|By Dave Mason|
Walt Disney and Disneyland have had some very special and memorable milestones over the course of their history. One such milestone that many Disney fans may not know about took place on Friday, October 14, 1966. On what is now understood to have been his final visit to Disneyland, Walt Disney hosted his own personal tribute to a remarkable group of America's greatest heroes. Unfortunately, that gathering would represent the last known day that Walt would step foot inside his Magic Kingdom. In today's new article, we will return to that little known event and pause to remember the historic occasion with a never-before-published photograph of Walt in the Park he loved so much…
As our 2016 holiday season approaches, we find it also fitting to take a moment to remember an extraordinary twentieth century life that touched countless individuals and families representing every nation on earth. In the half century since Walt Disney’s passing on December 15, 1966, there remains a deepening desire to understand the motivations and aspirations of this exceptional man.
In the final decade of his life, Walt Disney had reached a unique place of worldwide recognition and acclaim. Among the honors that gave him a deep sense of pride was the George Washington Medal of Honor, presented to him on February 22, 1963 by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower on behalf of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge.
In receiving that award, Walt noted that “…it’s only times like this that you sort of wake up to the fact that… what it really means to be a citizen.” This high-water mark in his life set into motion an idea that would require several more years to realize.
|Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Col. Charles P. Murray, Jr. (1921 - 2011) and his wife Anne are photographed with Mickey Mouse in Town Square at Disneyland on October 14, 1966 (in front of the Bank of America). Additional information about Col. Murray's Medal of Honor citation can be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.|
As the Freedoms Foundation prepared to recognize Walt Disney with their tribute, they were also focused on development of a “Medal of Honor Grove.” 52 acres had been set aside near Valley Forge National Park in order to provide one acre to each state in the nation for honoring their Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. For those who had receive the nation’s highest military award for valor in combat, Walt Disney believed that these were the true American heroes and he set a course to personally thank each of these exceptional individuals for their sacrificial service.
In association with Freedoms Foundation co-founder Dr. Kenneth Wells and the board of directors for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, Walt’s plan began to take shape in 1966. He intended to host every living recipient of the Medal of Honor, along with their families, for a day of tribute at Disneyland.
|In 2013 the United States Postal Service issued a series of "Forever" stamps to honor the last of the living Congressional Medal of Honor recipients from WWII (awarded the nation's highest award for valor in combat), all of whom had been invited to participate in Walt Disney's personal tribute at Disneyland on October 14, 1966. Of that group, only six men remain who had been invited to participate as Walt Disney's guests that day (though not all were able to attend). As this 2016 commemoration is finalized, the last of the living Medal of Honor recipients from WWII are: Charles H. Coolidge, Francis S. Currey, Arthur J. Jackson, Robert D. Maxwell, Wilburn K. Ross, Herschel W. Williams.Those individuals framing the WWII Medal of Honor "Forever" stamps above are (clockwise from upper left): Charles H. Coolidge, Francis S. Currey, Walter D. Ehlers, John D. Hawk, Daniel K. Inouye, Arthur J. Jackson, Robert D. Maxwell, Vernon McGarity, Nicholas Oresko, Wilburn K. Ross, George T. Sakato, Herschel Woodrow Williams|
Though the Society typically held their annual conventions near the organization’s headquarters in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, consideration was given for the convention to be hosted west of the Mississippi for the first time in the organization’s history. Many of the Medal of Honor recipients had homes closer to the Washington, D.C. region and a trip to California seemed to be cost prohibitive. Though the honorees were provided with free airfare on a “military space available” basis, until that time their wives were expected to pay their own expenses to the annual convention. In order to address that concern, the recently retired President and Chairman of the Board of Union Oil, A.C. “Cy” Ruble, arranged with the airlines to provide complimentary travel for all involved. With that hurdle resolved, the convention was finally scheduled for the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles from October 13 thru 15, 1966. Among the many highlights of the convention was their visit to Disneyland on Friday, October 14.
After enjoying breakfast at the Ambassador Hotel’s fabled nightclub, the Coconut Grove, the honorees were escorted by motor coach to Disneyland’s backstage entrance on West Street. There, they boarded the now iconic Disneyland transportation fleet (Omnibus, Surrey, Fire Engine, et. al.) for a trip down Main Street, U.S.A. to the Main Street Opera House for a private performance of “Walt Disney’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.”
|A seldom seen concept image of the Main Street Opera House|
This was the moment that Walt Disney had long hoped would happen. His generation’s bravest soldiers, the Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, would now have a chance to experience his personal tribute to one of his own childhood heroes, the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
Following the presentation, a microphone was placed in front of the stage in the center of the Lincoln Theatre and the audience welcomed Walt Disney, who stepped forward to provide his own personal remarks on the day.
|Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Walter D. Ehlers (1921 - 2014) with son Walter "David" Ehlers Jr., daughter Catherine Ehlers, Walt Disney, and Mrs. Dorothy Ehlers. The Buena Park family met with Walt Disney at the conclusion of his personal remarks following the special presentation of "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln." Ehlers would later serve as a Disneyland Security officer in the early 1980's. Additional information about Walter D. Ehlers' service to our country can be viewed on YouTube by clicking HERE.|
Walt, in a strong and steady voice, made his first order of the day to call on his management team to explain the missing banner that he had intended to have hung above Main Street, U.S.A. to welcome his esteemed guests. Unfortunately, his studio office had incorrectly scheduled the event as being for the “Presidential Medal of Freedom” recipients instead of for the “Congressional Medal of Honor” recipients and the Disneyland sign shop prepared the banner accordingly. When the mistake was discovered by the Disneyland management team, the banner was quickly removed and no time remained for correcting the error. While they may have hoped that Walt wouldn’t notice the missing banner, that surely amounted to wishful thinking in regard to a man who noticed everything. “Where’s that banner? Bring it in here! I don’t care how torn up it was; I’ve got to prove to these people that we had a banner!” As his staff awkwardly tries to deflect attention away from the matter, not wanting to get in trouble with Walt and not wanting to embarrass their guests, Walt quickly shifted gears and credited the loss to the Santa Ana winds that were so common to Orange County. After some minor difficulty with feedback from the microphone, Walt moved on with his “welcome.”
He explained to his guests that “Around Disneyland I’m the top kick. I run the show here. And I’m telling you that if they don’t treat you right… you report to me.” This was a reference quickly understood by his military guests. “Top kick” was a military reference to a first sergeant; or to another high ranking officer; likely first used at the conclusion of WWI. As Walt’s own service in the war (as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross) had taken place in that same era, it’s likely that he came to appreciate the significance of the term and remembered it for just such an occasion.
This was followed by an amusing exchange between Walt and future President of Disneyland, Jack Lindquist (“Lindquist! Front and center!!”). Walt makes a point out of the day’s event ticket indicating that all attractions and amusements were included in their visit… “excepting shooting galleries.” Directing his comments to Lindquist, he notes that “Here we are… got Medal of Honor winners and we won’t let ‘em get up and shoot?! You got some slingshots you can let them take a crack at something with that?” Jack’s somewhat sheepish response: “That’s been rescinded. …the minute they leave here… they can spend the rest of the day at the shooting galleries.” The audience was quick to laugh along with another awkward moment and it was obvious that they were enjoying their unique place in observing the working relationship between Disneyland’s staff members and their world-famous boss.
As Walt continued, he said “I want to apologize though for some of the things. The wintertime season is when we get in and kind of straighten things out. When I started Disneyland eleven years ago I made a promise that it would never be finished and when you go around Tomorrowland you’ll see that I’m carrying out my promise.”
“Tomorrow is a heck of a thing to keep up with. When we opened Disneyland, naturally… outer space was “Buck Rogers.” I did put in a trip to the moon and I got Werner Von Braun to help me plan the thing. Of course, we were going up to the moon and around long before Sputnik. And since then it’s come Sputnik and then it’s come a great program in outer space. So I had to tear down my Tomorrowland that I built eleven years ago and rebuild it to keep pace. So that’s what’s going on over there. You’ll see a big mess of these construction things… and oh, it’s a mess… but we’re going to have it opened next June. I’m going to have a few others… and I’m going to tell you that if you want to come back again next June, I mean, you’re my guest.”
“We’ve got a nice menu laid out for you (at the Plaza Inn) and it’s going to be a busy day. So again I want to say that on behalf of the Disney organization, the Magic Kingdom and everything else that it’s a real privilege and an honor to welcome you folks here today.”
At that moment, Walt’s remarks were followed with a special presentation by Medal of Honor recipient (and President of the Society), Sgt. Thomas J. Kelly. With emotion in his voice, Sgt. Kelly opens with: “There is very little I can say that would be impressive at this time. I just want to single out one particular line from Lincoln’s speech, that “the only way that this country will fall, is from within.”
“This is something that was made up and arrived today… and it gives me great pleasure in presenting it to Mr. Walt Disney. It is the Seal of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society. It comes to you from all these fine men here; for all they have done for their country; and in deep appreciation for everything you did for this country.”
“Presented to Walt Disney in grateful appreciation by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society of the United States. Dated Los Angeles, California, October 15, 1966.” (The presentation date was actually moved up one day, to October 14, to accommodate Walt’s availability.)
Unknown to everyone present that day, including Walt, was that this historic gathering with the recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor would prove to be Walt’s final official visit to his beloved Magic Kingdom. The photos shared here, including this never-before-published photograph of Walt seen below, are among the last images of Walt ever captured on film at Disneyland...
There was, and still is, near universal agreement in feeling that Walt’s best work was just beginning. Imaginations continue to work overtime in considering what Walt Disney might have been able to accomplish if only with ten more years. Now, even fifty years later, we understand that Walt Disney’s legacy includes an example of gratitude, kindness and consideration that still speaks to this generation and for all those that will follow.
— Dave Mason
After the article was completed for publication, I received a telephone call from Charles H. Coolidge, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor (July 1945) and designated as a Knight in the Legion of Honor (also known as Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur) as belatedly awarded for his service in France during WWII by officials of the French consulate (September 2006). The courageous leadership of Technical Sergeant Coolidge during a four day battle east of Belmont-sur-Buttant in France would lead citizens of his home state to refer to him as "Tennessee's bravest man."
Mr. Coolidge, now 95 years of age, confirmed that he was one of Walt Disney's honored guests on that October day at Disneyland in 1966. He remembered that Walt Disney "was a good host and he had dinner for us. We had a nice time and a nice chat. Everyone enjoyed it." He seemed to get more enthusiastic with each reminder that was provided to him about his trip to Southern California in 1966. "That's it!" "You've got it right!" "How wonderful!"
Two decades later (Nov. 16, 1987), Charles Coolidge was again invited to Disneyland along with more than 30 of his fellow Medal of Honor recipients as they were honored at a ceremony near the historic flagpole at Disneyland's Town Square.
As he shared his earlier memories of their morning with Walt Disney, Charles Coolidge was as humble as he was grateful. For me, it was a privilege to have a conversation with this man who had risked all for the cause of freedom, not only for his fellow soldiers in battle, but for all freedom-loving people. It was also a tremendous honor to share a few words with Mr. Coolidge that could confirm how important their service had been to Walt Disney when he finally had the chance to offer his own personal tribute to these great American heroes. Yet from one Legion of Honor recipient to another, Coolidge remembered the extraordinary affirmation they had received from Walt Disney and he acknowledged its importance with a tribute of his own: "He did a great thing." It was a moment in time, now a half century ago, that Coolidge spoke of with a quiet and thankful heart; one that he hopes will be long remembered when future generations chronicle the life of Walt Disney.
Chapter 2: Walt Disney’s Final Visit to Disneyland - A Medal of Honor Family Remembers
Chapter 3: Walt Disney's Final Public Appearance
Chapter 4: Forever Remembered: The Lasting Influence of Walt Disney
Dave Mason was born in Anaheim, California within a month of Disneyland’s grand opening premiere and dedication. Growing up in a community that celebrated every success of their adopted hometown “park", the stories of his family members serving as carpenters on Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle or sales clerks at the souvenir shops on Main Street, U.S.A. would provide for tales as wonderful as those found in Disney’s best storybooks. In fact, when Disneyland launched their summer fireworks extravaganza for the first time, the back yard of his family home on Anaheim’s Haster Street would serve as the perfect location to receive the best benefits of the Disney experience without having to buy an admission ticket.
Today, Dave Mason serves as the founder of SaturdaysToys.com, launched on April 1, 1994 (yes, “April Fools Day”). Among the earliest entrepreneurs to make the leap into internet sales, Dave joined a handful of Disney enthusiasts in offering auctions on AuctionWeb (later to become known as eBay). In addition, Dave is honored to serve as the Director of Development with the all-volunteer team of The Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases (www.AnnetteConnection.com). He is a founding member of both the Walt Disney Family Museum and a global Disney research organization known as The Hyperion Historical Alliance.
You can find all of Dave's articles here.