By Erik Johnson
You may have had a little extra time on your hands for the past few months. I know I did. Taking advantage of this rare opportunity, I went searching through my bookshelf for some reading material that had fallen into the region of, “I really want to read this when I get time.” We all have this section, right? Mine tends to be filled with books I heard about or read about and instantly bought, having no real plan to fit them into the schedule. Here is one such book that I was all too excited to dig into.
Not a lot of Disney fans are aware anymore of C. V. Wood, one of the original people involved with the creation and implementation of Disneyland. While Wood was not one of the original imagineers responsible for park and attraction design, his role was crucial. As histories go however, he has been all but left out of the official stories of Disneyland’s construction.
Three Years in Wonderland by Todd James Pierce delves into the history of this man and the theme park he helped to build. It begins with several chapters on Wood, from his youth into his adult years. This back story is essential to his eventual role with Disney and offers insight into the reasons for the personality clashes that led to his departure. A boy from a small town in Texas who learned to perform lasso tricks, Wood is portrayed as a storyteller and a huckster from his earliest years.
Readers follow along as Wood gains a group of lifelong friends and establishes himself as leader and the originator of any number of practical jokes. This crew eventually sobers up and heads off to college. Wood never graduates, but manages to land some high-profile jobs where he makes good on his promises to include his friends in his future plans. Through several chapters we see him gain in stature and swagger until he finds himself working for the Disney brothers in their latest venture.
A large portion of the book focuses on the building of Disneyland and Wood’s involvement. The exhaustively-researched stories within tell a tale somewhat different from the company-approved history we have come to learn. Much of it dovetails with established history, but the reader is treated to an invigorating new spin whenever Wood is involved. From his crucial role in securing third party vendors and other investors during construction to confrontations with Walt, the reader is left wondering, “Why haven’t I learned this before now?”
In the end, C. V. Wood was named Disneyland’s first general manager, but this title was quickly stripped of meaning and purpose. Years of dissent with Walt Disney only continued during the early days of park operation. We find that Wood was often right, having learned valuable lessons from his research into amusement parks. The populace didn’t want a circus at Disneyland and Wood called it. After this circus failed, it was quickly forgotten as one of the many themes Walt tried and abandoned.
The book does not get into Wood’s life after Disney. From what I have read elsewhere, Wood took the lessons he learned from Disneyland and sold the model to other theme parks around the country. Walt, after all, only made one theme park during his lifetime. Wood was involved in many more, ensuring that his legacy would not be forever tied to one distressing interaction with the Disney company.
Todd James Pierce does an excellent job with presenting his research. A thoroughly-documented reference section causes much page-flipping as the reader wonders where he gets all of these facts. From first-hand interviews with those involved to magazine and newspaper articles of the time to those Disney historians we have all grown to love like Dave Smith and Didier Ghez, Pierce weaves them all into a convincing tapestry.
Though not an exceedingly long book, I was surprised to find how quickly I got through its narrative. Three Years in Wonderland is a very well-written book that takes a topic about which many of us are familiar and gives a fresh perspective. While you won’t see Wood in any episodes of The Imagineering Story on Disney+, it is still worth your time to learn more about him and his contribution to the first and greatest theme park on the planet.