Episode 6 of our serial looking at the life and legacy of Walt Disney.
In the spring of 1966, when Walt was going “full steam ahead” on the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, he had a brainstorming session with Imagineer Bob Gurr. Epcot was going to be a complete change in the idea of what a city and community should be.
But despite being the architect of this game-changing idea, Walt was still the same man who had eaten chili beans in his tiny studio in Kansas City, and who loved the meatloaf that was served at Carnation Cafe on Main Street USA. He gestured toward a spot in the center of the city’s entertainment district. “Right there. That’s where the park bench will go. Lillie and I will sit there and people watch”. Even though Walt was gearing up to change the world of the future, he couldn’t imagine a future without a nice bench, and his Lilly Belle by his side. Sadly, that dream was not to be. Before the end of 1966, Walt Disney, one of the greatest entertainment pioneers of the 20th century…would be dead.
Welcome to Episode 6, “A Great, Big, Beautiful Tomorrow”
In November of 1966, Ronald Reagan, who had co-hosted ABC’s telecast of Disneyland’s opening day with Art Linkletter, officially made the transition from actor to politician when he was elected governor of California. NASA launched the 12th and final mission of the Gemini program, a precursor to the Apollo program that would put Americans on the moon by the end of the decade. And Beatles frontman John Lennon met his future wife, Yoko Ono, at an art show in London.
And…although few people knew it at the time, Walt Disney was dying of lung cancer. Within weeks of his diagnosis, he had one of his lungs removed and started cobalt therapy. He knew plenty of people who, like himself, were lifelong smokers, and he was certain he would be around a couple more decades. But by the end of the month, he started feeling worse every day.
For the most part, he kept it to himself. He had always been protective of his private life, and these new health woes were no exception. But many of Walt’s staffers began sensing that something was very wrong. Richard Sherman, Walt’s longtime songwriter, recalled that on November 29th, Walt passed him in the hall of the Burbank studio. He stopped him and said “Keep up the good work, Dick.”. Sherman took note of the fact that this compliment was in sharp contrast to his usual praise “That’ll work”.
The next day, Walt did not return to the studio. He was feeling sick enough to finally check himself back into St. Joseph’s hospital. Roy would spend hours every day at Walt’s bedside. Roy had always been the money and logistics guy. Walt was the one who dreamed up the magic. And there was still so much magic that needed to be made. Roy Disney wasn’t ready to say goodbye to his kid brother, and the world wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Uncle Walt.
Throughout the next two weeks, he had good days and bad days. December 14th had felt like a good day. Late that evening, Walt sent Lillian home to get some rest; he assured her that he was feeling stronger, and felt sure he would be back on his feet soon. Roy stuck around, and listened as Walt, lying flat on his back, described the grand vision of Epcot that he saw floating above him.
The next morning, Thursday, December 15, 1966, just after 9:00 AM, across the street from his beloved Burbank studio, Walt Disney died. of pulmonary collapse. In his final weeks, he had been complaining about his feet being cold. By the time his daughter Diane and son-in-law Ron arrived at his hospital room, he was already gone, and Roy was standing by his bedside, warming Walt’s feet one last time. “Well kid” he said “I guess this is it”. The cause of death was pulmonary collapse, Walt was only 65 years old.
Walt’s death was front page news around the world. In the year following his death, more than 7 million people would visit Disneyland, paying tribute to the man who had created a perfect fairy tale world just for them.
The final feature-length project Walt had been working on, an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book” was released on October 18, 1967. Time Magazine, which had once planned to do an extensive feature on Dumbo before it was scrapped due to the attack on Pearl Harbor, said that it was “The happiest possible way to remember Walt Disney”. Legendary actor Gregory Peck hoped to have a chance to honor Walt’s accomplishments and legacy; he lobbied the academy to have The Jungle Book become the first ever animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture. Though he was unsuccessful, Peck’s dream would eventually come to fruition with Disney’s 1991 classic “Beauty and the Beast.”
The final Disneyland rides that had been supervised by Walt would turn out to be big hits, too. Walt’s final public appearance at Disneyland was the grand opening of New Orleans Square in July of 1966. Its two signature attractions have Walt’s influence and personality bursting out of every corner, even today.
Pirates of the Caribbean would open in in March of 1967, just three months after Walt’s death. He had originally envisioned it as a walk-through wax museum style attraction, but after the success of Small World, he converted it to a boat ride. At Walt’s personal urging, Xavier Attencio wrote the immortal theme song “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a Pirate’s Life for Me.”, despite his complete lack of songwriting experience. That song, as we all know, is as famous an entry in the Disney catalog as any other tune you could name.
Attencio’s newfound gift also gave us the script for the Haunted Mansion, as well as it’s theme song, “Grim Grinning Ghosts”. To this day, Pirates and Haunted Mansion are two of the most popular rides at the park. It’s pretty amazing to think that, if not for Walt’s knack for finding his staff’s hidden talents, we might never have seen these two legendary attractions, which are now both synonymous with Disney magic.
Roy Disney had planned to retire in 1967. But after his brother’s untimely death, he selflessly postponed that plan in order to see Walt’s final dreams come to fruition. He was thrust into the spotlight, a place where he had never been comfortable. But he endured that discomfort to see to it that Walt’s legacy would be secured. Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971. Roy dedicated the park to his brother’s memory, as well as to the creative forces that had allowed his company to go from a tiny, two-man operation in Los Angeles realtor’s office, to one of the most influential entertainment companies in the world.
With the Florida property now open to the world, Roy finally retired. He would pass away in Burbank from a just two and a half months later. Though he spent nearly his whole career as strictly a “behind the scenes” guy, Disney fans today celebrate his legacy as the man behind the magic, Walt’s lifelong partner, and a true Disney legend.
After Walt’s death, the company had neither the financial backing, nor the creative vision, to bring Walt’s Epcot fully to fruition. However, in 1982, Epcot Center opened. [MB] Occupying 300 acres of the Florida property, twice the size of the Magic Kingdom, it’s often referred to as a “permanent world’s fair”, and showcases the culture of 11 countries from around the globe.
Another important piece of Walt’s legacy is the California Institute of the Arts, better known simply as CalArts. The school had been established, with his financial support, in 1961, as the first institute of higher education in the United States to offer college level degrees in the visual and performing arts. In his will, Walt left CalArts $15 million to build a new campus in Valencia, north of Los Angeles. CalArts alumni include Nightmare Before Christmas director Tim Burton, and Pixar Studios Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter.
After Roy’s passing, the rest of the family also took on the task of preserving Walt’s memory and legacy. In 1987, Lillian donated $50 million to the city of Los Angeles for the creation of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, just a stone’s throw from Union Station, where a 21 year old Walt Disney arrived in town to create his dream empire.
On October 1, 2009, exactly 47 years after the grand opening of Walt Disney World, the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio District of San Francisco opened its doors. The Museum was founded by Walt’s daughter, Diane. In addition to housing hundreds of artifacts from Walt’s life, the Museum also hosts school groups from all over California for workshops related to the science and technology of animation. They also keep an extensive collection of online archives, many of which provided the research material for this very series.
Sarah Nilsen, a professor of history of television and film at the University of Vermont, sums up Walt’s influence on the world really well. She says “How do we deal with growing up? What does it mean when we leave childhood behind? How do we deal with death? Those are things that all humans deal with; no matter what period, no matter what culture. He affects all of us. No one is untouched by Walt Disney.”
We here at the No Midnight Podcast think there’s no more fitting a way to wrap up our serial about the life and career of our personal hero, the world’s greatest ambassador of magic and imagination, Walter Elias Disney.