Walt Disney encapsulated the American dream of a small-town boy who makes good. Today his name and his characters are universally famous. Walt's films and television shows have delighted billions, and in 2019 global visitors to Disney parks topped 155.991 million. People come for a sprinkling of Walt’s pixie dust, those unexpected magical moments that happen during a Disney trip, but there are other historic and more personalized places to celebrate Disney’s incredible legacy, too.
1. Walt Disney’s Birthplace: Chicago
America is fortunate to have Walt Disney’s birthplace still standing. Walter Elias Disney was born on Dec. 5, 1901, in a bedroom on the upper floor of his family home at the corner of Tripp Avenue and Palmer Street in Chicago. Walt’s father Elias built the house based on plans drawn up by his wife, Flora. He had also built the local church and other houses on the working-class street. The Disneys were a creative family who got things done.
Over a century later, Dina Benadon and Brent Young bought Walt Disney’s birthplace in 2013 and went on to restore the property so tourists can view its exterior. The couple, who owns the animation company Super 78, is now working on an experiential museum that will immerse visitors in the same sights and sounds the Disney family experienced over a century ago. The museum is dedicated to Walt Disney’s realization of the American Dream, “If you can dream it you can do it,” and the role of childhood creativity in fulfilling dreams.
Pro Tip: Follow their progress on Facebook.
2. Marceline, Missouri
The Disneys left Chicago and lived in Marceline from 1906 until 1911 so their five children could experience growing up in a rural environment. Those formative years in a small-town setting provided Walt with his happiest childhood memories. In 1938 he wrote in The Marceline News, “More things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since -- or are likely to in the future.”
The town's motto became “Where Walt found the Magic,'' and while the population is just over 2,000 there is a liberal sprinkling of Walt's magic in town. Walt took inspiration from Marceline’s Main Street in creating Disneyland’s Main Street USA, even calling Disneyland’s candy shop Marceline’s Confectionery.
Marceline townsfolk have rebuilt a replica of the Disney Farm's barn where the young Walt staged his first theatrical production -- dressing up farm animals in toddlers’ clothes and charging friends a dime to see them. Today, the barn is covered in thousands of notes, verses, and signatures from visitors from all over the world.
Walt’s life-long obsession with trains began in Marceline as it was a railway town, and 70 trains whistled through each day. Walt would put his ear to the rail to listen so he would have advanced warning and not miss a wave from his uncle Mike Martin, a Santa Fe Railroad engineer, who might be on board. The Walt Disney Hometown Museum is in the old train depot. The museum was established in 2001 to celebrate Walt’s 100th birthday and focuses on Disney's childhood and his enduring ties to this area.
Pro Tips: Bring a Sharpie to write your message in the barn. Hotel Marceline has Disney- themed rooms, and Marceline is among our picks for the best stops on Missouri Highway 36: America’s Genius Highway, meaning it makes for a great Midwest road trip destination.
3. Griffith Park, Los Angeles
In the 1920s, the struggling filmmaker lived with his wife and daughters in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles before moving to Holmby Hills. On Saturdays, Walt took his daughters to Griffith Park where he would sit on a bench and watch them ride on the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round. Seeing their looks of glee set him musing about a tourist park where all families could find their happy place. The carousel still operates and the four-minute rides cost $2 -- or watch and listen to the band organ while sitting on the same bench where Walt was inspired to create Disneyland.
Walt built a railroad in his backyard with a 90-foot tunnel under his wife’s flower garden! He housed his rolling stock and control center in the Marceline-style barn that he also built. Walt’s daughter Diane led the efforts to save Walt’s barn after the family home in Holmby Hills was sold. Many of Walt’s admirers consider the barn as the birthplace of Imagineering -- where imagination merged with engineering. The Carolwood Pacific Historical Society dismantled the barn and relocated it for preservation in Griffith Park. Walt’s Barn contains his original workbenches and train memorabilia and is open on the third Sunday of every month from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Walt was a charter member of the LA Live Steamers, who continue to run miniature train rides nearby every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
4. Tam O’Shanter, Los Angeles
During the 1920s and ’30s, Walt’s regular lunch spot was the Tam O'Shanter. Harry Oliver, a Hollywood art director (famous for the Beverly Hills Witch’s House), designed the restaurant in the storybook architectural style that was in vogue in the ’20s. Many people claim the restaurant inspired the dwarfs' cottage in Walt’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Despite outward changes, the Tam’s interior still resembles a Scottish cottage with low ceilings, wooden beams, and stucco walls. These walls are covered with Walt’s animation art and historic photographs. Reserve Walt’s favorite table, #31, which is near the fire.
Walt sketched on the beverage napkins, and some of these drawings have been carved into his table. Order his favorite dish, Toad In The Hole -- filet mignon, mushrooms, onions, and Guinness gravy enveloped in a Yorkshire pudding. Eat in the bar for cheaper meals if you only wish to soak up the atmosphere. Walt Disney died of lung cancer in 1966. Pay your respects at his memorial at the Forest Lawn Memorial-Park a six-minute drive from the Tam O’Shanter.
Pro Tip: To locate Disney’s memorial use the website Find A Grave.
5. Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles
It is fun to look for Walt Disney’s many stars embedded in the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Disney has two stars -- one for his accomplishments in film and the other for television, but many of the characters he created, including Mickey Mouse and Minnie, have their own stars, too. Visit the nearby El Capitan Theatre, opposite the well-known Chinese Theatre. Tourists can join pre-cinema tours of this grand 1926 building, watch the latest Disney releases, or, on Throwback Thursdays, watch classic Disney or join sing-alongs with classics such as Mary Poppins and Frozen.
Editor’s Note: While you’re in Hollywood, don’t miss these 10 best places to see the Hollywood sign.
6. Disney Family Museum, San Francisco
Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, founded the Walt Disney Family Museum with its displays of memorabilia from her father’s life. View photos, mementos, and storyboard and animation cells, and learn the history of Mickey Mouse. See the Lilly Belle locomotive, which Walt named in honor of his wife, that once ran around their backyard. Marvel at perhaps the most distinctive Oscar ever awarded -- it was for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and had a full-size Oscar surrounded by seven miniatures
An hour away in the Napa Valley is the Silverado Vineyards, the winery founded in 1981 by Walt’s wife, Lillian, daughter Diane, and son-in-law Ron who was CEO of the Walt Disney Co. until 1984. Walt’s admirers find it interesting to see where his family entered the next chapter of their lives. There is no direct connection to the Disney corporation, but the winery has the Disney stamp of being an enchanting place to visit.
7. Smithsonian National Museum Of American History, Washington, D.C.
My heart took a twirl when I walked into the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and saw Disneyland’s original Dumbo the Flying Elephant and Mad Tea Party rides. Anyone from my generation is likely to feel similar tugs to their heartstrings when they spot items such as original Disneyland tickets, souvenir books, and Mouseketeer hats. While there are lots of memorabilia in the other museums mentioned in this story, there is something special about seeing Disney’s legacy enshrined in a national museum that aims to represent the collective consciousness by collecting only the most meaningful pieces of Americana. From the very beginning, Disney communicated American values of freedom and optimism -- and this is one of the reasons millions of families have traveled from virtually every country in the world to experience Walt Disney’s incredible legacy.
Editor’s Note: See our source for the Disney park attendance information presented in the first paragraph of this article here.