Trace Walt Disney's Footsteps Through Time on This Nostalgic Road Trip
This drive through Illinois, Missouri, and California logs just as many facts about Walt Disney as it does miles.
Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.
Most Disney fans know that Walt Disney once famously said, “I only hope we never lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.”
The truth is, though, it all started with the man behind the mouse – a young boy named Walt who was born and raised in the Midwest. Disney fans have long been fascinated by Walt’s life, searching for clues as to how this one man could have dreamt up the cartoons, characters, and theme parks that so profoundly shaped their lives.
One such fan is Aaron Goldberg, anthropologist, Disney historian, and author of “The Disney Story: Chronicling the Man, the Mouse and the Parks.” Thanks to Walt’s family, historians like Goldberg, and other Disney devotees across the country, tracing Walt’s footsteps through time is much easier than you may think. They’ve worked painstakingly to preserve Walt’s history, from the Chicago, Illinois, home where he was born to the Southern California carousel where the plans for Disneyland first took shape in his head.
Each of these landmarks is an important piece in the puzzle of Walt Disney’s life and you can still visit most of them to this day. So, put on your Mickey ears, hop in the car, and buckle up for the ultimate Walt Disney history road trip.
Walt Disney Birthplace (2156 N. Tripp Avenue): Walter Elias Disney was born on Dec. 5, 1901 on the second floor of a modest home in a residential area of Chicago. A skilled carpenter, Walt’s father, Elias Disney, built the home in 1893 based on designs drawn by Walt’s mother, Flora. Roy, Walt’s older brother and future business partner, was also born in the home.
Walt’s family stayed in Chicago until 1906, when, according to Goldberg, “Elias felt like Chicago was changing and it would be nice to raise the kids on a farm and have a change of pace from living in the city.” The home then changed hands a number of times until Dina Benadon and Brent Young purchased the property in 2013 hoping to return it to its original glory.
The Walt Disney Birthplace has been fully restored inside and out, and, for the time being, visitors are welcome to stop by and view the exterior of the home. The team behind the project hopes for it to soon be a “next-gen” home museum experience, with “immersive technologies to take guests back in time to the period when the Disneys were still living inside the home,” according to team member Robert Coker.
O-Zell Company (1301-1317 W. 15th Street): In 1917, Elias Disney sold his paper route in Kansas City, Missouri, and invested his life savings in the O-Zell Company, a jelly and soda factory that was then based in Chicago. He moved the family back to the big city, so he could begin work in the factory. Walt, a high schooler at the time, also worked a short stint in the factory, “washing jelly jars, pulping apples, and packing cartons” before joining the Red Cross and driving an ambulance in Europe.
The site of the original factory is now a parking lot, but visitors can also see the nearby home where the Disneys lived at the time (1523 W. Ogden Avenue) and the former site of McKinley High School (2040 W. Adams Street), Walt’s alma mater and current home of the Chicago Bulls College Prep school.
The O-Zell Company is now located in Silver Lake, California, and owned and operated by the same group hoping to open the Walt Disney Birthplace to the public. Funds from the sales of their old-fashioned sodas are used toward the restoration efforts.
The Disney family moved to a farm in Marceline, Missouri, in 1906, when Walt was only four years old. Though they only stayed in the area until 1911, Walt’s time in Marceline was without question a primary catalyst for his groundbreaking career in animation and entertainment.
Life on the farm was the one time Walt was truly allowed to be a kid. “He was somebody who always loved nature and animals. He would sketch drawings of the horse owned by the doctor next door, and he used to even ride the pigs they had on the farm,” said Goldberg. “Walt himself has confirmed so many times that the impression the farm left on him was everything.”
Walt’s Dreaming Tree and Barn (275 W. Broadway Street): The nearby family home (200 W. Broadway Street) is still a private residence, but the barn and Dreaming Tree are open to visitors daily from sunrise to sunset. Neither the barn nor the tree are original — the barn is a replica built by volunteers in 2001 (signatures and doodles on the barn walls are encouraged), and the tree, called Son of Dreaming Tree, was planted in 2004 after the original Dreaming Tree was destroyed by decades of Tornado Alley storm damage.
Walt Disney Hometown Museum (120 E. Santa Fe Avenue): The Walt Disney Hometown Museum was established in 2001 as part of Marceline’s celebration of Walt’s 100th birthday. Most of the museum’s collection comes from Walt’s sister, Ruth Flora Disney Beecher, and includes 4,000 artifacts donated by the Disney family. Located in the Santa Fe train depot where Walt arrived in Marceline all those years ago, the museum houses personal letters and photographs, Mickey and Disneyland memorabilia, and Walt Disney’s school desk with the initials WD carved into the wood.
Around Town: Outside the museum, visitors can watch trains pass through Marceline, just as Walt did when he was a boy. In fact, it was here in Marceline where Walt fell in love with trains, even writing about his fondness for rail travel in a 1965 issue of Railroad Magazine.
Marceline’s Main Street is a dead ringer (and obvious inspiration) for the Main Street, U.S.A found near the entrance to many Disney parks around the world. Walt even named Disneyland’s Marceline's Confectionery for the small town he held so dear.
Round out the day with a visit to the Walt Disney Elementary School (420 E. California Avenue), the Walt Disney Post Office (120 E. Ritchie Avenue), and the Walt Disney Complex (700 S. Kansas Avenue). The first two were named for Disney to commemorate his time in Marceline, and the complex was once home to a defunct Disneyland attraction, the Midget Autopia.
Kansas City, Missouri
After falling ill, Elias was forced to sell the farm and moved the family to Kansas City, Missouri, in 1911. “He just couldn't make a go of it, so he put the farm up for auction, sold the animals, sold the land, and bought a paper route with The Kansas City Star,” said Goldberg.
Walt’s days in Kansas City were spent waking before sunrise to deliver newspapers, attending school, and then delivering another round of papers, so his neighbors could read the evening news. It was also where he took his first railroad job as a news butcher on the Kansas City to Jefferson City line, further solidifying his love affair with trains.
The family’s first home in Kansas City (2706 E. 31st Street) is no longer standing, but the owners of their next home (3028 Bellefontaine Avenue) are accustomed to curious passersby. This is also the home Walt returned to when he moved back to Kansas City after his time in France with the Red Cross, and where he created a makeshift animation studio in the garage.
Laugh-O-Gram Studio (1127 E. 31st Street): Laugh-O-Gram Studio was Walt’s first professional film studio, though it only operated from 1922 to 1923. While Walt was working day and night to get Laugh-O-Gram off the ground, he gave up his apartment and slept at the studio, showering at the nearby Union Station (30 W. Pershing Road), where he would eventually board a train to Hollywood. He brought with him fellow employee Ubbe Iwwerks, whom he met during his previous job with the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio (now a parking lot at 1331 Oak Street). Ubbe is credited with designing both Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse.
The studio still stands, though visitors can only view the exterior as they are still raising funds to preserve the building. Their plans include a welcome center, animation museum, classroom and event area, and coworking space.
J. Rieger & Co. (2700 Guinotte Avenue): J. Rieger & Co. distillery is the current resident of the building that once housed the Heim Brewery. To draw visitors to the brewery, the owners built an amusement park, of which young Walt was a frequent visitor. Many believe it was the spark that ignited Walt’s dream of eventually building his own theme park. Though the amusement park has since shut down, J. Rieger & Co. operates a 3,000-foot historical exhibit about Heim Brewery and Electric Park.
Los Angeles, California
When Walt’s older brother, Roy, was discharged from the military in 1919 after contracting tuberculosis, he chose to settle down in Los Angeles, California. A 22-year-old Walt followed him to Hollywood a few years later in 1923, and he lived with his uncle (4406 Kingswell Avenue).
Walt used the home’s freestanding garage as an animation studio. A group called Friends of Walt Disney banded together and raised enough money to buy the garage and have it moved to the Stanley Ranch Museum (12174 Euclid Street, Garden Grove).
The first apartment where Walt lived with his wife, Lillian, (4637 Melbourne Avenue), the matching homes Walt and Roy built next to each other after achieving a bit of success in the animation world (2495 Lyric Avenue), the home where he raised his daughters, Diane and Sharon, (4053 Woking Way), and his house in Palm Springs (2688 S. Camino Real) can still be seen, though only from outside as they are private residences.
Griffith Park (4730 Crystal Springs Drive): “Walt often took his daughters for ‘daddy day’ on the weekend,” said Goldberg. “One of the places they would go was Griffith Park to ride the merry-go-round. Walt would sit and watch them on the merry-go-round thinking there must be something out there that can involve the whole family.”
Though Walt had dreamt of building a smaller Mickey Mouse Park next to the Walt Disney Studios in the 1940s, these trips to the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round are often credited as the eureka moment when he decided to build a theme park of his own.
While at Griffith Park, stop by the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum (5202 Zoo Drive) to see the barn from Walt and Lillian’s (since demolished) Carolwood Drive property. According to Goldberg, “Walt’s barn from the property (inspired by the family barn in Marceline), where he worked and toiled away with his trains, was moved to the museum after the house was demolished.”
Walt’s Disneyland Apartment (105 Town Square, Main Street, U.S.A.): No tour de Disney would be complete without a visit to Disneyland. Above the Firehouse on Main Street, a light still burns in Walt’s Disneyland apartment. The apartment served as a sort of home away from home where Walt could escape from the crowds while in the park, which opened in 1955.
Next door at Disney’s California Adventure Park, be sure to grab a bite and a drink from the Carthay Circle Restaurant. The building is a replica of the Carthay Circle Theatre, where “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” premiered in 1937.
Forest Lawn Memorial Park (1712 S. Glendale Avenue): Walt died of lung cancer in 1966, only 11 years after Disneyland opened. Despite rumors his head was cryogenically frozen, he is resting peacefully at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.
Disney Brothers Studio (Vermont and Kingswell Avenues): From 1923 to 1926, Walt and Roy operated an animation studio in the Kingswell building. With the success of Walt’s Alice Comedies, business finally took off and the two brothers needed a larger space to expand their operation and bring on more staff (including Ubbe). This is also where Walt met his future wife, Lillian. She worked at Disney Brothers in “ink and paint” and as a secretary.
Today, the storefronts at Vermont and Kingswell house a copy and print shop, a skate shop, and a tattoo parlor. The tenants are well aware of the building’s history, though it doesn’t currently hold any historic landmark status. While in the area, grab a bite at the Tam O’Shanter. Walt often dined here and in-the-know visitors can ask to be seated at Walt’s favorite table.
Walt Disney Studios: After outgrowing their space once again, the studio moved to its Hyperion location (2719 Hyperion Avenue) in 1926, but it has since been torn down and replaced with a supermarket. It was in this studio that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and Mickey Mouse all came to life. It was also in 1926 that the studio received a name change, dropping the “Brothers” and becoming Walt Disney Studios.
The current home of the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank (500 S. Buena Vista Street) is not typically open for tours, but there are a couple of ways to get inside this piece of living history. D23, the Walt Disney Company’s official fan club, sometimes organizes tours for its members and Adventures by Disney includes a tour of the studio on its Disneyland Resort and Southern California package.
Sequoia National Park, California
Mineral King Valley: The outdoorsy set can stop off for a day of hiking or camping in Sequoia National Park’s Mineral King Valley. The narrow, curving Mineral King Road (accessible from Highway 198 in Three Rivers, California) leads directly into the valley where Walt planned to build a year-round alpine ski village.
Walt envisioned skiing, hiking, ice-skating, dining, and lodging for the Mineral King project, and Disneyland’s Country Bear Jamboree was even originally intended to be built as entertainment in one of the restaurants.
He acquired the rights to develop the land in 1965, but naysayers, including the Sierra Club, wanted to preserve the area’s natural beauty and held up the project with a series of lengthy legal battles. After Walt’s death in 1966, the project lost steam and was eventually dropped for good.
The road into the valley is usually accessible from May through October. Visitors who are up for the challenge can tackle a variety of day hikes or sleep under the stars in one of Mineral King’s two backcountry campgrounds.
San Francisco, California
Walt Disney Family Museum (104 Montgomery Street): There’s no better way to round out a journey through Walt Disney’s life than at the Walt Disney Family Museum. The museum, founded by Walt and Lillian’s eldest daughter, Diane Disney Miller, houses memorabilia from every stage of Walt’s life.
Visitors can view photos and mementos from Walt’s life, storyboard and animation cells from famous Disney films, and a mountain of Mickey Mouse memorabilia. Notable exhibits include the Lilly Belle locomotive from Walt’s backyard Carolwood Pacific Railroad, a Griffith Park bench like the one where Walt dreamt up Disneyland, the eight Oscars (one full-size, seven miniature) Walt won for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and an intricately detailed model of Disneyland.
Before leaving Disney’s world of magic and returning to the real one, pick up a bottle or two from Silverado Vineyards (6121 Silverado Trail) in the nearby Napa Valley. The winery was founded by Walt’s wife, Lillian, daughter Diane, and son-in-law Ron in 1981.