Any true Disney fan knows that Walt Disney spent his childhood in Marceline, Missouri. Moving there from his birthplace in Chicago when he was four years old, the Disney family lived in Marceline for about five years, but Walt cherished his time growing up there and his memories deeply influenced the rest of his life.
After a botched trip to Marceline this spring, the fam and I finally headed West to make the pilgrimage to Main Street USA and see for ourselves how this small town could influence a man to go on to accomplish all that Walt did in his short 65 years.
We traveled out to Kansas City, MO and rented a car for the two hour ride to Marceline. Farm land filled our view for the duration of the drive and it was very peaceful. Corn, creeks, trains, and few cars made for a nice journey. Upon arriving into Marceline, you instantly feel at home. We pulled up to our Airbnb, right on Main Street USA, and hopped back in time. We live in a small town but this one feels decidedly smaller and so quaint.
Right away, I saw my good friend, Julie, walking up the street with her family. She is also a travel agent and lives a few hours from Marceline. Julie had set up a private evening VIP tour for us to enjoy at the Walt Disney Hometown Museum that evening and offered to give us the ‘tour’ of sights not to miss in Marceline.
Back in the car, we headed to the Walt Disney Municipal Park for a few photos. Our next stop was the Disney Family Farm, not far from Main Street. This is where Walt and his family lived in the early 1900s while in Marceline. In fact, their original farmhouse is still standing, albeit hidden, under the red farmhouse on the property. The Executive Director of the museum actually lives in the farmhouse right now. Her story is pretty interesting, how she came to know the Disney family back in the late 1950s. In fact, her mom, Inez Johnson, can still be found at the museum regaling visitors of tales from her years as Walt’s friend.
The Disney Family Farm area is tucked away, as expected, in the trees and fields of Marceline. You hear trains going by very frequently as Marceline is on a major rail line that is still very active. As you stand there in the trees, it is easy to slip into a relaxed frame of mind and see exactly why Walt loved his time there so much. It is no wonder that he grew up with an incredible love of trains and was influenced so heavily by this period of his life. The time he spent under his “Dreaming Tree”, drawing and watching over his little sister, Ruth, was so impactful on his life that he is said to have returned to that very tree on every visit to Marceline. The barn on the property meant so much to him that he recreated it for his home in California and it was later rebuilt on the property in Marceline in 2001 for visitors to enjoy today. Guests are allowed to ‘autograph’ the interior of the barn with messages to Walt and Roy and it is amazing to see how many visitors have come to Walt’s Happy Place to pay their respects.
After the farm, we walked around Main Street for a little while before dinner at Los Chimas, the local Mexican restaurant offering delicious food and right near our Airbnb!
We had dinner with Julie and her husband as well as Peter Whitehead, the Creative Director of the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. Peter is such a Disney treasure! His knowledge of Walt and the Disney family, his drive and passion, and the work he has put into getting the museum to where it is today is incredible. He is a great guy and I loved being able to hang out with him and learn more about the Disneys and their lives in Marceline. Peter told us about the history of Main Street and some of its key buildings and areas: the Zurcher building and the Coke Wall behind it, Allen hotel, Uptown Cinema, E.P. Ripley Park with its gazebo where Elias Disney (Walt’s father) played his fiddle, the Marceline Train Station, and the Marceline Post Office, which is the only federal building with Walt Disney’s name on it and where you can get a special postmark to commemorate your visit. We also talked about Walt Disney Elementary School nearby, that was dedicated in 1960 and features murals inside drawn by a Disney artist.
E.P. Ripley Park is a beautiful, tree-filled spot at the start of Main Street USA where Walt used to hang out as a boy. The park is home to some train cars and the Santa Fe and Disney Railroad #2546 locomotive that was donated to the city in the 1950s. The train is shown below as all black, recently repainted and missing the name/number at the moment. The pond pictured below is gorgeous and somehow even has that ‘Disney water’ look to it — park guests, you know what I mean. The Midget Autopia walking track that was constructed and dedicated about two years ago can be seen behind the pond. If you don’t know the story behind Midget Autopia, it is so interesting! This is the only ride ever to leave a Disney park and ran in Marceline for eleven years. It had been located in Disneyland, near the Storybook Land Canal Boats and was moved out of the park to make way for the it’s a small world ride, fresh from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.
The museum itself is housed in the Marceline Train Station and trains roll past by Marceline with great frequency. I have never seen so many trains, and been that up close to them, in my life!
The museum has so much to offer with information on the history of the railroad and the Marceline station, Walt’s early life in Marceline and his return there over the years, Midget Autopia, Walt’s family’s lives, memorabilia from donors, murals, a model of buildings of Disneyland done by a fan name Dale Varner, a Stamp Day exhibit, a Club 55 showcase, and so much more. I can’t even begin to describe all of the treasures found in that one building! Personal notes from Walt and Roy to their family members, Disneyland opening day relics, family photos, a recorded interview between Walt and his parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, Elias’s tool box, Flora’s butter molds (Walt’s mother), the TV that Ruth watched the Disneyland opening ceremony on (because she hated to travel and didn’t like crowds, so she didn’t want to attend in person and Walt sent her money to buy herself a TV to watch it on), and even Walt’s grade school diploma. There is even a large branch of the Dreaming Tree in the museum for guests to touch for that extra bit of Disney luck as they visit. Having Peter to show us around and give us the extra bits of history made our visit so memorable.
I was also humbled to see both Walt’s elementary school desk, with his carved initials in it, and the actual light table he shared with UB Iwerks in Kansas City. Talk about history! And yes, I touched the light table with Peter standing right there and the ‘do not touch’ sign right on it. Oof! At least his school desk was in a case!
So when I mentioned Club 55 above, did you think I typo’d and meant Club 33? Nope. While Club 33 is the ultra-lux private club that started at Disneyland, Club 55 is a group of Disneyland employees that started working there when the park opened in 1955. Bob Penfield, a Club 55 member, donated several pieces to the museum and they are a joy to look through. Hard to believe that he worked there until his retirement in 1997 and was the last Club 55 member still employed by Disney when he retired. If you’ve watched any of the Behind the Attraction show episodes on Disney+, you might recall the one about the Jungle Cruise ride where it was mentioned that Walt wasn’t happy with the ride timing being unpredictable at first. He gave the ride operators a watch to ensure that the ride was always timed perfectly. Bob’s watch that Walt gave him is on display in the museum.
When Walt died in 1966, he had been working on many projects including the “Florida project” which became the Walt Disney World resort. His brother, Roy, came out of retirement to finish the build of Magic Kingdom and died just a couple of months after the park opened. Such a tragedy. One of the other projects that Walt had started before his death was work a theme park in Marceline! The plans for the park, drawn by Walt, were on his desk the day he died and are now housed in the museum in Marceline. He had had Rush Johnson, Inez’s husband, buying land in Marceline for this project on the sly like he did in Florida. The project fell apart in the 1970s after Walt’s death and Rush sold all of the property less the original 40 acres, where the Disney Family Farm and farmhouse I mentioned are located. Can you imagine if that had come to fruition? Can you imagine what the world would be like if Walt had lived another decade or more? Heartbreaking.
I have always wanted to go to Marceline. Going there this past weekend was a dream come true. Maybe it is because I am such a huge Disney fan, or that Walt and I almost share a birthday (Dec 4th and 5th), or that I just get all the feels when learning about Disney history, but this trip was so inspirational. If we all just follow some of Walt’s words of wisdom, the world would be such a great place!
- All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.
- The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.
- When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.
- Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age, dreams are forever.
Until next time!