Walt Disney was proud to call a small Missouri town home. Disney spent five years of his life in Marceline, in northern Missouri. But they were the most formative of his life.
Disney was born in Chicago in 1901, but his family moved to Marceline when he was five. They lived there until he was 10, when they relocated to Kansas City.
The time in Marceline set the foundation for his later success with Disneyland and Disney World. He and his sister Ruth would spend time under the shade of an old Cottonwood tree – nicknamed the “Dreaming Tree” – on the family farm. Disney would draw pictures of the animals they’d see, such as rabbits and deer. Then, he would flip the pages to make a movie to entertain Ruth. You have to wonder if the rabbits, chipmunks and deer were the inspiration for his Disney cartoon characters.
Once, the two Disney kids put together a “circus” featuring family pets. Disney charged a dime admission fee. When the animals didn’t “perform,” the kids wanted their money back. He refused. When his mother overheard this, she made him give refunds. She explained that if he was going to charge people for something, they deserved to be entertained and he should want them to leave happy. This lay the foundation for his philosophy with all things Disney once he built Disneyland and his production studio.
Disney never forgot his special connection to Marceline. He would return several times as an adult. He would donate things to the town, such as flags for a new school flagpole that he paid for.
Walt Disney’s life is immortalized in the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. The converted train depot houses a massive collection of family pictures, letters and memorabilia.
As you enter the museum, visitors can see Disney’s school desk. He carved his initials in it. The desk spends half a year at the museum and the other half at the Walt Disney elementary school in town.
Walt and his brother Roy would return to the town for almost anything. The town asked them to visit for the dedication of the Walt Disney Complex and Pool in 1956. They did. While in town, they checked out some of their old stomping grounds, including the Cottonwood on the old farm.
The museum offers a view of the Disney family’s life and Walt and Roy’s business successes. Walt pretty handled the creative process of Disney productions, while Roy managed the business side. The brothers opened their studio in 1923.
A life-sized sculpture of Mickey Mouse in a train engineer’s outfit – “All Aboard Mickey” – welcomes visitors to the main exhibit area. This version of Mickey was designed by Disney animator Ollie Johnston to celebrate the mouse’s 75th birthday in 2003.
Disneyland opened in Anaheim in September 1955. Main Street USA at Disneyland was based on Marceline’s Main Street.
One of the buildings at Disneyland is based on the old “Coke” building in downtown Marceline. It’s currently an antique store. He referred to it as the “Coke” building, because he recalled a Coca-Cola mural painted along the side.
The building actually had another building added to it, so the mural was hidden for years. But, the new building had been destroyed. You can still see the outline of the mural on that wall.
As Disneyland prepared for a live telecast of its grand opening, Walt bought his sister a television, so she could watch the events from home. She was not a fan of large crowds, so Walt took care to provide her an opportunity to watch the festivities without leaving home.
Disneyland is represented with a miniature model of the attractions.
In 1966, the Disney brothers donated the only ride to leave a Disney park to their hometown. The Autopia ride was relocated to the town’s Walt Disney Park. Disney apologized to a local friend for not being able to attend as he thought he was suffering from the flu. A few months later, Walt Disney passed away from cancer. One of the cars is on display at the museum.
Walt Disney influence many animators, including Muppeteer Jim Henson. Their recollections of Disney are included in the museum.
The Walt Disney Hometown Museum came about after receiving several items from Ruth’s estate in 2000. The museum opened in 2003 at the train depot.
In addition to recognizing Walt Disney and his family, the museum honors its rail and mining history in a smaller exhibit.
Railroad memorabilia, including conductor and engineer uniforms and equipment, are on display.
A mural of railroad workers stands behind pieces of equipment on a rail.
Coal mining equipment is displayed, as well.
A few steps from the museum, EP Ripley Park has a train engine and caboose on display.
A visit to the Walt Disney Hometown Museum isn’t the only way to see the man’s impact on the town he loved. Street signs bear the famous Disney Mouse ears.
The old theater – which is also copied on Main Street USA – has several Disney items on display. The Uptown Theater actually hosted the Midwest premiere of “The Great Locomotive Chase” in 1956.
In 1998, the community hosted the premiere of “The Spirit of Mickey.” About 18,000 people packed the town after learning that Mickey and Minnie Mouse would be in town.
A short drive from downtown, visitors can see the trunk of the “Dreaming Tree.” A sapling of the tree was planted on the Disney farm by one of Disney’s grandsons, so the dream can continue to live in Marceline.
In honor of Walt Disney’s 100th birthday celebration, Walt’s barn from his childhood is reconstructed over a 3-day old-fashioned barn raising fest.
Visitors are encouraged to leave Walt messages. The wood was swamped with comments about how Disney impacted people’s lives and how much they appreciated his creativity. We left a simple thank you note.
The drive on Missouri’s Highway 36 is an adventure and a step back into history where you can learn much about a great person, such as Walt Disney. A visit to his hometown and the area attractions are worth it.
For more information on Marceline and the Disney museum, please check out these websites: