So your daughter runs around in Disney Princess costumes and wishes upon a star every night. Your son secretly thinks that he looks like Johnny Depp when he lunges about the house with his cardboard sword, humming "The Pirates of the Caribbean" theme song. Both your kids are clamoring for a change of scenery, but you assume that family finances dictate that none of you will be wearing mouse ears for some time to come. Is there any destination close enough to Springfield for a weekend jaunt that will be magical enough to satisfy your Disney-crazed offspring and yet won't put too big of a strain on the family budget?
Look no further than the small northern Missouri town of Marceline, just 190 miles west of Springfield. Marceline's motto is "Experience the Magic." Though the common assertion among Disney geeks is that "it all started with a mouse," the magic actually all began in Marceline ... underneath Walt's Dreaming Tree.
Walt was not quite 5 years old and living with his parents, Elias and Flora, and four siblings in a crime-ridden area of Chicago. Walt didn't see too many cute little mice in those days.
Elias Disney, who was a "rolling stone" throughout his life, decided to get his kids away from the influences of the city by moving his family to a more peaceful, rural area. Elias' brother, Robert, owned property in Marceline, Mo., and encouraged Elias to buy 45 acres of farmland from him.
The train ride in 1906 from Chicago to Marceline started a lifetime fascination with trains for Disney, and the same "clickety-clack" sound that he heard as a youngster can be heard on the train rides in the Disney parks. Walt was later enraptured by the nearly nonstop train traffic that went through his adopted town. And whenever Walt returned to Marceline as an adult, he always arrived by rail.
After spending his earliest childhood years in the rough and gritty urban landscape of Chicago, Walt was at home. Forever after, he thought of Marceline as his idyllic "Happy Place."
Four years later, when Walt's parents sold the farm and uprooted the family again (this time, to move to the harsher conditions of Kansas City, where Walt was expected to earn a living to help support the family at the tender age of 9), all the farm animals that had become the children's beloved pets were sold at an auction to the highest bidder. Walt watched as the successful bidders led his pets off.
Flash forward to 1956, when the town's Walt Disney Municipal Park and Walt Disney Municipal Pool were dedicated, and Walt himself came back to Marceline to deliver the dedication speech. While he was in town, he visited the farm where he'd spent so many happy hours.
Today, it is readily apparent that Walt Disney's spirit has never left Marceline. The Dreaming Tree (where Walt would sketch) is still there, and Walt's barn (where he put on his first shows, using farm cats as circus animals - the neighbor children were not impressed) was rebuilt by townspeople in 2001 to exactly replicate the original, complete with the swayback roof that Baby Boomers will remember from their Mouseketeer days. The farmhouse where he lived is occupied by Kaye Malins, who knew Walt personally when she was a child and who is staunchly dedicated to keeping his flame glowing in the town he loved.
The first blueprints of Disneyland show a remarkable resemblance to downtown Marceline, with its storefronts on Main Street and the trains coming and going. In fact, a visitor to Marceline's Main Street, with its mouse-ear-topped light poles, might have a hard time not believing that he's on Main Street USA in one of the Disney theme parks. Disney even used the Zurcher Building on Marceline's Main Street as the model for his Coca-Cola building at Disneyland.
According to Kaye, Walt Disney had a dream that not too many people knew about, one that hadn't yet reached fruition in his lifetime. Walt made several trips back to Marceline to confer with Kaye's father, Rush Johnson, about establishing a living history farm at the site of Disney's old home. Privately, Johnson acted as Disney's intermediary, helping him to buy up pieces of the property. But in 1966, Walt died suddenly at the age of 65, and the dream seemed to fade away.
But Walt's initial inspiration seems to have spurred the town on to even greater dreams. Today you can bring your kids to see the place where, according to Disney, "more things of importance happened to me ... than have happened since - or are likely to in the future." The Walt Disney Hometown Museum, housed in the restored Santa Fe Depot that Walt loved, contains hundreds of letters written between Disney family members, artifacts and personal belongings of the Disneys (including Mickey Mouse dolls and a phonographic record that Walt had produced for his parents' 50th wedding anniversary), and one of the cars from the Disneyland theme-park ride Midget Autopia, which had originally been donated by Walt Disney (in operating condition) to the children of Marceline. Zealous volunteers serve as interpretive guides of the museum, and "bring the master storyteller alive" right before your eyes as they tell his story through words and pictures.
If you've ever secretly longed for a flask of pixie dust, you'll feel a thrill of excitement when you make the pilgrimage to this tiny town to pay tribute to the world's ultimate dreamer. Imagine an elementary school - Walt Disney Elementary, of course, dedicated by the famous hometown boy himself - where the 2009-10 supply list painstakingly orders kindergarteners to bring such mundane items as Elmer's glue, scissors and Clorox wipes, but whose walls are filled with colorful drawings of all the famous Disney cartoon characters produced by Walt's Hollywood Studio artists. Imagine a desk enshrined in that school, where young Walt sat as a daydreaming child and carved his initials. Imagine a Santa Fe locomotive and caboose, bearing the name "Santa Fe & Disneyland Railway," standing proudly in the local park. Imagine a U.S. Post Office that was renamed the Walt Disney Post Office.
The old Uptown Theatre, built in 1930, which hosted two Disney world premieres (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto, Goofy and Chip 'n Dale came to Marceline for the premiere of "The Spirit of Mickey" in 1998), and still shows first-run feature films with its original antique projector, houses a bed and breakfast upstairs, where absolutely everything in the spacious suites - from the Mickey telephones to the mouse-eared knives and forks in the cutlery drawers - is Disney-themed.
Homespun antique shops in the downtown area will appeal to adult shopaholics. One of the best is Magnolia Antiques, with its Victorian souvenirs and funky collectibles, as well as quality authorized Disney merchandise.
The North Missouri Arts Center has an impressive art gallery on Main Street. If you time your weekend getaway correctly, you can even attend an artist's reception. Susie's Place serves fabulous catfish dinners on Friday nights. If you're visiting Marceline on a girlfriends' getaway trip, you'll also need to know that Headlines Salon & Spa gives wonderful pedicures and has warm, vibrating chairs.
And one more thing you need to know about Marceline, Mo. The townsfolk there are downright friendly. In fact, the heartfelt hospitality one encounters in every shop and on every street corner can leave a Springfield native feeling rather flustered. Even (gulp) teenagers wave at you as you drive by. They don't know who you are, but they smile and they wave.
It's enough to make this writer believe in fairy tales and pixie dust. And, you know what? Dreams really do come true.
On the third Saturday in September, Marceline hosts an annual Toonfest, a weekend celebration of Walt's favorite medium. Famous cartoon artists and their fans converge on the city, and there are Yellow Creek Pirates' festivities, as well as Princess' Tea Parties and a Bangles, Bobbles, and Beads Boutique, complete with Fairy Godmothers-in-Waiting. (Your little Disney Dreamer will be ecstatic.) You can even enter an Apple Pie Baking Contest. What could be more homespun than that?
The Walt Disney Hometown Museum is open from April 1 to October 31, so you'd better put on your Tinkerbell wings and get there fast!
For more information, visit www.waltdisneymuseum.org, or call 660-376-3343.
Story published Friday, September 4, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 5 )