Marceline's magic kingdom

MARCELINE, Mo. -- For three years, Walt Disney's boyhood hometown -- the idyllic inspiration for Main Street USA at Disney theme parks -- has been spruced up for a celebration this weekend of his 100th birthday.

Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Reeling along with the rest of the nation, community leaders considered postponing or even canceling their homespun party honoring the creator of Mickey Mouse.

They decided to ahead with the three-day party as scheduled Friday after getting encouragement in calls, letters and e-mails from around the world.

Supporters said the party was especially important amid the crisis. Among them was Heike Duerr, 38, a Disney fan since childhood who traveled from Germany, through heightened airport security, to be here.

American image

"Walt Disney is part of our image of America, like Coca-Cola. He would want America to be strong and go on," she said during a stroll along the sun-dappled, three-block stretch of Kansas Avenue that has been permanently renamed Main Street USA.

Marceline, population 2,588, is an old railroad town that was founded in 1888. Disney called it home from 1906 to 1911, when his family moved to Kansas City, 95 miles away. But he returned many times.

He had an unfulfilled vision to create a working farm theme park nearby so that future generations would know where corn and eggs and milk come from. Disney, whose actual birthday was Dec. 5, 1901, died in 1966.

A city park and elementary school are named in his honor.

Even before the terror attacks, Marceline's celebration was destined to be wrapped in the small-town patriotism that shaped Disney's world. But Old Glory seemed a bit more prominent Friday, from City Hall to the Uptown Movie Theater, from Ripley Park's whitewashed gazebo to brick stores with doors angled toward the town square, just like the replicas at Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

The refurbishing included new brick sidewalks, replicas of Victorian-era lampposts and fresh paint all around -- greens and reds and blues.

The majestic old rail depot -- where the Disneys arrived from Chicago in their long-ago relocation -- opened Friday in the midst of a renovation. On display are Disney family memorabilia, including a Mickey Mouse doll Walt gave to parents on their 50th wedding anniversary. Amtrak's Kansas City-Chicago line, which does not stop in Marceline, is making special weekend stops here for the celebration.

Hoping for 40,000

Organizers had hoped to attract 40,000 people over the three-day celebration, but no one expects that many now. Still, there were hundreds of people wandering around Marceline early Friday afternoon, ahead of the high school football game and its halftime memorial for Disney.

Mouse ears were for sale and so were caps and T-shirts, right next to homemade pottery and displays of stuffed Missouri wildlife. But the slickness of the big theme parks was replaced by a kazoo band, tales about steam engines and a demonstration of making apple butter.

A day after President Bush told the nation that a long military campaign is imminent, one of the most heated battles in Marceline was an apple pie eating contest. With memories of toppled skyscrapers so painfully fresh, one of the diversions this weekend will be demonstrations of barn-raising near the Disney farmstead outside town.

Robin Allan, a teacher from England whose doctoral dissertation was about Europe's musical and creative influences on Disney, had an explanation for the celebration's attraction.

"Walt Disney spoke to traditional values in your American society, values like decency, family life, heroism -- things that are suddenly fashionable again after Sept. 11," he said.

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