A Tiny Missouri Town Is the Site of Disney’s ‘Lost’ Park, Inspiration for Main Street U.S.A.
You may have paid to see gussied-up variations of the quaint town of Marceline, Missouri. The community of about 2,500, two hours northeast of metro Kansas City, was the hometown and emotional lodestone of Walt Disney.
His boyhood remembrances of Marceline influenced such films as the 1949 live-action/cartoon “So Dear to My Heart” and “Lady and the Tramp” (1955). When Disneyland opened in 1955, visitors entered the Anaheim theme park through Main Street USA, an idealized rendition of downtown Marceline’s Kansas Avenue of the early 1900s.
Such Main Streets are at the gates of most Disney theme parks.
Main Street USA was where Disney’s on-grounds apartment was located within Disneyland and where Coke Corner is modeled after Marceline’s Zucher Building and a candy store is called Marceline’s Confectionery. A nametag on a theater mannequin read “Tilly, Marceline, Mo.”
And when the entertainment magnate died at 65 in Los Angeles in December 1966, his final unfinished project was an attraction in Marceline that would recapture and perpetuate his youth there.
The well-funded Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco does an excellent job of covering the artist/tycoon’s life from start to finish. But the small, simple affair in north-central Missouri is focused on Disney’s formative years and his enduring ties to the area.
The Marceline museum, which opened in 2001, owns roughly 3,000 Disney-related artifacts. It occupies Marceline’s restored train depot. Locomotives also figure into many Disney theme parks: Railroads were the lifeblood of small farming towns, the escape route to adventure and success, and the surest route home.
Museum director Kaye Malins was a longtime friend of Disney’s younger sister Ruth. She told Malins she wanted her family’s “stuff” to be housed in Marceline.
Malins says Disney’s daughter Diane once told her what Marceline meant to her dad: It was all he talked about — “the only years,” Diane Disney said, “when he could be a kid, to run free and roam.”
It was at the Marceline grade school that Walt Disney was first exposed to the entertainment business. He had the title role in a class production of “Peter Pan.”
Disney and Marceline
Born in Chicago in 1901, Walt Disney was the fourth of five children of Elias Disney, a failed but ever-hopeful farmer/businessman/carpenter. Concerns about Chicago lawlessness prompted the family’s move to Marceline and another go at farming in 1906.
The 40-acre farm lasted 5½ years; the Disneys then moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where Elias and sons Walt and Roy (eight years older than Walt) delivered newspapers. Walt learned cartooning, eventually became a commercial illustrator. He pursued cartoon animation and moved to Hollywood in 1923. Mickey Mouse came along in 1928.
Marceline was on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and a layover point on the route between Los Angeles and Chicago. Passing through, the successful Walt Disney would get off and revisit Kansas Avenue.
He did some filming there during a 1948 visit, but his first formal return came on Fourth of July weekend in 1956 for the dedication of a park and swimming pool named after him. He was accompanied by his wife, Lillian; Roy Disney, and Roy’s wife.
This was a year after Walt expanded into television with “The Mickey Mouse Club” and into amusement parks with Disneyland. The Disney brothers wanted to unwind and see old stomping grounds.
But unlike the Hotel Marceline façade on Disneyland’s Main Street, the hotel in Marceline was run-down and without air conditioning. Walt and his wife were instead lodged in the new house of local businessman Rush Johnson, where they occupied an 8-year-old daughter’s bedroom. The visit went well.
Walt returned in 1960 — again staying with the Johnson family — when Marceline’s new elementary school was named after him.
Walt’s people had designed it and decorated it with Disney-character murals; the library was given copies of every Disney-produced educational book and film; Disney provided every classroom with a set of Encyclopedia Britannica.
But Walt’s nostalgia was tempered by seeing how modern times were changing small-town and rural life.
He had the idea of creating an attraction honoring that disappearing time. Henry Ford had done this with Greenfield Village, in Michigan. Walt Disney, with his Mouse millions, would now do the same in Marceline.
It would be, Disney knew, an off-the-beaten-track labor of love. In his rough sketches — on display at the museum — he envisioned a fishing lake, a barn dance attraction and various bucolic draws.
There was to be a hotel and re-creations of an old-time butcher shop, barbershop, a general store, haberdashery, pool hall, an old service station and a coal mine. Activities for kids included a “buggy train, miniature golf and a horseshoes area.” The park would be built around the old Disney home place.
At the time, Walt Disney Productions was scouting Florida — not Missouri — for a lucrative second theme park. Disney was also aware that word of his interest in Marceline property would make its cost skyrocket. Through a personal corporation, Retlaw (“Walter,” spelled backward), Rush Johnson was authorized to quietly buy the old Disney place and adjacent properties. Retlaw purchased 200 acres, with options on 500 more.
The project came to a halt when Walt Disney died in 1966. Although he wanted his brother/partner to proceed with the “Marceline Project,” the massive Walt Disney World project in Orlando consumed Roy Disney’s last years. Walt’s Marceline idea was abandoned in the early 1970s.
What to see
You can get the vibe of Marceline at lunchtime at Ma Vic’s Corner Café, known for its chili and a signature dessert — a sundae-like concoction called “The Dusty Miller.” It’s on Kansas Avenue. Close by is Ripley Park, where pop Elias Disney, said to be a fine fiddle player, would play in band concerts in the early 1900s.
The 10,000-square-foot museum, hugging Marceline’s train tracks a block away, is a spruced up two-story with displays about the Disney brood that lived there long ago.
Exhibits offer homespun insights on the lives of inseparable brothers Walt and Roy. Holdings range from family letters and Elias Disney’s carpentry tools to 1930s Mickey dolls and a car from Autopia, an early ride at Disneyland that Walt donated to Marceline.
A permanent exhibit on the second floor goes into details of the abortive Marceline Project.
Flyers provided at the museum show where to find Disney-related sites in the area.
Among them is the Disney Farm, open to the public. It includes a reproduction of the long-gone barn, based on a copy Walt had built on his California estate from blueprints of the Marceline original. (Farm boy Walt, according to local lore, was an adept hog rider.)
Near it is a 40-foot tree, an offshoot of the large, long-gone cottonwood young Walt called his “Dreaming Tree” where he would retreat to let his mind wander.
It is near the old Disney homeplace. When Rush Johnson sold off the Retlaw holdings after the Marceline project collapsed, he bought the original Disney 40 acres. The venerable Disney house still stands, now cocooned among additions. It is where Johnson’s daughter — current owner Kaye Malins — raised her family.
The museum director’s most enduring memory of the famous guest who slept in her pink bedroom in 1956 at her parents’ home, located elsewhere in Marceline: “When I talked with him, I felt he was listening to me.”
Walt Disney Hometown Museum, 120 E. Santa Fe Ave., Marceline, MO 64658