By: Douglas Love
Chairman, California History Board
California has long been a place where dreams come true. From the Native Americans, who lived here and had an abundance of natural resources and a climate not known to many other areas of North America (mostly), to the Spanish who came, settled, established missions and carved out expansive ranchos; to the Yankee traders who marveled at the wealth and ease of California, the pioneers and the Forty Niners, who were lured here by tales of unimaginable wealth, to the immigrants of today, California has been a land of golden opportunity. While that golden sheen has been a bit tarnished recently, many still flock here from around the world to find their portion of, as the late Huell Howser would say, “California’s Gold”.
There is one place in California created by a man who came here to expand his vision and push boundaries. He created one of the world’s most iconic brands and spread entertainment throughout the world. His legacy continues to this day and the company he founded still provides entertainment for billions of people world wide. He created new techniques and technologies for his art, a process that continues. He created, in the middle of an orange grove in Anaheim, “The Happiest Place on Earth”, and invited “Children of All Ages” to come and visit. He is, of course, Walter Elias Disney, and the company he founded and headquartered in Southern California has become one of the most recognized brands in the world.
Now, I know what you are all thinking, “What does this have to do with California History?” Well, I would argue that Walt and Roy Disney, UB Iwerks and the talented men and women who created The Disney Company exemplify the “Spirit of 49”. They have helped spread the fame of California throughout the world. They have drawn millions of visitors to our Golden State. And to think, this all began with one man who had a passion for drawing and animation.
Walt Disney’s story and the story of the company he built has been told and retold. Any of us who grew up in California know the basic facts by heart, how Disney and UB Iworks first started as commercial artists, how they were laid off, how Disney taught himself animation and how he and Iworks lost the rights to the first animated Disney character, Oswald The Lucky Rabbit, to Universal Studios and, of course, how this led in 1928 to the creation of the world’s most famous mouse. Who among us doesn’t hear the song, “Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho” when someone mentions Snow White? Who hasn’t wanted to feed the birds for “Tuppence a bag”? Who hasn’t wanted a spoon full of sugar with their medicine or wished upon a falling star? Who hasn’t wanted to be Peter Pan and visit Neverland, just once? Who hasn’t wanted to shed it all for a pirate’s life or wanted Jiminy Cricket to keep us out of trouble? Who hasn’t had that moment of indecision when deciding if we should kiss the girl? Who hasn’t wanted to pull the sword from the stone? Who hasn’t been “twitterpated” or wanted a pet dragon? Who hasn’t wanted a fairy godmother?
Sure, many of Disney’s productions play fast and loose with historical fact and fable. Do not get me started on “Pocahontas” or “Davy Crockett”; but how many people received their first exposure to history and fable through Disney’s lens? I would argue that millions have, if not billions and with that exposure came the spread of California’s fame. More than that, in 1955 Disney opened a theme park which quickly became a “must visit” destination and where his world and his characters came to life. Many of us have visited Disneyland as children; have then taken our children and grandchildren and have experienced the “magic” that is Disney’s stock in trade. Watching my daughter’s jaw drop the first time she saw Sleeping Beauty’s castle or sat through her first show in the Tiki Room or when she told the young lady who was playing Merida that she was her favorite and that her Daddy wore a kilt too convinced me that Disney and the world he created was still something very special and uniquely Californian.
Yes, I know that Walt laid the plans for Disney World and Epcot Center in Florida and that there are now Disney parks in Europe and Asia but they are merely copies or expansions of the original. The “Happiest Place on Earth” is still in Anaheim and even though Walt and Roy and UB Iwerks were not native sons, the mouse they created has helped make California known throughout the world. Just the other night, I was watching “Spectre”, the latest James Bond film. In it there is a scene in which 007 is trying to gain entry into a secret meeting in Rome. One of the villain’s henchmen asks him, “Tu chi sei?” Who are you? Of course, Bond answers, “Topolino”, Mickey Mouse. Yes, Disney has grown into a multi-billion dollar corporation and yes, times have changed but Walt Disney’s impact on California’s and the world’s culture remains and “Children of All Ages” still marvel at the magical world he created, right here in California.