You can probably tell from my Blog’s mission statement and how I try to weave Walt into almost every post, that Walt Disney is someone I greatly admire as well as someone I have come to view as a role model. Growing up, I was too young to fully enjoy Sunday nights with Walt, but I watched the many versions of The Wonderful World of Disney. For many years I associated Walt with the Disney movies I saw as a child. It wasn’t until my childhood home began to fill up with Disneyana, (see my post Hooked on Collecting) that I began to see him as something more than the producer of films. I had no sense of Disney history and didn’t make my first visit to Walt Disney World until 1984 and Disneyland in 2005.
Embed from Getty ImagesThe more I explored the history of Disneyland and the early Disney animated films the more I came to respect Walt as more than just a very successful businessman or symbol of a successful company. He was someone with a keen sense of people’s need for entertainment. But rather than just do the minimum to create and produce his products he insisted on quality and attention to detail. His belief that if you give people a quality product they will come back for more. As a man I see someone who stuck to his principles, believed in himself, always surrounded himself with the best skilled, smartest people he could find, believed that people would rise to the challenge, listened to his instincts then took chances, wasn’t in it for the money but for the sheer joy of creation, solved problems and removed obstacles to his success. When I list things like this its hard to believe that was one person.
In an effort to get “closer” to the man, I recently took the Disneyland tour “Walk in Walt’s Footsteps” tour. As I headed to City Hall to check in, I imagined all of the pictures I’ve seen of Walt walking the park during construction and after the park was open, when he could still maneuver without being mobbed by fans. After checking at cute Kiosk in a small courtyard just to the left of the City Hall doors, we met our tour guide, Aulani (yes that’s her name and she is from Hawaii) and confirmed our lunch order, which for the
afternoon tour would be ready when the tour ended. After brief introductions, an overview of the tour and a check on who was from where, Aulani handed out headsets so that we could hear her when things got noisy at different moments of the tour. The group was larger than I expected, maybe 25 people of all ages, shapes and sizes. I suppose I secretly harbored a hope that it would be a private tour. Even with the large group, Aulani did a great job of keeping us moving and together between stops, while staying cheery and friendly.
After checking that everyone’s headset worked, our first stop was right across the street to the flagpole in Town Square. Aulani played a recording of Walt’s opening day speech which is memorialized on a plaque under the flagpole. She added some more information about unexpected crowds on opening day. The story she told about the flagpole is one that I hadn’t heard before. It seems Disney designer Emil Kuri found a broken light pole on Wilshire Blvd, hauled it back to the Disneyland construction site where it now sits as the bottom of the flagpole. We then moved through Main St. where Aulani pointed out some of the commemorative windows that are a hidden highlight for Disney history buffs. I had spent a good portion of my morning getting some pictures of the windows, including some down the less traveled side street areas.
Our next stop was at the Hub where we took in Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and were told about the one gold turret that seems out of place in the overall building architecture. For those of you haven’t heard the tale, once Walt approved the Castle design, he decided that he liked the look of a particular turret on another castle so he had the Imagineers add it, even though it didn’t match. He wanted to cover the turret in gold leaf, but Roy told him, “No way.” Not to be denied, when Roy went on a business trip, Walt had the gold leaf added anyway. I’m not sure how much of Walt’s dreams never would have happened if he had a different kind of partner. I’m sure stunts like this annoyed Roy. But, true to his loyalty to his brother, I he found ways to pay to make Walt’s dreams come true. I’m never sure whether Roy gets the credit he deserves.
We walked through Fantasyland with a stop in front of the Sleeping Beauty walk through for a quick description of the attraction’s. Passing by iconic features of Fantasyland like the Carousel, Dumbo, and the open mouth of Monstro, we moved to the front of the line for Alice in Wonderland. I took my first ride on a ride that has been part of the Disneyland landscape since 1958. While a ride on Splash Mountain might have been fun, the Alice ride kept me in the spirit of walking the park as if Walt was with us. The ride is colorful and more fun than I expected it to be. It took a bit of time to get the whole group through in pairs. While we waited, and throughout the tour, Aulani would ask us questions about things like our favorite rides, snacks and when we had visited Disneyland last. True to the title of Ambassador that Walt created in 1965, Aulani was cheery, polite and enthusiastic about her work.
Our next stop was Frontierland. We had reached mid afternoon by this time and, maybe appropriately, this was by far the hottest spot we spent time in. Our guide gave us some information about the Riverboat and the canal that it traverses. She told us that Disneyland’s designers had trouble keeping the River filled using a substance used in earth damns. One of the many design and construction problems the WED team encountered during construction. Then Aulani turned our attention the 5 ton piece of petrified wood that sits between the Golden Horseshoe and the Rivers of America. This piece of geologic history which Walt bought while on vacation with Lillian has a long and storied history. Walt bought it on a trip he took with Lillian to Colorado in 1956. Back then Disneyland wasn’t about thrill rides, pirates or ghosts. Walt saw another opportunity to add to the scenic and cinematic feel that he felt would transport people to different times and places in American life. He was also thinking of adding a natural history area to Frontierland. The rumor that he bought it as an anniversary present for Lillian, I think has been disproved. He had it shipped right to the Park where it still stands.
Next, we snaked our way through the crowds for a much needed rest stop in New Orleans Square. I had the chance to talk to some of my fellow tourers who were all very friendly. Some knew more about Walt and Disneyland than others. But, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Pressing on we stopped in front of It’s a Small World where Aulani provided some historical background on the attraction. This was the second and final attraction we were given a chance to ride. I know that reactions to the mention of Small World elicit responses from “It’s my Favorite and I never miss it” to “Never again. I can’t get that song out of my head for weeks.” I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m very fond of the song and I never get tired of the magical feeling I get coasting through all those little dolls. And, it is part of a dwindling list of attractions that Walt, himself, had an important part in designing. As someone who was lucky enough to ride it at the 1964 NY World’s Fair, it has been part of my life for a long time. (See my post Walt Disney Goes to the Fair and a D23 Gold Member NYC event where we visited the original site of Small World). I will say, though, that if time is short and it’s a choice between Small World and some other attractions at Disneyland it might get bypassed.
Our group was split on several boats so we took refuge from the heat, which now seemed hotter after the time in the air cooled building, in the small gift shop at the exit of the attraction. Our next stop was the building that houses Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. Since Walt had spent so much time on the Lincoln animatronic, which also debuted at the World’s Fair, and, of course, changed the future of theme parks, it would have been nice to see the show. If you’ve passed by the theater on the way to the rest of the park, I recommend at least stopping in on your way out. Aside from the still amazing Lincoln show, the lobby is full of great Disney and Disneyland historical artifacts, including the model/map that Aulani spent time showing us. Here’s just a small sample of what you can find there.
The last stop in the lobby was in front of the one of the last picture’s Walt in Disneyland. Near him are pictures of other Americans who, through the same spirit of imagination Walt embodied, have brought creativity, fun and joy to many people around the world. It was a fitting end to a great afternoon around the Park.
For me the next and last part of the tour was the most impactful – a visit to the apartment Walt and Lillian used during the construction of Disneyland and after the opening of the park until Walt’s death. Our half of the group walked back to the tour meeting area where Cast Members had laid out our labeled lunches along with a special tour pin as a keepsake. Aulani stayed to make sure we were all happy with our meals and then was kind enough to stand for pictures.
Finally, two docents took us for a look at the Firehouse area below the apartment where we could see the stables where the two horses, Bess and Jess, who pulled the wagon for many years on Main St. were housed.
There’s also a fire pole which is closed off now, but used to start in the upstairs apartment. The story they told was that it was closed off after a curious guest climbed the pole and surprised Walt in the apartment. After a look around at the Fire House antiques, the docents went over the rules – No touching and no photographs other than the one they would take for us.
We were led backstage to a set of metal stairs which lead to the second floor apartment. Down a narrow hallway, we were asked to hang coats and bags on a coat hanger. Against all of my instincts, I resisted taking pictures. So, some of following are not my photos.
The small space felt even smaller with all of us inside. The docent explained the apartment contents and the layout. It’s a very modest studio style room. There are fold out couches on either side where the Disney’s slept, a small kitchenette and a bathroom. An Edison gramophone sits on Walt’s side while Lillian’s sports a standing, antique music box. The kitchenette features a small electric grill where Walt would make grilled cheese sandwiches and a punch bowl and cups used to serve an eggnog type drink called Tom and Jerry. On the walls at the end of each couch used to be photos of each of their mothers. We were allowed to move around the room after the docent was finished. It took great will power not to pick things up, open drawers and have a seat on the chairs. I didn’t feel rushed to get out, but after all the pictures were taken, we were asked to collect our things and head back down the steps.
I found myself quite choked up when I looked out the window Walt would have used to watch the crowds come into his Park. I’ve read that seeing all those smiling faces was more important to him than almost anything else he had accomplished.
I expect that my future visits to Disneyland will be changed by the visit to that apartment. I will certainly not look at the light burning over the fire station the same way now that I know what’s behind it. As a fan of Mr. Disney, I found the apartment to be a very moving experience. Since they only do two tours a day, costing $109, and not every tour gets into the apartment, I feel lucky and privileged that I had the chance to do it. I would rate the tour well worth the cost and the time.