In 1955, Walt Disney was everything to a five-year-old. This was the man who’d brought us 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and that wonderful Nautilus. How could one person bring all of this to people our age? And to top it off, he was building an amusement park in California! As great as it sounded, Disneyland in California seemed as unreachable as nirvana to a little kid in Denison, Texas.
To my shock, Dad announced that we were going to the opening of Disneyland. It was too much for me to comprehend, but one morning, we were up before the sun and headed west.
The week after the VIP opening found us sitting in a vast parking lot with about a dozen cars scattered here and there. Eight o’clock came and went, and those of us in the lot just kept looking at one another.
Nothing was happening.
Finally, someone came out and waved us through the entrance. I hit the ground running. From the minute we got inside, I was in a fantasyland. It was a living, breathing movie set, and I was right in the middle of it! Main Street led to a plaza with a futuristic clock that was so popular in the ’50s. We walked down a lane with a river on our left and saw the large riverboat pull away. Just ahead was the princess’s castle. I begged Dad to shoot everything with our Kodak Brownie.
Meanwhile, I was keeping an eye out for other surprises, and lo and behold, I saw him! There he was, sitting on a built-in bench, puffing on his pipe, and just looking around with this big grin on his face: the Walt Disney.
I couldn’t approach him. That would be like approaching the Wizard of Oz, except Walt was real. After I pestered, my dad finally walked up and asked him, “Excuse me, but my son seems to think you’re Walt Disney.” Mr. Disney stood up, smiled, and stretched out his hand. “Well, he’s right. How do you like my park?” From then on, it was a blur. I shook his hand, and he said hello to my mother and older sister. I was too dazed to remember anything else for a while, but luckily we captured this photo of my mom, me, and the man himself.
But it got better: As we stood in line to ride the real steam-engine train, Walt Disney walked up and asked Dad if it would be all right if I rode up in the engine cab with him. Dad said sure. It was Walt’s train, after all!
Mr. Disney slowly pushed the throttle forward, and the beautiful steam engine began to puff. I sat in Mr. Disney’s lap, with my hand also on the throttle, as he pointed out things in the park he was particularly proud of getting finished before the opening. We made one complete circuit, and then Dad and I said our goodbyes to Walt Disney.