Questions & Answers

Todd Pierce — Exploring Wonderland

Krista Smith

Widely recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on twentieth-century American animation and theme-park history, Cal Poly English Professor Todd Pierce hosts the Disney History Institute, a popular monthly podcast that regularly garners an audience of over 20,000 listeners. In 2016, his narrative nonfiction book “Three Years in Wonderland” was published. It traces the development of the first cinematic amusement parks in America. His next project, a biography of Disney animator Ward Kimball, will be published in 2018.

Where did your interest in the history of animation and theme parks begin?

My grandmother worked for Disney when I was growing up. When I was older, I noticed there were a lot of people working to preserve the histories of the people doing the films, but little work on preserving this move toward theme parks, which I saw as the beginning of interactive theme space.

How many times have you visited Disneyland?

Hundreds probably. I used to go over with my homework and see my grandmother. This was back when the park was always empty during the school year. I’d go in the back, have dinner and go home.

What’s your favorite ride at Disneyland and why?

I like walking around more than anything else. The parks are consciously designed to screen out the exterior world. Designers worked with the idea that spaces provide meaning and the human mind looks for meaning in the world. For me, it’s a cognitive experience… as long as it’s not super crowded.

What is your favorite animated film?

The Three Caballeros.

How did your podcast come about?

Someone I worked with at BYU had a blog with lots of interesting little stories, so I would make essays out of them. This started about 10 years ago. I had young kids, and my commute was a little over an hour each way. I kept thinking if this was available in audio format, I would certainly listen to it as I drove to work and back. The podcast came about from thinking I should record some of these essays, kind of like a blog on tape, and maybe there’s a couple hundred people that would listen to it.

You teach creative writing, but this project is more that of a historian. How do the two relate?

Both the book and the podcast fall under the umbrella of narrative nonfiction. As a researcher, it’s largely my job to use language to present material in a way that’s both truthful and as engaging as possible. On “Three Years in Wonderland,” there were certain days or events I would call set pieces, in which I would look for material to create as long of a continuous narrative as possible. I’d ask people about the day the park opened or the day Walt and Ward had a huge fight, in which Ward was fired. I’d look for material to arrange out those elements, photographs, movie footage or sound recordings, to build these pieces perhaps beyond what an academic historian would, so it has a more readable feel.

Download Pierce’s Disney History Institute podcast at

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