The importance of the Birnbaum books for Disney park fans

Sephen Birnbaum's books were once the best source of info on Disney parks! Here's why they're still important for fans today!
Mickey Mouse, in a Hanukkah-themed suit, dances and poses for photos at The Square in West Palm
Mickey Mouse, in a Hanukkah-themed suit, dances and poses for photos at The Square in West Palm / HANNAH PHILLIPS/THE PALM BEACH POST /

There are some offbeat traditions having to do with Disney. Among them is how every September brings a new wave of travel books to bookstores, which includes several on Disney parks. Yes, websites are more plentiful and up to date, but some people still enjoy buying an actual travel book to prepare for a major trip.

With Disney parks, there are several good ones out there from Fodors to the Unofficial Guides. Yet even today, the Birnbaum Guide to Walt Disney World or Disneyland is still one of the best. It's underrated, however, just how important these were for WDW guests and how Stephen Birnbaum played a big role in boosting Disney park tourism. 

Stephen Birnbaum and his legacy

A former writer for Fodor's, Stephen Birnbaum moved to his own line of travel books in the late 1970s. It was in 1981 that he published The Very Best of Walt Disney World, the first major guidebook dedicated solely to the Disney parks. 

In his foreword, which he'd repeat in subsequent volumes, Birnbaum talked of the magic of Disney and how his wife, who would literally brush off a trip to Paris for a hair appointment, would go wild for a Disney visit. His own enthusiasm was infectious to make these books a labor of love. 

Brinbaum put out a version for Disneyland and from there, each year would have new installments, updated for new attractions. Sadly, Birnbaum suddenly passed away in December of 1991 at the age of 54. That he died just as WDW was about to undergo a massive expansion seems wrong, yet that wonderful touch would carry to his books, which continued after his passing to become the Official Guides.

Today, there are volumes for both WDW and Disneyland, including special ones for kids with real kids talking about how to handle attractions. While those seem the same as other travel books, the Birnbaum ones have touches others don't. 

What made the Birnbaum books special

In the days before the Internet, the Birnbaum books were the source for any Disney park info. The detail was amazing, with chapters laying out how to prepare for a visit, from packing to Orlando weather and travel routes. Then, a chapter on the various hotels, followed by a rundown of each park and its attractions. There was also room for the water parks, golf, boating and dining spots among others. 

As the parks grew, so did the books, what began as thin volumes expanding to over 300 pages. Birnbaum's detail was amazing as he could go in depth to how an attraction worked and fun trivia. I loved Spaceship Earth's talk with Birnbaum detailing each of the movie and radio clips used or just how much work went into making the Haunted Mansion dirty. He painted a wonderful picture of each ride that made you want to ride on them even more and add to the experience. 

While that eye for detail was lost with Birnbaum, it laid the groundwork for scores of Disney fanatics and the websites that grew in his wake. While the Birnbaum guides have become more officially tied to Disney (including sold in the parks), they still retain a great vibe, aided by the terrific imagery of Disney characters on the multi-colored pages. 

Why the books still matter

Thanks to the official line, the books today can come off a bit more like glorified press releases from Disney on rides and often lacking the criticism that Unofficial guides have. Yet they still are a top research tool for Disney fanatics, updating every year to show the best of WDW. The entire chapter dedicated to dining options alone is good as well as focuses on each major resort. 

It can also be fun to keep the Birnbaum books over the years and use them as a time capsule of Disney's evolution. More important is what the Birnbaum books in the late 1980's and '90s represented: the best source for Disney park info when the Internet was in its infancy, before you could easily look this stuff up at your fingertips. This was truly the only way to know the latest about the newest rides, the tips on how to plan your day and an insider look at how Disney worked. 

More importantly, before folks could upload videos of rides or hotels online, the books painted a great picture of each attraction, the closest you could get to being there. The behind-the-scenes mentions of how the attractions worked from Universe of Energy's solar cells to the water rides were also top-notch. It showed a peek behind the curtain that various websites would follow.

So, while some folks may consider travel books old-fashioned, the Birnbaum volumes remain a must-see, not just how great they are to plan a trip but the legacy they have as a way so many Disney park fanatics began their journey into loving the world of Disney.