market is flooded by Disney travel guides from Frommer’s and Fodor and Passporter to those that concentrate on a special focus, like budget spending, luxury spending, traveling with kids, traveling without kids, traveling with people with disabilities, traveling with people who are British, and even traveling with real men with no interest in princesses. Some, like the one produced by Mike and Julie Neal, are jam packed with amazing color photos.

In addition, there are many fine websites, especially MousePlanet, that offer current advice and information about visiting the Disney theme parks.

Just two months ago, a new travel guide was released that immediately became one of the three top sellers and has remained near that position ever since: The Easy Guide To Your First Walt Disney World Visit 2014 by Dave Shute and Josh Humphrey. This book is published by Theme Park Press, the same publisher that publishes my books. I had no input into this book, nor did I see it until a month after it was published and I receive no compensation for telling you about it.

Basically, I wanted to let you know that this book exists and seems to be very popular judging by not only the sales but the many positive reviews on Amazon by people who know a lot more about Disney park traveling than I do.

In addition, wouldn’t you like to have a first edition of the Birnbaum or Sehlinger Disney guide books on your shelves at their original price rather than the hundreds of dollars that are asked when the books ever appear for sale, which is not often?

Here’s your chance to get a first-edition of a travel guide series that looks like it will be around for quite a while. This 2014 edition will soon be replaced by an improved 2015 edition before the end of the year. After all, Disney is constantly changing so there is always a need for an annual update.

Shute has been running a website for years offering advice for people’s first visit to Walt Disney World. Along with co-author Humphrey, he has refined all of that material and formatted it for this handy guide.

Actually, the title of the book is misleading. I found there were plenty of hints and new perspectives for even veteran visitors.

I suspect that even before this column sees print, there will be at least three or four more specialized guide books produced on everything from best places to blog if you are a panda, to how to make sure you meet Anna and Elsa in the parks, to just simply here are the top 10 things to do in each park and why.

For me, I am still struggling to complete my Birnbaum collection since I foolishly missed many years and regret that choice today.



  1. By Dave Shute

    How terrific to have our book mentioned on MousePlanet by Jim Korkis!! Just a couple of quick thoughts:

    --The book is based on neither of our sites. It brings probably less than 10% of its material from them. Rather, Josh and I used the expertise we developed while crafting our sites to write—and re-write, and re-write—this book pretty much from scratch.

    --It’s a true collaborative effort—each of us did the first draft of about half the material!

    Thanks again for mentioning our book, especially in such august company!


  2. By MyTwoCents

    Thank you for the excellent writing and rich details! Our family started with the Birnbaum guides back in the 80s and loved it... Then thought we'd died and gone to heaven with the Unofficial guides and website. I look forward to reading this newest guide on the scene, too. :-)
    IMHO, most of the other guides are useless rehashings that heavily borrow from Unofficial or they're just plain wrong/outdated.

  3. By schnebs

    Oh, good - I'm not the only one out there who collects Disney travel guides! Like Jim, I like to collect the books because they give you a glimpse of a moment in time at a particular Disney theme park/resort. Any time I'm not sure when an attraction opened at WDW, I have a look at my Birnbaum or Unofficial Guides and I can usually figure it out.

    Alas, the longer the Birnbaum guides continue to be printed, the less useful information they have; as Jim mentioned, in the early years of the Birnbaum guide, Steve Birnbaum and his successors had no problem telling readers what attractions and restaurants were worth a visit and which ones weren't, but gradually after Steve's passing, the Birnbaum guides became less critical of the Mouse that feeds them, and by the time the Birnbaums began to be published by Disney Editions, everything was wonderful and worth doing.

    The Unofficial Guides have always been a lot of fun to read, but they've definitely grown over the years. I have a copy of the first UG for WDW, and I could tuck it in my back pocket if I wasn't so paranoid about ruining it. The current edition is still a great read and very informative, and it also makes an excellent stepstool or doorstop, but you have to be careful not to drop it in the vicinity of small pets.

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