Disney, center, and his brother Roy, at right, returned to Marceline
The idea began with a late
night conversation between two men who had just met.
Walt Disney, creator of Mickey
Mouse and the entire Disney empire, was visiting his boyhood hometown
of Marceline for the dedication of a park and swimming pool named in
his honor. The town fathers didn't want their favorite son to stay in
a hotel in nearby Brookfield so they asked local businesman Rush Johnson
if he would host Disney at his home, one of only three in Marceline
that had central air conditioning in 1956.
"After everything was
over he and I retired to our den," Johnson recalls of his first meeting
with Disney about something that would become known as The Marceline
Project. "First thing he asked me was 'Rush, who owns the farm?' I told
him and he said, 'You can buy it cheaper than I can. Buy it.'"
And so began a business relationship
that lasted until Disney's death 10 years later. With Johnson's help
Disney bought his father's old Marceline farm and the land adjacent
The family farm was the inspiration
for many of Disney's early cartoons and he wanted to share his experiences
with others. Long before others saw the need Disney imagined a living
history farm where young and old could relive a simpler time and discover
"He was such a visionary,"
says Kaye Malins, Johnson's daughter and the current resident of Disney's
childhood home. "He said there will come a time when a child will not
know what an acre of land is. There will come a time when a child will
not know what happens when you put a seed in the ground. We're there
"Disney Ambassadors" display a Main Street USA sign during a tour
of Marceline. The high school students and volunteer tour guides
explain that Marceline's downtown provided the inspiration for Main
Street USA at Walt Disney's theme parks.
Disney's idea for a park
recreating his family's farm faded with his death in 1966. Through the
years, Marceline has attracted thousands of visitors but little has
been done to adequately honor its most famous citizen until now.
Beginning with a new museum
dedicated to Disney and the Sante Fe Railroad that was so dear to him,
the north-central Missouri town is staking its future on its Disney
While the living history
farm is still a dream, the museum is well on its way and will house
temporary exhibits in time for a celebration of Walt
Disney's 100th birthday, Sept. 21-23. (See "A
party for Walt".)
The three-day event is the
first of many projects locals say will someday fulfill Disney's dream
"The birthday party will
just be the kick-off for what we hope will happen in Marceline," says
Malins, one of many volunteers working on the celebration. "The long-term
plan is to recreate what Walt wanted to do a turn-of-the-century
Disney spent just five years
in Marceline but they were formative years. The family moved to Missouri
in 1906, when Walt was just 5. He later said, "More things of importance
happened to me in Marceline than have happened since, or are likely
to in the future."
It was here that Disney began
to draw and even sold his first artwork, a picture of a Morgan horse
that earned the young artist a nickel from the horse's owner. Disney's
childhood experiences riding a sow through the barnyard and getting
dumped in the mud, being chased by a bull and other boyhood adventures
found their way into his cartoons.
Even the design of Disneyland's
Main Street USA is based on downtown Marceline.
discovers the initials he carved in his grade school desk. This
month, the town honors its favorite son during a 100th birthday
Despite Disney's love for
Marceline it would be 46 years before he would come home. Although locals
tell tales of clandestine visits, Disney's first known return was the
1956 park dedication. Later that year he and his brother and business
partner, Roy, held the Midwest premiere of his movie "The Great Locomotive
Chase" at Marceline's Uptown Theater.
"Walt and Roy stood outside
and greeted every child that went into the theater," recalls Malins,
who attended the premiere as a child. "When Walt took the stage that
day he said, 'You children are lucky to live in Marceline. My best memories
are the years I spent here.'"
In 1960, Disney visited again
for the dedication of Walt Disney Elementary School. Not only did Disney
cancel an overseas trip in order to attend, he also had his studio create
one-of-a-kind murals which adorn the school's lobby and gym to this
When Disneyland retired its
Autopia kiddie-car ride Disney planned to attend the ceremony marking
the ride's new home in Marceline's Walt Disney Park. At the last minute
he cancelled, complaining of a cold he could not shake. The cold turned
out to be cancer and Disney died within the year.
Today thousands of tourists
travel to Marceline to see "where the magic began." They arrive in tour
buses or straggle into town alone to visit the important places of Disney's
youth and the spots he visited during his homecomings. Townspeople
primarily schoolchildren trained as "Disney Ambassadors" provide
guided tours or visitors may pick up a map and take a walking tour on
residents have purchased Marceline's Sante Fe Railroad depot and
are restoring the building which will house a museum honoring one-time
Marceline resident Walt Disney.
Many of the visitors travel
from overseas. Recently, Marceline has hosted travel writers from Europe
and several Japanese film crews. The first tickets to the birthday celebration
sold on the Internet went to Tokyo.
It is these Disney faithful
that Marceline hopes to attract not only to the 100th birthday celebration
but to the museum and some day the living history farm Disney envisioned.
"Almost on a weekly basis
people come in making a pilgrimage to Mecca," says birthday party chairman
Richard Switzer. "All we're doing is giving them more things to do when
Clearly the most significant
new attraction will be the museum, the first anywhere to honor Disney.
Rush Johnson and a few friends "former Marceliners who've done
well elsewhere," he says bought the old two-story Sante Fe depot.
Local donations, state and federal grants and Disney Corp. stock donated
by Walt's descendents are paying for a total restoration of the building.
The Disney family is
also providing many of the artifacts that will fill the museum.
A feasibility study funded
by the state of Missouri and USDA found the museum will prove to be
a major tourism draw in northern Missouri especially once Highway
36 is expanded to four lanes across the state.
Ochi, a Japanese television personality, takes photos from a tour
bus during a visit to Marceline. The small north-central Missouri
town attracts thousands of visitors each year. Tourists, many of
them from foreign countries, come to trace Walt Disney's roots.
Ochi was in town filming segments for a Japanese television show.
"They came up with the figures
that we'd hit 210,000 people a year. We have no reason to doubt their
estimates," Johnson says.
"Let's say that's too optimistic.
Let's cut that down to 50,000. Wouldn't that make a huge difference
to Marceline?" asks Switzer. "If we had 50,000 people come in we're
going to have more retail business on Main Street. We're going to have
people staying in the hotels in Brookfield and Macon."
And that, at least as much
as honoring the town's favorite son, is reason enough for Marceline
to finally celebrate Disney in a big way. With several major industries
Marceline fares better than most small towns, but conditions could be
beginning with the 100th birthday celebration in September may
make the difference.
"We've seen the decline like
any small town," Switzer says. "Bringing people to Marceline during
this three-day celebration is really the initial step in bringing more
tourism to north Missouri."
Marceline is preparing for
50,000 visitors during the Disney birthday. The museum will soon be
a reality. Discussions with state tourism and agriculture officials
have already begun with an eye toward a living history farm.
So while it might seem an
insurmountable task to finally realize Walt Disney's dream of the Marceline
Project nearly four decades after his death, those who remember him
are determined to make it a reality.
"I don't think there's any
doubt about it. There's enough of us that are going to work hard enough
to see that it happens," Johnson says. "What we're doing, Walt would
want that achieved."
For more information,
write the Marceline Disney 100th
Birthday office, 207 North Main Street USA Marceline, MO 64658;
phone (660) 376-WALT or email: firstname.lastname@example.org