British university professor and Disney scholar Lee Brooks chronicles the road trip he took with his family from Anaheim to Orlando, and all "Walt" points in between, in search of how America molded Walt Disney, and how Walt gave voice to our values, our dreams, and a big slice of our pop culture.
The best way to understand Walt Disney is to follow in his footsteps—literally. And the best way to understand his "mythical America" is to look at it through the perspective of someone foreign to it. On a road trip! In the passenger seat of a rented blue Ford Fusion, Lee Brooks attempts to unravel the skein of history, fantasy, and pop culture that for a few decades took the guise of Walt Disney.
Watch for the exit signs to:
ARE WE THERE YET?
Walt Disney created America.
There will, of course, be those that would regard this sentence as inaccurate, pointing to the contributions of obscure figures such as Leif Erikson, Amerigo Vespucci, or Christopher Columbus. I am willing to accept that the shadow of each of these, and a host of other figures, have flickered in the candlelight of American history and been long recognised for it by festivals, historians, and school children alike.
I, however, am sticking to my guns on the statement that Walt Disney created America.
Now, I feel it is only right and proper that I qualify this assertion with one or two caveats. I am not, of course, suggesting that he got there first. Any half-witted student of history, even a forty something, English half-witted history graduate like myself, knows that our boy Columbus did much of the actual discovering in 1492—that is, as long as you’re happy to overlook that the closest he actually got to America was what we now know as the Bahamas, and that there were, of course, a group of people called Native Americans who were there already! So no, I’m not saying that Walt Disney discovered America.
As you can also see, if you cast your eyes back a line or two, it is true that I speak as someone who is not technically even an American, so what the hell has it got to do with me who created the place anyway?
The relationship between my nation and yours was always a little dysfunctional, and ended in a messy break up in July of 1776, and on that score I would concede that you got the better end of the divorce settlement. Our position as children from this particular broken home might go some way toward explaining your passion for the quaintness of little old England and my total weakness for Americana.
It is this weakness that begins to explain why I believe that Walter Elias Disney created the place that I have always rather hoped I might one day call home.
It began when a small, slightly weedy boy with a bad haircut who shall henceforth be known as me strolled into the little room that constituted a school library in St Mary’s primary school in Putney, South West London, some time in the mid 1970s. At this stage not prolific, or probably even proficient reader, my gaze wondered directly to the shelf full of oversized picture books and all at once it was taken with the spine of a slim blue volume adorned with a rather fetching array of red-and-white stripes and just the hint of a star.
My typically British reserve makes me bristle at overwrought “road to Damascus” moments that “changed my life” but suffice to say that in this instance, the fact that I was an average to poor reader and had a magpie-like ability to be easily distracted by bright colours certainly had a lasting effect on mine.
Truth be told, I don’t really remember too much about the book in question save to say that it was full, from cover to cover, of pictures that explained the existence of an exotic promised land called America. I vividly recall taking the book home and sitting for hours, flicking through its pages, dreaming what I was sure would be an unfulfilled dream of visiting this far-off, wonderful place. There were, of course, many pictures of things that were probably, in hindsight, rather more mundane than they now appear in my technicolor memories, but there were two pages that managed to etch themselves into my consciousness, the subjects of which have come to represent America to me ever since.
The pages in question were dedicated to Walt Disney and Superman, and in many ways these two figures have become intertwined in my (admittedly odd) mind as a combined and enduring symbol of the spirit of America. While I have no knowledge of Walt actually wearing his underpants on the outside, or donning a cape and fighting crime, he has nonetheless become something of a superhero to me.
In a recent pub conversation (these seem to loom large in my personal history), a group of friends were discussing the age-old question of which figure from history they would most like to meet. Most of them agonised for an age, gradually whittling down a shortlist until they settled on some old queen, pop star, or great author. That was until the metaphorical bottle alighted on me. I didn’t require time to think and for their part neither did the rest of the company give it, because it was instantly understood that Lee would pick Walt Disney, and off he would go again enthusing his audience into a coma with a quote by or an anecdote about “Uncle Walt”.
Come to think of it, perhaps I could modify my earlier statement to suggest that not only did he create America, but in a sense Walt Disney created me! It should be fairly apparent that his legacy has had some sort of lasting effect on my life, and quite possibly yours, since you are reading this book that I have written for a publisher who specializes in writings that stem, in one way or another, from Walt’s world.
That the boy with the dodgy haircut grew up (I use that term loosely) to become a university lecturer who counts as his signature class one entitled “Consumption, Simulation, Walt Disney World and America” and is, at this very moment, mulling over the possibility of launching the UK’s first masters degree in Disney Studies, should probably help you shake any remaining doubts about my Disney geek credentials. But, as all self-respecting devotees of kids TV know, nothing convinces better than a good old-fashioned hair-brained scheme, which is where this book, or rather the journey that it chronicles, really comes into its own.
If there is one activity that might rival visiting a Disney theme park as the ultimate US experience in the popular imagination (well, mine at least) it is the noble art of the great American road trip. The idea of climbing into a legendarily cavernous American automobile and driving massive distances through the myriad cultures that constitute the United States ought, in my mind, to be a qualification for citizenship. How can anyone genuinely call themselves an American unless they have witnessed the thrill of the open road and eaten apple pie in a roadside diner replete with jukebox and black-and-white checkered floor?
Once again, I qualify this statement with the reminder that I am actually an Englishman and the further confession that I fail on the most basic of requirements for Americanness in that I can’t drive.
While this may seem inconceivable to the average reader on that side of the pond, who hops in a car and drives approximately the length of my little island for a stack of pancakes, for someone like myself, who grew up in London and has always been able to get pretty much anywhere he wanted to go by bus, train, or tube within no more than an hour, it has never really been a big deal. However, as I do have a day job and cannot therefore dedicate the rest of my natural life to walking across your nation, this could prove something of a handicap in indulging in said roadside odyssey. Luckily for me, with this, as with so many of the other basic requirements of my existence, I am able to rely on something that we in England call a wife.
For those unfamiliar with this concept, a wife is the life support mechanism that is needed to ensure that the male of the species is able to continue to exist when his limited cognitive functions have become focused on the pursuit of what some may consider a ridiculous undertaking, or as we have already identified it, a hair-brained scheme. My good fortune in wife selection extends in a vast array of directions, but the one that is of particular interest to this endeavour is that mine is a very good and extremely enthusiastic driver.
My wife Sarah and I, along with our two children, Annabel (10) and Tyler (4), have actually engaged in the art of the American road trip once before when we spent a week touring around Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut a couple of years ago. So our designated driver has had some experience of steering a car that is about a third larger than our house around on what to her is the wrong side of the road. In another stroke of fortune she hugely enjoyed the experience, and what is more she is almost as obsessed as I am with the twin ideals of Disney and America (see, I told you I was good at wife selection).
This leads us to the birth of the aforementioned hair-brained scheme, which actually began to form in my mind during our little jaunt around New England. I was performing my vitally important role of managing the playlist and ensuring that the correct piece of popular music functioned as the accompanying soundtrack to the visuals that were passing by the car window at any particular moment. This may, to some people, seem a task of less importance than actually controlling the giant piece of hurtling metal that was acting simultaneously as transport and life-support system for our entire family, but that would be to underestimate the significance of the Beatles and the Smiths.
While I’m sure that you appreciate the sheer levels of concentration required in ensuring the appropriate quantity of rock and roll is not too watered down by the introduction of psychedelic pop, there were moments in the journey at which my imagination was able to wander. During one of these interludes, as is so often the case, my thoughts turned to Disney. Suddenly, and not unfoolishly, given that we were only a few days away from returning to Boston and onto a plane bound for home, it occurred to me that we were only about 1300 miles from Walt Disney World. If we drove solidly for about a day we could have a quick ride on Pirates of the Caribbean and grab a hot dog at Casey’s before returning to the mundanity of London life.
When I voiced this notion, Sarah performed one of the other important functions of wifedom, in requesting that I keep my “good ideas” to myself, and thus exercised the matriarchal veto on said suggestion. I’m sure that having poured water upon my latest bonfire my beloved wife assumed that my butterfly mind would flit directly back onto being pleased that “Massachusetts” by the BeeGees had started to play just as we passed a road sign for Boston, but for once I found myself able to think of two things at once. The synchronicity of the soundtrack simply acted as a pleasing music bed for the dawning idea that if it was possible to drive from this place to Disney World, it was possible to do so from anywhere in America.
I will concede that in the history of ideas my eureka moment might not rival the splitting of the atom, the discovery of penicillin, or even the invention of the slinky. Indeed, it is entirely possibly that to some people the fact that you can drive to one place in America from any other place in America could be considered a rather rudimentary concept. This, however, is the kind of linear thinking that I would discourage because it overlooks both the truism that Einstein I am not, and, in favour of any way to have a long vacation in the USA that involves a lot of Disney, I am. For what had occurred to me in that flash of light was not really a concept about relative navigation around America but the idea of a mega road trip that linked both coasts via the magic of Disney. What also occurred to me was that if such a trip were going to happen, it would require a huge amount of planning (something that comes fairly naturally to me), a fair amount of money (something that I don’t have, but which I could think about later), and perfect judgment in pitching it to my good lady who would have to do all the driving (something for which I am definitely not genetically programmed).
So it was that my blurting out that we could drive from Disneyland to Disney World whilst trundling down a road in New England was met with a “what, now?” and accompanied by a deeply suspicious wifely eye which, nonetheless, set me off on an epic sales pitch, the success of which leads, via a series of meandering paths, to this very book.
Due to the nature of my over-excited brain, once head office gave the go ahead, a straightforward, if rather long drive from the original Disney park to its younger brother, while still a wonderful idea, was never going to be the sum total of the experience. Quick reference to a map of the United States confirms that the straightest route between these two points is around 2500 miles. After leaving California, it passes through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana before finally pitching up in Florida about 38 hours of driving time later. It must be noted that this “short” route is still approximately three times the entire length of Great Britain, and a lot farther than we have ever dreamed of traveling by car.
Also, in much the way that meteorologists say that the weather feels hotter because of the addition of humidity, I believe there should be an equation for how much farther a journey will feel when the rear seats of the car are occupied by a four year old who is, at any given point, likely to be finding new and creative ways to elicit high-pitched whining noises from his eleven-year-old sister.
Nevertheless, we British are an adventurous breed and this particular adventure has the added advantage of a complete lack of common sense, so I interpreted the 2500-mile road trip as merely the launching point for a more ambitious plan of campaign. Since this whole obsession had started off with that picture book about America and my specific attraction to Walt Disney and Superman, my map-studying eye was quickly drawn to the remarkable coincidence that Walt’s home town of Marceline, Missouri, was less than 400 miles away (see I’m thinking like an American already) from Superman’s adopted neighbourhood of Metropolis, Illinois. Once this astonishing fact had been established in my mind, there was really no way that we could possibly make the trip without including these twin landmarks in our itinerary. And never mind that, in order to do so, our “little” road trip had just increased by another 500 miles.
With this mindset it also seemed fairly apparent that if we were venturing as far north as Marceline, we might as well drop in on the site of Walt’s original Laugh-o-gram studio in Kansas City, and while we were at it, if we really wanted to get the flavour of true Americana, it would be nice to visit an old-fashioned state fair. As luck would have it, our planned travel dates intersected with the fair in DesMoines, Iowa, and this had the triple advantage of, firstly, being only about 400 miles out of our way, secondly, being a place that could provide us with the spectacle of a butter cow (my parochial British mind was already boggling), and thirdly, being the home town of my own travel writing hero, Bill Bryson. When I put it like that, how could my poor, long-suffering, car-piloting wife possibly resist?
Thus it was that, little by little, new, must-visit places, must-taste foods, and must-experience attractions, sights, and downright oddities across America began to demand pins in the map until the total mileage pushed well beyond 4000 and the driving time had gazed longingly back at the fifty-hour mark in the rear-view mirror. Thus, also, was the idea of a book about this mammoth undertaking born.
Once the notion of a book had begun to take hold of my imagination, the catchy title of Mouse to Mouse sprang quickly into my mind. What took a little longer, however, was the descriptive bit that follows the colon, as, beyond the bounds of my own obsession with America, I wasn’t sure how to summarise the themes that were emerging from the map. After much gazing into space, a common experience in my life, the point that I made a few thousand words ago, about Walt Disney creating America, started to dawn on me.
What I really mean is that the America that I grew up dreaming of, and after visiting Walt Disney World at the age of eleven, longing for, was the version that called to me from Main Street, USA, Frontierland, and Liberty Square, the one that I glimpsed in holiday specials from Disneyland, and in the pages of that long-ago library book and a thousand others. The America of Walt Disney’s 1950s, of diners and drive-ins, of Superman and Elvis and of state fairs and quirky roadside attractions. The question then, that filled my mind was whether this America still, or even ever, existed, and it is this question that will fill the vacant space behind the colon.
Mouse to Mouse: In Search of Walt Disney’s Mythical America. Let the quest begin.
Lee Brooks is the programme director for Design and Production at St Mary’s University in Twickenham. As a child, in London, he discovered a magical world in a book about America, and at the age of 11 he saw it for himself, when his parents took him and his sister to Walt Disney World. The interest that took hold at that moment has since blossomed into a full-grown obsession that has not only spread to his wife and two children, but infected countless students who have taken his university course about Disney theme parks.
It may seem odd to start at the end, but since Lee Brooks and his family began their Disney road trip in Anaheim, they knew they wouldn't have another chance to pay their respects to the earthly remains of the man whose spirit they sought.
I must concede, on the subject of our first stop on the road in the good old US of A, that the fact that it was scheduled to be a branch of McDonald’s probably doesn’t sound terribly promising. Let’s face it, Maccy D’s is ubiquitous across America, as it is, with the notable exceptions of Iceland, Bermuda, and most of Africa, across the majority of the globe. So why would a family in search of that mythical, unique Walt Disney spirit of the 1950s be so keen to roll up at the ultimate symbol of 21st century globalisation. Hell, the sociologist George Ritzer even named a much celebrated critical book on the subject, The McDonaldization of Society.
Well, the answer is that on the way to McDonald’s in Downey, California, we must have driven past several hundred “restaurants” bearing the famous golden arches, until we eventually found one that didn’t. The McDonald’s in Downey, you see, dates from before Disneyland (1953 to be precise) and while it can’t lay claim to being the first branch (that honour belonged to a small, octagonal building opposite Monrovia airport which opened in 1937 and later moved to the more famous site in San Bernardino, selling fifteen cent hamburgers), this little time capsule in Downey (actually the company’s third restaurant) remains the world’s oldest operating McDonald’s. Like so much roadside history across America, the claim is a matter of dispute, as the company’s official history credits a site in Des Plaines, Illinois (actually the ninth restaurant), primarily because that location was the first involvement of the franchising wizard Ray Kroc, who later bought the company from the McDonald brothers for $2.7 million. Indeed, it was the very fact that the franchising agreement for the Downey restaurant had been signed with the brothers, rather than Kroc’s company, that meant it was not subject to the modernisation requirements that rendered all its younger siblings so uniform.
So, when we eventually got to Downey, rather than the familiar, but rather bland, decor that the world has become used to, the Speedee McDonald’s, as it is colloquially known, was exactly the kind of shining example of roadside American architecture that we had so hoped to see. The eponymous Speedee, the company’s original icon when Ronald wasn’t so much as a twinkle in papa clown’s eye, is a little cartoon chef who represents the ideal that the McDonald Brothers based their restaurant on, and sits astride a single golden arch. The hamburger stand itself looks, for all the world, like something straight out of a scene from American Graffiti, and much to our delight, when we placed our order, it came in old-fashioned paper bags and boxes that were entirely in keeping with the fifties vibe, which was, perhaps predictably, but nonetheless enjoyably, continued by the rock-and-roll soundtrack that played over the restaurant’s speaker system. There was a small museum of McDonald’s memorabilia which was mildly diverting, but the real joy was in stepping back to a time before Ray Kroc’s giant franchising machine devoured the world and made everything look (and taste) the same.
One small aside about Kroc himself is that he, just like Walt Disney, had lied about his age to become a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I, and the two boys met whilst training in Sound Beach, Connecticut. Kroc later reached out to his old acquaintance in a letter, after he had finalised his deal with the McDonald Brothers, in an attempt to secure his new brand a spot at Disneyland. Kroc claimed that the deal couldn’t be done because Walt had insisted that he raise his prices to increase Disney’s share of the profits, but many believe that this was just a “good story” to conceal the fact that the proposal had simply been rejected.
Even at this early stage of our time on the road I had learned one important thing, and that was that my route planning, while meticulous, was probably somewhat on the over-ambitious side. In my fantasy road trip, whilst sat at the kitchen table at home, we had pulled into Downey and had a quick, post-breakfast snack with Speedee, but in reality we had just sat down and consumed a slightly late lunch. This meant that the long list of stops that we were due to make before we pulled into Las Vegas late that afternoon would almost certainly have to be cut back, and there was more than an even chance that late afternoon might turn inexorably into night. For now, though, we were back on the road and heading toward the bright lights of Hollywood.
Sarah and I had been to California, before the kids came along, and we had done the full pilgrimage around the homes of the stars and trekked up and down Hollywood Boulevard, and if I am entirely honest, been rather underwhelmed by the whole experience. It had, however, been a long time, and Annabel was very keen to see the Hollywood sign, and the walk of fame, so we duly braved the vehicular madness around the place and headed to Hollywood and Highland. Once we had parked deep underground, we hopped in an elevator and went up to one of the suspended walkways to join what seemed like the entire population of Japan in taking a photograph of the famous sign, and then made our way down to street level so we could look at a series of names written on a floor, whilst simultaneously attempting to avoid costumed nut cases who wanted nothing more than to have a picture taken with us (for a small fee). While I think the children were vaguely amused by the whole thing, we generally drew the same conclusions that we had years before, that Hollywood is actually a bit of a dump and that we were happy not to incur any more than than the one-hour parking charge on our rental car before heading out of Tinseltown at full tilt.
Even with a revised plan of action, and the time ticking on well into late afternoon, there was one more place that I wanted to visit before we left California. So much has been written and said about the life of Walt Disney, and there have been almost as many column inches devoted to his death. It seems fitting that a life story so heavily laden with myth and magic should, as is the current custom of Disney’s Marvel blockbusters, have a final, teasingly climactic scene after the closing credits. Sure, the discovery of terminal cancer and an all-too-sudden death that shocked and saddened the world in December 1966 was extremely dramatic, but this was Walt Disney, the greatest showman and manufacturer of magic since Harry Houdini. Is it any wonder, then, rather than simply accept the passing of a man seen in such a prophetic light, a mass belief in a resurrection mythology should begin to emerge.
Everyone has heard the tall tales of Walt’s fascination with the pseudo-science of cryogenics, and given his track record of championing the transformative potential of new technologies, it really wasn’t a huge leap, for a fan community who were desperate for it to be true. Unlike many other major public figures, however, Walt’s death and subsequent funeral were decidedly low-key, private affairs, and this served to fuel the urban myth of a frozen creator, ready to be resurrected in order to take his place on the throne of his magic kingdom. I suspect that if there had been some imposing tomb or mausoleum that millions of adoring fans could visit (as if Disneyland wasn’t a big enough monument to his genius), then such urban myths may not have persisted, but just like the private nature of his funeral, Walt’s grave site was a simple, unassuming garden at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, and that was exactly where we were headed next.
The first thing to note about the cemetery is that “memorial park” is exactly the right description for the stunningly beautiful, rolling hillside that constitutes it. Forest Lawn is at once both deeply impressive and lavishly imposing, and the drive through it to locate Walt’s grave is a memory that will not soon leave me. The second is that if you don’t know where to find it, you are not likely to stumble upon the final resting place of Walter Elias Disney. I cannot convey strongly enough that it really is the tiniest, most understated and tranquil of gardens. There are no signs to identify where the ashes of one of the most famous men of the twentieth century are interred, and there is certainly none of the fantasy imagery that he became so synonymous with.
Once we did locate the garden, the rest of the family stayed in the car as I stood alone in silent reflection in the late afternoon Burbank sun and gazed upon the modest wall plaques that bore the names of several members of the Disney family. After having spent the previous few days being just the kind of family, playing together, that Walt has supposedly envisaged whilst sitting on that bench all those years before, it was an odd but deeply moving privilege to be able to stand and reflect upon that extraordinary life in these peaceful and rather meditative surroundings. If the views across the wonderfully manicured hills of Forest Lawn will stay with me for a long time, then the moments spent within the sacred precincts of that garden will remain in my memory for as long as I live. After all, without the man to whom I was paying my respects there, this trip, and probably the man I had become, would not exist.
Continued in "Mouse to Mouse"!
Walt's formative years were spent in Marceline, Missouri. In the vernacular, it's where the magic began. Today, a few wisps of that enchantment still exist, in the Walt Disney Museum, open to the public on select days for limited hours.
This entire book has, in many ways, been an expression of how formative an experience my first glimpse of the Magic Kingdom was, as an eleven-year-old boy, and how much that experience itself was underlined by the moment that I discovered America in that picture book in the school library all those years before. Eventually visiting Disneyland with Sarah, and then seeing it anew once again through the eyes of our own children, would, of course, share almost equal billing in the narrative of the film of my life. The fact that on this trip I had been lucky enough to pay my respects beside Walt’s grave and see the Kansas City building in which so many of these dreams originally took flight had given our journey so far the flavour of a secular pilgrimage to places that I had spent years thinking about, but never really believed I would visit. While this had, of course, been a family vacation packed with amusements to thrill all four of us, I am deeply conscious that the core of it had been dedicated to indulging my own obsessive fascination, not just with the Walt Disney Company, but with searching for the company of Walt Disney. To my eternal gratitude, this had been accepted and supported by my family, but no destination on the entire trip was more emblematic of this than the small town in Missouri to which we were headed.
Any true Disneyphile would know that Marceline, while not the birthplace of the great man, was, at least in his own self-generated mythology, the place that gave birth to Walt Disney. We left early and had no other stops planned on our route to Marceline, as the Walt Disney Hometown Museum, in the old Santa Fe Railroad Depot, closed early on a Sunday, and as this may genuinely be a place for a once-in-a-lifetime visit, to arrive on its doorstep and see a closed sign might just be too much to take.
The trip was largely uneventful, taking in miles of the usual featureless interstate until suddenly our GPS decided to intervene and introduce us to an entirely unexpected attraction, the country roads of Missouri. It began as a picturesque little drive through some of the prettiest countryside you can image until at one point we began to head up a small hill and then quickly down the other side. This small hill was followed by a slightly larger one, which was in turn followed by their bigger brother. The kids began to make whooping noises as our progress over these undulations began to produce the very mild, but tell-tale feelings of momentary weightlessness in their tummies that, don’t tell Tyler, are commonly associated with uppers. The noises coming from the rear of the car seemed to have an encouraging effect upon the road, because the farther we went, the steeper and more regular the peaks and troughs of what, by this point, was best described as a kind of cross country, vehicular roller coaster, became. For a solid hour of our journey toward Marceline these climbs and falls were interrupted only by hairpin turns and the odd deer dashing across in front of us, and quite how Sarah managed to stop the car taking flight like a refugee from a particularly action-packed episode of The Dukes of Hazzard, I shall never know. In the end, the earth began to level out in front of us, we started to see signs for Marceline, and at least in the front passenger seat a sense of excited anticipation abounded.
If, as the tone of this book might imply, Walter Elias Disney really was the greatest thing since sliced bread, then as it turns out, he was raised (and yes, a host of yeast-related puns did spring to mind there) in almost the right place. When we were within touching distance (on the proviso that the person touching has 38-mile arms) of Marceline, we drove through the rather well-appointed town of Chillicothe which, according to the mural on the side of the Clipper (a beauty salon) on Washington Street, was the home of sliced bread.
In 1928 the owner of the Chillicothe Baking Company, Frank Bench, employed a machine called the Rohwedder Bread Slicer, a distinctly Heath Robinson-looking affair developed by Bench’s friend, Otto Rohwedder, of Davenport, Iowa. According to Aarron Bobrow-Stain’s White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, the machine was created as a favour to Bench in a final attempt to resurrect his bakery that had been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Within weeks of installing Rohwedder’s mechanical marvel, sales of the bakery’s Kleen-Maid Bread jumped by an astonishing 2000% and the world’s most overused comparison had been born.
Incidentally, the first recorded use of the phrase was by comedian Red Skelton who suggested in a 1952 interview with the Salisbury Times that the interviewer should not “worry about television. It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.” Skelton’s opinions on television were probably pretty sound given a twenty year career in the medium that for the Disney fan can be said to have reached its peak in 1976 when he presented the bicentennial TV special America on Parade from Disneyland.
With the sliced wonder behind us, it wasn’t long before a glance of a water tower emblazoned with the name Marceline began to create an increased level of excitement in the car, for two quite different reasons. For the adults in the front (or if I’m entirely honest, the one in the passenger seat), it obviously meant that we were nearing the veritable holy grail of Walt’s home town. For the junior Brooks’ in the rear, the buzz seemed to be around the misapprehension that we were going to see Marceline the Vampire Queen from one of their favourite shows, Adventure Time. Actually, I have often wondered whether the blue skinned, Goth-inflected, bass-playing bloodsucker’s name is some kind of oblique tribute to Walt Disney, but this was no time for my fevered imagination to start wandering off down that particular cul-de-sac, as, once I cleared up the confusion, we drew up next to the Walt Disney Hometown Museum.
For a few moments we all stood in the lovingly kept little garden at the front of the former railroad depot as I disappeared into a reverie about the fact that, after all these years, I had finally made it there, until suddenly the cacophonous horn of a passing train (and when I say passing, I mean literally a couple of feet away) punctured the silence, and almost sent poor Tyler scuttling up the nearest drain pipe in terror. Like Dorothy opening the door of her displaced house and stepping into Oz, we gingerly entered the museum, paid our entrance fee, and joined a small group of people being addressed by a friendly lady who had already begun an introductory talk about Walt’s time in the town. I was, of course, transfixed by everything she had to say, but what made it extra special was the fact that the lady, Inez, wasn’t merely reciting facts and stories that she had learned about Walt, but relating things that he had told her. It was a magical moment to realise that we were listening to someone who personally knew the man whose illusive shadow we had been following across America. In that instant. it occurred to me that for all the places we had been so far on this trip, and the wonderlands that lay ahead, standing there, in that little room with this diminutive, silver-haired storyteller, was probably the closest that any of us would ever get to the man who was responsible for so many of our dreams, and at once this made me feel inspired and a little sad.
The museum itself, while small, was packed full of interesting personal mementoes, bequeathed mostly (as Inez informed us) by Walt’s sister, Ruth, and is an absolute must for any Disney fan who happens to find themselves in this part of the country. As always, we had to balance the energy of a couple of excitable children, who had after all been cooped up in a car for several hours, with the opportunity to browse at our leisure, and I’m sure if Sarah and I ever got to visit on our own we would have spent a lot longer taking everything in, but all things considered the museum was quite as delightful as we could ever have hoped it would be. In true Disney tradition, we exited though the gift shop and bought a Christmas ornament that will take pride of place on our tree for years to come. Tyler used some of his spending money to buy a Mickey plush from, as he put it, “his daddy’s house”.
Continued in "Mouse to Mouse"!