As Disneyland turns 56, Walt Disney's daughter reminisces
Walt Disney's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, remembers life with her father, including his fascination with trains, the Oscars, making movies and building Disneyland.
As Disneyland turns 56, Walt Disney's daughter reminisces 5 Photos »
VIDEO:Walt Disney's daughter remembers her dad
By MARK EADES / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER SAN FRANCISCO
Imagine growing up in a family surrounded by cartoon characters, a miniature steam train, Academy Awards and theme parks. Diane Disney Miller did. Her dad was Walt Disney.
The Lily Belle sits on display behind Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt Disney, at the Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio in San Francisco, CA. The miniature live steam engine is the actual one Walt Disney helped build and rode on train tracks around his home in Holmby Hills, CA. Read the story
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MARK EADES, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
"He was always fun – to be with him to walk around with him was fun," Miller said.
While their father was a workaholic, one day a week was her and sister Sharon's day.
"He would pick us up at Sunday school, then we'd go out to the studio."
Miller learned to ride a bike and how to drive at Disney Studio in Burbank. She got to know many Disney animators – not by meeting them, but by seeing photos of their families while exploring their offices with her father on those Sundays.
They'd also go to the zoo and to the park. Dad liked to drive them to school, too. He insisted on it before making the long drive to the office; he needed that time, just to be alone.
Over the years, Miller was aware her father was pushing for innovation – color cartoons, feature-length animated films like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Along the way, he collected 26 awards from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, including 13 Oscars, the most ever received by an individual.
"They would come home and sit on a shelf in our house somewhere," Miller said. "They were not really a part of my life at all; they were Dad's life."
Recently, inside the brick, two-story Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, Miller, 77, walked around, pointing out the Oscars and other artifacts reflecting her dad's life. She recalled a man who made millions of children, and their parents, happy with movies, theme parks and a TV show. Disney thinks big
Walt Disney, of course, did things on a grand scale. As the studio became successful, he started playing polo for recreation, but injuries forced him off the horse. On his doctor's advice, he pursued a new hobby and came home from the studio one day and set something on the table.
"That is a piston," he said.
In 1950, miniature railroad tracks were laid down in the back yard of the Disney home in Holmby Hills, near Beverly Hills. Pretty soon, with the help of others, like Roger Broggie from the studio's machine shop, Disney had a 1/8-scale, coal-fueled steam train, complete with cars and a caboose Disney built. The engine was named the Lilly Belle after her mother, Lillian Disney.
Their father would take the sisters, then in their teens, and friends on rides around the back yard.
Disney also would take his girls to Griffith Park to ride the merry-go-round. He would sit on the benches and later say that was where he came up with the idea for a special park that children and parents could enjoy together.
By the time Disney started seriously working on Disneyland, Miller was married. But she would get updates from her husband, Ron, who was working for her father. Whenever she visited the Anaheim site, her dad would take her on a tour.
"To him, it was exciting," Miller said. "He'd talk about the dirt they moved that day and what was going to be where."
A couple of days before Disneyland opened, the family gathered there to celebrate Walt and Lillian's 30th wedding anniversary with a dinner and a show at the Golden Horseshoe and a ride on the Mark Twain Riverboat. Miller and the rest of the family didn't make it to the park's July 17, 1955, opening day; her father did not want to worry about them.
After the park opened, Miller's children spent the night in the Fire Station apartment on Main Street U.S.A. with their grandfather and grandmother many times. They would go out to play in the theme park with Disney.
"One time, he took the kids on Tom Sawyer's Island, and they came back and they had been all over the island and he said, 'They climbed through a look-through hole, and I couldn't fit through it' – but you could tell he'd had a ball." Back to Disneyland
As Miller had more children, seven in all, she didn't spend as much time with her father; her husband, Ron, was working for Disney in a variety of roles, eventually rising to producer.
In summer 1966, the Miller family and her sister's family spent three weeks on a yacht in the waters off Vancouver Island with Disney and his wife. In October, Miller got a phone call from her father. He wanted the family to go with him to Williamsburg, Va., where he was to receive an award from the American Forestry Service. She begged off.
"I said, 'Oh, Daddy, they can't miss school, and they love Halloween at home, and we'll just skip this one, but thanks."
Disney soon learned he had a tumor and would die in December at 65.
"I think about that last trip we could have gone on with him a lot," Miller said.
Miller's husband eventually became president of the Walt Disney Co. but was ousted as the result of an attempted corporate-raider takeover in 1984. Since then, her husband has stayed active running the Silverado Vineyards winery in Napa.
After many years, Miller visited the park again, in 2005, for its 50th anniversary (sister Sharon died in 1993). She helped read her father's original opening dedication as part of a ceremony.
The Walt Disney Co., of course, has exploded in different directions – cruise ships, more theme parks, movies, Broadway shows, cable television channels. Still, Miller said the story of her father – the man who started it all – had been lost.
"It became really apparent to me – from things I heard from my children and grandchildren – that many people didn't even know there was a man named Walt Disney. They thought it was a brand, an entertainment company."
Through the Walt Disney Family Foundation, Miller and the family decided to build a museum about her father. It sits in San Francisco's Presidio, relatively close to her home in Napa Valley. Miller and her children decided they did not want to put the museum in Los Angeles or near the theme parks in Anaheim.
"It's so saturated with Disney that we felt we needed to be away from there," she said. Walt Disney museum
The museum opened two years ago and presents a chronological view of Walt Disney's life from birth to death through artifacts, interactive kiosks and animation.
The Academy Awards, discovered wrapped in newspaper and in shoe boxes in a warehouse by one of Miller's children, are here. So are Disney-led innovations, such as the multi-plane camera and the sodium camera that allowed penguins to dance with humans in "Mary Poppins."
While developing the museum, Miller learned more about her father from letters he wrote to her mother and her uncle, Roy O. Disney, before she was born. Some of those letters are on display, such as the one when he and Roy had just lost the rights to the Oswald the Rabbit character, a money-maker for them, and could not get financing for future cartoons; Mickey Mouse had not been created yet.
"There would be a spot where a tear had dropped on it, and the ink was blurred, and he would say how lonely he was. It was a tough time for him," Miller said.
In the center of the museum sits the Lilly Belle and a model of Disneyland as Disney imagined it at the time of his death in December 1966. Near the model is a Miller favorite: one of those park benches from Griffith Park.
Eades worked for the Walt Disney Co. from 1972 to 1993, including a three-year stint at the Walt Disney Studio when Miller's husband was the head of the studio.