A group from this little farming town heads out this week to one of the world’s biggest Disney festivals, an event called D23 Expo near Disneyland, and they’re taking along a 1950s car they pulled out of an old garage.
They cleaned it up, polished it bright and got a guy to build a turntable so the car will revolve like a new model at an auto show.
It’s part of an original Disneyland kids’ ride. But even with headlights from a 1956 Pontiac and a hood ornament off a ’57 Chevy, it may not be an eye-catcher in today’s digital age of the wonderful world of Disney.
Still, Walt Disney himself gave the town the Midget Autopia — 10 little roadsters on an electric track that took children through a tunnel and hairpin turns. That was almost a half-century ago, and for years after falling apart it’s been sitting in pieces in a garage and a barn.
Now, Marceline has started a $500,000 project to get those cars rolling again.
“This is the only ride to ever leave Disneyland, and it came to us,” said Kaye Malins, executive director of the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. “This is a one-of-a-kind story, and we want to share it with Disney fans all over the world.”
Wait just a moment. Disney, huh?
Scene 1: A barn. A cow stands in a stall, hay is strewn about, an owl roosts in the window. Ten little cars sit about like junk. They look sad. Nobody want them anymore.
They had been an amusement park ride. Ten sporty roadsters of bright colors zipping along as children wailed with joy.
Then they got old, started to break down and got thrown in the barn.
They hear a noise outside. The blue car rolls over and peeks out a crack. The others follow. A little boy sits on a swing. Not swinging, just crying...
One thing the Marceline bunch will have over everyone else inside the Anaheim Convention Center: Their town knew Disney long before Hollywood did.
The name D23 comes from 1923, the year Disney arrived in Hollywood. The Missouri contingent could hold up an M06 sign for 1906, the year 4-year-old Walt climbed off a train at the Marceline depot.
Disney grew up there. Until age 9, anyway. He saw his first movie in town and learned to draw sitting beneath a cottonwood tree. He always said the most important things in his life happened in Marceline, and he always called it home.
Disneyland’s Main Street USA is modeled after Marceline, and in 1956 he came back for the dedication of the town’s swimming pool, named in his honor.
“He stayed with us because it was hot and we had about the only air-conditioned house in town,” Malins remembers.
She will be leading the Marceline group to Anaheim — and telling the story of how in 1966 Disney gave the Midget Autopia to the town because he knew not all the kids there could make it to Disneyland in Anaheim.
The company’s announcement said: “Donation of the ride is unprecedented in Disneyland’s 11-year history and will probably be the only one ever taken to a new location from Disney’s famous Magic Kingdom in Anaheim, California.”
But Disney couldn’t make it to Marceline for the dedication that summer. He had gotten sick and would die before Christmas. He did send Disneyland workers to set up the ride.
The town operated it for 10 years until it started breaking down. They tried to keep it going by cannibalizing one car to fix another, but after a while they closed it down.
Now, almost 50 years after Disney’s gift, the old cars are being fixed up and new ones are being made, along with a whole new track that will sit on land adjacent to the museum.
“There’s nothing that can’t be re-created, but this is not a trivial job,” said Lee Hoover, an electrical engineer whose wife grew up in Marceline.
He built the turntable, redid the old car and will go along to D23 this week.
“Apparently now I’m the expert on all things Midget Autopia,” he said with a chuckle.
What better place to tell the world of the rebirth than the D23 Expo? The museum always has a booth at the expo, but this year is special because of 2016’s 60th anniversary of Disneyland.
And if somebody wants to contribute to the cause, even better.
“If we do a little fundraising while we’re there — that’s great,” Malins said. “But we’re doing to do this for Walt. If you’re of a certain age you remember Walt Disney coming to town. Men in town still argue about who was the first to jump in that new pool.”
An old corner cafe here called Ma Vic’s serves up a celebrated ice cream treat called a Dusty Miller.
The name derives from a sprinkling of malted milk powder on top — and also because it supposedly was a favorite of a dusty farmer.
In other words, Marceline is a long way from Disneyland.
But the little town is sort of its own version.
Main Street USA, with little mouse ears on the street signs, runs through downtown. Go one way and you come to Walt Disney Municipal Park. The other way leads to Walt Disney Elementary School, with murals of Disney characters in the lobby and a plaque that says: “Where the magic of learning begins.”
And, of course, there’s a Disney museum in the old train station where the family arrived from Chicago almost 110 years ago.
They settled on a farm on the outskirts of town, but stayed only about five years, but five big ones for young Walt.
“To tell the truth, more things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since — or are likely to in the future,” he wrote in 1938. “Things, I mean, like seeing my first circus parade, attending my first school, seeing my first motion picture.”
From there, the family moved to Kansas City. Disney headed to California a few years later. He arrived with little money, but with a head full of ideas, some likely conceived beneath the cottonwood back in Marceline.
Maybe even Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and a string of other beloved animated characters who became real in eyes and hearts all over the world.
Disney and his brother, Roy, headed one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world. In 1955, they opened Disneyland, where a storefront still says Hotel Marceline and a candy store is called Marceline’s Confectionery.
One morning last week in the depot museum, Malins walked a North Carolina family through the exhibits.
At a photo of the swimming pool dedication, she said: “See these girls in their swimsuits? Well, a lot those girls are still in town. They might be in their 80s.”
Last year, about 12,000 people from 49 states and 18 foreign countries came through the museum.
Visitor John Montgomery, an animator from Hollywood, was impressed with what the town is doing with the Midget Autopia to honor Disney.
“It really sounds like the small-town heart never waned in this man and he wanted them to have it,” Montgomery said. “We should all hope they can pull this off for the kids who come here.”
Be nice if folks at the Disney Co. wanted to pitch in.
“That would be great,” Malins agreed. “But we’re pretty good at doing things ourselves around here.”
Scene 1 (continued):
The little cars watch the little boy cry, then look at each other. They know they need to get out of the barn. Children need them.
They begin to plot and plan. They race around, wisecrack, wink headlights and make tailpipe jokes. When one has a good idea, someone rings the cow’s bell. The cow looks startled, the owl laughs.
They make so much noise that a man hears the racket and heads to the barn. A car spots him through a crack and gives a toot of the horn — the alarm to hurry to their original positions. The snickering quietens just as the door opens.
The cars wonder if they should be writing all this down.
Yes, they should.