“To tell the truth, more things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since – or are likely to in the future.”
With those words, Walt Disney certainly set the bar high for Marceline, Missouri. The man created an entertainment empire, winning 32 Academy Awards and millions of admirers the world over, but he held up his adopted Missouri hometown as of chief importance. Whether the proof is in Walt’s own words, the proliferation of barnyard hijinks in the early Disney cartoon shorts, or his famous love for trains, Marceline clearly meant the world to Walt Disney.
But one aspect of this story has stubbornly puzzled me. Born in Chicago, Walt and his family lived in Marceline for only about five years, moving to Kansas City when the young Walt was ten years old. Just how could Marceline make such a big impact on a boy who lived there for such a relatively short time?
That question fueled my interest in visiting Marceline and experiencing Walt’s hometown for myself. This past July finally presented my opportunity to make this Disney pilgrimage. Although my visit lasted little more than one day, that was all the time it took to prove that Disney magic exists in abundance in that small Missouri town.
Much like the Disney parks, the Marceline experience begins on Main Street USA. Main Street (née Kansas Avenue) has been renamed to reflect the significance Marceline’s town center had on Walt’s plans for the turn-of-the-century entrance to Disneyland. Lined with antique shops and eateries, Marceline’s Main Street oozes with the spirit of its Disneyland namesake. It is truly authentic, compared to the nostalgic fantasy of its California cousin.
My first stop was the Uptown Theatre. When the Disney brothers returned to Marceline in 1956 for the dedication of the town’s new swimming pool and municipal park, Walt and Roy arranged for the Midwestern premiere of “The Great Locomotive Chase” to be held there. The children of Marceline packed the theatre – often two or three to a single seat – for this special Disney film premiere.
Sadly, those seats now sit empty as the theater has shuttered its operation and now runs as a bed and breakfast. While several different suites were on offer, I couldn’t look past staying in the Walt Disney Suite. This spacious suite was decked out with Disney decor and only reinforced my desire to get out and explore the town. Many thanks to Debbie Foster, the bed and breakfast’s proprietor, who made the entire experience a delight. [Since my visit, Debbie has sold the Uptown Theatre and no longer runs either the bed and breakfast or attached bakery.]
All checked in, it was time to finally see the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. Run by the inimitable Kaye Malins and a cadre of volunteers, the museum is found within Marceline’s old railroad depot. It is the centerpiece of the town’s celebration of Walt Disney and is definitely not to be missed.
One of the more memorable aspects of visiting a Disney park is the boundless charm of the Cast Members. But the impeccable cheerfulness of the Disney employees just might have been outshone by the citizens of Marceline. Main Street was far from bustling, but everyone I met stopped, greeted me warmly, and asked if they could provide any assistance. All were undeniably proud of their town’s fame as Walt Disney’s hometown and equally enthused to welcome any and all visitors.
Walking towards the Museum, I passed by E.P. Ripley Park, named in honor of the Santa Fe Railway founder. After all, Marceline owed its very existence to the Santa Fe. In 1887 the railroad needed somewhere to stop for supplies and fuel on its run between Chicago and Kansas City. The town of Marceline sprung up from this new stop.
Housed in a large red-brick building, the Walt Disney Hometown Museum is an impressive sight. Once inside, I could not believe my luck when I learned that today’s tour guide would be Inez. A museum volunteer, Inez holds the special distinction of being an actual family friend of Walt Disney. She recounted the story of how she and her husband, Rush, were asked to host the Disney family during their 1956 visit. Since the town’s hotel did not offer air conditioning, a cooler solution was sought, leading to Rush and Inez’s house.
Inez laughed that, in the run-up to the Disneys’ arrival, she was quite worried that her home was not nice enough for this important honor. Fearing that Walt would be unimpressed with his accommodations, the entire town pitched in and moved their very best furniture into Inez’s house. All was for naught, though, once the Disneys arrived. Their Hollywood guests were humble and unassuming – there had been no need to put on airs for them.
Stories such as this made the tour fly by. After a quick talk about Walt’s life in Marceline, the group was turned loose into the larger galleries in the building’s rear and upper floor. The Hometown Museum has a remarkable collection – ranging from an actual Midget Autopia car to seemingly endless personal correspondence between members of the Disney family. Although my time was in short supply, many more hours would have been well spent fully reading through the many letters Walt exchanged with his sister, Ruth.
My next stop was Walt’s old home, located just a quick drive from the Museum. While the house is privately owned, the owners have been gracious enough to provide a small parking area where guests can get out and walk to the Dreaming Tree and barn.
Well, what is left of the Dreaming Tree anyway. A victim of repeated lightning strikes, the tree’s lifeless remnants are all that remain of the site where Walt would regale his sister with imaginative tales of wit and whimsy. Long summer days were spent playing and daydreaming beneath that tree, making it even more heartbreaking that it has been ravaged by nature.
To Marceline’s credit, they could not stand to see lightning rob the world of Walt’s Dreaming Tree. A descendant of the original was planted nearby – the Son of the Dreaming Tree. The Son has a long way to go before it will rival the size of its father, but the new Dreaming Tree serves as a simple reminder that imagination cannot be defeated.
Walt’s barn is then just a short jaunt further onto the property. The barn offers something extra special for the visiting Disney fans – everyone is encouraged to sign the interior walls with a short message to honor Marceline’s famed son.
The only problem? In my shortsightedness, I had forgotten to bring a marker. While trying to shrug off this memory lapse, I was reminded of another of Inez’s stories from the Museum tour.
In that very barn, young Walt had once held a makeshift circus for the children of Marceline, charging a small amount for admittance. His show-stopping trick was to fill a sack with cats and then have them jump free. As that was the high point of the show, the audience was less than amused and demanded a refund. Walt’s mother, Flora, made her son return the money to his dissatisfied friends. But he was left with something of far greater value than a handful of dimes. Walt had learned his first lesson in showmanship – always exceed your audience’s expectations.
Marceline has a special peacefulness at night. As the sun set, so too did all of the activity on Main Street. It presented a great chance to fully take in all that I had learned about Walt Disney that day. I had also driven out to the Municipal Park and the Elementary School (which both bear Walt’s name), but the majority of my trip was devoted to those areas that might explain how his time in Marceline shaped the man Walt Disney would later become.
After a restful night in the Walt Disney Suite and an unforgettable breakfast buffet (prepared by Debbie Foster), it was finally time for my long trip home. Yet, as I drove down Main Street USA on my way out of town, I was already mentally planning my next trip to Marceline.
And perhaps that craving to return was the best answer to my quest to learn how Marceline had so deeply affected Walt in such a short time. The true magic of Marceline is that you only have to spend a short time there to be moved and inspired forever.
About Kevin Carpenter: Kevin first visited Walt Disney World in 1989 and has been studying the life and career of Walt ever since. When not writing, he works in professional soccer from his home in Ohio. You may also find him on twitter at @kejca.
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