I'm standing in the middle of Main Street U.S.A., and I'm a little weirded out. This -- Marceline, Mo. -- was the inspiration for the Happiest Place on Earth? Groggiest Place on Earth, maybe.
There isn't a soul anywhere on the town's vaguely familiar main thoroughfare. Sure, a dearth of warm bodies in a blue-collar farming village of only 2,500 isn't exactly cause for alarm, but still: nobody?
What's even more puzzling is the lack of signage, of HE-LIVED-HERE bragging. I spot a dinky pair of mouse ears on a street sign, but that's about it.
Why isn't Marceline boasting about its most famous son, one of the most significant pop culture icons of the 20th century? Midwestern humility is one thing; keeping mum about being Walt Disney's boyhood home is another.
C'mon, Marceline! Show some swagger! After all, the town in "The Lady and the Tramp" is modeled after you. When Disney was planning his first theme park, he told designers he wanted the entrance to look like you. He believed that his imagination started here, what he considered in retrospect the very heart of American innocence. Marceline, you begat Disneyland, for crying out loud!
As rain starts to fall, I pick up my pace along Main Street. I'm looking for the Uptown Theatre, where Disney premiered 1956's "The Great Locomotive Chase." I want to see the 35mm projector that Walt used; it's supposedly still cranking today.
As I walk, I start to hum a Disney song, the one that plays every other night when my daughters pick a flick to watch.
Then I realize I'm actually humming along to the song. It's not just in my head. It's in the drizzly air:
Drip, drip, drop
Little April shower
Beating a tune
As you fall all around
Yep, "Little April Shower" from "Bambi." The tinkly lullaby is gamboling from a lone, tinny speaker high on a telephone pole.
It's not immediately easy to find traces of Disney pride or Walt's life in Marceline, but talk to the right people, and the decidedly untouristy town opens up in fantastic ways. They'll point you to a great museum, a cool school, a special barn.
And, ultimately, they'll guide you to the hallowed Dreaming Tree -- perhaps ground zero for Walt Disney's creative genius, where a certain budding animator would sit for hours, watching critters scamper in the grass. He called it "belly botany," and it would change everything.
Disney World is packed this weekend. So is Disneyland. But Marceline, Mo., the ultimate offbeat travel destination for only the most diehard of Disneyphiles, is quaint, quiet, empty. It could have been different. For a time, Walt Disney wanted to turn his hometown into a tourist attraction; he called it the "Marceline Project." But alas, for various reasons, it never came to be.
Disney never forgot Marceline, but sometimes it seems that everyone else has. Each year, Kaye Malins, who runs the lovingly detailed Walt Disney Hometown Museum, petitions Amtrak to add a Marceline stop. Maybe they could even build a depot like the one in 1906, when Elias and Flora Disney, fearing the influence of Chicago on their children, disembarked from the Santa Fe Line with four sons and a daughter in tow.
Four short years after arriving in Marceline, Elias became sick and unable to farm, and the Disney clan moved on to Kansas City. But for Walt, who was 8 when he left, that would be more than enough time to form an everlasting impression.
"He knew it was Marceline where he found the magic of his life," says Malins, 62.
Malins is Marceline's chief Disney historian, promoter, host. She often flies to Orlando and Anaheim to give talks to Disney artists about Walt's Marceline roots. Today, she's giving that same spiel to a busload of Iowa tourists mingling in the museum, which, since its opening in 2001, is housed in a defunct train depot built in 1913, or three years after the Disneys hightailed it to K.C. As Malins tells the story, which turns out to be very much her story, too, many of the tourists sniffle and blot tears. Disney does that to people.
The museum's most cherished piece is a school desk into which a "WD" was mischievously carved not once, but twice. There are also dozens of rare black-and-white snaps of Walt as both a young man of Marceline and as an older man, an icon, returning to his hometown, which he did three times.
Lookee here: In 1946, 36 years after leaving, Disney returned home to gather conceptual ideas for Disneyland. Walt and his wife, Lillian, needed a place to stay while in town, so Council Member Rush Johnson and his wife, Inez, plus their 4-year-old son, Kent, and 8-year-old daughter, Kaye (now Kaye Malins -- yep, it's a small world after all) offered up their ranch home, mainly because it was one of the few in town that had air-conditioning.
Malins remembers staring up at the tall, mustachioed stranger in her home and recommending he stay in her room, the pink one.
Malins points to another picture: In '56, Disney and brother Roy (forever the money man behind Walt's whims) returned for the dedication of the Walt Disney Pool and Park Complex, which is still around today, although looking rough. They also staged that premiere of "The Great Locomotive Chase" at the Uptown Theatre, which, besides becoming a bed and breakfast, has also become a mecca for animators. Pete Docter, the Minnesota-born director of "Monsters Inc.," drew one-eyed Mike Wazowski on a bedroom wall. You can rent that room for cheap.
In 1960, Disney returned, for the third and last time, for the dedication of the Walt Disney Elementary School. He sent studio artist Bob Moore to draw murals in the lobby, in the hall, in a multipurpose room; they still exist today -- Gus and Jaq from "Cinderella," Pecos Bill, Peter Pan and more.
In 1966, Walt was scheduled to return again for perhaps his greatest hometown moment, the merging of youthful dreams and adult ambition. For that story, Malins leads her guests into a small room off the lobby and stands in front of a small green car.
It was called Midget Autopia, a silly little car-driving attraction at Disneyland, a precursor to the Tomorrowland Indy Speedway. And one day Disney decided to move it to unassuming Marceline, a high-tech gizmo dropped into a town that preferred real cows to animatronic ones.
Disney loved the idea and thus, so did Marceline. Days before the unveiling, however, Walt sent old friend Rush Johnson a letter. Kaye's dad delivered the bad news: Disney had a cough he couldn't shake. He'd miss the ceremony but promised to come to Marceline as soon as he was feeling better. The letter is there for all to read.
Three months later, on Dec. 15, 1966, Disney, a lifelong smoker, died from lung cancer. He was 65.
The Midget Autopia ride operated for 11 years in Marceline; it remains the only Disney ride to ever be moved elsewhere. Without Walt's direct involvement, the cars eventually broke down, fell apart. Soon there was nothing left but a few inoperable memories. And with that, a misty-eyed Malins motions to the small green car behind her.
Waterworks, I tell you.
I have three more stops to make. One is Disney's actual house, which Walt, in his first burst of artistic check-this-out, once decorated with black pitch. "I wasn't thanked by the family for my efforts," he later said.
Over the years, the little white house has been expanded, modernized, painted red. It's now a private residence adorned with a historical marker and a bench.
A few hundred yards down the road from the house is a small parking area. There is a path leading into a thicket of trees, at the end of which you'll find a barn, a replica of the one owned by the Disneys in 1906. Guests are encouraged to sign the beams. And they do, thousands of wishes and thanks: "If it wasn't for Walt, we'd have never met, married and had 3 beautiful boys." And: "Walt, thanks for saving my life with the magic of your dreams when I had none left of my own."
Next to the barn is my last and best stop in Marceline, that Dreaming Tree, the inspirational cottonwood tree that fired Disney's prepubescent imagination. When he returned to Marceline on those three occasions, he'd ask for a few hours of alone time under the Dreaming Tree. What he thought of then, no one knows.
A few years ago, the Dreaming Tree was struck by lightning. Splinters and branches are strewn everywhere; it's looking haunted, sad. But arborists tried to salvage its seeds before it died.
They did a good job.
Now, across a big beautiful field in Marceline -- once a universe in itself for young, impressionable Walt Disney -- small cottonwood saplings are growing strong, little dreamers gulping up those little April showers.