Theme park marks 100th birthday of Walt Disney

Sunday, December 16, 2001

"Somehow I can't believe there are many heights that can't be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true." -- Walt Disney

By Scott Moyers ~ Southeast Missourian


Look, there's Aladdin and Jasmine, holding hands. Strolling close behind is Snow White. Here comes a smiling Mary Poppins with her trademark umbrella.

"It's Pinnochio!" a small boy squeals.

"Pooh!" shouts another, pointing to the tubby little cubby.

In the shadow of the 12-story Sorcerer's Hat, all the resident stars are here participating in a celebrity parade that elicits a welcome worthy of any red-carpet Hollywood premier.

But this daily parade is to celebrate what Walt Disney World has dubbed "100 Years of Magic," a 15-month birthday party for the late Walt Disney, the pioneer animator with Missouri roots who was born Dec. 5, 1901.

More than a dozen stars ride in outlandishly customized cars, many of them vintage models: The "Aladdin" car is outfitted to look like the Genie and the "Toy Story" car is in the shape of Andy's bed. The final car, a 1929 Cadillac, is carrying the biggest star of them all -- Mickey Mouse, the perpetually smiling big-eared rodent.

"The 100 Years of Magic celebration is a tribute to the imagination of Walt Disney," said John Haupt, managing producer for the parades. "We have tried to tie our live entertainment to his penchant for creativity."

Walt Disney World has sprinkled tons of pixie dust -- along with $250 million -- on the celebration that began Oct. 1, which marked the 30th anniversary of the Orlando-based theme park.

The party intensified on what would have been Disney's actual 100th birthday, bringing in stars like Drew Carey, Regis Philbin, Julie Andrews and Wayne Brady. Tons of media -- including the Southeast Missourian -- and other guests also were invited.

Glitzy gala events, which attracted thousands, were held at the theme park during the three days in mid-December.

The celebration continues until Dec. 31, 2002, and centers around the new 122-foot-tall Mickey's Sorcerer's Hat, which towers over Hollywood Boulevard at the Disney-MGM Studios, created especially for the occasion.

There's also new interactive kiosks that reveal the history of Walt Disney, new theme parks and shows, mementos of Disney's life on display including never-before-seen home movies and new live entertainment.

"What struck me as we were doing research is that many of our guests, particularly children 16 and under, don't know that Walt was a real person," said Roger Holzberg, a member of Walt Disney's "Imagineering" team. "They think Disney is just a brand name."

Quite the contrary.

During the 20th century, there was one name above all who was associated with family entertainment and that was Walt Disney. Born at the beginning of the century in Chicago, Disney soon moved with his family to Marceline, Mo., where the values of middle America were instilled in him at an early age.

In his few years on the family's Marceline farm, Disney gained a love for animals and rural life, which became evident in his later films.

His schooling was minimal; he only went to one year of high school.

After his brief schooling and a short tour of duty in the Red Cross at the end of World War I, Disney began his work in the film industry in Kansas City, Mo. But he later moved to the heart of the movie world in Hollywood, Calif.

When a film career evaded him, Disney began working on animation. Five years of moderately successful silent cartoons led to a major breakthrough in 1928 -- the creation of "Steamboat Willie," the character who would eventually become Mickey Mouse.

Animated shorts were not money-makers, so Disney knew he'd have to make an animated feature and he embarked on the production of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," which became the highest grossing motion picture of all time. It was surpassed a few years later by "Gone With the Wind."

Other hits followed: "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Bambi" and "Dumbo."

Later he made live-action movies like "Pollyanna," "The Absent Minded Professor," and, of course, "Mary Poppins."

By the mid-1960s, Disney had produced four shows for the New York World's Fair to test the market for Disney-type entertainment on the East Coast. Pleased by the reaction, he started to search for a location for an East Coast Disneyland.

Later, he centered on Florida because of the climate, freeway access and inexpensive land. He secretly purchased 28,000 acres near Orlando for a project that would eventually become Disney World.

Though Disney would not live to see Disney World completed -- he died in 1966 -- he left behind a world that has filled children and adults alike with wonder and delight.

His life's work -- the movies, cartoons and the theme parks -- remain timeless.

"Fantasy, if it's really convincing," Disney once said, "can't become dated, for the simple reason that it represents a flight into a dimension that lies beyond the reach of time."

335-6611, extension 137

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