Main Street USA
Marceline's main street and the Zurcher building's distinctive style served as the model for Main Street at Disneyland and at other properties.
Marceline’s main street remains a best kept secret.
Flash back to 1955. Walt Disney had long since moved away from Marceline and made his mouse print in the world. But a half-century hadn’t dulled Disney’s memories of the happiest time of his life. That’s why Marceline’s main street inspired Walt’s blueprint for Main Street USA at Disneyland when the park came to life. Walt described the essence of his Main Street vision: “Main Street is everyone’s hometown — the heart line of America. To tell the truth, more things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since, or are likely to in the future.”
Even with Hollywood success, Disney remained loyal to his roots. “I’m glad I’m a small-town boy,” he said, “and I’m glad Marceline was my town.” So Main Street in Disneyland maintains that Marceline feel. Ditto for Disney World and the other magic kingdoms from Paris to Tokyo. Walt Disney wanted it that way.
Marceline’s main drag wasn’t always known as Main Street. For most of its history, street signs carried its given name, Kansas Avenue. And the Missouri state highway map calls it Route JJ. But to anybody who sees it now, it’s Main Street USA, right down to the black wrought-iron street signs sprouting mouse ears.
It’s nearly impossible to travel more than one block in Marceline without opening a page in the storybook of young Walt’s life. The icons pop up everywhere, testament to Walt Disney’s influence on the town and the town’s influence on Walt. Even the U.S. Post Office changed its name in 2004 to the Walt Disney Post Office. On the first day of issue back in 1968, the Walt Disney commemorative stamp carried the Marceline postmark.
Trains played more than a major role in young Walt’s wonder years. It doesn’t get any better for an eight-year-old kid than growing up around trains, and Marceline was a locomotive gold mine with its roundhouse and round-the-clock train traffic. Even today, they say a train goes through Marceline about every 20 minutes.
That’s why years later a steam locomotive and coal tender at Marceline bear the name the Santa Fe and Disneyland Express. The engine sits as a centerpiece in E.P. Ripley Park. Likewise, one of Disneyland’s first locomotives carried the name E.P. Ripley. Ripley Park features another icon you’d recognize at Disneyland: the gazebo.
On every trip back home, Walt would depart the train and walk through Marceline’s Santa Fe depot, built back in 1913. In the decades after Disney’s death in 1966, the building fell into disrepair. But the townspeople brought it back to life as the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. The building has been lovingly refurbished and furnished with hundreds of artifacts. You come face-to-face with hundreds of letters penned by Disney, with his unmistakable signature. That same signature crowns every episode of the Wonderful World of Color. There’s much more, from a great collection of railroad lanterns and photos to the original cars from the Midget Autopia kiddie car ride. It’s the only ride Walt allowed to leave a Disney property and operate elsewhere.
Begin at the epicenter of Walt’s inspiration. The Dreaming Tree still stands unbowed in the fields behind the Disney home. One of the oldest cottonwood trees standing in Missouri, it was mature even when Walt was a boy. The tree has withstood two lightning strikes. Rather than killing the tree, the lightning seems to have added power to the inspiration that flows from its branches.
Not 50 paces from the Dreaming Tree is the barn. In typical Disney style, the townspeople raised a new barn in 2001 to replicate the structure where eight-year-old Walt got his showbiz start. It’s a faithful replica, with a swayback roof — like the one that dedicated Mouseketeers remember on TV — a shrine on the spot where his imagination began. From all over the world, pilgrims visit the barn, scribbling thousands of notes, verses, and signatures in every language on the rough-hewn wood walls and beams.
The original barn was the venue for Walt’s first showbiz production, a circus. He charged neighborhood kids a dime apiece to see barnyard animals dressed in toddlers’ clothes. Most of his fellow eight-year-olds left the show less than satisfied. Locals testify that Walt’s mother made him return the proceeds to his disgruntled patrons. Therein he learned his first valuable showbiz lesson: When promoting a show, under-promise and over-deliver. In retrospect, the attendees probably consider the admission price a bargain for the memories those thin dimes bought the lucky crowd.
When the show was over, Walt would hike up the hill to the family’s farmhouse. You can see it at the edge of Route 5, painted deep red. And if you come during the occasional open house, you just might get to see his bedroom, preserved the way it was when Walt and brother Roy slept there.
Disney-esque art hangs everywhere in Marceline, from City Hall to the town’s only motel. Movie buffs can’t miss the legendary Uptown Theatre. It’s home to two Disney world premieres: The Great Locomotive Chase in 1956 and The Spirit of Mickey in 1998. The theater’s interior is a walk back in time to its origin in 1930. The stage still features the famous clock to which Walt would point and say, “Time for the show!” In today’s era of megaplex theaters, Walt would applaud the old Uptown Theatre’s original antique film projector that still shows first-run feature films.
If the comfortable theater seats make you identify with Sleepy from the Seven Dwarfs, the Uptown Theatre Bed and Breakfast awaits, right upstairs from the theater. And the suites are immaculately dolled up in Disney themes ranging from trains to Mickey. Try the Santa Fe Suite or the Cartoon Suite.
Cartoons are central to Disney, and to Marceline. Famous cartoon artists and their fans flock to Marceline every September for Toonfest, a weekend celebration of the medium Walt loved best. These world-class artists leave their marks throughout the town and prove that in Marceline, the show still goes on.