With iridescent platinum decor dripped across Disneyland, the Disney100 celebration has officially launched. Commemorating “100 Years of Wonder” (since the 1923 founding of The Walt Disney Studios), Disney100 is something more than another entry in Disney’s tradition of annual theme park campaigns; it’s a company-wide initiative meant to reflect on Disney’s past and re-orient it toward a new tomorrow.
Of course, born in the era of recently-former CEO Bob Chapek’s franchise-focused era of cost-cutting, slashed perks, and new upcharges, it’s worth stepping back from the modern, mega-sized standard of the Walt Disney Company and remembering how it all started.
Looking beyond the theme parks, there’s much to see, celebrate, and support as we reflect on the first century of Disney, and hopefully our cross-country road trip of historic Disney destinations might spark some bucket list additions for you… Pack a suitcase and let’s hit the road, looking for the places that made the man who made the mouse.
1. Walt Disney Birthplace (Chicago, Illinois)
Just Northwest of downtown Chicago – in the quiet, working class Hermosa neighborhood, right on the corner of Tripp Avenue and Palmer Street – stands an otherwise unassuming family home. But despite its simple appearance, the house at 2156 N Tripp Ave. was designed and built by Flora and Elias Disney. Costing $800 in 1893 (no small investment when Elias made about $1 a day), the young couple with their sons Herbert and Raymond moved in early 1893. That summer, their third child, Roy, was born. And on December 5, 1901, right in the upstairs bedroom, Walt was born.
After their fifth child (and first daughter) Ruth was born, the Disney family left Chicago and headed 400 miles away to the quiet town of Marceline, Missouri. The house Flora and Elias built passed through many hands in the century since. As you'd expect, the home was subject to frequent upgrades and redesigns that altered its layout, its porches, its windows, and (of course) its interior. Even still, in 1991 the City of Chicago attempted to have the home registered as a historic landmark, but its then-owners resisted. By the 2010s, the old home was surely heading for the wrecking ball...
But in 2013, Dina Benadon and Brent Young (co-founders of themed entertainment design firm Super 78) purchased the home for $169,000. Through a grant from Disney and crowdsource funding, they raised the money needed to begin restoration of the home to its 1901 state, as explored in Brooke McDonald's wonderful reflection on the effort. Today, the Walt Disney Birthplace looks a whole lot like the home Walt was born in, inside and out. Tours happen occasionally, as do special events (with Mickey himself visiting in the past). Plans call for a museum and creativity-focused non-profit to make their way to the neighborhood. And if you're in the Chicago area, it's worth standing outside the fence and looking at Elias' handiwork firsthand.
2. "The Real Main Street U.S.A." and Walt Disney Hometown Museum (Marceline, Missouri)
With a population of just over 2,500 in 1900 (and about the same today), Marceline, Missouri is a town that’s probably been mentioned more often than visited. That’s because it’s often said that Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. is a dreamy, rose-colored interpretation of Walt’s memories of the town – where he lived from ages 4 to 8.
(It’s probably indirectly true that Main Street resembles a turn-of-the-century Marceline, but the truth is that Disneyland’s entry land is a stylized, idealized pastiche of many turn-of-the-century, Midwestern American towns. Many designers contributed to its final form, crafting a sweet, historic-yet-romantic interpretation that could indeed look a lot like Walt’s memories of Marceline, but is pretty certainly not just Marceline.)
In any case, the town’s long-running connection to Walt is very evident. A hand-painted “Main Street U.S.A.” mural resides on Kansas Ave. (honorarily named Main Street U.S.A. as it passes through downtown); around town, you can find the Walt Disney Municipal Park, Walt Disney Post Office, and even Walt Disney Elementary (home of the “Disney Dolphins”).
You can also visit the Disney Family Farm’s barn, where Disney fans are encouraged to sign their name in the barn’s interior. Beyond the barn, you’ll also find Walt’s legendary “Dreaming Tree” (being recreated in Disneyland’s new Toontown).
But the main attraction must be the Walt Disney Hometown Museum, constructed in the old Santa Fe Railroad Depot downtown. Open seasonally, the museum features many relics from Walt's childhood donated by his sister, Ruth, such as letters between Walt and his family, his original school desk, and more. The museum also features one of the original cars from Disneyland's Midget Autopia.
When the original Autopia Autopia closed in 1966, Walt actually had the ride's vehicles donated to Marceline, and the town rebuilt and operated the ride until 1977! (You can still see the ride's tracks in Walt Disney Municipal Park, where the load station is used as a picnic shelter.) A 2015 fundraising effort hoping to bring the ride back to life on a new site near the museum unfortunately did not succeed. Even still, it's wonderful to see a real piece of Disneyland history back in Walt's hometown.
3. Laugh-o-Gram Studio (Kansas City, Missouri)
In 1921, a 19-year-old Walt Disney moved to the big city of Kansas (population 340,000) and founded Laugh-o-Gram Studio on the second floor of the McConahay Building. There, the young cartoonist hired Ub Iwerks (with whom he’d eventually develop the character of Mickey Mouse) and was quickly commissioned to create animated cartoon shorts to play before the features at local movie theaters.
One of the last outputs from the Laugh-o-Gram campus was the first of the iconic “Alice Comedies” – early animated shorts that placed a live action Alice (Virginia Davis) into an animated Wonderland. (Walt himself also claimed that his fondness for the mice that often scurried around the Kansas City studio’s drawing tables might’ve been a spark leading the design of Mickey Mouse years later.)
Obviously, Disney stay in Kansas City. But even though the McConahay Building was placed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks in 1978, that only protected the building where a young Walt had gotten his start from demolition; it didn’t save it from neglect. The building was collapsing in a state of disrepair in the late 20th century. In 1995, a non-profit called Thank You Walt Disney was founded to celebrate Walt’s time in Kansas City, and ultimately to save the former home of Laugh-o-Gram.
With funding from the Disney family, Thank You Walt Disney Inc. is in the process of rehabilitating the old McConahay building and constructing within it a theater showing Laugh-o-Gram-produced shorts as well as a museum space exploring Walt’s early Kansas animation. The future plans of the non-profit include using the building as a digital media maker space, an animation-focused lecture hall, and a flexible workspace.
Unfortunately, Laugh-o-Gram didn’t last long. Walt declared bankruptcy in 1923. Of course, you may recognize 1923 as being exactly a century ago… Yep, the start of the Disney100 campaign was the end of Laugh-o-Gram. After all, the penniless Walt decided to start over by hopping a train to California, which takes our roadtrip west… Read on…!
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