Magic Kingdoms

A History of the Disney Theme Parks

by Stephanie Barczewski, Ph.D. | Release Date: July 7, 2016 | Availability: Print, Kindle

Disney the World Over

Clemson University professor Stephanie Barczewski delivers a scholarly but accessible comparative history of the Disney theme parks, from Anaheim to Shanghai, with a focus on the engineering, cultural, and political challenges that Disney overcame to build its "happiest places" across the globe.

From their genesis in the orange groves of California and the swamplands of Florida to their globalization in Japan, France, Hong Kong, and China, the story of the Disney theme parks is a thrill ride in itself. Barczewski starts her tale in the 1920s, when a young Walt Disney, full of dreams but still shy of success, first envisioned what many years later became Disneyland.

Unlike other books that delve into the details of a single theme park, Magic Kingdoms is a broad narrative about how each Disney park led to the next, and the unique challenges that complicated—and in some cases nearly halted—their creation.

Featuring a cast of characters that includes artists, Imagineers, politicians, business moguls, and of course, Walt Disney himself, plus dozens of photos, Magic Kingdoms provides the big picture of Disney's theme park empire.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Walt Disney and Los Angeles

Chapter 2: The Origins of Disneyland

Chapter 3: Anaheim

Chapter 4: Building Disneyland

Chapter 5: Disneyland after 1955

Chapter 6: The Florida Project

Chapter 7: De-Centering the Magic Kingdom

Chapter 8: The Vacation Kingdom of the World

Chapter 9: EPCOT Center and the First International Park

Chapter 10: The Eisner Years

Chapter 11: The Present and Future


Image Credits

All Disney histories should begin with a disclosure: what does the author consider to be his or her “home” park? Born in Wilmington, Delaware, and raised in Atlanta, I am very much an East Coast Disney person. My parents first took me to Walt Disney World in the summer of 1972, when I was four and when the Magic Kingdom had been open for less than a year. I do not remember a thing, but the trip must have imprinted something deeply upon me, because ever since then the Disney theme parks have been special places for me. I visited Disney World twice more as a child and once when I graduated from high school in 1986. Every time brought a sense of excitement and fun that no other destination could duplicate.

Fourteen years elapsed before I went back as an adult in the year 2000. My husband was attending an academic conference at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort, and I jumped at the chance to go with him. There were two entire parks, Disney MGM-Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, that I had never set foot in, and the Magic Kingdom and Epcot were much changed from my previous visits. It was a short trip, but I vividly remember going to the Magic Kingdom by myself while my husband was at the conference and being acutely conscious of how much I loved it. Even so, however, I did not return for seven more years, as I believed that visiting too frequently would somehow ruin the magic. But on that trip, I had a revelation: Disney theme parks get better the more you visit them. Frequent visits lead to increased knowledge, comfort. and a sense of belonging, perhaps even possession, that, for me, makes each trip more enjoyable than the last. I now go to Disney World multiple times each year, most often with my husband, but sometimes with friends and other family members. Christmas is my favorite time to visit, though I escape before the massive crowds arrive. My Walt Disney World annual pass ranks among my most prized possessions.

I could not possibly say which Orlando park is my favorite. The Magic Kingdom will always have a special place in my heart as the first Disney park that I ever visited, and the grandeur and bustle of its Main Street, U.S.A. leading to that magnificent castle is, and always will be, my favorite Disney vista. Epcot is perhaps the oddest combination of elements in any theme park in the world, but somehow it works, and works splendidly. There is no more relaxing Disney space in which to stroll than World Showcase. Animal Kingdom contains some of the richest detail in any Disney park: Harambe village in Africa and Anandapur in Asia are two of the Imagineers’ most impressive, and immersive, environments. Thanks to the unpredictably of the animals who are its stars, Animal Kingdom rewards a leisurely pace and repeated visits; it does not demand a frantic dash from attraction to attraction like the Magic Kingdom. And even Hollywood Studios has its charms, such as the neon signage on Hollywood Boulevard at night. I look forward, however, to the arrival of Toy Story and Star Wars Lands, which should elevate the park to the level of its Florida siblings, and (fingers crossed) even beyond.

No true Disney theme park fan can limit their enjoyment to one resort. And certainly he or she cannot ignore Disneyland, the oldest and most historically significant park. I first went to Anaheim when I was in my thirties, and now visit at least once a year. I envy southern Californians who grow up with Disneyland; they have a sense of familiarity and ownership that no East Coast Disney fan can hope to emulate. Disneyland is their park, in their city. And what a park it is, as it ages gracefully and elegantly. No other Disney park packs as much into its space, or can be peeled back to reveal so many layers of Disney history. Disneyland is, of course, much changed since 1955, but enough of the original remains to give guests a glimpse of how it all began. And what Disney fan, as he or she leaves the park for the night, does not take one last look at the light in the window over the fire station, where Walt’s apartment is still preserved? Since 2001, Anaheim has had a second park, California Adventure, which initially disappointed many guests but has now become a worthy sibling to Disneyland. The change was largely due to the addition of Cars Land, perhaps the best immersive environment the Imagineers have yet created.

Of the international parks, Tokyo Disneyland most closely resembles Disneyland as a park predominantly for local urbanites. I went there in December 2013, and was struck by the contrast between Tokyo Disneyland, a closer copy of the original Disneyland than either the Magic Kingdom or Disneyland Paris, and Tokyo DisneySea, a unique park of dazzling creativity in which the Imagineers were clearly given the resources to let their imaginations run riot. The Tokyo Disneyland Resort is in every way as delightful and magical as its American counterparts, and one of the most enjoyable aspects of visiting it is watching how Japanese people make something so quintessentially American very much their own.

In August 2015, I visited Disneyland Paris for the first time. Unfairly maligned, usually by people who have never been there, the park has nothing to apologize for, and much to be proud of. Built to a more lavish standard than any other Disney park, it interacts with its predecessors in Anaheim and Orlando in fascinating ways. Of the Disneyland-type, classic hub-and-spoke parks, it is by some measure the most distinctive, and the most beautiful. Of its sister park, Walt Disney Studios, there is not much to be said, except to express a hope that in the future it will add more original rides, like the delightful Crush’s Coaster, and more richly themed areas, like the section surrounding the new trackless 3D attraction Ratatouille: L’Aventure Totalement Toquée Rémy. Full disclosure requires me to confess to never having been to Hong Kong Disneyland, and the writing of this book was complete before Shanghai Disneyland opened. I will almost certainly visit both in the near future. For now, ten of twelve is not bad.

I hope that this book makes it clear that I have never met a Disney resort that I didn’t love. That does not mean I am not occasionally, and I hope gently, critical: one cannot be a true Disney theme park fan without from time to time feeling that something could be better, or that management has made a poor decision. Changes in things we love can be difficult to accept, even if most of them eventually work out for the best. But even if I must confess to rare moments of disappointment or frustration, I will always look up and smile as the monorail whooshes by overhead outside the entrance to the Magic Kingdom, and I will always recite the Ghost Host’s monologue along with him in the stretching room of the Haunted Mansion. The last time I did the latter, a gentleman standing nearby laughed and said, “You have obviously done this WAY too many times.” I laughed, too, and told him that, for me, such a thing could never be true.

Writing the acknowledgements for a book is always bittersweet: it provides an opportunity to express gratitude to all the people who’ve helped see it into print, but it also means that it’s time to let go of a project into which much blood, sweat, and tears has been poured. This book elicits different emotions from me than my previous ones, because it is less academic and more personal. So it is only appropriate that I thank the people who have been a part of my trips to Disney theme parks in recent years: Patsy Barczewski, Caroline Dunn, Charlotte Clark, Joanna Grisinger, Elijah Moore, Marcos Moore, Rachel Moore, Megan Shockley, Scott Shockley, Criss Smith. Anne Dabb deserves special praise for spending an incredibly hot day at Disneyland taking photos of park details, and for her ear-splitting screams on Space Mountain. One of the best things about being a Disney-theme park expert is that you get to share your knowledge and experience the parks through the eyes of others, and all of these people have increased my enjoyment of them immeasurably. Bob McLain has been a patient, wise, and encouraging steward to this project. But the biggest thanks must go to my husband, Michael Silvestri, who humors and even enjoys my Disney obsession. No one could ask more of a spouse than to have what makes you happy make him happy.

Stephanie Barczewski

Stephanie Barczewski is a life-long fan of the Disney theme parks, beginning with her first visit to the Magic Kingdom at the age of three. She has visited Disney parks on three continents, and looks forward to adding Shanghai to the list. She counts her annual pass to Walt Disney World in Orlando as one of her most prized possessions.

In her day job, Stephanie is a trained academic historian specializing in modern British history. She has a Ph.D. from Yale University, and has taught since 1996 at Clemson University in South Carolina. She has published books on British heroes, country houses, and national identity, as well as a textbook on the history of modern Britain. Dr. Barczewski has won the Gentry Award, Clemson’s highest honor for teaching in the humanities. She teaches a class on the history of the Disney theme parks, along with a variety of classes on British history.

After Disneyland opened, Walt could relax in the blissful knowledge that his theme park would be a success. But of course he couldn't relax, because new challenges arose constantly: two of the earlier ones were capacity and competition.

Soon after Disneyland opened, Walt knew that his biggest fear—that it would prove a bust—would not be realized. But now, he had to deal with other, in some ways equally challenging, issues. We might think of these issues as the two “Cs” of Disneyland’s first decade of operation. The first “C” was capacity. In the first months of operation, Disneyland’s attendance ran 50 percent over projections. So Walt had to figure out how to add attractions, quickly. The second “C” was competition, as Disneyland’s success swiftly brought imitators. Walt had never wanted Disneyland to be just another amusement park; he wanted it to be something different, and far superior. He recognized that to stay ahead of the competition, he would have to keep introducing bigger and better things to Disneyland.

The desperate need for extra capacity required the employment of creative strategies to add attractions quickly. After the massive success of the three Davy-Crockett-themed episodes of the Disneyland television series, Disney realized its mistake in killing off their hero at the Alamo so soon. They quickly created two “prequel” episodes, “Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race”, which aired in November 1955, and “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates”, which aired the following month. These episodes featured a comic foil for Crockett named Mike Fink. Based, like Crockett, on a real historical figure, Fink was the most famous runner of keelboats, or small boats used to transport cargo, on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the early nineteenth century. Walt had the Gullywhumper, one of the two boats that had been used in the episodes, brought over to Disneyland. Dropped into the Rivers of America, it was turned into a ride called the Mike Fink Keel Boats, which opened on Christmas Day 1955.

There was a limit, however, to the number of attractions that could be created from television props. In January of 1956, Walt met with the Disneyland Merchants’ Association in the Red Wagon Inn on Main Street, U.S.A. to tell them about his future plans. Although he was pleased with the park’s initial success, he announced that he intended to spend $1 million over the next six months to make it even better. The first two new attractions were already in the works, as they could be bought “off-the-rack” rather than having to be designed and built from scratch. A spinning ride called the Roto-Jets was purchased from a German company and given a space-themed makeover. Renamed the Astro-Jets and placed in Tomorrowland, it made its debut on April 2, 1956; it holds a place in Disneyland history as the first major new ride to be added after opening day. Another new attraction also came from Europe. Walt had heard of a new gondola lift, or sky ride, that had opened in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1954, and he was eager to bring a similar attraction to Disneyland, where it could serve as both a ride and mode of transportation across the park. Walt purchased a used model from Von Roll, the same company that had built the sky ride in Zurich. The Skyway opened at Disneyland on June 23, 1956. Fantasyland got a new attraction in 1956 as well: the Mickey Mouse Club Theatre, which showed a compilation of three-dimensional animated shorts called the 3D Jamboree, the first of many 3D films to be shown in Disney theme parks.

The same meeting with the merchants’ association also provides a fascinating glimpse into 1950s gender stereotypes. Walt expressed concerns that Tomorrowland was lacking in attractions that would interest female guests. “Tomorrowland has many things for the men,” he said, “but very little for the women.” To remedy this deficiency, Walt contracted with the Crane Plumbing Company to build the Bathroom of Tomorrow, which featured gold-plated fixtures and a posture-improving toilet seat. The following year, the House of Tomorrow, sponsored by Monsanto, was built near the entrance to Tomorrowland. Walt told the merchants’ association that the House of the Future “should create a great deal of interest for [women] as the kitchen will have the most elaborate utilities and fixtures that can be imagined”. Shaped like a plus-sign, the house consisted of four modules extending from a central core, with everything made out of new materials created by Monsanto’s plastics division. The house was full of futuristic gadgets, including intercom, video phones, and a climate-control system that not only pumped in warm or cool air but also suffused the rooms with fragrant smells.

The next several years saw more additions. In June 1957, Disneyland got its fourth train, the Viewliner, a futuristic train that looped around a figure-eight-shaped track on the edge of Tomorrowland, and the following year an Alice in Wonderland dark ride arrived in Fantasyland. It was Frontierland, however, that saw the biggest changes. The WED team had fiercely debated the question of what to do with the island in the middle of the Rivers of America. One proposal was to make it Mickey Mouse Island, as Mickey’s presence in the park was as yet minimal. Another was for it to contain models of famous America buildings such as Mount Vernon and West Point, or replicas of nineteenth-century river towns such as New Orleans, Natchez, and Mobile. Yet another was for it to be Treasure Island from the 1950 Disney pirate film. In the end, however, it was decided to link the island to the Mark Twain riverboat that sailed around it. Tom Sawyer Island opened in June 1956. It has a unique distinction in Disney history, as it was the only attraction that Walt himself designed. This was because, when Marvin Davis presented Walt with the first concept drawings, he was not satisfied. He took them home and worked on them for hours in the red barn in his backyard where he tinkered with the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. The next day, he slapped the drawings on Davis’s desk, and said, “Now, that’s how it should be.” His plans included a treehouse, a fort, caves, and bouncy pontoon and rope bridges. Several Imagineers, including Vic Green, Herb Ryman, and Claude Coats, then set about transforming Walt’s ideas into reality.

A month after Tom Sawyer Island opened, the Indian War Canoes, real canoes that were paddled by guests, joined the traffic on the Rivers of America. Also opening in July 1956 was the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train, the most elaborate of the new attractions, so much so that it required the creation of a new “D”-ticket. Built at a cost of $500,000, the train circled through the same Western landscape as the pack mules, the Conestoga wagon, and the Rainbow Mountain stagecoach, but only its passengers passed through the Rainbow Caverns, a cave in which black light illuminated multi-colored waterfalls. Two years later, Frontierland saw the arrival of the Sailing Ship Columbia, a replica of the first American ship to sail around the world in 1790.

Another addition to Disneyland in 1958 was an example of something that Walt referred to as plussing. He was always aware of the need to keep improving Disneyland, but it was not until he overheard a mother talking to her daughter that he began to think specifically about the need not only to add new attractions but also to upgrade existing ones. As he stood near the Jungle Cruise, the daughter asked her mother if they could go on the ride. The mother said no, because they had ridden it the last time they were at Disneyland. Walt realized from this conversation that, at a time when guests had to use individual tickets for each attraction, he had to offer them new things to entice them onto the same rides over and over again. He referred to this as plussing the attractions. In 1958, he decided to add a diorama depicting the Grand Canyon to the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad. Inspired by the Oscar-winning Disney documentary short film Grand Canyon, the diorama contained rocks, plants, and taxidermy animals, which were displayed in front of a 306-foot-long painted backdrop by scenic artist Delmer J. Yoakum. It cost $367,000, more than most new rides at the time.

Continued in "Magic Kingdoms"!

Building Euro Disney (later Disneyland Paris) made all the sense in the world. Europeans loved Disney films and characters. But Euro Disney became a spectacular flub that scorched the company for years after its opening.

Michael Eisner’s personal taste also played a role in the design of Euro Disney. A Europhile, Eisner believed that Europeans would not tolerate cheap replicas. In a country filled with real medieval castles, it would not do to have a fake one made of plaster and fiberglass. Euro Disney’s castle thus became the only Disney castle to be built from real stone and to have handcrafted stained-glass windows. Because he and the park’s designers believed that the French saw American culture as shallow, they crammed Euro Disney with details intended to convey depth and sophistication: everything was decorated with art and props, and the fiberglass and synthetic fabrics used in other parks were replaced by real wood, bricks, and canvas. Elsewhere in the resort, the world’s most prominent architects were commissioned to design buildings: Frank Gehry created a shopping and entertainment complex called Festival Disney, while the Hotel New York was designed by Michael Graves, the Newport Bay Club and Hotel Cheyenne by Robert A.M. Stern, the Sequoia Lodge by Antoine Grumbach, and the Hotel Santa Fe by Antoine Predock. As a result of decisions like these, and of France’s high labor costs, the expense of building Euro Disney soared. At the same time, the project fell further and further behind schedule, and when Eisner insisted that it meet its April 1992 opening date, costs rose even higher due to the enormous amounts of overtime that Disney had to pay. In the end, Euro Disney cost a staggering $5 billion, almost four times the original estimate, leaving Disney with $3.5 billion in debt.

Euro Disney opened on April 12, 1992. Prospective visitors were warned about chaos on the surrounding roads, as a poll taken by the French government indicated that as many as 500,000 people might try to attend. But by midday, only 25,000 people had entered the park. This did not particularly dismay Disney executives, who were relieved not to have to deal with a massive crowd, but although attendance picked up somewhat over the ensuing months, it fell off again when the weather turned colder. Pre-opening research had predicted 60,000 visitors a day, but Euro Disney drew an average of only 25,000, forcing estimates of annual attendance to be reduced from 11 million to 9 million. And a lack of attendance was not the only issue; so were different patterns of guest behavior from what Disney was accustomed to in America. Europeans got more vacation time each year than did Americans, but this meant that they had less money to spend per day. This was problematic for Euro Disney, which relied on guests paying a premium to stay in Disney-branded hotels and buying expensive food and souvenirs. Euro Disney’s hotel occupancy rates hovered at around 50 percent, instead of the predicted 85 percent, as many guests opted to stay in Paris and only come to the park for the day. Even those who did stay in Disney hotels often only stayed for a single night; the turnover was so rapid that Disney had to install extra computer terminals to handle the number of people checking in and out. European guests also spent far less per person in the parks than their American and Japanese counterparts did.

It quickly became apparent that, given the interest on the park’s massive debt and an economic recession that hit Europe in 1992, there was no way for Euro Disney to turn a profit. In December 1993, Disney announced a net loss of $308 million for the fiscal year, which meant that the resort was losing almost $1 million per day. This came as a shock to Disney’s leadership team. “We had a generation of executives who had never been around failure,” Eisner recalled. “We had this momentum that never seemed to end… Even I got kind of used to it and comfortable with it.” In the company’s annual report to its stockholders, who had seen the value of their assets decline sharply as a result of Euro Disney’s problems, Eisner admitted that the project was “our first real disappointment” and gave it a grade of “D”, for “dreadful”.

Things did not improve quickly. Euro Disney’s losses in the first quarter of 1994 were a third higher than they had been the previous year. In March 1994, Disney issued an ultimatum that the debt had to be restructured or else it would no longer provide sufficient operating funds to keep the park open. “Everything is possible today, including closure,” said Eisner in an interview with the French magazine Le Point. The banks had little choice: if the park closed and Euro Disney SCA declared bankruptcy, they would be left with an empty theme park, 5000 acres of nearly worthless real estate, and $4 billion in unpaid loans. They thus agreed to write off the next sixteen months of interest payments and to postpone repayments of the principal for three years. For its part, Disney agreed to forego its annual management fee, which was supposed to be 6 percent of net revenue, until 1999, and after that to reduce it to only 1 percent. Disney also forgave $210 million that it was owed in service fees. This was embarrassing, but not nearly as embarrassing as having Euro Disney declare bankruptcy.

In the mid-1990s, Euro Disney finally began to turn an annual profit in some years. Its improving finances allowed the long-delayed second gate in France, the movie-themed Walt Disney Studios Park, to open in March 2002, though its budget was slashed from the original $2.3 billion to a mere $500 million. A modest sixty-two acres in size, with most of its attractions imported from other parks, it currently attracts only 4.5 million guests a year, the lowest total of the eleven Disney theme parks. That same year, Disney renamed the original park Disneyland Paris. Disney CEO Michael Eisner said at the time that for “Americans, the word ‘Euro’ is believed to mean glamorous or exciting. For Europeans it turned out to be a term they associated with business, currency, and commerce. Renaming the park ‘Disneyland Paris’ was a way of identifying it with one of the most romantic and exciting cities in the world.” This explanation for the change of name was a tacit admission of just how much Disney had failed to understand in opening its first European park.

There are several reasons why Euro Disney / Disneyland Paris struggled so mightily. First and foremost was the massive debt that has burdened the park from the beginning, which has made it difficult to fund major improvements and expansions and at times even basic maintenance. Second was the culture clash between European and American patterns of leisure, which Disney failed to understand or take into account. Third was that Euro Disney, more than any other Disney park, required Disney to appeal to a wide variety of nationalities and cultures. Tokyo Disneyland, the first international park, attracted a homogenous urban and Japanese audience, but Euro Disney had to find ways to appeal to people from all over Europe. The failure to solve these problems accounts for the park’s early difficulties, not any failings with the park itself, which contains some of the most beautiful and distinctive work the Imagineers have ever done.

The scale of Euro Disney’s problems became apparent just as Disney was reformulating its plans for the second gate in Anaheim. Suddenly, the company’s entire philosophy about theme park construction rotated 180 degrees. Instead of sparing no expense to build the best park possible, the idea was now to build on the cheap, or not at all. In late 1993, Eisner declared, “I don’t even know if there’s going to be a WestCOT. We’re at a real crossroads. We had a very big investment in Europe and it’s difficult to deal with. This is an equally big investment. I don’t know whether a private company can ever spend this kind of money.” New Disney parks would have to be built quickly and efficiently, and without incurring large amounts of debt, so that they would be profitable from the day that they opened.

Continued in "Magic Kingdoms"!

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