Nothing goes together better than Laugh-O-grams and candy-grams, right? Well, if that doesn’t do it for you, this list, which highlights the love in Walt’s life—particularly the love he shared with his wife, Lillian—might just help you and your special someone gain a new perspective on some of the stories that are mentioned only briefly in our galleries.
Many of our guests appreciate our museum’s personal touches, because they illustrate that, despite all of his success in entertainment, film, television, and countless other disciplines, Walt always maintained that family was essential. Walt once said, “In order to make good in your chosen task, it’s important to have someone you want to do it for. The greatest moments in life are not concerned with selfish achievements but rather with the things we do for the people we love.”
The museum captures this essence in many ways. In fact, our co-founder, Diane Disney Miller, wanted the museum to be in the Bay Area in part because it would be close to her and her family—and, as an added bonus, her family could have a hand in crafting the museum’s content.
We’d like to think that “Family” is a very important part of our name, and, certainly, Walt would’ve thought so, too. Next time you visit the museum, be sure to reflect on these special stories and objects, all of which exemplify the love in Walt’s life.
1. Gallery 2B
Walt Before Lilly: The Couple’s Early Years
The youngest of ten children who were all close-knit, Lillian Bounds moved to Los Angeles to be with her sister after their father, a federal marshal working in Idaho, passed away. Coincidentally, this was around the time that the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, which was established by Walt and his older brother, Roy, after Walt moved out to Hollywood in 1923, was looking to expand and hire on more hands. Lilly happened to live within walking distance of the studio and eventually got a job as a secretary. Walt often drove Lilly and another woman home after work—especially if they were working late to ensure they’d arrive home safely—and Lilly realized that although she lived closer, Walt would drop her off second, so that they could spend more time together. Soon enough, Walt and Lilly married on July 13, 1925, and traveled to Lewiston, Idaho, where Lilly’s family resided, for the wedding, before honeymooning at Mount Rainier National Park and in Seattle, Washington.
2. Gallery 2B
Lillian’s Boundless Influence
A few years after Lilly and Walt married, Walt became anxious to create a new cartoon character for an animated series and leave the Alice Comedies series behind. Walt’s new distributor, Charles Mintz, brokered a deal with Universal Pictures to create a series that would star a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit; unfortunately, Mintz and Walt did not see eye-to-eye when it came to Oswald’s development, leading to a rocky business relationship. However, Walt worked on the Oswalds, fairly successfully, for a year or so before he and Lilly traveled to New York, where Walt was set to meet with Mintz. Upon arriving in New York, Walt learned that Mintz had secretly hired most of his animators behind his back and was prepared to produce the Oswalds without Walt—unless Walt made the Oswalds for less, even though the production costs had increased.
Walt was blindsided by this offer; the Oswalds were doing quite well in theaters, and he had actually traveled to New York to ask for greater creative control and more money to make the pictures. Deciding he didn’t want to work in such a contentious environment, Walt walked away from the Oswald character altogether. On the three-and-a-half-day train trip back to Los Angeles, Walt and Lilly had plenty of time to talk about a new cartoon star that the studio could devise. In particular, Walt recalled being fond of a cartoon mouse, even going so far as suggesting the name Mortimer Mouse. Lilly was not a huge fan of the name; she thought it sounded pompous, and suggested “Mickey” instead.
In our galleries, we have the earliest known drawing of Mickey Mouse, which has survived on very thin animation paper from 1928. You’ll see Mickey, and, next to him from the very beginning, Minnie. While Walt would say, “I think we are rather indebted to Charlie Chaplin for the idea… [We] thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin—a little fellow trying to do the best he could," Lilly thought that Mickey actually had a lot of Walt in him. In that sense, many people enjoy seeing the parallels between Mickey and Minnie, and Walt and Lilly.
3. Gallery 2B & Gallery 3
Of Hatboxes & Naps
Before the couple had children, they would often go out to dinner or a show, and, afterwards, Walt would tell Lilly that he needed to stop in at the studios because he had “a little work to finish up.” While Walt was working, Lilly would lie down on the sofa in his office and, inevitably, she’d fall asleep. Walt would then work for hours and when he eventually finished and woke Lilly up she’d ask him what time it was—to which Walt would reply, “10:30,” even though it would be more like 2:30 and Lilly, who was groggy still, would believe Walt’s little prank.
After a few years of marriage, Lilly and Walt’s daughter, Diane, was born on December 18, 1933, and a few years later, in December 1936, the couple welcomed Sharon into their family. At the same time, Mickey and Minnie’s family was growing with the addition of characters such as Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. In a way, Mickey’s best pal, Pluto, reiterates that connection between Mickey and Walt—that is, Walt really wanted a dog. The only obstacle? Lilly wasn’t too fond of animals. Before the couple had children, Walt worried that Lilly might feel a bit lonely, since he was working so much. Walt decided that although Lilly was hesitant when it came to pets, he would get her a puppy to keep her company.
One Christmas Eve, Walt brought home a puppy he’d picked out, and kept it overnight at Roy’s next door. The following morning, Walt put the puppy in a hatbox, tied with a big ribbon, and set it beneath the family’s Christmas tree. He had his niece pick up the box and ask loudly, “Who’s this for?” The gift read: TO: LILLY, FROM: SANTA CLAUS. Upon seeing the hatbox, Lilly exclaimed, “Oh, Walt, you didn’t!” She had thought Walt had bought her a hat, which she much preferred to pick out herself.
But when Lilly opened the hatbox she discovered a little Chow puppy looking up at her. All of this, of course, might sound familiar: this moment from the couple’s life famously makes a fictionalized appearance in the film Lady and the Tramp (1955). Walt would recall that he had “never seen anybody so crazy over an animal,” and remarked that Lilly wouldn’t let the puppy out of her sight.
4. Gallery 4
From “Disney’s Folly” to Cartier at the Carthay
All the hijinks and hard work paid off: Walt, in between creating Academy Award®-winning animated shorts, dedicated much of his time and resources toward the production of Hollywood’s first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Initially derided by the press as “Disney’s folly,” the film marked a huge risk for Walt and his company—after all, would anyone want to sit through an hour-and-a-half-long cartoon? Would audiences connect with the characters?
Luckily for Walt, Lilly was always a supportive presence in his life; even if she wasn’t showy about it, she found ways to encourage him and assuage his worries. Photographs of the couple at the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Carthay Circle Theatre in December of 1937 are on display in Gallery 4, and in those photographs you’ll see that Lilly is wearing a very special bracelet—a Cartier bracelet, with charms that feature the likenesses of Snow White and each of the Dwarfs.
Walt actually owned a matching piece of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Cartier merchandise: a money clip, which featured Dopey’s likeness. Both the bracelet and the money clip were fashioned from high-quality gold and enamel, and were known to be some of the most exclusive products from the vast array of merchandise that was created for the film. Time and again, Lilly would wear many similar tributes to Walt’s achievements. And though she wore them quietly, she certainly wore them with a great deal of pride as well.
5. Gallery 7B
20,000 Leagues Away from the Oscars® (Or How to Charm with Charms)
When you visit the museum, Gallery 7B certainly stands out: it has a more personal, quieter feel to it, and it’s filled with photographs of the Disney family on trips together and attending celebrations, including Diane and Ron’s wedding, and Sharon and Bob Brown’s wedding. It also features many of the gifts that Walt collected on his travels; Diane would often comment that her father would shower her, her mother, and her sister with lovely gifts like designer perfume from Paris as well as treasured, intricate pieces of jewelry.
However, perhaps no piece of jewelry on display at our museum is more treasured than the golden bracelet in Gallery 7B. Often this golden bracelet is referred to as the “Oscar Bracelet” since it features miniature versions of the Academy Awards® Walt received. The 18k gold bracelet is comprised of twenty statuette-shaped charms, representative of the first twenty Oscars® Walt received. This is so because, as Walt discovered, for each Oscar a person won, they could purchase one in miniature. Walt decided to then make them into a piece of jewelry to acknowledge the prominent role Lilly had played in his professional success. Funnily enough, the bracelet was also a way for Walt to get himself out of the “doghouse,” so to speak: Walt had been nominated for four Academy Awards in 1955 and he didn’t think he’d win any, so he told Lilly it wouldn’t be worth the trouble for her to attend the ceremony. Of course, Walt ended up winning all four, so Lilly, ever-supportive, was upset she hadn’t attended. Thus, the “Oscar Bracelet” made the perfect gift—for many reasons.
I never saw my dad happier ever, ever, ever.
6. Gallery 9
Never Upstaged: A 30th Wedding Anniversary at the Golden Horseshoe
Coincidentally, 1955 also marked the couple’s thirtieth wedding anniversary, and they celebrated the occasion in true Disney style. As you can see in the photographs on display in Gallery 9, Walt and Lilly hosted a wonderful party on July 13, 1955—before Disneyland officially opened—at the Golden Horseshoe. The invitations they sent to friends, family, and celebrities declared that the party would be a “Tempus Fugit Celebration,” with tempus fugit coming from the Latin phrase “time flies.” Guests were also reminded not to bring gifts because the couple “[had] everything, including a grandson!”
At the Tempus Fugit Celebration, attendees entered the main gates to find horse-drawn carriages waiting for them. Guests were then carried down Main Street, U.S.A. to Frontierland, where the Mark Twain Riverboat—which had just been swept by an overly-prepared Lilly—was waiting, ready for its first full circle of the Rivers of America. After enjoying mint juleps along the river, guests were brought to the Golden Horseshoe, where performers graced the stage for the first time. A few standouts included singer Donald Novis, who had performed “Love is a Song” for 1942’s Bambi; Judy Marsh, the original Slue Foot Sue; and Wally Boag, the virtuoso comedian and performer, whose routine left the audience in stitches.
Though most of the show was a standard dress rehearsal for the performers, the final act was something that wouldn’t be seen on stage again. Walt and Lilly had been moving around the crowd throughout the evening, greeting their guests, but as the show’s finale neared Walt appeared in the balcony, stage left, waving down at the crowd. Walt then climbed out of the box and down onto the stage. When Boag, playing his Pecos Bill character, shot his final two rounds into the air, Walt joined him on stage, mimicking Boag—and then Lilly took the stage, too. She loved to dance, and when the band began playing she and Walt danced around the stage; though Walt never liked dancing, he’d taken some lessons before the big party, because he knew it would make Lilly’s evening that much more special. Diane even recounted, “I never saw my dad happier ever, ever, ever.”
7. Gallery 9
Hats Off to the Disneys
Humor is best shared with those you love, and Walt shared a lifetime of laughter with not only the world, but with his family and friends, too. The personal effects and stories on this list and in our museum reiterate the supportive, loving relationship Walt and Lilly shared—and much of their relationship was punctuated by good humor, be it playfully dancing onstage at the Golden Horseshoe, or posing for photographs taken in an automatic photobooth (see this gem at the tail-end of Gallery 9).
Often at the center of the laughter and fun was one of Walt’s beloved hats, which, to Lilly’s dissatisfaction, he often wore at a jaunty, rakish angle. When Lilly asked Walt to “fix” his hat, he would often respond by crushing the hat, in an exaggerated manner, on his head, which would only cause Lilly to take the hat from him altogether—in a playful manner, of course. In an ode to this banter, Walt presented “The Hat Bronzed with Love” to Lilly on her birthday in 1941; much like the hatbox puppy gift, this one wasn’t straight-forward either.
At first, Lilly thought Walt had given her a lovely arrangement of violets, but, when she removed the flowers from what appeared to be their vase, she discovered Walt’s favorite hat—the crown had been pressed into the shape of a heart and the entire hat had been preserved in bronze. Walt had finally done what Lilly had asked—he’d permanently fixed his hat! For Walt, the preservation of the hat in bronze symbolized the ways in which his and Lilly’s laughter and love withstood the test of time.
That brings us to the end of our list. Be sure to check out these objects and stories on your next visit—and, of course, Happy (early) Birthday to Lilly, who was born February 15, 1899—the day after Valentine’s Day!