It was December 1966. I was 5 years old, and my mother told me Walt Disney had died. I remember going out to our side yard and wandering around feeling a little lost. I know I didn’t really understand what death was at that age, but I knew something precious had been lost never to be found again.
Of course, I didn’t know Walt Disney and yet he had been a part of my life every Sunday night for as far back as I can remember. He hosted what I remember, being called, The Wonderful World of Color. We didn’t have a color TV set yet, but those shows were wonderful. Walt led us into the deepest parts of our imaginations and taught us the about the natural world on those Sunday nights. He was woven into my generations DNA, and I believe I am the better for it.
Walt Disney, his television shows, his movies, his music his cartoons, his toys and his theme parks have played a huge part in my life. They are part of what makes me who I am, and they help sustain me in the tough times.
It has been 55 years since Walt Disney died and yet his philosophy and his work lives on. It has been in danger of being lost and sometimes the quality of what was produced was not always great. The 1980s were a tough time for The Disney Studio but somehow it always comes back. Disney always finds a way to fly again.
I think my first Disney film that I was taken to Was Mary Poppins. Now I’m not sure I saw the original release as I was three when the movie debuted. But back in the 1960s a movie could play at theaters for a couple of years or make the rounds to different theaters. The Sound of Music was running well into the 1970s from its initial 1966 release. Movies don’t do that today. I believe I was probably about 5 years old when I was taken to Mary Poppins, and I fell in love with a wonderful Nanny that could fly with a umbrella and walk up the smoke that came out of chimneys. Oh, and lest I forget, cleaning out your room with a snap of your fingers was awesome too. One thing I disliked doing was cleaning my room.
Fun fact: Julie Andrews was given a song in Mary Poppins that she didn’t much care for. The Sherman brothers, Richard, and Robert, decided to write a new song for her to take its place. When, I believe it was Richard, got home from work that day his daughter came in from school and he asked her about her day. She told him that they had received the polio vaccine on a small sugar cube. That was all he needed. He got in touch with his brother and soon A Spoonful of Sugar was written. It didn’t become a radio standard but it’s part of what we like to refer as The Great American Songbook.
In reflection it’s a little funny to me that back then children and adults took a vaccine without question. Everyone knew what polio could do and they were eager to remain healthy. Now today I don’t think a child could be given a vaccine at school and some parents don’t allow their children to get the childhood vaccines that are necessary. Then there is the resistance of people to take the vaccine that could save their lives right now as we face a worldwide pandemic. With the last important vaccine, we got a song. What will get from what we have now?
Another fun fact about Mary Poppins. Richard and Robert Sherman were the only composer and lyricist ever to be given offices at The Walt Disney Studio. After Mary Poppins was released when Walt was feeling down, he would call the brothers in to play Feed the Birds, another iconic song from the film. Mary Poppins had some stiff competition at The Academy Awards that year. It was competing against My Fair Lady. And though My Fair Lady would win for best picture. Mary Poppins took best actress, Julie Andrews, and best song which was Chim Chim Cheree. I always thought that was kind of funny as in my opinion that was the weakest song in the film.
Disney continued to delight, entertain, and educate me as the years went by. Films like The Jungle Book would follow and Bed knobs and Broomsticks, with the great Angela Lansbury, The Love Bug and The Winnie the Pooh shorts.
When Disney first acquired the rights to do Winnie the Pooh it was originally thought of as a full-length film. When the film was completed, Walt insisted that the movie be cut into shorts and would be shown before a full-length Disney feature. The film was broken down into Winnie the Pooh and The Honey Tree and Winnie the Pooh and The Blustery day. I know I saw both on the big screen when they came out. But I only remember that I saw Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day with my mother before seeing The Love Bug. In 1977 Disney released the full film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Putting those shorts back together.
That’s something else that needs explaining. Back in the 60s and into the 70s when you went to the movies you didn’t go to see just one thing like today. There was always a cartoon or a short documentary first. With most movies it was a Bugs Bunny Cartoon, but with a Disney Film you could never know what you might get but it was always good. They even had double features where you would see two movies for the price of one. I remember going to see a double feature Of Yours Mine and Ours and The Yellow Submarine with my family at a Drive In. I was asleep before The Yellow Submarine got under way.
The Disney Studio had a policy with its animated movies to release them every seven years. I was nine when Peter Pan was released again. The film made its debut in 1953 and was magical from the start. Of course, Tinker Bell became a Disney Icon opening all his television shows, I knew her well, but not so much Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up.
Peter Pan changed me somehow. It awoke in me a spirit of adventure that I never really knew I had before. I went from playing cops and robbers and Cowboys and Indians to playing Peter Pan and the lost boys and I was Peter. We had a creek across the street from the house I grew up in and at places the creek had banks that were four or five feet high. That was good enough to become my home underground, like Peter’s. A little way up the street there was a tree that was easy to climb and where you couldn’t be seen in the leaves that was my place to fly to. When things got bad for me in one way or another, I would wish fervently that Peter would come and take me to Neverland.
In The Bible we read Jesus saying that “Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” I think that’s the great lesson of Peter Pan. We don’t have to grow up completely we can keep the child inside of us alive and be filled with living in the present moment, finding joy in the sound water makes in a creek or stream, or being happy with simple things. I remember when a refrigerator box gave me more pleasure than the most expensive toys. The toy could only be one thing. That box could be anything. Maybe we surround ourselves with all of our adult to toys because we are lookiing for an empty box.
It was about this time that my cousin Maryann and her husband Chuck were moving to California, eventually settling in San Jose. (yes, I am proud to say my cousin can answer the age old question, “Do you know the way to San Jose?) The important thing was they were moving to the state that had Disneyland.
Disneyland was my big hope back in those days. But there were six of us in the family and a trip across the country was out of the question. We went on vacations. We had great times down the shore in Wildwood NJ and twice to Canada. We were even taken To Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, but it was no Disneyland. The reason I bring this up is because Maryanne had a younger sister, Diane, in the year that Maryann and Chuck lived in California My Aunt Mary and Uncle Steve along with Diane went to visit.
A trip by plane anywhere in those days was a big deal in our family and all of us went to the airport to see them off. And all of us was a lot. My grandmother my parents, myself and my brother and sisters and my other aunts, uncles, and cousins. I knew that they were going to Disneyland and asked my cousin, more like pleaded with her, to get me Peter Pan’s autograph. I knew he was there I saw him there on TV. They came back and my cousin had no autograph for me. She told me that Peter was played by a woman in the park, and she didn’t think I would want it. I was terribly disappointed. To this day on my trips to Disney World, where I know for a fact Peter is a boy I still hope for an autograph or at the very least a picture with my hero, but it has yet to happen.
This was the early 70s and Disney magic still filled our lives. Angela Lansbury would play her first part for Disney in the wonderful Bed knobs and Broomsticks. I spent many nights dreaming that I had a magic bed that could take me anywhere I wanted to go, and where did I go on those imaginary flights? Disney World, of course.
!971 brought us Disney World. This was a project that Walt himself had started before he passed away. He secretly acquired the land in Florida and then made promotional films. He unfortunately never saw Disney World completed, but he walked the grounds and imagined where everything would be. Those dreams were kept alive by Walt’s brother Roy who put off his retirement until Disney World could be completed.
It was the summer after my sixth-grade year, 1973, that my mom, dad and my sister Susan and I went to Disney World. 12 years old is the perfect time to be in Magic Kingdom. You are old enough to appreciate it and not old enough to become cynical like most teenagers do. I enjoyed every minute of that trip. The first time I saw Cinderella Castle I knew I had found my special place in some ways I had come home.
My friend Brad, who is a pastor, told me long ago that we all have sacred places. Those places are unique to us and the to the way God had made us. For some people it is great churches and cathedrals. For other people that sacredness is found high in the mountains or the ocean shore. Though I have felt the sacredness by the ocean I feel very close to God standing outside Cinderella Castle and looking up at the towering spires. Maybe it’s because as a Christian I know I am part of The Kingdom or God and I’m sure that His Kingdom is filled with such fairy tale palaces. Or maybe its’s because in that spot reality and fantasy bend and become one, and one day I believe that my faith in the things I cannot see and the reality that I live in now will also become one. I will see and know God and His son Jesus and The Holy Spirit as they really are. In my own head that all comes together in Disney World.
The 70s turned into the 80s and part of me did grow up and part of me got a little cynical. We went back to Disney World in 1976 and I still thoroughly loved that trip, but something had changed. I wasn’t going to many Disney movies now. I put most of the childhood stuff away and had to get through junior and senior high school. Those years were hard for me. They are for most of us, and I had a hard time figuring out who I was. I fell in love with other things during that time. Movie musicals and stage shows as well as other activities. My interest in Disney waned until 1991.
In 1991 Disney released the second of it’s renaissance movies Beauty and the Beast. The first of these films was The Little Mermaid. I hadn’t seen that. In fact, I avoided it. Disney’s animated films of the 1980s were lack luster and I figured The Little Mermaid would just be more of the same. I was completely mistaken, of course, and found that out when I watched the film for the first time at my friend’s Manny’s house. I was living with him and his family at the time in Syracuse NY which is where I would also see Beauty and the Beast.
In the animated film the character of Mrs. Potts was played by Angela Lansbury. Sometime, before the film was released, in a Disney special on TV, as the finale, Miss Lansbury appeared in a beautiful gown, with a full orchestra and sang the title song. Disney magic was 100% back in that song.
I remember seeing the film for the first time and being blown away by the incredible animation that was being played out before my eyes. This film rivaled anything that Broadway or MGM ever produced. Every member of the voice cast was perfect and well suited to the roles. The scene of the dance in the dining hall took your breath away as much as when the king sweeps Anna up in his arms to dance in The King and I. It would be years later in 2020 after Disney World restructured Fantasyland that I would I have a chance to eat in that dining hall in the Be Our Guest restaurant. That was magical too. Sitting there with my good friend and Disney Buddy, Pam, enjoying an amazing meal in place that looked exactly the animated film. Disney had made magic come to life.
After Beauty and The Beast almost every Disney movie was a treat. I’m not die hard, I didn’t like all of them but most of them yes, absolutely. Aladdin, Tarzan, Toy Story, James and the Gian Peach, and more recently, the live action remake of Cinderella, Mary Poppins Returns and the live action Beauty and the Beast which opened on my birthday in 2017 all continued to bring magic to my life.
I am very lucky and blessed in my friend Pam who lives in Florida. I would be blessed to know her wherever she lived but we are both fans of Disney and the last time I was in Disney World she spent much time with me making my trip extra special. She also allowed me to talk and dream and she allowed me to be me and that is the greatest gift anyone can give another person. That was February of 2020 after I returned form that trip Covid 19 struck and paralyzed the world. Disney World shut down and the movie theaters shut down, but Disney helped rescue us during this time with their new streaming service Disney+, that not only gave us a great portion of the Disney Movie and TV show catalogue but also gave us Broadway’s Hamilton to watch in our homes with the original cast.
I would be remiss in not mentioning my niece Melissa, her husband Chris and their kids Caitlyn, Dominic and Joseph. They are a whole family of Disney fans and do many Disney things together. We swap stories, pictures and recipes, especially for the famous Disney Parks Dole Whip and the Strawberry Soup at the Grand Floridian Resort on the Disney World property. Disney is in my DNA and that gene got passed down.
In the 1980s my boss Barb had us watch the film version of a book called In Search of Excellence. Part of the film focused on the Disney company and their philosophy for work. No one in the parks is an employee. They are all cast members expected to play a part as long as they are at work. Once they start their jobs they are on stage and must play the character they are assigned whether it be a hostess or a dishwasher as if they are in front of an audience. No attitude, a constant smile, no guest in a Disney owned business is ever to see a cast member in any thing but a good mood. I was a dialysis technician at the time and decided it would be a good idea to adapt this philosophy as my own. I’m an amateur actor, so developing a work character for myself was a joy. I’m not saying I was perfect at this. I had bad days and messed up more than once, but I think over all I became better at my job because I believed that my patients were better served by a happy smiling me than a grumpy me. I tried to keep that work philosophy wherever I worked, and it has served me well.
There is so much more I could say about Disney. We got our first dog, Lightning, a dalmatian, after my seeing 101 Dalmatians. There were other trips to Disney World, and I left out adventures in Epcot and Animal Kingdom. There are wonderful movies that I didn’t mention like The Happiest Millionaire and The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh both of which I hope you take the time to find and watch. There is The Disney Channel that appeared on cable networks in the 80s but also imported a wonderful stop action animated television show from England, The Wind in the Willows, that show gave me hours of entertainment and also introduced to the breat children’s classic book by Kenneth Graham. There is the fact that Disney now owns both Marvel Comics and The Star Wars franchise and has given us all so many new adventures over the last dozen years, and lastly Disney magic brought to New York City where they bought and refurbished many run-down theaters that were close to 100 years old so they could bring Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Mary Poppins to the stage. Disney Magic in a whole new medium.
Walt Disney is quoted as saying “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them”. I am now 60 years old and find myself reinventing me. I’m doing this blog which is new, I’m working on a book and I’m working on some other surprises for the near future. At 60 I feel like a 30-year-old with a lot of experience. I have something left to give to this world and as long as I live, I hope I have the opportunity to give it. I believe that’s what Walt would do.