If you’re a true Disney fan, you may have wondered a lot of things like, where did Walt Disney get his ideas from? Where is the real Main Street USA? What inspired him to get creative? All answers to these questions point to Walt Disney’s hometown: Marceline, Missouri.
Walt Disney spent some of his early childhood years in the tiny Midwestern town of Marceline, Missouri. Their family moved from Chicago to a small farm there in 1905. His boyhood remembrances of the town inspired the “Main Street USA,” which is the entrance to many Disney theme parks. That road was actually an idealized rendition of Marceline’s Kansas Avenue during the early 1900s.
The town also inspired the settings of the 1949 live action/cartoon “So Dear to my Heart” and the 1955 film “Lady and the Tramp.” It was also in Marceline where the “Dreaming Tree” stood, a big cottonwood tree where young Walt and his brother Roy Disney would spend time letting their imagination wander and daydreaming about a better life.
Walt Disney and Marceline
Disney World is packed during weekends. Disneyland is the enchanted place everyone dreams of going to. But Marceline, Mo., the ultimate travel destination for the most die-hard Disney fans, remains quite unknown to most people. This could have been different though.
If you were familiar with the “Florida Project,” which eventually became the Walt Disney World near Orlando, you would have an idea on what the “Marceline Project” would have been. Walt Disney has already planned a tourist attraction honoring the nostalgic times of the small-town and rural life in Marceline. Disney had rough sketches of what it could have been, and he envisioned a fishing lake, a barn dance attraction, an old-time butcher shop, haberdashery, old service station and coal mine. Activities for children included miniature golf, buggy train and horseshoes area.
During that time, Walt Disney Productions was already scouting Florida for a lucrative theme park, which was the Walt Disney World. Sadly, while the park was still in construction, Walt Disney became sick and died in 1966. This put a halt in the “Marceline Project.” Although Walt wanted his brother and partner Roy Disney to proceed with the project, the massive Walt Disney World project consumed Roy’s final years. The Marceline idea was eventually abandoned after that.
It was a sad story, but when Walt Disney was still alive, he never forgot Marceline, even if their family only lived there for a short time.
Disney was born in Chicago in 1901 as the fourth of five children of Elias Disney, a hopeful farmer, businessman and carpenter. In 1906, they moved to Marceline to try farming. After four years, Elias became sick and unable to farm, so the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri. But for young Walt, that four short years was more than enough to form a lasting impression.
Walt’s first animated film featuring barnyard animals are inspired from what he saw as a boy in Marceline. “So Dear to My Heart” was one of Walt’s favorite creations, noting, “That’s the life my brother and I grew up as kids in Missouri.” When he was travelling back and forth from LA to New York on the train with his wife Lillian, he would announce to the passing cars, “That’s my hometown, that’s my hometown!” whenever the train would stop at Marceline. And when he gave remarks during the Midwest premiere of The Great Locomotive Chase in 1956, he told the children of Marceline, “You are lucky to live in Marceline, my best memories are the years I spent here.”
Walt knew it was Marceline where he found the magic that continues until today.
What to see in Marceline
For die-hard Disney fans, Marceline is great a place to visit to learn the history of Walt Disney. Here are some of the must-see places in this town:
Walt Disney Hometown Museum
The museum is definitely going to be the highlight of any Disney fan’s visit, as it has everything a fan would want to see. You can find many pieces of unique Disney Family history that offers insight to their home before they ever dreamed of the fame they would later achieve. The entire museum has two floors and 10,000 square feet of space.
Opened in 2001, the museum covers the Disney family experience while he was living in Marceline, and his return visits to the town. When Walt Disney was alive, he also had plans of having a museum in the town, but he died before anything was accomplished. Museum director Kaye Malins was bequeathed personal items from the family by Walt Disney’s sister Ruth, and has received donations from local donors to buy the then-abandoned red brick building which was now the museum.
Inside the museum, you can find an exhibit featuring the details of the secret “Marceline Project” planned by Walt and Roy Disney for the town. It was the lost Disney theme park that could have been.
Another highlight at the museum is the display and story about the Midget Autopia Ride, a little car-driving attraction from Disneyland that is also the precursor to the Tomorrowland Indy Speedway. The Midget Autopia is the only ride relocated from Disneyland to Marceline – a one-of-a-kind gift that has never been repeated by the Disney Company. When it was scheduled to be dedicated in Marceline, Walt cancels at the last minute because of health reasons. Months later, Disney died from lung cancer. Without Walt’s direct involvement, the ride only operated for 11 years as the cars broke down and fell apart.
Another cherished piece in the museum was Walt Disney’s wooden school desk in Marceline, with the letters “WD” mischievously carved twice in the writing surface.
Other highlights from the museum includes rare photographs and movie footages of Walt and Roy Disney during their childhood in Marceline, as well as their visits as a grown, successful man. Walt Disney started having his biggest breakthrough when he created Mickey Mouse in 1928. When he visited Marceline in the 1940s, he returned to his “Dreaming Tree” to refresh his memory for a project he was planning, and did some filming there in 1948. His first formal return happened in July 4, 1956 for the dedication of the Walt Disney Swimming Pool and Park. He was with his wife Lillian, Roy Disney and Roy’s wife. Walt returned again in 1960 to dedicate the Walt Disney Elementary School. That school was designed and decorated with Disney-character murals.
Before you leave the museum, make sure you visit the gift shop. This gift shop doesn’t have as many types and varieties of souvenirs as with any Disney theme park, but it contains unique items that cannot be bought anywhere else. You can only find Disney-themed memorabilia with the Disney Museum logo at Marceline.
Disney Dreaming Tree Site and Disney Barn
The story of Walt Disney’s Dreaming Tree and Barn might not be as well-known as other Disney stories, but it’s very integral as to how Disney cartoons were born. The walk down the path to the Disney Dreaming Tree Site and Barn looks like something out of a Disney film. Walt used to head towards the Dreaming Tree, which was a big cottonwood where he spends time to watch nature and daydream with his brother Roy.
The original Dreaming Tree was already dead (because of lightning strikes, wind storm and disease), but a descendant of the tree was planted nearby by one of Walt’s grandsons and Disney ambassadors. It was called Son of Dreaming Tree, but it was still small compared to the original.
Past the site of the Dreaming Tree, you can see the Disney Barn. This resembles the original family barn which has burned down. It is based on a copy of Walt’s blueprints on his California estate, where he recreated their Marceline barn. The Disney Barn is open to all, and it was built in 2001 to commemorate the 100th birthday of Walt Disney. Visitors can sign their name inside the barn to pay your respects for the late Disney icon.
The Uptown Theater is located at the center of the town and was the location for two Disney movie premieres. In 1956, Walt Disney was there for the premiere of “The Great Locomotive Chase.” In 1998, the “Spirit of Mickey” premiered here, featuring appearances by Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck and Pluto.
The Disney family, when Walt was young, attended many musical events in the Ripley Park in Marceline. Walt also used to play with the It brings memories of the good times spent there, and its park gazebo inspired the gazebos in Disneyland from the day it opened.
Now, the Ripley Park features a Santa Fe steam engine train – Walt Disney was a train enthusiast. He named the first steam locomotives at Disneyland it, giving it the name EP Ripley.