Monday, February 21, 2011

Wish Upon a Star

The following is an excerpt from Richard Collier's "Wish Upon a Star: The Magical Kingdoms of Walt Disney."

In (the Spring of) 1955, a letter arrived on Walt's desk from a woman in Tennessee. She and her family were faithful watchers of Disney's weekly television show, on which Walt had recently been describing his plans for Disneyland. Like millions of other youngsters, her 11-year-old son voiced the hope that he could one day visit the park. But Disneyland would not open for some months, and the boy no longer had the time. He was the victim of leukemia. Was there some way, his mother asked, that his dream could come true.

Walt at once made the arrangements. On a Saturday morning, weeks before the official opening of the park, the family arrived. Main Street and the central plaza were still unpaved, the landscaping was still underway, and the ... train, which was to circle the area, was still in the shed unpainted. But Walt ordered the locomotive and coal car out anyway. The boy climbed in and Walt took the throttle.
For two full hours they rode the train, backing and switching along the completed portion of the track. At one point a member of Disney's staff saw the train halt far off on the skyline. Walt's left arm was tight around the child's shoulder, his right was gesturing into the distance. Across the underdeveloped acres, Walt's ideas were dancing like will-o'-the-wisps, as he talked of things unrealized on any drawing board -- Rainbow Caverns, Tom Sawyer's Island, the Haunted Mansion.
Walt had chosen to share these dreams with a child who could never see them come true. But those who had seen him act out every role in "Snow White" knew that the visions that he was sketching for the boy were just as vivid as the real things would ever be. This is how (Walt's) friends remember him, the dreamer, the spinner of enchantment, in whose heart and mind there always lived the magical world of childhood.

Isn't that a great story? I've often wondered why this particular tale hasn't turned up in any of the Walt biographies that have been published over the past 30+ years. But from what Van France once told me (He was supposedly there the day that Disney actually took this young boy out for that train ride) Walt gave some very specific instructions to those who were at the Disneyland worksite that Saturday: "No pictures. No publicity." 

I don't know why it is that I find that particular aspect of this story so appealing, so refreshing. I guess -- given that we live in a world where celebrities won't even show up for a charity event until they've been assured that there will be cameras there -- to have Walt insist that this should be a private moment, something that only this boy and his family would ever know about ... That (to me, anyway) says an awful lot about Walt Disney and his character.

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